PRE-A/N: Hey, all! This is kind of a prequel to CCD, through the eyes of an 11-year-old Vidanric. I'm a sucker for the weird "they knew each other before they knew each other" plot lines. If you don't know what I'm talking about, read this and you'll understand.
The idea came from someone who reviewed Interception and asked for a story about Savona and Danric as kids, always daring each other. I went on a little different road with this. This is more: What if Elestra I, Dan's mom, had known Ranisia, Mel's mom, and the Renseleaus family had gone to her funeral?
DISCLAIMER- Charac's, original plot, and all that other good stuff not mine; just this story.
Mother got the message at breakfast one cloudy autumn morning. It had made her very sad, and Father had gone to put his arms around her as she started to cry. I was quickly taken away to my tutors so that my parents could talk and make arrangements. It wasn't until later that I learned what had happened form my parents' steward, Diesvan. One of Mother's friends had died.
All day, I wondered who this person was that my Mother grieved for. At supper that day I found out that the friend's name was Countess Ranisia Astiar, and Mother was going to leave at dawn the next day for Tlanth so that she could attend the funeral. Father couldn't go because of his leg, so I volunteered to go with my Mother. There were some objections at first about me missing my lessons, and that Father may need me at home, and it was a three day long journey and we knew how I got if I was in a carriage for too long. In the end, I assured them that I was ahead in all of my lessons anyway, Father didn't need me as much as Mother needed a male escort, and I would ride a horse the whole way if I had to so that I wouldn't get sick, so I was allowed to go.
At daybreak Mother and I kissed Father good-bye and left with a small group of guards. The days passed uneventfully while I rode on horseback. We arrived at the tiny village- barely even that- nearly a bell-change after the sun had already set on the last day of our journey. I could hear a strange, sweepingly sad music that seemed to seep into every home and shop, stone and garden. I was stiff and sore, refusing to admit it to anyone, of course, but I was intrigued by what I heard enough that my discomfort became more bearable compared to the anguish I heard in that song.
Regardless, I was more and more disappointed when, after riding from nearly one end of the town to the other, there was no inn. We approached Castle Astiar and hesitated for a moment at the near blackness of it, as if no one were home. Mother got out of the carriage, and I dismounted, thankfully. She sent a messenger up to the door. The courier she'd sent with her intentions to come should have gotten there by now, and they were to be expecting us. In a moment, a light from inside came wobbling through one of the ground floor rooms and proceeded toward the great doors. In another, the door opened. After a brief correspondence, we were invited in by a lean, wiry woman who dipped a deep bow to Mother and me, introducing herself as Julen. She apologized for the lack of ceremony, but it was a dark time in Tlanth with the Countess so soon gone.
We were shown to the parlor and told that the Count would be come to greet us shortly. Mother and I waited tiredly for several long minutes until a worn, disheartened man wandered in, his whole face looking miserable, as if his entire world had shattered, and there was no way to find all of the pieces, much less put them back together. Mother addressed him as Count Arles, but I was skeptical. He was very unlike any count I had known in his common-weave, unadorned clothing and mussed hair.
The Count apologized to us again, saying that he had not gotten a chance to read Mother's letter yet and had not known we were coming. He invited us to sleep in the Residence Wing with his family, since- he said this with a derisive snort- the Guest Wing needed a new roof and he had not had a chance to have it repaired yet. Mother answered for us both, saying that we would be honored to; she was very sorry to hear about his wife's passing. Count Arles clenched his teeth together and had to look away.
He led us down several short hallways, past darkened rooms behind tapestries. Many were silent. Behind one tapestry I could just hear someone crying their heart out, alone. There was no one there for comfort, to dry the tears; I could tell it even from outside the room. A noise behind me caused me to turn around. The maid who had opened the door for us and showed us to the parlor had come behind us and now pushed aside the tapestry to the room that housed all that heartache and entered. Before I entered the room I would be spending the night in I could hear the shooshing, murmuring, soothing sounds coming from just the next room.
I slept poorly that night from a combination of aching muscles as a result of three days in the saddle, and the sounds of sniffling that came from the room next door. I kept getting the urge to go see if whoever it was was alright, but flopped over on the straw mattress and tried to find a more comfortable position. Nothing seemed to help either of my problems.
The next morning was the funeral ceremony and the lighting of the pyre. I dressed in the warm, autumn-appropriate black velvet and heavy linen suit that I had had my manservant pack. I pulled my hair back from my face and clasped it with a black ribbon. Once I had pulled on my good, black leather boots I went to meet Mother in her room so that we could go down together.
In the hall I was surprised to see a boy about my age, dressed in home-spun black, his dark red hair oddly short, and a dour expression on his face standing at my immediate left, at the tapestry where the crying had come from last night. He barely glanced at me when I walked out, all of his attention focused on the flimsy tapestry.
"Mel?" he called inside. "Come on, Mel, we have to go down now."
"No!" I heard the broken cry from inside as I quickly turned away down the corridor. "I'm not going! I won't! If I don't say g'bye, she has to come back!"
"Mel," the boy sighed and went inside the room without invitation.
