The Oath Undone part 1
The Oath Undone     Knight Latham Bergren kicked the sides of his horse to gallop across the meadow toward his castle walls. He’d been away for some time, and looked forward to seeing his wife and daughter again. The guards at the gate saluted as he passed into the bailey. He rode on the path between stalks of wheat on one side, and beans on the other. The castle crops grown within the wall’s protection were luscious and healthy. It’d be a good harvest this year.

     Sentries saluted and continued marching along the walls. Bergren’s smile fell as he noted the lack of his wife at the castle’s main entrance. She must be in the middle of preparations, having advanced word of his return. He dismounted, letting the squire take the reigns. 

     The steward, who governed the castle along side Bergren’s wife when he traveled, nervously wrung his hands, a look of worry crossed his face as he made eye contact. His face was pale and drawn. All was not well in Castle Bergren. Bergren bypassed the formalities. “What is it?”

     “Welcome home, Lord Bergren. There has been quite a disturbance at the castle while you were gone.”

     He listened while climbing the steps up the steep motte into the castle, waving his hand in circles, signaling the steward to get to the point.

     “I don’t know how to say this delicately,” the steward said. “Lady Bergren is gone.”

     Bergren stopped. “My wife?” His heart raced, but he held back the panic that fluttered at the edge of his mind. Perhaps she left with her father, or for some other sensible reason.

     “Yes, she left sometime last week. During the night I believe, and not under any duress that I know of. Guards were sent to scout around the castle looking for her trail…”

     “And?”

     “Nothing. No revealing marks of any kind.”

     “Did she take a horse?” Impossible she would leave the castle unattended. Bergren couldn’t figure out the puzzle. 

     “None are missing from the stables, lord. I thought you might like to question the gate watchmen of that evening; they await in the library.” The steward flinched at noises of people running through the kitchen. The sound carried through two large open doors at the back of the great hall. The man looked like he hadn’t slept in days. “However, the nursery maid was the last one to speak to Lady Bergren. She is in the woman’s solar with your daughter. I've had a meal prepared and will be served at your word.”

     Bergren waited for more. “Were there any guests here at the time?” 

     “No, my lord.”

     Turning toward the stairs leading up to the nursery, Bergren left the steward alone in the hall. His mind focused on one thing, finding out what happened. Fear seeped into his heart like streaks of ice. His wide couldn’t have left with no reason, no escort, and most of all, without anyone knowing. It couldn’t be true. He took the stairs two at a time, his armor causing a racket echoing through the stairwell. He hadn’t paused to remove it at the gate. 

     The nursery maid waited by the stairs, her brown hair braided down her back like always. Perhaps this was all a joke. Bergren passed her, jogging down the room to the far door and pausing in the entryway to the nursery. Little Tafiana sat on the floor rug brushing a doll’s hair while humming a childhood song.

     The nursery maid had followed him. “I thought that’d be you on the stairs.”

     Bergren didn’t answer. Instead, he strode over to the other doors in the front room and burst through them. Several maids sewing stopped chatting and stared. 

     “She isn’t here. She left.” The nursery maid pulled him out of the hall and shut the door.

     “And the last person she talked to was you.” He crossed his arms, frowning. There must be a plausible explanation. Wives don’t run off in the night. Sure, some might flee with a lover, but not Lady Bergren. Not his Galina. 

     The nursery maid looked at the floor and took in a deep breath. “She told me to tell you, she’s leaving you for a new life, another man.”

     “No.” He didn’t believe it, wouldn’t believe it. He knew her better than that, didn’t he? 

     “It’s true; that is what she told me to say.”

     “But?” 

     “I don’t want to lie to you, Lord Bergren, after all that you’ve done for my family, giving me this position.”

     “What happened, Linnea?” He’d known the nursery maid her whole life. She was one of the farmer’s daughters. He’d thought he was in love with her when they were children, though she was younger than him. 

     “She told me to be kind to you, that one day I might win your heart.” Tears streamed down Linnea’s face. “But I can’t. I wouldn’t want to be yours that way.” Galina had known about Linnea before they married. She’d never shown any signs of jealousy or disapproval. He’d been young and too out spoken as a young boy, and he’d compensated by giving Linnea a comfortable position. 

     “Linnea.” He grabbed her arms near the shoulders. He wanted to shake the information from her.

     “She left for your daughter’s sake.”

     “That doesn’t make sense.”

     “It was the magician. I don’t know how he got in, no one saw him.”

     “Magician?” Bergren didn’t like where this was headed. It began like something from a fairytale. 

     “Lady Bergren took a blood oath to him and brought him a baby girl from the village, Tafiana’s replacement. He killed the baby through magic.” Linnea wiped tears from her eyes. ”She saved Tafiana, by becoming his oath-slave and replacing the baby for some ritual. I don’t understand it.”

     “Bound by a magical bond,” Bergren said quietly. 

     Linnea nodded. “She must serve him, and in return he can’t harm Tafiana.”

     Bergren sat heavily on a bench. He held his head in his hands. He’d heard rumors of wizard stealing into castles, causing all kinds of mischief, but he’d never taken them seriously. What were all of those fanciful stories when real treats like royal politics, poaching neighbors, and local war, existed? “Tell me of this magician.”

     “I don’t know anything,” she said, her voice catching in her throat. “I never saw him. Their voices echoed down the stairwell. She called him Dag.” 

     “You must pack this night. In the morning, you’ll take Tafiana to my brother’s manor in Ribu.”

     She nodded. “What will you do?”

     He lifted his head, meeting her eyes. “I’m going to find her.”

     “But she’s bound to him. It can’t be broken.”

     “I know.” A blood oath was irreversible. Galina would heal, steal and kill for Dag. She would be driven mad if isolated from him, or if he died, and she would commit suicide. There was only one thing he could do for her now. Kill her. 

     Bergren ordered fresh mounts readied for travel while he picked a horse to carry him into the village outside of the fortifications, to question the peasants. No one asked him any questions. The servants were tense, quiet and watchful. Galina’s disappearance had upset the natural function of the castle. 

     Old man Yuri was the only one who saw anything. He sat on a wobbly stool outside of a one room shack. His hat tipped back on his head, revealing the weathered skin beneath. One eye was a shocking blue, the other patched over in white. The scratchy voice and missing teeth didn’t fool Bergren. The eye said it all; the man was as sharp as ever. “It isn’t her and him you should be asking ‘bout.”

     Bergren reigned in his impatience. “Then what?”

     “The darkness.” Old man Yuri lit a cob pipe, pulling in the smoke through loose lips. “The darkness left first, you see. An evil, a magicked demon.”

     Bergren’s chest felt tight, making it hard to breath. His mind drifted back to the baby, his daughter’s replacement. What would Galina do to protect her daughter? What had happened to the baby? “You saw the demon?”

     “Ah yes. An ugly thing. It was as tall as a horse, a half gargoyle-half wolf creature. Pitch black, it was, yowling and snapping at the air. It’s eyes burned red as flames. I thought my time had come; I was dead for sure. But the beast took off,” he waved away from the shack, “into the night.”

     “Which way?”

     Old man Yuri nodded his head to the north. “I didn’t move from this spot until I saw the Lady and man follow, north. Then it hit me like a ton of stone, where that thing would be going.”

     Bergren raised his eyebrows.

     “The swamp.” Old man Yuri drew on his pipe. “It’s only natural. It’s the only place here abouts to keep things like that.”

Continued in part 2

 
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