More from The Swans of Wastewoods again, further on and further in.
Breakfast was a quick repast, bread and meat and fruit with ale and water, and eaten standing or sitting about informally in casual groups, booted and spurred and ready for the road. The pavilions were already down and gone with the large advance party onwards to the next camp.
They were soon mounted again and on their way. The Wild Woods were well named Achlys reflected as she narrowly missed being unhorsed by a low-hanging branch. There was sufficient room only to ride single file or two abreast for a good part of the way along the rather rudimentary road . Skitterings and rustlings accompanied them from the undergrowth between the trees.
“There sounds to be game aplenty if you care to call a hunt after our midday repast, Lucien.” Uriel’s voice cut across the petty squabbling and needling that the bored younger siblings were carrying on amongst themselves.
“A fine idea. I’d not be averse to going on foot for a while.” Melchor shifted restlessly in his saddle. Despite his lawyerly inclinations, he preferred vigorous athletic pursuits to this plodding business.
“Done. We shall spend the afternoon coursing.” Lucien hailed his man and charged him with a message to take ahead so that all would be made ready for the afternoon’s sport.
At the prospect of a hunt the brothers lost all trace of bored irritability, and squabbles were forgotten in pleasurable anticipation.
Achlys and Elaine exchanged glances for neither of them liked hunting as a rule. “But I’d rather they hunted than fought in that maddening way all day.” Elaine’s undertone was heard by none of the boys but Blaike, riding just behind them, and her twin grinned at her, his mischievous look also encompassing Achlys.
“Remember when you came after us in the little donkey cart father had given you?” His smile widened. “That day, when –” Elaine reached over and rapped the butt of her whip over his knuckles, and he let out a peal of mirth. Even Achlys had to laugh quietly at that particular memory. Blaike would not be silenced. “I can still see your little legs waving from the gorse bushes as the donkey made off. We only ever found a single shaft of the wagon. And ne’er another sign seen of the beast.” The other princes turned at the rare sound of Blaike’s laughter, and caught the tail end of his reminiscence.
The laugh rippled across the whole group. “How angry father was when the dogs picked up the donkey’s scent and tore after it.” Uriel guffawed anew at the memory.
“It was my first official royal hunt. I learned many new words that day as father watched the quarry escape over the rise.” Argider slapped his thigh.
“Many’s the time since that I wished for a winsome face and big blue eyes spilling salted tears to save me from father’s wrath.” Epifanio grinned over at Endrid.
“So father could dandle you on his knee and wipe your tears away instead of cuffing you soundly over the ear as you deserved.” Endrit burst out laughing at the picture he conjured up.
“And you wonder why I dislike hunting.” Elaine pursed her lips and urged her horse to a canter to escape their raillery. But her brothers’ good humour was infectious and she began giggling as they came after her, still teasing her.
Achlys stole a brief sidelong glance at Blaike who had manoeuvred himself to ride at her left during the banter. They remained ambling a little behind the group. “I wonder whatever happened to that fox, Achlys.” He carried his reins in his left hand and his gaze wandered towards her left hand resting on her thigh. A wistful smile touched his lips as he ran his finger over the curved white scar on the back of her hand, below the base of her little finger. “It bled so much, I was sure you were going to die.”
Achlys tasted afresh her own fear at the sudden pain of it, and the wonder as she realised that the poor wild thing was suffering more than she was. So Blaike remembered as clearly as she did. As she had gentled the creature with its savage little teeth sunk deep into her hand, and could feel the frantic heartbeats slowing through the warm, trembling body, Blaike had come running through the trees at the sound of her cry.
“You still held it so tenderly, though it hurt you so badly.” His voice had dropped almost to a whisper and the horses slowed to a walk. “Are you still so forgiving, Achlys?”
