The Only Volunteer
Disclaimer: Tamora Pierce owns all of PotS and everything in Tortall. I just like to play around in her world. Everything you recognize is hers and everything you do not recognize is mine.
A/N: I'm writing this note on Labor Day 2009, which the 'unofficial' end of summer here in the U.S., as well as my personal deadline for finishing this story. I am overwhelmed when I stop to think about all the words I've written between November 2008 and now, with this massive final chapter. The 'genesis' of this tale occurred when I was finishing up my first long K/J story, 'Redemption.' In that AU version of the PotS series, Joren wondered what his life with Kel would have been like if he had loved her from the start. I started to wonder about that, too, and then I began to write. The time frame of this chapter stretches from the summer of 462 H.E. through the winter of 477 H.E. Marriage is a time of transition - hence the title of this chapter - and since I just celebrated my 15th wedding anniversary, I decided to write about the transitions my version of Kel and Joren had to make in the first 15 years of their fictional marriage. And now I present to you the epilogue. Enjoy! :D
Late into the evening, Joren held Kel in his arms and thought about the long, long journey he began in the Chamber of the Ordeal. He thought about the person he had been before, and the person he had become since then. He contemplated what might have happened if he had loved Kel from the start. Would she still have been required to fight so hard to earn her shield? Would he have been able to convince his father to arrange a betrothal for him and Kel? Would Kel have accepted him then? He knew the answers to those questions were probably negative.
-- Ally-Marty, 'Redemption'
Yes, I was the only volunteer
To show you the palace ways;
And you were the only volunteer
To help me write letters and essays.
Hazy light tickled Joren's closed eyes and he reached for Kel's warm and willing body. It was end of the first week of their honeymoon and he already had become accustomed to her constant presence in the same bed with him. Although there was an elderly couple who lived nearby and worked as servants at the Trebond hunting lodge, the newlywed couple was alone most of the day, which made their canoodling much more spontaneous than when they'd been at Fort Mastiff. However, for the first time since they'd arrived at the Lioness' childhood home, Kel wasn't there in the bed when Joren woke up.
Throwing off the bedcovers, the young lord wondered where his new wife could be. The sound of rain pattering on the roof meant that today's expedition probably wouldn't happen as planned. It was just as well, Joren thought; he hadn't really wanted to go hunting today anyway. Deciding to get out of bed and search for Kel, he groggily padded down the short hallway to the small, but well-stocked kitchen.
When he found his lady knight, she was sitting at the table with a quill in one hand and a half-eaten apple in the other hand. She was surrounded by a large pile of documents spread across the table in front of her and it appeared that she'd been writing more notes on a separate piece of parchment. Most of Joren's grumpiness melted away as soon as Kel noticed him leaning against the doorframe of the kitchen and she gave him a dazzling smile.
"Good morning, my love," she said cheerfully. "Although, it's probably closer to noon by now. I tried to wake you earlier, but you kept on snoring. I think the sound of the rain must have a very soothing effect on you and, well, you really aren't a morning person, are you?"
"Humph! I do not snore." Joren sniffed, mildly offended by her accusation, although the corner of his mouth twitched with good humor. "And I wouldn't have thought you'd be up so early, especially after the week we've had. Mithros, Kel! I didn't think it was possible, but you've completely worn me out!"
Kel tilted her head to gaze at him with her green-hazel eyes, put down her quill and wedged the cork back into her ink bottle. Then she stood up and walked around her chair to stand in front of her new husband. Because the weather had been so warm and because bedclothes for the newlyweds were rather pointless, Kel was wearing only the Yamani-style, red silk kimono robe that Joren had given to her as a wedding present. Sliding her hands over his bare chest, she leaned into him and said, "Oh, not completely - I hope." Then she untied the sash and let the robe fall to the floor before her lips locked onto his in a smoldering kiss.
Joren's brain might still have been a bit groggy, but his body responded to Kel's overtures right away. Groaning, but not protesting, the tired young lord allowed his amazingly energetic bride to lead him back to the bedroom where they had a bit more honeymoon fun. Later, as they lay in each other arms and listened to the sound of the steady rain, Joren thought to ask Kel about the pile of documents she'd been studying at the table.
"I didn't think you were being serious when you said you had work that you had to do while we were out here," Joren commented as he smoothed down Kel's tousled hair and kissed her forehead. "What kind of reports have you been reviewing? It looks like a fairly large task."
Snuggling closer to him, Kel yawned and said, "You probably wouldn't be interested in what I'm doing - it's mostly about training the young female pages. Alanna and I are working with Sir Padraig haMinch to put together a book so that future generations of training masters will have a handy reference to help guide their actions with regard to the realm's future lady knights."
"Why wouldn't I be interested in that?" Joren managed to sound somewhat indignant. "You were a young female page and I was quite interested in your training at the time. If I remember correctly, I even volunteered to sponsor you. In fact, I was the only volunteer."
Kel sat up and gaped down at Joren, who was looking smug and self-righteous. Suddenly, she felt very annoyed at her former nemesis, so she yanked the pillow from under his head and hit Joren in the face with it. Then she plopped back down on her side of the bed and hugged the pillow tightly against her bare chest.
"If I remember correctly - and I do," Kel lay there and fumed, "Neal also volunteered to be my sponsor. Unfortunately for me, Lord Wyldon thought the older page was being insolent - which he was - and he grudgingly allowed you to have the honor of being my sponsor. Little did the training master know that it was just a ruse on your part so that you'd be able to get rid of me faster, or at least, that's what you thought would happen!"
"Unfortunately for you, you say?" Joren said cautiously as he leaned up on one elbow to look into her eyes, "What's this now? After all this time, are you still mad at me, Kel?"
"No ... not really," Kel said, but she was glaring up at him despite her words.
"You're lying," Joren accused her as he narrowed his eyes.
"So what if I am?" Kel asked haughtily and she sat up to look directly into Joren's sky-blue eyes. "You can't go around saying you were the only volunteer anymore, Joren. Besides, other people - Gower, Stefan, Daine, Eda Bell, Lalasa and yes, especially Neal - were the ones who actually showed me the palace ways and all. You were too busy stealing food off of my tray and putting extra weights in my lance to show me much of anything. All that doesn't matter now, of course, but I won't allow you to 'rewrite' our history to make yourself look better. It's just ... it's just not right!" Then she rolled out of their bed and stomped back to the kitchen to retrieve her robe and continue her task.
Joren watched Kel's bare backside as she disappeared down the hallway. He truly admired the way her well-toned muscles moved even though he knew that she wouldn't appreciate any such comments from him at that moment. He also was deeply chagrined that their first official disagreement as a married couple was over something he had said about their past. Of course, Joren knew that Kel was right; he did want to make himself look like less of an arse, but his version of their 'love story' wasn't what had really happened.
Cursing under his breath, Joren decided to wash up and get dressed. Even though the heavy rain made it obvious that they weren't going anywhere any time soon, he realized that they were highly unlikely to spend the rest of the day canoodling, either. An awkward silence stretched between them when Joren finally entered the kitchen again and they both contemplated what the other one might say next.
Joren sighed and spoke first, "I'm sorry, Kel. It's just that I ... I don't like to think about what an idiot I was back then. If we could go back in time, I'd--"
"But we can't, Joren," Kel said quietly as she looked up from the topmost document. "No one can change the past, so stop trying to make it sound better than it was - that's all I ask."
"Alright, Kel," Joren nodded. "I ... I'm sorry I made you upset." And though he truly felt remorseful at that moment, it was only the first of many arguments throughout their marriage that occurred whenever he attempted to 'revise' their history to make himself look better.
"I'm sorry I snapped at you, too. These reports have brought back so many bad memories of that time," Kel confessed. "Thank the gods that the three girl pages are doing fine with their training, but I shudder to think what could have happened to them if boys like you and your cronies were allowed to harass them in the same ways you harassed me."
Joren walked over to the table and sat down across from Kel. She handed him a few of the scribbled pages of notes and he read them with raised eyebrows. Apparently, the new training master finally had forced all of the older pages to stop bullying the first-year pages. They still were allowed to send the youngest palace trainees on pointless errands and such, but mean-spirited harassment, physical abuse, and brawling were no longer tolerated. In fact, a few of the current third-year pages were going to be punished by having to repeat one full year of training because they defied Sir Padraig's orders not to haze the younger pages.
"Mithros' shield!" Joren exclaimed after he had read the first few pages of notes. "According to these reports, that fiery haMinch really has turned things around. I'll always have the utmost respect for Lord Wyldon, but this ... this is so different from when we were pages." And he thumped the pile of parchments with palm of his hand.
Kel nodded and said, "And yet, the new training master has been asking for Alanna's and my thoughts on how to help the females in particular to succeed. The Lioness told me that two of the girl pages are daughters of Sir Padraig's good friends and he really wants them to do well. I suppose it would be difficult for him to look one of his friends in the eye and inform him that his daughter's reputation was in shreds. Of course, Lord Wyldon and my father were barely acquaintances, so I'm sure he felt no such remorse."
