Picking up the Pieces
By Raven Blackmane
January 10, Year 707, Cristos Reckoning.
Father was dead.
No matter how she tried to avoid it -- no matter what distractions she employed, what prayers and meditations and thought exercises she forced through her troubled mind -- Daria's thoughts kept circling back to that single, inescapable truth.
Leon hin'Gallad, her father, was dead. Nasoj's soldiers had killed him in their attack on the eve of Yule, more than two weeks past. He had gone out to the battlements with the other palace guards, grumbling about the horrid weather and extra shifts, taking only minor solace in the overtime pay he would have received for the duty. He had paused on his way out to tousle Daria's hair, as he had done a thousand times before. He had lingered in the doorway while his wife -- Daria's mother, Caitlyn, the healer's assistant -- stepped up and stood on tip-toes to kiss him, her child-sized body dwarfed by his six-foot tall lion-like form. As he had so many times since the Curse took them, Leon had grabbed her by the waist and raised her lightly into the air, chuckling with his deep, rumbling voice. He had kissed her tenderly, cradling her with the greatest care, and then she had wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face in his mane with a brief, fierce hug.
"I'm only on duty for the first watch," he had said. "I'll meet you at the temple after the service."
"All right," Mother had said, as he lowered her gently to the floor. "Stay warm."
"I will." Leon had looked over at Daria, giving her one last smile. "Say hello to Merai and her parents for me."
"I will, Da," Daria promised.
And then, he had walked out the door.
He would never walk back through it again.
Daria looked out the window of her room in the infirmary and sighed. She would not cry -- indeed, she had shed so many tears in the last two weeks that it felt as if she might never cry again -- but the pain that had been raw and throbbing a short while ago had settled into a deep and bone-weary heartache. She wished that spring would come early this year, so that she could see the green grass and the flowers and believe, even a little bit, that there would be new life to follow this dead and deadly winter. She desperately needed something to believe in right now -- some hope that the darkness she felt would not last forever.
The iron determination the Keepers had felt at Lord Thomas's speech ten days ago -- the almost fanatical commitment to the idea that Metamor would not be broken, that Nasoj and all his works would be undone -- had rapidly begun to fade in the face of the enormity of the task before them. It was all well and good to speak of laying siege to the Dark Wizard's citadel, but it wasn't quite as easy to believe in it when the people went out to find their houses in ashes, nearly the whole town reduced to broken rubble. Daria had not been out to see the damage -- her grave injuries in the battle of the barracks had kept her confined to the infirmary -- but some of the members of her little squad had come by and told her how the work was progressing. As the days went on, she'd seen how the fire and optimism had begun to drain from their eyes. The work, it seemed, was taking its toll on everyone.
Still, Daria would have given almost anything to be part of it, and not cooped up in here as a convalescent.
Daria's dark thoughts were interrupted by a sound of flapping wings, coming from somewhere close beyond the window. She shifted on her bed and leaned out, looking around--
And then felt the sudden weight as something landed deftly atop her head. Daria started, then smiled, as a small reptilian head on a sinuous neck bent down to look her in the eye.
"Kree!" Starling said in greeting.
Daria sat back in her bed again, smirking at Starling's antics, as the dragonet fluttered over to perch on the windowsill.
"Good morn, Starling," Daria said, glad for the distraction her little friend's visit had provided. "How fares the weather for flying today?"
Starling projected an image into Daria's mind -- like all dragonets, it was the only way she could really communicate, though she could understand human speech perfectly well. This time, the image showed Starling herself sailing on gentle winds, then shivering at the cold.
Daria nodded. "I suppose you're looking forward to spring as much as I."
Starling sent another image, of Daria walking around the halls. There was a note of curiosity in the thought that made it into a question.
"I've been walking a little, with crutches," Daria answered. Starling cocked her head, and Daria added, "They're wooden frames that rest under your arms, to help support your weight. Like a cane, except you needn't bend over to use them. 'Twas Master Bryan or one of the other tinkerers that came up with them, I think." She sighed. "Anyway, 'tis not as if there's been much cause for me to go far. As I am now, I'm little use to anyone."
"Kree!" Starling said, sounding miffed. She sent Daria an image of herself dressed in the leather-and-chain armor of one of Metamor's female knights, swaggering down the streets of town with a look of utmost confidence. This time, the image was not a question, but declaration of complete certainty.
Daria smiled wistfully. "I suppose you're right. I shall get my strength back. Someday, anyway." She closed her eyes a moment, then changed the subject. "So, what brings you here today?"
Starling flashed the image of a tall, powerfully muscled young man with the features of a black bear. Daria recognized him immediately as Garulf, another member of her squad during the recent defense of the Keep and one of Daria's more frequent partners in Master DeMule's combat drills. Like Daria, he had barely reached adulthood, and was still months away from his fifteenth birthday -- but where the Curse had made her even smaller and lighter than before, it had given him a massive and powerful physique to shame many grown men.
"Garulf sent you?" she asked Starling, surprised. "Why?"
"Because," a voice called from outside her door, "Starling can fly up three storeys faster than I can walk them." Garulf emerged from the doorway a moment later, carrying white garments of some kind in one hand and a belt full of tools around his waist. He had sawdust in his fur and dirt on the knees of his trousers, and the musk Daria could smell as he drew near hinted that he'd been doing some intensive labor. It wasn't even the third hour past dawn yet; evidently, the repair crews were starting early and going hard.
Daria found that some part of her liked the smell; for all its animalistic overtones, there was something wonderfully ... masculine about it. Maybe it reminded her of her father, on some level. She put the thought out of her mind.
"Garulf," she said, smiling impishly as she put a note of scolding into her voice. "Does Master DeMule know that you're making bedside visits when there's serious work to be done?"
Garulf bowed. "Your pardon, Squire," he said gravely, "but our dear castellan has given me leave to see to a repair job even more pressing than the city itself."
"And that would be?"
