The same girl visited the same well, in the courtyard of Blackens Gate, at the same time every day. Henry had first noticed her in the spring. He thought she might have come to Blackens Gate with a group of serfs delivered in tribute from Baron Merrick. Like the rest of them, she had arrived frightened and helpless. In the intervening months, she would have realized all her fears had been entirely founded, that Lord Canis' famed wolves were little more than animals, but capable of the cruelty of men. It was a dangerous combination for the humans who did not typically survive their enslavement at the castle.
Henry watched her, as he watched her most days. Truly, since Raf had left to Fallow Manor, Henry had become a rather boring man. With no one he wished to associate with under Lord Canis' roof, and little expected of him due to his half-human state, there was little else to do but watch everyone else go about their days.
He'd made his bed when he'd agreed to second Lord Canis' son, Raf, in the combat that had killed one member of the pack and severely wounded Lord Canis' elder son, Roderick. But there had been no place for a half-human bastard like Henry in Lord Canis' esteem, to begin with. He'd lived his life mostly staying out of the way of the full-blooded wolves and occasionally going to battle under his clan leader's banner. Things had been far easier when his position in the clan had been secured by Raf's friendship, but that ship had long ago left port. And despite his friend's repeated offer of sanctuary at Fallow Manor, it seemed far easier to stay in the only home he'd ever known.
Stay, and be reduced to eavesdropping on servants' conversations and gossip. He watched as the girl, thin from meager feed and hard labor, lifted the bucket and slowly lowered it into the round stone cistern. She leaned over, bronze curls falling in a curtain against her pale, bruised cheek. Like the rest of the servants, she wore a thin cap upon her head, but it did not contain her crooked mass of hair. In the spring, her hands and feet had been raw with chilblains. They had healed, while her tattered clothing had only grown worse. Her shift, grayed with dirt, showed through her kirtle in places that had not been patched with scraps of rough spun fabric.
Something about her had changed over the past weeks. Her face had grown thinner, and hollows had appeared beneath her eyes. At first, he'd mistaken them as the consequence of insolence, but no blackened eyes last a month. He'd surmised that it was a sickness, sapping her of her strength. Something about her smell had changed, though he doubted any of the other wolves had taken any notice. They rarely concerned themselves with the state of their human servants. They thought themselves above humans, despite their daily reliance upon the creatures. Truly, their survival hinged upon human appreciation of their particular skills. Raf had once mused to Henry, that one day the humans would tire of bowing to the wolves and cull them.
When she hauled the water up, knuckles white around the rope, grunting with exertion, he saw it. Her kirtle caught between the stone and her knee, and the fabric pulled tight across her stomach. The girl was with child.
The shock of his realization was stronger than he might have guessed it would be, had he dared speculate the true cause of her malady. It was not just that he knew she would share the same fate as his own mother had. It was common knowledge among the serving girls at Blackens Gate that the child of a wolf was a death sentence for the human mother. But it seemed more personal with this girl, perhaps because he'd spent so many idle hours watching her go about her daily chores. Without meaning to, he'd singled her out as a familiar, comforting face about the castle. Now, her life was forfeit.
He pushed away from the wall he'd been leaning on and went to her side, taking the rope from her hands and hauling the bucket up, himself. When it rested on the lip of the cistern, he turned to her to reach for the jug she'd brought to fill. She stepped back, crystalline eyes wide with apprehension. When he stretched out his hand, she backed away, toppling the jug and sprawling on the hard packed ground.
"Have a care," he told her, offering his hand. "I won't hurt you."
She did not believe him, and why should she? How many of Lord Canis' wolves had made her the same promise? More than had kept it, that was certain.
"Do you need help?" a voice called across the courtyard. Brujon, one of the big, French bastards sent by the Wolves of Calais, strode toward them. "I could hold her for you."
The thought turned Henry's stomach, but he knew better than he'd like what happened to slaves when a wolf interceded on their behalf. "No, friend. I like them with a little fight."
At his words, the girl's face went hard, and her body went limp. There was fight in her, in her passivity. Henry knew that well enough. He'd fought his fellow wolves by the same means for years, fighting alongside them while hating the life they led. Often enough, he'd wondered if he was truly resisting their ways, or excusing himself for following them.
Now, the why of it did not matter. He pulled the girl beyond a stone arch and pushed her against the wall as gently as he could. It had to look authentic, the damned Frenchman had to believe it, at least until they were out of sight. When Henry was certain Brujon had moved on, satisfied, he stepped back, his hands still on the girl's shoulders.
"What's your name?" he asked, and when she didn't answer, he said, "I know you are with child. How did this happen?"
That question, and the unspoken accusation that came with it, was enough to crack through her defensive shell. She lifted her chin defiantly. "How do you think it happened? Just as it's happening now!"
She spit in his eye, and when he released her to swipe it away, she ran from him.
It was a miracle she had not been killed yet by one of the beasts who stalked the castle in the form of men. They would have no patience for that kind of disobedience, yet she lived. So, when he caught her again, with a hand over her mouth to silence her, he whispered against her ear, "You are smart enough to know that I wouldn't punish you for that. You must be smart enough to know when someone is your ally, as well."
She tore from his grasp, panting, cheeks flushed from her short run. Food was always in short supply in the servants' cell, and the lack of it, as well as her obvious exhaustion brought on by the half-wolf baby she carried, had sapped her of her strength. She leaned her hands on her thighs as she doubled over. "You are one of them. Just because you are the weaker of them does not make you any less a danger to me!"