"Perhaps not," Joren smiled ruefully, remembering the many ways Lord Wyldon had tried to help him because of his long-time friendship with his father. "But I think I may understand it better, because, as you well know, Lord Wyldon certainly did everything in his power to help me succeed." Then he changed the subject. "Oh well, I'm starving. How long do you think it will take for you to finish this book of yours?"
Kel shook her head. "I don't know. I'm just making notes now. Later, when Alanna and I have a chance to compile everything, we'll send it all back to Sir Padraig. There are at least thirty documents here - some are letters and others are reports - and I've only made my own comments on, oh, about a third of them so far."
"Want some help?" Joren smiled at her. "I do have a rather unique perspective, wouldn't you say? After all, you could write a whole book just on how to prevent the things that I did or tried to do to you."
Kel raised an eyebrow at him. Joren was right. Who was better than a reformed bully to provide the insights and potential remedies to the kind of chauvinistic and intolerant behavior that Joren had exhibited toward Kel during their years as pages? After scrounging up enough food to put together a decent midday meal, she made room for him on her side of the table and they spent the rest of the day making notes and telling stories, each from his or her own perspective of their days as pages. Little did they know that the product of their honeymoon labor would become one of the palace's most treasured books in the years to come.
Rispah, the Lady of Trebond, wouldn't hear of Tobe accompanying the Lord and Lady of Stone Mountain on their actual honeymoon at the hunting lodge, so he had reluctantly stayed behind at the castle with Baron Coram and the rest of his family. Only Hoshi and the dog, Jump, had gone out to the lodge with their mistress and her new husband, while the horse-hearted lad stayed behind to work with and handle the surly Peachblossom. Two of Coram and Rispah's sons, eleven-year-old Mylec and eight-year-old Daran, kept Tobe busy with adventures around the castle and surrounding forests.
It was a good decision for Tobe to stay at Castle Trebond while the newlyweds enjoyed their honeymoon at the hunting lodge. Joren had informed Coram about the fact that he and Kel and Tobe had all signed the adoption agreement and had sent the official paperwork to Corus the day after their wedding. He didn't anticipate any problems because the Lord Magistrate had promised to handle the matter personally, but Joren hoped that the confirmation of Tobe's adoption would come to Trebond while they were staying there. He also hoped that the common-born Baron of Trebond would help Tobe make the transition to being a member of the nobility a bit easier than either he or Kel could do.
During the month that Kel and Joren stayed at Trebond, Tobe had the opportunity to enjoy playing with noble children his own age and to leave behind his former life as a servant boy. When Tobe discovered that Coram had been the Lioness' first weapons trainer at Trebond, he readily agreed to attend the boys' daily lessons in the practice yard. Kel, of course had trained the boy quite well with a staff and a spear, but it helped that Mylec, who was the same size as Tobe and wanted to be in the Queen's Riders someday, could spar and wrestle with him as an equal.
Sure enough, during the final week of their stay, Joren and Kel received a long letter from Duke Turomot, notifying them that Tobe was now on record in Corus as being 'Tobeis of Stone Mountain.' All that remained was the official adoption ceremony, which would happen when they arrived at Stone Mountain. After the happy couple celebrated the notification privately, they rode back to the castle to share the good news with everyone there.
"To Tobeis of Stone Mountain!" Joren raised his goblet in a toast. "A brother - my brother - at long last!"
"Here! Here!" Kel and all the others replied. Then, after they'd had some sweet cakes and cider to celebrate the good news, they all gathered around the hearth to listen to Coram tell stories about his adventures with the young Page and Squire 'Alan.' Joren asked Tobe to take a walk with him in the gardens while Kel stayed and sat with the children; she was just as enthralled as they were by Coram and Rispah's tales of Alanna's interesting life when she was disguised as a male.
"Tobe, there's other news I must share with you," Joren said as they walked along the gravel path. "Duke Turomot's agents were quite ... persuasive with my father's former steward, Ebroin of Genlith, and he finally told the Lord Magistrate more of what he knew about your mother's family."
"My mother's family?" Tobe repeated.
Joren nodded and gestured for them to sit down on a stone bench before he continued, "Shortly after your mother, young Olga, left Stone Mountain, my father - our father - wanted to find out if she had returned to her family with all the money he'd paid her. As you well know, she did not, but Ebroin's agents did discover where in Scanra your mother originally came from."
"Did they find them?" Tobe asked quietly.
This time Joren shook his head and sighed, "I'm very sorry, Tobe, but they ... they're all gone."
The boy merely stared into the distance; he wasn't surprised. After all, he'd always figured that if his wench of a mother hadn't seen fit to return to Scanra after she knew she was pregnant with him, then there must not have been much to return to anyway. And he already knew that his father - the father he shared with Lord Joren - hadn't cared very much about his mother since he allowed her to wander off and die a pauper's death. Tobe shuddered when he thought about the earliest years of life as an orphan. Then he silently thanked all of the gods that Lady Kel found him and bought his contract and that he now was an official member of this strange, but noble family.
Seeing the boy shudder, Joren patted him on the knee and said, "There was one bit of information that I thought you might find interesting. Sketchy reports seem to indicate that your mother's father was quite talented as a horse thief. Several men claimed that the horses would just come to your grandsire at his bidding and that he never had to hurt anyone to get at his prizes."
"Do you think that's where I got my horse-sense?" Tobe asked, now wide-eyed.
"Yes, I do," Joren said solemnly. "Unfortunately for your grandsire and his family, he started working for one of the Scanran warlords who sent him across the border into Tortall to steal better-fed horses. He got killed during a raid and the warlord was so angry that he threatened to sell off the family as slaves if they couldn't pay the rent. That's when your mother came to Stone Mountain to work for her aunt - our Cook whose name is also Olga - so that she could send money back to her widowed mother and the younger children." Joren had to pause and gather his thoughts before he said what came next.
Tobe sensed Joren's uneasiness and asked, "Did the warlord ... did he sell them anyway?"
"What I'm about to tell you, Tobe, is hard. Do not speak of this to Lady Kel - at least, not until we all get back to Stone Mountain and I've had a chance to tell her myself. Do you understand?" Joren insisted firmly and waited until Tobe nodded and grasped forearms with him in a display of solemn agreement. "Your mother's family ... they lived along the Smiskir Road, near the Pakkai River in Scanra. Do you remember where that is?"
"I'm not sure," Tobe shook his head. "I never knew the names of the places we went."
Joren forced himself to keep his voice steady, "You and Kel and the others had to navigate the Pakkai and travel along that road when you ... when you went up against Blayce to rescue the children."
The color drained from Tobe's face and he whispered, "Blayce. He got my ma's family, didn't he? That awful man got her family an' he ... he used them in his evil machines. Is that what happened?"
"We'll never know for sure, but if so, they probably were some of Blayce's ... first victims," Joren's voice sounded hoarse with emotion. "I'm so sorry to be the one to tell you all this, Tobe. When we return to Stone Mountain, I'll tell Cook - she's your Great Aunt Olga. She never knew what happened to her sister's family and she always wondered about them. It might seem strange for us to keep this a secret from Kel, but it's only for a little while longer. She's so happy; I can't bear to upset her right now."
Tobe nodded his agreement. He'd never seen his lady as happy as she'd been since the wedding and he didn't think it would be right to cause her any sorrow at this time. She still felt guilty about all of the lives she couldn't save and Tobe didn't want to add to her anguish. Like Joren, he knew that Kel would somehow feel responsible for the demise of his mother's family because she couldn't find and kill Blayce and Stenmun sooner.
"Joren, do you think I could write a letter t' my great aunt?" Tobe asked quietly. "I ... I'm sad about my ma an' her family an' all, but I want t' tell my aunt that I know about her an' I'm lookin' forward t' meetin' her."
"That would be a very nice thing to do, Tobe," Joren agreed. "I'll help you write it, if you'd like."
"Yes, please," Tobe quickly accepted the offer, "Lady Kel's been teachin' me how t' read an' write, but I'm not really good at it yet."
A smile pulled at the corner of Joren's mouth and he asked, "Does my lovely wife use a bunch of cards with letters and numbers written out for you to put them into their proper order?"
Tobe looked at Joren in surprise. "Yes, she does! And she makes me put the words together over an' over again. It's not hard to do, but sometimes it's so boring that I cheat - just a little." He looked down, embarrassed to admit his shortcomings.
"Don't worry, brother," Joren said with a grin and patted the boy on his shoulder, "I won't tell. After all, I remember cheating with those same kinds of cards, too." Then he made Tobe smile with tales of his own academic troubles and the ways Kel helped him when they were pages and squires. The half-brothers were laughing when they returned to the hearth and sat down next to Kel to listen to more of Coram's stories.
Now you're the only volunteer to be my lady;
I've forsaken all others to have you.
I'm the only volunteer to love you in every way;
I promise forever to be true.
On the last full day of their stay at Trebond, Rispah sent Kel and Joren out for a long walk in the forest. She had supplied them with a full basket of fresh fruit and meat pasties and warned them not to return until suppertime. The worldly-wise woman knew that the young couple wouldn't have very much privacy when they departed from Trebond so she encouraged them to enjoy the bright summer day as much as they could. Before they started down the shaded pathway into the woods, Rispah gave Kel a meaningful stare and the younger woman nodded her head in understanding.
