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Wind Rider's Oath: Chapter Thirteen
Last updated: Thursday, March 4, 2004 01:58 EST
This time the collision really was an accident.
Bahzell was walking slowly towards his own quarters, cutting across the passage outside Tellians library, while he considered the barons response to Sir Yarrans message from Lord Festian. Tellian had spent three days deciding his course of action, and Bahzell hoped it would do the trick, although he had to admit that he still cherished a few reservations. If people like this Lord Warden Saratic were sufficiently determined to undermine Lord Festians wardenship, they might not take the hint Tellian was about to send their way. Especially not if Baron Cassan was as deeply involved as all the evidence seemed to suggest. In which case, Tellians decision to dispatch two hundred of his own men, commanded by his nephew, could end up provoking the very confrontation it was intended to prevent.
The fact that Tellian had selected Trianal to command the reinforcements left Bahzell feeling a bit in two minds. The youngster possessed a disposition as fiery as might be anticipated from someone that young. Yet hed been better blooded than most his age during the previous years royal expedition against the Ghoul Moor. He hadnt been in command then, but hed seen the reality of battle and bloodshed, and for all his native impulsiveness, he had a level head. And if he still nursed any reservations about what Bahzell and his uncle were attempting to accomplish, he wouldnt let them get in the way. Trianals devotion to Tellian was obvious, and hed amply demonstrated his basic intelligence. More to the point, perhaps, hed had it explained to him in detail that he was to defer to the judgment of Lord Festian and Sir Yarran, and he was smart enough to do it.
Still, it was enough to make a man nervous, which probably explained why Bahzell wasnt paying as much attention as he might have as he started up the stair outside the library. If he had been, he might have noticed the sound of the light, quick footsteps pattering down it in his direction before the actual moment of impact.
Unfortunately, he didnt, and the shock of the collision was enough to jar his teeth.
His right hand flashed out as Leeana caromed off of him. Shed been moving at something much closer to a run than a walk, and he caught her elbow just before she tumbled headlong off the stair. He didnt have time to be gentle about it, and she gasped in as much unanticipated hurt as surprise as his fingers snapped tight.
Here now! Im hoping Ive not dislocated your arm, Milady! he said quickly, setting her back upright.
N-no, she said, and his eyebrows flew up and his ears flattened at the strange little break in her voice. She looked away from him as she flexed her wrenched arm.
I-Im all right, she said, still keeping her face averted, but Bahzell had too many sisters to be fooled.
Now, that youre not, he told her gently. Her shoulders jerked, and he heard something very like a smothered sob. If youre wishful to tell me I should be minding my own business, thats one thing, lass, he said. But if youre wishful for an ear as has nothing better to do than listen to whatever it may be weighs on you so, well, here I am.
She looked at him at last, unable to resist the gentle, genuine sympathy of his voice. Her jade eyes brimmed with tears, and under them was something more than mere sorrow. It was fear, he realized, and he reached out to her once more. He rested a huge, powerful hand lightly on her shoulder, with a familiarity very, very few Sothoii would have shown to the daughter of such a powerful noble, and met her gaze levelly.
I Its just that She drew a deep breath and shook her head. Thats very kind of you, Prince Bahzell, she said, rushing the words ever so slightly as she forced her voice to hold together. But its not necessary, I assure you.
And who was it said anything about necessary? he asked, with a crooked smile. But youre the daughter of a man whos after becoming a friend of mine, lass. And even if he wasnt, I know someone as has an over-full heart when I see her. Im not saying as how you couldnt be dealing with whatever it is all on your own. Im only suggesting theres no least reason in the world why you should be.
Her mouth quivered for a moment, and then every muscle seemed to relax simultaneously. She stared up at him, one tear trickling down her cheek, and nodded slowly.
They sat at a stone table on a terrace on the castles south side. It wasnt exactly concealed, but it was in an out of the way spot where no one was likely to stumble over them. Leeana suspected that Marthya would have been officially horrified at the thought of her creeping off all alone for an assignation, but her maids reaction was the last thing on her mind.
She felt horribly embarrassednot at finding herself alone with Bahzell, but for having so little control that shed been unable to hide her distress from him in the first place. Now she gazed out over the terrace, studying the formal garden below it, and prayed he didnt think she was as foolish and fluttering as she felt.
He simply sat there, on the far side of the table from her, looming like some sort of ogre, but with a calm, unjudging expression and patient brown eyes. He seemed prepared to wait until high summer, if that was how long it took, and she managed to smile more naturally at him as he neither pressed her to begin nor filled her silence with assurances that everything will be all right, little girl.
