Stable-Boy and Swordsman
As he had done on every estate where he had worked, Agon, on his first day in Nah-nathas, woke well before dawn. Rising from his makeshift bed in the corner of the Guard’s stables, the gray-eyed man, without a word, began the tasks assigned to him. The day before, Drefan, Céogan, and the other Guard who had brought him into the city invited him to join them in their mess, even helping him set up a bed in their troop’s quarters. He had been preparing to sleep there until Bolsas arrived from the fortress and ordered him to sleep in the stables. Only members of the Guard, that captain said, could sleep in their barracks.
After Céogan had handed his cousin some blankets, Bolsas led him to the stables and instructed him to see to the horses when he woke up. Later, alone with the animals, Agon found a suitable corner and quickly fell asleep.
Only in the morning after he had begun his labors did he get a real sense of his surroundings. As if by instinct, he gravitated to the fountain he had passed just outside the stables, and splashed cool water onto his face. Finding two buckets, he dipped each into the fountain’s large basin, returning to fill the small troughs in the stalls. He had done this twelve times before the sun started to rise over the city.
He did not pause to watch its journey as he had the previous two days. Instead, he continued to work, grateful for the light, which made it easier to complete his tasks. He found hay, bringing fresh bundles into the stalls. With a hoe, he started to clean them out. The animals seemed to welcome his presence, some nuzzling up to him as he entered their stalls. He fed them with what appeared to be a mixture of oats and carrots; he had found that in a barrel amidst the bales of hay half-blocking a large wooden doorway on the north side of the stables.
The stables, he noticed, with the sun’s rays streaming in from the high windows facing east, stood inside a building immediately adjacent and perpendicular to the city gate through which he had passed when he had entered the city. This building was attached to the outer wall, as if the ramparts had just folded inward to make space for the great arched entryway. The southern wall of these stables twinned the northern wall of a building across the entrance road, creating a square canyon just inside the gate.
While he was gathering hay, Agon heard the clatter of horses’ hooves echoing as they entered that canyon, then slow on the far side of the large, apparently locked doorway in the stable wall. He guessed that there were six or seven horses. The sound abruptly stopped. He heard a man’s voice.
“What are you doing, Bolsas?”
“Waiting for you, Dursas. Bródwan wanted me to see you off.”
“I have all that I need.”
“Did Bródwan ask you to take Calan?”
“He offered to go when I went to fetch the woman I knew I would find in his bed,” Dursas returned in a matter-of-fact tone.
“You may not need a woman this close to the city; they say that Neti . . .”
“Shh. . . ,” hissed the voice belonging to Dursas. He took up again in a softer tone, “these boys shouldn’t know what doesn’t concern them.”
“They should know what we’re looking out for.”
“We don’t know that she is responsible.”
“It sounds like her; the women disappear—and then the men.”
“And who made the women disappear? If she did it, she had help. Someone had to remove the women. But who would help her?” He asked softly. Raising his voice, he added, “Rules are rules, my Captain. You seem to forget that sometimes.”
“Do I? Let me remind you of another rule. Some of these lads need Permissions.” Bolsas asked.
“We woke Gërogh; he had some ready made.”
“He just filled in the names?”
“Yes. Speak to Bródwan; the rules, as you may recall, call for him only to write them when we—or he—request them.”
“You have all the horses you need?”
“We took what we needed from the fortress stables; I won’t have to wake your new stable-boy.”
“He’s already up. I saw him drawing water well before dawn.”
“Watch that one. He may be the runaway.”
“Drefan saw his Permission.”
“But he doesn’t have that Permission, and so he sits alone in a cell in the fortress basement. Ask the boy about life at Dranda. If he did work there, he would know the names of the nobles. Cargest is lord there; he had five sons. Bródwan should know their names. As should Árath. And the boy.”
“And he would know if all five still live,” Bolsas observed.
“I hadn’t heard of any recent actions up there,” Dursas mused in a soft tone before adding sharply, “Ask the stable-boy; I would if I could, but Bródwan wants us back in three days.
