The sea, cruel mistress it may be, spits men onto the shore like driftwood thrown upon the sand. Stiles falls among them, gasping and gagging, choking out the briny water that so shortly pressed upon his lungs. He grips the sodden sand in his hands as he stumbles forward on hands and knees til he's free of the surf, wishing for another's grip in his own. "Scott?" His gaze searches the shore but that familiar face, like a brother to him, is gone. "Scott?"
Captain Deaton shakes his head.
Hope refuses to die in Stiles's heart. "Perchance he is not drowned." He looks to the crew scattered around him. "What say you, sailors?"
"It is perchance that you yourself were saved," Deaton says. He squeezes Stiles's shoulder. "I last saw him clutching to the mast, drifting as the waves would carry him."
"Then I hold hope he is saved." Stiles looks across the shore. "What country is this?"
"This is Hale, lord."
"Who governs here?"
"A noble duke, in nature as in name."
"What is his name?"
Stiles blinks. "Derek! I have heard my father name him. He was a bachelor then."
"And so he is now. He holds no suitor while his family feuds with Argent."
"Argent?" The name is familiar to him as well. He feels as though, were Scott here, he would know of it.
"The Lady Allison Argent. She did recently lose her mother and her aunt to war, and Lord Derek his family save an uncle and a sister. We should not stay. The feud between those two will destroy this land before too long."
"No," Stiles shakes his head, stubborn despite reason. "My father spoke highly of Lord Derek. He did a kindness to my father once. Perhaps this feud has a cause that can be uncovered." An idea strikes him. "I will dress as a lady and pose as one of Argents' maids. Once I uncover the reason for the feud, I will away to Lord Derek so that amends may be made."
Deaton looks askance. "A wild quest, though not one unworthy. You will need the help of more than I. I know a maid that serves the Lady Argent. She may agree to lend us aid."
"Then away, to the Argents."
"What is this you bring me? A fool and a knave." Lydia casts her gaze askance at them. She a fair maiden, fairer than any Stiles has seen. His heart wants to yearn for her but the loss of his step-brother Scott is too near. He can't find it in him to love when loss is still fresh. She gives his attention no mind, sneering down her nose at him.
"Not a knave, pray," Stiles says, "but a martyr, here to put aside the feud of Argent and Hale forevermore."
"He is daft," Deaton says, "but in his heart, means well."
"Daft, indeed." Lydia eyes Stiles up and down. Her gaze seems to soften a touch. "You mean what you say, about the feud?"
"Aye." He will do right by Derek the same as Derek once did for Stiles's father.
Lydia shifts on her feet and clutches the fabric of her skirts. "I have a lover." The faint hope of romance, or what it was, dies swiftly. Deaton raises an eyebrow but she throws him a haughty look and goes on. "We would be wed but he serves Lord Derek and I, Lady Allison. Were the feud to part, we could be wed."
He may not be a course for her affections, but her mind he still has use for. "So you'll lend me your aid?"
"Aye, I will, daft though it make me."
Stiles's grin splits his face. "I will see you not regret it."
"What is this you bring me?" Lady Allison looks up from her book. She is the very picture of funerary grace in black with veil. Though she is reposed, there is a crossbow not far from hand and a quiver of bolts. Lydia had mentioned Lady Allison was of the martial sort but Stiles hadn't thought it to manifest so vividly. Suddenly his errands seems that of a fool, for surely she is a dangerous sort to war with the lord of Hale.
"A maid, my lady." Lydia curtsies and Stiles awkwardly follows suit. The dress fits him in strange and uncomfortable ways, yet the more he wears it the more fitting it seems. It binds tight around his middle, making breathing a chore, and the high collar tickles at his throat.
Lady Allison turns more fully towards him and he fears he is made. "What manner of maid, dear Lydia, for I did not see fit to hire one?"
Lydia smiles and waves a hand. "Tis but a cousin of a cousin, come to learn the trade. Fear not, for she will not bother you." Lydia turns to him with eyes slightly wide, not panicked but the verge of such. He knows then that they have been caught. "Begone."
"No, stay." Allison sits up. "I would have you tell me tales of your travels, for I have never left this land. I would know of a place without war. Give me peace in your stories."
Mayhaps they have not been made at all. He raises his eyebrows but tries his best to school his expression into politeness. "Pardon my boldness, but if you long for peace, why not have it?"
Allison shakes her head. "Tis the Duke Derek who hungers for war and thus he has it. His uncle has but recently slain my aunt and were she not long in the ground before my very mother was taken from me by Lord Derek's claws."
Stiles pauses. "Claws?"