Im sorry, Prince Bahzell, she said finally. Im afraid I must seem pretty silly, carrying on this way.
Ill not say someone as I have to be prying every word out of with a crowbar is carrying on, he told her, with a slow, answering smile. Upset and unhappy, aye, that Ill grant. But as for the rest
I think we have different definitions of carrying on, she said, but she felt herself relax further, even so. I dont usually get this upset, she continued. But Fathers had some news that took me by surprise. She felt her lips tremble again and forced them to be still.
Aye, I thought as much, he said as she paused once more.
Its just that I always thought thered be more warning, she said. I never expected it to just come out of nowhere this way.
What, lass? he asked quietly.
A formal offer of marriage, she told him. She looked away as she spoke and so missed the flicker in his eyes and the brief twitch of his ears.
Marriage, is it? he said after a moment, his deep, rumbling voice no more than merely thoughtful. Im thinking youre a mite young for such as that.
Young? She turned back to him, her expression surprised. Half of the noble girls I know were betrothed by the time they were eleven or twelve years old, Prince Bahzell. Its not unheard of for us to be betrothed before were out of our cradles, for that matter! And at least half of us are married by the time were fifteen or sixteen.
Bahzell started to say something, then visibly made himself stop. He gazed at her for a few seconds, then shook his head.
I suppose I should be remembering the difference betwixt humans and hradani, he said slowly. I hope youll not take this wrongly, but amongst my folk a lass your age would be little more than a babe. Something besides distress flashed in her jade eyes at that, and he shook his head quickly. Im not so very much more than that myself, he told her. Im but thirty-nine, and thats no more than a warrior of eighteen or nineteen yearsyour cousin Trianals ageamongst your folk.
Leeana blinked, then cocked her head.
Really? she asked.
Oh, aye. He nodded, then chuckled. Or were you thinking a man as had come to what you might be calling mature judgment would be after flinging himself into all the harebrained, never-a-thought scrapes Brandark keeps putting into that curst song of his?
The question surprised a giggle out of her even through her misery, and she shook her head.
I hadnt thought about it that way.
Aye, and my da would be saying as I hadnt, eitherthought about it, I mean. Which, as hed be pointing out, is by the way of explaining how I come to keep ending up in em.
She giggled again, louder, and he nodded in approval.
Better, lass, he approved. And now that weve established, in a manner of speaking, as how were both of us young and foolish, why dont you be after trotting out whatever it is about this offer for your hand as has you this upset? Should I be taking it that youre not so very fond of the proposed groom?
I dont even know him, Leeana said. Not personally, at any rate. Not that thats so unusual in cases like this. She paused, then continued in the voice of one determined to be as dispassionately accurate as possible. Actually, it is unusual. Normally, a man would at least want to meet his potential fiancee before he asks for her hand. And to be fair, most parents would at least insist that their daughter meet him before they even considered accepting the offer.
But youve not met this fellow?
No, I havent.
Well, Im naught but a poor, simple hradani, but its in my mind that a man as hasnt even met a lass has no business proposing marriage to her.
Oh, I couldnt agree more! she said forcefully. And neither, for that matter, could Father and Mother. Unfortunately, its not quite that simple, Prince Bahzell.
And why not? he asked.
Oh, for dozens of reasons, she sighed, sitting back on the bench across the table from him. The fact that Father has no male heir. The fact that Mother cant have more children. The fact that the entire Royal Council hates the thought that the succession hasnt yet been secured by a male heir which would have to be a son of mine. And, she looked at him very levelly, by the fact that this is one more weapon for his political enemies to use against him.
Aye? It was his turn to lean back on the bench, his expression thoughtful, and she nodded.
I think I know whos really behind this offer, she said, and hes no friend of Fathers.
So youre thinking as how hes after pushing an offer as he knows your father wont accept so very happily as a way to be putting still more pressure on him before the Council?
Thats exactly what I think, Prince Bahzell, Leeana said flatly.
Well, he said after a moment, I can see where such as that might be in his mind. Mind you, Id not like to have a mind like that, but thats not to say as how I cant be seeing how it works. But Ive come to know your father pretty well, too, lass. He shook his head. Thats not a man as gives in under pressure, and especially not where those as hold his heart in their hands are concerned.
Leeana blinked again on sudden tears, then gave him a misty smile.
