Note: The world of Dawngate can, at times, be a dark place. "Unravelled" details the background of a Shaper who has seen such darkness. The following story contains mature language and content. Please read at your own discretion.
Heptaver 3, 1528
Fifteen years before the Dawngate opened
Warm light spilled over the snow-crested peaks, lighting up the tips of the trees. She scrunched through piles of leaves, kicking crimson-gold-brown explosions into the air. But her fingertips, sticking out of her overlarge woolen sleeves, were starting to feel pinched and tingly. In the shadows along the valley floor, mist was rising.
"It's time to head in," Lady Rosimone said, pale eyes squinting into the light. She was a tall, serious woman, weak-chinned and strong-limbed, with a dirty-straw braid that fell to the small of her back. The knight rested a hand on the pommel of her sword, an unconscious habit; she never actually drew it except to spill blood.
Her mother frequently sharpened her own sword, which was brighter, lighter, its hilt covered with golden runes and silver wolves. When she asked Rosimone if she drew blood even when whetting the blade, the woman had pulled up her sleeve and let the girl run her fingers across the ranges of bright, raised mountain-scars on her forearm.
"All right, Rosee," she said, dawdling over the closest pile of leaves, squatting to look more closely.
"I meant now," Rosimone added.
"Need to find it," she said, distracted eyes flickering over layers of wet leaves, overlapping configurations of tone and texture; color, shadow; raised veins and ragged edges.
The thump and jangle of the knight’s mail came up behind her. "Find what? Did you lose something?"
"Looking for the best leaf. Has to be yellow. An' no spots."
Rosimone knelt beside her, plated knees crushing the layer of foliage. "For your father?" she asked softly, running a calloused hand over her wild tangle of black hair, stopping to rub warm little circles into her back. Rosimone's voice always got sweeter when she talked about her parents.
"Let me help." Rosimone began sliding the leaves around with her, revealing the full surfaces and examining them closely. The light cooled and faded. Stars and breath came out.
"Found it," she said, and held up a perfect, pale gold leaf, its edges painting-perfect, its surface unmarred by the brown of rot.
"That's a lovely one," Rosimone said. "I think he'll like it." She looked around. "But we have to get back to the manor, mistress. Your mother will be furious."
"All right." She put one hand in Rosimone's, and carefully pinched the golden leaf between the fingers of the other. It fluttered and whined in the rising wind down the valley. They walked across the dying grass towards the flickering light of the manor. The whickering of horses echoed out of the low stone walls and across the violet air between the mountains. The facing peaks were dotted with fires – the camps of hunters among the dark strands of trees, the bonfires of peasants working late on the harvest along the flatter slopes. Shouts and labor-songs carried faintly on the wind.
"Are you chilly, mistress? Would you like to wear my cloak?"
"Uh-uh." Rosimone's hand was rough but warm, cupping her own small fingers within a cozy nest.
The pale-eyed woman gave a little snort of laughter. "You're always so quiet." After a moment she added, "You talked more when you were little."
She looked up at Rosimone quizzically, saying nothing, not sure why it mattered. The knight gave her a wistful smile, and rubbed her scalp with the side of her thumb, brushing across the scar beneath her dark hair.
The gate had been held open just for them. It creaked shut behind them, stuttering on the uneven ground and broken stones, the guards kicking and cursing the rusting, broken hinges. The liveryman was rubbing down the thin old horses for the night, carefully measuring out oats from half-empty barrels. Among the mares were a pair of fat, sleek guests, one dappled brown and white, one pure, glossy sable, like her hair. She tugged on Rosimone's hand and pointed.
"Oh," she said, dismayed. "Marquess Camoine is visiting. And... her brother." She bit her lip and blew out a frustrated cloud. "All right. Let's hurry and get washed. Your mother will be entertaining. You'll need to act like a young lady tonight, all right?"
"Uh-huh." Being a young lady meant Rosimone would brush out and braid her hair like she did her own. She trotted ahead, pulling the knight along. They crossed the small, muddy courtyard, dodging chickens and retainers, entering the white-daubed manor house through west wing, near Rosimone's room. They placed her father's leaf carefully on the scuffed dark wood dresser.
