A Noble Gift

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Entertaining the Guest

“Good morning, father dear,” Riona bubbled as she leaned over and kissed Lord Marsdon on the cheek.

“Please, Riona, not so loudly,” he replied in a gruff and groggy voice, waving her off from him.

Mornings after banquets were slow in starting. Usually, Lady Lucinda would request breakfast in bed, if at all. The other guests would do likewise with the ladies remaining in their rooms until lunch.

Lord Marsdon and the other men would regroup in the fresh morning air by the garden. They would sit, eat, and talk about what a wonderful banquet the night before had been. Slowly, the conversation would turn from food to harvest, then to taxes and politics.

When Riona arrived this morning, they were just to harvest, so she gauged they hadn’t been up long. “And where are we off to this morning?” inquired her father as she took a piece of toasted bread from his plate and turned to go.

“Oh, I’m just going for a ride,” replied Riona, and with a mischievous grin added, “It’s such a beautiful sunny day, isn’t it?”

“Humph,” grunted several voices around the table.

“Not that any of you would notice, now, would you?” said Riona, again turning to go.

“Well, Marsdon,” chimed in the husky voice of Tanin Leeshie, “she has got some cheek, hasn’t she?” He was a good natured second father-type whose estate was a day’s ride away. He was a good friend of the family who also doted on Riona, having lost his only daughter to the Fever.

“Yes, Uncle Tanin, I do!” Riona grinned and leaned in, kissing him on the forehead.

Just as she turned for a third time to go, her father again stopped her, “Hold, just a moment. I thought you could show our esteemed guest around the estate this morning.”

“Oh, father,” whined Riona, “I want to go for a ride.” She stomped her foot in protest.

“Now, none of that, Girl,” Lord Marsdon said with sudden agitation. “You can tour on horseback, if you like, but I’ll have no more discussion on it. And you will sit and wait until our honored guest joins us.”

Riona knew better than to argue this time. “Fine,” she retorted, “but I’m not changing into a skirt!” Lord Marsdon usually indulged and pampered his daughter, and could be swayed by her attention, flattery, and sometimes, a good argument. But, he was still Lord of the Estate and every once in awhile he let her know it by just the tone of his voice.

Riona sat back down but in a manner suggesting she would defy anyone at the table to suggest it improper for a “lady” to be hostess in male britches. Riding in a skirt was difficult at best, dangerous at worst. Especially the way she rode.

She didn’t have to wait long, for, shortly, two voices were heard through the patio doors. One, Riona recognized from the night before as Lord Crestwick’s voice. And the other was that of her father’s advisor and her tutor, Lerner.

“Ah, Lord Marsdon,” cracked the aged voice of wisdom, “your Lerner is here to return one who was lost.”

“Forgive my tardiness, Lord Marsdon,” said Crestwick. “I am afraid that I was a bit disoriented and wandered by mistake into Master Lerner’s quarters.”

“Not ‘master’,” corrected Lerner, a half-smile barely visible through the snowy whiskers on his chin, “titles are not used among the Lowe-born.” With an enigmatic glance towards the young man, he turned and headed back indoors.

“Thank you, Lerner,” said Lord Marsdon to the back of the retreating form. Then, focusing his attention on Lord Crestwick, he asked, “Well, my boy, how would you like a horseback tour of the estate?”

Engaging in polite conversation most of the morning, Riona had shown Lord Crestwick the northern stock holds on the estate and the nearby Lowe village where many of the Farmers and some of the Laborers lived. He didn’t seem too interested and became almost sullen as they passed through the village. But during lunch back with the family and other guests, Lord Marsdon had promised him that Riona would also show him the western border woods.

Though she was not terribly thrilled with the idea, Riona figured that the woods would be as good a place as any to pass the hot afternoon time. There was a pleasant stream that marked one of the boundaries of Hafton Estate, and it ran through this lightly wooded area.

Riona didn’t speak as she urged her horse to take the lead on the path towards the stream. Conversation had turned to a lull because she was somewhat tired of the onslaught of questions being poured on her. Crestwick was much less interested in talking about his part of the realm than in asking questions about hers. She began to feel that if he asked one more question about Prince Ruland’s travel schedule, she would just kick her horse and gallop off alone to find some peace.

This young man was a puzzle and a half. Skilled as he appeared to be in horsemanship, he seemed uninterested in the tack shop in the village this morning. Hafton Estate is well known for its exquisite saddles, one of the reasons, many believed, that Prince Ruland had chosen to visit them last. Neither did he seem impressed by their cattle herd or fine granary.

However, what mostly bothered her was that he took no notice of the fact that she was not in traditional female riding attire. Many of Lady Lucinda’s friends commented loudly on it at lunch and she thoroughly enjoyed the shock value. But why should it seem so strange that he didn’t even blink an eye? He obviously dressed differently in his part of the realm; perhaps the noblewomen there did as well. The only women Riona had ever seen in pants around here were Lowe laborers in one of the Stronghold villages. Perhaps she was just disappointed at not being able to get the attention she was accustomed to.

