One young woman's life is about to change... Chapter 3.
Carlek had several marketplaces, all as large as each other. The closest one to the Citadel was in the northwestern quarter of the city. Although it was only mid-afternoon when Leona and Owen entered the market and walked through the brightly-hued stalls, amidst fruit sellers, spice merchants and traders from far beyond the Middle Lands, many stall-keepers were already packing away their wares in preparation for the inevitable evening fog that would roll off the marshes. While Owen spoke to a cloth-merchant about patching his well-worn travel clothes,
Leona took the opportunity to gaze around the marketplace and observe the activity.
Carlek was the closest thing the Middle Lands had to a capital, and merchants from all over Valeria bought and sold and traded within its walls. With autumn rapidly coming to a close, the city was even more packed than usual as visitors, in a frantic frenzy of activity, desperately bought all they could before the winter approached. With the autumn council drawing ever closer, even more people would arrive daily.
The market was filled with bright colours. In the midst of coopers, tanners, farriers and commoners, Leona caught a glimpse of brilliant red. For a moment, she thought she was seeing the Red Priests of earlier that day. Then the crowd parted momentarily, and she saw that she was looking at a small company of a dozen or so scarlet liveried Citadel guards, moving towards her at a rapid pace. She turned around to nudge Owen, but it seemed that he had finished his business with the cloth-merchant. He was watching the guards with narrowed eyes.
“This could prove interesting,” he murmured in Leona’s ear as a tall, clean-shaven man, who was obviously a captain or an officer of some other important rank, reached them. The man inclined his head.
“My lord Owen, lady Leona,” he greeted them, “I am Captain Dellan, of Lord Thayan’s personal guard. I’m under orders to escort you – ahem, accompany you, back to the Citadel.”
“We were just on our way there, ourselves,” Owen said. “However, Leona hasn’t quite finished her shopping, have you, cousin? I’m sure you’re not one to thwart a lady’s whim’s, Captain. Would it be a great inconvenience if you and your men waited? Or is it imperative that we return to the Citadel now?”
“Lord Thayan did not give me strict orders regarding time,” Dellan admitted. “I hope you won’t find our presence an inconvenience, my lady,” he said to Leona.
“I’d be delighted to have you,” she said dryly, glancing at Owen to she if she was playing along correctly. He winked at her.
What followed was a frenzied few hours of dashing from stall to shop to stall in a seeming urgency of shopping. Suddenly, Owen discovered a hole in his boots, and had to visit the cobbler’s. Leona needed a new set of travel clothes at the dressmaker’s, and she tried on several different garments and was measured more than a few times ‘just to be sure the clothes will fit’, while Captain Dellan stood beside the entrance to the shop, standing stiffly to attention. Several of the younger members of his company, waiting outside, were seen to throw furtive looks down the street in case they were recognized as standing outside such a feminine place. Then Owen decided that his sword had an invisible nick in it, so they walked to the other side of the marketplace in search of a blacksmith.
By the time they finally made their way though the almost-empty streets to the Citadel, the fog had rolled off the marshes and looked determined to obscure anything within ten feet. The city was deserted, most sensible folk having decided to stay home for the evening. Dellan spoke briefly to the guards at the main gate. After a few moments, the huge gates wound back, creaking eerily. Leona wondered why, the night before, she had not noticed them. Perhaps Thayan had ordered that they be left open in preparation for his visitors. It would also explain why they had not been intercepted by the guards.
Once they were within the boundaries of the Citadel, Captain Dellan called a halt to his company.
“I was told to bring you personally to Lord Thayan,” he said to Owen. “He has reasons for wanting to see you immediately upon your arrival.”
“Of course, Captain,” Owen replied.
They left the remainder of the guards behind and entered the Citadel. It struck Leona how different it was here to Ravenscroft. At this time of the evening, the few servants they had would be dashing through the hallways in preparation for the evening meal, and workers would be coming in from the fields. The Citadel, though, seemed deserted. The fog seemed to kill all activity, whether indoors or outdoors.
Dellan led them to the same dining room that Thayan had met them in the previous evening. He paused to knock, and then led them straight in.
Once again, the room was deserted, except for Carlek’s lord and his dog, seated beside the fire. It was identical to last night’s welcome, yet, as they approached, and Thayan rose, he made no move to calm a growling Darg.
“Dellan,” he greeted the older man in a neutral tone. “I expected you hours ago.”
“The lady –“
“Captain Dellan can hardly be held to blame, Thayan,” Owen intercepted Dellan smoothly. “Leona had some shopping to do and, being the soul of courtesy, he could hardly refuse her. He had no intention of interrupting her leisure time, and neither did I.”