Although Kel was wearing a lightweight summer dress against the sticky heat, she was very glad that she also had worn her sturdy boots, because the path out to the spot for their picnic was fairly rugged in several places. When they finally reached the perfectly secluded clearing Rispah had described to them, they pulled off their boots and dangled their bare feet in a nearby stream to cool off. Then the young couple shared a leisurely lunch, ending with Joren slicing an apple and taunting Kel with each piece before he let her claim it with her teeth.
After they finished eating, they sat on a bed of soft, spongy moss and listened to the sounds of the forest. Kel's mind was anything but peaceful as she tried to think of a way to bring up the topic she and the Lady of Trebond had so recently discussed. Finally, after a long moment of contented silence between them, Kel asked Joren a question that she knew better than to ask.
"So ... why me, Joren?" She queried, without looking in his direction.
"Why you ... what?" Joren replied, slightly confused as he wriggled his toes in the cool moss.
Gazing up at the green canopy of leaves overhead, she sighed and asked a more detailed question, "Why did you want me so much? You could have had any lady of the court and, according to the gossips, you did sample more than a few of them. But ... but you chose me, anyway and I'd really like to know why."
Now Joren looked at Kel as though she had sprouted a second head. "You ... you're joking, right?" he said. "After nearly a solid month of being alone with me - most of it spent in bed, I might add - don't you know why?"
She glanced back at him and softly pleaded, "Just tell me, Joren ... I want to hear you say it."
Joren shifted over so that there was no space between them and he put his arm around her shoulders. Then he whispered in her ear, "I love you, Keladry of Minde-- um, Stone Mountain - that's why."
Kel closed her eyes and rested her head on his chest. "Everything is about to change, you know," she said. "We're going to go back the Fort Mastiff and then to Corus and there will be all those people - our friends, our enemies, and others we don't even know. They've all got their own ideas about who we are, but very few of them will understand why or how we ended up together. I mean, even we didn't know that we'd be so ... um, compatible." She felt her face grow warm at the thought of just how compatible they were.
"Speak for yourself, my love," Joren replied with a playful squeeze for emphasis. "Perhaps you didn't know, but I certainly did. Believe me; the promise of great passion was there in every stolen kiss."
Kel snuggled in closer, "Make no mistake, Joren, I truly enjoyed all of our stolen kisses through the years, but we both know that you've been with, well, a lot of beautiful women and I'm not like them. I ... I'm too tall and I wear breeches most of the time and my hair is too short and my bosom is too small. When we start attending all the balls and parties at the palace, I think I'm going to feel out of place. I guess I just wanted to know why you decided you had to have me and not any of them."
"Mithros, Kel!" Joren exclaimed and he held her away from him so that he could look into her eyes. "Do you hear yourself? I can't believe you're spouting such nonsense! In fact, you once told me that the ladies of the court were afraid to be seen next to me because of my looks. Who cares what any of them think about you or me or us, anyway? I like your height and your hair just fine. And as for your bosom ... well, you don't hear me complaining, do you? I'm quite pleased with you just the way you are and I don't care if you're wearing a fancy gown or men's breeches or a bed sheet. Actually, I'm rather partial to the bed sheet." And he wiggled his eyebrows at her.
Kel blushed and looked away. "Yes, but you didn't know about all that before we were married."
Joren placed his fingers under Kel's chin and gently turned her head to face him again. "If I didn't know you better, I'd say that you were fishing for compliments. I'm not sure why you have all this uncertainty now, but I'm very certain that you're the right woman for me. You can ride and hunt and fight like a man, but you're soft and warm and tender-hearted, too. We can practice sparring and fencing and when we bruise each other out on the practice yard, we can take that special balm of yours and rub away all the pain. We can even spend half the night cleaning our armor and then enjoy the other half of the night in each other's arms. There's no one else like you, Kel - not the Lioness, not Lord Raoul's Buri and certainly not any ladies of the court! So, then, what's all this fuss really about?"
Birdsong filled the air as the silence stretched out between the couple. Kel's hazel eyes gazed into Joren's blue eyes and she softly said three significant words: "no moon cycle." It took the blond lord a moment for his brain to process what she meant. When it finally did, his eyes flew open even wider and the color drained from his face.
"No moo-- Mithros, Kel! H-how many days?" Joren's voice sounded slightly frantic. "I ... I wasn't keeping track. I forgot about--"
"Eight days, so far," Kel gently interrupted. "My last cycle finished a few days before our wedding. I just spoke to Rispah about it this morning and she said that maybe it's something, but maybe it's not. She told me that a woman's body can go through changes when she ... when she starts being with a man as much I've been with you. All I know is that I wasn't allowed to wear my charm on our wedding night and even though I've worn one ever since, we both know what the Goddess told Alanna."
"So ... you think the ... the one night was all it took?" Joren asked hesitantly. "How will we know for sure? Should we find a ... a midwife to examine you?"
Kel shook her head slowly and then replied, "It's only been a month. Rispah says that even the best healers and midwives have to wait a while longer to know for sure whether or not a ... a babe has taken root. She even told me that Alanna battled two angry giants and killed a nest of spidrens before she discovered that she'd been almost four months pregnant with her first child at the time."
Joren raised his eyebrows, "Giants and spidrens? And she did all that while she was pregnant?" Joren wondered how Baron George must have felt when he found out about that.
"I plan to get Alanna's advice when we return to Fort Mastiff," Kel said, her eyes suddenly bright with hope. "You know what? Since I don't even feel pregnant yet, perhaps I can follow my normal routine - just like the townswomen of New Hope - until we get to Corus. I certainly don't want Neal or any of the other healers who know me to examine me. I'm sure I'll be fine."
Then the lady knight told her new husband about the way the pregnant common-born women worked at their assigned chores right up until the days that Neal delivered their babies. Although she knew it was the way of the nobility to have their women lie abed prior to childbirth, Kel figured that she was as strong as or stronger than the town's washerwomen, weavers and shepherdesses. She also felt that she should be able to perform most of her duties as a knight until it became obvious to everyone that she was pregnant. At least, that's what she told Joren to reassure him.
"I suppose you know what you're doing," Joren sighed. "And as long as you don't go off searching for giants and spidrens to fight, I won't argue too much. Besides, I know it's pointless to try to change your mind once it's made up. So, tell me, what was all that nonsense about wanting to why I chose to be with you? Was it really because you're carrying our child now?"
Kel nodded slowly and said, "I've been around lots of pregnant women, Joren, including my own sisters, and they haven't always been very pleasant company. I just thought that if you could tell me now why you originally chose to love me, then perhaps neither of us will forget about those reasons later when my belly's big and I'm not behaving kindly toward you."
Shaking his head in amazement, Joren laughed aloud and pulled Kel over and down on top of him. Then he threaded his hands through her hair and softly kissed her lips many times before he said, "Remember, I've exchanged words with two of your sisters - Adalia at Nond and Patricine in Yaman - when they were pregnant, so I think I might understand what you're saying about not behaving kindly toward me. Even so, love, I'll know exactly why your belly's getting big and I'll never forget why I chose you. Never, ever, ever." And he punctuated each 'ever' with a kiss. It was a long time before they made their way back to the castle.
When the couple finally returned to wash up for suppertime, Kel gave Rispah a reassuring nod and the older women smiled in satisfaction. That evening, the Baron of Trebond held a farewell feast for the Lord and Lady of Stone Mountain - and for the Lord's new brother. Afterward, Kel and Joren enjoyed their last night in the guest suite and tried not to think too hard about all the possible changes looming in their future. Then they settled down and had a good night's sleep in preparation for their departure from Trebond the following day.
The new Lady and Lord of Stone Mountain spent the next month traveling. They spent the first half of June visiting their friends in New Hope. There were, of course, many sidelong glances at them and plenty of joking about the activities they must have enjoyed during their honeymoon. The newlyweds blushed a lot, but they endured the ribald remarks with good humor.
Everyone congratulated Tobe on his adoption as Lord Joren's brother. There were a few whispered comments about the strange circumstances, but most of the townsfolk truly loved the boy and they wished him all the happiness he could find. Many people figured that they owed Lady Kel's former servant boy a great debt of gratitude because he had so bravely ridden through the night after the fall of Haven to inform his lady of the attack.
Much to Merric's relief, the orphaned children who had been living in the headquarters building when Kel was the commander finally moved in to the nice new building that was part of the rebuilt temple of the Goddess. Joren's generous funding had provided a much larger sanctuary for the religious services, as well as a two-story dwelling suitable for housing the youngest victims of the war. There were classrooms and offices on the first floor and living quarters on the second floor. Most of the rooms were still empty, awaiting supplies to arrive from Corus.
"We've had news from the Archpriestess in Corus," stated Priestess Osa, when Kel and Joren came to tour the new facility. "She is sending us a staff of six Daughters - two healers, two teachers and two priestesses who've been trained to work with traumatized children. We currently have only twelve children living here, but with your generous funding, Lord Joren, we will be able to give shelter to so many orphans from all over the northern regions. Thank you very much!"