No, he isnt, she agreed. But sometimes thats a dangerous quality in a nobleman. One enemies can use against him.
I can see as how those whore thinking as how this marriage would be a good thing could be pressing him to say aye to it, Bahzell said. But surely the decisions after being his, not theirs, when alls said.
Normally, she said, and her smile turned bitter. But youre forgetting whose daughterwhose only daughterI am. As Fathers liege lord, the King has the power to require him to secure the succession. Bahzell stiffened, and she shrugged. I dont like it, but I have to admit I can understand why the law gives His Majesty that prerogative. The King literally cant afford to have the titles and lands of such a powerful noble fall into dispute. She managed a chuckle that sounded almost genuine. It can be a bit hard on the occasional only daughter, I suppose. But in the final analysis, one or two unhappy marriages are a small price to pay for the stability of the Kingdom.
That I didnt know, Bahzell admitted. He sat thinking for several seconds, then grimaced. Id no notion the law gave your King such power as that. Still and all, Im thinking as how Markhos wouldnt be so very happy to be pressuring your da on a matter such as this. Theres naught I can think of as would be more likely to drive your father into things the King wouldnt care to see him driven to.
Youre probably right, Leeana said, although he had the distinct impression she was agreeing with him more to keep him from worrying than because she actually thought he was correct. At the same time, though, if Father resists an offer of marriage which so much of the Council will consider is a reasonable way to resolve the succession concerns, it will give his enemies one more club to beat him with. And you know as well as I do how many clubs are already beating on him.
That I do, he conceded. Though Im thinking hes unbowed yet, mind you.
So far, at least, she agreed.
So whats really upset you so, lass, isnt that youve any least fear your da will be after forcing you to marry this fellow, whoever he might be. Its that if he isnt forcing you to, hell find himself losing allies on the Council.
So he might, Bahzell said. Yet Im thinking as how your fathers one of the most canny men Ive yet to meet. Its in my mind that anyone wishful of getting on his bad side will be after finding himself bruised and bleeding in the gutter. He shook his head. Dont you be panicking, lass. The Barons more arrows in his quiver than most, and hell be using all of them where youre concerned.
I know he will, Leeana replied, and smiled tremulously, her eyes bright once more. I know he will.
Have you seen Leeana yet this morning, love?
Baroness Hanatha looked up at her husbands question and gave him a small, sad smile.
No, I havent, she said.
Shes not taking this well, Tellian said fretfully, and Hanatha actually laughed.
Taking this well? she repeated. My dear, that has to stand as the understatement of at least the last decade!
Well, I know that, her husband said a bit irritably. But at least she understands Id never constrain her to marry anyoneleast of all someone like Blackhill!
What the heart knows isnt always what the mind knows, when youre fourteen, Hanatha said gently. And much as I love you, and as good a man as you are, youre still a man, dear.
Which means what, aside from the obvious? his tone was definitely testy this time.
Which means that ultimately you cant really understand what it means to know every single important decision in your life lies in someone elses hands.
Hanathas voice was neither angry nor condemnatory, but it was flat, and Tellian looked at her sharply across the breakfast table.
Leeana knows how much you love her, just as I know how much you love both of us, his wife told him in a gentler tone. But the fact remains that we live our lives as we choose only on the sufferance of your love. Shes constrained in ways no son of yours would be. In many ways that makes her love you even more, you know.
The baron looked puzzled, and she shook her head sadly.
Of course it does. She knows how much freedom shes been allowed. And she knows how fiercely youd protect her. She knows how much youre prepared to sacrifice for her, and she loves you for that. Yet in the end, Tellian, she also knows how much it could cost you and she can never forget that she can never truly hold those decisions in her own hands. That she has her freedom only because someone else gave it to her, not because she can secure itforge her own lifeon her own. So is it really any wonder shes not taking this well?
No, he said softly, looking down at the eggs and ham on his plate. No, its not, of course. He poked at the food with his fork for a moment, then selected a fresh, flaky biscuit and began spreading butter across it. Do you think I should discuss it with her again? he asked after a moment.
No, Hanatha said. Not right now, at any rate. You two have already said all that needs saying. Whether youve both heard exactly what the other one was really saying may be another matter, but until her emotionsand yours, sweethearthave had some time to settle down, youre not going to be able to make things any clearer. Best to give her some time to herself. Let her cope with it on her own terms.
