Inspired by this quote:

"I can only blame myself," she growled. "I could've gone to a convent, never learned to wrestle and be dumped on my head, never have broken any bones or fallen in the dirt. I'd be clean and wear pretty dresses. By now I'd be married to a buffle-brained nobleman with a small fief. I'd probably even have clean, pretty, buffle-brained children... Don't remind me I picked this life. I've no one to blame but myself." -- Lioness Rampant, p. 23

Sir Thom of Trebond visits his sister, Lady Alanna of King's Reach, and wonders whether they made the right choice.

The lands of King's Reach were plentiful and prosperous, Thom had noted with approval, and now he was equally pleased by the good repair of the town and pleasant demeanour of the townspeople he observed. He rode unhurriedly towards the castle, taking the opportunity to discover his sisters' lands a little. The last time he had visited had been four years ago, for Alanna's wedding, when it had been midwinter, barren and dismal, with barely a soul to been seen outdoors. Thom had pitied Alanna terribly then, and to see the land green and growing in the sunlight went a long way to alleviating his guilt.

Ahead, the castle loomed. Its grey stone walls and impressive fortifications were not muted by the brightly coloured banners strung around the battlements in an effort to make it seem less threatening. In fact, the banners only looked strange and incongruous, like big, hulking Raoul in a skirt, Thom though with wry humour. His good humour soon passed, and he sobered again.

It had been four years since he had seen Alanna. She had seemed so young in her bridal gown, young and fragile and vulnerable. That had thrown Thom. All through his childhood Alanna had been the strong one, the fearless one, and Thom had been the one who hung on her coat tails and dogged her footsteps. It was ridiculous. She was 16, which was young for a noble to marry, certainly, but not that young. Perhaps it was the contrast between her and her husband-to-be, who was a stern-faced, older man. Not that much older, Thom reminded himself for the thousandth time. And he was an excellent match politically, with whom Alanna would never want for anything. It was beneficial all round.

Thom had been stricken with guilt. He had tried to hide it from Alanna, but she had known. Before they entered the chapel, Thom giving Alanna away in their late father's place, she had turned to him and kissed him gently on the cheek.

"I made my choice years ago, Thom, and I can't turn back. You'll have to fight for me, now," she had murmured, so quietly that only Thom had heard her, and there was such wisdom and understanding and, yes, sorrow in her eyes that Thom could not think of a reply before the doors swung open and there was no more time.

He had left the next morning with his knight-master, and never gone back. The sight of Alanna sitting quietly by her husband at the feast, hands clasped modestly in her lap as he drank heavily and laughed loudly, had haunted his nights for years. Thom loved Alanna more than anyone else in the world, and he feared the convent had broken her.

Riding through the open gates of Castle King's Reach, Thom's horse clattered across the cobbles before he swung down. A servant immediately approached him, bowing deferentially.

"Welcome, sir knight. May I be of assistance?" the servant said respectfully, but he didn't look afraid. Thom chalked up yet another mark in favour of King's Reach.

"I am Lord Thom of Trebond, here to visit my sister, Alanna," Thom said, and the servant immediately bowed again, looking pleased.

"Of course, m'lord. With your permission, Mark will take your horse and have your baggage sent to your room," here the servant beckoned to a boy who was standing nearby who ran up immediately and took the reins, "and I will take you to the lady."

"Thank you," Thom murmured as he glanced after his horse, which was already being led in what he presumed was the direction of the stables, then back at the servant. "Well, lead on, then."

The servant did so, and Thom followed, taking in as many details of his sister's keep as he could. After a moment, he caught up to the servant and walked alongside him.

"Lord Hamrath – is he here? Should I speak to him first?" he asked, having suddenly wondered if he was causing a diplomatic incident.

"No, my lord, Lord Hamrath is out hunting today," the man replied. Thom glanced ahead. They seemed to be headed towards where he would have predicted the servant's quarters to be.

"And where is Lady Alanna?" he asked, puzzled.

