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A Noble Gift

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Hieborn Riona begins to see what life is like outside of her priviledged walls as a Lowe rebellion brews. But will she learn enough in time to save her family and friends from the coming destruction?

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A Party

Riona preferred wearing her hair free and unfettered. A ponytail would suffice if she didn’t want to tangle it in whatever she was working in. But she hated it in a snood, the proper style for young ladies in public. Not to say that it didn’t show off the graceful curve of her neck and shoulders, but she only gave in to ‘proper hair’ under extreme duress from her mother. And tonight’s banquet was just such an occasion, though she didn’t quite understand why. The attendance would be just a few of the noble families from the nearby county and they were all quite familiar with ‘the Hafton girl who ran wild.’

She yawned as Sora, the servant girl, helped her step into the iridescent, green-gold gown she had chosen for tonight. It was trimmed with a gold ribbon entwined with royal blue threads. These set off the royal blue bodice and arm cuffs that were cinched with sheer gold ribbon and trimmed with gold cording. The final accoutrement was the royal blue fabric hairpiece wrapped with the same gold cording as the vest and cuffs.

“Cor, that looks nice on you, Milady,” expressed Sora as she helped Riona into her gold-trimmed slippers. Sora’s simple brown and taupe tunic was quite a contrast to her lady’s lavish ensemble.

“Thank you Sora,” Riona replied, “Will it suit my mother?” She turned about in the mirror but stumbled as the heel of her slipper caught on the edge of the rug. “Though I do wish I didn’t have to wear these confounded slippers!”

“Oh, Milady, you know your mother would have us both locked in the Tower if you was to show up in stocking feet again!” said Sora, genuinely concerned because it had happened before.

“I know, I know, Sora. And she’s been in such a mood lately that I dare not make more of a scene. But these shoes are is so constricting.” Riona continued, “I’ll not wear them a second longer than I have to!” and kicked her shoes off towards the door.

“But Miss, you must…” Sora was wringing her hands and her voice was becoming strained and emotional. “I just don’t know…what else can I do…you have to…to…”

“Oh Sora, be still! There’s no need to cry. I’ll put them back on when we’re called, but I simply refuse to wear them in my own quarters,” replied Riona, exasperated at her maid’s ability to burst into tears on a moment’s notice.

Not a day went by without Sora lapsing into this woeful habit. Riona was quite sure that Lady Lucinda had assigned Sora this post on purpose because she was easily bullied into reporting on Riona’s daily activities and misconduct. It had become quite a sport to dodge not only her mother’s watchful eye, but also that of this simpering servant girl.

“Besides, I don’t know why I always have to wait until dinner to come down to the banquet hall,” vented Riona as she plopped down on the cushions by the window. “I came of age last year but she still treats me like a child!”

But she knew very well, indeed, why she was confined during the guest arrivals. Once too often in the past she had been caught tampering in the ladies’ preparations quarters filling face powder boxes with black ash or swapping the solid perfume tins with those of foul smelling unguents. She had enjoyed besetting her mother’s friends with plagues of all kinds in the past.

Riona got up from the window because she had started to hear strains of the fiddlers in the banquet hall across the courtyard from her window. Moving with the lively music, she gathered her skirts and bounced across the room, dipping and twirling. “I hope there is somebody decent to dance with tonight,” she sighed as she spun.

Dancing was the one thing that she and her mother agreed upon in lessons and she had gotten quite good. As for the other ‘feminine’ lessons her mother imposed upon her—needlepoint, diction, posture, etc.—she cared very little. Her father, Lord Marsdon, indulged her with lessons more to her liking—archery, logic, dueling, and a few other more ‘masculine’ subjects. This was due to the fact that she had no brothers upon which he could lavish these things.

However, lessons were often a source of contention between her parents. “The girl needs to stop gallivanting about with that old, crackpot wizard of yours,” her mother would say, “and settle down to becoming a Lady if we ever hope to prepare her to be a fit consort for Prince Ruland next year when he visits.”

Then her father would reply, “Oh bosh and fiddlesticks! She can ride and shoot as good as any man in the county. And she’s smarter than most of them courtiers put together. Why, Prince What’s-His-Name would be glad to have her! If he had to go to war, why, she’d be the best one to protect that crown of his.”