Dellan was staring at Owen, his expression one of incredulity. Surely he was remembering the hour spent trying to find the blacksmith, and the half-hour spent at the cobblers – certainly not for Leona.
Perhaps Thayan sensed the disbelief, for he turned to stare at Leona. She was hit with the sudden, insane urge to laugh, and bit down on the sides of her mouth, trying to keep her face inexpressive. Beside her, Owen’s own face was innocent.
Finally, Thayan turned away. “Very well, Dellan,” he said to the Captain. “You may leave us.”
There was no trace of displeasure in his voice, nor any expression on his face, yet Dellan’s face flushed. He bowed stiffly and left the room.
Thayan sat, and this time there was no invitation for them to join him. Darg was still growling softly from behind him. Leona began to feel uncomfortable.
“I’m sure a man such as yourself is aware of the dangers in a city like Carlek,” Thayan said coldly to Owen. “To leave the Citadel without an escort was foolhardy in itself, no matter how equipped you may be to defend yourself. I did not expect you to take the lady and subject her to danger, too. Do you know how many enemies I have who would not hesitate to kill you at the slightest chance, if they so much as sensed that you were my allies? I expected more from you, lord Owen.”
Owen’s face was impassive, but he inclined his head. “I was not aware that we were under house arrest, my lord. In future I will inform you of all my activities, as I’m sure Leona will.”
“I’m not asking you to restrict yourselves to the Citadel. I think to ask such a thing of you, my lord, is impossible. However, if the lady wishes to go out into the city again, it would be wise for her to take at least several of my guard for protection. Too many people could recognize her.”
Owen sat down in one of the chairs, his movements languid and his gaze anywhere but in Thayan’s direction. “We came across some Red Priests this morning,” he said casually, inspecting the arm of the chair for dust with his finger.
“Did they see you?” Thayan demanded sharply.
“Oh, certainly they saw us,” Owen replied. He turned to look directly at the other man, his gaze now sharp. “I’m equally certain that they didn’t notice two simple Northerners blending in with hundreds of other faces in the crowds, though.”
There was a short silence.
“Your point is well-made,” Thayan said. “They are just one of the enemies I mentioned. My father should have found an excuse to exile them years ago.”
“Why can’t you do the same thing now?”
“There are too many high-ranking officials and nobles involved with them. If I so much as send one Priest to the border, I run the risk of losing what little support I have here.”
“Yet another reason why you need Rafael’s alliance.”
“So you would have me believe.”
At that moment, something cold touched Leona’s hand. She glanced down in surprise at the dog Darg. He was sniffing her hand cautiously, every hair tense. She held her breath. He came up to her waist, and muscles rippled beneath the thick covering of dark fur. She had never seen such a dog.
His tail moved slightly, and then he looked up at her with strangely intelligent brown eyes.
Thayan and Owen had both fallen silent and were staring at her.
“My, my,” Owen said. “I’m sure that doesn’t happen often.”
Thayan snapped his fingers, and Darg trotted obediently to his side.
“Darg seems to have taken a liking to you,” he said to Leona, his gaze somehow piercing.
“Everyone likes Leona,” Owen said, and added, with a grin, “I really can’t for the life of me think why.”
She shot him a filthy look.
Somehow the tense atmosphere had been broken. Thayan got to his feet. “The evening is upon us, and Mirrin will be wanting to serve the evening meal,” he said. “I won’t keep you any longer.
Have we reached an understanding, my lord Owen?”
For once Owen bowed. “I think we have. Good evening, my lord Thayan.”
Once they were in the hallway outside and the door had closed behind them, Owen chuckled and rubbed his hands together. “What a fulfilling day,” he said brightly.
Leona shook her head helplessly, not sure whether to laugh or sigh. “Was there a purpose to anything we did?” she asked.
“Of course. We irritated several people, not the least of whom is the most powerful man in the Middle Lands. I thought we did quite well, myself.” He glanced down the hallway, and saw the lady Elynna and a servant heading towards them. “I’ll see you at dinner, shall I?” He moved away without waiting for an answer.
“Hello, Leona,” Elynna said, smiling in greeting as she approached. Leona’s attention, though, was fixed on the servant who was accompanying her. She was sure she had seen the girl before. It was the servant from the courtyard, who had spoken to her that morning. There was something nagging at Leona, something about the girl’s face it seemed she should know; yet she couldn’t quite grasp what it was.
