Authors: Jacob Falling
“…a ghost…?” The elder girl continued her sentence, though her grin had vanished along with the playfulness of her tone.
“A werewolf…” her younger sister wondered.
Adselm shook his head, his voice louder. “There are no such things.”
“She is dressed like an Aesidhe,” the elder girl suggested, with more self-assurance.
“Regardless, she is a person,” Adselm replied, sheathing his bow and stepping down from his saddle. “And it is rude to speak about her rather than to her… and horsed, no less… with a weapon trained.”
Adria remained silent, considering.
Am I to be a royal or a peasant? Do I play the greater or the lesser?
“A traveling young woman is not a common sight in Marbury.” Adselm addressed her directly, bowing a little in greeting. Beneath bright eyes his blonde-bearded jaw set about a half-smile. His enunciation was perfect, his tone flat, and his manner ambiguous, perhaps even ambivalent. Either he had not decided what she represented, or else chose not to reveal his presumptions.
Either way, Adria could easily find herself in a trap of sorts — though one she could undoubtedly escape, even if blades were drawn. Adselm would be the only possible danger of the four, but she had seen enough men fight to be almost certain at a glance whom she could and could not stand against. He waited without impatience as she feigned breathlessness.
After a moment, Adria inclined her head — neither a bow nor an obvious sign of disrespect. She would return his full measure of self-assurance with her own.
“Am I addressed by the Lord Marbury himself?” she asked, neither ignoring nor answering his implied question. The two younger children giggled, and the young lady smiled. It would not occur to them that the lord of their manor might not be known beyond the hedgerows of their village. It might make her question an innocent compliment. Of course, she did not believe Adselm to be the lord of anything, at least not yet.
“I am Adselm, heir to Sir Fannen of Marbury,” Adselm replied. “My father is vassal to Patrus, Baron of Chester. I mean no disregard, but have a right to your name, and your purpose within this demesne, by the laws which distinguish gentry rule of land.” Again, the implication of a question without the impropriety of demand — still no reason to commit to judgment.
Polite, well schooled, and intelligent,
But still of a suspicious nature, beneath the other trappings.
And it was contagious now. The others had stilled, and permitted themselves a longer moment of consideration, waiting for her response. The youngest among them, the boy, fidgeted.
“Forgive me,” Adria bowed a little lower now, but without obsequiousness. “I am a pilgrim of the Sisterhood, too long from civilized lands. I was inconsiderate of my trespass upon your father’s lands, and I bear no will to offend you, your lord, or your family.”
“You’ve given no offense that I can see, unless you were planning to poach that wintry wolf,” he responded, a bit slowly. He was framing a line of questions, she could tell, and was not going to simply dismiss her. She had not risen above his suspicion with the simple claim of Sisterhood. “Nor would I accost a lone traveler lightly, Sister, and one so youthful to have surpassed the Rites of Initiation.”
He is knowledgeable in matters of the Sisterhood, as well
… He was asking several questions in one, and any small flaw in her response could catch her in a lie. She had learned much from the Sisters as a child, but of course she had never truly been among them. It would be rare enough for someone of her age to be initiated at all, much less to have been upon a mission.
Too long from civilized lands...
He was asking her age, what cause there had been for such a great exception to Sisterhood traditions, and why she was alone and not upon a road, and dressed so... atypically.
Adria had taken the middle path, a class between royalty and peasantry, setting herself a difficult lie to continue. She had to answer these questions, and simply, without seeming either defensive or condescending. The others hung upon the exchange now, variably hovering between curiosity and wonder. She had only to convince Adselm, and the others would believe.
Adria smiled broadly, and only a little nervously, though she grew more confident of her path. As a Sister, she would have a unique position in the cultural hierarchy. Her influence, though not expressly one of nobility, might also remain more subtle, a particular power which reigned primarily over the proclivities of young men of any stature. Although they could not marry except under rare dispensation from Taber herself, the Sisters were by no means ascetics. Most were permitted physical affection, and more than a few bore children, despite preclusion from the social bonds of marriage.
Given this, Adria might at once be seductive, as the Sisters were typically trained to be, and untouchable, as they were by law, unless they expressly chose otherwise. She had learned to cultivate both from the Sisterhood, in imitation if not in focused instruction.
And though she had sublimated much of this among the Aesidhe, she nonetheless bore no false illusions of modesty. Even here, with her odd dress, her somewhat foreign mannerisms, and two or three days of sweat and dust, Adria knew she was an attractive young woman.