They picked one of her best gowns, burgundy velvet with silver stitching along the hem and wide cuffs. The buttons were a bit tight, and the elbows thin, but Rosimone had long thought the color looked good with her hair. "And it puts a bit of color in these cheeks," she said, dimpling as she pinched them. They found a pair of hose with only a single hole, which the knight quickly and clumsily stitched while she soaked in a basin of perfumed water, long dark hair fanning out around her like a crown of shadows.
Rosimone lifted her naked and dripping from the basin, wrapped her up in warm arms and furs, and sat her on the edge of her bed. She sat quietly, fidgeting with excitement as the knight hummed a slow, pretty tune and teased the tangles from her hair with a tarnished silver brush.
"That song have words?"
"What? Oh." Rosimone sounded embarrassed. "It's a lullaby. My mother used to sing it for me."
"Oh." She scrunched up her eyes while the knight tugged on a particularly bad knot. "Sing it to me tonight?"
"If you’d like."
When she was finished dressing, Rosimone stood her in front of the cracked mirror to see. "What do you think?"
She looked at the girl in the mirror, pale and slender in her lovely dress, dark hair in a long, thick, lustrous braid hanging down her back. Dark-eyed like one of the old, grim paintings in the hall. "Got to be brighter," she said, judiciously. "Like how your armor sparkles."
Rosimone laughed. "Your mother does not approve of armor at the dinner table. I have some experience with that." She tapped a fingertip on her lips, squinting critically. "How about this, then?" She went to the peg where she'd hung her cloak and unpinned its silver clasp. After polishing it on the tail of her shirt, Rosimone knelt to fasten it at the throat of her dress. "What do you think?" she pointed at the mirror.
She turned to face herself. Ran her fingers over the vague, smoothed shapes of leaping elk and crossed swords. It was blinding; she had to wipe the light away from her eyes.
She turned back to the knight, straightening her shoulders the way her mother always insisted. "I'm all right, Rosee?"
"You look beautiful, dear-heart," Rosimone said, with a proud smile. "I wish you--" She fell silent, shaking her head.
"Never mind, mistress. I'm being silly," she said, though she looked serious. "Let's get you to the great hall."
"The leaf," she said, trotting over to the dresser.
Rosimone sucked in her lower lip. "I don't think – let's leave that here. Your mother wouldn't want it on the table."
Her fingers hovered over the golden leaf. "Oh." She touched it lightly, assuring herself it would stay, and turned away.
They walked briskly through the halls, towards the clatter of flatware, the shouts and laughter accompanying a rare turning out of the larder, and the faint plucking of an off-tune lute. The smell of roast pheasant wound down the hall to meet them, and her belly gurgled. It had been a long time since they'd had pheasant.
Just outside the entrance to the great hall, they paused so Rosimone could fuss over her dress a final time. She reached behind her back to play with the tail of her new, damp braid, carefully running her fingers over it to ensure it wasn't coming undone. The knight leaned in close to her ear, "I need to get myself presentable. Go sit with your mother, I'll join you when I can. And don't sit near the Marquess' brother. Promise me. All right?" She nodded, perplexed. Rosimone gave her a gentle push, propelling her through the tapestries. "Don't forget to curtsey!" she whispered.
She wove her way to the large table at the far side, raised above the rest on a platform. The servants made way for her, the adults ignored her. At the center, her mother sat in a deep blue gown that shimmered like stars in the ocean. She had the vague impression she'd seen it before, a long time ago, but couldn't join the feeling to an image or smell. Her father's seat was empty, cold food and warm wine lying untouched before it.
"Fair evening, mother," she said carefully. And then remembered to curtsey, doing so hurriedly.
The Countess twitched and turned her pale, pinched face to her, "Please excuse my daughter's interruption, Lady Camoine… Lord Jowin," she said impatiently. "She has yet to learn her manners."
Marquess Camoine was lean as a winter elk, and couldn't move without one piece of jewelry clattering into another. She wore a dress of deep forest green. Rosimone had told her that meant someone important, though she couldn't remember why. "Quite all right, my dear," the lady said, brushing an autumnal-brown strand of hair behind her ear. "At least she bothered to show up." A thread of her mother's white-shot hair broke loose of her bun as she forced a polite laugh.