I tapped at the tapestry to Mother's borrowed room and entered. When I saw her face, it was tense and there were tears on her cheeks. She was dressed all in black as well. She turned to me and held her arms out. I went to her and she gave me an unaccustomed hug. I tentatively wrapped my arms around her and patted her back.
"You heard young Branaric outside in the hall there?" she asked when she'd finally pulled back.
I shrugged, then nodded. "I didn't know his name."
"His sister's name is Meliara," Mother said. "She was the one in the room next to you. She's taking her mother's death very hard. They all are, really. And who wouldn't?" She took in a shaky breath and tried to smooth her bodice down. "I can hardly believe it myself. We hadn't seen each other in years. Ranisia was so much younger than I was. I met her when she was in Alsais, in Colend. I was already married to your father, but she was only sixteen at the time. I was surprised at how fast friends we became. And now..."
She broke off and had to press a handkerchief to her eyes.
Not long after, we were on our way down the stairs and out to the meadow where the ceremony was to be held. It was a bright, chilly day, and the meadow was filled. The townspeople had come out, as well as every servant from the castle. The whole village must have been deserted. Mother and I walked through the crowd, which parted like high grass when walking through a field, and ended up near the Astiar family.
They were a small family, though bigger than mine, and wounded at the moment, trying to stand tall, but emotionally they were bowed over like trees in the most violent storm. Count Arles Astiar stood apart from his children, apart from the entire assembly, and listened austerely as the final rights and spells were spoken over the pyre where the body of his wife lay. The boy I'd seen that morning was standing solemnly by the woman, Julen, who had gone in to comfort his sister last night, and beside her stood a round-faced girl with dark, coal colored hair. But it was the much smaller girl standing in the protective circle of her brother's arms that held my attention.
The girl's hair was the color of the ancient redwood doors we had at home, and the color of the leaves changing in the forests around the meadow we stood in, and of embers, hanging loose around her shoulders, framing a pale, oval face. She too was dressed in poor clothing, not the rich style of other courtiers' children I knew. She held onto her brother's arms clasped about her shoulders and chest as if they were the only thing in this world that were keeping her from dissolving like sugar in water, or keeping her from flinging herself into the fire with her mother. Tears were making steady, dripping tracks down her face, and no matter how many times she snuffled her nose, it was still running and she had to rub at it with the sleeve of her inky dress. This was the girl who had kept me awake last night wondering if a person could sob their life out into a pillow.
As the fire crackled and ate at the body of the Countess, I kept my eyes on the Astiar girl. That was the only reason that I noticed when she began mumbling under her breath and wave her fingers at the fire. Embers sparked and popped, the fire dying down unnaturally soon as the girl continued on. The other onlookers started to murmur, a small wave of panic, about this strangeness, but no one recognized the cause. Finally her father noticed the cause of the fire dying down before the pyre and body were consumed. He stepped before his daughter, slapped her hand down and dragged her roughly from her brother's grasp, silencing her.
"Meliara! What were you doing!?!" he asked as the fire returned to its original height and force.
"M-m-mama did that wu-once to put out a g-grease fire in the ku-kit-t-tchen!" she hiccupped. "I wa-want-t-ted to make this fire go away, too. J-just like she mu-made that one go away!"
Count Arles dropped to one knee in front of his daughter and looked her squarely in the eye, his hands grasping her small shoulders. "You must never try to do that again, do you understand me? Never! And nothing else of the same kind. I'll not have them take you away from me, too!"
The child gulped and nodded as the rest of us watched, bewildered. He shook the girl, hard, once, making her head wobble back and forth on her neck. "Promise me, Meliara," he demanded. "Promise me that you will never do anything like that again."
"I p-p-romise," she ended in a sob.
He continued to kneel there for a long moment. He stood up jerkily, and walked away without another word to anyone. When he had gotten several strides away, Meliara turned around and bolted for the tree-line at the edge of the meadow and disappeared into the forest. Branaric took a step to go after her, calling her name, but the maid Julen put a hand on his shoulder and shook her head, and just watched the girl go.
I looked up at Mother for an explanation, but she was looking back and forth between Count Astiar and his daughter, both retreating in opposite directions from one another. She didn't have an answer either.
When we returned to the castle, we were apologized to, yet again, for the Count's rude behavior, and also for our short stay. We were asked to please get our things and leave as soon as possible. None of the Astiar's were in a humor to have even well meaning guests at that time. Mother and I quickly changed into traveling clothes and retrieved the rest of our belongings. We left before the bell for third green-change had sounded, supplied with a three-day-trip's worth of food for the journey.
Later we learned that Count Arles had set fire to the library in the castle not a bell after we had crossed the farthest boundaries of the village. When we arrived home, Mother finally agreed to help Father in his plans to overthrow King Galdran, and I was soon informed that the death of my mother's friend had not been an accident, as many were told to believe. Just like my cousin Russav's parents, Galdran had ordered the Countess Astiar murdered on the road, though no one yet knew why. Once again, I volunteered my services. It took me many years to remember the exact reason why.