“I…” she feigned hesitation, blinked several times. “I am flattered by your compliment.” He had not complimented her, exactly, but her acceptance of such made it so nonetheless.
He inclined his head a little once more, and the others shifted in their saddles or showed other slight amusement. Adselm may have seemed lordly, but obviously he was still simply their big brother, and probably adopting more airs than they were accustomed to.
Adria continued, “Moreso, I regret that I have traveled much among the unclean, and have been made to appear as they do, and to walk without need of road or path, without heed of property or demesne, nor even of the rights of gentry. My elder Sister has sent me to return to the High Temple at Windberth, so that I may have remembrance of my training, so young was I for such… strange pilgrimage. Again, I pray I give no offense, now nor in the future.”
“Your apology is well accepted, Sister, and I have no cause to doubt your words,” and a slight pause, Adria knew, indicated the lost presence of the word “however.” She had sparked too much interest, if not in her mild flirtation, then in the implications of the story itself. The whole group was beginning to brighten, and Adselm, who still had not honored her with his name, proved their curiosity warranted.
“It is regrettable that your Sister has left you unaccompanied, though I, at least, may guarantee your safety on my father’s lands. Therefore, you must accept the hospitality of our family and join us at our manor, in reverence for your mission and celebration of your return from the Aesidhe lands. No doubt we can occasion to learn much from your travels, and you can regain much strength from our sustenance.”
The second mention of Aesidhe brought even the youngest to attention. He had confirmed her novelty for them, and as a Sister, she was also essentially a peer — in some respects a superior — and now necessarily worthy of consideration.
Perhaps this was not the better path...
Adria quickly sought for a way to refuse, but there was little hope for doing so without insult, or without heightening suspicion. The forest surrounded, and they were horsed. She could not assail them, of course, but neither could she likely afford to lose time to their curiosity and benevolence.
Shall I flee, or shall I continue the masquerade and see where it leads?
“Your kindness and consideration are a joy to me, and celebration enough.” She inclined her head, smiled again. “I fear I cannot, in good conscience, take more than these as reward for my duties or status, when I have such pressing need to return to Windberth.”
“Nonsense,” he laughed. “You have no need to be so polite, nor to doubt your duty or status among us. Regardless, withholding the possibility of sustenance and aid would make me accomplice to a crime against your Sisterhood.”
There’s where I cannot refuse.
“You must have little food and water in that skin and bag you carry, and my conscience cannot allow that small blade and bow as your only protection beyond this peaceful demesne. We will celebrate your return tonight at Marbury Hall, and in the morning you shall have the use of a proper mount and escort to the capital to allow much greater haste. It will not be said that the House of Marbury refused a Sister her just duty.”
Adria found herself nodding her assent, and soon after seated upon the elder sister’s palfrey and on her way among the fields to the manor without walls.
The Sister's Long Road
dselm chatted amiably about the estate as they made their way to the manor at its heart, pausing to greet a few passersby with genuine warmth, raising his hand to acknowledge those at a greater distance. Though many eyes lingered upon Adria, he did not introduce her, though he explained the role of each person to her after they had passed — reasonably acting more as a counselor than a host. The Sisterhood often maintained a detachment from the lower classes, and he had presumed this as appropriate now.
His tone and words gradually became less lofty, and what mild airs he had affected for the sake of a stranger disappeared once Adria was welcomed by his parents, Sir and Lady Marbury. The children were named at this point, those with whom Adria had just ridden as well as others, whose precise parentage was difficult to determine. Adselm introduced his own toddling child, who clung to his mother’s skirts with expected shyness, especially given the odd appearance of this strange guest.
Adria did not offer her own name, and none asked. Officially, a Sister need not give her name to anyone. It was enough that she represented the Sisterhood as a whole — anything more was a privilege to be offered. In practice, it was common courtesy for a Sister to offer her name to anyone of elevated rank. The knightly class was the least of the gentry, allowing Adria the choice of self-identification, and she preferred to err on the side of one less lie.
“You have traveled much, young Sister,” the lady of the house remarked casually, perhaps carefully — though certainly without criticism. “Perhaps we might show you somewhere to refresh yourself, while dinner is set.”
Strong young men were setting tables upon trestles in the hall or banking the fire. The women and girls attended the settings and food without overt ceremony. There were many more people about than had been introduced, but there seemed little outward difference between the family and anyone else — they might have been friends, retainers, or servants.