“It’s a day’s ride to Brenfréa.”
“We must be on our way if we are to be there by nightfall; the road is rough near the inn.”
“Cargest,” said Agon to himself, “Cargest, I served under Cargest; my mother cooked in his kitchens.” Hearing the riders whip their horses and the clatter of the hoofbeats, he picked up a bale of hay and headed toward a far stall. Behind him, he heard a key turn into the door behind him.
“Good morning, Agon,” said the voice he had just heard beyond the door.
Turning to face Bolsas, the gray-eyed man replied, “Good morning, Lord Bolsas.”
“I’m no lord, young man, just a captain. In the city, you must learn to distinguish a lord from the Guard.”
“Yes, captain. At Dranda, Lord Cargest told us always to call our superiors, ‘lord’; we didn’t often speak with the Guard.”
“I see,” he replied. “And his children, what did you call them?“ As the captain was speaking, Agon heard the sound of hooves—this time, on the courtyard side of the stables. Both men turned.
“He had no daughter that I could recall, though women did come and go from his house, but his sons, my lor . . . my captain . . . “ A rider in the livery of the Great Lord, still on his horse, entered into the stables.
“And those sons, what were . . .”
“Captain Bolsas,” the rider interrupted.
“Yes, Selward,” he replied, turning away.
“Lord Bródwan wants you to come to the fortress.”
“Just a minute,” he said, turning to Agon.
“The Lord said it was urgent, that you should come right away.”
“Urgent?” he asked, turning.
“Yes,” the messenger replied, dismounting and handing the reins to the captain, “And he said I was to give you my horse so you could make haste.”
“If Lord Bródwan commands it . . .”
“He does, my captain.”
The Guard captain took the reins, and then turned to Agon, the muscles in the younger man’s arms taut as he stood firmly, his feet rooted to the hay-strewn floor, holding the heavy bale. The young man’s face betrayed no sign of strain or discomfort. Bolsas marveled at his poise – and the cut and curve of his biceps; Agon looked as fresh as when he had just started work. He could be an asset to the Guard. Few new recruits under inspection could stand as still as he.
“Captain Bolsas, please,” Selward instructed, “don’t keep Lord Bródwan waiting.”
“Of course not,” he said. Looking up at Agon’s face, he asked the young man if he had already fed and watered the horses and cleaned the stables.
“Yes, my captain. Those at the end could use some more hay. And they may need a further mucking later.”
“Get yourself some breakfast in the mess across the courtyard. Rest a bit after that, if you like. Just make sure to muck the stables by sundown.”
“Yes, my captain,” he said, as Bolsas mounted the horse that Selward had so recently ridden. “Am I to give him a horse, my captain?” he asked, gesturing at the messenger from the fortress.
“Only if Bródwan commanded it,” he said, turning the horse and guiding it out of the stables.
“Did he command that, my captain?” Agon asked, still holding the bale of hay.
“I’m no captain,” the man smiled. “Lord Bródwan did not mention the manner of my return.”
“Enjoy your walk, Sir.” Agon smiled and turned away.
After putting hay in the far stalls and rinsing his hands in the fountain, he headed to the mess at the far side of the courtyard, stopping to watch several pairs of Guardsmen fencing with wooden swords. Groups of young men surrounded the various fighters, with others occasionally barking instructions or offering commentary. A few looked up as he passed; those who recognized him greeted him. When Céogan saw Agon, the pale-haired young man’s face lit up.
“Good morning, cousin. How is your work in the stables?”
“No different than it was at Be . . . Dranda,” he replied as his relative approached him.
“Has Bolsas given you leave to learn swordsmanship with us?”
“He said I should have some breakfast in the mess.”
“Let me show you where . . . “
“Céogan,” bellowed a voice, “I did not give you leave.”
“I know where it is, Cousin. Where we ate last night?”
“Yes, it’s there. There should still be some food.”