"Repairing you," he said grimly. "Come, sit up and let me help you put these on." He gestured with the garments in his hand.
Daria looked at him quizzically. "What are they?"
"Protective braces. Healer says they'll help hold you together. Like a corset, but a great deal more useful." He tossed the garments to her. Turning them over in her hands, Daria found that they were fitted with drawstrings and reinforced by something light and sturdy -- whalebone, perhaps, if they were like the corsets worn by some of the nobility. There was one garment that was indeed a sort of corset, though without the exaggerated hourglass shape the noblewomen forced themselves into, as well as smaller braces that seemed to be designed to support her knees.
"And these actually work?" she asked, curious and a little skeptical.
"One way to find out. Come on, put them on. I'll help you lace up the back."
Having been confined mostly to bed, Daria was dressed in only a light shift, and the corset fitted easily over top of it. Garulf tightened it without apparent effort, his left hand firm and steady against the small of her back as he tugged on the loose ends of the laces with his right. The reinforced garment pressed in on Daria from all sides, but not excessively; she found that she could still breathe easily enough, and the extra support seemed to ease the pain in her back and sides where her muscles were still knitting themselves back together. The corset also cupped and supported her breasts, which had been growing larger during her current growth spurt and had already begun to be something of a distraction in combat training.
Daria swung her legs over the edge of the bed, feeling less pain in doing so than she had in weeks, and began putting on the knee braces. These she could lace herself, and did so, noting how the strips of whalebone held her injured joints steady against side-to-side movement while still allowing her legs to move forward and back.
"Fetch me some clothes, will you?" she asked Garulf, as she finished tying one brace and turned to the other. "I can't very well go out like this."
Garulf looked around the room searchingly, until Daria gestured at a wardrobe on the far wall. The bear man rifled through it for a minute and came back with a pair of knit leggings, baggy trousers, a red tunic, cloak, socks, and boots. While they would be unusual for a woman elsewhere in the Midlands, the clothes were typical of the once-male warriors of Metamor, and much warmer than a woman's skirts. Daria had debated with herself about switching to dresses when the weather turned hot in the summer, but the need for a decision was still months away.
Daria dressed slowly and carefully; the braces helped, but her body was still stiff and very tender. She would never have dreamed that internal injuries could hurt so much for so long. True, as Daren, he had fallen off the battlements the day the Curse had begun to take hold on him, and the pain she now felt was nothing to what he had experienced then -- but Merai had healed him completely on that day, driven by her utter determination to save the life of her friend. Daria had been wounded several times throughout the battle for the Keep, but her squad had been essential to the Keepers' tactics and the priestesses had devoted their full efforts to keeping her and her teammates in fighting shape. This time, though, with the immediate danger gone and most of the Keep's population nursing injuries of one sort or another, the Lightbringers had only repaired the worst of the damage and left the rest to heal on its own. Daria realized, ruefully, that she had become spoiled by the Lightbringers' miracles; most people would not receive in a lifetime all the divine blessings she had been given in less than a year.
At last, tying up the boots, Daria rose carefully to her feet, bracing herself against the side of the bed.
"Ready?" Garulf asked.
Daria nodded. "I need my crutches," she said, looking around for them.
"No, you don't." Garulf gestured at her midsection, then down to her knees. "What do you think that second skeleton is there for?"
Daria fidgeted. "I haven't been out without my crutches before," she said, uncertainly. "Shouldn't we ask Healer Coe?"
"I've already spoken with him," Garulf said, putting his hands on his hips. "And it took some doing; he's a very busy man these days. He says you could have been walking a week ago, if you'd put more effort into it." Daria bristled at that, offended. "But," Garulf continued, forestalling her objection, "you've been through five hells of trouble lately, and he didn't want to push you." The bear-man smiled, but his eyes were stern. "So now that's my job."
Daria scoffed, still indignant. "So you're my drill master now, as well, is it?"
Garulf's eyes softened. "No," he said. "Just a friend who wants to remind you what you're capable of." He stepped closer and beckoned her with an outstretched hand. "Come on, Daria. Time to rejoin the world of the living."
Daria sighed. Like it or not, Garulf wasn't going anywhere until she at least made an effort to do as he asked. With small, tentative steps, she walked past him and headed toward the door.
She made it out and down the hall with little trouble, running her hand along the stone wall and leaning against it every few steps. The pain was constant but bearable, and the braces helped to keep her back straight and her legs moving forward. Garulf followed close behind her, seemingly unperturbed by her snail's pace, offering her a hand or arm to steady herself when she needed it.
"Where would you like to go?" he asked.
Daria only needed to think on it for a moment. "To the battlements," she said. "I want to see the town for myself."
Garulf just nodded and kept walking. Daria had only seen a little of the town's ruins during Duke Thomas's speech, and her window in the infirmary showed even less. Out on the battlements, which ran atop the walls around the entire perimeter of the city, Daria would be able to see what had really become of Metamor.
They soon came to a winding staircase leading up. Daria looked at it forlornly, wondering if this was Kyia's idea of a joke. She knew full well just how high the battlements were, and that the third story was not high enough to reach them, but she wished that the castle spirit would have made an exception in her case. She knew it was possible for Kyia to move passages between storeys, but evidently she didn't feel like making things easy today.
"How am I going to do this?" Daria muttered, placing a hand on the railing and looking up.
"Here," Garulf said, stepping close behind her and slightly off to one side. "I'll help. Put your hand on my arm and the other on the rail." He put his arm out in front of her, and she held it. He then put his other arm around her waist, holding her steady against his own large, strong body. Daria shivered, an unfamiliar tingling sensation running through her, then relaxed and leaned back against the solid, unyielding wall of his chest. It felt good. It felt ... safe.
"Now," Garulf said quietly. "One step at a time."