Even the knight and his lady were not above the bustle of it — the former lending a hand with the larger portion of table top, the latter taking up someone’s choleric infant to soothe, while the young mother performed other duties.
The younger sister showed Adria up a stairway, onto a screened gallery above the hall, and then into a solar where some of the family must have whiled away the afternoon. There were the remnants of children’s games, sewing and embroidery projects, and bedding tucked away until the obligatory evening’s transformation into bedchamber. Despite their being gentry, the manor of the Marbury family was usefully apportioned, as similar to the close-quartered camp of the Aesidhe as to Adria’s own father’s keep. Many obviously shared its spaces, and its spaces shared many tasks. It comforted her a little.
The child departed with a pleasant little curtsy, leaving Adria to do as she would — to open the shutters and leap to her freedom, if she wished, with or without whatever objects of value she could find within the room. Children squealed with laughter from beyond the doorway and below. A man responded in kind, a rolling thunder of a voice in joy — Sir Marbury, she guessed. Others joined the cadence.
As she bathed from a ewer and bowl resting upon a beautifully-carved dressing table, Adria began to regret the lie she had begun. Though well-intended, it might prove to be rather more of a hindrance than she had thought.
She cleaned her face and hands as well as she might, and whatever she could reach with a modest shifting of her leathers. She tidied her clothing and made a little attempt to clean its least modest stains. With some regret, she kept her hair bound — there was certainly no time for its tending. She would, of course, still smell of the wild, but that might not be so terrible to them. They lived on the borderland. They ventured a little into the wood. Perhaps they would not be so afraid of its ghosts, whether imagined or real.
The sounds of joy continued from below. Adria closed her eyes and listened to the noise without hearing the words, the children like any others and the adults who cared for and loved them.
The Tiniya, the Others
Aeman of the border who lived beneath the banner of her father, the protection of the Knights of Darkfire, and the laws and faith of the Sisterhood.
“It was wrong to assume I would find myself among enemies,” Adria whispered to the empty room, opening her eyes.
Still… this secret is for their protection as well as mine. It would be easy for someone to claim this family had harbored me as a fugitive, should my status as an enemy be determined at Windberth.
>Adria was welcomed to a seat at the long table between the two sisters she had ridden with earlier. Most were already seated, and there was a good deal of bustle and chatting already — much of it clearly concerning her. The food was set, but none had yet begun to eat, and the lord and lady at the head of the table smiled quietly as the last of the family and guests took their seats. There were at least two dozen present, from babes-in-arms to venerable elders, and even a pair of hounds resting between the trestle benches, waiting for their scraps.
At this point, save for the youngest of the children, there was a ceremonious quiet before Sir and Lady Marbury joined two hands and raised the others in greeting to those gathered.
“Welcome, family and friends,” Lady Marbury nodded. “Our home and our lands are filled with bounty and with love, the generation of all our hopes and our labors. We remember those who cannot be with us, as we will remember this day in times of want.”
It has something of the form of a Sisterhood blessing, but words from a different tradition.
Sir Marbury followed the lady with a gentle smile and inclination of his head to Adria. “We also welcome to our table a very special guest, a Sister of the High Temple.” His manner was much less ceremonial than his wife, his words a warm tone. “If it pleases you, Lady, we would welcome a Sister’s blessing of our table.”
As Adria hesitated, searching for an appropriate invocation from her childhood, Lady Marbury rejoined, “As you may guess, this is a most rare opportunity, Sister, particularly for the children, who have had little chance to travel. We regrettably have little occasion to visit the temple in Sotower, much less the capital, and the southern borderland occasions only the typical summer’s Knight contingent. Even missioners are few these days. I am certain you understand.”
Adria welcomed the opportunity for a specific answer. “Of course, Lady Marbury. It seems clear that I may be among the last of the Sister-Journeywomen. Its tradition will be missed. Still, faith finds other ways. I have little doubt that convents will soon follow wherever faith wills.”
“No doubt.” The lady gave no indication of her opinion.
“Notwithstanding this,” Adria inclined her head. “The beauty and sentiment of your blessing of your table and family would render my own shallow in comparison. Instead…” and she cast her eyes around all those gathered. “I would just offer humble thanks to you and your loved ones for providing to my comfort on this long journey.”
The lady nodded her thanks, her smile noncommittal.
“Then shall we begin?” Lord Marbury widened his eyes, and the table came at last to life.
Supper at the Marbury manor consisted of simple, almost peasant food — which Adria welcomed, given that meals among the Aesidhe were much closer to this than to the richness of a noble diet that had been frequent at Windberth.