Youre probably right, he conceded thoughtfully. He bit into the biscuit and chewed slowly, then frowned. On the other hand, the fact that she isnt here for breakfast might seem to indicate she isnt coping with it very well yet, he observed.
I dont expect her to cope with it for at least a day or so, his wife said. In fact, before she went to bed last night she told me she intended to take Boots out for a ride early this morning. A long ride.
How long a ride? Tellian looked up again, his expression concerned, and Hanatha shrugged.
Probably all day, she said frankly. Thats why Im not surprised she didnt join us for breakfast. She intended to make an early start, so she probably dropped by the kitchen when the servants were having breakfast and wheedled something out of Cook, like she used to do when she was a baby.
What about the Mayors banquet? Tellian frowned. You know well have to leave for it by midafternoon.
I told her she didnt have to attend, Hanatha said. Its not as if therell be anyone else there her age, you know. You and I may have to suffer through it, but theres no real reason she ought to be forced to do the same thing. Besides, I know what its like to need to spend some time away from parties and banquets.
Still he said slowly.
She said she wanted time to think, and she thinks best in the saddle. Like someone else I know. She smiled, and despite his manifold worries, Tellian chuckled.
At any rate, she continued, I didnt really have the heart to tell her no. I did ask her if she intended to take her armsmen along. I didnt come right out and tell her that if she didnt, she wasnt going anywhere, but shes not exactly a dummy, your daughter. She only made a face and said she knew perfectly well that she wasnt going riding unless Tarith did, too.
Tarith, all by himself, isnt exactly her armsmen, Tellian observed.
I thought about pointing that out to her, Hanatha agreed. On the other hand, you didnt pick Tarith as her armsman when she was two whole years old because of how incompetent he is. As long as they stay on our lands, he should be able to look after her just fine. And, for just an instant all of her own loving concern for her daughter put a quiver into her voice, I wanted to give her at least that much, Tellian. Its not all that much of a victory over tradition and convention, but at least we can let her have that much.
The baron looked at his wife and started to speak. Then he stopped, his own eyes just a bit misty, and nodded.
He sat there for a moment, then drew a deep breath, shook himself, and smiled at Hanatha.
Youre right, of course, love, he said. On the other hand, this is Leeana were talking about. You knowthe daughter who broke her arm when she tried to walk all the way around the north tower across the battlements? The one who took her pony across a three-rail fence when she was nine? The one who
All right. All right! Hanatha laughed and threw a balled-up napkin at him. And your point is?
That as soon as I finish eating, Im personally going down to the stable to make sure Tariths horse is gone, too.
Milady Baroness! Milady Baroness!
Hanatha Bowmaster came awake almost instantly in response to the imploring whisper. It was dark, without even a trace of gray dawn glimmering through her window. She sat up, and Marthya stepped back from the edge of her bed.
What is it? Her voice was husky with sleep, but she kept it low enough not to disturb her husband.
Itsits Lady Leeana, the maid said wretchedly, her lamp quivering in her hand. Her beds not been slept in, Milady!
What do you mean? Hanatha demanded, not because shed misunderstood Marthya, but because her mind refused to grapple with what the maid had just said.
I mean she never came in at all last night, Milady, Marthya said even more wretchedly. I know you said she had permission to stay out all day with Tarith, but I should have suspected something when she wasnt back in time for supper. But I didnttruly, I didnt, Milady! I lay down, just to nap until she came in, and then, somehow
The maid shook her head, and a bright flash of panic flared through Hanatha.
Whats the hour? she demanded.
Barely three hours till dawn, Marthya admitted. I just woke up, Milady, and the instant I did
I understand, Marthya, Hanatha said. She wanted to be furious with the maid, but she couldnt. Not when she hadnt made a point of going to Leeanas room to check on her herself when she and Tellian finally returned from the mayors banquet. She should have. Shed known at the time that she should have. Yet shed decided not todecided to respect her daughters need for privacy.
Let me get this straight, she said after a moment. Youre saying no one in Hill Guard has seen her at all since breakfast yesterday?
Breakfast, Milady? Marthya looked at Hanatha in obvious confusion.
Yes, breakfastbefore she went riding with Tarith! Hanathas frightened worry sharpened her tone, but Marthya shook her head.
Milady, she told me she and Tarith would be leaving before breakfast. She said they were getting an early start because she planned to ride over to Lord Fariths in time for dinner. She said she could dress herself and there was no need for me to be up even earlier than usual. And she said Cook had already packed sandwiches for an early lunch, so they wouldnt need breakfast.
