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War Maid's Choice: Chapter Five
Last updated: Monday, May 7, 2012 01:44 EDT
The clouds looked less than promising Lady Sharlassa Dragonclaw thought, looking unhappily at the overcast settling lower about the shoulders of Hill Guard Castle.
Lady Sharlassa sat under the branches of the castle’s apple orchard, but they were barely beginning to bud, and it was far too early in the year to expect them to offer her any protection if Chemalka decided to go ahead and release the rain hovering in those clouds. The breeze was strengthening, too, blowing through the apple branches and lifting stray locks of auburn hair on puffs of blossom-scented perfume, and her nostrils flared as she drew the green, living incense of the world deep into her lungs. She felt alive at moments like this in a way she’d never really been able to explain even to herself, far less to anyone else. It was as if her nerves were connected directly to the trunks of the apple trees, as if she could feel them yearning towards fruit, tossing their branches like widespread fingers to the caress of the wind.
Her mother had only smiled fondly and mentioned things like active imaginations when a much younger Sharlassa tried to describe moments like this, and Sharlassa knew she was right. Yet imagination or not, she did feel the life moving with the breeze, tantalizing her with that damp kiss of rain to come. Personally, Sharlassa had no desire to find herself soaked to the skin, but that sense of oneness with the apple trees whispered to her that they were looking forward to it.
Well, it was nice that someone was looking forward to something, she thought, and heaved a deep, mournful sigh as the reflection returned her to the reason she was sitting here on a rather damp wall of rough, unmortared stone in an apple orchard almost two hundred leagues from her home. Or, rather, from her new home, since she’d been born and raised less than six miles from where she sat at that very moment. That was another reason she found this apple orchard so restful; she’d spent enough hours sitting here as a little girl for the trees to be old friends. Or gleaning windfallen fruit between meals. Or clambering around in their branches like a squirrel during harvest. In fact, one of those trees, not so very far from where she sat at this very moment, had her initials carved into its bark. She could still remember the thrashing she’d gotten from her mother for “defacing” one of the Baron’s trees!
A smile flickered across her face at the memory and she put her palms flat on the top of the wall, leaning back slightly to rest her weight on them while she arched her spine and looked up at those clouds. Life had been so much simpler then, without as many opportunities, perhaps, but without as many prices, either. And no one — except her parents, of course — had really been that concerned if a hoyden teenager wandered off to sit in an apple orchard somewhere once her chores were done. Now, of course, everyone cared, and the nature of her “chores” had changed rather drastically.
She looked back at the castle whose walls had loomed protectively over her parents’ modest stone house when she was a girl. Somewhere inside those walls, at this very moment, Tahlmah Bronzebow, her harassed maid, was undoubtedly searching for her. On the basis of past Sharlassa hunts, she estimated that Tahlmah wouldn’t quite be ready to call out Duke Tellian’s armsmen yet. That would take, oh another hour and a half. Possibly two. Unless, of course, it occurred to Tahlmah to come check the orchard again. Sharlassa was certain her maid had looked here first, but the initial phase of Sharlassa’s current truancy had taken her to the stables, instead, to spend fifteen or twenty minutes communing with the one being in all the world who always commiserated with her. Muddy — known on official occasions as Summer Rain Falling — might not understand the reasons for his mistress’ moodiness and occasional aspirations to rebellion, but he never stinted on his sympathy.
Which, she sometimes reflected, probably had something to do with the lumps of sugar that were customarily nestled in her pocket when she went to call upon him.
She smiled at the thought and took her right hand off the wall long enough to pull one of the dark green ribbons out of her hair. She held it up between thumb and forefinger, listening to it snap gently as the breeze played with it, then opened her hand and let it fly. It swooped up into the branches of one of the trees, wrapped itself around a limb, and flew bravely, like a banner against the steadily darkening charcoal of the sky.
You’re being silly, she told herself again. Every single one of the girls you grew up with would give her eyeteeth for your life, and you know it! Well, all but one of them, maybe. Of course, her life went the opposite direction from yours, didn’t it?