She could feel a blush rising as the confused feelings of that twelve year old girl again overtook her. Her skin tingled at the memory of Blaike gently prising the clamped jaws from her hand. He had his used own mantle to staunch the bleeding and murmured comforting words as he did so, as gentle as her mother had ever been. He had sat cradling her as she had cradled the little animal, waiting for the bleeding to stop. Even then at thirteen he had the body of a man, and he had finally carried her all the way to the palace. Memnon, refuge in many a scrape, had tended her wound and bound it up, asking no questions but with a knowing smile playing about his lips as he worked.
She lifted her gaze momentarily to Blaike’s face and saw that he was back there with her, feeling again the indefinable change in their thoughts of each other that came about that day. She had wondered then if he had felt it too and now she knew. And now he knew everything that was in her heart for him, for she was no longer able to hide it.
“Hurry up you, two, dawdling back there like two old women,” Kiran’s voice floated back to them. The camp where they were stopping to dine was visible through the trees ahead, and Blaike and Achlys touched their horses to a canter to catch up with the rest.
It was a merry meal in the end, and a quick one, for the princes were eager to begin the afternoon’s sport. They gathered with their retinue, bows on their backs and quivers full, and set off between the trees. It never ceased to amuse Achlys that the ebullient princes could also travel in such silence and self-containment as the chase required.
Achlys and Elaine were to follow on horseback and meet them at the night camp. They rode in silence a good part of the journey, but their ears were listening always for the muffled sounds of the hunt: the occasional sound of the horn, the scuffling runs as the quarry was cornered, the cheers at a kill. The sound seemed to carry far and echo curiously amidst the trees.
Then the sounds abruptly changed. Elaine spurred her horse, and made towards the clashing and shouting ahead, and Achlys followed. Leaping from their horses before the animals had even come to a halt, they ran to the edge of a small clearing. Achlys pulled Elaine back and they crouched in the thick bushes, transfixed with horror.
The Swans of Wastewoods, which uses the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Wild Swans as a starting point.
A little extract:
They were teasing Blaike again, ten ranged against one. Good natured enough, and as usual Blaike was almost effortlessly winning the verbal jousting, but nevertheless Achlys rebuked them gently. “My princes! Let be, he is one, you are many. And the king summons you to his presence.”
The ten golden princes laughed uproariously. “We are the ones who need rescuing, as you well know, Achlys. But we hear and obey,” called Lucien, the eldest.
They fell into their habitual groups, flung their arms round each other’s shoulders and wandered off back towards the palace, and she watched their intermittent horseplay as they disappeared through the garden gate.
Achlys was unable to hide her smile. True sons of their father, they were like the sun, bright and beautiful. Large and bold, as vibrant and uncomplicated and buoyant as a spring day, and as refreshing. They were as the spring of fresh water that bubbled up in the fountain in the middle of the garden yonder, unable to be held by the earth’s heavy bonds, their spirits uncontained and uncontaminated by the everyday cares and wants that subdued normal mortals.
Blaike shook his head at her. “It means naught. Even when it was children’s fisticuffs it never did.”
Achlys said nothing, but stood meekly as a servant should, back straight, head bowed and hands still.
Blaike’s tone seemed to soften. “You do not need to fight my battles for me. I am a man now, Achlys.”
The smile she heard in his voice made her venture to look up and meet his gaze. Perhaps he too was remembering the many bruises she had borne in defence of him in those days before he gained the iron self-control and determined mildness that seldom slipped these days.
His dark eyes that could snap and burn so easily were alight now with gentle humour. “I know that stance. Defiance in every line. You speak eloquently with your body, Achlys, though you say no word.”
“Ah, young prince … it is the habit of years. I know you are not a child. You were never a child as your brothers were. And still are.” They both laughed a little at that.
She felt it incumbent upon her to recall him to his duty. After all, that was why she had come, somewhat reluctantly, to the garden. “You too are summoned to the king.”
“He can wait a little longer.” She knew that tone of old. In this mood it was useless to argue the point with him.