Kel beamed at Joren. Even though the construction of the orphanage wasn't specifically a gift from him, she felt as though it was. It felt very good to know that Loesia, Gydo, Meech and the others would have a safe place to grow and learn and heal. Some of them might even get adopted into good homes, too. Later that night when they went to bed, Kel thanked her surprisingly charitable husband in a way that he'd never forget. Joren decided then to investigate the possibility of building and supporting more orphanages for the Daughters of the Goddess - not just because Kel rewarded him so well for his first effort at New Hope, but because the thought of helping other lost children, like Tobe, made him feel good, too.
They spent the rest of the month at Mindelan, where the whole family celebrated Kel's twentieth birthday, as well as the midsummer holiday. Joren's new in-laws were quite impressed when Kel proudly told them about all the things that Joren had done for the townsfolk of New Hope. Baron Piers enjoyed discussing international politics with his newest son-in-law and they made plans for another trip to the Yamani Islands sometime in the far future. While the newlyweds took long walks along the River Domin, Tobe spent time playing with Kel's nieces and nephews, who were thrilled when they found out that he was now their aunt's brother-in-law.
By the time the newlyweds returned to Fort Mastiff to receive further guidance and new assignment orders for Kel, they were well-rested, well-fed, and well-bedded. No one who saw them could doubt the love and affection the Lord and Lady of Stone Mountain had for each other - not even when they fenced or sparred against one another. In fact, watching the two of them in the practice yard together became an interesting and sometimes embarrassing form of entertainment for the other knights and soldiers, especially if Kel and Joren ended a match with a smoldering kiss.
By the looks of things, Alanna was overmatched. Her opponent was almost six feet tall, broad-shouldered, with muscled legs revealed by cotton breeches. Sweat-soaked brown hair, cut short at the nape of the neck and across the forehead, framed a face tanned in the sun, and brown-hazel eyes, a dreamer's eyes, with ridiculously long lashes. Those eyes were steady as they watched the Lioness's sword.
"Go, Kel!" someone yelled from the sidelines. "Youth and skill!"
"Age and treachery!" bellowed a large man on the far side of the ring
...Kel bore in on her smaller foe fast, but Alanna came up and under Kel's attack, smacking the bigger woman hard in the ribs. "You've been using that pig-sticker of yours so much, you've forgotten how to wield your Griffin," Alanna taunted. "You've gotten lazy!"
...Kel lunged in again, her sword blade tangling with the Lioness's, until the two women were locked together, hilt to hilt. Now Kel brought her superior height and weight to bear, forcing the Lioness down and back. "Lazy, is it?" Keladry said, panting. "I'll give you laziness, shorty."
Alanna laughed and sprang free of the tangle, darting around to swat Keladry on the behind with the flat of her blade. "Age and treachery!" she taunted Kel.
Kel stood back and, gasping, saluted Alanna with her weapon. "I guess I need to work on my sword skill after all, Lioness," she said, accepting someone's water bottle. She nodded toward the gate. "I think we have company."
-- Tamora Pierce, Trickster's Choice
The 'someone' who had handed Kel the water bottle was her husband of more than two months, Lord Joren of Stone Mountain. The newlyweds had stayed at Fort Mastiff long enough for the lady knights to finish their work on Padraig haMinch's book. Kel planned to deliver it to the palace when they stopped in Corus on their way to Stone Mountain. Meanwhile, Joren carefully watched his wife whenever she went up against any opponent other than him, especially someone like the Lioness, who gave her such a great challenge.
Alanna had boasted that she would be victorious because the Protector of the Small must have lost most of her conditioning while lounging around the practice yard with her new husband. Of course, even the Lioness didn't know that, in between all the riding and hunting and canoodling on their honeymoon and afterward, Kel and Joren truly enjoyed their daily training sessions with swords and staffs. The young lord had discovered the hard way that if his new wife didn't get in at least one bell's worth of exercise time per day, she could become quite cranky and unreasonable. So, Kel really wasn't in bad shape at all.
After the match's abrupt end, everyone was happy to hear the news that the basilisk, Tkaa, announced to them: the Scanrans had sent a delegation of diplomats to Corus to work out a peace agreement and it appeared that the war might be over soon. Now, as Alanna excused herself to be alone in her tent, soldiers and knights dispersed throughout the fort to spread the good news. Joren and Kel stayed behind at the practice yard, especially since he was still rubbing her tight shoulder and neck muscles. He also encouraged her to drink even more water against the late summer sun's merciless heat.
"Are you alright?" Joren asked. "It seemed as though you were a tiny bit more winded than when we practiced nearly those same moves yesterday morning. You're favoring your left arm, too."
Kel nodded as she gulped down another flask full of water. "I don't know why; I actually got a full night's rest - for once - since you fell asleep early. Maybe it's just the heat. Maybe ... just maybe it's because Alanna's a stronger opponent than you are." And she quickly moved out of his reach before he could swat her backside.
Joren scowled at her and mimicked in a high-pitched voice, "Maybe it's because Alanna's a stronger opponent than you are. Very funny, Kel."
"You know she's right, my lord," Neal said as he came up behind Joren, causing him to jump in surprise. "It's nearly impossible to beat my former knight-mistress. I can't tell you how depressing it was for me to endure four whole years of losing to her no matter what I did."
"Oh, quit complaining, Neal!" Kel smiled at her old friend, "Try jousting against Lord Raoul for four years and enjoying the thrill of flying through the air every day. Then you can complain."
"Ha! Ha! Very funny, Kel," Neal replied, copying Joren's sarcasm. The healer/knight was at Fort Mastiff because he had accompanied Merric when the Commander of New Hope had come to give his monthly report to Lady Alanna. "Never mind that. I just came over to take a look at your left shoulder. It seemed that you were favoring it just a bit in that last match and when I noticed that your ever-so-helpful husband was rubbing out the tightness, I figured that I was right. So let me just--"
"No, Neal!" Both Kel and Joren said together too loudly and too quickly. It was too late. Using his Gift, Neal quickly examined Kel and he saw much more than he needed to see. First, his eyes flew wide open in surprise, and then he scowled at the pair of newlywed knights and leaned in close enough to whisper through his clenched teeth. "Are both of you out of your minds? I suppose congratulations are in order, but tell me, how long have you known about this?"
Kel sat down on a nearby bench and closed her eyes as Joren slid down next to her. Then, looking up rather sheepishly, she shrugged her shoulders and admitted to her old best friend, "Well, we've been planning to see a midwife when we get to Corus, but for now, I figured I didn't really have to make any changes to my routine. I feel good, Neal. Honestly, I do."
Neal's mouth dropped open and he turned to look at Joren, "Let me guess, she convinced you to go along with this delusional plan of hers by telling you that she felt fine?"
Joren looked convincingly confused as he glanced from Neal to Kel and back to Neal, "Kel's told me about all the healthy babies you've delivered at New Hope and how hard their mothers worked up until the moment of birth, so I just thought--"
"Those women are tough! Their lives are difficult!" Neal sounded upset, but he kept his voice low so that no passersby would hear him. "They work because they have to - they don't have much of a choice in the matter. But Kel isn't like one of those common-born refugee women; she's--"
"She's what?" Kel interrupted angrily. "Not tough? Has my life not been difficult? Honestly, Neal, what kind of woman do you think I am? Just because I'm a noblewoman and I'm married to a lord now doesn't mean that I've gone soft like some pampered lady of the court. You of all people ought to know me better than that!"
Joren raised his eyebrows, but he wisely kept his mouth shut. He had resigned himself to waiting for Kel to decide when it was time to for her to slow down. He knew that it was highly unlikely that she'd do anything to knowingly cause harm to herself or to the child she now carried inside of her. Besides, Joren thought, if Queenscove wanted to argue with the Protector of the Small, he was more than welcome to have at it. The young lord preferred to have peace in his bed at night.
In the end, an indignant Neal escorted Kel and Joren to Alanna's tent for a scolding, but the Lioness only directed her scowl at Neal and calmly announced, "I could tell that Kel was pregnant when she rode through the gates last week. Oh, don't look so surprised, Neal! The plans of the Goddess usually happen exactly the way she wants them to happen. I expect that a new member of the Stone Mountain clan will arrive in early February."
"Why, then did you proceed with your match against her?" Neal asked indignantly, throwing up his arms for emphasis.
Now Alanna narrowed her famous purple eyes at her former squire and replied, "Kel's no shrinking violet of a woman! Besides, I'm no fool, Neal - I only hit her in safe places - like her ribs and her rump. Or didn't you notice that, Sir Midwife?"
"Humph!" Neal scoffed. "I still don't think it's very wise for Kel to exert herself like that in the practice yard."
"Then it's a good thing she knows to listen to me for advice about womanly things, and not to you!" Alanna was more annoyed than ever now, but she turned to Kel and said, "I think you can withstand another month or so of regular training, except for jousting. No tilting unless it's against the quintain. And always do your stretches. Trust me - you do not want to get too far out of fighting condition, because it'll be that much harder to recover after the babe comes. Once your belly starts to show, you probably should slow down and take it easy. Your armor and sword belt won't fit around you by then, anyway."
