Tiger, Tiger – Part eight

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Lilavati knew Sieglinde was watching her as she worked, so she took great care not to embarrass herself by doing something so stupid as cut or burn her fingers. “Great Lady, how did you learn to cook?” Sieglinde asked from her corner.

“My family was reluctant to let me eat with them because of how ugly I am,” Lilavati said. “So I needed to take care of my own needs. At first I went to the kitchen and the slaves fed me. Then I grew tired of that. So I had one of them teach me to cook. While my family ate what they wished, I was able to do the same.”

“Slaves, Great Lady? Your people keep slaves?” Sieglinde asked. She seemed very disturbed by the idea.

“Sieglinde, Manas gave my father one hundred slaves as part of my bride price,” Lilavati said. “Did you not know that?”

Sieglinde looked ill. “I know the Great Lord said he was going to have to do it, in order to secure you, but I didn’t think he was serious.”

“Slavery is a way of life among my people,” Lilavati said. “Just as servants instead of slaves is a way of life among yours.”

Sieglinde shook her head. “I keep forgetting that not all lands are like the Great Lord’s.” She smiled ruefully. “I wish it were so, for Phiri Hu is a paradise as far as I am concerned.”

“But will I find it so?” Lilavati asked. “I am not the same as you, Sieglinde. As you pointed out, all lands are different and what you consider paradise I might consider part of the eleven hells.”

“Eleven hells Great Lady?” Sieglinde asked. “Is that part of your religion?”

“It is, though I’ve never really given much thought or care for it,” Lilavati said. “The gods cursed me with this face, though they gifted me with cleverness, grace, and an honorable streak that has gotten me into trouble more than once because I wouldn’t divulge secrets I was given in confidence.”

“You can keep a secret well then,” Sieglinde said.

Lilavati nodded. “I find that keeping them is far easier than explaining to the person who confided in me why I broke their trust.”

“Great Lady, do you wish to know anything about where we’re going?” Sieglinde asked.

“Actually, yes I do,” Lilavati said as she stirred the tiny pot that rested over the coals. “I have several questions, though I don’t know how many you can answer. My first is why must we be locked away at night?”

Sieglinde hesitated. “Great Lady, I think that is something best left until we get to Phiri Hu. That is for the Great Lord to explain, as it is his orders.”

Lilavati nodded. “I thought as much.” She tasted what she was cooking. The spices were different from what she was used to, but it wasn’t bad. It didn’t look like the meat was all the way rehydrated yet so she continued stirring. “Sieglinde, is there a curse at work here?”

Sieglinde choked. “Great Lady?”

Lilavati shook her head. “Sieglinde, Manas chose me because I’m intelligent. I’m not a fool. We have to be sealed away in our tents by nightfall. We can’t leave else Manas can’t guarantee our safety. We are still near enough to my city for me to know there are no night prowling beasts here that could harm us. So, the only reason for this edict is because there is some kind of curse at work.”

“I can’t confirm that, Great Lady,” Sieglinde said. “Or deny it. That is something you’ll have to ask the Great Lord in the morning.”

“I believe I shall,” Lilavati asked. The meat looked like it was through cooking and she pulled the pot off the fire. She hooked it to the cunning little bracket on the tripod that held it. She scooped the contents out into a bowl to let it cool a bit before eating. “Sieglinde, everyone here is so pale?”

Sieglinde laughed. “It’s because we come from a land that isn’t as hot as yours, Great Lady. The sun doesn’t bake us. It gives us light and gentle warmth. It feeds our crops, as does the rain.”

“Rain?” Lilavati sat up. “You have rain?”

“Of course, Great Lady. Do you not see that here?”

“We do, but not often. It is a moment of great rejoicing when it does come,” Lilavati said. “It shows the Thousand Gods are pleased with us.”

“You have a thousand gods?” Sieglinde asked. “We only have twelve.”

