A Match for the el Maiens Ch. 08
Please leave comments for me. Thank you! (Diolch.)
"Come on!" Tashka yelled, leaning back in the saddle to grimace at Pava. Jewel leapt into the gallop down the winding road to the rambling old grey castle set like an untidy bird's nest above Sietter town in the hills. Pava grinned and nudged Star into a canter. His eyes were wary coming down the familiar road he had travelled often in the days when he and Clair el Maien were brother officers and best friends.
He felt sweaty and gritty, his green linen riding suit was grey with dirt and his boots were caked with mud. Tashka had forced a fast pace up the Maier Pass but when they came to cross the Arven they had had to lead the horses through the river because the bridge was down, to Tashka's disgust. After that, Tashka had refused to wait for the baggage to catch them up. They had spent the previous night in an inn where there was no one to clean Pava's boots and he had even had to borrow a nightshirt! He was longing for a good long soak in a bath and a decent shirt to put on his back.
Tashka slowed to a canter on the approach up to the castle, taking the opportunity to make a thorough reconnaiscance left and right, assessing the dispositions of two troop encampments either side. Pava frowned to see from the banners that not only was First Sietter encamped there but also First V'ta. A red and black banner with a silver emblem floated on the breeze away up to the East of the castle.
They were clattering past saluting guards at the gateway into the courtyard. Tashka pulled up Jewel exactly right and sprang out of the saddle. Pava was making a business out of pulling Star up. He noticed a new ramp built up the side of the broad castle steps. His mouth quirked in a bitter smile; he knew Clair would have made them do it for those soldiers he had brought home with him from the war who now used wheelchairs.
Tashka was running to the steps but stumbled to a sudden stop. Pava followed the line of Tashka's eyes and saw that there indeed was Fiotr el F'lara van V'ta standing to one side at the top of the steps in a long green and black robe, his slanted eyes staring down at Tashka. His two daughters were also there, though, one in blue and green and the other in pink, their Guards of Honour hovering at a suitable proximity. Tashka ran on up the steps, seized Clair about the waist and flung him round in the sunshine. Pava saw Clair el Maien's head flung back with laughter, his slanted grey eyes sparkled with happiness, his thin mouth was certain with joy.
A smiling groom was saying: "Welcome back, Lord Pava!" and offering a shoulder and arm to help him dismount. The man's happiness to see him brought the smile to his own face, he gripped the groom's shoulder affectionately.
Tashka had gone to throw muscular strong arms around Arianna.
Anna el Jien! So tall and plump and lovely in a white and green dress like she was wearing the green fields of Iarve. That must be her baby boy, the little dark-haired one with exquisite slanted eyes like Tashka's, although there was another blond boy hiding behind her skirts.
Tashka had gone back to cast an arm about Clair's shoulders. Standing so close together, the two of them looked startlingly alike, only Clair had a few inches height on Tashka and Tashka was slimmer. Tashka stared at van V'ta with curled lip and slanted eyes drawn out in a sneer.
"Captain-Lord Tashka el Maien van Sietter," van V'ta said a formal greeting instead of the familiar one and without moving to offer Tashka a hand. Tashka only nodded curtly. Pava raised his eyebrows to hear van V'ta give the proper title, if he knew Tashka was a Captain, he must know of what troop.
"Commander-Lord Pava el Jien van Vail of Ninth Vail," van V'ta turned his gaze from the two el Maiens.
Pava started strolling up the steps flicking his gloves into the palm of his big hand. He inclined his blond head to van V'ta, saying casually: "el F'lara van V'ta. Lady Laienne, Lady Ilya." The young women, pretty dark-haired maidens with modest smiles, came forward. He took the left hand of each with two fingers and brought it momentarily to his lips.
"Pava," Clair attempted a smile but his eyes were anxious. He was trying to keep a watch on van V'ta and a restraining arm around Tashka's waist.
Imp came shooting out of the kennels, barking furiously and trailing a broken lead. Tashka went down on dusty leather-booted knees and began rolling the dog around, trying to get a hand on his wriggling body to tickle his tummy but Imp kept lying at Tashka's feet and jumping up and lying down and jumping up again. van V'ta, having ensured he showed sufficient courtesy to young van Vail, took the opportunity to go back into the castle, ushering his two daughters before him.