“I’m glad I found you,” Elynna continued. “I wanted to talk to you about something. Also, I realized that I’ve been lax in my duties as a hostess. I never provided you with a maid. This is Torah. She’s from the Western Lands. I thought she would do well, and she can also help you find your way around the Citadel.”
“Thank you,” Leona said, surprised. Elynna was her hostess? “What did you want to speak to me about?”
“Why don’t we walk,” Elynna suggested. “It’s nearly time for our evening meal, and I can see that you were on your way to your rooms to freshen up.”
Leona looked down at her clothes and saw that they were filthy from the dust of the city. They had been none too fresh to begin with, after several weeks on the road. She flushed, feeling like a simple country girl.
Elynna, though, linked arms with her, and they began to walk, the servant Torah following at a discreet distance.
“By now,” Elynna said, “most of the important people of the city know that you and your family are here. It would be a great insult if they were not formally introduced to you. Being nobles, they don’t really have anything better to do than go to social gatherings, anyway. Thayan has asked me to organize a banquet for tomorrow night. I thought I would ask you what you think.”
“Me?” Leona asked. “We have feasts at Ravenscroft, but they are to celebrate harvest and other such farming occasions. I think that would be a little different to what you had in mind.”
Elynna smiled. “Indeed. Do you have anything suitable to wear?”
Once again, Leona looked down at her filthy clothes. “Not really. Unless you count muddy skirts.”
“Then I’ll ask Torah to bring you to the Citadel dressmaker’s tomorrow,” the other girl decided. “Here are your rooms. I’m assuming Mirrin will soon have dinner served, and he’s sure to send a servant along to inform you. I’ll speak to you then.”
Leona walked into the sitting room that served as an adjoining chamber to her bedroom. Torah followed her in, a silent shadow. She was pale-skinned and dark haired, probably not much older than Leona.
They didn’t have maids at home. Perhaps when Leona’s mother had been alive, Ravenscroft’s hallways had been filled with servants. Since she had died, though, when Leona was young, Rafael had taught his children and, later, his wife’s brother’s son, to take care of themselves. They had an aged chamberlain, a cook and several other old servants who did odd jobs. Ravenscroft was isolated, and Leona had very rarely been to other holdings. She realized now that she had forgotten how to treat a maid.
“Do you require my assistance to dress, my lady?” Torah asked after a long silence. She had a soft, lilting voice.
“No,” Leona said quickly. “I can dress myself. Will you wait here for me?”
The young maid nodded. Relief flooding through her, Leona walked into the other room, her bedroom. She swiftly changed into a clean skirt and shirt and tied her hair back, before once again entering the sitting room. Torah was standing exactly where she had left her. Once more, the silence was awkward, at least on Leona’s part. At that moment, though, there was a tap on the door. Torah crossed the room and opened it. She spoke with the servant outside and then turned to Leona.
“The evening meal is ready, my lady.”
“I think I can find my way,” Leona said. “Do you eat elsewhere?”
“In the kitchens, with the other servants. Are you certain you don’t need my, my lady?”
Leona nodded. Torah left with the other servant, and Leona made her way to the dining room by herself, for once finding it without any difficulty. Only Heath and Owen were seated when she entered, and they appeared to be deep in conversation and unaware of her presence.
“Are you sure?” Heath said in a low voice. “I haven’t heard any news.”
“As sure as I can be,” his cousin replied. “Zamed’s network is extensive. Certainly things aren’t what they seem, both here and through out Valeria.”
“Perhaps we should send a message to Allan.”
“Why worry him? Allan’s intelligent. He’ll read the signs. Besides, it may only be speculation on Zamed’s part. There are rumours, but nothing more. Hello, Leona.”
“What’s the matter?” she asked, sitting beside Heath.
“Nothing,” Heath said.
“Really? It certainly sounded like nothing.”
“Don’t let it bother you, little cousin,” Owen said. “It’s only politics.”
Reid and Rafael joined them at that moment, followed by Thayan and Elynna, and servants began to set out dishes on the long table. There was roast pork and baked vegetables, mixed with some strangely spiced dishes from the south. Leona found that she was quite hungry, and for a short time she ignored the conversation going on around her. After a while, though, she began to listen.
“I can’t understand it,” Reid was saying in a bemused voice. “It was in my belt last night.”
“Probably a servant took it,” Owen suggested. “They’re notorious for pick-pocketing and taking off with things that aren’t theirs here.”
“The door was locked. Unless the servants here have the ability to walk through solid walls, I don’t think they could have stolen it.”