She laughed at the thought, but that didn’t make it untrue. Yet what all those other girls she’d grown up with probably wouldn’t believe for a moment was that she’d never wanted to be a lord warden’s daughter. She’d been perfectly happy — well, almost perfectly happy — as the daughter of a simple armsman. Oh, she’d been proud of her father and the officer’s rank he’d gained. And being a wind rider’s daughter had made her even prouder. She could still remember the first time Kengayr, her father’s courser companion, had presented his huge, soft nose to a grubby five-year-old’s hand, towering over her like a vast gray mountain. A single one of his forehooves had been as big as she was, and his head had been bigger — she could have used one of his horseshoes for the seat of a swing, and he could have squashed her with a thought — but all she’d felt was the wonder of him, and she’d known even then that Kengayr meant her father really was as wonderful as she’d always thought he was.
But Sir Jahsak Dragonclaw could have stopped at Major Dragonclaw in Baron Tellian’s service, as far as Sharlassa was concerned. In fact, she wished he had!
If wishes were fishes, we’d never want food, she told herself tartly, quoting one of her mother’s favorite maxims. Yet there were times she suspected Lady Sharmatha wasn’t a lot happier about the “Lady” in front of her name than Sharlassa was about the one in front of hers. In fact, she was certain there were, although Lady Sharmatha would no more ever admit that than her father might admit that he, too, must cherish occasional second thoughts about the consequences of the honor Baron Tellian had bestowed upon him.
And it is an honor, you twit, Sharlassa told herself sternly. From a common armsman to a knight and a wind rider and a major all the way to lord warden?! It’s the kind of honor other people only dream of, and you should spend your time being happy for him — and proud of him — instead of worrying about all the problems it’s made for you!
Unfortunately, it was easier for Sir Jahsak — and for her brothers — than it was for Sharlassa or her mother. The rules were so hard for a girl who’d been raised as a tomboy until she was thirteen years old. She was still trying to figure them out, six years later, and she dreaded the even greater number of rules — the endless number of rules — she’d have to worry about in years to come. She knew her mother found her new role as Lady Golden Vale an uncomfortable fit, and not just because so many of “their” retainers and tenants hated and resented them as interlopers and usurpers. It would take someone much braver than Sharlassa to show Lady Sharmatha disrespect to her face, yet Sharmatha had to be aware of the way all those hostile eyes scrutinized her, watching for any miscue or misstep they could pounce upon as fresh proof of how uncouth and unworthy of his lord wardenship Sir Jahsak was.
Sharlassa was only too well aware of it, at any rate.
Yet she could have handled that hostility if it had been the only problem. Or she thought she could have. She might have been wrong about that, the way she’d been wrong about so many other things in her life.
She sighed again and leaned forward, picking at a bit of moss on the stone wall, feeling the unseen, damp pressure of the rain growing slowly more omnipresent. A patch of the moss came loose and she held it up, studying it, feeling the velvety softness of it against the ball of her thumb. The back, where it had kissed against the stone, was rougher grained, papery, so different from its front, and she wondered if that was some sort of metaphor for her life or if she was only being maudlin again.
She snorted softly, with bittersweet regret for what might have happened. It was strange, and it made her feel guilty sometimes, but she could hardly remember what Sathek had truly looked like. They’d been supposed to have his miniature painted for her before he’d ridden off with Sir Trianal to deal with the mystery attacks being launched on Lord Warden Glanharrow’s herds and fields. She ought to remember anyway, painting or no painting — she’d been madly in love with him, hadn’t she? — but she didn’t. Not truly. She remembered how she’d felt about him, how she’d looked forward to the marriage as soon as she was old enough, sometimes she even remembered the feel of his arms around her, but his face was slipping away from her. In an odd way, and one which frequently made her feel almost unbearably guilty, she had a far clearer memory of Sir Trianal’s face on the day he’d personally ridden up to her father’s house to tell her that Sathek Smallsword had died in his baron’s service and under Sir Trianal’s command.
Well, of course you remember Sir Trianal’s face better! Her inner voice was tart this time. Sathek is gone, and you never got that miniature painted, and they say the mind forgets what the heart remembers. Besides, Sir Trianal isn’t dead, now is he? It’s been — what? All of three hours since you saw him at breakfast? That probably tends to keep him a little fresher in your memory, don’t you think?
True enough. That was true enough. And it still didn’t keep her from feeling guilty when she couldn’t remember. Just as the fact that life was what it was, and Lillinara knew Sharlassa couldn’t change it just by wishing it was different, didn’t make her any happier about it.