Obediently, Daria raised her foot to the first step; then, bracing herself against Garulf's arm, she half stepped, half lifted herself onto the stair. Garulf held her steady against his body so she would not fall, but otherwise let her do the work of pulling and pushing herself up the staircase. Twice her legs failed her and she fell back, but Garulf was as dependable as a stone barricade and did not even waver when her weight landed fully in his arms. It took them at least ten minutes, but at last they arrived on the next floor. Daria's chest heaved behind the close-fitting corset and her legs burned from the unaccustomed exertion.
"Good thing we got you out today," Garulf observed. "You've been abed too long, I think."
"I need to rest a bit," Daria said, panting. Her skin was flushed from the exercise -- perhaps from more than that? -- and the corset and leggings were allowing very little heat to escape her body.
Garulf looked down the corridor, then gestured. "There's a balcony over there," he said. "Ready to step outside?"
"Please," Daria agreed, and Garulf half-carried her over to the door that led to the balcony.
Outside they found two small benches resting against the walls, a stone shelf that ran along the semicircular edge of the balcony, and a four-foot high barricade that rose beyond the shelf and kept anyone sitting there from falling back into empty space. They were somewhere above the palace wing of the Inner Keep, and the balcony looked out to the southwest over the city walls and the valley beyond. Somewhere just below them should be the ducal gardens, Daria knew -- assuming that any of the plants had survived the lutins' acts of vandalism.
The air was cold but not bitterly so, and it felt good after the torturous climb up the stairs. Daria closed her eyes and rested her head against the wall behind her. It wasn't very comfortable, and soon she found herself shifting to lean back against the softer, warmer surface of Garulf's chest and shoulder. The bear-man offered no complaint, seeming in fact to give it no notice at all. Daria relaxed and simply breathed, enjoying his scent mixing with that of her own sweat, together with the biting crispness of the dry winter air.
Presently she took notice of another scent, a fainter one that came more strongly when the wind shifted. She frowned.
"I smell smoke," she said, wrinkling her brow in concentration. "And ... something else. Roasting meat, I think?"
Garulf's muscles grew tense against her back. "Not exactly," he said, carefully.
Daria's stomach dropped as realization hit. She looked up at him, her eyes wide. "Funeral pyres?" she asked, disbelieving. "But it's been ten days!" It was a long and sacred custom, among the religious traditionalists who followed the Lightbringer teachings, that no body should lay unburned more than three days, lest it become corrupted by rot or awakened to hideous un-life by one of the daedra. To let a body lie for nine days or more was considered to be an act of defiance against the gods, and invited a curse upon those who showed such disrespect for the dead.
Garulf lowered his head wearily; he, too, had been raised with the old ways, and knew the consequences as well as Daria. "It couldn't be helped," he said, sadly. "There were more than a thousand Metamorians dead in the Keep alone, to say nothing of Euper and the other towns. Some were Patildor, and are being kept frozen until they can be ... buried ... in accordance with their customs." Garulf looked disgusted at the thought, and Daria quietly shared the sentiment; the idea of sticking a body in a box and burying it in the ground to rot was horrifying in the extreme. The fact that the Patildor believed that their spirits would one day return to inhabit their old bodies was even more revolting. Daria had never seen a zombie, personally, but from what she understood, the results weren't pretty.
"But most of our people need pyres," Garulf continued, "and we're doing our best to provide them." He gestured out toward the fields to the west, and Daria could see little pillars of smoke rising in the gentle winds. "We burn twenty, sometimes thirty at a time, stacked on scaffolds ten feet tall. We've been scavenging wood from the ruined houses in town, thatch from the roofs for kindling." He shook his head. "It isn't nearly enough. The timber crews are doing what they can, but the river is frozen and they have to pull the logs the whole way over land. We can't do the job fast enough."
Daria shivered, and she doubted it had anything to do with the cold. "Will the gods punish us for this?"
Garulf shrugged. "The Lightbringer says not. She pleaded with the gods for leniency, and they said no affront would be taken so long as the bodies were kept cold and safe from scavengers until their pyres could be made ready. So long as we avoid any sudden thaws, all should be well."
Daria found herself feeling guilty for wishing for an early spring, and whispered a prayer of apology for her selfishness. What if she had gotten her wish, and the funeral rites had been disrupted? What if her own father's spirit had not received its proper farewells?
Her mind shied immediately away from that, from a question that almost sprang to her lips unbidden. Don't think about Father. Change the subject. A moment later a different question came to mind, and she frowned as the thought struck her. "What are they doing with the enemy dead?" she asked.
The bear-man grunted. "Cremation pits," he said, gesturing off toward the east. "Over on the far side of the Keep, away from the river. We started the fires with pitch and dragon-breath, and just keep adding more bodies as they burn down. Lutins burn pretty well once you get 'em going -- there's a fair bit of oil under that hide of theirs. Keeps 'em warm in winter, I suppose." He spoke offhandedly, without apparent emotion. At another time, Daria might have been sickened by the mental image, but at the moment she had little sympathy for the creatures that had fought for Nasoj. She had even less concern for the human men who had served under the dark wizard. The lutins, some said, were deceived by Nasoj's powers and manipulated by his use of their religion, but no one could doubt that the men who fought for him knew exactly what they were doing. She felt no guilt about their remains being burned in a pit, without wood or prayers or ceremony, the ashes buried with those of five thousand nameless others. Without the prayers of the mourners to guide them, perhaps their spirits would lose their way on the path to the Nine Hells and be trapped forever in the cold, uncaring earth. It was no worse than they deserved.
Daria grimaced. She'd been about to ask something a minute ago; she had a feeling it was something important, but it had slipped from her mind. Her mood had gone sour with this whole unpleasant discussion, and she decided she would rather not sit here any longer and dwell on it.
"Let's go on," she said, determinedly raising herself to her feet. Garulf quickly rose behind her, and they went back into the hall, down a short stretch of passageway, and thence through a heavy wooden door out onto the battlements.