Suddenly, her reverie was broken by the sound of branches cracking under the hooves of a doe as is leapt out of the bushes in front of them. It must have crossed the stream from the Strongford Estate in an attempt to escape its pursuers. Riona’s and Crestwick’s horses shied at the sudden movement, but neither rider was thrown. They both watched as the doe staggered a few more steps and then crumpled to the ground.

“Better check that,” Riona said more to herself than to her guest as she dismounted. Crestwick followed in likewise manner and they both crossed over to the motionless form.

“It’s been shot with an arrow,” Crestwick assessed.

“Yes,” she replied. “And a bloody bad shot, at that.”

A clean shot would have felled the doe instantly. However, this shot had missed its heart-target and torn into the deer’s front left haunch. A painful way to die as it had run, bleeding all the while, killing itself slowly.

Lord Crestwick shifted the deer onto its side so Riona could pull out the arrow. In order to examine it closer, she wiped off some of the deer’s blood on the back of her leg. It seemed crudely made, not from one of the Noble stocks around here.

“Must be poachers,” she decided aloud.

As they both stood there, contemplating what should be done next, there came the sound of dogs barking and splashing through the stream beyond the brush. Hungry dogs following a blood-scent would not be something they particularly wanted to face on foot, so they both made to return to their mounts.

However, before either of them had gone more than two steps, a snarling, gray wolfhound burst through the bramble right next to the horses. This caused both mounts to rear up. Then, as a shaggy, brindle-colored deerhound with large, hazel eyes bounded from the bush, the horses bolted, stranding their riders to face the hounds alone and on foot.

Crestwick turned to face the two large dogs and pulled out a small, ornate hunting knife from under a flap of his tunic. The only weapon Riona had was the arrow in her hand, so she tightened her grip on it.

As the dogs, with teeth bared, advanced on the twosome, Riona took a step backwards. Crestwick, however, made a slashing motion towards the closer wolfhound, but this did not seem to phase the animal. In fact, it seemed to take it as a challenge because it now turned its full attention on him.

“Don’t provoke it,” Riona said, trying to defuse the situation with logic. “They’re just warning us off the kill. If we don’t prevent them from having it, they will leave us alone.”

She took another step backwards, and as if understanding her meaning, the deerhound turned away from her and went to sniff the deer. However Crestwick seemed unable or unwilling to hear her words and would not budge from his standoff with the other bristling animal. His eyes showed a mix of terror and fury, and fury was winning as it seemed he was intent on making an end of this wolfhound.

“Crestwick!” she called, “back up and lower the knife!” but to no avail.

Just then, a mounted rider came through the same opening in the bushes as the dogs. It was Dryden Strongford, the older brother of Riona’s archenemy, Terese.

“Hold, Baltus!” he called, but the wolfhound did not respond. So he turned to address Lord Crestwick instead.

“Friend,” he said in a deep, commanding voice. “I am not the master of this dog, so he does not obey me. You would do well to back down.”

Still, Crestwick seemed not to hear, and instead, he took another wild swipe at the wolfhound. The tragic result of this unbalanced movement caused the hound to lunge towards him.

With one leap, the wolf had closed the gap and sunk its teeth into Crestwick’s arm. Howling with terror, he fell to the ground. The animal did not release its grip until a high pitched whistle was heard. At that sound, the wolfhound let go of the young lord and sauntered over to the source of the whistle, an old man in dirty clothes and a bandaged hand.

“Baltus don’t obey no one but me,” the old man said in a scratchy voice, “and he don’t never let go unless I tells him.”

Dryden dismounted and went over to Crestwick who was still on the ground, cradling his blood-soaked arm.

“Here, let’s have a look at that,” Dryden said, but Crestwick refused to acknowledge him. So he addressed Riona instead, “You’d better tell your friend he needs that looked at.”

“Of course he does,” replied Riona a bit curtly and bent over her wounded companion. “But it seems your dogs have run off our horses!”

“Well then,” he replied in the same deep voice and, addressing the old man, said, “Tawkins, take the young lord to your hut and bandage his arm.”

Crestwick refused the old man’s help in getting up and looked disdainfully at the dirty bandage on his hand. The rough appearance of this man made him to look more the likes of a Laborer than a Healer, but Crestwick did not want to tangle with the wolfhound again. So he quietly followed Tawkins and Baltus as they made to cross the shallow stream.

“And are you injured, Lady?” Dryden asked, noticing the blood on Riona’s leg.

“No, I am quite intact,” she answered with an edge to her voice. “No thanks to your beastly dogs.”

“But then,” he replied with a wry grin, “I should have had no doubt you would have fared better against Baltus than your friend did.” At that, he mounted his Roan mare and turned it to face her.

“High praise from a Strongford!” Riona replied sarcastically.

Dryden just laughed and reached down a hand to her. “Come, the sun will set soon. Let me take you home. Your horses are sure to be in their stables by now and your father will wonder why you are not with them.”

“I think I should see to Lord Crestwick” she answered. And with more sarcasm she continued, “Your Master Healer did not quite look up to the challenge.”

