Category: Novels and Novellas Stories

A Match for the el Maiens Ch. 05

by NaokoSmith©

Please leave comments for me. Thank you! (Diolch.)

*****

As Arianna helped Arkyll and Hanya to break their fast, she looked up again at the kitchen doorway, her smooth pale forehead creased by a frown. She had seen Clair's door was open as she fetched the children but when they came down to the kitchens he was not there. She had wanted particularly to ask him to take the boys. It was Angel-day so there was no school. Lisette had told Arianna as she dressed her that Ria had had a message in the night that her mother was ill so she had had to go home.

Once the children had eaten (she took care that they did make a good breakfast although it was Angel-day so she might have spoiled them but she wanted to be able to say to Clair that she had taken good care of them) she bethought herself that Clair was probably in the armoury.

'Not a fit day for weapons,' she reflected crossly. Clair's duelling, his military past and her pacifist philosophy were so clearly grounds for the most wounding disagreement that they avoided any discussion that came near the topic. She walked with the children down the corridors to the armoury. Outside it was raining softly, the light fell grey through the narrow windows of the outer castle walls.

The armoury was a huge echoing space with a smooth wooden floor, shafts of rainy light falling from windows high up in the walls and roof. Carefully ordered rows of weights and racks of gleaming weapons stood against the walls. The boys loved the armoury which was a combination of forbidden ground to them - they might only go there with Clair or the Captain of the Castle Guard - and a place which was peculiarly their father's; they knew that Arianna disapproved of soldiery.

Nobody was so irreligious as to be improving their skills at killing in the large light room nor even enjoying exercise on the wrestling mats. Arianna sighed and called Arkyll away from a rack of rapier swords gleaming with oil. They went back out into the corridors and she asked the first serving man they came to: "Where is my Lord?" He looked at her hesitantly and paused before replying that he did not know.

His look at her seemed strange, Arianna's suspicious mind leapt on the pause he had made before he had answered and her heart seemed to rise up and start beating like a bird in the hollow of her throat. The rational side of her brain reminded her that he never played at sex when resident at the castle but she frowned coldly down the corridors. Her voice when she called the boys was sharper than she had intended. 'What, am I never to get a moment's peace to myself,' she thought angrily, ignoring that she could have asked Ladda to take the boys. It was raining but she could have asked the library clerk to read to them or someone to play games in the sitting-room with them. She drifted down the corridors aimlessly with them trotting in her wake. When she saw Clair crossing the huge entrance hall she no longer felt relieved. She was still angry.

He saw them, she knew he did, but instead of coming towards them he turned back on his steps and disappeared into the shadows of the corridor behind him. She gave an astonished gasp and, without thinking, picked up her skirts and ran down the dim corridors into the castle after him, showing her ankles as she ran. When she caught up with him he turned, his grey eyes big in a pale face and the fingers he lifted to his curling locks of hair trembling.

'What, again?' she thought angrily. 'What is it now! van Sietter and I know not who coming and is he going to lose his nerve? and make me carry all the burden of entertaining them and also caring for him.'

"M-my Lady?" it was an effort to him even to say that much, his eyebrow rose in his tense pale face over his wide grey eye. The boys were coming up to them, he flicked a look at them: dark-haired little Arkyll, beautiful blond Hanya. His eyes creased and he turned them away. He could not bear to look at the two boys that day.

"There is a problem and Ria has had to go home," Arianna said. "Wills't take the boys for me ... Wills't come with me and the boys, perhaps, to ... to play cards in the sitting-room?" As she started to say it she could see in his face that he would not be able to take the boys on his own but she hoped he might come and spend time with them. Did it not make him feel happier, to be with the two children and the promise of a happy future which laughed in their eyes?

"Wh-what problem?" Clair temporised, looking away from her and from the two boys. Arkyll was pushing at Hanya while Hanya smiled patiently and held him off.

"It is no matter," she said, her voice becoming cold. "Has't some important business, is it?"

He hesitated, his eyes still cast back behind him away from them. Now Arkyll was kicking Hanya, Hanya began protesting in his sweet melodious voice. "Stop it, Arkyllan!" Arianna said crossly. She had to go back and pull him gently away and while she did so, Hanya ran trustingly forward and put his arms around Clair's legs.

Holy Hell! he was going to cry, he knew it. In front of his wife, in front of his children. He was petrified of upsetting the children, he caught his breath hard up, bit his thin lip, while his hands gently caressed Hanya's head. He could not look into that sunny golden up-turned face - so beautiful, so unlike the cold-eyed handsome face that Clair had loved so truly. Arianna was suddenly there, taking Hanya's hands and guiding him aside. She stood in front of Clair, shielding him from the children, saying to a passing maid-servant: "Cans't take the boys to get cakes in the kitchens?" With excited cries of glee they ran off with the maid-servant. She started to turn back to Clair but he had brushed past her and run, he was running hard away down the entrance hall - far too fast for her to catch him.