Starling met them outside, perched on a merlon along the inner side of the wall. Daria stroked the dragonet's chin in greeting, and Starling purred happily. She joined them as they walked slowly down the battlements toward the southern end of the city, flitting back and forth and around their heads as they passed. Daria wondered if she really had that much nervous energy to use, or if she kept flying just to stay warm. It occurred to her to ask how a creature with a belly full of fire ever could feel cold, but she doubted if that was the sort of thing Starling could explain with her word-pictures.
You're not fooling anyone. The thought rang suddenly, forcefully through her mind, so clearly that for a moment she was not even sure if the thought was her own or someone else speaking into her mind. All the little tangents, the odd questions, the talk of rituals and customs -- you're just trying to distract yourself from the obvious: Father is dead.
Daria's stomach clenched in a stab of grief, and she found herself collapsing back against Garulf once more. Her legs felt weak, but she doubted it had anything to do with her muscles. She clenched her eyes tight, trying to force back the tears, and took deep, careful breaths to steady herself. She would not cry again. Not here, not with Garulf watching.
"Daria?" Garulf asked, sounding concerned.
Daria did not answer at once, not trusting her voice. A knight does not show weakness before those she leads in battle, she thought, recalling her training. I cannot help the weakness of my body, but my heart will be strong.
She made herself stand up on her own again. "I'm all right," she said at last, taking one more deep breath and letting it out in a rush. "Forgive me, I came over a bit faint there for a moment."
Garulf frowned. "Do you want to go back?" he offered. "You've done well for your first day."
"No," she said, straightening up and raising her chin a bit. "I've come this far; I shall at least see the town before I go back. Take me to where the repairs are in progress."
Garulf searched her eyes a moment longer, then nodded. "Today we're cleaning up in the northwest quarter of the lower ward. Come on; they'll be breaking for lunch soon."
The journey along the walls to the lower ward was the longest yet, and they did not have the benefit of the Inner Keep's shifting passages to aid them. Daria trudged onward, doggedly putting one foot in front of the other, numb to the continual aches and pains. She was determined now to see the town of the lower ward for herself. She wasn't sure she could explain why, if anyone asked; perhaps it was a need to bear witness to her people's suffering, like a lord viewing the bodies of his fallen vassals. Perhaps she simply needed to feel like she had accomplished something today, something more significant than clawing her way up a flight of stairs.
They came to the edge of the lower ward a little after the noon hour. Leaning up against a merlon, with Garulf standing beside her and Starling perched on the merlon above her head, Daria looked out on the town of Metamor.
Or what was left of it.
Even knowing what to expect, Daria found it hard to believe her eyes. She looked out on a scene of utter ruination. As far as she could see, every house had been torn apart; every roof-beam splintered; every lintel shattered; every window broken. Every building, small and great, looked like a skull that had been smashed open and then charred by flame. Daria thought it would have been easier to take if the invaders had simply leveled the houses, leaving only nondescript piles of brick and broken stone. Instead, they had left enough of each house standing that every townsman could identify the one that had been his house, so that the pain of loss could be fully felt by every soul.
Daria felt an unholy rage flame up inside her at the sight of it. Their city had not merely been destroyed. It had been raped to death, and its violated remains had been left to lie naked until every Keeper had felt the horror of it.
She closed her eyes, leaned her head and arm against the merlon and wept. Quiet, bitter tears rolled down her cheeks, and she clenched her fists until her fingernails bit into the skin of her own palms. Training be damned, she thought. I can't be strong here. Not for this.
It wasn't the buildings that she wept for. Buildings could be rebuilt -- would be rebuilt. The Keepers would see to that. She wept because the invaders had worked so deliberately to shatter the Keepers' feeling of place, of belonging, of home. Every building that had once been filled with life and love and joy, the memories and struggles and triumphs of five thousand souls -- every one had been left sullied and tainted, stained by the enemy's cruel touch. The sight of these tortured buildings would bring to mind the horrible suffering and death that had been visited on so many Keepers in those long days of fighting. They could never be repaired; the horror of the Yule assault would linger in every familiar landmark. The city would have to be built anew from the ground up, and every happy memory would be expunged along with the darkness. The Keepers would be left to rebuild their lives in an unfamiliar place, to try to make new happy memories among alien walls and floors and windows. It would be a long time before the town was home again for anyone, and they would never truly regain what they had lost.
"Gods," she whispered. "Is it all like this, Garulf? The whole town?"
"Nearly." His voice was calm, but she could hear the deep sadness underneath. "Some areas to the southeast are more or less intact, and they couldn't do much to the bigger stone buildings. Other than that..." He lowered his head and shook it, saying nothing more.
Daria took another deep breath, straightened, and dried her tears. Her rage had dulled to a kind of sullen resentment, her grief to simple weariness. She didn't seem to have the energy to keep such strong emotions going for long. Looking down at the town square, she could see many small groups of Keepers sitting around fires, eating lunch.
"Come on," she said, turning to Starling and Garulf each in turn. "I want to go down and say hello."
Garulf followed, saying nothing. Starling took wing and soared out into the square, circling down to land next to a tall ant-morph who was cooking strips of meat on a pike.
They found the nearest stairwell leading to the streets and entered it. Going down stairs was not appreciably easier than going up them; while she was not working against gravity, her knee joints seemed to rebel against moving in this direction, and every step dealt her a stab of pain and threatened to send her tumbling to the bottom. Daria leaned back against Garulf every step of the way, counting on his strong arm around her waist to keep her from falling.
"Thank you," she said quietly, as they reached the bottom. He still held her closely against himself, and she lingered there a while, not wanting the moment to end.
"You're welcome," he said. For the first time, Daria detected a note of -- well, something different, anyway -- in the bear-man's voice. Something rich, and deep, and ... hungry. And there was that strange feeling inside herself again, that odd tingle that seemed to begin in her stomach and run down to settle in between...