Lilavati laughed. “I doubt there are really a thousand. But as I said, I question the validity of our religion. I have seen no miracles, no proof of the power of our priests and priestesses. They have given me no answers as to why I was cursed. So I have no desire to pursue a relationship with the gods of my people.”

“Perhaps the Twelve will give you an answer,” Sieglinde said. “They are very close to our people, Great Lady. You will have to learn their ways and how to honor them. But it isn’t hard and I think you’ll find them far more responsive than you’re used to.”

“That sounds quite intriguing, Sieglinde. Now, another question. Just how much water do you have in Phiri Hu?” Lilavati asked.

“Oh, we have lakes that span miles, Great Lady,” Sieglinde said. “And rivers as wild as anything you’ve seen. Phiri Hu even borders the sea, though I’ve never seen it.”

“The sea?” Lilavati felt a rush of excitement. “I’ve wanted to go there since I was a little girl and first learned of it in one of the books I purchased from a merchant of the east.”

“Perhaps the Great Lord will take you there one day,” Sieglinde said.

“That I would love,” Lilavati said.

 

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Tiger, Tiger – Part Two

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Lilavati opened her bedroom door and found her mother sitting on her bed. “What did he offer? Some trifle?” her mother asked angrily. Lilavati told her. Her mother snorted. “He won’t deliver that.”

“Then father will not let him take me,” Lilavati said. “But I think Manas is an honorable man, Mother. He’ll keep his word.”

“Manas? That’s his name?” Her mother seemed surprised. “He wouldn’t give his name to anyone, other than your father.”

“I asked him for a name of the man I was marrying. He gave it to me,” Lilavati said. “Father sent me in to prepare myself since I’ll be leaving at seven tolls in the morning. Please excuse me.” She started pulling things out of the chests and the many drawers and cabinets. She packed those things she wished to keep at the bottom of the saddle bags she’d been given.

Then she went to her clothing. She looked at it all. She chose the least ragged outfits, though not were in very good repair. “You’ll look like a pauper in those dresses,” her mother said.

“Well if you and father took care of me the way you do Kavi and Uma, I would have a far finer wardrobe,” Lilavati shot back. She finished packing and carried her bags to her father for inspection. He looked inside and handed Lilavati a large pouch of coins.

“No daughter of mine will look as if she stepped out of a poor man’s hovel,” her father said. “Go purchase a wardrobe fit for the treasure you are.”

“Yes Father,” Lilavati said. She once again left the house and went to the dressmaker her mother used. He was shocked to see her, but quickly helped her find several beautiful outfits. She hesitated, but decided to get the crimson and silver outfit that wasn’t quite a wedding dress that would if Manas didn’t provide her with anything.

She took all of her purchases home and presented them to her father. “These are far more suitable,” he said. He helped her pack them into her saddlebags. “It is time for our evening meal. You will join us.”

“Yes Father,” Lilavati said.

The meal was strained. It was obvious her mother didn’t approve of the match. Kavi and Uma looked confused. Finally, after the last of the dishes had been cleared away and the adults were drinking their after meal glasses of scolak while the younger two had mugs of fresh milk, her father cleared his throat. “Lilavati is leaving us. She will be joining the man she is going to marry and traveling to his lands tomorrow before we normally rise. We won’t be attending her wedding, at the request of her husband-to-be. Now, come with me.”

Everyone rose and followed him out to the back courtyard. Lilavati smiled. There were all of the slaves, the horses were being led to the stables, and the bags of gold coins were being hustled into her father’s treasure room by several of his personal slaves. They were carefully watched by his slave master and his master of coin.

“The full bride price was paid,” her mother said, shock in her voice and on her face.

“It was,” her father said. “You thought differently?”

“Who would pay such a high price for someone so ugly?” her mother asked.

“His idea of beauty is different from ours,” her father said. “So this is his response to liking what he saw in Lilavati.” He turned to her. “Are you prepared?”

“As much as I can be, Father.”

“Then go to bed. I’ll send someone to wake you early enough to dress before he comes for you,” her father said.