"Aye. He and his kind are werekin, more beast than man. They know no rational bounds. Nature shall not have them."
"I see. And it is to this wild nature and your abhorrence of it that the war has continued?"
"It is. Were I my way, I would have seen us done long ago. But enough. Tell me of your land and your people and let us talk no more of war."
Stiles sits and tells her of his home - of his father, recently remarried, and the brother so new to him that was lost to the sea. She knows of his land. A suitor had she, long ago before the war, who hailed from his land, but she could not pursue him while war waged on.
The little she speaks of Duke Derek reminds him nothing of the man his father knew so long ago. His father had recounted an honorable man, young at the time but with grace and poise. It seems so different from the Derek that Allison knows.
Red is the dress that Lydia ties him into and red the cloak to cover his face. His hair is too short to make anything but boyish but with the right powders and rouges, the face that stares back at him in the mirror is decidedly feminine.
"Tis a fool's errand," Lydia quips.
"Then a fool I be." Stiles smoothes his hands over the dress. "The Lady Allison wants not war and if Duke Derek be as my memory makes him, then a quarrelless man is he."
Lydia grips his arm and pulls him to face her. "The wolves are dangerous."
Stiles raises a perfectly plucked eyebrow. "Is not your lover among the wolves?"
Lydia huffs. "Even I do not venture into their lair."
Stiles gives himself one last look over in the mirror. He looks every bit the lady's maid. "I'm off ere I lose my nerve."
"Your nerve serves you better to be lost."
"Then I must away to find it."
Stiles steels himself and marches out of Lydia's chambers. He has a werewolf to see.
The woods are dark and ominous. While the path between noble house and noble house remains clean, the trees cling high overhead, their branches weaving into a canopy that dims the light and darkens the sky to night. His horse is skittish and startles at every sound. Stiles clutches the reins tight but his own nerves do little to keep the horse in control.
"Halt. Who goes there?"
The horse rears, throwing Stiles from its back. He lands, not with broken bones on stone and bramble but softly on open arms. His hood falls down and he stares up at the most beautiful pair of blue eyes. "Stiles," he says without thinking, voice high and breathless.
The man's face is like marble chiseled into perfection. He is unkempt in some ways, unshaven, with more than a day's worth of beard, but Stiles finds it incredibly handsome. He wants to know this man more and more.
He exhales and is suddenly intensely aware of the dress he's wearing. He pushes away and stands, his face red without the help of rouge. "My apologies, kind sir." He drops into a curtsy.
"Think nothing of it, Lady... Stiles?"
Stiles flushes. He should have thought of a name to suit his deception. "Yes."
"Tis an odd name for a lady," the man says with a raised eyebrow.
Stiles waves a hand and feigns humor. "And I an odd lady to fit it."
"A lost one as well, I think."
Stiles shakes his head. "Not lost. These are Duke Derek's lands?"
"They are, but they are not fit for ladies such as thee. There are things in the trees that might harm thee."
Stiles looks around for his horse but the beast is long gone. "Then I suppose I shall have to prevail on your kindness to see me to the lord." Stiles hikes up his skirts and starts walking in the direction of the duke's castle.
The stranger follows. "And what business have you with the duke?"
"That business is between me and the duke."
The stranger arches an eyebrow. "And if I were to say I am the duke's man?"
Stiles falters. Is this perhaps Lydia's lover? "Then I would say we might have an acquaintance in common."
"And which acquaintance might this be?"
"The Lady Allison and Lydia, her chambermaid."
The man's arm shoots out and closes hard on Stiles's arm. "Those that are acquaintances with such as she have no business here."
"Even were they to talk of peace?"
"Peace?" The man spits on the ground. "After her aunt killed my family and her mother tried to poison one of my kind. There will be no peace. Leave now and I will spare your life, but come again no more."
With that the man disappears into the trees. Stiles stares with mouth agape until the darkness starts to grow too thick. In the distance, a wolf howls. Chastened, Stiles turns and walks home.
Stiles finds Allison in the gardens. "May I prevail upon thee?"
Allison closes her book. "Prevail as needed."
"The Duke Derek's family... Did your aunt truly see them to their doom?"
Allison sits up more fully. "Who spoke such to thee?"
"A stranger on the road," Stiles hedged. He took a step back. "Bother not with it. It was impertinent of me to ask."
Allison reaches towards him. "Wait." She frowns. "My aunt did indeed have a mighty hatred of their kind. I fear to say it, but such a rumor might be true."
"Then your aunt's death was but retribution."
Allison frowns. "So it would seem, though Duke Derek still holds blame for the death of my mother."