Daria was suddenly intensely aware of the fact that she had not been born female -- that it had in fact only been seven months, to the day, since she had awakened to find herself in this body. Before that, Daria had been Daren, and the way his body had felt and moved and hungered was not the way her body did now. The part of her that had been Daren compared the instinctive desires she felt now with what she would have felt before in the same situation, and it shuddered at the alienness of what this body felt and craved and wanted. It felt so strange. It felt wrong.
For the first time in months, Daria felt like a stranger again in her own skin. She stepped away from Garulf, putting distance between them, wrapping her arms tightly around her chest. The blissful little moment was gone, driven away by a spasm of confused self-identity. Daria wondered how long it would be before she felt at peace in her own body again.
"Sorry," she said, automatically. What she felt now was beyond embarrassment; it was an urgent need not to feel anything at all. "I just ... remembered..."
"Aye." Garulf's voice sounded as hollow as her own.
"It isn't you," Daria assured him. "I'm the one who..."
"I know." Garulf straightened a bit and cleared his throat. "Shall we go say hello, then?"
Daria shook herself, then nodded. "Aye. Aye, let's do that." She turned and walked out the door without looking back. Every step was small and tentative, but each one was her own. Garulf followed at a respectful distance.
The fire where Starling had landed was surrounded by a dozen men and women of various shapes, sizes and apparent species, most of whom Daria recognized from the battles of two weeks ago. There was the ant-morph, David Restamar, whom Starling had befriended in those dark days; dear, lovable Brennar, a once-cringing feline who had found deeper reserves of strength inside himself than he had expected; Bradfox, the gruff, once-female archer, who sat with a hunk of meat in one hand and a hip flask in the other; Shamgar, the enormous rhino man, whom Daria knew by little more than reputation; Master DeMule, her combat trainer and the Keep's castellan; and Kwanzaa, the odd little hedgehog woman who had bested Rickkter in a tournament last summer. The others Daria knew by sight but not by name.
Daria bowed to Master DeMule, then greeted her friends and former squad-mates warmly. All of them looked immensely pleased to see her up and walking around, even the usually surly Brad. David offered her a bit of roasted mutton and a drink from a jug of ale, which she gratefully accepted. Garulf hung back from the fire and did not speak.
The amiable chatting with her friends was brought short when Master DeMule walked up to Daria. "Good day, Squire," he said seriously, scanning her up and down. "You're looking well, if a bit stiff. Healer Coe have you trussed up with fish-bones under there?"
Daria bowed her head respectfully to her teacher. "Something like that, sir," she answered.
"Well, that's a start." DeMule smirked. "If I know you, you'll be back in the sparring ring in a month, and in the upper rankings by First Planting."
"Thank you for the vote of confidence, sir."
The castellan snorted. "All right, kid, that's enough obeisance for one day. Look at me, already, I need to talk to you."
Obediently, Daria raised her eyes. It was then that she noticed that a tall and beautiful blonde-haired woman was standing behind Master DeMule, eyeing her with evident interest.
DeMule took a half step out of the way, raising a hand in introduction. "Squire, this is Dame Reina DeLaroque, of the Knights of the Red Stallion."
Daria offered the woman a deep bow. "Madame," she said, by way of greeting.
Dame Reina nodded in acknowledgment of the honor, then stepped forward and offered her hand. "Squire Daria hin'Leon; a pleasure." Daria noted that while she spoke clearly enough, the woman's rich, contralto voice carried the familiar accent of Lanton and its surrounding baronies. Daria was surprised to find one of the Lantonois serving under Duke Thomas's banner, as the two realms were far from friendly. Perhaps the man Reina had once been was some kind of outcast; there were certainly enough of them at Metamor.
"The pleasure is mine, Madame," Daria said. Then she glanced over at Master DeMule. "But to what do I owe it?"
The castellan smiled grimly, then pulled a small scroll from a pocket and passed it to her. "I've been waiting for over a week to give this to you," he said. "Garulf said he'd try to bring you by today, so I brought it along in case he managed to pull it off."
Curiously, Daria slit open the wax seal -- it was marked with the Duke's insignia, she noted -- and opened the scroll. Several of her friends leaned in close to read over her shoulder.
The note was short and, for a nobleman, remarkably to the point:
Squire Daria hin'Leon:
In view of the recent and most noble death of Dame Valerie ard'Shanna, whom we had chosen to be thy mistress in the Order of the Red Stallion, and of thy exceeding valor and resourcefulness in the defense of Metamor, using a small company of warriors to achieve great ends--
It is our wish, and hereby our command, that thou be placed under the command, care and tutelage of the honorable Dame Reina DeLaroque of the Order of the Red Stallion, until such time as a knight of full rank shall grant thee thy spurs upon the field of battle. Learn well all that she has to teach thee, that thou mayst earn honor for thyself and for the realm of Metamor.
In affirmation of which we do hereby affix our seal, on this Second day of January in the Seven Hundred and Seventh Year of the Cristos Reckoning:
Thomas V of the House of Hassan
Duke of Metamor
King of the Northern Midlands
Grand Master of the Order of the Red Stallion
Daria read through the orders twice in rapid succession. Then, rolling up the slip of parchment and placing it in her pocket, she slowly, painfully, lowered herself to one knee before the taller woman.
"My mistress," she said soberly. "His Grace the Duke has bound me to you, and I pledge that I shall serve you faithfully from this moment until my spurs are granted to me."
After a moment, Daria felt the woman's hand upon her head. "May it be as you say," she said, matching the gravity of Daria's tone. "Arise, Squire."
Daria arose, or tried to; given the current pains of her body, she found that standing from this position was even more difficult than kneeling into it. Reina saw her difficulty and offered her a hand up, which Daria accepted.
"You look tired," Reina said, brushing a lock of hair out of Daria's eyes. Her bright blue eyes were filled with concern. "Have you been resting enough? Giving your wounds time to heal?"