“Gods bless your dreams,” Kavi said, hugging her. “And your journey.”

“Gods bless your dreams, Kavi,” Lilavati said, returning the embrace. She planted a kiss on the top of his head before making her way to her bedroom.

to be continued…

Racing the Wind, Part 6

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The skies were gray, but Angharad didn’t care. It had taken three long months but the day had finally come. Her mother fastened the lace covered gown and ran a brush through her daughter’s golden curls.

“You look beautiful, Angharad,” Lady Moirea said. “I think this is the first time I have seen you in anything so fine.”

“Yes, and unless my husband insists I go to court I won’t wear anything like this again,” Angharad said. “This is too easily damaged.”

“You are too rough and wild,” Lady Moirea said. “Your father did you no favors by letting you run free.”

“Mother, you’ve been saying that for years. Nothing will change the past, and I now have a husband who loves me for my spirit and will let me be who I am,” Angharad said. She turned and smiled at her mother. “You’re a wonderful chatelaine and absolutely brilliant when it comes to solving problems for the tenant farmers. I can only hope that, when the time comes, Eridan and I will be able to do half as good as you and father.”

Lady Moirea laughed and hugged her daughter, keeping an eye on the dress. “You two will rule in your own way, and do a good job. You work well together and know how to compromise, though sometimes you don’t right now.”

Angharad smiled ruefully. She and Eridan had their fair share of arguments over the past few months, mostly because both were equally as stubborn and when one got an idea in their head they didn’t want to give it up.

There was a knock on the door. Lord Idwal poked his head in. “Moirea, I need Angharad. She has one last custom she must fulfill before the ceremony. Eridan is already outside.”

“What does she have to do?” Moirea asked, puzzled.

“The Heir’s Climb,” Angharad said.

“Not the pyre,” Moirea said, her face aghast. “She’ll destroy her dress and injure herself. She could die.”

“If I’m careful I won’t,” Angharad said. “I can do this, Mother.” Lady Moirea still looked doubtful but followed when Idwal led his daughter out of the room.

Eridan stood not far from the huge pile of wood. “Your father told me about the custom. Are you sure you can do this?” he asked.

“It’s not as hard as it looks,” Angharad said. “I’ve scaled this thing dozens of times, even though I wasn’t supposed to. I knew my day would come and I wanted to be prepared.”

“Yes, but you weren’t constricted by a gown with a long, flowing skirt,” Eridan said. He gripped Angharad’s shoulders. “Please don’t make me watch another person I care about burn to death.” This was whispered in her ear.

“I won’t,” Angharad promised.

Angharad joined her father at the edge of the towering pile of wood. “Are you ready for this?” Lord Idwal asked in a low voice. Angharad just shrugged. Lord Idwal cleared his throat. “Angharad, daughter of Idwal, granddaughter of Oran, it is time to take your place as the inheritor of these lands.” He handed her a lit torch. “Climb as high as you can and light the fire.”

Angharad stared at the oil soaked wood. She looked down at her skirt and train. She reached down and looped the delicate lace over the arm that wasn’t on the side with the torch and began to climb.

Eridan had been right. It was much harder with the dress than her usual outfit. She didn’t get very far up before she realized if she went any higher she would tear something. She paused and then dropped her skirt. She let everything flow around her. “I am Angharad, daughter of Idwal, granddaughter of Oran. I claim Heir’s Rights as proclaimed by the ancient Laws of Blood.” She took a deep breath and hurled the torch as high as she could. It struck the wood and lit it immediately.

Angharad grabbed her skirt again and started climbing down. She moved as fast as she could, but between her gown and her more fragile shoes she was slowed more than she’d expected. She felt the heat as it got closer. She looked up and saw the flames were crawling closer to her outstretched hand.

She increased her speed, trying not to tangle herself in her skirt. Though she hadn’t climbed as high as she’d planned, the branches snagged at the fabric and she had to work it loose. It was slowing her descent just enough that the fire was catching up to her. The roar was drowning out everything below her.