"A pleasure to meet you," Lord Jowin said, standing to return her curtsey with a bow. He was the tallest man she'd ever seen, with a vast beard and arms like tree-trunks. "You look very pretty tonight."
"Thanks. Thank you. Sir," she stammered, not sure why she was suddenly flustered. "You're... really big?"
He pealed out a deep, rich belly-laugh, a surprised grin splitting his beard, eyebrows shooting up. "Why thank you, my dear."
Ducking her head and blushing, she scrambled around the table in the opposite direction, taking a place at the bench beside her father's lonely meal. A servant discreetly slid in to place a tray of spiced pheasant and potatoes before her. Her mother frowned and snatched the braid hanging from the back of her head. "How many times must I tell that woman not to tie up your hair?"
Her heart stuck. "Why?"
"It's not ladylike," he mother said, as if that explained it all. "And mind your tone."
"Sorry," she mumbled to her plate, as the Countess returned to her conversation. She pushed the pheasant around, but ate nothing.
Conversation at the table turned to a woman whose status had fallen at court in Risenne. At hearing the name, her mother fixed a smile on and discreetly twisted the table-cloth into corkscrews.
There was a tapestry of Risenne in one of the halls. The white towers of the queen's castle pierced the clouds and changed the sun into rainbows. Rosimone had lived there before swearing to her mother; she said the towers were tall, but didn't make rainbows.
She put her chin in her hands and wished Rosimone would hurry. The room was full of noise and smoke, people laughing too loud and too smelly from the ale cask that had been opened. A steady stream of staff flowed between the kitchen, the buttery, and the tables. In a corner half-hidden by tapestries, one of the manservants took the hand of Lasenne the seneschal. The woman glanced back at the Countess before knocking back the rest of her drink and dropping the battered wooden mug on the nearest table. Kissing the servant hungrily, Lasenne pressed him to the wall and slid her hand someplace she couldn't see. A few moments later, she felt her face growing unaccountably hot, and looked away quickly.
She found herself looking past her mother's stiff shoulders and her guest's arched eyebrows, at Lord Jowin. He was observing Lasenne with an indulgent smile, chin on his fist.
With a rush of air, the knight was beside her on the bench. Her shining armor had been replaced by a somewhat dusty dress of western cut, robin's egg blue with off-white trim. "You've barely touched your dinner. Well," she amended, eying the splintered pheasant and smashed potatoes on her plate, "you touched it. But I don't think much went in your stomach. Are you sick?"
She snuggled up under Rosimone's arm; beneath a veneer of nose-tickling floral perfume, she still smelled comfortably of exercise and horses. "Wanted you here," she said.
"I'm here," Rosimone smiled, rubbing her arm reassuringly. "Are you going to eat that? Or should we ask for a less battered plate?"
"It's fine." She broke off a piece from the table-bread to scoop up some of the mush, shoveled it into her mouth. Long-used to oatmeal, cheese, and bread, the southern spices on the pheasant set fire to her tongue. She huffed air out of her mouth and reached for a cup of water.
"Careful not to eat with your mouth open," Rosimone slid the cup into her reach. "Did your mother like your dress?"
She gulped down a mouthful, came up long enough to reply, "Din't say."
Rosimone frowned at the Countess' back. "What are they discussing?"
She grabbed more bread. "Court. Somebody fell."
The knight looked startled. "What, off a tower? Oh - in standing?" At her blank look, Rosimone laughed and said, "Sorry. I know that stuff isn't interesting to you." She paused, eyes flickering down the length of the table, then leaned close to ask, "Did Lord Jowin say anything to you before I got here?"
"Said I looked pretty."
Rosimone stiffened, her sword hand drifting unconsciously to her waist. "But that's all?"
"All right." The knight laid her hand on her far shoulder, encircling her.
The feast lasted late into the night. Her mother and Lady Camoine remained in heated, murmured discussion, surrounded by expanding stacks of books and paper, scribes going to and fro as many cups of wine were drained. Lord Jowin looked bored, and retired to the guest chambers early.
Her father's food and wine were eventually collected by the servants. In other days, the scraps would be thrown to the livestock. She saw the kitchen staff gather around the plate, sharing bites of cold, congealed meat. They laughed, complimented the fruit of each other's labors. After all was cleared, they stood clustered in the doorway, arms and hands joined, looking out at the stars and sharing dreams of older, happier days.