“Very well then,” he gave in. “I will take you to Tawkins’ place. I can send Staga for a wagon and driver.” He reached his hand towards her again and added with a grin, “Or would Lord crestwit rather have a gilded coach?”

Tawkins’ “place” could hardly even be called a hut, either. It was, for lack of a better description, an earthen cave. Two caves, in fact; one smaller for a stable and one larger for sleeping. Hollowed into the side of a hill, their walls were reinforced with mud bricks and the floors were packed clay. An oily cloth hanging over the larger sleeping quarter was all that made a barrier to the outside elements.

Yet one could see why the recluse would choose such a place, for it was extremely difficult to find if you didn’t know what you were looking for. Ringed by trees at the crest of the cave, it looked like little more than an outcropping on the side of a hill. The stream was not far away for fresh water and the bushes provided natural cover by the entrance.

The only sure way to find Tawkins’ place would be by following the smoke trail from the fire pit just off to the left of the oily flap. It had a spit for roasting and a rather large flat stone on which sat a shallow bowl filled with a thick, bubbling salve. Crestwick sat on a wooden bench by it, keeping a watchful eye on Baltus snoozing opposite the fire. With his good hand, Tawkins stripped some little leafy green plants, obviously herbs of some sort, and tossed them in to the bowl. Then, to the mix, he added a couple of cloth strips torn from a tatter hanging over a nearby branch.

Dryden left his mount to grab a few mouthfuls of hay at a trough in the smaller cave-stable and followed Tawkins behind the oily flap. A few minutes later, Riona saw him emerge with a small strip of parchment and whistled for Staga, his deerhound. Dryden tucked the scrap under Staga’s collar and signaled him to go. Without question, the deerhound followed its master’s signals and took off at a loping gallop through the trees.

“Here, let me show you where the wagon will meet you,” he said to Riona. “It’s up over this hill…”

Riona was beginning to get a bit annoyed at Crestwick’s protestations of Tawkins’ sullen attempt to bandage the wound. He was not mean to Crestwick, just obviously uncomfortable with the task. So, she decided to follow Dryden through the trees, asking “Why doesn’t the wagon just come here to gather us?”

“There’s not a good way for the wagon to get down to the stream here.”

It was not a good answer, but it was an answer.

“Tawkins doesn’t like visitors much, does he?” Riona asked.

Dryden just smiled and kept walking. He would not be drawn out that easily, so she decided to prick at him.

“Of course I shouldn’t have expected much better treatment from a Strongford. “

He wouldn’t take that bait, either.

“Careless hunters, mangy dogs, and making the wounded traipse all through the woods sounds about right for a daraud family.”

That did it. Riona quickly realized she had gone too far as Dryden stopped in mid-stride and turned toward her. The word daraud was a derogatory term for the homeless wanderers of the pre-Line civilization. Their gypsy-like lifestyle was considered classless by the Hies, below even that of the servitude class of Lowe.

This was also a personal attack Riona often used to get back at Dryden’s sister, Terese, when she was really angry. It harkened to the implication of several years back when the Strongford’s nobility was brought into question by a consort of King Yourk at the Great Registration.

It seemed that their grandmother’s family line could not be verified by any of the scrolls at the Registry and her son Georda (Terese and Dryden’s father) bore the brunt of the accusation that he was not Noble-born. It was later found that the scroll in question had been mislaid, but the shame had already been put out there. Many believe it was the stress of this incident that led to the long illness that claimed Georda’s life last year.

Dryden stood there, mouth open, face flushed and without words. Riona was expecting a tirade similar to what she was used to from Terese when pushed like that. But nothing came.

In the quickly fading light, Riona could almost imagine a tear trickling down Dryden’s cheek. The bottom of her heart felt as if it had dropped out. Never had she heard herself this way, without the encouragement of her friends. In a group, she had never really listened to what she said amidst all the laughter, but alone, she now realized how cruel it sounded. It put a different color on her constant fighting with Terese.

“Dryden, I’m sorry,” Riona gushed. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

“Yes, you did,” he snapped and turned away from her. Pointing at a spot in the clearing where the road could be seen, he then added, “There is where the wagon will be.” And with that, he headed back the way they came.

Riona didn’t know what else to do, so she followed him back.

“You know, I used to think my sister was exaggerating about you,” he said as they reached the trees again. “But I guess Terese just understands you better.”

That cut Riona to the quick because she and Terese had always been at odds. Even so, she was not generally considered a cruel person. And yet, she had heard the hurtful words come out of her own mouth just minutes before.

“Look, Dryden,” Riona said, trying to cover her embarrassment, “I didn’t know you were going to take me seriously. It was just a joke.”

“Um hum,” he replied, unconvinced.

Riona closed her mouth and fell into step behind him. Somewhere deep inside, she knew that she should apologize to both him and his sister, but instead she resolved to be nicer to Terese next time. No matter what Terese does at their next meeting, she would not retaliate. Her silence would be her penance.

Just before they arrived back with the others, Dryden stopped and turned to Riona. He had a look on his face as if he was deciding whether to tell her something or not. Finally he said, “Not everything is as it seems. Be careful of that stranger.”

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