Clair had turned to Pava and was trying again to smile. "You have not greeted Arianna," he said, standing aside so that Pava had a clear path to her.
Pava looked into the round blue eyes of his cousin, his dearest love. He stepped hesitantly forward, she came to meet him holding both hands out and he took her long cool fingers in his own long fingers, leaning forward to give her cheeks a chaste kiss each.
Oh it was gone, his passion for her was gone. His life was easier without that flaming desire for her body but he felt a wild pang at his heart. She had meant so much to him once but he had not seen nor heard from her for years. She was a stranger again: graceful, cool, courteous.
He was remembering lifting his head as he came riding into the courtyard of his uncle's palace, to see Arianna. Her eyes had tilted at him, a faint blush coloured her cheek. Then her red mouth, sweet as a bowl of cherries, softened into a pure smile, as if she were thinking he was her little cousin and how they had been children together. The blood went rushing round his cheeks and his loins. It was like a glove in the face to a dashing young Lieutenant, newly commissioned as he was, to see a beauty like her smile as if he were still a child - and her so evidently a grown woman with her full bosom and the curve in to her small waist emphasised by those rounded hips. He had been boyishly happy up till then in his life of sports and the excitement of being commissioned in a field troop in Sietter. As he saw the head of that magnificent blonde beauty turn apparently careless of him to his sister, his heart seemed to clutch up in his chest, his cock stirred softly and filled against his thigh and he fell for the first time in love. He had never been comfortable without some ladybird on his arm since.
She was so hesitant, so shy of her kisses. Her skin, her arm, her breasts were so soft to his pressing hands. Her panting uncertain chastity both frustrated him and increased his desire to have more than a hand on one thigh quivering under the pressure of his fingers with her already rising out of his arms in the tall grass, in response to the other cousins calling them. He knew now that the kisses he gave her had been childish. His hands attempting to caress a hip, a breast had been clumsy and ignorant, but there was something sweetly sincere about those loutish attempts to raise the gleam in her veiled blue eyes. No experienced bird of paradise or laughing plump lovely since had made him feel as eager yet tender, so frustrated yet content. He was young and left it for months at a correspondence, dreaming only of her kisses. Then he realised with a shock that moves were being made to bestow her, so much older than him. He was confident his parents would agree to a match with so intelligent and honourable a fair Lady, when her brother and his own best friend stepped in to deny him. He had pretended that his rage at Clair was justified by his friend's treatment of her. In truth he knew he had never got over that first love, sudden and violent as a summer thunderstorm, for a woman who was so far above any man's touch that she hid more than half of who she was in a veiled coldness of eye.
She smiled at him, oh his heart, the same sweet open trusting smile she would always give to her little cousin. He had tried to break that famous chaste honour in two and persuade her to run away from her political marriage for the sake of his body. She, so pure of honour that she always believed the best of people, still relied on his goodness of heart. His affection for her seemed to come flooding back; quietly. Once his passion for her had been all-important, now he felt a gentler respect for her happiness. He gave her a deprecating smile, knowing that he had only added to her difficulties at a turbulent time of her life when she had had to make a decision not for herself alone and not for him, but for her family and all of the people of the region she had come from and the one she went to.
"My cousin," he said. His smile had a twist in the corner of a mouth that was exactly like her own.
"Pava," she answered, looking into his green eyes with her limpid gaze veiled in that way that meant you could not read her feelings or thoughts.
"Ar't my cousin too, is it not?" a little voice piped up. He looked down at the small dark-haired head tilted up with familiar slanted blue eyes sparkling in an unfamiliar little face.
"Yes, my petal," he said lazily. "I am your cousin el Jien van Vail. Ar't well proud of it, I dareswear."
Arkyll giggled, recognising that this was a tease. He looked like Arianna when he laughed, his face plump and dimpled, his big wide mouth sweet as cherries. Then he tilted his head and looked sidelong at Pava and he was Clair and Tashka.
"And I am well proud to be your cousin!" Pava exclaimed, leaning down to tickle him under the chin. "Ar't as pretty as your mother! Has't el Jien bones, shall't be a fine soldier, my sweetheart. Just like me."
"You!" Tashka snorted scornfully, scrambling up from Imp and strolling over to laugh at Pava. "You could not even defend your own troop's position in your own region! You had to bribe us to take out Second Thiel for you."