Daria winced, as another spasm of pain ran through her legs. "Aye, Mistress." She glanced over at Garulf, who still stood a ways off, watching them, his dark eyes unreadable. "Some might say I've been resting too much." She turned back to Reina and smiled wryly. "This was my first real attempt at a morning walk. As you can see, I have not quite perfected the technique."
Reina beamed in response. The woman had a beautiful smile, though her eyes remained deep and thoughtful throughout. "That will come in time. If you will allow me, I shall see you back to your room now. Perhaps we can speak for a time about my plans for you, before you rest?"
"I'd like that, Mistress." Daria paused. "If you will give me a moment to say good day to my friends?"
Reina nodded once. Daria quickly said her good-byes, embracing David and Brennar and scratching Starling under the chin. She bowed once more to Master DeMule; then, after a moment's hesitation, she turned and walked back to Garulf.
"Thank you for bringing me out today, Garulf," she said, hoping her eyes and voice conveyed the gratitude she felt. "I wouldn't have been able to do this without you."
He nodded, smiling politely, and Daria's heart sank a little at the bland expression on his face. "It was my pleasure," he said, with false cheer. "Glad I could help."
Daria winced and turned away, feeling as if she had been slapped. She turned back after a moment and found that he was looking at the ground, avoiding her eyes.
"Hey," she said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Please forgive me, Garulf. I acted like a fool today. But you are a good and faithful friend, and I would hate to lose that."
After a long moment, Garulf sighed and nodded. "Forgive me, as well, Daria. I expected something from you that I had no right to ask for." He put his own hand on Daria's shoulder, dwarfing it with his huge meaty paw. "But you have my friendship, and always will."
Smiling, Daria extended her arms, palms facing upwards. Garulf reached down and placed his forearms atop hers, and they clasped each other's arms briefly in the ancient gesture of friendship.
"Reina is taking me back to my room," Daria said. "I suppose you have to go back to work?"
Garulf nodded. "After lunch, aye. But I think you're in good hands."
Daria turned back to look at the stately blonde woman. "As do I." She smiled up at Garulf. "Take care, my friend. I hope to see you soon."
Daria fell into step alongside her new mistress and the two made their way slowly back to the Inner Keep. From this vantage point, at ground level, Daria could see the progress that was already being made in clearing away the wreckage and debris. Small teams of eight to twenty worked everywhere, combing through the ruins for valuables, salvaging wood and straw for the pyres, and carting away anything that couldn't be used for disposal outside the city.
"I heard about your work during the defense of the Keep," Reina said casually as they walked. "Very clever, attacking the enemy's weak points and fading away like that. What did you call it? Otrinca?"
Daria nodded. "Kayla gave us that term," she said. "It means 'little war' in the Old Tongue."
" 'Little war', indeed," Reina chuckled. "A little war with a big effect, no?"
"I suppose so," Daria said modestly.
Reina walked in silence for a few moments, apparently considering her words. "I once served in a company of light cavalry in the Southern Midlands," she said at last. "We did something very like this otrinca."
Daria looked up, interested.
"It is a very useful thing, this technique," Reina went on. "It relies on surprise and stealth, rather than brute force. Very good for woman soldiers on horseback, but useful in other ways, as well."
Daria nodded. "Does this mean that the duke wants to keep my team together? Under your command?"
Reina smiled. "Perhaps. We shall have to see how well they learn what I have to teach them. But at the least, his Grace is convinced that the Red Stallions can associate with other soldiers and still remain who we are."
Daria pondered that one for a bit. "Beg pardon, Mistress, but ... who are we? As Red Stallions, I mean."
Reina's smile broadened into a grin. "That, young Squire, is what you are going to learn."
Daria bowed her head in deference. "I shall do my best, Mistress."
Reina chuckled. "You remind me of your father when he was your age," she said fondly.
Daria looked up sharply.
"Oh, aye," the knight said, answering her unspoken question. "I knew your father. In the company I spoke of, I served under your grandfather Gallad." She laughed at Daria's expression. "Don't look so surprised, Daria; the Curse of Metamor was very kind to me, and I am twice as old as I look. But as I was saying, I served under Gallad. He was a countryman of mine, and a good leader."
"My grandfather was from Lanton?" Daria asked, puzzled. "No one ever told me."
Reina's expression turned briefly sour. "I suppose they would not," she said. "Lanton is not so friendly as it once was. In my youth, the old gods were welcome in Lanton, as were their worshippers. Now, any who do not subscribe to Grenier's version of the Patildor faith are put in prison or driven out. When the Ecclesia began to make policy in the baron's mansion, Gallad took any of our company who would come with him and rode to Metamor. We felt sure that in the birthplace of the Lightbringer Order, we would be safe." She chuckled again. "Safe from some things, and not so safe from others, no? But I do not complain. I have youth, and beauty, and a handsome young man who shares my bed and once could have been my granddaughter." She laughed richly, shaking her head. "It is a strange life, but I am content."
Daria marveled at the ease with which the knight spoke of sharing a man's bed. Reina, after all, had been a man for many more years than Daria -- in fact, Daria had never been a man at all, but only a boy. It seemed incredible that Reina could be so accepting of her body's desires when Daria's mind rebelled so strongly against them.
Reina was apparently quite good at reading people. "This surprises you," she said, looking down at the younger woman.
It wasn't really a question, but Daria nodded anyway.
"Mm," Reina said thoughtfully. "I saw you speaking to that young bear-man. Garulf, no?" Daria nodded again. "He is handsome, in his way," the knight continued, "though a bit hairier than I like, myself. And I hear that he is brave and strong. You could do much worse."
Daria blushed furiously. "It isn't like that," she insisted. "We are just friends -- Mistress," she added, belatedly.
The knight smiled knowingly. "All the same, do not be too quick to deny your feelings, if you should have them. You will be a woman for the rest of your life, and that is a very long time to be alone. Your body may seem strange to you now, but you will learn to take pleasure in it, as I have."