She yawned against the back of her hand. Careful not to jostle the bench, she edged closer to Rosimone, laid her head on her chest, and let the room go swimmy and muffled.
"Come on," the knight said softly, gathering her in strong, warm arms. "Let's get you to bed."
"Not tired," she yawned, folding over Rosimone's shoulder, looking at her mother's back through heavy eyelids.
"I know." A calloused hand lightly caressed her forehead, easing away the light and noise.
She woke in fog, jumbled, swaying on her feet as Rosimone helped her pull on a nightshift. Then she was on her on her side, a thick wool quilt tucked under her chin. By the bleary light of a freshly-stoked fire, she watched the knight change out of her dress and slide under the quilt beside her. She murmured wordlessly and snuggled up against her chest. Rosimone whispered something small – just a few words, too quiet to hear – and placed a soft kiss on her forehead. She let the shadows grow over her eyes.
The room was dark when she awoke, curled knees to chin, Rosimone's arm draped warmly over her. The fire had burned down to embers. She peered out at the red-yellow pulse of the coals, and the pile of split pine waiting in the rack. The cold air warned her against walking across the stone floor.
She nestled back against the knight's chest, let her mind wander into a floaty half-dream where the servants had stacked walls of leather-bound paper around her mother. Rosimone leapt on her old charger to tilt at the fortifications, but they shivered her lance to splinters. "Take up your own lance," the knight said. "I'll carry you to the walls." But the monster behind the bindings turned her bowels to water.
She had to use the privy.
Rubbing her sticky eyes, she pushed dream and quilt away. She tottered out on the balls of her feet, toes curling away from the stone. The torches had burned down in the halls, filling them with shadows and the fading scent of burned pitch. Years ago, servants had kept them fresh and lit throughout the watches of the night. No one bothered anymore.
Light flickered from under the door down the hall, the guest quarters. She crept past, hissing at the night-cold flagstones, and locked herself into the privy at the end of the hall. A small slit window high on the wall let in starlight and draughts of raw autumn air. The chatter-shush of mountain winds in the trees echoed in on her. By the time she unlocked the door, she was shivering.
"Whoops now!" The door vibrated off Lord Jowin's outstretched hand. Light and heat poured out of the guest room behind him.
She colored and ducked around him. "Sorry."
"Young lady?" he called after her back. She halted, tense, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. "Your pardon, but I can hear your teeth chattering from here. Would you like to warm yourself at my fire? While I'm indisposed?"
The waves of heat coming out of his door drew her like a moth. "...yeah."
He nodded, made a scooting gesture with his hand, and disappeared into the privy.
The guest room smelled of pine smoke and dust. The fire grumbled and waved like a restless tourney crowd. She moved close, half-numb fingers returning to life with a pinch of pain. Glancing to the door, she held out the hem of her shift and let the warm air roll up her cold skin. When the door down the hall creaked, she hurriedly smoothed it back down.
"Ah, still here," Jowin said, briskly rubbing his arms as he entered. "I was hoping for some company tonight." He closed the door and joined her by the fire, holding his giant hands to the flame and flexing fingers the size of Neissen sausages.
"That privy is amazingly cold, isn't it?" he said. "Do you have anything to heat it in winter?" She shook her head. "At the palace in Risenne, every privy has a pot filled with burning coals. I think they're made in the west. A bit smoky, but better than freezing your as—your legs off." He looked down at her with a smile. "You really don't talk much, do you?"
She cocked her head up at him, wondering why so many asked that.
"That's fine. Too much talking tonight anyway." He yawned mightily, his arms stretching clear to the ceiling. "I love my sister dearly, but talk of diplomacy and trade – bah. 'Weights and measures are the business of women,' as they say. You have keener minds for it. I suppose," he said, giving her an appraising look, "you’ll turn out the same."
She watched a log slump into the ash. He walked past her and sat on the edge of the bed, peeling off his boots. "Eh. I'll never rule, but I know other ways to get what I want." He cast his eyes up and down the length of her, ruddy face glowing in the firelight. "Your mother was wrong, you know."
Taken off-guard, she blurted, "What?"