She paused to untangle her skirt for the hundredth time when her upper hand erupted in pain. She screamed and yanked it down, forgetting her skirt in an attempt to brace herself. Her hand was badly burned. It wouldn’t hold her weight anymore.

She looked up. The flames were coming for her like an eager monster seeking to devour her. She glanced down, saw Eridan’s stricken face, the horror on her mother’s, the glee on her brother’s, the pain on her father’s. She gauged the distance to the ground. Taking a deep breath she let go of the wood and jumped.

She struck the ground and rolled. Eridan was at her side in a moment. “Angharad, Angharad, answer me,” he said.

Angharad dragged herself to her feet. “I’m alive,” she said, holding her hand against her chest. She took a moment to assess the rest of the damage to her body. “I’ve been burned badly, and I’ll be a lovely shade of purple in several places, but that’s it,” she said, leaning against Eridan as he held her.

“Let me see the hand,” the house mage said. Angharad held it out while Eridan only shifted his position enough to let her do it. The mage held his hands over it and muttered some strange words under his breath. The pain faded and as she watched the angry red color vanished. The blisters sank back into her skin, though they left behind terrible scarring. When the mage pulled his hands back, the only sign of the burn was the severe scars. “I can’t get rid of the scars. You’re stuck with them for life. But now the wedding can continue as planned.”

“After that fall? Angharad needs to rest. We have to postpone the ceremony until tomorrow,” Lady Moirea protested.

“If we do that, she’ll have to do this again,” Lord Idwal said. “She might not survive.”

“I’m fine, Mother,” Angharad said. “I want to go through with this.”

“All right,” Lady Moirea said.

Eridan wrapped one arm around her waist and held out his other so she could brace herself on it. “You’re hurt worse than you’re saying,” he whispered.

“I am, but as father says, I’d have to do this tomorrow and I don’t want to risk my life two days in a row,” Angharad said.

“Then let’s get this over with so I can get you to the healers,” Eridan said.

“That sounds like a great idea,” Angharad said. She rested most of her weight on her almost-husband and smiled. The gods had finally answered her prayers, though they’d tried to claim her life as their payment. Life with her beloved would be interesting, but it would definitely be worth every moment.

 

Racing the Wind, Part 3

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Angharad gave Eridan a few days to recover from his journey before approaching him. “Are you ready for the first challenge?” she asked.

“I am,” he said, smiling. She loved how his eyes lit up and the scar puckered at the corner of his mouth. It gave his face character. Her brother called him ugly. He wasn’t handsome, but his face was intriguing and proved he was more than just another nobleman trying to add to his holdings. “What is this challenge?”

“Catching and riding one of the wild horses that roam the lands around our keep,” Angharad said. “They are notoriously difficult to handle, and any man who can tame one can hold my wild heart in his.”

“I will endeavor to do well in this, to please you and win your hand,” Eridan said, bowing.

Angharad blushed. She’d never blushed with any of her other suitors. She’d despised them. “Follow me,” she said, turning her back on him to hide her face. She led him down and out of the keep.

Two horses were saddled and waiting for them, all of the tools they’d need strapped to their saddles. She admired his horse once again. It was a beautiful animal. The blackness of its hide was so intense it swallowed the light.

Eridan mounted and waited for her to do the same. “Where do we ride?” he asked.

“I cannot say, for the location of the valley they dwell in is a secret I must keep from everyone but my suitors,” Angharad said. “And you must swear on the gods that you won’t tell anyone no matter the outcome of the challenges.”

“I so swear,” Eridan said solemnly.

“Then follow me,” Angharad said. She nudged her horse with her heels and pulled the reins to the left. She led the horse out of the keep’s gate and down the road.

It took three hours to get to the valley. Eridan made no complaint. He was so much better than any of her other suitors. She prayed to the gods he would win the challenges. She’d never wanted someone as much as she wanted him.

“They’re beautiful,” he said, breaking into her musings as they reached the entrance to the valley. The horses were milling around in plain sight.