At least Mother knows you need all the help you can get, she reminded herself. No matter how much you wish she’d stop beating herself up for “not having done right by you” when you were a girl! She didn’t know where we were going to wind up any more than Father did. Or than you did, for that matter! And when it comes down to it, teaching you to think of yourself as a fine lady would have been the cruelest thing she could have done before Father became a lord warden.
So, yes, she was deeply grateful to Lady Sharmatha for sending her where she could get the schooling she needed as a proper Sothoii noblewoman, even if it did seem like one of Hirahim’s worse jokes to find herself in that position. And no one could possibly have been more understanding or kinder or a better teacher than Baroness Hanatha. Yet sending Sharlassa here — sending her to the place she still thought of deep in her bones as “home” — had its own sharp, jagged edges. She was no longer the person she’d been when she’d lived here in one of the neat little houses maintained for the garrison’s officers. The girls she’d grown up with — those that weren’t married, at any rate — had no better idea of how to act around her now than she had of how to act around them. Even her closest friends felt awkward and uncomfortable, divided by that invisible armor of rank which lay between them, afraid someone — possibly even Sharlassa herself — would think they were being overly familiar if they dared to treat their old friend as a friend.
She sighed yet again — she was getting a lot of practice at that this afternoon — and tossed the moss up into the air. Unlike the ribbon, it plummeted to the ground, disappearing into the orchard’s grass, and she found herself wishing she could do the same.
It was a potentially dangerous thought, especially here in Balthar, and she knew her mother was concerned about that, however careful she’d been to never discuss it with her daughter in so many words. But there wasn’t any point pretending the idea hadn’t crossed Sharlassa’s mind more than once.
Lady Leeana Bowmaster had been just as much a tomboy as ever Sharlassa Dragonclaw had been, and she’d gone through life with a fearlessness Sharlassa deeply envied. She’d wondered sometimes if that was because Leeana was not simply one of the most nobly born young women in the entire Kingdom but also an only child, treated more like a son than even she’d realized at the time. Now, with her own closer acquaintance with Baron Tellian and Baroness Hanatha, Sharlassa knew it wasn’t that Leeana’s parents had treated her like a son but that they’d treated her as a unique person in her own right. Baroness Hanatha treated Sharlassa the same way, and she’d seen the easy affection and love — the trust — in the way they treated Sir Trianal, as well.
Yet there was no denying that Sharlassa had deeply admired and respected Leeana. Of course, Leanna had been not simply the daughter of her liege lord but also over two years older than Sharlassa. They’d never been anything someone might have described as friends, for they’d lived in different worlds which simply happened to overlap from time to time. But those worlds had overlapped — sometimes in one of the paddocks or the stables, sometimes right here in this orchard when both of them had helped gather apples — and whenever they had, Leeana had been unfailingly friendly and kind. More than that, she’d radiated something, something Sharlassa had seemed to sense the way she sensed the apple trees around her now. There’d been a sparkle, a strength, a sense of vibrant, flickering energy. No doubt that was as much her imagination as sometimes dreaming she was a tree, but that hadn’t made the sensation feel any less real, and she couldn’t quite convince herself that it had all been imagination.
She frowned moodily, with the expression her father had always called “scratching a mental itch” when she’d been younger, just before he chucked her under the chin or snatched her up onto his shoulder or tickled her unmercifully. She wished he was here to do that now and distract her from her brown, unreasonably moody mood, although it would, of course, be unspeakably improper for Lord Jahsak to do such a thing with Lady Sharlassa.
In a way, that feeling that she could almost reach out and touch the innermost being of the orchard’s trees was to blame for much of her present mood, and she knew it. She treasured the feeling, took strength from it as if it helped to center her and remind her of who she was deep down inside, not simply who she had to learn to be as Lady Sharlassa. Yet she’d always secretly thought she would someday outgrow the absurd fancy that she could sense the trees at all, and she hadn’t. In fact, it was actually growing stronger, and she sometimes thought she was reaching deeper and further.
Was the problem that she wanted to be able to do that? That she was so unhappy, so uncertain, about who she must learn to be that she longed for escape into some warm, comforting dream? Or into something which could distract her from learning the lessons her life had set her? Or was she simply losing her mind in a pleasantly harmless sort of way?
