A Noble Gift

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Neighbors vs. Friends

The afternoons grew warmer and the rains lessened as Spring prepared to turn over the keys to Summer. After three days straight of rain, Riona was tired of being cooped up inside. Finally she convinced her father that the grounds were not too soft to exercise her horse on the little obstacle course he had constructed for her last Summer.

“Anyway, what’s a little mud?” she said after her father consented.

“Now, don’t let your mother hear you say that,” Lord Marsdon replied, and then he added with a wink, “In fact, let’s try to avoid her knowledge of this completely.”

“A wise move, My Lord,” she jested with a mock curtsey and bounced off to the stable for her mount.

Riona loved testing her riding skills by “running the gauntlet”, as she called it. The obstacles on the course mainly consisted of poles of differing heights with rings loosely attached to them. As she rode the course, she would use a stout, tapered rod to catch the rings. The goal was to collect as many as she could in as short a time as possible. Her father would keep track of her time with Lerner’s sand-filled hour glass.

“Ready father?” she asked when the servant had finished placing rings through the course.

“I am. Start when you will.”

With a kick, she was off. But with her first stab at a ring, she overcompensated and missed the target completely.

“Leave it, leave it. You’ll get it on the next circuit,” coached Lord Marsdon.

So, she clucked her tongue and kept going. She picked up the next four rings easily from a sitting position and made the turn for the lower ones. These required her to lean down to the side of the horse, almost completely out of the saddle, to retrieve the ground-level rings.

Her saddle had special grips just for this activity. It had been made for her by one of the very skilled saddle-makers the Estate boasted. The grips were on both sides so she could easily lower herself either way. The seat of the saddle was also special in that it had a flattened area with little leather thongs for her feet so she could ride in a standing position.

This accoutrement she used next to reach the high rings on the final leg of the course. Quickly, she pulled herself back up to the sitting position. Then in one graceful movement, she swung her legs up behind her so that she was on her knees. With feet positioned at the straps, she slowly raised herself up from a half-squat to an easy upright stance. She kept her knees bent to help absorb the horses movement and to keep her balance.

Then, with the reins in one hand and the tool in the other, she guided her horse towards the last rings. After collecting them, she carefully returned to her seat but without breaking the horse’s stride. She approached the starting point and finally collected what should have been her first ring.

“How was that, father?” she asked, a little breathless. “I admit I am a bit rusty.”

After Lord Marsdon praised her time, she handed the rings back to the servant so he could replace them. Once they were up, she set forth again, determining to beat her earlier time.

By late-afternoon, she had completed the gauntlet a full three rounds and with good speed. However, each additional time she completed the circuit the muddier the tract, mount, and rider became. It was at this point that Lord Marsdon, fearing a reprimand from his wife, tried to persuade his daughter to be done for the day.

“Oh, just once more, please?” Riona begged.

“Okay,” he gave in. “As long as this is the last one.”

Just as soon as she started off for the final time, one of the servants came to the patio and announced that Lord Marsdon had a visitor.

“Who is it, Loga?” he asked of the young boy.

“It’s Lord Strongford, Sir,” replied the timid voice.

“Hm? Oh very well. But show him out here,” he responded gruffly. “I’m not going in to meet that daurad.”

Not only had the young daughters of these two neighboring estates been at odds with each other, but the families themselves had been at each others’ throats for almost a century. The original dispute dated back to a boundary stone that one side claimed the other had moved in favor of some rich farmland. However since then, that particular part of land had been flooded out and was now nothing more than a bog which no one wanted.

But from that point on, there had been little peace through the generations. They were openly civil towards each other in public and joined in festivals and entertaining at each others’ places. But this was always done with an air of suspicion, and, more than once, tempers had flared over minor things.

The most recent “minor” incident involved Georda Strongford before his illness and passing. He had claimed that a saddle purchased from Hafton Estate was poorly made and was the cause of a serious fall of a guest. Marsdon, who had been the most amiable of his ancestors up to that point, had taken great offence at this and refused to attend any affair at Strongford Estate since the incident.

“Greetings, Lord Hafton,” came the rich, deep voice of Lord Dryden as he was led out to the patio.

