Of Angaraks and Cold Porridge
You Should Have Been Here Before the Edit
The rain had stopped, but the fields on either side of the road were still very sloppy and wet. Sparhawk ground his teeth together against the sound of bits and spurs and the many suits of armor around him, including his own, creaking with the dampness. He cringed away from the smell of his steel clothing, the saddle beneath him, and the big, shaggy roan horse he rode upon. If there was one thing Sparhawk hated the most, it was the smell of wet horse. Faran didn't seem to be too pleased with the way his rider smelled, either though. Sparhawk sighed and thought again of his queen waiting at home, his daughter and the warm dry bed that waited with them. I'm always going home in the rain, aren't I? he thought, glaring up at the soggy sky.
He had thought his life would be easy now. Five years ago, he had watched the most important thing in the world, the famous Bhelliom, disappear into the blackness that was the great beast Klæl, had watched their epic contest, and had conquered darkness for the safety of the known world. Why then, he wondered, in God's name was he still marauding around in the middle of the Eosian continent trying to protect supposedly helpless Styrics from the attacks of his brother Elenes? Styrics that would run from him as soon as anyone? He looked to where Sephrenia rode with her husband not too far ahead of him. He could not see her as the same race as the scared-as-sheep people he had just freed from cruelty.
Normally Vanion and Sephrenia would not be with them, for they had lived for quite some time in the Styric city of Sarsos on the far distant Daresian continent, and Sparhawk had assumed that would be their permanent home, but for some reason, they had recently moved back to their old home of central Elenia. Sparhawk was glad of the decision. They had been long separated, and Sparhawk had extended an invitation to the palace to his two former teachers. They had immediately accepted his invitation, and joined his party of knights. Sparhawk looked at them fondly. He knew Ehlana would have no objections and that she would be quite cross if he hadn't. They had met up with them on the road from Lenda to Cimmura, both on their way home; Sparhawk to the palace, and Vanion and Sephrenia to their farm near a large pocket of Styric villages.
"It's just like old times," Kalten said, riding up beside Sparhawk.
"Except Vanion seems a lot happier now, for some reason," Sparhawk replied.
"I wonder why," Khalad, said.
A young knight rode past them and slowed his horse beside Sephrenia's palfrey. He spoke quietly to her for a moment and she smiled and fondly touched his cheek. "I'm fine, Berit. I don't need anything."
Kalten chuckled. "He's never going to grow out of that, is he?"
"Let's hope not. He's a good man, and an excellent knight." Sparhawk sighed.
"I know," Kalten said, "Oh, to be young again."
That evening they rode into a little valley surrounded by rolling hills almost covered with goats. Sparhawk turned to Sephrenia. "Are these all yours?" he asked her in amazement.
"No, Sparhawk. I don't really own them. I only feed them. You Elenes feel the need to pen your animals. Just keep them healthy and happy and they won't want to leave."
In the center of that little valley was a farmhouse and buildings not unlike Kurik's farm. Sparhawk still felt a pang for his former squire, long since gone to the house of the dead. It seemed that at that moment Aslade would step out the front door with a loaf of fresh bread in her hands. Sparhawk's warrior heart almost stopped when she did. "What?" he began as they neared the house.
Vanion coughed. "Uh, I know we haven't gotten around to writing much in a while, Sparhawk, and I apologize for that, but we've been a little busy the last two or so years. We meant to tell you but..." A face poked around Aslade's apron. At first Sparhawk thought it was Flute, but then he realized that this child was about three years too young for it to be the child Goddess.
"Papa!" the little girl cried and ran on stout little legs out to where they were dismounting. Vanion caught her and swung her up. The child looked at Sparhawk out of deep brown eyes exactly like her father's.
"Sparhawk, this is Astara." Vanion kissed her soundly on the top of her head.
"Why didn't you tell us?" Kalten demanded as he watched the girl scamper to her mother.
"Well," Sephrenia said, joining them, "we didn't want all the excitement and fuss you would have made over her. I am something of a celebrity among you Elenes after all. And Vanion isn't much less so. We wanted our daughter to come from a simple background." Sparhawk heard her voice almost say "Styric" instead of "simple".