Her lips twitched at that last thought, remembering Granny Marlys. All Balthar’s children had loved Granny growing up, although even the youngest of them had realized she was what some of the adults in their lives called “not quite right.” As she’d grown older, Sharlassa had realized that people who were “quite right” didn’t firmly believe they were the goddess Chemalka and could summon rain on a whim or make the sun shine whenever they wanted to. Yet aside from that minor foible, Granny Marlys had been the warmest, kindest person — and greatest storyteller — imaginable. Not a parent in Balthar would have hesitated for a moment to ask Granny to care for a child, and her kitchen had been a magic land where the scent of fresh cookies or gingerbread had a habit of ambushing a youthful visitor.
But, no, she wasn’t another Granny. Granny had simply ignored the fact that she couldn’t always make the sun shine whenever she wanted to and that she frequently managed to get herself drenched working in her kitchen garden because that rain she’d forbidden to fall had fallen anyway. And she’d regarded all of the mortals around her with a benign sense that all of them were there to serve her whims but that she didn’t really need them to do anything for her just at the moment, so they might as well go ahead and get along with their own lives until she did need them.
Sharlassa didn’t live in that comfortable sort of imaginary world. That was the problem, after all! And that was why it worried her, if that wasn’t putting it too strongly, that she seemed to be becoming more sensitive, not less, to at least portions of the world around her.
And if you’re going to become “more sensitive” to part of the world, why not all of it? she asked herself bitingly. But, no, you can’t do that, can you? It has to be just some of the world and just some of the people in it!
To be fair, she’d always thought she could sense Kengayr whenever the courser was around. And there’d been that feeling that she could tell thirty seconds ahead of time when her father or her mother was about to walk through a door or someone like Leeana had been about to come around a corner. She’d mentioned that to her mother once, and Lady Sharmatha (only, of course, she hadn’t been “Lady” Sharmatha at that point) had told her about something called “syn shai’hain.” Sharlassa had never heard of it, but her mother had explained that it meant “something seen before” or “something already seen” in ancient Kontovaran. Sometimes, Sharmatha had told her eleven-year-old daughter seriously as they’d peeled apples — apples from this very orchard, in fact — for one of Sharmatha’s peerless pies, someone had a flash, a feeling, that they’d already done or seen or experienced something. No one knew exactly why or exactly how it worked, but it happened to a lot of people, especially those — she looked up under her eyelashes with a smile — who had particularly active imaginations.
For a long time, Sharlassa had simply accepted that her awareness of the world about her was simply syn shai’hain, something she was imagining after the fact but so quickly it seemed to have come before the fact. Unfortunately, that had been easier when it happened less often. Because the truth was, whether she really wanted to admit it or not, that it was happening more and more often. Practically every time she saw Prince Bahzell, for example. Or Walsharno. Or, on a lesser scale, Dathgar or Gayrhalan. Or one or two other people.
She grimaced and ran her hands over her wind-tousled hair, trying not to feel trapped. That wasn’t the word for it, but it came so close. She was being hammered and squeezed into a shape that wasn’t hers, and the fact that the people who were doing the shaping had only her best interests at heart — that so many of them genuinely loved her — made it no more pleasant to be turned into someone she wasn’t.
Which was why her mother was concerned about her youthful admiration for Lady Leeana, she knew. Lady Sharmatha would never say so, but she had to worry that Sharlassa might decide to follow Leeana’s example and seek refuge among the war maids’ free-towns. And, truth to tell, there were times when Sharlassa had been tempted, especially now that she’d had the opportunity to meet Leeana Hanathafressa on her occasional, brief visits to Balthar. That sense of energy and focused purpose and sheer passion for living which she’d sensed — or thought she’d sensed — in Leeana when they’d both been so much younger was brighter and stronger than ever. She never had the sense that there weren’t things about Leeana’s life and the decisions she’d made which she regretted, some of them bitterly, but regret was part of life, wasn’t it? Sometimes there were no perfect solutions or choices, only better ones or worse. And Sharlassa had never once sensed from Leeana any feeling that she’d made the wrong decisions, given the choices which had lain open to her.
