"A toast to our honored liege lord and King!" Cried Lord Guerin, his wine cup overflowing and held high above his head. The room was bloated with guests, each in turn echoing Lord Guerin's salute by standing, and raising their wine goblets. "To King Frederick, on this, the first night home after his triumph against King Igor of Manorbriar. On this, the greatest night of his reign. To the King!"
"To the King!" the courtiers echoed.
Queen Aurorette held her cup high and echoed the same cheer to her husband once the voices in the room had died down, and he nodded his head in approval toward her. After which he raised his own glass and without words marked a silent toast to her as well.
The feast had gone on for hours, and Brynhild yawned emphatically. She was seated next to the young Prince Oren who was complaining loudly that he wanted more mutton, although he had already had four servings by then. Brynhild was weary of him. She had thought to escape into the kitchens and serve the young Prince a plate of umbel pie. A dish made primarily with deer waste, and served only to the lower servants. But despite the Prince's young age of four summers he would have quickly caught onto it, and word would reach his father the King. Brynhild was anxious for instruction, she felt uncomfortable at the feast table (all be it a side table) and she could not see the king, but more so she worried that he could not see her.
"I want more!" Oren pouted, dropping his hand onto the edge of his pewter plate, and making a deafening clanking sound. His whining voice curdled Brynhild's blood.
"You've had enough," she barked at him, but checked her voice before going on. "Now sit quietly like a good Prince. Try to be more like your father," she reasoned, "he would not throw a tantrum as you have just done."
The Prince scowled at her, and before Brynhild could stop him Oren grabbed her by the hair and slapped her hard across the back. She was so stunned she couldn't grab a hold of him before he ran off from the table howling for his mother. Brynhild chased after him. The guests were otherwise oblivious to the commotion of a crying child and his nurse maid running after him. Brynhild had noted all evening how their faces were all becoming flush with wine.
"Mother!" Prince Oren cried, climbing onto Queen Aurorette's lap and resting his head in the crook of her neck. "That evil Brynhild is a witch; she won't let me have supper." Brynhild could only stand by and listen to the Prince's hollow explanation while Aurorette stroked her son's hair.
"What's all this?" King Frederick asked.
For the first time that evening the King looked at Brynhild. When his eyes met hers she felt her entire body flutter, and she had to contain a dizzying gasp from escaping through her lips.
"Majesty, I…" she tried to explain, just meeting his gaze was not enough, she wanted to hear his voice, watch his lips dance out the words, watch the way his mouth formed them.
"It's all right," he said, breaking away from her stare and turning back to his wife, "I think it's time that he retires to bed."
"No please father," Oren's grip on his mother tightened.
Queen Aurorette beamed up at her husband. "Yes," she agreed, "I think you're right." She pushed her son from her lap, gently, but forcibly because he clung to her robes not wanting to go. "Brynhild, please take him to his chamber, and make sure he gets to sleep."
Brynhild took the boy's hand, beginning to lead him away, but hesitated. She waited for Frederick to look at her again, desperate to lock eyes with him once more. She waited so long that Queen Aurorette turned back to her as though Brynhild needed something else, but once the queen's eyes were on her she finally turned, escaping away from the clatter and drunken voices of the feast room.
Brynhild led the boy into the hallway where some of the servants, equally as drunk as their masters staggered either toward the dining hall, or away from it. In a few darkened corners she saw some of the serving maids pushed back against the walls by courtiers eagerly lifting up their skirts. Brynhild could hear the customary laughs and sighs of such encounters.
Brynhild had learned when Oren was a baby that no amount of soothing would get him to sleep when she needed, or wanted him to, and tonight would be no exception. She had concocted a mixture of herbs that she always kept in a vile tucked inside her skirts that she often poured into his goat's milk, or any other drink he fancied before bedtime. It was not long after entering his bedchamber that he had lazily drifted off to sleep, and Brynhild was blissfully free of the spiteful child.
She waited in the corridor afterward, knowing that Frederick would visit his son, as he often did in the night. The feast was bound to break up soon. She waited for him with ease. Many of her nights had been spent in ways such as this. The waiting was always bearable by the thought of Frederick turning the corner toward her, all she had to do was listen for him.
When he finally did turn into the corridor he didn't at first see her. The shadow's had lengthened since she'd stepped out of the boys room and obscured her there. "Byrnhild!" he exclaimed, startled to find her suddenly so close.
"You came," she breathed, her arms quickly encircling his neck, her voice hot against his ear. "At last, you came!"
"Byrnhild," he said gently, unfolding her arms from around him, "no!"
She clutched tighter to him.
"No!" he said more forcefully, "I said 'never again.'"
"I don't believe you!" In a single quick motion she had his trousers unfastened and her hand circled around him. He took a shaky breath, his red hair fell forward against his face, and Brynhild could feel him stiffen quickly against her palm. Frederick's hands, already clutching her shoulders, held on tightly.
Still grasping onto him with one hand she used her other to pull him deeper into the shadows, pinning him against the wall. Her hand began to move over him slow, and teasingly. Her mouth wet against his jaw. "Remember all the other times," she began, keeping her voice even to match his heavy breathing. "When we were younger, before she came here, before you were married?"
He moaned, his head tilting back against the wall.
"Before the war," she went on, her words greeted by another moan, this one deep from within his body, and she smiled, "You told me you loved me."
Frederick's eyes widened, "No," he instructed her, pushing her away, but she didn't stop, "No!" he said again and when she still didn't stop he slapped her across the face. Brynhild staggered away, suddenly off balance, collapsing against the far wall. "No more of this!" He yelled, "You are no longer a child Bryn, and I am no longer a boy." She softened at his pet nickname for her, remembering how in their youth he had called her nothing else.
"No," she countered, "you are a man!" She came toward him again, but this time he pushed her back against the wall forcibly, her head slamming against the rough stone.
"Never again!" he warned, "if you persist in this, you will be sent away, never to return here!"
She reached out to him as he stalked away but he eluded her, either her hands were not strong enough or his intent to leave too strong. She found herself wailing into the darkness, her damp cheek scratching against the spackled stone, her body sliding down the surface of the wall. The only man she had ever truly loved was lost to her. Sometime later, when she had exhausted herself, she walked back into the young Prince's chamber. The room was pitch black but the harsh sound of the child's snores filled the room. Brynhild went to the window. The courtyard below was all but empty except for a few guards, and the occasional drunkard staggering about near the well.
Brynhild watched the blackness of night spread across the sky, the moon was hidden, and no stars broke though.
Wiping the streaks of tears away from her face she felt a sudden certainty quickening in her bones. She knew what needed to be done.