Agon hurried to the mess and quickly took some bread, cheese and apples from the baskets in the dimly lit room, returning with them to the bright courtyard. He had never before seen so many men practicing at once as he did that day. At the various estates where he had worked, he enjoyed few things more than seeing the tem-nobles and their retainers practice with blades. He loved to watch them spar, and regretted the rules that prohibited him from joining in.
Approaching his cousin’s group, Agon stopped, joining Céogan and his companions from the road.
“Now, we watch,” Céogan said. “Later, they pair us off. I can hold your plate while you eat.”
The fair-haired young man took his dark-haired counterpart’s plate, holding it out to him, almost as a servant to master. Though unused to such gestures, Agon quickly accommodated himself to the new circumstances, taking food almost mechanically, his eyes focused on the fighting pair in front of him, not the relative beside him.
“Did the lord ever spar with you at Dranda?” Céogan asked.
“No, Lord Cargest forbad it; he allowed only his sons – and their household retainers – to bear arms.”
“They’re not fighting with real arms,” said Wacian.
“Thankfully so for that man there,” replied Agon with a smile, gesturing with a half-eaten apple toward the larger of the two.
“Why do you say that?” asked Céogan.
“You want to know?”
“Yes, tell me, Cousin, what do you see?”
“Well,” he began slowly, but then hesitated, looking over at his cousin. No one had ever asked him to critique swordsmanship, “Well, Céogan,” he continued, “see how the small man . . .”
“See how Bregdan keeps moving back and forth, always dodging the larger . . .”
“ . . .always dodging Læaccung’s blows. Why doesn’t Bregdan attack? He could easily just slide his blade into his belly; he might not kill him, but it certainly wouldn’t feel very good.”
His companions laughed. An older man standing nearby bellowed, “Silence! I give the instruction here.” Turning and seeing Agon, he asked, “Who are you? Why are you here? You’re not in the outfit of the Guard.”
“Ecglar, this is Agon; he’s our new stable boy,” volunteered Wacian.
“By Lord Bródwan’s orders,” Céogan offered.
“Replaced the one he took from us for his ponies at the fortress?” Ecglar asked, “A bit bigger—and a little older—than the last few. So, this stable boy presumes to knew how to fight with a blade?” Turning to the pair fighting, he bellowed, “Halt!”
They lowered their blades, with each man disengaging and taking a step backward. The older man then turned to Agon, “Have you ever held a blade, stable-boy?”
“No, my lor . . , no, my captain.”
“I’m no captain. Who taught you to fight with a sword?”
“At,” he began about to name the estate where he had worked. Then, hesitating, he reminded himself to rehearse his story before speaking. “At Dranda,” he continued, “I watched the lords fight, the tem-lords, that is—and their retainers.”
“Watching, boy, is not fighting; it’s not learning.”
“Yes, my lor. . . yes, sir.” He clenched his fists together, drew in several breaths and remembered his mother’s instruction about containing his anger, particularly in the presence of those in a position to punish him.
“Finish your breakfast; we’ll have you fight later. That should teach you silence. Watch, Agon; you’ll soon see there’s only one way to learn. Bregdan, Læaccung, resume.”
The two young men who had been fighting, each took a step back, then toward each other, getting in stance and raising their weapons, ready to do battle. Quickly Bregdan rushed his counterpart, who deflected his thrust with his blade, while jumping a huge step backward, away from Læaccung. Save for Bregdan’s initial aggression, it seemed they were merely resuming the routine—repeating, practically step for step, almost exactly what they had been doing before Ecglar interrupted their sparring. Still, Agon watched. There was something to the clash of blades, even wooden ones, that had always drawn his attention. As his hand mechanically took the remaining food from the plate, his eyes remained focused on the men in front of him, and his thoughts turned to the moves he would make were he in the arena.
The smaller man, however, remained intimidated by the larger man’s size. Each time Læaccung awkwardly parried Bregdan’s thrusts, he quickly moved, almost dancing away. His retreat was more graceful–and more surefooted—than the larger man’s forward advance. Graceful though it was, it was always in a straight line, as if he wanted to prove he could move backward without drifting—or even leaning—to either side.