Yet Sharlassa faced a life of very different choices, for much as she’d admired Leeana, Leeana Hanathafressa was larger-than-life. Like Prince Bahzell, she met the world head on, unflinchingly, making the choice that seemed best to her and accepting the consequences, whatever they might be. And she was braver than Sharlassa. Or perhaps not so much braver as more fearless, for there was a difference between those two things. And when it came down to it, as unhappy as Sharlassa might feel about who she was being forced to become, she wasn’t brave enough to give up the parents she loved so dearly. She’d seen Baron Tellian and Baroness Hanatha, and she knew they’d never stopped loving their daughter for a moment. She was confident Lord Jahsak and Lady Sharmatha would never have stopped loving her, even if she’d done something as outrageous as to run away to the war maids. But she also knew how deeply that separation would pain them — and her — and at least there was no prospect of her being forced into marriage with someone as disgusting as Rulth Blackhill! In fact –
She stopped that thought ruthlessly in its tracks. She wasn’t going to think about that again, even though it did seem bitterly unfair that she should be forced out of the world in which she’d grown up and yet not allowed into the world in which –
Stop that! she scolded herself. It’s not going to happen. Or at least the moon will fall and the sun will freeze before it does! And how much of all this doom and gloom and worrying about being able to “sense” trees is all about that kind of foolishness? A lot, I’ll bet. She gave herself a shake. Maybe it’s a pity you’re too old for Mother to put over her knee when you start being this foolish! Your brain always seemed to work better as a child when she stimulated your posterior, after all.
She startled herself with a giggle at the image that thought evoked, given that she was two inches taller than her mother these days. Not that Lady Sharmatha had become one bit less formidable, by any means! Besides –
Something struck the back of her left hand ever so lightly. She looked down, and her eyebrows rose as she saw the spot of dampness. Another appeared on her sleeve as she watched, and she felt more light impacts on her head.
Told you those clouds were going to rain, didn’t I? She told herself tartly. And you didn’t listen, did you? You never do. Honestly, I don’t know why I put up with me!
The rain was falling faster — well, more thickly, at any rate. It was still more mist than rain, and she sensed no thunder behind it, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t going to thoroughly soak anything — or anyone — foolish enough to be caught out in it. Not to mention a specific young lady (of sorts, anyway) who’d managed to get herself caught in an apple orchard the better part of a mile from Hill Guard’s snug, tight roofs.
Well, you’re not going to get any dryer standing here than you’d get walking back to the castle through it, are you?
The prosaic thought made her chuckle, although she had a gloomily good idea of how Baroness Hanatha would react when she turned up wet, muddy, and bedraggled. Worse, she had a very clear appreciation of how Tahlmah was going to react to the same sight.
She started down the orchard’s central aisle, suppressing a useless urge to scurry like one of Hill Guard’s home farm’s chickens. Unless she thought she could somehow run between the raindrops — which seemed, on the face of it, rather unlikely — she was still going to be soaked by the time she got back to the castle. That being the case, there seemed little point in adding breathless and exhausted to the wet, muddy, and bedraggled she was already going to be. Besides, she was wearing those new shoes Tahlmah had insisted she put on this morning, and they’d already rubbed up a blister on her right heel.
The raindrops were thicker and somehow wetter feeling by the time she reached the gate in the orchard’s stone wall. She was just reaching for the latch when someone pulled it open from the other side and she slid to a halt in surprise.
“There you are!” Sir Trianal Bowmaster, heir-adoptive to Balthar, announced triumphantly. “I thought I might find you here! Hiding from the dance master again, were you?”
“I –” Sharlassa stopped, blushing rosily, and shook her head. “I was not hiding from the dance master, Milord!” she said then, a little spurt of laughter bubbling under the words. “Master Tobis is far too kind for me to be that rude to him.”
“Really?” Sir Trianal cocked his head, looking at her skeptically. “Are you going to tell me you actually like learning to dance? Don’t forget, I had to learn — from Master Tobis, as a matter of fact — and so did Leeana, and between the two of us, I don’t think either of us really enjoyed being taught.”
“Really,” she told him firmly, and, in fact, it was true. The blister on her heel had her feeling a little less than eager about her next lesson with Tobis Yellowshield, but she truly did enjoy them. Unlike altogether too many of the other things she was being forced to learn. “Besides, I’m not scheduled for another lesson with him until after lunch.”