Her gestured at her casually, off-handedly. "Your braid. I think it's quite fetching. Makes you look like a proper young lady."
"Oh." She grabbed the end the braid and fiddled with it. "Rosee – Lady Rosimone did it for me. She's a knight." After a moment, she joined him on the bed. The floor was cold; she put her feet on the edge, tucked her legs up under her shift and set her chin on her knees.
He tucked a sleep-stray tendril of hair behind her ear. "I didn't know the Countess still had any knights sworn to her."
"She's swore to me."
"I wouldn't have guessed. That's rare, you know." She looked at him blankly. He laid a huge hand on her head and petted her like a kitten. "Oaths are sworn to the ruler of a domain. Not to her daughter."
"Oh." It meant nothing to her.
"You're quite a special young lady." He paused a moment, rolling the end of her braid back and forth between his sausage-fingers, then said, "Do you know why my sister and I came here?"
"No." Aside from a chance to have Rosimone brush her hair, she didn't care. In the blurry, half-seen-half-felt past, people visited often. Her parents made long, hot, bouncy trips over the passes in summer, to strange halls where she'd be ornamented and warned to sit still and not muss herself.
"We came to tell the Countess – your mother – that it might be possible for her to return to Risenne. As one star falls, another must rise. Of course, there are many stars that could rise. Whether or not that one is your mother depends."
"On what?" He spoke in riddles, like something out of her father's heavy, dust-clad folios.
"On how kindly you treat us," he replied. He tickled her earlobe with the tip of her braid. She shied, rubbed her ear against her shoulder.
There was a sharp blow to the door. Jowin was still opening his mouth when Rosimone shoved her way in, sword in hand, a look of fury and fear in her pale eyes.
"Get your hands off her," she growled, storming across the room, nightshift billowing in her wake. The knight slapped his hand away from her braid. She flinched, Jowin raised his brows.
"Come here, mistress." Rosimone took her hand and pulled her off the bed, her eyes never leaving Jowin, her other hand white-knuckled on her weapon.
"Did you just strike me?" he asked softly.
"What's wrong?" she asked, voice quavering. "What's going on?" Rosimone placed herself between her and Jowin.
"Lord Jowin is well known in Risenne," she said, tightly. "He has a problem keeping his hands where they belong."
She looked down at the man's hands, which were back on his knees. Aside from being huge, they didn't seem unusual. "Good evening, Lady Rosimone," he said mildly. "Or is it morning now? I was wondering if we'd have a chance to speak. Thoughtful of you to visit me."
"I came for her. Not you." Rosimone began backing toward the door, pushing her behind. "If it please you, My Lord, we'll be going now."
Jowin pursed his lips mock-thoughtfully. "I don't believe that would please me."
They were nearly at the door. Rosimone pawed the air for the latch. Jowin's voice became sharp. "I haven't granted you permission to leave, knight." Rosimone froze, swallowing hard as Jowin stood and brushed off the front of his waistcoat.
He clasped his hands behind his back and wandered toward them with an idle, strolling gait. "We were pledged hospitality when we came here. You break into my chambers, assault my person, make scandalous accusations... This is how Salmesse treats its guests?" Jowin halted and leaned toward them, eyebrows raised. "Is this how you petition my sister's house to regain your honor?"
Rosimone's hand clenched on her shoulder, pressed her farther behind her back. "Rosee?" she said, clinging to her shift.
The knight had gone pale. "Stay behind me, mistress."
Jowin looked down at the stones as he sauntered the last few steps to them. In a low, conspiratorial murmur, he leaned in to say, "You may be the woman. You may carry a sword. But remember your place, knight. And the place of my sister, the Marquesse."
He looked up, smiled, and slowly – deliberately – reached out to trace the tip of his giant finger along Rosimone’s earlobe. He towered over her. "It would be a pity," he said, "if I had to tell her about an... incident."
Rosimone's eyelid twitched, not quite a blink. She adjusted her grip on her sword, the muscles of her arm hard and taut. She was sweating.
His fingers slid down along the curve of her neck, then traced the low U-neck of her shift. "Which of you ladies," he said, "will be apologizing to me on behalf of House Salmesse?" Rosimone breathed like a mare confronting a snake. She looked sick, eyes darting around the room, searching for some other exit. "Which one doesn't matter, really. But I am certain that one of you must. Very sweetly."