She took a moment to admire the gorgeous scene. “They are,” she agreed. “This has always been one of my favorite places to come, even when I’m not trying to wrangle them. My father brought me here as soon as I got to an age where I could choose one to train so I could ride it.” She patted her horse’s neck. “Sinowa came from here. She’s one of the horses I caught during the challenges.”

“What do you do with the horses we catch?” Eridan asked.

“We sell them, unless one of the suitors wants theirs,” Angharad said. She dismounted, tying and hobbling her. Eridan followed her example. She grabbed her gear and led Eridan into the valley. “You go to the right. I go to the left. You have until the sun reaches its zenith to succeed or fail at the challenge.” Eridan nodded and slipped off.

Angharad made her way around the edge of the valley, searching for the perfect horse. Her mother was in need of a new one. Lady Moirea’s little mare was older than Angharad and the poor thing needed to be put out to pasture.

She saw a flash of white and focused on it. She saw a mare with a dark gray hide and a white mane and tail. She was something to behold, and she thought her mother would love her.

She shook the rope loose from her shoulder and began spinning it in the air. She flipped her wrist and sent the loop winging through the air. It wrapped around the horse’s neck and she caught it on the first try.

Of course the mare protested violently and Angharad was pulled in several directions. She gritted her teeth, planted her feet, braced herself, and leaned back with all her weight.

The horse finally stopped moving, but Angharad didn’t trust her. She kept the rope taut as she moved closer. As she got within arm’s reach the mare struck out with her teeth, trying to bite whatever she could reach. Angharad smacked her nose, something that startled the young mare.

“You keep to yourself, young miss,” Angharad said in a soft voice. She moved closer and began rubbing the horse’s neck. “You’re a pretty girl, aren’t you? Just think how gorgeous you’d be decked out in my family’s colors.”

Angharad pulled the saddle blanket off her back and tossed it over the horse’s back. The mare shied away, shaking to rid herself of the blanket. Angharad went over, picked it up, and put it back on the mare. She shook it off again.

It took nearly an hour before the horse finally let her put the blanket on. She walked the mare around, letting her get used to the blanket and the rope around her neck. Next came one of the hard parts. She pulled out a hackamore and tried to slip it over the mare’s face.

The mare was having none of that. She tried to bite Angharad again. She got smacked in the nose for her efforts. “I told you that wasn’t going to get you anywhere,” Angharad said. “Now, this isn’t all that bad. At least it isn’t the regular bridle. I strongly doubt you’d appreciate the standard bit and bridle.”

She glanced at the sky. She didn’t have much time left. She continued trying and finally got the hackamore on. She cut the walk short, only going in circles for a few minutes before taking hold of the reins attached to the hackamore and climbing on the horse’s back.

The mare exploded into a flurry of kicks and bucking. Angharad held on for dear life. She waited until the horse wore herself out. She tugged on the right hand rein and nudged the horse with her right foot. The horse turned to the right and started walking back towards the mouth of the valley.

Angharad reached the rendezvous spot and saw Eridan sitting astride a dark brown mare with white patches on the rump. “She gave me a lot of trouble,” he said as she came up. There was a fresh cut on his face and he was leaning forward a little. “But I got her before the time was up.”

Angharad smiled. “That’s wonderful,” she said. “Let’s tie these two to the backs of our saddles and take them home.”

“That sounds perfect,” Eridan said. They put words into actions and headed back to the keep.

To be continued…….

Racing the Wind, Part 1

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Angharad laughed as Pirion tried to keep up with her. “You won’t win my hand that way,” she taunted, golden curls trailing behind her as she ran.

“How are you so gods cursed fast?” Pirion asked, panting from the exertion.

“I do not choose to spend my time caged by the conventions that govern most women,” Angharad said. “And my father approves.”

Pirion swore as she pulled even farther ahead. “If you keep this up the fae will come claim you as their own.”

