The Heart of Sorrow’s Keep
By Brenna Hanson
Date: August 22, 2018
Ch. 22

“Make room and make way!” Toby, once a stable boy and now promoted to man-at-arms in spite of his youth’s inability to grow a beard, called as he picked his way through the courtyard. Villagers and those lucky enough to have escaped the fighting up north had been pouring into the protected walls for days. Some came with only the clothes on their backs and the dirt beneath their nails. Others tried to carry in the entire contents of their homes. Possessions were trundled down to empty dungeon cells more for future use than storage. Chairs would burn as well as logs when the snow came. Those who thought themselves rich with livestock found it herded into common pens that were not nearly full enough to keep everyone fed through the winter. Once settled, everyone seeking refuge was elevated or reduced to the same life in an overcrowded tent with only a blanket and cooking fire to keep them warm. Food rations made even the poorest citizens prepare to tighten their belt.
Inside Stonewood Castle, we were not much better off. With so many members of the court seeking safety, we were cramped for space. Queen Mara put me in charge of my younger siblings. That meant we were all crammed into the nursery and sleeping where we could find room enough to squeeze in around each other. The two rooms had worked well when we were fewer and smaller. Now that we ranged in age from two years and just off the wet-nurse to my nearly grown fifteen, seventeen bodies were simply too many for the space. I envied Harold his spot in the cellars where all he had to worry about was rats. Rats were nothing compared to the mixed bag of boredom, tears, and general sibling rivalry I dealt with every day.
Since we were on the same rations as those in the tents, the castle was full of hostility. I applauded Harold for holding his ground on the matter even as my stomach growled and I soothed our brothers and sisters who were too young to understand why they could not have more to eat.
It had been two months since word had come from the battle. Snow flew in the air and settled on the tops of tents. No one left the castle grounds once they were inside the safety of the walls. Reports of roaming bands of attackers and arrow-riddled bodies outside the gates kept the fear near panic level. Rumors of spies sent by The People of the Trees spread like wildfire. It’s hard to say if any of them were true. The fear, the hunger, and the claustrophobic closeness gave birth to other rumors, as well. It was only a matter of time before someone’s tenuous grip on the situation snapped.
That breaking came on a sunny afternoon when Queen Mara and all of her ladies-in-waiting, all mothers to the king’s children, were bundled up in heavy furs and taking their sparse lunch in the gardens in order to get a bit of fresh air. Whoever slipped the poison into their tea knew how to end a life quickly. For that, I suppose I should be grateful. Still, murdering our queen along with eight women who had done no wrong is more than terrible. The fact that my sweet mother was one of those women made the act unforgivable to me.
Harold, worn into a man by the hardship and responsibilities he faced each day, nearly had the entire property emptied of its refugees when he was called to the sad scene.
“Stop!” he said to the guard carrying his original order to the tiny battalion of old men and boys meant to protect us. “Belay that order. I will not doom people to horrible deaths that have done nothing wrong. I won’t be the same kind of monster as whoever did this. Fetch the Council instead. Tell them to come here. I want them to see firsthand what has befallen their queen. I want them to see why I am forced to sit the throne until Father’s return.”
He gently closed his mother’s eyes and let a tear escape from his own.
“And send for the palace mage. I’ll have an answer to who did this and why,” he added.
His words barely registered to me as I raced through the doors leading to the garden. Harold caught me before I could throw myself upon my mother’s body.
“You can’t touch her until we know what happened,” he said gently.
I howled in rage and grief. I beat on his chest and wept until my heart nearly burst. Harold held on through it all. When my tears finally stopped and I could speak through the hitching of my breath, he sat me down on the bench where he had held his mother so many months ago and took both of my hands in his own.
“We will find who did this, Natalia. I promise,” he said. “Can I trust you here? Can I trust you to listen and stay quiet while what needs to be done is done? I need your ears and your eyes to watch for any sign of a lie from those closest to us now. Can I count on them as I count on my own?”
“Yes,” I whispered. I was afraid I would scream if I tried to speak in a normal tone.
“No matter what you hear,” he squeezed my hands, “quietly watch and listen. There are orders that I will have to give that you will not like. They are Father’s orders. We have to obey them even though he is away. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I said again even though I didn’t understand at all.

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