"Ehlana's going to be livid, you know," Sparhawk warned them, smiling in spite of his own chagrin as he watched the child. Her eyes were slightly tilted with that Styric cast, but her hair was as glowingly auburn as Vanion's.
"I hadn't thought of that," Vanion admitted. "No offense Sparhawk, but the world seems to revolve around your wife."
"Sparhawk's sure does," Kalten laughed.
"She is the queen, after all, Vanion."
"We all know that, Sparhawk. She would never let us forget."
Sephrenia walked past them leading the way into the house. "She doesn't need to know everything all the time. Too much information clouds the mind and makes one worry too much."
"You still haven't been able to teach her to read Elenic, have you?" Sparhawk asked Vanion.
"You know, I've kind of lost the interest of reading Elene books myself lately," Vanion said with a wink.
Sparhawk arranged an encampment for the twenty knights he had with him, then went in to the house. The interior actually was more spacious than the simple outside had shown, and had that touch that was particularly Styric, particularly Sephrenia, he realized. The walls were stucco with rich dark beams, and everywhere he could see Vanion's attention to detail. He sat at he table in the homey kitchen where Berit, Khalad, and Kalten already sat with mugs. He nodded gratefully as Aslade handed him one.
"So what brings you around here?" he asked her.
"Babysitting. The farm can tend itself for a few days, and besides, Elys and Talen are there."
That reminded Sparhawk of something. He turned to his squire. "Did you know about all this?"
Khalad coughed nervously, and actually managed to look sheepish. "I might have."
"For how long?"
"Since he and his brothers helped Vanion build this house," Aslade said, bringing a plate of rich brown bread to the table.
"Nevermind, Sparhawk," Sephrenia told him firmly.
They talked for quite a while about anything and everything, about happy things like the good harvest expected for the year, and about sadder news, such as the declining health of the beloved Archprelate Dolmant. Soon Astara fell asleep against her father's chest, and she was carried to bed by Aslade, who also took her leave. After quietly kissing her husband, Sephrenia followed them.
The men sat staring thoughtfully into their cups, feeling more the joy of being together in this setting than any real need to talk. The dying fireplace cracked, and Sparhawk looked up. He almost saw the figures of his old friends, Ulath and Bevier, the moon-faced Tynian, even Kurik, his face lined in the firelight. Then Sparhawk blinked and they all were gone.
That morning they saw Aslade off to her farm. Talen was visiting there from Cimmura. He was busy unloading hay by the barn when they rode up, and he stopped and ran to greet them. The young man had grown considerably from the wiry little thief he had been five years before. A few years of farm work had made his shoulders solid and his back strong. He also was very tall. His blondish hair had darkened with age and sun and he now very much resembled his brothers, and Sparhawk noted, his father. Sparhawk did not envy his opponents on the practice field at all.
Aslade invited them in for refreshments, so Sparhawk sent the body of knights on their way. There was fresh bread and jam, and a very tasty sweet pie that Elys had taken from the oven just as they had arrived. They laughed and talked about the weather, and Elys made a fuss over Astara. Aslade thought that they should stay the night, since evening was approaching, and they all agreed.
That night Sparhawk found he could not sleep comfortably. Softly he rolled himself out of the loft, and although it was almost warm he pulled his cloak about his shoulders. The night air was clear and the moon shone, seeming to banish the clouds. Sparhawk walked with a single destination in mind. He did not walk slowly, nor did he meander as one who is merely strolling will, but strode through the dewy grass. He was going to visit an old friend.
The rain had sifted dirt into the crevices and the words in the small stone, but as Sparhawk looked down at Kurik's grave he felt a sense of strange satisfaction, as if the final resting site of his former squire held some sort of approval for him. He stood there looking down for quite some time, then shivering against the chilly wind that began to pick up across the fields, he bent and laid one hand on the stone and started back towards the farmhouse's shadowy form.
The next day they were loaded with many directives to give greetings to people in the city, as well as with Talen, who Aslade told them could return to Cimmura. They made very good time, only having to stop and camp once on the way there. The reached the city of Cimmura on the morning of the second day out from the farm. The eight of them headed to the palace. Sparhawk watched Sephrenia as they neared the palace, but she in no way seemed worried about Ehlana's reaction to their child. It was almost as if she and Vanion were anticipating a joyful acceptance. A familiar face greeted them at the steps of the palace. The smiling face of the Earl of Lenda peered out under his almost completely white hair at them as he stood leaning on his cane. Grooms came to take their horses; the one taking Faran's reigns automatically swatted him on the nose as the big roan bared his teeth.
