The persistent, escalating commotion in the courtyard finally roused Aslyn from sleep. Alarm should have jolted her awake, should have galvanized her into instant action. At any other time, her mind would instantly have responded to the sounds that could mean nothing but danger. Instead, a heaviness pervaded her senses, as if she'd drank too much wine or mead.
Her sluggish mind connected with that thought, meandering along it until she recalled the celebration the night before. Her father had announced her betrothal to Wilhem of Leitsey Marr.
She had been reasonably satisfied with her father's choice of husband. He was an older man, nearing thirty, but not so old that she felt repelled by his age, and he had attained some note as a warrior. He was not hard on the eyes, either, for which she was grateful.
Twenty six did seem a little old to a fifteen year old girl, particularly since she'd hoped to make a match nearer her own age, but she was certain she had not imbibed more than she should have, either from excessive delight, or anxiety.
The direction of her thoughts finally roused her sufficiently that she pushed herself upright and looked around. The tower room was dark still, barely lighter than it had been when she'd doused the candles and climbed into her bed the night before. The sun could not have risen.
Why then did it seem the entire keep was aroused and moving about as if they were well into the new day's activities?
As she was striving to puzzle through it, she realized she was covered in a chilled, sticky wetness. She looked down at herself then and a new wave of confusion swept over her.
She was nude. What had happened to her gown? More importantly, what was the substance she was coated with?
Her hands, indeed her entire body, was splotched with the sticky residue. She held out her hands, peering at them in the dim light. Slowly, her eyes focused. Slowly the dark patches attained a rusty hue.
Her heart lurched painfully in her chest. Stumbling from the bed, she staggered toward the reflecting glass that was perched upon her dressing table.
Streaks of the same sticky substance smeared her forehead and cheeks. It was concentrated, however, around her mouth and throat. Instinctively, her hand went to her throat.
It wasn't hers. She had no injury.
She stared at her hands, her arms, looked down at her body in dawning horror, trying to grapple with possibilities.
How could she be soaked in blood when she was not injured?
Some nameless fear seized her and she stumbled to the wash stand. Dashing water from the ewer into the basin, she began scrubbing herself frantically. She had to get rid of it. She had to remove the evidence....
She broke off the thought, paused in her task. The evidence of what?
She couldn't grasp it. She couldn't seem to move beyond the need to bathe. Dismissing it, she concentrated on cleansing herself. When she'd finished, she stared down at the filmy water in revulsion, realizing she could not leave it for the maids to find. Lifting the basin, she stumbled awkwardly with her heavy burden to the window then set it down on the floor to unfasten the scraped hide that covered the opening.
Below, chaos reigned. People were dashing hither and yon; women screamed; horses reared as her father's guard fought to bring them under control; the dogs from the kennel bayed as if they had the scent of death in their nostrils.
Aslyn grasped the bowl and tossed the contents from the window.
She'd barely done so when her door exploded inward with a force that slammed the wooden portal back against the stone wall with a sharp crack of splintering wood.
"Lady Aslyn! Oh! Thank the saints you are here and unharmed!"
Aslyn stared at her nurse wide eyed. "Where else would I be at this hour?"
The nurse burst into wails. "My lady! My lady! I don't know how to tell you this terrible thing!"
A wave of dizziness washed over Aslyn. "My father?"
"No, no! My poor child! I did not mean to frighten you for your father! And your mother gone these many years, I know how dear he is to you. I should have thought! I should have realized...."
Aslyn strode toward the woman, grasped her shoulders, and gave her a shake. "Cease your babbling and tell me! You are frightening me to death! What has happened?"
"You're betrothed! Lord Wilhem, my lady! He has been found...." The nurse broke off, clutching her chest, gasping.
"For mercy's sake, tell me. Do not leave me to wonder what ill has befallen us. I shall go mad! Has he attacked us? Has he fallen ill? What?"
The nurse clutched her, her fingers curled like claws, digging in to Aslyn's flesh painfully. "It's horrible. I shall carry the image to my grave. Some beast fell upon him last eve and ... and it must have been a wild beast, or some evil thing. No man could have done to him what was done. I would not have recognized him but for the ring he wears. His face was torn away, his body ripped apart, his entrails scattered, as if wild dogs had fallen upon him and fought over his remains."
Aslyn felt the strength leave her knees. She wilted to the floor, her thoughts chaotic.
One thought pounded through her mind over and over, however. The blood--she had been covered in blood and she had no idea how she had come to be covered in blood.
She very much feared, however, that she might remember.