"I believe she is in the kitchen garden, my lord." Thom was still puzzled, but he remained quiet. Soon the corridor they were following corkscrewed, and turned into a narrow flight of stairs which the servant led him down. Finally, the passage ended in a heavy wooden door. The servant went to open it, but Thom put a hand on his shoulder to stop him.

"She is through there?" he asked quietly. The man had turned towards him, and now nodded. "Then I will announce myself."

The man looked hesitant, but eventually he nodded reluctantly. "Very well, sir," he said, and squeezed past him to return up the stairs. Once his footsteps had faded, Thom put his hand on the door handle, then after a brief pause slowly opened the door.

The door opened onto a shady terrace, and beyond it was a walled kitchen garden, just as the servant had promised, neat rows of carrots and tomatoes and beans. It was ringed by a brick path, and on the path, in the sunshine, someone had set up a small, light table and chair. There Alanna sat, distinctive red hair braided neatly as she bent over papers of some sort. She wore a plain light blue dress, tied with a thick darker blue ribbon around the waist. It was not ugly, by any stretch of imagination, but she clearly was not dressed for company.

After a moment, Thom remembered to breath again, even as the solid weight of sorrow settled again deep in his gut. Then his examination was interrupted by a high-pitched yell from a corner of the garden.

"Mama, Mama!" A small brown-haired blur came racing across the garden towards Alanna, who looked up, frowning.

"Ham! What have I told you about using the path?" Alanna snapped. The boy who had yelled, who's name must be Ham, skidded to a stop by Alanna's knee. His hands were cupped carefully around something.

"Sorry, Mama," the little boy sounded contrite. Alanna's expression softened. Seeing that, the boy continued. "But look! I found a ladybug!" He opened his hands and held them up for inspection. Alanna made a great show of doing so, saying,

"And a pretty one she is too. Careful you don't squash her."

Thom was startled again when another voice called from the same corner.

"I found a spider too, Mama." Looking over, Thom saw another brown-haired child crouched in the corner, looking intently at something he couldn't see. From the voice he thought it was a girl.

"Don't touch it, Gian," Alanna called sharply, but she was already returning to her papers and Ham running back to the corner, around the edge of the garden this time.

Children. Bright Mithros, his sister had children.After a moment, Thom stepped forward, closing the door softly behind him. He walked to the edge of the terrace, but then hesitated.

"Alanna?" he asked quietly and uncertainly. For a moment, he thought she hadn't heard him, but then slowly, very slowly, she looked up. She didn't look so young anymore, a small part of Thom's mind commented. The quill she had been fiddling with as she read slipped through her fingers.

Shaken, Thom stepped forward, down off the terrace. "Alanna, I -" But then Alanna was pushing to her feet and throwing herself at him. Thom tried to take a step back, hit the terrace ledge and almost lost his balance, and then suddenly he was being hugged so tightly he couldn't breathe. He put his arms around his sister and hugged her fiercely back, the weight of loneliness that he hadn't realised he carried lifting abruptly and leaving him giddy and near tears with happiness.

Then Alanna pushed herself off him roughly and stood back, hands on her hips and glaring.

"First you don't visit for years, then you turn up without so much as a letter of warning… Brother, you are trying my patience," she said ominously, and Thom could have laughed for relief. This was more like the Alanna he remembered, the Alanna who would cheerfully push him into the pond at Trebond when he got overconfident.

Still giddy, he answered flippantly. "Patience? I thought you had none?"

Alanna rolled her eyes, but she couldn't keep the smile off her face. "Try having children. It's an education in itself." There was an awkward pause, and then Alanna stepped forward and hugged Thom again tightly. She pressed her face into his shoulder. "Oh, Thom," she whispered, her voice thick with emotion.

Suddenly she looked down. Following her gaze, Thom saw the small girl tugging at her dress. She was looking up at Thom, wide-eyed, and he noticed that she had dark brown eyes and a pudgy face, and little resemblance to her mother at all.

"Gian, this is your Uncle Thom," Alanna said, releasing Thom, then glanced at him, "Thom, this is my daughter Gian. And over in the corner, poking at the spider," she sighed, "is my eldest son, Hamrath. They're both three, now. Say hello to your uncle, Gian."