Agon checked the impulse to tell Bregdan how to exploit the openings that his larger partner continually offered him; he had wanted to call out, telling Bregdan not to move just back and forth, but also to the side and around, to come at the larger man from another direction, forcing him to turn and face him.
The larger man, he could tell, was not as quick on his feet—nor as agile. He would not be able to turn as quickly to meet a challenge from a different direction. Or perhaps, he speculated, there was some method to Bregdan’s madness; he might just be seeking to tire his larger rival out. Smart if he were fighting one-on-one. Not so smart if he were in the midst of battle, with the need to vanquish a large number of foes very quickly.
His impulse notwithstanding, Agon knew not to call out–and not just from Ecglar’s warning. Once, when watching the sons of Lord Frecwan sparring at Teoru, he had, in the heat of the moment, shouted out to Finol, the youngest son to be more deft in his motions, causing the boy’s older brother Frettol to yell at him and threaten him with a beating which, he, that evening, did not hesitate to supply.
After whipping Agon, Frettol had told Agon that if he again spoke up while his “betters” practiced, he would not only be whipped, but also prevented from ever watching again. Since that day, he had, though not without some effort–and his mother’s constant reminders—held his tongue. That is, until his cousin had asked his opinion. Standing next to that cousin, Agon turned to find him looking down at his own feet. With his free hand, Agon reached over and patted him on the shoulder; Céogan smiled tightly and looked up at the pair in front of them.
The match proceeded as it had before, in a bizarre kind of stalemate, with Læaccung using his size to intimidate Bregdan, and the smaller man using his speed to escape his blows. Neither pressed his advantage.
Ecglar watched, occasionally telling each man to be more aggressive, adding, “the Dark Sorcerer’s troops won’t show you any mercy.”
“What troops?” muttered Wacian. “He lives secure on his mountain, isolated there by our Great Lord and Guide.”
“We must always be prepared,” replied Ecglar, apparently more eager to address this man’s words than to watch the Guardsmen practice. “He seeks vengeance—to destroy the peace our Great Lord has brought, the peace you are sworn to protect. And his mountain is close.”
“The Dark Sorcerer lives close to this city?” whispered Agon to his cousin.
“Not far,” replied Céogan, “It’s that way.” He pointed to the northeast. “My mother said your grand . . . ” The young man suddenly caught a glimpse of Ecglar. He let his hand fall as he stopped speaking.
Had it not been for the swordplay in front of him, Agon might have wondered why his cousin cut himself off. But, eager to watch the action, he focused on the fencing pair, who must have found comfort in their routine, and thought, “So the legends are true. There is a Dark Sorcerer.”
At Teoru, his friend Darung had always doubted the tale, saying the lords invented the Dark Sorcerer to explain the Guards’ frequent raids. Agon looked up in the direction where Céogan had pointed. What he had thought was a cloud shaped itself into a mountain, its snow-capped peak touching another cloud that appeared to meet it and balance, for just a moment, in perfect equipoise, two rounded triangles whose pinnacles barely touched, reminding him first of an hourglass and then the form of the woman he had seen the previous day atop the large red fortress. He envied the young man who had been so close to that lady so fair; her beauty brought a smile to his face.
“What are you looking at, boy?” came the harsh voice of Ecglar just inches from his face.
“I’m sorry, my lord,” Agon said, lowering his eyes to the world around him. Bregdan and Læccung had stopped fighting. Their flaccid forms flanked their instructor.
“Take this,” he said, handing him a wooden sword. “Since you seemed so interested in our work, show us what you can do.”
“But, Ecglar, sir,” protested Céogan, “he is not permitted to hold a blade, even a wooden one; he has not been admitted to the Guard.”
“Dursas left this morning. Bolsas is not here!” he snorted. “Take it, stable boy!” Agon took the blade.
“Hey, you, Gramhedge,” Ecglar barked to a tall man who stood somewhat apart. “Test this boy.”
“He’s one of the best in the company,” muttered Céogan.
“They’re only wooden swords,” taunted Ecglar, shaking his head slightly and smirking.
