A/N: See, I said I wouldn't abandon it. And I haven't. I will be eternally grateful to EvenSong who got me going again. And also to Pendragginink for her lovely beta job.
Rahlei of Her Own Destiny
Rahlei wearily swiped a dirty hand across her forehead and blew upward in a futile attempt to dislodge the strands of hair that had plastered themselves to her sweaty face. It was too hot to be digging up carrots, she told herself as she yanked on another green leafy top. It broke off without even budging the carrot beneath the earth. Rahlei swore under her breath and reached for her small shovel to unearth the stubborn root. Though the garden had been watered religiously, the heat of the sun pounding down had still dried the earth to a nearly brick-like consistency.
Rahlei brushed dirt off the carrot and placed it in a basket along with the rest of the meager harvest. The clip-clop sound of a horse's hooves alerted her to someone's approach and she looked up to see who it was.
Not again, she thought, seeing Cody's wide brimmed hat. She quickly pretended to be thoroughly engrossed in her carrot harvesting, hoping he wouldn't notice her and would continue on his way.
The horse stopped level with her and the rider slid off tying his mount to a nearby railing. Cody made his way over to her, carefully picking his way through various plants.
"Good day, Miss Rahlei," he said, tipping his hat in greeting.
"Mr. Banks," Rahlei murmured, politely. She noticed he hadn't been riding the paint mare she had sold him.
"There's a matter I would like to discuss with you," he said.
"Oh?" She stood up with her basket and shovel in hand, and tried to sound interested. "What might that be?"
"Well, I was on a trip up the Great North Road with that little paint mare you sold me when I was stopped by a man going the other direction who claimed that she was his horse and she had been stolen from him."
Rahlei blinked at him, suddenly feeling rooted to the ground like one of the carrots, unable to budge.
She nervously cleared her throat. "Is that so?" She managed to regain composure, gathering everything together and making her way to the inn and going through the back door that led to the kitchen.
Cody followed her inside.
"It is. So I have a question for you, Miss Rahlei."
"No doubt you do," she muttered, washing her hands and face in the basin inside the door.
"Would you care to tell me where you got that horse?"
She turned to look at him, wiping her hands on a towel and debating what to tell him. The horse had belonged to her husband which in a way sort of made it partly hers. Sort of. Barely. But she didn't exactly steal her.
Yes you did.
There was her inner voice of reason again; she was, as usual, somewhat annoyed by it. Cody was looking expectantly at her now; she needed to answer one way or the other before her lingering silence labeled her automatically guilty.
"I didn't steal her," Rahlei said finally, tossing the towel next to the washbasin and taking no notice when half of it landed in the water.
"No? Where'd she come from then?"
"I…borrowed her," she reluctantly answered through gritted teeth, dumping the carrots into a basin of water for washing.
"And then sold her."
"Well I wasn't planning on selling her when I got her," was the sharp retort.
"Stole her, you mean."
Rahlei pursed her lips.
"Fine. Have it your way, Mr. Banks. I stole her. Are you going to report me to the authorities now?" she asked, waving a dripping carrot around in frustration.
"No, Miss Rahlei, I'm not going to report you. It seems the gentleman wasn't interested in pressing charges so long as he got his horse back."
Rahlei's eyes suddenly became very large. This all meant that Cody had talked to Ethan, she realized. How much had Ethan told Cody about her? And more importantly, how much had Cody told Ethan about the woman who sold him the mare?
Rahlei gulped and scrubbed vigorously at a carrot. "Did-did he say if he knew who'd done it?"
Cody scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Not that I recall."
Rahlei nodded. At least Cody didn't know her secret. Yet.
She shuffled her feet nervously, not knowing what else to say. Why wasn't he saying anything?
"So?" she repeated, feeling anxious.
"So…are you going to tell me why you thought you needed to steal a horse?"
"I was being stupid," she said finally, wiping a bit of dirt she'd missed off one of the carrots.
"Yes," Cody agreed.
She glared at him.
"What did you steal her for? Not just for the money, I presume?"
"No. I hadn't planned on selling her at all when I took her. I couldn't get a job, though, and that was the only way I could think of to get money."
"I see. But you're still not answering my question. Why did you take the horse in the first place?"
Rahlei scrubbed harder on the carrot as tears stung her eyes.
"I needed to get away."
"I'm afraid I'm not a mind reader and you'll have to be more specific," Cody said dryly.
"I can't tell you," she whispered.
Cody took a step forward. He seemed very large and intimidating all of a sudden.
"Rahlei, I think I deserve the whole truth from you," he said softly, his tone serious.
"You won't tell him?"
"The man I took the horse from, of course!" she snapped, flinging a carrot to the floor.
"No, of course not." Cody bent down to retrieve the carrot and handed it back to Rahlei.
"Because if you do he'll bring me back and I can never go back there again!"
Tears ran in rivulets down her cheeks and she swiped at them, tossing the abused carrot back into the basin of water with its fellow vegetables.
"You ran away."
It was a statement, not a question but she answered anyway.
"From what? Who was he to you?"
Her lip quivered and Cody had to lean close to hear her.
He stepped back.
"Ah. I see. Did he mistreat you?"
"Ethan? Mithros, no. He was very kind to me."
"Then why did you feel you had to leave?"