Daria bowed her head. "As you say, Mistress. But I beg you -- if you would show me kindness, do not speak of this now."
Reina put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "As you wish," she said gently.
They had reached the courtyard of the upper ward, now, and Daria looked up at the stone obelisk that Kyia had raised before the gates of the Inner Keep. The spire was surrounded on all sides by scaffolding, and a team of artisans were chiseling the names of the fallen into its smooth gray stone. They worked on all four sides at once, working from the top down, and each man had a long parchment full of names that he kept close at hand while he worked. In nine days of work, they had not filled more than a quarter of the spire's height. Reina and Daria paused and watched them for a while.
"This will be a beautiful place, when the work is done," Reina said thoughtfully.
"Aye," Daria agreed. She was struck by the reverent care with which each name was engraved, noting how the men stopped and ran their fingers over the letters when they had finished one. One man, a young-looking fellow who wore the form of a badger, seemed to mutter to himself as he finished each name.
"Ho there," Daria said, calling up to him. "What are you saying?"
The badger looked down at her and smiled, though his eyes were sad. "I am praying," he said. "As I write each name, I pray for their souls to find rest and comfort in the next life. I pray for their families. I pray that my children and grandchildren will come to this place and remember their deeds, and pay them honor."
Daria nodded somberly. "You do well," she told him. A thought came to her, and this time she did not shy away from it. "Have any of you written the name of my father, Leon hin'Gallad?"
The men paused to scan through their parchments. "Not yet," the badger said at last, pointing to a spot on his own list. "The lists follow the alphabet. I start work on the Ls tomorrow."
Daria nodded again. "When you pray for him," she said, "ask the Lady Nocturna to give him greetings in the name of his daughter, Daria."
"I shall," the badger promised.
Reina took a step forward and put her hand on Daria's shoulder. "Greet him also in the name of his Aunt Reina," she said. "And tell him that his daughter is in her care."
The artisan looked somewhat surprised, but nodded. "As you wish, Madame," he said, then turned back to his work.
Daria and Reina continued on toward the castle. "I think," Daria said slowly, "that theirs is the most important work of all."
Reina glanced at her, raising one slender eyebrow. "And why is that, Squire?" she asked.
Daria halted and looked back over her shoulder at the gates that led to the lower ward. "Everything out there will be gone soon," she said, gesturing in the direction of the town. "All the memories cleared away with the debris. Nothing in the new town will remind us of the old. But here--" she gestured at the spire "--the memories will be preserved. People will come and see the names of their friends and family, and remember all the good things they did. Not just the way they died, but the way they lived."
Reina nodded, looking impressed. "That is the way with grief," she said. "You cannot live in it always. You must pick up the pieces of your life, fit them together in whatever new way you can, and move on." She nodded toward the obelisk. "But it is good to keep a small place in your heart where you can remember them and pay them honor. You make a little home for the pain and let it rest there, and return to it whenever you feel you must."
Daria thought of her father. She hadn't really made a home for that pain yet, she realized. She ran from it, avoided it, and then ran into it again in full force. The realization that her father was gone returned to her a hundred times a day, but she had not really accepted it, learned to live with it.
Even as she thought about what had to be done, she wasn't really sure how to do it. Moving on with her life was something she had been struggling to do since the Curse took her, and the degree of success she enjoyed seemed vary from day to day. But now the question she had almost asked Garulf returned to her mind, and she thought she knew a way to make a start in the right direction.
"Ho again!" she said, calling back to the men carving names in the spire. "My father, Leon. Has he gone to the pyre yet?"
The men looked deeply apologetic. "Begging your pardon, Squire," the badger said carefully, "but I should tell you that the number of bodies has been very great--"
"Aye, well, very fine," Daria said in mild irritation, waving off his words. "I wasn't about to blame anyone for the delay. When is he scheduled to be sent aloft?"
The men looked amongst each other, apparently uncertain. It was Reina who answered. "Tomorrow morn, I think," she said. "An hour after sunrise."
Daria nodded soberly. "Could you do me a favor, Mistress, and send someone to help see me down to the funeral?"
"Of course," Reina said, without hesitation.
"Thank you, Mistress," she said. "Ask them to bring my blue and white funeral robes, and my mother's prayer book." She stood up straight, and as tall as her small stature permitted. "I wish to pay Lady Nocturna every honor tomorrow, so her moon will light my father's way clearly to the First Hell."
Reina nodded. "I shall be there myself, I promise you," she said gravely.
Daria awoke the next morning to the sound of heavy knocking on the door of her room. She felt more stiff and sore than she would have thought possible. Then again, she had done a great deal of walking yesterday, probably more than was healthy for her first attempt. She sat up, groaning, and rubbed her eyes.
Garulf was standing in her doorway again. This time, however, he was dressed in blue and white funeral robes, and held a matching set in his arms, along with a leather-bound book.
"Feeling all right?" he asked.
Daria grunted incoherently, then pushed the hair out of her face. Her back muscles twinged and stabbed with pain as she moved her arm, and she found herself dearly looking forward to being back in her corset.
"As well as can be expected, I think," she said at last. "Though I doubt I'll be walking that far again for a few days."
"Don't worry," Garulf said wryly. "I'll get you down to the funeral if I have to carry you there myself."
Daria debated with herself about how she ought to interpret that. After a moment she decided to take it as a simple gesture of friendship, and smiled gratefully.
She took a few minutes to clean herself up, marveling yet again at the infirmary's lavatories with their hot and cold running water. Then she allowed Garulf to help her put on the corset again, dressed in her funeral robes, and went out with him to the stables. This time Kyia moved the passage to the ground floor, and Daria never had to face a single staircase.
In the stables they were joined by Daria's mother, Caitlyn; Merai's parents, Dana and Alexandra; and Reina, who had come as promised. Starling was waiting there, as well, perched atop a horse-drawn carriage. They climbed inside, and the carriage took them out through the town, down the winding road to the foot of the ridge, and then north and west to the fields where the funeral pyres burned.