"Vanion," the old man wheezed, "they let you back into the city?"
"Well, well," Vanion said, walking up to his old friend. "I can't believe you're still alive."
"I have come to the conclusion that God is going to inflict life on me for as long as possible because He doesn't want me. He is going to postpone the pleasure of my company for as long as He can since He is afraid of my excellent wit."
Vanion laughed and allowed Lenda to lean on his arm as they entered. Sephrenia walked somewhat behind Sparhawk with Astara in her arms.
Stragen met them in the hallway. He wore a sour look and sported a long, angry red line down one side of his face. Sparhawk smirked at him. "Don't even say it, Sparhawk," he warned.
"What?" Sparhawk asked innocently.
"You know the little orange one? With the white feet?"
Sparhawk tried not to chuckle. Stragen turned away muttering. "When you've finished with that, perhaps you'd be so kind as to tell me where Ehlana is?"
"She's in her chamber, Sparhawk," the Baroness Melidere said, coming down the hallway. She held a black and white kitten in her arms.
"Have you seen-?" Kalten began.
"Alean is in there too, and she's fine, Sir Kalten." She turned to Sparhawk. "Honestly, she's still three months away and already he's a frantic father." She teased. Then she set down the kitten and it scampered away in front of Sparhawk and his friends as they walked to the apartments. Vanion and Sephrenia silently moved to the back behind Sparhawk and Kalten's large forms, and Lenda stubbornly refused to let Sparhawk help him. The day was warm and the door was open to allow the breeze from the open window to sweep the entire chamber. Ehlana sat on a divan in a grey-blue gown calmly keeping her stitching away from a playful puss. On the floor, Mrr sat in the eleven year old Princess Danae's lap watching the antics of her kitten with some amusement. Alean, ever dutiful, although it was unnecessary, rose from her chair and curtsied slightly awkwardly.
Lenda started to speak, but Ehlana moved before he could say a word. "Sparhawk," she cried, standing and setting her needlework on her seat. She ran to him and threw her arms about his neck. Age, although she was barely thirty, was making her even more beautiful. She had lost quite a bit of the impishness around her eyes in the last few years, and her face was careworn, but none of her girlishness had worn out of her nature. Sparhawk smiled. She was either going to love this surprise, or be infuriated. Or both.
"I have a surprise for you. Well two really."
"Oh good, I love surprises."
Sparhawk and Kalten stepped out of the way. Ehlana squealed and ran up to embrace Sephrenia, then halted right before she reached her. "Who's this?" she asked Sparhawk, pointing at the girl in Sephrenia's arms.
"Surprise number two," Sparhawk said carefully.
Vanion looked slightly abashed, but Sephrenia surged on. "Ehlana, this our daughter, Astara." Ehlana looked from Vanion to Sephrenia and back a couple of times, then turned her eyes on the child. Astara reached out to touch her pale blonde locks with one tiny hand. That clinched it. Ehlana cooed and swept the little girl into her arms. "Why didn't you tell anyone?"
"We did," Vanion said. "Aslade. She was right, she is an excellent midwife."
"We didn't want everyone crowding around her and treating her like royalty all the time," Sephrenia said. "If I had told you, then I would have spoiled the rural upbringing we want her to have." Again Sparhawk heard "Styric". He was slightly amused by his former mentor's almost shameful avoidance of her own race where Vanion or her family were concerned, and also somewhat surprised by it. Astara squirmed to be put down then and Ehlana obliged. The little girl ran over to where Danae was stroking Mrr. The similarities between the two girls were striking.
"Kitty." Astara said matter-of-factly, pointing at the fuzzy lump on Danae's crossed legs.
"Yes." Danae agreed solemnly. Astara squealed and jumped on top of the princess and the cat, forming a princess- cat- floor sandwich. Sparhawk looked at Sephrenia with a slightly harried expression and she smiled and winked.