Brand couldn’t remember the last time he stood in front of a castle and asked for permission to enter. It was intimidating, even if Seri’s castle wasn’t particularly impressive. The walls were crumbling, and the gate was wide open. Only one guard had been on duty when Brand flew up. Brand could have zoomed right on through, while the guard was still calling the alert. Instead, Brand had stopped, gotten off his carpet, and waited until a good-sized knot of armed men finally came to address him.
“Greetings, sorcerer,” said the oldest of the guard, a man who looked to be in his forties and stood about a foot taller than Brand. “This is Castle Staghome, the domain of Lord Ekhart. Please, state your name and business.”
“I am Brandeis of… of Castle Satyros,” he replied. “I am a suitor for Lord Ekhard’s daughter.” Brand paused, realizing this was actually true. “I wish to ask for her hand in marriage.”
He had made an effort to look the part, dressing in his finest and bringing, on his carpet, a chest filled with gold and treasures. He hoped that the gifts would quell some of Lord Ekhard’s rage. If that didn’t work, Brand also had a pendant that brimmed with magic, and two other amulets besides, which were charmed to keep him from harm.
The head guard looked at Brand with sympathy. “I’m sorry to say, but you have come all this way for nothing. Lord Ekhard’s daughter is dead.”
“Dead?” Brand said, before realizing that Seri had at least one deceased sister. “I am asking after the hand of Lady Serihilde.”
“Lady Serihilde drowned in the pond last spring.”
“What?” Brand said in disbelief. “No. She is—I must speak to the Lord of the Castle. It is urgent.”
“Lord Ekhard is not receiving guests.”
“Not receiving guests?” Brand said. “Is he absent?”
The question hung unpleasantly in the air.
Brand surveyed the castle’s magical defenses. They had never been particularly strong, but now he couldn’t even sense them. Brand threw a small pulse of magic into the wall, and the castle didn’t react. It was dormant. The ancient protection spells would not work if there was no one of blood within its walls.
“Who is in charge of Castle Staghome?” Brand asked.
“Castle Staghome is not receiving guests,” the head guard repeated. “If you are in need of accommodations, might I suggest—”
“I’m not leaving,” Brand said. “I need to speak to whoever is in charge. I need to know where Lord Ekhard is.”
“I am sorry, Sir, but we cannot permit—”
“This is important,” Brand said. “Seri’s life depends on it.”
“She is not dead!” Brand burst out. “She’s been at my tower for the last seven months. And if any of you cared for her in the slightest—”
Something whizzed by his face. Brand blinked as a crossbow bolt came to a halt, inches from his eyes. If his magic from his amulet hadn’t stopped it, he’d be dead.
Brand took a long, shaky breath. This was Seri’s home, and he really did not want to hurt her people. But rage, his old friend, was starting to course in his veins.
“I will say it again,” he said slowly, “if you care about Seri—”
“You took her, didn’t you!” cried another guard. “You bastard.”
“Yes,” Brand admitted. “I flew right over the walls and abducted her. It was easy.” He picked up the crossbow bolt, still hovering in the air, and tossed it to the ground. “And that was when the Lord of the Castle was home. Imagine what I could do now that he is absent.”
The head guard gave a yell, and the men all raised their spears.
Brand drew upon the magic of his pendant and bound them in invisible strings. Another guard got off a shot with his crossbow, but the bolt froze harmlessly in the air. Brand flicked it aside. He pushed the guards away, summoned his carpet, and walked for the gate. Someone on the inside was trying to close it. Brand held up his hand, and the gate froze. Brand walked through.
A haphazard line of men with scythes and flails met him on the other side. Brand tossed their weapons from their hands and pushed the men to the side. He walked past them. A few men on horseback rode toward him. They ground to a halt, as they looked upon the damage.
“Who is in charge?” Brand yelled. “Let him come and face me.”
One of the men on horseback tentatively rode forward. He was a tall, thin man with slumped shoulders and weary eyes. His fine clothes did not seem to fit him, and he wore no pendant that Brand could see. Instead, he carried a sword.
“My name is Berne, Steward of Castle Staghome,” the man said. “I am in charge.”
“A steward?” Brand asked.
A steward was in charge of managing the castle grounds, but most of them didn’t have magic. This one certainly didn’t.
“Who is protecting the Castle?” Brand asked.
“I am charged with its defense,” Berne replied.
Brand was dumbstruck. He hadn’t exactly expected Seri’s famous uncle to be guarding the castle, but Brand had thought to find some sorcerer governing the land. Without a sorcerer present, this castle had no protection from—
From men like him. Brand’s stomach soured.
“Where is Lord Ekhard?” he asked softly.
“He has gone across the sea,” Berne replied. “He hopes to find a new bride for himself.”
“A bride?” Brand echoed. “His daughter was kidnapped!”