The pyres were surrounded by two or three hundred people, with small groups coming and going as the bodies of their loved ones were brought to the pyres and sent aloft. The Lightbringer was there, along with Merai, their priestly white garments standing out sharply amid the crowd of dark blue funeral robes. They stood between the crowd and whichever pyre was currently being lit, and they took turns announcing the names of the dead and giving brief homilies on each person's life. There was a man there, as well, a slender mustelid of some kind who dressed in blue robes trimmed with silver. He wore a cowl over his head that obscured his face and held a flute in his hands, which he would play in soft, reverent tones while the priestesses spoke. When they had finished, he would lead the crowd in a prayer, begging for Lady Nocturna to allow the soul to enter the peace and rest of her blessed realm.
Daria noticed the emblem the man wore, a silver crescent moon hung on a long chain around his neck.
"I didn't know that Lady Nocturna had any priests left in this realm," she said, her voice hushed. "Don't the Lightbringers forbid people to serve any of the daedra, even her?"
"Merai says that the Lothanasa has permitted this one to serve," Dana said quietly. "She is convinced of his loyalty to Metamor, and believes he will do no harm."
Daria nodded, watching the hooded man with interest. She found it strangely encouraging to have one of Nocturna's servants here for this. Perhaps it would make the Mistress of Night more willing to allow the souls of the fallen to enter the First Hell.
While the priestesses finished their work at one pyre, bodies were being loaded onto the next. A fire still burned low in the pit beneath the scaffolding, but the framework itself was not yet touched by the flames. They watched with the assembled crowd as a team of six palace guards, her father's comrades in arms, carried the body forward on a wooden bier. It was draped in shrouds of blue and white, for which Daria was grateful. She had heard rumors of the condition in which her father's body had been found.
The bier was fitted with carrying poles, and the guards used these to stay out of the fire pit as they slid the body into one of the empty spaces on the pyre's scaffolding. Wood was piled into the sconce below the body, and much of the remaining empty space was stuffed with thatch. The shrouded body was doused with oil, and then the men stepped back to make room for the bearers of the next body.
By now the Lightbringers and the hooded man had moved to the new pyre and begun reading the names of the dead. Daria did not know most of them by name, and her mind wandered from the priestesses' words until her father's name was spoken.
"Leon hin'Gallad was a member of the palace guard of Metamor," Merai said, looking out over the crowd. "He was also a devoted father, a faithful and loving husband, and a friend to many at Metamor.
"On the night of December twenty-fourth he was standing guard on the battlements of the Keep, faithfully performing his duty in spite of a bitter winter storm. He was among the first to come to the Keep's defense against the forces of Nasoj, and also among the first to fall in that defense.
"There are none alive today who witnessed his death, but those who knew him can tell you how he died: bravely, courageously, giving his last measure of strength and devotion in defense of his liege-lord and his home. He will be remembered not for the manner of his death, but for the manner of his life: He was a man of courage and dignity; a man driven by justice and compassion in equal measure; a man who loved his lord, and especially his wife and daughter, more than his very life." Merai paused, lowering her head to brush at her eyes. "He is survived," she concluded, "by his wife, Caitlyn hin'Bertrand, and his daughter, Daria hin'Leon. May Nocturna grant unto him the peace and rest of her eternal night."
Raven stepped forward and spoke for the next man, a butcher who had died in the battle of the barracks. Merai took a step back, her task done for the moment. Daria caught her friend's eye and smiled gratefully. Merai smiled back and nodded, then wiped the tears from her eyes again. Daria could feel her own tears running down her cheeks, running first hot and then icy cold in the winter wind, but she did not wipe them away just yet.
Then the homilies were completed, and men came forward and lit the pyre with torches that had been resting nearby. Soon the entire structure was ablaze, touching everyone nearby with its heat, as the bodies were slowly consumed and the ashes sent aloft into the morning sky.
The hooded man chanted something in the Old Tongue, no doubt a hymn to Nocturna. He followed it with words in the common tongue.
"O, Nocturna, Mistress of Dreams, Lady of Omens, Queen of the Eternal Night," he intoned solemnly. "We beseech you on behalf of our fallen brothers and sisters, whose bodies we now return to the earth that gives them life. As the flames consume this empty flesh, let their spirits be released to fly beyond the compass of this world. Put your moon in the eternal skies to light their way, that they may follow its radiance to your blessed realm of night. And when they come before you, may they be found worthy of your rest, and received into your comforting embrace. Honor and praise be thine."
All around Daria, some of the mourners echoed the speaker's final words. As for her, she kept her eyes on the pyre, watching as the flames carried her father's ashes high into the sky. With luck, they would come to rest where they could enrich the soil of some farmer's plot or rancher's field, and so give life to men once again.
"Good-bye, Da," she whispered. "I'm proud of you. Rest now, and be at peace."
She stood with her mother and her friends until the fires died down, leaving nothing but ashes and the scaffolding behind. Merai presented them with a small bag of ashes from her father's bier; in the spring, when the warm weather came, they would scatter them across the Sea of Souls and pray again for his rest and peace in the life beyond death. Together, they turned and made their way back to the waiting carriage.
Daria was not yet sure how she felt. It would be some time, she thought, before she could truly be at peace with her father's death. But the sight of his ashes filling the sky, and the words of the priestess and the cloaked disciple of Nocturna, had filled her with a sense that her father did live on, somewhere beyond the limits of flesh. Maybe she could not see him or feel him now, but one day her own journey to the next life would come, and then she would see him again. Until then, she would try to be the woman he would want her to be, and so honor him with her life. She would devote herself to Reina's teachings and become a true knight, as she had always dreamed of.
You always believed in me, Father, she thought. And for you, I can believe in myself again.
Then the carriage rolled into motion, and they began the long ride back to Metamor Keep.
Copyright 2005 by Raven Blackmane. If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask for permission first. Thank you.
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