Then Alanna pushed Neal aside and she made a big show of congratulating Kel and Joren. She also made a list of instructions for the bemused couple to follow as the pregnancy progressed and gave them the names of a few trusted midwives in Corus. Neal still didn't look happy when the newlyweds left Alanna's tent, but they certainly didn't want to hear whatever argument was going to happen next between the two healer/knights. When they got back to their rooms, they laughed so hard that Tobe wondered if being married might have caused them to go a little insane.
Two days later, the young couple departed from Fort Mastiff. Everyone was sad to see them go, but Kel promised to write often. Neither Alanna nor Neal had spoken another word about Kel's condition, so no one else knew about her pregnancy - or so they thought. Tobe knew because the horses, of course, had already told him. Both Peachblossom and Hoshi were very pleased that their mistress and her mate were going to have their own little colt. Nevertheless, the wise boy decided to keep that news to himself as he traveled with Kel and Joren to his new home.
I'll not ask you to forsake your knighthood,
Nor demand sons upon our wedding bed.
I only ask that we stay together always;
And that someday you'll command our men instead.
Marbleton House was ready for the travelers when they reached Corus. Joren's old manservant, Spencer, who had stayed at the town house after Baron Lars escorted Lady Virryn from Fort Mastiff back to Stone Mountain, was very pleased to see them and helped them settle in quickly. The young lord did everything he could to help his new wife and adopted brother to feel at home in the spacious house to which they now belonged.
Tobe, who'd never been to a city larger than Queensgrace, was overwhelmed by all the sights and sounds of the capital of Tortall. Kel and Joren constantly reminded him not to gape at all the grand buildings and the bustling people along the crowded streets. They didn't want him to become an easy target for street beggars and thieves. When they all went to the palace for a private audience with the king and queen, Kel thought the boy would faint from nervousness.
"What if I forget t' bow th' proper way?" Tobe asked worriedly. "What if I mess up an' speak like a servant boy?"
"You'll be just fine, Tobe," Kel soothed. "King Jonathan can be very kind and Queen Thayet is the most beautiful woman you'll ever meet."
Tobe shook his head and said, "Oh, no, Lady Kel, you're the prettiest woman I'll ever meet. No offense to the queen, 'cause I'm sure she's nice an' all, but I won't ever know her th' way I know you. You're beautiful on th' inside and th' outside." Then he blushed and looked down at the hem of his new velvet tunic. They had visited with Lalasa and Tian earlier, and the seamstress had made new clothes for the boy, including his current blue and white outfit which was a smaller version of what Joren was wearing.
"That's right, Tobe," Joren chuckled and said, "You tell her! I, of course, tell her that she'd beautiful all the time, but maybe she'll believe you."
The visit with the monarchs went very well. Joren introduced Tobe as his newly-adopted brother and the boy only stammered a little bit when he saw that Queen Thayet was indeed a very beautiful woman. King Jonathan smiled slyly when he remarked to Kel that married life seemed to agree with her quite well and it was only then that she realized that, with his very powerful Gift, he must have discovered her little secret. She was grateful that the king didn't make any further comments about that; instead, he only encouraged her to consider accepting the command at the Stone Mountain when her life settled down a bit.
Before they left Corus, Kel sat down with Sir Padraig haMinch and went over all the notes she and Alanna had made for him and his book. The training master was very pleased and told the lady knight not hesitate to call on him if she ever had a need to do so. Thanking him for his kindness and his willingness to help the female pages succeed, Kel only requested to speak with the girls from time to time and see for herself how they were doing.
Alanna's magic still made some of the conservatives anxious, but since the Protector of the Small had no Gift, everyone knew that she couldn't put a spell on the females to ensure that they would pass their exams. Sir Padraig suggested that the perfect time for Kel to speak with the girls would be when he brought all of the pages out to Stone Mountain for part of their summer camp training. Kel readily agreed to that plan and it didn't occur to her until much later that by then, she would be a new mother.
When Joren first ushered Kel to their private wing of the castle at Stone Mountain, she was overwhelmed by all of the luxuries he had installed. Their large suite of connecting bedrooms boasted the only Yamani-style, two-person, sunken tub in the realm. Kel also adored the personal armory Joren had created for her and she immediately recognized many weapons she had only dreamed of owning, including the Carthaki blade she had admired in the marketplace at Pearlmouth when she was a squire. The small room also served as a place for Kel to do her morning exercises and Joren often joined her there so that she could teach him how to handle the glaive he had purchased for his own use.
Tobe's new room was in Kel and Joren's wing of the castle, too, but it was on the far side of the armory and away from their bedchambers. The month at Trebond had done wonders for Tobe's ability to be separated from his former lady's side for long stretches of time. After their travels together were over, the boy even admitted that he'd rather not be a witness to the happy couple's nighttime activities ever again.
The official adoption ceremony took place as soon as everyone had settled in at Stone Mountain and they all enjoyed a great feast to celebrate the occasion. Any awkwardness over the Tobe's presence soon melted away as his charming personality won over the entire household. Both Sir Langdon and Olga the Cook were surprised at how much the blue-eyed blond boy resembled the deceased Lord Burchard. Even Tobe gasped when he finally saw the youthful portrait of his father and he felt that he was looking into a mirror instead of at a painting. As Joren had stated, no one who knew Burchard of Stone Mountain could deny that the boy formerly known as Tobeis Boon was his son.
Within a month of the couple's arrival, Lady Virryn and Sir Langdon threw a tremendous reception for the new Lord and Lady of Stone Mountain, and the festivities doubled as a late birthday celebration for Joren. The autumn leaves lent their colorful splendor to the mountain vistas and Kel felt that she'd never seen a prettier place in her entire life. Since the war was winding down, many of Joren's conservative friends had returned to their home fiefs and were able to attend the grand event, but they all seemed to be on their best behavior. No one wanted to offend the young lord by criticizing his choice of a bride, especially since he now wielded considerable power on the king's Council of Nobles.
When Sir Langdon made a toast to announce the newlyweds, everyone was impressed with the grand appearance of the happy couple. Kel looked every bit the lady of the castle as she wore a russet red velvet surcoat over a deep blue kirtle, with an intricate headdress in braided cloth of both colors. The red crystal jewelry Joren and Lady Virryn had given her long before matched her outfit perfectly. The handsome lord wore a deep blue velvet tunic over a red silk shirt and deep blue hose. Lalasa had made his clothing to match Kel's ensemble and they truly looked magnificent together.
After all the guests had departed, the inhabitants of Stone Mountain were able to settle into a more normal routine. Joren spent many hours pouring over financial reports with his uncle and trying to catch up on all the paperwork he'd missed while he was away. Lady Virryn coached Kel in all manner of household duties and the lady knight was pleased to discover that they were similar to the tasks she'd mastered when she ran the refugee camps. In the afternoons, after they finished exercising their horses, the happy couple started a tradition of enjoying a relaxing bath together before suppertime.
Due to their own busy schedules, Kel and Joren hired a tutor to attend to Tobe's lessons. Although the newly noble lad declared that he had no desire to become a knight, his former mistress did not want him frittering away all of his time communing with the horses in the stable. Perhaps, Kel thought, the horse-hearted boy would like to join the King's Own or the Queen's Riders someday. So, in the interest of keeping certain of his skills sharp, she still allowed Tobe to help her with her weapons and equipment and she wouldn't hear of him trying to do the tasks to which the servants tended. It was difficult, but the boy eventually became comfortable with his new life.
Joren's interactions with both his newly-adopted brother and his baby half-sister truly impressed and amazed Kel. She remembered his earlier uneasiness around her nieces and nephews at Mindelan, even though they clearly had adored him. One afternoon, as the lady knight watched her husband cuddling little Ari on his lap, she realized why the prospect of early fatherhood no longer bothered him - he had learned not to be afraid of younglings.
"You really like holding her like that, don't you?" Kel asked quietly as she approached Joren. Baby Ari's eyes had just closed even though she still was sucking on her fingers.
Joren smiled up at Kel and whispered, "I don't think that my mother ever allowed Anniseth to hold me when I was this young. Perhaps she was too young herself and she just didn't understand why her father had started a new family so soon after her mother had died. Our father caused so much anger and hurt! This family's ties may be hopelessly tangled, but I'll not have another half-sister hating me all her life."
"Clearly, this sister loves you very much already," Kel commented and she kissed the baby's soft cheek before planting a lingering kiss on Joren's smiling lips.
When the first light snowfall dusted Stone Mountain, the newlyweds realized that they'd waited too late to travel to Corus for the Midwinter holiday season. They weren't upset at all, but quickly sent a letter of regret to the king and queen and hoped that their absence wouldn't be the topic of any malicious gossip. Besides, everyone knew that the mountain passes would soon be snowed in. Many nobles from the mountainous regions of Tortall skipped the palace festivities anyway, unless they had sons who were going through their Ordeals of Knighthood or daughters to present at court.
Soon enough, it was time for Kel and Joren to announce that they were expecting a baby of their own. They had begun to notice the changes her body was making and they figured that it was only a matter of time before other folk did, too. Her breeches were much too snug and she only did her morning exercises anymore; there were no matches in the practice yard with Joren or anyone else. Even though Lalasa had made some roomier clothes for Kel to wear, the lady knight usually wore her more comfortable gowns most of the time now.