“Oho! So you’re hiding from Sir Jahlahan and his etiquette lesson!”
“I am not!” she declared even more forcefully (and mendaciously) than before. “I just went on a walk and lost track of time, Milord.”
“Since I am a belted knight, and no true knight would ever doubt a lady’s word, I won’t go into how likely I find that explanation of your absence, Milady,” he told her with a twinkle. “However, I did run into Mistress Tahlmah. She was walking very purposefully along the Great Gallery at the time — heading, I think, to call on the master huntsman to borrow a couple of his bloodhounds.”
“Oh, dear!” Sharlassa shook her head, her contrition genuine. So, unfortunately, was the amusement she felt at Sir Trianal’s disrespectful but no doubt highly accurate description of her maid.
“Have no fear,” Sir Trianal said, touching one hand to his heart and bowing to her. “Being the noble and kindly soul that I am, I assured Mistress Tahlmah that I would take it upon myself to check the orchard just in case. She informed me that she’d already searched — I mean, checked — there for you, but I felt it was worth another look. And if we hurry,” he straightened, “I think we can probably sneak you back into the Castle before Mistress Tahlmah gathers up her nerve and informs Aunt Hanatha that the fairies have stolen you again.”
Sharlassa hung her head, hearing the serious note under his humor and blushing more darkly than before.
“It’s not as if you were the first person to ever sneak out for a little time of her — or his — own, you know.” She wiggled at the note of amused but genuine sympathy in his tone. “I’ve been known to sneak away on occasion — generally from my tutors, not the arms master,” he confessed. “In fact, I’d do the same thing today, and I’m the next best thing to ten years older than you are.”
“I know,” she sighed, “but I really shouldn’t do it. Especially not when Baroness Hanatha is being so kind to me.”
“Aunt Hanatha is kind to everyone — even me,” Sir Trianal told her firmly. “It’s the way she is. Although I will confess that she seems especially taken with you.” He considered her thoughtfully. “Sometimes I think it’s because you remind her of Leanna, but mostly I think it’s because she simply likes the person you are. And even if she didn’t, she knows how hard this all is for you.”
“Milord?” She looked up quickly, startled, and he chuckled.
“You’re not the only one who found out his life was going places he hadn’t planned on, Milady. I never expected to be Uncle Tellian’s heir-adoptive, you know. I knew he and Aunt Hanatha had a kindness for me, and I knew I’d always have a place here at Hill Guard if I needed it, but I always expected that to be as of vassal of whoever Leeana married. Of course, that changed.”
His tone was much drier with the last sentence, but he also smiled and shook his head. Sir Trianal, Sharlassa had realized long ago, was not one of those who believed Leeana had disgraced her family or herself. Sharlassa was reasonably certain he was less than fond of war maids in general, but at least he seemed to respect them. She supposed a cynical person would say that was because Leeana’s desertion to the war maids had worked out quite well for him, but Sharlassa knew that wasn’t the reason for his attitude. She could feel the genuine affection, the love, for his cousin whenever he spoke about her. In fact –
Stop that, she told herself again.
“I do feel a little bit like a duckling trying to become a swan, Milord,” she confessed after a moment.
“I know.” He smiled again. “And, trust me, it does get better eventually. Although –”
A much stronger wind gust blew through the orchard behind a vanguard of rain, drenching Sharlassa’s spine, and Sir Trianal broke off.
“A duckling — or a swan — is what you’re going to have to be if we’re going to get you back to the house unsoaked!” he said, looking up at the clouds. He considered them for a moment, then whipped off his doublet and draped it over her shoulders and head.
“Milord, you can’t –!” she began.
“Nonsense!” He laughed at her while the strengthening breeze plucked at his fine linen shirt with damp fingers. “I’m sure one of those lessons I evaded when I was younger said that any gentleman was required to give up his cloak or poncho — if he had one — to prevent a fair maid from getting drenched. Unfortunately, I seem to have left the house without either of those, so this will have to do.”
“But you’ll get soaked, and –”
“In that case, you really should stop arguing with me and get moving so we can get me under a roof before I become soaked to the bone and expire with pneumonia,” he said sternly.
She looked at him helplessly for a moment, then laughed.
“Whatever you say, Milord! Whatever you say.”
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