The turnip they served her was fat and earthy and tender, the bread neither too harsh nor its flour too finely ground, and everything spiced sparsely but adequately with local winter herbs. Nothing they served would have crossed the sea to find its way to their table.
One of Adselm’s sisters, a sapling of a girl with spectacularly round bright eyes and delicate hands, shared Adria’s plate — an Aeman practice followed by all but lone travelers and the highest nobility. She was careful to allow Adria her choice of food, and Adria was careful to keep a balance of choice, though she could not help but mostly ignore the strips of salt pork, which the girl fortunately seemed to relish.
“You’ve been used to fresh meat,” the girl ventured, and Adria smiled and nodded, though it wasn’t strictly true. When on a long run, she had often welcomed salted meat. Still, she had never fully found a taste for it.
“Well, we hoped to have brought something from the hunt today,” the girl continued. “Of course, we returned with rather more than we expected.”
Adria could not help but enjoy the girl’s good humor, and her unwillingness to bridle it for even a peculiar guest.
“Ah,” Adria smiled. “Fair warning, then… I will require rather more seasoning than the average pig.”
The girl’s eyes widened with amusement.
Adria laughed. “What is your name?”
“Peryna,” the girl answered. “Named for my mother’s grandmother.”
“I see. Was your great grandmother from Somana?”
Peryna nodded. “She was brought to Heiland by my great grandfather, soon after the New Peace.”
“The name suits you,” Adria offered, and the girl was flattered enough to smile and turn her eyes down to her bowl.
She knows her history,
Adria thought. Somana and the Aeman had warred over Heiland for generations before. Though there had sometimes been tension in the years since, the New Peace had allowed settlement rights to Somanan families, though they were expected to renounce their loyalty to the empire.
Of course, many of the Somanan nobles had given false pledges and maintained alliance with their former nation, considering themselves colonies of the empire. It was not until Adria’s father had claimed the throne of Heiland that the many princedoms and colonies had truly unified into one kingdom. Those who had not pledged fealty to King Ebenhardt Idonea and loyalty to the Sisterhood had been exiled or eliminated. All but the Aesidhe.
This history would indeed be the history of her family.
At the head of the table, Sir and Lady Marbury were mostly quiet, idly watching over and listening to the noise from the rest of the table, occasionally leaning in to one another for a quiet word and a smile.
The lady’s appearance and manner were Somanan through and through. Her color was naturally darker, almost olive, but did not show as much of the glow borrowed from the sun. Her dark eyes, as well, revealed the southern parentage, though it might have been one or two generations before.
She bore herself with some nobility, a measured, perhaps even calculated grace. Her eyes seemed to miss little, yet seemed already to be attending to any point of interest, as if the interest itself followed her will.
Much like Adria’s uncle, Sir Marbury was tall, with a powerful build. He had Aeman-blonde, almost white hair, with a full beard to match, flecked here and there with red or gray. And he had some sun color to his skin, even so early in the season — not the hue of a man who shrank from the world beyond his manor. His eyes were quicker, clever, despite the gentler movements of his face and hands, the self-assured patience of his years mixed with a still-youthful mind.
If my lie is to be challenged
, Adria felt certain.
It will be the Lady who challenges it first
Even as Adria tried to relax in their presence, her doubts of recent days returned, with a strange mixture of feelings — of purpose, of protection, and of distraction.
The figure in gray, the strangely coinciding news from Windberth…
And the White Wolf? The one I am meant to follow… the one I was
Still, she maintained calm on the outside, and was pleased to find she had little trouble speaking with the Marbury family as dinner began. There had, of course, been opportunities to use her Aeman even among the Aesidhe, but more recently only to listen from a distance, and rarely to speak. It was a particular value she shared with few apart from Preinon and Sh
sha, and it was not always welcome among the People.
Let Tiniya keep their tongue in their own mouths
,” one among them might say. “
Like spoiled children, they speak when they should listen
.” It was a typical sort of jibe, and one which implied even more than it said.
Adselm, across the table from Adria, at his father’s right hand, seemed a little too distracted by Adria. It showed in the silence of his wife, a young woman obviously less at home at the table than most. She was Aeman through and through, light of skin and hair with little hint of sunlight.
She was likely of old blood — probably from among the first families of Aeman settlers to Heiland, who still bore much respect among their peers and acted so often a bit above them. She watched Adria with an obvious wariness which showed she had little cunning for a rival of any type, even of momentary interest.