The two men walked into the arena, Agon imitating Gramhedge’s every move, first assuming his stance, then moving forward to face him. When his rival raised his sword, he raised his sword. When his rival stepped back, he stepped back.
“If this keeps up,” Ecglar mused, “before he has a chance to imitate Gramhedge’s thrust, he’ll be lying flat on his back.”
But when that thrust came, Agon danced quickly to his side, as if he had known precisely where the more experienced combatant would strike. Not expecting this sudden move, Gramhedge stumbled forward, losing his balance. As he tried to right himself, Agon came at him from the side, half-remembering a move he once saw lord Frettol execute and sensing the need to act swiftly. Gramhedge fell onto his face.
Without thinking, Agon stepped forward, placing his foot on the Guardsman’s back. He heard a cheer—and laughter, and then a voice.
“What’s this? What’s going on here?”
Bolsas had returned.
“Who gave this boy a sword?”
“Ecglar, my captain,” Wacian volunteered.
“Be grateful Dursas is not here,” said Bolsas, grabbing Agon by the scruff of the neck and looking into his eyes.
“Yes, my captain,” the stable boy replied, clenching his fists.
“Yes, my captain?”
“You are not permitted to hold a sword.”
“Yes, my captain.” He drew in several long breaths.
“Now, go back to the stables and muck every one. We’ll need the horses well fed and rested. Lord Bródwan may be sending a small garrison to Brenfréa.”
Agon handed his sword to Céogan who took it and whispered, “You were good, cousin. Maybe now they will let you join us in the Guard.”
“I would be honored to serve beside you, my friend,” he smiled, patting his relative on the shoulder and returning to the stables.
The young Guardsman followed Agon with his eyes, wondering for the first time since his selection why the Guard only allowed the tem-lords, their retainers and close kin into their ranks.
“He is better with a blade than most of us,” he muttered.
“He is that,” replied Bregdan in a whisper.
Agon disappeared into the stables; the Guardsmen turned back to watch the next pairing.
Although many of the men marveled at Agon’s skill, the young man himself thought little of what had happened in the courtyard. He understood his duty and attended to it, taking the hoe he had found earlier in the day and using it once more to muck the stalls. As the sun’s light passed through the stable, he continued the process he had begun before daybreak, concerned only with completing his task before that light faded. Focused on his work, he was as oblivious to the world beyond the locus of his labor as he was to his appearance. So occupied was he with his labors that he was startled by an unfamiliar man’s voice as he mucked the stall of a chestnut stallion named N’dan Dom.
“Can someone help us with the horses?”
Setting down the tool and patting N’dan Dom, Agon left the stall to find the lord and lady he had seen the previous evening, framed by the crenel of the redbrick fortress. All three blushed in recognition; the lady met the stable boy’s eyes, and then looked down. Even with her head bent, he could make out the rapid rise and fall of her chest. The young tem-lord bit his lower lip, with his exposed teeth lingering outside his mouth before retreating; his chin now seemed to be quivering.
Neither the lord nor the lady likely would have observed the color coming to the stable boy’s face; the dirt from his work obscured his features. Nor would they have been able to distinguish the fresh stream of sweat running down his face from the other rivulets formed by his exertions.
“My lord,” Agon began, breaking the silence, “they have not told me the rules about the horses here.”
“I am Lord Tem-Árath . . . from the fortress,” the man began. “The Guard has taken most of the horses, leaving only those for Lord Bródwan and his messengers. Lady Nerian wants to ride. You can tell Captain Bolsas you gave us the horses on my command for our use.”
“Lady Nerian, I would be most obliged,” Agon replied, turning to the lady.
“And you are Agon?” she asked slowly, lifting her eyes to look at the stable boy.
“You know my name, my lady?” he asked, smiling.
“They told us a young man named Agon came in with the Guard and was working in the stables—that is, until they could confirm his Permission to travel to Fritha.”
“Yes, my lady, I was traveling with my moth—“ biting his lip, he paused, as he caught Árath looking up, “with my grandmother; she was born there.”