One evening, as everyone finished their dessert, Joren rose from his chair, cleared his throat and said, "My lady and I have an announcement to make. We are pleased to inform you all that Lady Keladry is now carrying the heir to Stone Mountain."
Applause erupted around the table and one of the servants came around to pour wine and cider for a proper toast. After everyone settled down, Tobe asked, "Is that why we're not going to Corus for Midwinter?"
Kel turned to look at him and replied, "Well, that's part of the reason. Why do you ask?"
"I was thinkin' that we wouldn't want to get stuck down in Corus because of the snow an' all," Tobe said nonchalantly. "Besides, February really isn't that far away and shouldn't heirs be born in their own home?"
Everyone at the table stared at the boy, but Joren spoke first, "Tobe, why do you think the babe will be born in February? Have you been eavesdropping on us?"
"No, sir, I haven't," Tobe quickly replied, his face turning a bright pink, "The ... the horses told me that the babe would be comin' at the coldest time of the year, so I suppose I've known about February since before we left Fort Mastiff."
"Why didn't you say anything before now?" Kel wanted to know.
"Why didn't you?" Tobe shrugged. "Everybody already knows about the babe anyway. Great Aunt Olga has been fixin' all your favorite foods for a while now. Lady Virryn has been savin' all th' clothes that Ari has outgrown in a little wooden chest with th' family crest carved into it. Even Ari's wet nurse is preparin' t' stay here at th' castle for another year or more. I didn't say anything because I figured you'd let us know when you were ready t' talk about it. And ... so you have!"
Now Kel and Joren glanced around the table. Lady Virryn was staring down at her lap, while Sir Langdon barely hid his smile. It was obvious that the boy was telling the truth. No one had seemed surprised to hear the young lord's announcement. Finally, Joren sat back down and glared at his mother and uncle.
"You two obviously have known about our secret for a while," Joren sounded as grumpy as a child who didn't what he wanted for Midwinter. "I don't suppose that Peachblossom whispered it into your ears, uncle, so tell me, how did you and Mother find out?"
Langdon only shook his head; he couldn't speak because he was holding in his laughter.
Virryn came to her husband's rescue and explained to her son, "Well, you're not the first couple to get married on Beltane, you know. Back at Dunmoor, February is the busiest month for the village midwives. It's always been that way. Your Uncle Lars sometimes has to send away to the neighboring fiefs for assistance. Beyond that, it's simple mathematics, darling. Most babies conceived at Beltane are born in the month of February; therefore, your child should arrive in February."
Joren scowled at Kel and groused, "Blasted academics! See, Kel? Our secret was ruined by mathematics!"
Virryn's voice became more soothing and she added, "And it's no secret that our lady knight, who used to spar with you every day and who wore gowns only to supper, has been resting in the afternoons and wearing gowns all day long for the past week or so. I suppose the breeches are fitting a bit snug these days, my dear?"
Kel's face turned red and she nodded. Then she looked over at Joren who was still somewhat indignant that everyone already knew about the baby. Tobe looked vindicated and Virryn and Langdon were grinning with glee. Kel couldn't hold it in any longer - a laugh escaped her throat and soon Joren threw up his hands in defeat and began laughing, too.
By the time their homebound Midwinter celebrations were over, Kel's belly was very round and Joren spent a lot of time with his ear pressed against her bare skin so that he could listen to the little gurgling sounds from within. Occasionally, he'd feel the baby's strong kick and whenever that happened, he always jumped back in surprise. Despite her pregnant body's unwieldiness, the lady knight diligently followed her mentor, Lady Alanna's advice. The couple shared many laughs together as Joren attempted to help Kel with her stretching exercises, mainly because they realized how ridiculous they looked.
On a snowy February morning, after Kel had endured several overnight hours of excruciating labor pains, the heir to Stone Mountain arrived. Joren named him Gunnar after his great-grandfather. Everyone at the castle and all the tenants were ecstatic and celebrated long into the night when they heard the news that Lord Joren and Lady Keladry were the proud parents of a much-desired baby boy. Announcements went out to all corners of the realm, but none of the people who received the notifications were as happy as the residents of the town of New Hope.
As soon as the wonderful news reached Kel's former command, there was another equally large celebration. The birth of the healthy child who was conceived on their soil was a great omen of prosperity for the years to come. And sure enough, Merric later wrote to tell Kel that there was such a plentiful harvest during the summer months, farm workers from other places came to New Hope to assist with bringing it all in. The Daughters of the Goddess were very pleased and they led the entire community in a three-day festival of praise and thanksgiving to the Great Mother for blessing them so richly.
One of the instructions that Alanna had written down for Kel and Joren was more of a suggestion than anything else. The Lioness, wise woman and mother that she was, had strongly recommended that the Lord and Lady of Stone Mountain consider having another child as soon as possible after the first one. She reminded them that it would be a few more years before the first set of female pages would become squires and be ready for training with knight-masters. If Kel went ahead and gave birth to her second child within a year of the having the first one, then she'd be able to get back into good shape to take on a squire by the time both of their children were weaned.
Following, Alanna's advice then, when the midwife declared that her body had healed enough to return to Joren's bed, Kel didn't wear her special charm. The happy couple's one-year wedding anniversary on Beltane was an exceedingly good holiday for them and Kel's belly grew very round again even before the first snows fell. Sending their regrets - as well as Sir Langdon and Lady Virryn to represent them at court - the Lord and Lady of Stone Mountain missed the Midwinter festivities at the palace for the second year in a row. Two days after their son's first birthday celebration, Kel gave birth to their second child, a girl they named Anika.
The next time the midwife declared it safe for Kel to be with Joren again, the very satisfied father of two healthy children presented his loving wife with a box of shiny and new pregnancy charms, which she diligently wore for the next five years.
Once Kel had regained her pre-pregnancy strength and agility, she began to work side-by-side with Sir Langdon to learn how to command the knights and soldiers who were assigned to the garrison at Stone Mountain. All of the men had been given more than two years to decide if they wanted to stay at their present location or if they wanted to move on when Kel took command of them. Most had decided to stay, so Kel inherited a well-trained and highly motivated fighting unit.
Usually, the lady knight would take Tobe out with her to serve as her 'squire' when she went away on missions with her soldiers, but most of the time they were able to stay at home with Joren and the children. Sir Langdon still helped out by training new soldiers, but he enjoyed his semi-retirement with Lady Virryn and Ari very much. Family meals became somewhat livelier than when Joren was a young boy, especially as the youngest members of the Stone Mountain clan grew old enough to join the adults at the dinner table.
At the end of her first full year of command at Stone Mountain, Kel finally was able to take on a female squire. Janelle of Blacklake, who with her sister Fianola had once seen Kel joust against Lord Wyldon, was beyond ecstatic that her heroine had chosen her to be the lady knight's first squire. The dark-haired, olive-skinned girl was as serious and intense as Kel had been at her age and her deep brown eyes never missed anything. The two female warriors made a very good team, except for one thing.
During the three years that Kel was pregnant and then getting back in good fighting condition and then beginning her command of the garrison, Tobe had acted as her squire in everyway. Even though he had no desire to become a knight, he truly enjoyed serving as a sort-of squire for Kel and occasionally for Joren, too. Once Squire Janelle arrived at Stone Mountain, the relationships became a bit strained and Kel had flashbacks to her not-so-friendly competitions with Lerant of Eldorne during her time as Raoul's squire. Relief came in the form of a very interesting and timely offer from Lord Wyldon of Cavall.
The former training master invited Tobe to learn how to train destriers, or warhorses like Peachblossom, at the famous Cavall stables. Wyldon had resigned from field command after the war with Scanra was truly over and he returned to his home fief to find the kennels and stables in somewhat of a disarray. Ever since his youngest daughter, Margarry had married Sir Owen of Jesslaw and moved away from home, Lady Vivenne had had a difficult time keeping up with all the tasks associated with breeding and training the fine dogs and horses for which their fief was renowned. Tobe gladly accepted the offer to go to Cavall, especially because he still had to wait a few more years until he could join either the Own or the Riders.
Lady Virryn and Sir Langdon's daughter, Aurelia, who had become Tobe's little 'shadow' as soon as she could toddle along beside him, was extremely sad when her favorite uncle left Stone Mountain. Even though he kept his promises and returned to Stone Mountain during the holidays - and her birthday, of course - it was never enough for little Ari. Gunnar and Anika were alright as far as nursery playmates, but Uncle Tobe was much more fun than 'the babies' in her not-so-humble opinion.
The 'babies' didn't really care what their slightly older aunt thought of them, because they behaved more like twins than children who were born exactly one year apart. Anika, with her light blond hair and blue-green hazel eyes grew very quickly and she soon was the same size as her older brother, Gunnar, who had his father's sky-blue eyes and his mother's mouse-brown hair. Anika definitely had her mother's stubbornness and she always tried to keep up with Gunnar, no matter what.
Both children absolutely adored Squire Janelle and their mother had to chase them off on more than a few occasions. Whenever that happened, they would find their father and complain to him, but he was rarely sympathetic toward them because they really were too young to follow Kel and Janelle to the practice yard every day, no matter how much they promised not to get in the way of the intense training.