Lord Fariths? Hanatha looked at the maid blankly. Farith was Lord of Maldahowe, almost a full half-days ride north of Balthar. Shed never agreed Leeana could ride that far from home with only Tarith for an escort! Which meant
The Baroness of Balthar went paper-white and reached for her husbands shoulder.
Theres no question about it, Tellian Bowmaster said harshly. The sun was perhaps an hour above the horizon as he stood staring out a window at the city of Balthar, his face haggard. Ive ordered a door-to-door search through the city, but its not going to find her. Damn the girl! How could she do something like this?!
Love and fear made him furious, and he slammed a fist down on the stone windowsill.
We dontwe dont know for certain what she has done, Hanatha said. He shot a glance at her, and she shook her head. Well, we dont, Tellian. Not really. I know what it looks like shes done, but theres no way Tarith would help her run away. Wherever she is, hes with her. You know hed never let her out of his sight once they left Hill Guard!
I know. I know! Tellian drummed on the windowsill with both hands, his shoulders tight and his face clenched with worry. But no one saw them leaving together, Hanatha. In fact, no one saw Leeana leave at all.
Thats preposterous, his wife protested. She had to have been seen by the sentries!
Well, she wasnt, he said grimly. And Tarith was seen leavingby himself.
What? When? Hanatha demanded.
The evening before you gave her permission to stay home from the banquet, he said, and then looked up quickly at her small, choked sound of distress.
She stared at him, her face white, her eyes huge with guilt and fear, and he shook his head sharply.
No, love! He turned and drew her into his arms, hugging her tightly. Dont blame yourselfand dont think for a moment that I blame you, either! You asked her exactly the same questions, set exactly the same conditions, I would have. You had no more reason to suspect she might do something like this than I would have had!
But but if Tarith left then, and no one saw her at breakfast Hanathas voice trailed off, and she turned paler than ever. Lillinara, Tellian! she half-whispered. Marthya put her to bed night before last, but how do we know she stayed there?
We dont, he said harshly. In fact, I dont think she did. His wife stared at him mutely, and he shrugged. She told the stable master to turn Boots out into the south paddock the day before yesterday. He didnt think anything about it, and no one told him she was supposed to be going anywhere yesterday. All he can say for certain is that her riding tack is missing, and Boots hasnt been seen since night before last.
But how did she? Hanatha chopped herself off, and her jaw tightened in sudden understanding.
Exactly, her husband said. Ive sent riders out in all directions, searching for herand for Tarithbut I already know how she did it.
He shook his head, but though his expression was grim, there was something else in it, as well. Something almost like a pride.
She knew wed give her permission to skip the banquet if she asked for it. So she sent Tarith off on some errand before she ever spoke to you.
But she promised to take him with her! Hanatha protested, unable to accept that her daughter had lied to her.
No, she didnt. Tellian shook his head. Hanatha stared at him, and he grinned sourly. Im sure she told the exact truth, love. It just wasnt what you thought she said.
You said she said she knew she couldnt spend the day riding unless Tarith did, too, he told her. Ill wager she never actually said she couldnt do it unless Tarith rode with her. What she meant was that she had to send him riding off on some pretext or another to keep him from stopping her.
Lillinara protect her, Hanatha whispered. Youre right. She didnt say specifically that hed be with her. I only assumed that was what she meant.
Just as she knew you would. And just as I would have done, Tellian said. But with Tarith out of the way, and your permission to go riding, she knew no one would miss her between breakfast and lunch yesterday. So night before last, she told Marthya she and Tarith had to leave early the next morning for Lord Fariths. Then, as soon as she was confident almost everyone else was asleep, she crept out of her room, went down to the stable, took her riding tack, and let herself out through the southern tunnel.
Hanatha nodded. Only members of the family and their personal armsmen knew how to find and use the castles two secret escape routes. They couldnt be opened from the outer end without battering rams, and concealment was their best protection, so guards were never posted except in times of high alert.
So she went to the south paddock, saddled Boots, and disappeared over thirty-six hours ago.
But but to where?
That much I think I know, Tellian said grimly. If Im right, she already has enough of a head start to make overtaking her all but impossible, but I cant go after her until I know for certain that Tarith isnt with her. Or that there isnt some other explanation.
His voice wavered on the last three words, and Hanathas hand rose to her lips. They stared at one another, paralyzed by lack of information and terror for their daughters safety, and beyond the window, the sun crept steadily higher beyond the rain-weeping clouds.
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