Marsdon didn’t reply, but waved him to a seat near him. Rather than look at the visitor, he kept his eyes on Riona as she started on the low rings. Dryden took the seat offered and attempted polite conversation about the clear skies and warmer weather, all the while keeping one eye on the horse and rider.

“I doubt it is the weather that brings you to my door, Strongford,” cut in Lord Marsdon. “State your business so we can be done with it.”

“Aye, you have said it plainly enough why I have come.”

Marsdon finally looked at the young man with a puzzled expression, not taking his meaning.

“I have come to be done,” Dryden continued. “Done with this feud, that is.”

Still, Marsdon did not speak but kept his attention on the young lord, willing him to continue.

“I am here to recant the unjust words of my father. There was no fault with the Hafton saddle, but more rightly, with the incompetent groom and inexperienced rider.”

A smile flashed across Marsdon’s face as he said, “Now that, my boy, is all I wanted—the truth, truly spoken.” He clapped Dryden on the shoulder and continued as if they were the best of friends, “Your father, rest his soul, was the most stubborn Hie I have ever met.”

“That he was, Lord Hafton,” replied Dryden with a smile. “That he was. And now that we have settled this, I would like to solidify the agreement with an invitation to dinner. Would your family be so kind as to join our family for a quiet supper at Strongford Estate this evening?”

“Son,” Marsdon said with a smile, “if you will repeat the means of this truce in the public square, I will not only dine at your fine estate, but I will also bring some of my finest of rye-sere to toast you with.”

Just then, Riona finished capturing her final ring and returned to her father for approval. In the concentration of her task, she had not realized they had a guest or she might not have dismounted so quickly and carelessly. But as her feet landed in the mud, she recognized the form of Dryden Strongford and she lost balance.

As she planted her backside in the muck, the men both laughed and her father called out, “Daughter, we have too fine a dinner invitation waiting for you to be sitting in contemplation.”

“Well, Lord,” Dryden smiled, “she could just as easily contemplate in our mud as yours. I don’t think the rocks would mind the company!”

The men laughed and slapped each other on the backs as they turned to go in, but the humiliated Riona would not leave that comment unanswered.

THWACK!

She had scooped a handful of soggy sod and hurled it at them. However, her weapon had missed its mark and landed on the wall next to them. This made the men roar even louder with the hilarity of her mud-covered form pouting in the yard as they disappeared inside.


A freshly scrubbed form of Riona emerged from the carriage as it arrived for supper. In an attempt to avoid confronting her mother while in such a disheveled state, Riona had used the servant stairwell to reach her quarters. However, it was at that precise time that Lady Lucinda was receiving the daily report from Sora, Riona’s personal attendant, so there was no escape.

Her mother had bellowed awhile about skipping her deportment lesson for riding. Then she continued the tirade about riding in the mud and the state of Riona’s hair. And then, with Riona shivering and drenched in the cold wash basin, her mother had given her a final order, “You will not cause any kind of scene tonight. In fact, just don’t even say a word to Terese, so there won’t be any chance of a fight!”

With that ringing in her ears, Riona didn’t bother to explain to her mother about her recent change of heart towards her adversary. So, she silently vowed to use any opportunity to be nice to Terese as they approached Strongford Estate.

Similar in shape and style to their own dwelling, she likened this house to a miniaturized form of Hafton Estate. On the walls hung simple tapestries, roughly one quarter the size of the ones in the room she had shown Lord Crestwick on his first night. Furniture was sparsely placed throughout the hall and some corners were completely without decoration. But what was lacking in opulence of ornamentation was made up for with fresh flowers and greenery.

The aroma of spring lilacs was the most predominant as Lady Helene Strongford, Dryden and Terese’s mother, greeted them. She was a thin, somewhat frail-looking woman, even more so dressed all in white for the mourning of her husband. Riona had only met her a few times before, usually to sort out fighting.

With a kind welcome, Lady Helene led them into a cozy room, lit mostly by a large hearth-fire along the far wall. Terese, dressed in a simple light blue dress with purple trim, was helping a servant arrange food on the sideboard. Informal supper meant there would be no ceremony and, in fact, no table. Guests were to help themselves to food as they were hungry, and seating was positioned to take full advantage of conversation around the hearth.