One of the benefits of Kel having a squire to train was that Joren was able to make some of his own dreams come true. Life at the garrison could be fairly tame, especially since Tortall was at peace with all of its neighbors. By entering tournaments in both Tortall and Maren, Joren and Kel were able to travel together and compete against some of the finest fighters throughout the Eastern Lands. They won lots of gold coin as their fame spread. Since they didn't really need the prize money, all of it went into supporting the three orphanages they'd built in addition to the first one at New Hope.
The four years Kel spent training her squire passed very quickly. Due to the peaceful conditions across the Eastern Lands, the lady knight searched for opportunities to help develop all of the girl's fighting skills. They dealt with border raids and the occasional bandits, but the tournaments provided most of the training. During their travels, Kel and Joren discovered that Squire Janelle was a superb archer, and the young lady warrior won quite a few purses of prize money for herself.
The entire Stone Mountain family relocated to Marbleton House for the Midwinter festivities as well as for Lady Janelle's Ordeal. Of course, Kel had returned to Corus every year to deliver her squire back to the palace and Master Oakbridge. Joren had always accompanied her because he despised sleeping alone unless it was absolutely necessary. This was the children's first trip to the capital city and they were bitterly disappointed that they were not invited to attend the banquets at the palace. Lady Virryn placated them with promises to bring back sweets for them if they behaved while the adults went out every night.
Tobe surprised them all with a visit. The now-seventeen-year-old young man had accompanied Lord Wyldon and Lady Vivenne to Corus not only for the holiday season, but also to interview for a position with the Queen's Riders as well. Onua Chamtong, the horse-mistress for the Riders, finally wanted to train someone to take her place so that she could retire. Lord Wyldon had proposed that Tobeis of Stone Mountain was the right person with the right skills for finding and training ponies that would suit the Riders. Tobe's friend, Mylec of Trebond, who had joined the Riders two years earlier, also had encouraged him to seek the position. Ari, of course, declared that Tobe had come to Corus just to celebrate her seventh birthday.
By the time Squire Janelle passed her Ordeal of Knighthood and became Lady Knight Janelle of Blacklake, Kel was ready for a well-deserved break. She truly had enjoyed her time as a knight-mistress and Joren usually found a way to accompany her on her missions, but knew she wanted to be at home with her husband and the children for a while. Gunnar was almost six and Anika was almost five years old. As the weary lady knight thought about the activities she wanted to do with her little future warriors, she also began to contemplate whether or not it was time for her and Joren to create a few new warriors as well.
The evening of the final banquet of the season, Kel wore a black velvet gown trimmed with sky-blue satin around its hems and cuffs. Joren's outfit was very similar - a black velvet tunic over a sky-blue satin shirt and hose. Lalasa had embroidered a miniature Stone Mountain crest on the bodice of Kel's gown, right above her heart, where most active knights wore their badges of knighthood. It was a very clever way to incorporate the official emblem of her status as a knight, and yet it allowed her to appear every bit as the lady of her noble house.
Joren smiled slyly when he noticed that Kel also wore the silver Marenite jewelry he had given to her the night she had invited him to stay in her room at the palace. Whenever his clever wife donned the delicate silver necklace and earbobs, it was like a secret signal between them which meant that she was inviting him to have an exciting evening in their bed. Usually the jewelry ended up being the only items that remained on Kel's body throughout the rest of the night.
Even though Lady Virryn and Sir Langdon decided to stay for the former ball, Joren escorted Kel back to Marbleton House as soon as the banquet ended. Once he verified that all of the children were sound asleep in their own room, the lord of the house then invited his lady to join him in their private sitting room, where they relaxed in front of a roaring fire in the hearth. It didn't surprise Joren that Kel had locked the door behind them.
"I'm very proud of everything you've done these past four years, Kel," Joren whispered into her ear as he massaged her stiff shoulder muscles. "Lady Janelle is a fine knight and she's truly a credit to your training. I almost feel sorry for our enemies. Are you sure you don't want to take on another squire this summer?"
The fire in the hearth had warmed the room and Kel felt very cozy. She had made up her mind long before they'd left the palace, so she untied the laces of her gown and shrugged out of the heavy velvet ensemble. Allowing the fabric to pool on the floor around her feet, Kel quickly shed the rest of her garments until the only items she wore were the pieces of silver jewelry.
Turning to face Joren, Kel then unclasped the chain that held her pregnancy charm and held it out to him. "You've kept your vows, my love, and I appreciate the fact that you've never demanded sons from me. I think it's time, though, for us to have another child and I'm ready to stay home for a while. It's just that ... well, I have no desire to be pregnant at Midwinter again."
"What? I don't understand. Does this mean you want--" Joren began to ask, but Kel shut him up with a long kiss that answered the unfinished question completely.
"Mmm hmm - and now." Kel insisted while she kissed him and tugged his tunic up and over his head. "With the Goddess' blessing, this child should arrive in October."
The idea that Kel was ready and willing to work on adding to their family immediately, filled Joren with excitement and joy like he'd never felt before. The very happy couple enjoyed the secure, well-heated room and they never noticed when Lady Virryn and Sir Langdon returned to the townhouse. Nine months later, the Lord and Lady of Stone Mountain welcomed their third child, another daughter, into the world.
Three more daughters followed, one each year until Gunnar left Stone Mountain and entered the palace to begin his training as a page. When Anika announced that she wanted to follow her brother and become a page rather than go to the convent school like Aurelia, Kel decided that she also was ready to get back in shape. So the mother and daughter trained together to prepare the girl for her first page year. Once her two oldest children were well-adjusted pages at the palace, Kel decided to take on another squire.
I'll gladly be the only volunteer
To show you the Goddess' ways;
Since you've always been the only volunteer
To believe in me for all of my days.
In the year 475 H.E., a large armed force marched across the Drell River from Tusaine and attacked Tortallan shepherds and farmers, and threatened the inhabitants of one of the orphanages sponsored by the Lord and Lady of Stone Mountain. Although the resulting war lasted less than a year, Joren and Kel and her new squire spent most of the time encamped in the Drell River Valley with the rest of the King's fighting force. Crown Prince Roald was the overall commander and the married knights enjoyed working with their old friend. Kel commanded a medium-sized contingent of Stone Mountain soldiers who defended the area nearest to the orphanage, and Joren served as the chief logisticians on Roald's staff of high-ranking officers.
As always, Joren left Sir Langdon in charge of Stone Mountain while he and Kel were away. Lady Virryn did not like the fact that both her son and her daughter-in-law were off fighting during the war. She didn't mind being in charge of the four little girls, especially since her fourteen-year-old daughter, Aurelia, was taking a year off from the convent school to comfort and support her. She just couldn't help worrying that Kel and Joren's children might not see one or both of their parents ever again.
It was with great joy and relief that the entire fief of Stone Mountain turned out to welcome their Lord and Lady home from the war. Kel hugged her little girls tightly to her chest when she dismounted her horse inside the castle courtyard. Then Joren encircled the whole mass of femaleness within his arms. No one mentioned the tears glistening in the eyes of every adult present.
The only reason the family left the mountains was that Kel had to escort her squire back to the palace for the young woman's Ordeal of Knighthood at the end of 476 H.E. Once again, they all took up residence at Marbleton House and stayed in Corus until the snow began to melt. This visit was special not only because of the new knights, but because the family was able to witness the ordination of their dear friend, Loesia from New Hope. Loesia had taken vows to become a Daughter of the Goddess and she exchanged her white initiate robes for blue priestess robes shortly after Midwinter. Even Tobe, who had become the horse-master for the Queen's Riders, joined them at the ceremony and they all had a wonderful little reunion before returning to Stone Mountain.
One month before their fifteenth wedding anniversary, the Lord and Lady of Stone Mountain took their four younger daughters on a cross-country trip to the very prosperous town of New Hope. So much had changed in the Greenwoods River Valley that Joren and Kel barely recognized the well-established, fortified town. The newly-planted fields were lush and green and all the varieties of livestock and fowl were thriving. Some things hadn't changed, though - Fanche Weir was still the headwoman, even though Saefas Poughman had finally convinced her to marry him ten years earlier.
"Great Mother Goddess!" exclaimed Fanche. "Just look at yer beautiful brood, Lady Kel! And how are Tobe an' th' two oldest ones farin' these days?"
Kel introduced the girls: six-year-old Erika, five-year-old Torelle, four-year-old Olga, and three-year-old Kirsten. All of the girls had Joren's light blond hair - a unknown 'gift' from the Trickster god - but only Erika had the Stone-Mountain sky-blue eyes; the others all had hazel eyes like their mother. Joren told Fanche that Sir Merric of Hollyrose hoped to take on their son, Gunnar, as his squire once he passed his big exams. Their oldest daughter, Anika, hoped to do very well on her page exams, too. The proud lord also talked about Tobe and his position with the Queen's Riders.
Fanche could only shake her head and reiterate that the Goddess had blessed the whole lot of them beyond their wildest dreams. She explained that people kept pouring in from all directions to find work in the town and that they stayed and built homes and started families there all the time. New Hope had become a sort of beacon of hope for the entire region and the original inhabitants took great pride in the progress their town had made over the years.