"Then why aren't you still running?" He arched a brow at her. If he could not win a maid over with kindness, often enough she would falter when faced with gentle chiding.
But this was no maid, and he was foolish to have forgotten it. She glared back at him with hatred and stood, back against the wall, and pulled her tattered skirt up to her thighs. "Go on, then. Cook will beat me if I don't bring back the water soon."
"I am not interested in that. Cover yourself." Disgust at his fellow wolves tightened his stomach. This was what their human companions were reduced to--a life without dignity or will, and the wolves of the Canis Clan would have had it no other way. "Do you know who the father of the child is?"
She shook her head, no trace of emotion on her face.
"Do you know what will happen to you, when you bear that child?" He doubted she would know. Mating between humans and wolves so rarely produced children. Most of the babes died before they could be born, and slid into the world on a tide of death that swept their mothers along with them. It was a fear Henry had heard often from Raf, in letters written in the dark hours while Raf's young bride lay sleeping. He'd not gotten a child on her yet, and was secretly glad for it. But at Blackens Gate, the child would mean death to this serving girl even if he came into life squalling and pink. When the girl shook her head, he told her. "Your babe will be taken from you and given to a wolf to nurse and raise. It will grow to become one of us, either as a lady of the pack who will later breed more warriors or perish trying, or it will become one of Lord Canis' war dogs."
"A better life than the life of a servant," she snapped. "And I'd be glad to be rid of it. I don't want to raise some dog's bastard."
"You would never have the chance." Though the words sickened him to utter them, she had to know. "They will dispose of you, as they disposed of my mother."
Only there did he see a flicker of fear, dim though it was, in her violence-dulled eyes. "They'll kill me?"
"Does anyone else know?" he asked, hoping for an impossibility. A fellow servant, a woman with powerful intuition, perhaps, would have seen the signs, surely. And if the father of the child knew...
"A man...I think he knows," she whispered, staring past Henry, as though she could see the very figure she spoke of standing behind him. There was no one there. She closed her eyes when she spoke again. "He came to me before, months ago. I think he knows. And I think he suspects..."
"That the child is his?" Wolves were becoming all too rare, and a precious commodity such as this would not be passed over. "Who?"
"I don't know his name. He's a big one, with shorn hair." A shiver of revulsion shook her at the words. "He finds me when I'm alone, and he whispers things about the...child."
Her hands lifted, but they did not go to her stomach with the protective instinct of a mother. Instead they curled into fists. "I had a plan, to kill him. I thought, if I could collect enough of the belladonna that grows in the cracks of the stone--"
"It would do you no good. It has no affect on us, and you'd be caught. If this wolf claimed his right on the child, you would be caged up somewhere until you delivered, then killed quickly, if luck were on your side." This girl was doomed, and there was naught anyone could do for her. It shouldn't have worried him so, but he did not nurture the detachment they'd tried to beat into him as a child. More man than wolf, Lord Canis said, and at that moment, Henry didn't see the shame in it.
"So, that's it, then?" The bitterness in her voice would have curdled fresh milk. "My life was sold away the moment I was sent here."
That was true enough, but reflecting on it wouldn't help her, not now, and Henry did want to help her. "I have seen too many girls go the way you are fated to go. If I offered you my help, would you take it?"
She looked uncertainly at him through eyes like the sky on a summer day. Someone, somewhere, should have prized her, should have kept her in happier circumstances so that those eyes would shine with gladness, not tears of sorrow and hatred. So that she could trust the one person who could help her, who'd seen the unfairness of the world as she had, but had position enough to rage against it for her. "What could you do to help me?"
A plan would have to be made, and Henry wasn't good at forming those for himself. He was fine at following the orders of others, but he'd never considered himself a great thinker. He knew who was, though, and that man was miles away. "The moon is full tomorrow night. The wolves will be running. It will be dangerous, but that is the time to make our escape."
"Escape?" She barked a laugh that held no humor in it. "No servant has ever escaped from Blackens Gate. All of us knew that when we arrived. They'll hang me."
"If you stay, you're dead, anyway. And you won't be escaping as a servant. You'd be leaving with a man who grew up in this castle, who knows all the postern gates and played in the secret halls as a child." He had not convinced her; that much was clear from her hard expression. "There is another of my kind, Lord Canis' son. He is my friend of many years and he does not agree with the way his father commands wolves to live. You could be safe there, with your child. Let me take you to him."
Her eyes narrowed. "You believe he would take me in?"
"He took a human woman to wife. He would not harm you, and he would not let his father's men mistreat you. Will you come?"
It was a brazen offer, Henry knew. Raf had offered no promises of shelter, and his manor was small. Could it support another mouth, another hungry stomach, and later, after the babe was weaned, yet another? Still, Henry knew that Raf was as likely to turn this girl away as he was to grow a new leg. It would be an imposition on his friend, but Henry would repay him, somehow. All that was left was for the girl to say yes, to trust him and let him take her from this place.
She took a slow, deep breath, and then she nodded once, sharply. "But if this is a trick, if you play me false for your amusement, I will kill you. Before I die of this bastard, I will kill you."
The chill he felt from her words did not come from the threat, but the clear understanding that she would make good on it.