“You are not a child any more either, Lili. Do not think I have not noticed, even though you have been avoiding me since you returned with Elaine from the Halls of the Passing. Next year when we go to rule the eleven principalities, where will you go?”
Achlys felt herself blushing, for he spoke truth. And he used her childhood nickname, the one he had coined unwittingly when forming his first words with she but a babe in her mother’s arms. “The king has settled that I will stay with the princess. When your sister weds the prince of the north and goes to his kingdom, I will go with her.”
Now he took her hand and led her to the fountain. He drew her down to sit on the broad edge of the immense stone basin. Together they looked into the water, and laughed as their reflections wavered and distorted in the moving water.
He smiled at her in the water. “Both of us raven haired and white skinned. The look of my mother’s people. We are not gold but quicksilver. “
Achlys was surprised at his words. He was not usually whimsical, and spoke seldom of himself. The familiarity was regrettable, but he had always been thus. He had laughed at her rebuke not long after she and Elaine returned from the Passing – avowing that he had never and did not now regard their vast difference in station. That had angered her, and she had snapped back that it was not he who would suffer if anyone noticed his lack of formality. Especially now she was a grown woman. He had laughed again at that, but had been careful, in public at any rate, to behave more decorously.
She watched his rippling reflection as she pondered. Blaike was different. He was as tall as his brothers, but dark and lithe. Despite his carefully cultivated evenness of temper, underneath he remained mercurial and tempestuous, his mother’s son through and through. He was a coiled whip, or a sharp sword. The golden sun, like the older princes, was mild for all its brightness. She doubted that at heart Blaike was really mild at all, despite his careful façade. He was hot tempered, brave and fierce. His clever wit was sharp and sometimes wounding … though always he spoke the truth with it and that sometimes robbed it of some of its sting. He was not sportive like his brothers, who still, despite their young manhood, reminded Achlys often of puppies, squabbling and wrestling playfully amongst themselves, though they were all older than he. Blaike had a lonely restlessness, a craving for — Achlys could not name it but she knew of it, for she felt something of the same herself.
She searched her mind for words to fill the extending silence, words that might please him. “When the queen bore you, seeing your darkness so like her own, she felt suddenly lonely for her own people. So the good king brought my mother from her country as companion to the queen and nurse for you.”
He was frowning at her now, seeming sceptical. “How could you know this? You were born after me. In all our years together you have never told me this tale.”
“I did not say I was there, lord. It is a story I heard from my mother.”
“Do you have any more stories from your mother?” He was smiling a little now, and her irritation dissolved.
“My mother said you and the princess were the perfect expression of the great love your mother grew in her for your father. Her last, best gift to him. She poured her own life into you.” She looked up at him, sitting so close to her. “You were her most loved child of all.” She could not help but touch a hand to his lean cheek, rough with the day’s beard. So unlike the still downy softness of many of his brothers’, despite his barely eighteen years.
“Even more loved than the Princess Elaine.” Now she sought to lighten his grave look. “But these are only my mother’s tales, as you say. And you were always my mother’s favourite.” She could not resist teasing him a little, for his twin sister was like a tiny golden doll, exquisite from the day of her birth, and the queen had doted on her.
He laughed at that, and kissed her hand lightly. “Sweet Lili.” She jumped up and started away from him, but he instantly followed, caught her hand more firmly and made to draw her back. “Do not run from me.” She saw something in the depths of his eyes that shook her.
“Do not play with me, lord, the way your brothers sport. It is not fitting.” Achlys could not hide her hurt. She knew it must show on her face.
“Why is it any different?” His voice compelled her to answer. But she could not. Her heart fluttered too hard in her throat.
He would not let her go, though she pulled against his grip. There was no laughter in his voice now. “Perhaps you know I am not playing.”
“If you are not, then it is even less fitting.”
The sound of merry voices in the distance caused them to separate.
“Elaine,” Blaike called out to his sister, and went towards her as she fluttered at the centre of a knot of courtiers, outshining them all. She broke away from the group and ran towards him.