“You never know, cousin,” Owen said. “It was only a knife, anyway.”
“But it was my best knife. I bought it from a shop in one of the cities along the southern coast – Karthia, I think.”
“Really? It looked Erilian to me.”
“Do you really think I’d set foot in that place? It’s cursed, man.”
Leona remembered an earlier conversation she had had with Owen in the street outside the merchant Zamed’s house. She turned to look accusingly at Owen. He winked at her.
Rafael and Thayan were talking of the price of wheat.
“Certainly, in Lennor, the harvest was bountiful this year,” Rafael said. He stabbed at a potato. “At Ravenscroft, though, the wheat has done poorly.” Certainly that was a lie. Leona remembered one of the farmhands telling her that the crops were doing better than they had done for years. Out of curiousity, she listened for Thayan’s reply.
“I’ll still be taxing all imports,” Thayan said, sounding amused. “You’re not going to fool me
that way, Rafael.”
“It was worth a try, though,” Rafael said ruefully.
Elynna was trying to draw out a silent Heath.
“You have a wife, lord Heath?” she asked politely. He turned to stare at her.
“Yes,” he said. “Her name’s Aresana. We’re expecting a child soon.” There was a strange tone to his voice – was it unease?
“A pity you had to leave her with servants and travel here,” Elynna said. “It’s a long way from home and family.”
“My brother Allan is with her.”
Suddenly, Leona felt left out once again, as she had during the entire journey south. She found she had lost her appetite, and pushed her plate away.
The others finished eating, and servants entered once more to clear the food away. Mirrin followed them in, and spoke quietly to Thayan at the head of the table. He frowned, looking briefly irritated.
“Tell him I will see him at another, more appropriate time,” he said in a voice just loud enough for Leona to hear.
“He was very insistent, my lord. It seems that it is over a matter of some urgency.”
“Very well, but send him in here. I think his news may have something to do with our guests."
There was a lull in the conversation. It seemed Leona wasn’t the only one to overhear Thayan speak. Mirrin left, and the talk resumed, but it was quieter, as though a somber mood had suddenly fallen on the table occupants.
A few moments later, Mirrin returned, with a dirty, red-cloaked man of middle years. He was a soldier, Leona saw, but his uniform had been torn and muddied. He bowed before Thayan.
“My lord,” he said in a deep voice. “I am nine day’s travel from the north. I have ridden three horses to near death to bring you news from three of the holdings.”
Heath half-started from his chair. Leona's stomach was churning for some reason.
“What news do you have, then?” Thayan asked.
The soldier turned to look around the table. “I see you have Northern guests,” he said. “Perhaps –“
“Tell us,” Thayan said quietly, in a firm voice.
“Not two weeks ago, raiders from the sea attacked the holdings. They burned and sacked the land, and killed anything with a heartbeat.”
“Which holdings?” Thayan said. It amazed and angered Leona that he could keep such an expressionless voice.
The soldier shrugged helplessly. “I’m not a Northerner myself, my lord, so I don’t know. One of them was Aldercroft.”
“Aldercroft is eighty leagues inland,” Reid protested. “Are you sure?”
“Not completely,” the soldier admitted. “I was stationed on the North Road, some distance from the coast. I was the only one of my company who would be spared to bring the news. Everyone else stayed to fight.”
Leona looked at her brothers and cousin, and, finally, her father. Their faces reflected the same thought as hers: Ravenscroft was one hundred leagues from the coast. There was no chance that pirates or raiders could attack the holding. Yet Aldercroft -
Thayan stood. “I hope you will excuse me,” he said, and beckoned to the soldier. Elynna followed them out.
In the wake of their departure, there was a heavy silence.
“It’s impossible,” Reid said flatly. “Raiders from the sea? In the past they’ve attacked the settlements along the coast, but never the holdings.”
“Is it so impossible?” Owen asked. He shot a significant look at Heath. “Just because it’s never happened before, doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened now.”
“Don’t be cryptic, Owen,” Reid snapped.
“Enough,” Rafael said quietly. “Soon enough, we will find out the truth. In the meantime, our business here outweighs everything else. I suggest you go to bed, Leona. You don’t need to hear any of this.”
“But-“ she began.
“Just go, little sister,” Heath said, voice heavy and tired.
For once, she didn’t argue with him. For some reason, when she looked at her oldest brother, her heart seemed to ache for him.
She quietly left the room and made her way through the winding Citadel hallways to her rooms, where she would sit and stare at nothing for half the night, as she thought of her youngest brother, sister-in-law and future niece or nephew, and the possible fate they had met.