"I was forced into marrying him."
Cody plucked a washed carrot from Rahlei's hand and took a bite.
"That's not unusual. I mean, the nobles have arranged marriages all the time."
"Do I look like a noble?" she asked tartly, snatching the carrot back.
"No, that's not what I meant. Cody swallowed his mouthful before continuing. "If your marriage was arranged then it was meant to be a benefit to your family."
"A benefit by getting rid of me and making me someone else's problem," she gritted.
"So you resent being sold off like a piece of personal property," Cody concluded.
Rahlei stared at him. No one had been able to see it exactly the way she did.
"Yes. That's exactly it."
Cody nodded in understanding.
"Well, Miss Rahlei, I'll be on my way. Thank you for being honest."
"You won't tell him?"
"I promise I won't."
Cody tipped his hat and left the inn.
Rahlei swallowed hard and returned to the vegetables. She felt shaken by Cody's new knowledge of her past but he didn't seem to be upset by it and there wasn't anything she could do about it anyway, she told herself.
She put Cody's visit from her mind and began chopping up the carrots. The cook would need them for the stew that night and would scold Rahlei to no end if they weren't ready on time.
So continued Rahlei's way of life. She worked hard, rising with the sun, though doing so made her grumpy for most the morning. She spent her day sweeping, mopping, dusting, cleaning, showing people to their rooms, serving food, tending the garden and running occasional errands for the innkeeper.
It had been two weeks since she'd last seen Cody when she was on one such errand for Mr. Braymen. His brother, who owned a small inn several miles down the road, had borrowed a horse from him some months before. Despite several requests to return the animal, Mr. Braymen had yet to get it back.
"Says he keeps meaning to bring it back but can never find the time to do it," Mr. Braymen told Rahlei. "He just thinks that if he keeps it long enough I'll forget he has it. Or he will change his story saying I'd given it to him." The innkeeper snorted. "As if!"
So he had sent Rahlei to retrieve the horse, giving his brother no prior notice, explaining that his sibling would just make up excuses not to give it back if he knew she was coming.
Rahlei had agreed to go, grateful to have something to do besides work at the inn. The day was clear and bright and Rahlei had set a leisurely pace for herself, expecting to reach the inn well before noon.
After walking for some time she noticed a figure in the distance traveling towards her. She soon determined it was someone on a horse, though she couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman. She continued walking and raised an eyebrow as the rider dismounted and led the horse to the far side of the road, turning the animal so Rahlei's view was blocked.
"What in the world…" she muttered to herself, going as far to the opposite side of the road as she could to avoid this strange person.
Finally close enough to see details, Rahlei distinguished a man's pair of boots and breeches under the horse and a wide brimmed hat peeking above the withers.
"Mr. Banks?" she said uncertainly, now level with the man. "Is that you?"
Cody peered out over the horse's back.
"Rahlei, what are you doing here?" he asked, feigning cheerfulness.
"I might ask the same of you," she replied, looking around suspiciously before crossing the road towards him.
His face shimmered oddly for a moment as though she was seeing him through a heat haze. She blinked and it was gone.
That's odd, she thought, wondering if the heat of the day was getting to her and she was beginning to see things.
Cody stepped around the horse.
"Nothing," he said innocently. (Too innocently, Rahlei thought.) He cleared his throat. "Horse was limping. Thought she picked up a stone."
"I see." Rahlei laced her fingers behind her back. She had not noticed the horse limping at all. "Is that not the mare I sold you?" she asked.
"Yes, that's her."
"Didn't her owner want her back?" she asked, studying his face.
"Oh, Ethan? Well, yes, in the end he figured that since I'd already paid for her that he'd let me keep her and wouldn't take her back since he didn't have enough money on him at the time to pay me and he had enough other horses so he really didn't need her anyway." Cody gave a small nervous laugh.
"Right," she said, noting his babbling anxiousness and thinking it strange that his story had changes so drastically from one time to the next. "Well. That's fortunate for you," she remarked.
"Very," Cody agreed, swallowing hard.
Deciding she really didn't care what he was up to, Rahlei said goodbye and started back down the road.
Cody grabbed her arm to stop her. Rahlei snatched it away and stepped back.
"Do not touch me," she said coldly, eyes flashing.
"Sorry, it's just we always seem to meet during such awkward times and I thought maybe it might be nice if we tried meeting more formally for a change."
"Yes, like dinner or something."
"I see." Rahlei's nose itched and she rubbed it. "I suppose that would be all right," she said at last. "But actually I'd rather do something other than dinner."
"Oh. Well, what did you have in mind?" he asked.
"How about a nice picnic by some lake or…something? 'Dinner' seems a bit too formal to me."
"That's fine. You supply the picnic and I'll supply the lake. How's that sound?"
"Quite nice," she agreed. "Mr. Braymen's giving me the day off on Midsummer's Eve. It's only a week away."
"Excellent. I'll come and find you then," Cody said, grinning.
Rahlei smiled too.
"Well, now to do have to go. Mr. Braymen would like me back before suppertime. Goodbye, Mr. Banks."
She turned to look at him.
"Call me Cody."
She smiled and nodded, continuing down the road. It took all her willpower not to look back at him.
Cody watched her go, grinning slightly before leaping lightly up on the horse and setting off at a fast trot up the road.