"What way is that to speak of your sweet old senior officer, who loves you?" Pava protested, poking Tashka in the ribs. "Do not listen to him, my dear little cousin, he is jealous of my skill."
Tashka burst into loud laughter. "Skill at what? Peeling potatoes and walking like a duck? Angels' sake, Arkyllan, you must be an el Maien like Clair and me. You'll come to me to train. Look how tall you are grown! I swear you are big enough to come already!"
Arkyll hopped in front of them, delighted at this attention and turning to look eagerly at his mother. Arianna smiled reservedly, she did not like people to encourage Arkyll to be a soldier. She had brought Hanya out from behind her skirts; he was going to Tashka for a kiss.
Pava looked at the boy's angelic beautiful golden face and lifted enquiring eyes.
"This is Hanya Vashin's boy," Tashka said, pushing him gently towards Pava.
Pava drew a deep breath, he went down on one knee and put out a big hand to take Hanya's little plump hand in his own. "My dear," he said warmly. "I was the friend of your fathers and I will always be your friend too. I prithou remember it, that el Jien van Vail will always stand by you if there is any thing has't need of."
Hanya looked uncertainly up at Clair. Arianna came forward and took his hand, saying, "Mays't count on Pava as an uncle, he will always be there for you if has't need. He is a good friend."
"Yes," Clair's voice said softly behind Pava. "He is a good friend."
Pava looked back over his shoulder. He had to squint against the sun, he could not quite see Clair's face which was shadowed because it was in the sun.
"Where is that old snake?" Tashka was asking. "Did he bring his Vilandian hag?"
"He has more sense than to bring her here," Clair answered. "He wants to see you. Come in, Pava. You will be wanting your bath. Then you might take a turn in the gardens with Arianna? You must have much news of your family for her." He offered Pava his hand to help him get up; his sword hand. His face came out of the sun and Pava saw the warm hopeful hurt look in his slanted grey eyes, the quirk his thin mouth made as if he might smile that rare very sweet smile. Pava took Clair's hand and hauled himself to his feet, then, keeping hold of Clair's arm, pulled his brother officer into his embrace. He held Clair's lean wiry frame close to his big dusty chest, breathed in the scent of the oil that Clair used for his hair - so familiar from the days when they had shared the Lieutenants' tent in Fourth Sietter. "Angels! el Maien," Pava drawled, "a bath is the least cans't offer me after I have had to endure fording your river because your rotten bridge was down. I hope there is a clean shirt in this castle of yours, that pale Angel of a junior officer of ours made me come all this way without any clean clothes!"
"If we had waited for that great wagon of all your wardrobe, we would not have arrived here until next week!" Tashka exclaimed. "Where is Ladda? Where is Petra? I must see Basra about Imp's lead, why has he been allowed to chew it through."
"Musts't go see van Sietter first," Arianna put in, an anxious expression clouding her blue eyes. "He will be displeased if makes't him wait while goes't to see servants about the castle."
Tashka's lip curled scornfully and an obstinate look came into the slanted blue eyes staring into Arianna's round blue eyes.
"I prithou," Clair took Tashka's arm. "Go to see the old snake or he will make trouble for Anna."
Tashka grimaced, exquisite eyes and rose-petal mouth screwing up in annoyance. "Best get it over with. I shall not make him wait while I have a bath!" Arianna made to say something but Clair shook his head at her. They all followed the tall lean figure of the young officer with the little dog running alongside into the castle. Arianna was looking askance at the back of Tashka's blue linen shirt which had dark patches of sweat and dirt on it, the dusty riding boots and saddle-grimed breeches disappearing into the dim huge entrance hall ahead of them.
Tashka moved quickly through the castle corridors to the inner courtyard, mounted the stairs to the veranda in a few bounds and walked slowly up to the thin pale Lord in a green and yellow silk robe who was standing by the great bed-chamber.
Lord van Sietter spoke in tones dripping with sarcasm and scorn: "My lovely daughter Anastelle, the flower of our family honour. Always such a pleasure to see your delicate and graceful figure. Do come in."
Tashka's head winced aside at the mocking tone of his address. 'Scum,' she thought bitterly but she followed him into the great bed-chamber in silence, Imp trotting close at her heels.