When they met she took his hands in hers. “It is happening at last, brother. The prince of the north and his mother are coming to visit father. Their messengers just arrived tell us they are only days away. Father summons all the princes to himself. Where are the others?”
“They have gone to the palace already.” Blaike drew his sister’s arm through his as they hastened back to the castle together. The chattering courtiers followed. Achlys was intensely grateful that Blaike had drawn the crowd away from her. She sat down quietly again on the edge of the fountain to collect her thoughts.
A little aperitif:
“I must thank you sir, your household has been sadly put out by me, I fear. They have been the soul of kindness, with every care for my comfort.”
“Well do not sound so surprised about it. Did you expect me to keep the same sort of mean establishment as your father?”
She was taken aback by the harshness of his tone. “I don’t know what I expected, my lord. I merely wished to express my gratitude.”
“Cut line, girl. I am here to tell you what happens next. I have procured a special licence and engaged a minister this afternoon. He is to be here presently to wed us. I have sent a notice to The Times announcing that our wedding was held quietly today. You will leave tomorrow for Hale Park – my seat in Hampshire, you know.” His voice was cynical. “No fuel there for tattle mongers.”
“Oh, really.” Indignation flamed in Sarah at this high-handedness. “Why should you care so much about my reputation?”
“Well, I wouldn’t give it another thought usually.” He smiled a little but his eyes remained hard. “But no person of ton would receive any girl who spent time under the roof of a notorious rake such as myself without being properly leg-shackled to him first. It really isn’t the done thing you know.”
“My lord, I am very grateful for your solicitude, but could I not leave now? No-one would be any the wiser. I am quite well now, I assure you. I do not wish to marry you, though I thank you again for your offer.” She raised her chin defiantly, waiting for his outburst of wrath.
He stared at her for a pregnant moment. “When I met you I took you for a woman of considerable sense, probably more than is good for any woman. What choice do you have? Where the deuce are you going to go? Back to your brother? There is no more to be said in the matter.”
Her lip curled. “My lord, I have lived all my life in the house of a libertine, and have loathed every moment. I would rather live an outcast than marry you or anyone else to preserve my reputation. You know as well as I that you could easily make some other arrangement for me that does not involving me returning to my home or marrying you.” She lay back on her pillows white to the lips.
But Lord Hale sounded faintly amused. “But why should I? The arrangement that best suits me has been made. Don’t overestimate my philanthropy. There is still the little matter of that fortune, my dear.”
He took her hand in his, and gripped it very firmly when she tried to pull free. “I will be back with the parson. You will be safe with me. I look after everything that is mine.” He kissed her fingertips, bowed slightly, and strode towards the door.
“One moment my lord.” Sarah was at her most imperious.
He turned back to her, brows raised interrogatively.
“I’ll not be wed in my nightgown sir. May I have my clothes back please?” Her voice was cold.
Lord Hale came back to the end of the bed, and again leaned on the bedpost, regarding her shrewdly. “If I may have your promise that you’ll not make any harebrained attempt to leave this house between now and our wedding, then, yes, you may. Otherwise, your nightgown it is.”
Sarah stared back angrily at him. She was not a whit mollified by the slight smile that twitched the corners of his mouth as he observed her struggle with herself.
She had to concede. “I promise. But may I at least be permitted to come downstairs? It does not look well sir, a lady being married in her bedchamber to a notorious rake, however she may be clothed.”
He laughed outright at her brazenness. “Indeed you are right ma’am. I will have Mrs. Hackett attend to your needs and bring you down to the library.” He bowed slightly again, and strode out.
Insufferable. He simply rides roughshod over any opposition, sneering all the while. Any fear she may have felt was completely consumed by her anger at this cavalier treatment.
She was still fuming when the redoubtable housekeeper entered the room, followed by a pretty young chambermaid. Of course. Disgusted, Sarah threw back the coverlet.