War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 22

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.”