"What is this?!" she exclaimed with an angry sob. "What now, what is with him!" She looked back round and saw one of the footmen wheeling his chair along. He must have overheard her but she stiffened her face and looked at him with expressionless eyes.

The footman said: "Will you want a private lunch and dinner set out for the Commander as is his custom on the anniversary of Shier Bridge?" His considerate warm eyes did not blame her for forgetting that this was the day on which Clair had fought that most terrible battle of the Sietter-H'las war, had lost so many of his troopers and friends and had seen Hanya Vashin die before his eyes. This was the day the footman himself had broken his back fighting for Clair's banner but he did not blame her. For those of the servants who were ex-soldiers the day was so significant they did not think to remind her and for those who were not it was not a day they bore in mind themselves. But bitterly did Arianna blame herself.

"Fiotr," she said remorsefully. "I prithou pardon me! Wills't not prefer to rest the day?"

"I had rather work, m'Lady, I thank you," he answered. He wheeled himself slowly down the corridor to bury his memories of the physical agony and the terror and the grief of that day in his new duties.

'How could I have forgot?' she mourned, as she passed back down the corridors to the kitchens. 'Oh-h! Now he will hate me more and quarrel with me while van Sietter and van Sietter's guests are here, and not guard me from van Sietter's meanness. No, I am not fair-minded to him. He has always tried to protect me from van Sietter.' She passed through the dimness of the entrance hall like a candle-flame lighting up Clair's home, her face still stricken with guilt.

Clair ran as hard and as fast as he could, out of the castle doorway, through the soft warm summer rain and into the kennels.

The kennels were quiet at that hour of the morning. The dogs had all been fed, the kennelmaster and two of the houndsmen were busy at the end of the kennels. They must have seen who had come in but they studiously ignored him, their kind faces turned away from him towards each other and their work. Clair went quickly up the passage between the dogs' pens and climbed into the pen with Tashka's ratting terrier in it.

Tashka's terrier was called Emperor, a name that suited him not at all. Everyone called him Imp. He was snuffling in a corner of his pen at an old bone he had buried beneath a ragged blue quilt which had once had a pattern of peacocks embroidered on it. When Clair climbed in, he lifted bright black eyes and peered at Clair. Clair was not Tashka but he was the next best person so Imp trotted over and sniffed politely at him.

Clair slid to the ground, his back pressed against the wooden partition of the pen. He drew in a sobbing breath and let it slowly out. No tear forced its way through his clenched eyelids. His eyes felt horribly dry, as if he had cried all the tears that he ever could in his life already over the tragedies he had survived.

Imp was poking boredly at his hand with a cold nose. Clair reached gently out, without opening his eyes, and stroked the terrier's head. Above him he could hear the whisper of the rain on the roof of the kennels.

After a while he felt able to look at Imp and start whispering to him without fearing the tears would leak from his tortured soul.

"What," he whispered, "do you miss Tashka? Did he leave you behind and is it that you are lonely without him? He cannot take you all over Trossia with him, little one. You are too small and you are from Sietter, you would give him away to his van H'las Commander. But he loves you truly, yes he does. He will come home and play with you again, it is so, little Imp."

Imp shifted nearer him and sat down, looking away out of his pen as if he were still waiting. He was always waiting while Tashka was away, he only lost the bored longing look in his eyes when Tashka was home to roll him round, tease him, pet him and play with him.

Clair thought how Tashka would be hung for a spy if found in el Gaiel's troop. He wondered if Tashka would still come home now that van Sietter had foisted himself on them. Would he bring Pava too perhaps? But Pava would still be angry with him, Pava with whom he had shared so much, he and Pava and Tashka, and Tashka's fellow Lieutenants, and ... Hanya. His eyes grew huge in his strained face, he looked away where Imp was looking and suddenly his anguish broke in a sob, the tears came pouring down his face. He sat with his back leaning against the hard wooden partition. He could bear it that he could still feel something when many of his friends - and oh, Hanya! - could not, because the partition was so hard that it hurt him. Gently he tickled Imp behind the ears as the tears rolled down his face, Imp whined and curled up by his side.

'Will it ever pass?' he pleaded as if to the Angels. It was too much to bear! losing so many friends, losing Hanya. The slow tears trickled down his long black lashes and rolled down his lean cheeks, breaking salt in his thin pouting mouth.

He had sat there a long time, weeping had given way to a dull nothing in which he was content to sit and stare at the partition wall opposite with Imp's warmth curled to his side when he heard someone coming up the kennels with a swish of skirts. He turned his head and Arianna appeared by Imp's pen. He stared at her, she looked back at him with her round blue eyes softened and gentle although nervous.