"Good morning, Uncle Thom," the girl said politely, and Alanna smiled and ruffled her hair.

"Alright, now you can go back and play." The girl ran off immediately, and Alanna turned back to Thom, tucking a loose stand of hair behind her ear.

"I can't believe you have children, Alanna," Thom said bluntly. It did seem strange. His twin, a mother.

"I can't believe it myself some days. Usually when I've been up all night because the baby's sick or Ham's had a nightmare and can't sleep," Alanna said wryly.

"The baby?" Thom asked. Letters had been few and far between over the last few years as they both struggled with their new roles in life. And to be honest, Thom hadn't paid very close attention to the ones he had received. He had had larger matters on his mind.

"Alan. He turned one last month," Alanna answered. There was another awkward silence, as they both wondered what to do next. Then Alanna gestured diffidently at the edge of the terrace, which was about a foot higher than the path.

"Is it alright to sit here, or shall I call a servant to bring a chair?" she asked.

"Oh, here's fine," Thom answered hastily, sitting down. Alanna sat next to him, but they still seemed to be at a loss for what to say. It seemed terrible to be uncomfortable around your own twin, but they had been so long apart… Perhaps this trip had been a bad idea, Thom thought with growing regret. He glanced sideways at Alanna. Her face was as striking as ever, but there were new lines around her eyes and an unfamiliar, grim set to her mouth.

"I'm sorry," he said abruptly. Alanna looked at him, startled.

"What on earth for?"

"For not visiting," Thom said, looking fixedly at the opposite wall. Apologies did not come naturally to him.

"I understand," Alanna said, and Thom looked at her in surprise. She caught his glance, and smiled wryly. "I'm not entirely unreasonable, you know."

"Oh, sure you're not," Thom teased a little. "No, I just thought that you'd be angry at me for abandoning you to the clutches of children and embroidery and ladies-in-waiting." He had meant it to be light as well, but it came out sounding serious and worried. He kicked himself mentally, but Alanna didn't seem to notice.

"What, you should have run off to visit your sister while the royals were plotting murder left, right and centre?" she sounded relaxed and amused.

"Well, it was really only Duke Roger," Thom tried to demur.

"I notice that he is the one who's dead, so I think he can't have been the only one with knives out," Alanna pointed out.

"There's a difference between murder and execution," Thom protested mildly, but she had a fair point. That had not been a proud era in Tortall's history. "Anyway, Jonathon will make a better king than Roger would have."

"What's he like? The King, I mean."

Thom had to think about that. "Handsome. Charismatic. Arrogant. He's a bit heavy handed, but I think he'll settle eventually."

"Planning on marrying?" Alanna asked innocently. Thom grinned.

"Why, Alanna! I had no idea you took such an interest in gossip," he said in mock amazement. Alanna sniffed, and hit him on the thigh lightly.

"Merely a loyal subject's natural interest," she said loftily.

"Delia of Eldorne," Thom said. "I'd bet my sword that he'll have married her by the end of next year."

"Really?" Alanna said with interest. "I heard that the Princess from the Copper Isles was a good chance."

"No, there's bad blood in that line. The Council would never stand for it. Beside, Eldorne's got the king twisted around her little finger."

"Oh? What's she like?" Alanna pursued. Thom glanced at her sideways and shrugged.

"Far be it from me to speak ill of my future queen," he said drolly, then searched about for a change in topic. "Speaking of gossip, how is your husband?"

Alanna looked put out, but answered politely. "Well, thank you."

"What's he like?" Thom threw her words back at her, and she grinned.

"He drinks too much and he hunts too much, but he's an honourable man who'd never raise his hand to a woman. He loves his children, hates court and leaves the running of the estate to me. All of which suits me just fine," she said with absolute candour. Thom was thrown off balance, and couldn't find the right thing to say.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, watching the children play. If this was twenty-odd years ago, he found himself thinking, then they would be us. Although the boy seemed to take after Alanna in voice, while the girl seemed quieter and more thoughtful.

"Who is Gian named for?" he asked, then realised that Alanna probably couldn't follow his train of thought. Still, she seemed unperturbed.