And so the argument had continued for the past two years, ever since King Yourk had sent around the messenger announcing their intentions to spend a season with each of the ten Lords who had eligible daughters. The Royal entourage had already visited seven of the estates and was currently spending the Spring with the Baluses, two counties over. Next would be the Strongfords for the Summer. They would finally arrive here at Hafton Estate for Fall and the Harvest Celebration.

“We are fortunate that we are at the end of the tour,” her mother had told her. “You will be fresh in the Prince’s mind when he makes his decision next year.”

“That’s not necessarily a good thing,” Riona had replied to her mother, sarcastically. “I mean, what if I act like myself and disappoint you?” She had barely dodged the swat of her mother’s hand for that comment.

A stern knock at the door signaled that it was time to go down to dinner.

“Milady, please,” whined Sora, “put your slippers on.” She was fussing with a curl that had slipped out of the pins and trailed down the back of Riona’s neck from her animated twirling. “And whatever you do, don’t start a row with Terese Strongford.”

“Pff!” Riona spat, “I never start them. She’s the one that…” but stopped short as Sora let in Lady Lucinda for inspection.

“Oh, Riona…” began her mother with the typical criticism, “why can’t you just once wear shoes like a proper lady…” and continued on down the list that had become all too familiar as they headed towards the hall.

Riona and Lady Lucinda entered Main Hall together. Her mother had one hand firmly pressing down on Riona’s shoulder in an attempt to impose a graceful stature, but to no avail. As soon as she could wriggle out, she did and was bobbing and weaving on the dance floor a second later.

Riona glanced around the room and saw several Lords, Ladies and other friends and dignitaries. Most of the adults were gathered around the tables lining the room in the shape of a big U. Each table had brightly colored cloths and banners draped over them.

Most of the closer estates had frequent visits, and as such, they had their family colors regularly hung on their own tables. The Strongholds had a rust colored table runner with leaf green trim and gold tassels at each corner. Pale blue and ice white shapes covered the table cloth for the Leeshies, a northern family. Golds, reds, blues, and purples were among the colors decorating the other tables encircling the frolickers.

On the dance floor were a handful of youths that were close to Riona’s age. They greeted her with playful jeers about her hair and absence at their arrivals. “Come now, Riona, what did you do this time to get locked up?” “It must have been for her hair! Really, Riona!” “No, no, it was for that trick she played when…” and on it went.

Riona was popular enough with most of her peers because she would fit in to any group and enjoy herself, if not lead in some mischief. Her comical observations and playful way made her ‘leader-elect’ of the local youth. Her strong personality, perhaps, led most to accept or overlook her tomboyish ways.

However, there were a few, mostly girls, who were not openly fond of her. Jealous of her popularity and disapproving of her disregard for traditional roles, Terese Stronghold led a small fringe of like-minded Hie youths. Oddly enough, they attended most gatherings, but rarely joined in. On the occasions when they did, it was usually so they could go head to head with Riona and her friends. However, on this occasion they had seen fit to make themselves scarce and Riona had no desire to go looking for trouble.

A clear, strong voice started singing a verse of “The Mullhill and the Berryvine.” A popular song with all ages, it was the re-telling of an ancient Hie victory on Mullhill Mountain bordering the current Royal Estate. Several of the adults, having drunk a sufficient quantity of ‘rye-sere’, were easily encouraged to join the youth in a hastily organized Barrowheel Dance.

Clusters of dancers spun around with hands in the center, resembling a wheel, as verse went into chorus. As chorus turned back to verse, the cluster broke and dancers mingled in seemingly disorganized lines. Yet, when the next chorus started, new clusters were quickly formed and started spinning.

Riona felt her cheeks flush with the vigorous dance and laughed as she realized she was in the wrong cluster. Not wanting to throw the others off, she backed off the floor, fanning her face with her hand. As she watched the others continue spinning, an unfamiliar voice spoke in her ear, “Surely this is a complicated dance if even the prime of our youth cannot keep up.”