“Your mother was born in Fritha?” the young lord asked, looking Agon in the eye.
“My grandmother,” replied Agon quickly, “my grandmother.”
“Fritha, Fritha,” Árath repeated, as a man considers a name that stirs a memory of a painful experience in his own life—or an important event in a tale. He had heard the town’s name before, but the sudden association of that village and this man’s mother now seemed to enhance its significance, “Were you born there as well?” he asked.
“My mother left Fritha after she met my father, or so she said,” he began, then he paused. Speaking more quickly, he added, “but she’s dead now, died years ago, leaving me alone with my grandmother, who is ill.”
“I see,” said the lord slowly. “And your father is dead as well.”
“I never knew him, my lord.”
“How, how did your father die, Agon?” the young lord asked nervously.
“Árath, please,” protested Nerian, “You really shouldn’t.”
“My lady, it is no bother to me to answer such questions. My mother told me that he died in a fire, in a barn; she says he was trying to be a hero, rushing in to save a young family. But he was too late. They all died as well.”
Agon now looked up at his nobler counterpart. The tem-lord quickly turned away, breathing heavily. He hadn’t moved, but he looked, to Agon at least, as if he had just run after a horse that had thrown him and was surprised to find the beast now walking back to him. He opened his mouth several times as if to speak, then finally made sounds come through his lips.
“Was your mother’s name Aræfnis?” Árath asked, his face becoming white.
Agon paused, drew in a breath, then fixed his eyes on the young lord, “That is my grandmother’s name, my lord.”
Árath stepped back, losing his balance, then, looking around for some support, grabbed a post joining the wall of a nearby stall to the ceiling before slumping onto a bale of hay. Facing the beams above him, he started shaking his head, as if he had just been reminded of a task he had long neglected, a task that he thought, that he hoped, had been long forgotten.
“I can’t escape, I can’t escape,” he muttered.
“Serves you right,” said Nerian, approaching her somewhat supine friend and sitting down beside him, “you ask questions you shouldn’t ask and upset yourself. Why are you pestering the young man? You’re from the South; how do you know about laborers from the North?”
He let his head fall onto her shoulder; she gently stroked his hair. Seeing all this, Agon disappeared into the courtyard.
“Stéaldis can’t hear us, can she?” Árath asked his elven companion.
“She is with Bolsas; you know she doesn’t like horses.”
“And they don’t like her,” he replied, gradually lifting his head. Taking several breaths, he looked up, his eyes fixed on Agon. The gray-eyed young man’s solid form was framed by the doorway. He held a bucket from which the handle of a ladle protruded.
“I thought you might want some water, my lord.”
“Thank you, Agon,” he said softly, lifting himself from the hay. As Árath struggled to steady himself, Agon extended his free hand. Taking it in his, the man from the fortress fixed his eyes on his fellow’s. The gray-eyed man helped his blue-eyed counterpart regain his balance and stand once again. Even on his feet, he seemed a different man from the one who had entered the stables just minutes ago.
“Did you know my grandmother, my lord?” Agon asked.
“Please, Agon, help the lady.”
“Yes, my lord,” he said, releasing his hand and setting down the bucket. He offered Nerian his arm. Oblivious to the grime that covered him, she took it and stood up as well.
“Thank you, Agon,” she said coloring, “do you have news of your grandmother? How ill is she?”
“I’ve heard nothing since I left her, my lady.”
“I hope she improves; I would tend to her if she were here.”
“That is very kind of you, my lady. Lord Árath is fortunate to have you as his wife.”
“She, my wife?” laughed Árath, his color returning, “We are not married, Agon. She is my cousin and I am but her chaperone. And we, she, would like to ride; the sea air would do me, would do us, good. Can you saddle two horses for us.”
“Yes, my lord,” he said. “Are there any particular horses you would like?”
“You pick,” Árath replied, “Just choose horses that would not throw a lady.”
“No horse would throw Lady Nerian,” he replied.