Lord Marsdon went over to Terese to see about bringing in the vat of rye-sere he promised and Lady Lucinda engaged in pleasantries with Lady Helene. So, Riona went quietly over to the fire to await the time to eat. As she poked at a log, she was startled by a voice behind her.

“Can this be the same girl from this afternoon?” It was Dryden, quietly seated in a large couch that hid him from the door. His emerald green tunic, trimmed in gold, set off the glint in his eye as he smiled at her surprise.

“Oh fine,” Riona replied, as she spun around. “Is this how you greet all your guests, by sneaking up on them?”

“There was no sneaking involved.”

“To be sure, but stealth, I’ve no doubt, was the intention.”

“True, perhaps,” Dryden replied, still not moving. “But it is in stealth that one perceives the opponent.”

“But I thought your discussion with my father this afternoon was to end our families’ opposition?” Riona said defiantly. “Why do you, then, treat me as an opponent?”

“You are correct, my apologies. This is meant to be an evening to start over and be friends. Please, sit down.” Dryden indicated she take a seat on the couch next to his.

The evening was pleasant enough. Though the slight chill of the spring evening was completely driven out by the generous fire, Lucinda and Helene retreated to an inner room to chat about preparations for Prince Ruland’s visit next month. Marsdon and Dryden had also left the room while discussing farming and politics. So, Terese and Riona were left to themselves. Neither of the girls had said more than ‘hello’ to each other all evening.

“So,” Riona started a bit awkwardly, “are you looking forward to the royal visit?”

Terese almost looked startled that she was being spoken to. But then she nodded and added, “Um hm.”

More silence.

“Yeah,” Riona continued self-consciously, “What do you think the Prince will be like?”

Terese just shrugged her shoulders to indicate she didn’t know.

Again, silence.

Riona tried once more to draw her out. “I hope he’s not ugly. I mean, it would be really hard to try to impress him if he wasn’t interesting at all.”

A nod was all she got in response, so by this time Riona’s temper was beginning to flare. Here she was, trying to be the bigger person, trying to be nice. And she was getting nothing in return. How could she ever make friends with Terese if she wouldn’t even talk to her? But she figured she should give it one last try.

“I like your dress. It looks nice on you.”

Terese’s face flushed and she snapped back, “Look, what are you playing at?”

“What?”

“It wasn’t my idea to have you guys come over here!”

Riona was speechless. She hadn’t done anything, tonight, that deserved such hostility, so she lost her temper as well.

“Hey, I was just trying to be nice. But if this is how you’re going to act, then forget it!”

“What’s the matter here?”

It was Dryden. He had come back into the room to refill drinks.

Terese turned on her brother. “Look, I stayed through dinner like I promised. I’m going to my room now!” Then she stormed out of the room.

Riona just stood there with her mouth gaping open. After hearing a far-off door slam shut, she recovered her tongue.

“What was that all about? Honestly, I was just trying to be nice. I don’t know why she got so mad!”

“I believe you,” Dryden replied with his warm, deep voice. “I kind of sprung this dinner thing on her at the last minute.”

“And to think I was even going to apologize for stuff in the past!”

“Well, she just needs more time to get used to the idea of you being nice to her. She’ll come around if you keep at it. But,” he continued, laying a hand on her shoulder, “it may not be soon.”

She was a bit startled at his touch. It gave her a warm, tingly feeling inside that she hadn’t expected because up until this afternoon, they had been at odds. Dryden may have noticed the flush in her cheeks because he rather abruptly turned to go. Then, as if an afterthought, he went to the vat, filled the mugs in his hand and left the room without another word.

Riona, now left completely to herself, contemplated the recent emotions her psyche had been wrestling with. Such opposite reactions from confrontations with members of the Strongford family left her frustrated and confused. Her frustration with Terese was not so new. She was accustomed to those battles.