“Lady Serihilde was declared dead—”
“—and with her death, Lord Ekhard severed his last connection to her mother’s kin. He has no further wish for an alliance with House Elmfield.”
Brand stared. Seri’s father had just… abandoned her? His daughter? He’d just wiped his hands clean of his old family and went to get a new one.
And what about his land, Seri’s home? Brand looked around, and for the first time, he saw how deserted it was. A few men stood in front of their homes, holding scythes and hoes. Farming equipment—not even proper weaponry. Lord Ekhard must have taken his entourage—and his magic—and his wealth—and left the land stripped bare. He must have known the castle would be easy pickings to anyone with magic—and he just didn’t care.
“He abandoned you,” Brand said. “He left you for dead—just like he did with his daughter.”
Berne was silent.
Brand couldn’t take Seri home to this. It was a mess. A sad, horrible mess. Even so, he needed to find someone who could speak to Seri. Lord Ekhard was an ocean away, and even if he were not, Brand would have strangled the man before he let him talk to Seri. But there must be someone around.
“Do you know where Seri’s famous, powerful uncle is?” Brand asked.
“Lord Englebert came to her funeral,” Berne replied. “We have not seen him since.”
“Her funeral?” Brand said bitterly. “Has Seri any relatives here?”
The steward was quiet.
“Has she any friends?” Brand asked, in frustration. “Is there anyone here who cares whether she lives or dies?”
“I do!” called out a loud female voice.
Brand saw a woman striding toward him. Her cape was askew, and her hood had fallen down at her ears, as though she had put it on hastily. She had dark hair and dark features. Brand didn’t realize she was older, until she came to a halt, and he got a better look at her. There were lines etched deep in her mouth, and her dark eyes were hard.
“I am Gertrude of House Elmfield,” the woman said. “I am Seri’s grandmother.”
“House Elmfield?” Brand tilted his head. “You have a powerful granddaughter to have come from a House.”
“Do not play games,” Gertrude said. “You know who I am, or suspect.”
“Tell me anyway,” Brand said.
Gertrude straightened her shoulders. “Once I was known as Hildegard, the wife of Willmarr and the mistress of Castle Elbe-Antona.”
“You know who I am?” Brand asked.
“Yes.” Gertrude’s eyes narrowed. “I know why you have kidnapped my granddaughter. If it is vengeance you seek, I beg you, take it out on me, for I am the perpetrator of all your ills.”
Brand thought of vengeance—and felt nothing. He was more concerned with how Seri felt about this particular relative. Had she ever mentioned a grandmother? Brand tried to think. Once, perhaps—early on.
“Are you the grandmother who came to stay with Seri, after her mother died?” Brand asked. “The one who knew how to make tinctures and medicines?”
Gertrude blinked. “I am.”
“And do you love your granddaughter?”
The look in Gertrude’s eyes steeled. “I would do anything for her.”
“Good.” Brand pointed to the carpet. “Get on.”
Gertrude strode onto the carpet and sat down, barely flinching as it rose.
Brand turned to Berne. “Steward Berne, I am sorry for the commotion I caused. I had brought gifts for Lord Ekhard, but since he is not here, I offer them to you and to the people of this land.” He shoved the chest of gold and treasure off the rug and dropped it near Berne’s feet. “If you see Seri’s uncle, please let him know she still lives. I’m sure he’ll be relieved.”
And with that, Brand hopped on the carpet near Seri’s grandmother. He flew the carpet up into the air.
“Seri lives?” Gertrude asked, in a tight voice.
“She does,” he said, shortly.
“And is she well?”
Brand’s throat tightened.
“What have you done to her?” Gertrude cried. “Have you—?”
“I haven’t raped her,” Brand said darkly. “I haven’t touched her. Seri is—she would be well, but for the dragon curse.”
“You haven’t married her?”
“What do you want? Her dowry?”
“A dowry?” Brand repeated with disdain. “You think I want her father’s money?”
“Magic, then? Land? Allies?”
“I am not the one impeding this marriage. She’s the one who won’t marry me.”
Brand gritted his teeth. “Your job is to persuade her. That’s why I brought you. I assume you’re with me on this, that you don’t want her to turn her into a mindless, savage beast—one obedient to me, I might add.”
“No,” Gertrude said. “But if I do speak to my granddaughter, it must be alone.”
“Fine,” Brand said.
He steered the carpet through the clouds.
Brand thought about bringing Gertrude to his tower, but he did not want her to know where he lived. Gertrude, like all women, was untrained in magic (he hoped), but she had a shrewd, sharp way about her. She was dangerous. She’d admitted to conspiring to kill his family; she was probably plotting to kill him now. Brand wasn’t letting her into his home. He needed to find somewhere neutral to keep her.
“Where are we going?” Gertrude asked.
“You’ll see,” Brand said.