"Hamrath's mother," Alanna answered. Again the silence stretched out, before Thom broke it abruptly.

"Are you happy?"

Alanna did look surprised this time. "I am not – unhappy. I far prefer my life here to life at court, or the convent. At least here I can do something useful."

Thom hesitated, then asked the question that had been plaguing him all day. "Do you remember, when I was being sent away to the palace…"

"We almost switched places?" Alanna finished his sentence, eyes lighting up. "Yes, of course. We'd have done it too, if…"

"If you hadn't called it off," Thom finished. They were both grinning. "Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like?" Alanna was already shaking her head.

"Not now. I don't have any regrets – well, not many, anyway. During the first few years at the convent, I regretted it every minute of every day."

"Bad?" Thom asked sympathetically.

"Ah, I'm sure it wasn't any worse than the palace," Alanna said, dismissing it with a shrug.

"No, knight training was good for me, I think. It taught me humility," Thom said with a crooked smile. Those first couple of years had been more miserable than anything he ever hoped to have to bear again, but they had taught him humility, and discipline. And he'd turned out to be quite a good knight in the end.

"Well, I suppose you didn't turn out too badly," Alanna teased gently, unknowingly echoing his thoughts. He glanced at her and smiled.

"You don't make a bad lady yourself, sister dear," he said lightly. "But you'd have made a better knight." Alanna looked away, a shadow crossing her face.

"Don't, Thom. What I have now is what I have to live with. I can't spend all my time on wishes and dreams," she said quietly.

Thom felt guilty immediately, then angry. "Then why didn't you let us swap in the first place?" he demanded.

For a moment, he thought Alanna would refuse to answer, but then she said, softly and a little sadly, "Because, in the end – we're Trebond, Thom. We're Book of Gold. I'm not so selfish that I'd risk making us a laughing stock just for a chance at adventure. Isn't that what being a noble's all about? Duty before pleasure, and upholding the honour of your ancestors?"

Thom watched her steadily, then leant back on his hands, staring up at the roof of the terrace. "Well, you would have been a better knight than most of those sword-happy cretins, but then it wouldn't take much," he said, deliberately trying to lighten the mood.

Alanna took the offered out with gratitude, and elbowed him in the side. "Well, you'd have made a terrible mage," she teased. Thom sat up straight in mock outrage, but Alanna continued over the top of his attempted protest. "You'd have blown yourself up by the time you were twenty."

"I most certainly would not, oh most beloved of sisters. I could be the greatest mage in the world by now," Thom relaxed fully now, highly amused. Alanna sat up straight and folded her hands in her lap like a proper lady, tossing her hair.

"And then you'd get cocky and try something beyond you, and poof! There goes half the university. Aren't you grateful that I had more sense?" Alanna said loftily. Thom opened his mouth to retort, but was interrupted the sound of the door opening behind them. Glancing around, he saw it was what appeared to be a nurse, holding a child. Alanna stood immediately, taking the babe off her and finding it a comfortable position with what looked like the ease of long practice.

Walking back over to Thom, she said, "This is little Alan," and turned him round so Thom could see. His breath caught, and he looked back up at Alanna in amazement. "He has our eyes!"

She grinned. "I know. This one takes after me." As the twins came running over, and the nurse fluttered around them, and finally Alan began to cry, Alanna just found time to say to Thom over Alan's head, "Will you stay a while?"

"Of course I will," he answered without hesitation, and won himself a smile.

"Good," she said, laughing even as she turned to go back into the house, surrounded by chaos after the quiet of their conversation, "because I intend to find out all about this Eldorne chit who has our country wrapped around her littlest finger."

Thom smiled ruefully and shook his head as he followed her back into the house. Still sharp tongued, his Alanna, and he'd bet that she could still outshoot him from the calluses he'd noticed on her hands. Then again, that wasn't hard, either.

And as he tried to avoid treading on the hellions who were playing around his feet, and tried to get a word in edgewise to Alanna about when her husband would be home, and heartily wished that damn child she was carrying would be quiet, he thought that perhaps life had turned out better than either of them had expected.

All feedback gratefully received.