No, the one that really puzzled her was Dryden. She had probably only encountered him a handful of times before his intervention that day with Lord Crestwick. But now, he was popping into her mind more frequently. And what was with the tingling when he touched her? That was just silly; she had to put that out of her mind. And yet…

Just then, Riona heard her father’s voice saying something about Lord Crestwick. In her reverie, she had wandered into the hallway outside the room where the men were conversing. Her father’s inebriated slur was unmistakable as he rambled on about Crestwick, Yourk, and several other Hie families. Dryden’s voice, however, seemed quite unaffected by the rye-sere as he maneuvered the conversation back to Crestwick.

“Hmm, yes, the Syvern’s have quite a monopoly on the wool trade. But going back to Lord Crestwick, where did he stay before coming to your estate?”

“Damn wool…can’t get a leg up…whassat you say? Crestwick? Hm…could use a refill, my boy…sssent that young pup off to Gorden Essstate…lessss have another mug…”

“Gorden Estate, yes. But where did he come from?”

“You know Hasch Gorden? He’s a right pompous asssss…good barley flour…how ‘bout another drink…”

Riona heard the scrape of mug across table and realized that Dryden must be going to get another refill. She knew from experience that more alcohol would not help Dryden’s pursuit of information, so when he came into the hall without noticing her, she said, “I doubt you’ll get any more out of him tonight.”

Startled, Dryden spun around. The look on his face was consternation. He was obviously trying to recall the conversation and determine how much she had heard. Riona quietly turned and headed back towards the hearth room. Dryden followed her in and then veered over to the rye-sere vat. When the mug in his hand was filled, he turned to her again.

“I think you misinterpret the situation, Lady. I was merely trying to be a good host and engage your father in conversation.”

“Um hmm. Why are you so interested in Lord Crestwick?”

“I don’t know what you mean?”

“Suddenly there’s a new light on this reunion situation.”

“I assure you that my major motive was reconciliation.”

“Major motive?”

“I mean…”

“No, you said exactly what you meant, didn’t you? There are other motives at work, as well.”

Though Riona was upset at the thought her father was being used, she began to feel the tingly sensation again as Dryden moved closer and locked eyes with her.

“Riona, the apology from my family to yours is true; but, yes, I also want to know where this Lord Crestwick came from. It is he that I do not trust, not your family. At this particular time, I thought it prudent to gather information in a more stealthy manner.”

“Through deception…”

“Not deception,” Dryden interrupted, and with some urgency, as if willing her to understand, he continued, “secretive means. Don’t you know the dangers that are lurking just outside these gates? Rumors of rebellion and assassination.”

“Oh, there have always been and always will be such rumors. I don’t see why this should make you behave like a suspicious old woman.”

Riona tried to laugh as if he was just being paranoid, but there was something in his voice that made it difficult for her to dismiss the ideas altogether. It was true that rumors were flying around. Just last week, Sora had told her about a great army of robbers gathering strength in the Eastern valley. However, being that Sora was given to confabulation, not much credence was given to the idea.

Dryden was not willing to let the subject be dismissed so easily. “The suspicious mind can live to an old age just as easily as the careless mind can die at a young one. The danger is real, Riona, and ever present for us as Prince Ruland is coming.”

“Okay, okay. I believe you,” Riona said because she was tired. “Regardless, you are not going to get anymore information about Crestwick tonight. I’ll bet you a painted pony my father is out cold right now, and you won’t be able to budge him.”

Dryden acquiesced and followed her into the room where her father was. Looking like a large sack of vegetables, Marsdon had slouched over the arm of his obviously sturdy wooden chair.

“Really, we ought to just leave him there. ” said Riona.

“That wouldn’t do much for my reputation as a host, now would it?”

Just then Ladies Lucinda and Helene entered the room. After checking on the unconscious status of her husband, Lucinda made to call for servants to help load him into a coach for the trip home. Lady Helene instead insisted that the Haftons would be more comfortable staying in guest rooms than even a short ride home in the coach. Lucinda agreed and was shown to a room by servants struggling to keep Marsdon from collapsing in the hallway.

As Riona was being shown to her room, she saw Dryden exit from two doors down and enter the one directly across the hall. From the slam of the door, Riona determined that must have been Terese’s room and she was none too happy about the overnight guests. Dryden smiled at Riona, bowed, and then disappeared into his own room. Though she didn’t know why she should care, Riona couldn’t stop her eyes from lingering on his door for several moments after he had gone.

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