Angharad smirked. She had heard that threat so many times in the past three years it no longer bothered her. She was the swiftest runner on the Verdant Isles, and many were the suitors who’d fallen in her wake. She wanted no man who couldn’t keep up with her in any challenge she gave him, and this was only the first of three.

Angharad reached her father’s keep before Pirion. She leaned against the apple tree that was the finish line, happily eating one of the ripe fruits dangling from it. Pirion finally stumbled up to her, gasping for breath. “You are not fit to be my husband,” she said, tossing the core into the bushes. “I will so tell my father.” She turned on her heel, ignoring his spluttering, and went inside.

“Could you not give him a chance, daughter?” Lady Moirea asked, giving her eldest child an exasperated look.

“No. He is a sniveling coward who can’t hold his own against a woman,” Angharad said, sipping the mead in her mug.

Lord Idwal sighed. “Angharad, I may have to take away your right of choice if you don’t pick soon. You have four years before you pass the age of inheritance. If you aren’t married by then, the estate goes to your younger brother.”

All three of them shared a sour look. Angharad’s younger brother was a drunk and a womanizer. He would ruin the family’s name and fortune if he got hold of the property.

“Very well, father,” Angharad said with a sigh. “I’ll remove the footrace from my requirements. But my other two challenges still stand.”

“That will have to do,” Lord Idwal said.

“Angharad, the archery challenge is just as difficult as the running challenge,” Lady Moirea said. “You are the best archer in your father’s lands.”

“Yes, but I must know my husband will be physically able to protect me and our children. I will not put a lord with no military skill in charge of our lands,” Angharad said. “Father knows what happened when his great-grandfather chose that fate for his own daughter.”

Lord Idwal nodded. “Moirea, it is only by the grace of the gods that my family still holds these lands because of that mistake. Angharad has the right of it.” Lady Moirea sighed and bowed her head in acquiescence. Angharad finished her drink and left her parents to discuss the business of the lord’s demesne.

Pirion left the next day, glaring at Angharad and her father as he went. Angharad sighed. Pirion was a good looking young man. If only his wits were as sharp as his tongue. She turned to go inside when her father put a hand on her arm. “It appears we have another guest, daughter. You will wait and greet them.”

Angharad turned back to the front gate. Three riders approached her father. They stopped their horses at the prescribed spot. One rode a midnight black horse. The other two rode a pair of matched silvery gray ones. The two guards – for that is who the ones on the gray horses were – dismounted and went to the lead horse. One held the reins while the other put his hand on the hilt of his sword as his master dismounted.

The man on the black horse, who also was clad in black, approached Lord Idwal. “Lord Idwal, I have come to claim the hand of your daughter Angharad,” he said. His voice was deep but melodious.

“I will not consider any man who does not show his face,” Lord Idwal said.

The man pushed back his hood. Lord Idwal paled but Angharad was intrigued. The man bore many scars, showing he’d been in several fights. “You are a warrior, my lord?” Angharad asked.

The man smiled, the scar on the left side of his lips puckering. “I have fought in every war the Mad King has called. My liege lord saw to that. But now he has died in one of those battles, and those who were sworn to his service are free.”

“Why did you choose to come here?” Lord Idwal asked.

“I have heard that Lady Angharad is a strong willed woman, whose skill as a warrior would match my own,” the man said. “I will wed no woman who cannot at the very least defend herself and our children should I be called away to battle once more.”

“I am pleased with the way you have presented yourself,” Lord Idwal said. “What is your name, good sir?”

“I am Eridan.”

“Be welcome, Eridan, and enter,” Lord Idwal said.

“My two companions – they are the only reason I yet live – are weary from our journey. Might they take rest with your guards?” Eridan asked. “They will cause no problems. They know they owe their freedom to me.”

“My captain will see to their comfort, for it’s obvious they are veterans as you are,” Lord Idwal said. The relief on the two men’s faces made Angharad smile. One of Lord Idwal’s guards called for the stablehands, and the guard captain escorted the other two soldiers away as Angharad and her father led Eridan into the manor.

 

To be continued…………..