Startled by the voice, she turned and met eyes with an attractive young man who appeared to be little older than herself. He was dressed in an exquisite, midnight blue velvet brocade waistcoat, simple, yet elegant, and distinctly different from the knee-length tunics worn by the other males in the room. He was obviously a foreigner.

“Fine words from one not on the dance floor,” she challenged in response to the seemingly rude remark.

“Very true,” the stranger replied. “I apologize if I offended you.”

“Believe me,” Riona said, cocking an eyebrow, “when I do take offense, the offender need not ask ‘if’ it happened.” Then she grinned coyly.

The handsome young man laughed and said, “I am humbled by your quick wit. Thank you for a gracious response to my inelegant words. Perhaps you would allow me…” but he was abruptly cut off as one of Riona’s friends grabbed her hand, pulling her into a swirling cluster.

When the song ended, she looked to the spot where the attractive newcomer had been, but he was no longer there. Wondering who he was, she started to scan the tables. Just then, however, her attention was diverted to the Herald cracking his staff on the floor trying to calm the crowd.

“Settle, settle,” he cried waving his free hand in a gesture of quiet. When a manageable peace was reached, he continued, “Here enters Our Lord Marsdon, Fifteenth Lord of Hafton Estate and Favored Trivaryl to Our King Yourk.”

At this pronouncement, Riona’s father entered the Hall and made his way to the head table. As he did this the crowd dispersed to their respective tables. Riona, likewise, made her way to the head table to join her parents and was surprised to find the mysterious young man seated in the chair next to her father. He smiled at her surprise and she grinned and nodded as she sat down next to her mother.

Lord Marsdon then began the introductions that traditionally preceded the serving of dinner. Many times, such formalities were skipped over when the guests were regular visitors and knew each other well, but this time, Riona realized, the traditional titling and greeting would be done in full for each of the fifteen family tables. Finally, she understood her mother’s insistence at formal attire and good behavior for tonight’s banquet.

One by one the head of each table was announced with an appropriate title or rank and then stood and greeted each other table on the floor. Greetings by those seated at floor tables were never made to the Host or guests at the head table until all on the floor had been announced and greeted.

As the head of the twelfth table, Lord Leeshie, was announced and stood to make his greeting, Riona began to get restless. Her thoughts kept wandering to the young man at the other end of the table. What was his name? Where did he come from? He wouldn’t be announced until all the floor tables had finished their ritual.

When that would finish, the Herald would again announce the title and rank of the Host who would then stand and announce any guests. At that point, the heads of the floor tables would stand and in unison greet the guest and then the Host. Finally, the Host would raise his glass, say “Fair greetings to ye all” and drink. That would be the signal for eating to commence and the music would resume.

How many times had Riona sat through the same lengthy ceremony? Out of extreme boredom, she began counting the other nodding heads in the room. Absorbed in her list, she missed part of what her father was saying. All she heard was, “…and son of Cressik the Younger, Hie Registrar of the Eastern valley,” the final greeting and the pronouncement of dinner.

Who was Cressik the Younger, she wondered? Riona was familiar with many family names throughout the surrounding regions, but freely admitted a limited knowledge of the subject. Long names and ranks held no interest for her. As such, Lady Lucinda would often reprimand her daughter’s incorrect use of a title, “…Veryl the Fifteenth Eyorl, Riona, not ‘Eyorl number fifteen’! Will you please pay attention!”

Riona’s lack of subtlety and precision in titling was directly ascribed to time spent with Lerner, her tutor. Being a title-less Lowe, he regarded the long-winded names as ‘noble aires.’ Lerner would often comment to Riona, “There isn’t a title now used that wasn’t once made up from a desire to seem important.”

As dinner progressed, the musicians and entertainers now filled the former dance floor for the amusement of those dining. Gleeful cheers and laughter increased even though the performers tired and slowed. This was mainly due to the fact that the barrels of rye-sere were emptying and the inebriated guests could be entertained as easily by a cow grazing.