"I have had lunch put in the reception room for you," she said. "There is no one there."

"I am not hungry," he answered, swinging his head aside. "I thank you," he added.

"Musts't eat," she murmured. "Shall't feel worse of it so eats't not." She hovered uneasily by the gate to the pen. He knew she was obstinate, she would not leave him alone until he either went and ate or dredged up enough energy to fight with her.

Slowly he began to get to his feet. His legs and back were stiff and sore. Imp got up too, gave a whine and made to come out of the pen with him. "I may take Imp to the reception room?" he said.

"What ar't asking me for?" She exclaimed, her brow creasing up. "It is a matter for you if the chairs are covered in dog hairs ... um, of course. I am sure that Tashka would be annoyed if we made Imp ... stand at station, is it?"

Her clumsy attempt at a joke went to his heart but his heart was broken, he could not give her any warm laughter in response. He climbed out of the pen and opened the gate to let Imp trot out. The gentle living look Arianna bent towards him veiled over in her eyes, she stepped in front of him so that he need not feel he had to talk to her or offer her any politeness he was not able in his raging grief to make the effort for. They walked across the courtyard with a footman holding an umbrella over her flaxen head of hair dressed high. He walked slowly in her wake with his elegantly cut head of dark curls bowed in the soft summer rain.

As they came into the entrance hall she walked off towards the family quarters while he turned to the reception room, Imp at his heels. Then suddenly she came walking back. "Clair!" she said, he was caught by the unaccustomed sound of his name on her lips, she said: "It is not so bad as it was at first. I know shall't never be wholly better of what has happened. But sometimes ar't happy with Arkyll and now Hanya, is it not? Shall't never forget but mights't live now carrying the memory, perhaps? Some days it is very bad, of course, but other days will be better?"

In the second year of their marriage she must have heard his screams in the night. His men-servants and Tashka had slept in his room with him while she lay in their marriage bed alone. She must have seen the men-servants quick to ensure he had someone to help him shave, she must have heard Tashka order the armourers not to sharpen his weapons, making excuses and quarrelling with him to prevent him being near the temptation of a sharp clean blade. When she came to offer him the great honour of her favours, he took them careless and without any word or caress. After he had done with her as she required, he walked away from her soft body, knowing she had had little pleasure in the heartless fucking he gave her. He ran away from her and for six months he fell in and out of so many beds that even he lost count. Sometimes if he went to court now he met someone who seemed unusually friendly and he wondered if he had taken a quick favour off them in the dark without bothering to look at their features.

"Yes," he said in a soft dull voice strung with tears. "It is better."

She nodded briskly and walked away through the dim shadows of the echoing great entrance hall, fair as a candleflame wavering in the wind. He watched her, thinking that any man ought to be happy - to be with her. Her ripe young beauty ought to make any man wish to live.

He was the only oldest son of the high nobility who would never have asked to have bestowed on him this famous beauty. Here she was with a child already in her arms to prove her fertility; other oldest sons would enquire about his marriage to her with suspect solicitude. Her mother was a slut, her husband had become a slut and his mother's behaviours while in this very castle were notorious. Very early in their betrothal he had realised with an appalled sinking at his heart that she would never be a slut; she was a sweetheart. He had not deserted her at court where he knew that she would be lured into behaviours which were not her preference, although this would have allowed him to break his marriage to her and send her away with her head low. He sent her to his home, thinking he would choose out a separate establishment for her after the war.

Here she bent so gentle and shy an affection on those clustering about her, Tashka and the older servants lifted their eyes to him on his return from war in anxiety about her. To his astonishment they had stepped to it to quietly protect her honour and happiness not for his sake but for her own. Even if he had been willing to expose someone so naive, and his own Lady wife, to an exploitative set of cold-hearted dogs whose predatory habits he knew intimately well, he could not have failed the relief and trust in the eyes of his nearest and dearest dependents, Tashka and the castle servants, when he finally recovered some sense of himself and came home to take under his eye the honour and happiness of someone he had never expected them to love.

'But she will go back to Iarve one day,' he thought. 'Or to Pava who loves her. He can offer her laughter and the sunshine of the Vail plains, what do I bring her? An old castle full of shadows and an alliance with that snake who would sacrifice anyone for his interest. She does not belong here, she does not understand the old grievances and sorrow hidden in the corners of this castle. She will go back to the sunshine one day.'

Outside the warm summer rain fell softly and lightly in the castle courtyard.

Written by: NaokoSmith

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Story Tags: swashbuckling, fantasy, romance, arranged marriage

Category: Novels and Novellas Stories