"Perhaps, like all things, there is a reason."
Tears prick at the corners of Allison's eyes. "Reason hath not an excuse for the loss of my only mother."
Stiles bows and excuses himself before he upsets her further.
"Back once more?"
"Into the breach," Stiles says as he walks to the stranger. He has a feeling the stranger is less of a stranger than Stiles had assumed.
They stand on the dirt road between the two noble houses, almost equidistant between one and the other.
"You should go back," the stranger says.
Stiles curtsies. "My deepest apologies, Lord Derek, but I cannot."
Derek raises an eyebrow but does not refute the claim. "What quarrel does a lady's maid hold with me?"
"I hold none. It is on my lady's behalf that I come. The loss of your family was paid by the loss of her aunt, the traitor and murderess. The loss of her mother has yet to be addressed."
"Her mother, vile lady she was, held my man captive in attempt to poison him. What wounds she sustained were just desert but no life was taken. That she did unto herself."
Stiles's eyes widen. "If that be truth, then Lady Allison has no claim to feud."
"Aye. All malice is but her own making."
"Were she to mend her ways, would you consider ending thine feud?"
"Were fairness given, I'd see us done, but by fairness she will have none."
Stiles steps forward. "Faith, in fairness she will give. Let me speak to her and you both shall be mended."
Derek eyes him askance. "But were it so simple..."
"Faith. Wait and tomorrow I shall bring Lady Allison hence, and on my word, the peace shall be mended."
Derek's eyebrow rises. "On your word as a maid?"
Stiles blushes. He's given himself away. "On my word as a lady?"
"On your word, I'll take it but on the morrow should Lady Allison not join us..."
Stiles holds up his hands. "Pray, have faith. She will."
"Then til the morrow keep you."
Derek turns and walks into the forest. Stiles exhales slowly. What has he gotten himself into?
Stiles finds Allison first thing in the morning. "Lady Allison, will you have a walk with me?"
Allison raises an eyebrow but nods politely. Stiles leads them to the road away from the house.
"You are quite peculiar for a maid," Allison says as they walk.
Stiles blushes. "If truth would have me... I am not meant for a maid." He hesitates. "A lady I was once, before the loss of my brother."
Allison pauses and takes Stiles's hands in hers. "A lady you can be again. I know of such loss. Do not let it defeat you."
Stiles nods and looks away. In truth, the matter with Lord Derek has driven his thoughts away from Scott. He finds himself yearning for the touch of the lord, though he knows such a thing absurd. No lord will have him such. His true proclivities have been concealed from all but his brother. "It is such a defeat I wish to speak of."
"Your mother's life... she took her own, did she not?"
Allison stops. "And did you learn this too from a stranger on the road?"
Allison looks away, her gaze lifting to the trees around them. They're nearing the edge of Allison's estate. "Lord Derek had cursed her to be a wolf. She would not have it, and thus chose to end her life."
"Could she not live?"
"She chose not."
"But there was a choosing?"
Allison nods. "I would that she had chosen to remain."
"And yet you blame Lord Derek for her choosing?"
Allison starts walking again. "I blame him for the wound that turned her."
"A bite sustained in defense of his own, which she sought to murder."
Allison stops and turns. "How come you to know such things?"
"From my own mouth, that is the truth." Derek steps out of the shadows at the edge of the woods. He opens his mouth to say more but there's a blundering movement and Scott bursts out of the trees.
Stiles's eyes go wide. "Brother?"
Derek and Allison's eyes go wide as Stiles and Scott embrace.
"I thought your brother lost to the sea," Allison says.
"So thought I." If there are tears in Stiles's eyes, none should blame him.
"I thought you had a brother, not a sister," Derek says.
"I do." Scott turns wide eyes to Stiles as Stiles starts to blush.
Stiles looks aside, his face red as his dress. "In truth, tis not the brightest plan. I thought, were I but maid to Lady Allison, I could discern the truth of the feud and confide such knowledge in Duke Derek."
Allison scowls. "You meant to betray me?"
"I meant to help you and the country of Hale."
"She..." Derek shakes his head. "He has done thus. He has told me of your wish for peace. Are those words not your own?"
"Then we can have peace," Scott says. He steps forward and takes Allison's hand. "Lady Allison, I came to this land to woo you, like I once did through letters alone. Once I heard of the feud, I thought all was lost, but if you would put aside this feud, I would make you mine."
Derek steps forward and wraps an arm around Stiles's waist. "Man or maid, I would have you for my own."
"I will," Stiles and Allison say in unison. As one, Scott and Derek lean down. They kiss and hope flutters anew in Stiles's heart.