War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 19

Chapter Five

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.