"We're sorry," she blurted. The adults looked down at her. She sniffed and balled her fists into her eyes. "For coming in. Saying things. Hittin' you. All right? We won't bother you never." She set her teeth and looked up, trying to feel as fierce as Rosimone had looked when she burst in.
"Ah," Jowin said, with a small smile. "What a precious little heart she has. I'm afraid that's not the sort of apology I expect, sweetling."
"What?" She shook her head, utterly adrift.
Rosimone knelt beside her, set her sword on the stones, and took her face between cold, shaking palms. "I need you to do something for me," the knight said. "I need you to go back to our room-" she tried to shake her head, eyes stinging, but Rosimone held her still. "No. Listen to me. Go back to our room. Shut the door. Get back in bed and-" she licked her lips and blinked quickly. "And I want you to cover your ears."
Her thin shoulders began to shake. Her breath came rapid, shallow, dizzy. Rosimone wrapped her arms around her and pressed her to her chest. The knight's heart was pounding. Hers fluttered like a bird with a broken wing. "Stay there until I come for you. Don't get up. Ignore anything you hear. All right? Pretend you can't hear anything."
"Don't make me leave you," she whispered desperately, uncomprehending, eyes brimming over.
Rosimone choked and looked down, shook her head. She passed the backs of her hands across her eyes before she looked up again. The knight kissed her forehead, gave her a fierce squeeze, and pushed her firmly away. "Go. I'll see you soon, dear-heart."
Lord Jowin's face appeared over her shoulder, his beard a dark cloud eclipsing the sun of her hair. His hands appeared on her shoulders, gigantic fingers engulfing her. Rosimone closed the door with a brittle smile and a wave. As the latch clicked, she heard him muse, "That's a fine sword. I've heard you swore an oath, that it should spill blood whenever you draw it."
She fled blindly down the hall, sobbing and stumbling. Slammed the door. Hid under the quilt that still smelled of her knight. Wrapped it around her.
At the first lightning crack of flesh on flesh, the first cry of pain, she slapped her hands over her ears and let the tears come fast and hot, wracking her small body with shudders. She had a sword. She was a knight. She was strong and brave and always there and why was this happening?
She slowly went numb. Balled the outrage and revulsion and guilt into a hot spark and buried it deep in her chest. Curled herself around it, set her back to the outside. Her eyes lost focus, let the world turn into a fog of shadows. The only noise was the pounding of her own heart, like thunder in her head, drowning out the noises outside.
She stayed there for eternity, breathing on the embers at the heart of a sea of darkness.
There was a soft knock at the door.
She bolted from the bed, legs weak and trembling. The windows were dark blue, the line of the trees a shadow cutting across the world. She reached for the handle and paused. "Rosee?" she whispered in the half-light.
"It's all right. It's me," she said faintly, hoarsely.
She opened the door. The figure leaning heavily against the frame, one eye bruised shut, made the tears come loose again.
"Shh. Help me to the bed. I can't see very well."
She took Rosimone's hand and delicately led her. She walked oddly, painfully, and hissed as she carefully settled herself. The knight lay very still, a faint bubbling in her throat as she breathed. The back of her shift was stained with dark fingers.
She gnawed her fingers. "I can get Mirei." The old lady in the village helped women in child birth, and was quick with a needle.
"No. Don't tell anyone. I don't want anyone to... Just you and me can know this." Rosimone's pale eye opened. "Swear to me. Please."
She shook her head, lip quivering, but put her hand on her heart and said, "I swears."
"Would you lay with me for a while? I'd... understand if you didn't." She laughed humorlessly, but it turned into a wet cough.
She sniffled and slid on to the bed next to her. The sheets were dark, damp. The knight folded an arm over her, clung to her, and caressed her face. "You've been crying."
She said nothing.
"Listen to me. This isn't your fault. You understand that? It's not your fault. And it's not my fault. It's his fault. He did this."
"I understand," she said, the spark pulsing deep in her chest.
After a moment of silence, Rosimone's voice came again, trembling and broken, "Can I still be your knight?"
She turned and buried her face under Rosimone's chin. "Can’t be nobody else's."