Riona was never one to over-indulge in drink. She preferred to keep her wits and her head in the morning, though the whole of her family and friends never seemed to let that stop them. Most of the time, after such dinners, it was up to her and the servants to load guests into homeward-bound carriages or spare bedrooms. This was another source of mischief-making for her, taking advantage of dimmed senses and suggestible minds.

Tonight, however, when the barrels were drained, Riona was not the only person on her feet in the dinning room. The handsome, young newcomer still had bright eyes and a clear mind, it seemed.

After telling the servants which guests to bundle off home and which to deposit in rooms (to her own private amusement), Riona was left with only the newcomer to deal with.

“Well,” she began, “I’m afraid that I don’t know my father’s plans for entertaining you. As you can see,” she said, motioning towards the prostrate Lord Marsdon, “we will not get much out of him now.” She noticed the bemused look on the young man’s face.

“Ah, yes,” he replied with a slight grin, “then, I guess, whatever I say, you cannot refute.”

“True,” she said, returning the grin, “but I must warn you that I am not in the habit of obeying my father’s wishes. So, deception not withstanding, I don’t intend to do much.”

“And I would expect nothing less.”

Riona was a bit taken aback by this statement. This young man, whoever his father was, certainly did not carry himself with the usual, conservative Hie manner prescribed for members of her age group by their elders.

It was refreshing and yet challenging. She had always thought of herself as the only one around who didn’t conform, giving her comfort and resolve in such distinction. Now, however, she was faced with a slight encroachment on this territory. The young man spoke to her with more familiarity than was usually allowed by newcomers.

“Well, since you seem so comfortable here,” she challenged right back, “I will excuse myself and say goodnight.”

His bright eyes darkened a bit. “Oh, again I have offended you,” he said with concern. “Please accept my apologies, as a humble servant would.” He bowed low as he said this.

Such inconsistent behavior left Riona unsure how to reply this time. One minute he seemed challenging and the next abjectly solicitous. Recovering from her musing, Riona said frankly, “Please, no more of this. I don’t know how to respond. Let us start over, from introductions, and be friends.” She did a form of a curtsy and continued, “My name is Riona Hafton. And you are…?”

“Lord Crestwick, son of Cressik the Younger,” he replied with a bow, “and I would that we become friends, Miss Riona.”

“Good. Now that’s settled. Oh, and it’s just Riona. Please don’t call me ‘Miss.’ I despise it.” Riona grinned, “That’s what my mother uses when I’m in trouble.”

“To be sure,” Lord Crestwick replied, grinning in return. “And now, I must admit that I am weary from the road. If you could point me even towards a soft pile of hay, I would be content.”

“Oh, I think we can do better than that,” she responded and led him to one of the spare rooms left available for important guests. “I hope this will do. Our best room is under some repair right now in anticipation of King Yourk’s impending visit, but this at least has four walls and a roof!”

‘Four walls and a roof’ was quite and understatement for the room offered to this young Lord. Not less than 20 breadths long, and 40 breadths wide, the ground-level room’s walls were draped with twelve, very large, very intricately detailed tapestries. Each tapestry, edged with rich gold braid-work, depicted a battle scene of some sort on a vivid background color.

Yet not only did the walls have elegant coverings. The floor, too, was richly decorated with exotic rugs woven with bright greens, reds and blues. Matching these colors, an exquisite bedcover and bed curtains caught the eye next, hanging on the cherry-wood canopy bed tucked in the corner.

The rest of the furniture in the room was also cherry-wood, covered with similar exotic fabrics, and arranged as to encircle the large hearth on the wall shared with the room next door. The whole sight was very pleasing to the eye, giving a sense of being in a mystic land, far away, holding secrets yet to be revealed.

Riona was amused at the look of amazement on Crestwick’s face. Being the son of a titled Hie must not carry the same luxury in the Eastern valley as it did here. But then again, Lord Marsdon and Lady Lucinda did

seem to emphasize appearance more than some of the other Hies, even in their own region.

“If this suits you then…” Riona said, with a tone of inquiry in her voice. Lord Crestwick’s open-mouthed nod in response indicated that she wouldn’t get much more conversation out of him tonight.

“Good night, then,” she said and shut the door. As she slowly wandered off to her own room, thoughts of the evening bounced through her mind.

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