22 The chest she could not bear to throw away
(Castle Black flower garden)
There was a solemn atmosphere that surrounded the group once the maid had finished telling the story. Some of the servants were even discussing the details in hushed whispers, the recently hired maidservants never knew that their duchess used to have a kind and loving personality.
It clashed directly with the cold face and lionhearted woman who commanded fear and respect on the battlefield. Even the fact that she had adopted a daughter did little to lessen this impression.
Ashley stood still and gazed at the red roses gently swaying in the wind with a contemplative expression on her face. No one could tell what she was thinking in that moment. She turned around slowly and talked to Elena,
"I think I want to see mommy."
Elena was unsure if to follow her order as the duchess rarely allowed others to intrude on her affairs when she was managing the dukedom but she seemed to have a soft spot for the little miss so it should be okay.
"How about this my lady, we can visit the room and put in the new furniture then I can take you to see the duchess in a few hours," Elena replied.
A small feeling of discontent welled up in Ashley's heart, but she fought down the urge to go see her mom immediately. The story had struck a nerve with her and she felt that her mom must have been really lonely.
Ashley hid a secret that she could not tell a single soul, when her parents had died in the fire, she simply felt numb. There was no grief, sadness or despair, it was if it was the loss of strangers rather than family.
There was no sense of familiar love or care from her old family, her father was a distant figure who would visit the mansion every couple of months. Her stepmother and half siblings may not have bullied or tormented her, but they banished her to a corner of the estate to be forgotten.
The existence of those people and their lives had nothing to do with her.
"Okay sister Elena, let's go to my new room!" Ashley forced a smile on her face as she shook her head to get rid of the unpleasant memories.
She raised her arms gently and Elena scooped her up and began to walk slowly to the master bedroom of the mansion.
After waking up from the nightmare, Elise stood up unsteadily from the floor and tried to assess the damage done to the room. Books were ripped from the shelves and strewn all across the floor.
The legs of the desk were damaged, and the table rocked slowly from side to side, there were several gashes on the floor and walls as if something had ripped a line through the stone.
Fortunately, the chair was still in a decent enough condition, so Elise sank into it and started to breathe deeply.
This was not her first panic attack and it would not be the last ever since that week all those years ago. Elise suffered a loss of control of her powers once any mention of the incident happened. These attacks used to occur quite regularly, but Elise had tried mediation and chants to reduce the frequency.
Cycling the mana through her body produced quite a soothing effect, the dark tendrils attached to her feet slowly retracted into her own shadow.
Why was she feeling like this?
It had been months since any thought of her mother had crossed her mind.
Elise stood up and made her way to the bookshelf at the wall of the study room, she pressed two of the books in succession and a small hole popped out. There was a chest inside and Elise hesitated slowly before reaching in and grabbing it.
It was a simple wooden chest with gold linings on the sides and the front giving it an elegant and antique look, there was a gold key in the hole as well which Elise quickly retrieved.
She returned to the chair and sat down with the chest and key in hand. Minutes ticked away slowly as Elise made no moves to look at the contents inside.
She was afraid.
Two years ago, when Elise was twenty-two, a gardener working on the flower bed outside the mansion reported strange birds flying overhead. Elise hurried outside to see the commotion and saw a flock of ravens surrounding the tulips, those were her favourite childhood flowers.
She drew her sword and sent out a wave of dark magic to scare off the birds. The ravens flapped away quickly and when they dispersed, there was a golden chest with a key hanging from the side lying on the ground.
It was a message from her mother.
Only one woman could be skilled enough to control and manipulate all those ravens using dark magic, it was so impressive that she earned the nickname, 'duchess of whispers'. It was rumoured that there was a raven spying on all the major houses in the kingdom and her information network was unparalleled.
In the north at least, no corrupt noble dared to have any business dealings without constant eyes gazing at the skies searching for those damn birds. Of course, they would rarely succeed in finding them.
In an unprecedented feat of skill, Elise's mother could transfer her dark magic from her mana circuit into the body of birds and hide them from detection spells and wards.
Elise's first instinct was to burn the chest and the contents within but despite her better judgement, she brought it into the study and tucked it away in a secret hole hidden in the library.
Over the next two years, she would occasionally take the chest out and gently shake it from side to side to guess at what was inside. The chest was lightweight and made no rustling sounds even when shaken vigorously which lead Elise to believe that there was a letter inside.
But how could she open it?
Whenever the thought of opening the chest crossed her mind, her heart would immediately start to sink into her chest.
What were the contents of the letter? An apology? An explanation?
Nothing could justify what she suffered through that night.
Elise sighed wearily to herself and just like many nights before, she returned the chest to the secret hole and called for the head butler,
"Gerald, I need a few servants to repair the room!"
A knock sounded at the door then the latch was slowly unlocked, and the old butler walked into the room. There was no surprise on his face when he saw the destruction of the study, but one could see a trace of pain and sorrow when he looked at Elise standing still like a statue.
"My lady, it has been awhile since you last lost control. Should I call for a healer to attend to you?" Gerald inquired.
"No. I am perfectly fine now," Elise coldly replied.
Elise was no longer in the mood to deal with territory matters and wanted to swiftly leave and see her daughter.
"I see you were looking at the golden chest," Gerald remarked.
"It is my recommendation your ladyship, that you just open the chest to see what your mother wrote to you. I think it is clear to me that you still miss her."
Elise was startled at his insight and quickly retorted but while she started talking slowly, her voice kept rising in volume the longer she gave her reply.
"I don't miss that woman and in fact I have not thought about her in years. She is nothing but a stranger to me now. I did not need her in my life then and I do not need her now! Why the last thing I need to do is open some stupid chest that a stranger gave to me!"
The old butler looked at his duchess whose eyes were shinning with unsung tears, only in the presence of this old family friend would she show a hint of vulnerability.
Many saw Elise as an emotionless monster of slaughter but seemed to forget she was only a young woman whose both parents were no longer in her life.
"If you did not want to open the chest then why would it still be stored in this room and not tossed out? I am not worthy to judge you my lady, but I can say as a man who watched you grow up in this mansion, I pray that one day for your own sake that you are healed and find the happiness you deserve," Gerald bowed his head and left the room.
Leaving behind the figure of Elise who stood in the room silently, casting a lonely shadow upon the walls.