"Will you call for some tea?" van Sietter suggested, settling back in a carved wooden chair with a rustle of green and yellow silk. He leant his elbow on the arm of the chair, his chin in his hand, and examined Tashka with cold round grey eyes. She did not bear any resemblance to him; the Northern cast to her features made of her a different being to her father. It was debatable whether her fine-boned lean frame was his - and indeed this had been a longstanding subject of violent dispute. She had well developed muscles from the active soldier's life she led and this made her tall body look quite different to his thin pale frame.
"Have you any ale here?" she asked, wiping her ungloved hand across her sweaty dusty brow.
"It is hardly a Lady's drink," Lord van Sietter replied with a chilling sneer, "but then you are hardly a Lady. I believe that jug has ale in it."
Tashka crossed to the sideboard and poured herself a brimming bowl of ale from a blue-glazed jug. She took a quick thirsty draught and turned to walk back to her father. As always, the way he looked at her made her feel awkward. She went nervously to the stool placed opposite him, she who would normally stride out with such a confident swing of the hips. She felt as if her boots were too big and was worried she would trip in them. She gripped her bowl of ale in scarred fingers that seemed suddenly clumsy. She ran her other hand over her cropped hair and was conscious of how short it was, she felt it ought to have been longer and then she might have been able to hide behind it.
She seated herself cautiously on the low stool opposite van Sietter's carved chair, giving her rapier an easy flick as she did so, so that it would not catch on the back of her legs. Imp sat leaning against her leg.
'It is like the old snake to make sure I am seated on a stool like a child brought in for a scolding,' Tashka thought, her eyes narrowing up. She stretched her tired legs insolently out instead of huddling them up under her chin.
Lord van Sietter's round eyes looked closely at her dusty thigh-length riding boots, one eyebrow raised. His glance flicked over her saddle-grimed breeches, her sword and dagger in her belt, her close-cropped head and the sweaty loose blue linen shirt which failed to outline any feminine curve of breasts she might have. His face fell into a haughty expression of distaste.
Tashka had a dreadful impulse to burst out laughing. 'What a game,' she thought, looking idly aside to where a sunbeam fell through the window from the veranda. She felt so much better that she even scraped together the courage to get up and drag the stool aside with one foot, using it to put her bowl of ale on while she pulled another carved chair over to face her father.
"I have been waiting on you a week more than the date I bid you be here," Lord van Sietter said coldly.
"It is as I wrote Clair. I had business to settle in my troop before I could get leave," Tashka replied shortly. She thought wistfully of their last manoeuvre: discussing how to approach Second Thiel with Vadya and the other Captains around the campaign table covered in maps, patiently explaining their strategy and each Unit's role in it to the Lieutenants, going around the woods in the Vail sunshine and ensuring that hundreds of men were in their proper place for Vadya el Gaiel van H'las' signal.
"Well," van Sietter's voice was suddenly amused. She looked nervously back at him. His thin fair face was alight with his cruel humour. "Now that I look at you again, I see that it hardly matters. You are even more of a man than the little whelp who ran away three years ago."
Tashka bit her lip, her beautiful slanted blue eyes crumpled in a frown.
"You know young el Gaiel van H'las, I believe," van Sietter was saying.
"You know it well that he is my Commander," Tashka said impatiently.
"Is he?" van Sietter remarked. "I did not realise it was the H'las army you played in."
'Liar,' Tashka thought.
"His father and I ... ah, yes, you must know his father too."
"Lord Esha is my sworn General, yes," Tashka said drily.
"Your sworn General, eh? What does that mean, I wonder?"
"I will die for him," Tashka answered casually. "Whereas I will never lift my smallest finger for you."
The room became very quiet. Outside, Tashka heard voices, she thought it was Clair and Pava. Imp leant his head against her leg, peering up at her with button-bright eyes in the hope that she might scratch his ears. Tashka gripped her bowl of ale without daring to drink from it, waiting to hear what punishment would fall on her head for this insolence.
"van H'las has come to me with the stupidest idea I have heard in my life," her father's cool dry voice was perfectly controlled. "He has asked for my daughter's hand for his son."
Tashka's head whipped up, she leapt to her feet and her bowl of ale crashed to the floor. Imp sprang up with a sharp bark.
"Heavens, what a mess," van Sietter said, peering in distaste at the foaming puddle of ale and the broken bits of bowl on the wooden floor.