“Yes,” the lord granted, “if these horses could speak, they would all be clamoring for the privilege of bearing Nerian.”
“They would, my Lord.”
As Agon turned to go, both followed him with their eyes.
“He is very handsome,” she said.
“He is covered in muck; he smells of the stable.”
“His bearing,” she sighed. Then, with a playful toss of her head, the elf-maiden turned toward her friend, adding in a somewhat ethereal tone, “You barely notice those things; he can’t hide what I saw yesterday, what I see still today.”
“I will not report this conversation to our Lord and Guide,” he smiled.
Leaning in to him, she laughed, “Sometimes, I wonder if you are my long-lost brother.”
“I am younger than you, my lady; he was older. And he is elf.”
“So you seem to me sometimes, my friend, so you seem to me.”
When the horses were saddled, they rode out together, passing first through the courtyard. Agon stood in the doorway and watched, his eyes riveted to the retreating feminine form.
“You are not the first to find her beautiful,” he heard his cousin’s voice.
“Yes,” Agon replied, without averting his gaze.
“Beautiful and betrothed,” Céogan sighed.
“Betrothed? He said they were cousins.”
“Betrothed to our Great Lord and Guide, my friend, but one can dream.”
“Yes, one can dream.”
As the elf-maiden and her cousin rode out beyond the city gates, she pulled her horse beside his.
“Do you know this man, this Agon?” she asked.
He turned and looked behind him, seeing – but pretending not to – Stéaldis standing with Bolsas on the parapet walk above the city’s broad gate.
“You should know by now,” she laughed, “that her powers do not include those of hearing from a distance.”
“Yes,” he said hurriedly, “I know that.”
“Tell me, then, what do you know about him?”
“I should not, I cannot, say.”
“Tell me,” she insisted.
“You have let me keep my silence before.”
“Shouldn’t that earn me the privilege of a response this time?”
Kicking his horse into a canter, he laughed. Quickly, she caught him with him.
“Why, why is this time different?” he asked, breaking the silence.
“The other questions weren’t about handsome men,” she laughed.
“A handsome man,” Árath said, practically repeating his friend’s words to her. He bit his lip and looked at the elf-maiden, suddenly realizing that it wasn’t the sea-breezes that had caused her cheeks to color. No, this change came from inside. As he studied his friend’s face, he recalled the change that had come over her the preceding day.
As if directed by his thoughts, she turned to look at him. Their eyes met and held for an instant. Flushing crimson, she turned away. He felt his pocket. The ring was there. When Gafon was helping him dress earlier in the day, that young valet had asked his master if he wanted to return the golden band to the lady. The young lord had taken the ring, but had not answered the question. Now that it was secure in his pocket, Árath moved his hand back toward the reins, returning his gaze to the road ahead of him.
“You are elf,” he continued, as if talking to his horse’s ears, “you can love only once.”
“Who said that I love the one I am to wed?”
“I wish I could lie to you,” he said softly, slowing his horse and looking out across the water.
“I wish you would tell me all you know,” she offered, keeping pace with him.
He did not speak for a long time; his eyes lingered on the horse’s ears, his face perfectly still. After they had, for a spell, ridden side by side in silence on the path by the sea, he turned again towards her. He took in her in feminine beauty and sighed. In that moment, she was no longer his cousin, but the sister he had never had, the sister who would understand why he had done what he did. She was as she had been since the moment they had met–the friend who had lived in his thoughts when her name was but a word on his teacher’s lips.
“Trusting your confidence, Nerian,” he said, breaking the silence.
“Always, my friend, always.”
“I believe, no, I know. . . . I met his. . . it has to be, they look too much alike,“ he began. Then, as if interrupting himself, he added, “You cannot marry him.” He turned toward the sea, and then repeated, enunciating every word as if it were a sentence unto itself. “You can not marry him.”
“Árath, tell me. Whom did you meet? Whom does he resemble?”
“His father; I met his father once.”
“His father, where? Who is his father?”
“If anyone were to know, they would kill us both.”
“You are the brother I never knew. I promise to keep you both alive.”