Kel and Joren and their little girls all dressed up in fancy, festive gowns for New Hope's Beltane festivities - and their fifteenth wedding anniversary celebration. The happy couple explained to the girls about such things as the gathering of morning dew and the Maypole dance. They were relieved that the girls didn't ask any questions about the very young, newly-wed farm couple who led the big procession to the white tent in the middle of the wheat field. They all enjoyed the feast and the dancing and the entertainment without further comment.
Later, during a much smaller gathering of old friends at the orphanage, Lord Joren stood up to make a little speech. After thanking Headwoman Fanche for the wonderful hospitality and the Daughters of the Goddess for taking such good care of the orphans, he asked Kel to come and stand next to him. Then he cleared his throat and began to speak.
"As all of you here know, fifteen years ago, Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan made me the happiest man in the world by marrying me," Joren said and then he leaned over to kiss her passionately. Kel blushed, but she returned his kiss and their friends hooted and whistled. Then he waited for the applause to die down and continued speaking.
"My wife, Kel, has absolutely no idea of how beautiful and wonderful she really is. She never has. Truthfully, there wasn't much to look at when I first met her - well, except for her eyes." Once again, he waited for their friends' laughter to subside. "As you can see, she has become a tall, strong and lovely woman. I know she doesn't see herself the way that others see her. In fact, she's never noticed the way that other men steal glances at her when she's not looking their way. I, however, do notice those glances and when I catch them at it, I glare back at them because she is my wife." More chuckles followed as he playfully glared at all the men who were sitting around the long table.
"Kel has the most incredible eyes," Joren continued, "When she looks at someone, it often appears that she just woke up from a dream because her eyelashes are so ridiculously long. The irises of her eyes are a warm, green-and-brown hazel and they change color depending on her mood. When she's happy, the brown flecks in her irises seem to sparkle with light. When she's upset, the brown seems flat. And when she's feeling passionate about something or someone, the green flecks seem to heat up and expand, hiding the brown completely. Naturally, I've spent the majority of my life with Kel doing whatever it takes to keep her eyes as green as possible. Happy anniversary, darling!" Joren punctuated his last statement with another long kiss.
Finally, Joren pulled out a decrepit-looking piece of parchment and asked everyone to bear with him for a little while longer. Kel recognized the document immediately and hid her face in her hands. When she glanced up again, Joren was poised to read the poem with which he had proposed to her. Before he could begin, though, she plucked it from his fingers and told everyone what it was. Then, with a slight quiver in her voice, she read her beloved's horrid, but very special poetry, and she made it her own.
"Yes, I was the only volunteer
To help you write letters and essays;
And you were the only volunteer
To show me the old palace ways.
It's true; I was the only volunteer to be your lady;
I, too, forsook all others to have you.
Now I'm the only volunteer to have loved you in every way;
We've both kept our promises forever to be true.
You've never asked me to forsake my knighthood,
Nor demanded sons - nor daughters - upon our marriage bed.
You've only asked that we stay together always;
And you've allowed me to command our men instead.
I'm glad you were the only volunteer
To show me the Goddess' ways;
Since you've always been the only volunteer
To believe in me for all of my days."
Before Kel kissed Joren, she whispered, "Happy anniversary, darling. May the Goddess grant us fifteen times fifteen more years of the same. I love you, too."
Naturally, it was a very good anniversary; the Great Mother Goddess smiled down upon one of her favorite couples and blessed them with - another girl.
A/N: And now, I'd like to thank my awesome husband and wonderful son and daughter for supporting me throughout the crafting of this story. I'd also like to take the time (and space) to say, "Thank you for reviewing!" to the following readers: abyssgirl, Ainsaboo, aKindofGlory, And Back Again, andy, Anon, anonymous, Aretina, Ashyia Francis Belladonna, Bananar333, beastie92, blackkat09, BLiberalQuestionAuthority, blugrl320, BookWorm 37,Caellach Tiger Eye, Cassie, CC, Chad, chels, chesire, Chewing Gum Girl, Chris Finkle, Christine, Claire, claire of queenscove, confusedknight, confuzzled lil phoenix, crazylittlefox, crumblycookie71615, Darth Tater, Dorothy Parker, dragonPrincessNassuadda, EbonyCat, Elaine-Herd, Elf-a-Roo, elf warrior princess, Emmadarling, Enno Vy, Eskimo680, eternalsunset7, EtherealDeath, EvilFaerie17, Evilstrawberry, Faia Sakura, fallen, Finaldream88, FriedButterfliesanPeanutButter, Gallan Princess, GEL500, gigi, gleamingeyes, Gretta99, Hisshou, Ice and Starlight, ILoveCockatiels, Imperfectionist ;D, Inescapable Nymph, , Jace And Edward Fan, jay, jayley, jo, JollyLass, JorensxGirl3, june, Kailun, Kari of Mindelan, Katzenpfote, kelbelz, Killer Zebra, Korim Nalan, Krae Z. Rokke, KrazyBookLuver, KTParrott, Lady Andy of California, LadyButterfly21, Lady Caitlin of Illinois, Lady Grace of Masbolle, Lady Lena 99, Lady Light, Lady Myriam, L.A.H.H., LarkasBlessing122291, LarkaSpirit, le-plume-beni, lilmo, LittleMissAttica, LittleMissGiggles'94', Lioness-of-Tortall-7, LJane, Lotti's Lot, Lynxgoddess, MAB, maipigen, maybeitsmaybelline, Meeky, Merkaba7734, mlle Lola D., MoonMouze, mousekins, Mrs. Dom Masbolle, Mrs Nicholas Jonas teehee, Myene,myrtha216, Mystic Moon Empress, Nikkitusa, NorikuKitsune, obsessivated, Olive-Whisperer, OlivineWK, O-Silver Goddess-O, Painelust, .choralmusic, Perfect Ten, personlikething, PLAIDunderpants, Princess michief, pyrena93, Qingyun, reader, red rose of love, Renom, rev, RiderFan3944, Rin Hitokiri, RooenEnnyte, SabbyRinaBanina, Sangfly, SailorSapphire, SamAnnette, Sami, Sarah7191, secret-scribbled-notebooks, smurf setsuka, soccachix101, soccerchick-08, SOPROL, SpaceHead3, Sphinx1991, spazzysassyangel, silverphoenix, starfire 54, studentofwords, summre, SurfAngel, The Red Night's Revenge, Tishica, too-much-of-a-book-lover, twilights, twilights reflection, ubiquitous girl, vicky, Victoria Taylor, waterbird13, weirdogirl11, Whisper of the Winds, White-Dragon-Goddess, whoever, Yautja's Blooded Pet, xxtunstall chickxx, Ybs, zhorla, and Zikki.
You all are fabulous!! Your collective comments, corrections, constructive criticism and input have made it worth my time to write this story and I truly appreciate each and every one of you. That said, special thanks go out to abyssgirl, elf warrior princess, jayley, LJane, spazzysassyangel, and xxTunstall Chickxx for writing lots of reviews from the very beginning of this story, but an extra-special thanks of warm cyber cookies and hugs belongs to SarahE7191, who faithfully reviewed all but two chapters - truly amazing! =D
Along the way, many of you have asked if I just made up something or where I got certain facts for my story. I've picked up a ton of information just by reading Tamora Pierce's personal website as well as her livejournal blog. Whenever TP gives an interview, she reveals to her readers a lot of additional info about her characters that she didn't include in her books. I strongly encourage anyone who writes TP fan fiction to check out the many wonderful on-line resources available at sites such as wordpress, randombuzz and the Goldenlake forum.
Many of you commented on all the bits and pieces of canon and quasi-canon information I've woven into this and other stories. One of the things I truly wish is that TP had written more about the younger royals' formal training; however, since her website lists an "official" timeline of Tortallan history, including the years of birth for all of Jon and Thayet's children, I've referred to it several times to create storylines for Liam, Jasson ,Lianne and Vania. Prince Liam is listed as being born in the same year as Owen of Jesslaw, so I took the liberty of assuming that he, like his older brother, Roald, would enter page training at the appropriate age. From there, I just thought it would be great if Liam got to work with Alanna and Kel at some point in my story and so I fit him in before Kel's wedding.
As for Kel and Alanna's relationship, there is a 'dream sequence' in Trickster's Choice where the lady knights are fencing and Kel taunts Alanna by calling her "shorty." I figured that in order for Kel to feel comfortable enough to say such a thing to her heroine, they must have become very close friends after she earned her shield. As a former military officer, I've appreciated the way that a few women who were senior to me took the time to be my mentors along the way. Whenever they weren't in my direct chain of command, we were on a first-name basis.
Incidentally, my husband has the most incredible greenish-brown hazel eyes. It's possible for me to determine his mood from the amount of green showing in his irises. Sound familiar? Yes, I have a lot of inspiration at home. ;D Also, I know lots of engaged/betrothed couples (myself and hubby included) who've nearly lost their minds, as well as their self-control, right before their weddings. Of course, many couples do give in to the temptations, but my man and I couldn't even kiss on the lips for fear of not being able to stop. I will say, though, that all the pent-up tension can lead to a fantastic wedding night! So, I wrote a bit of that into this story, too. ;D
Again, I've had such a fun time with my version of Kel and Joren and I almost hate for it to come to end, but now it's time for me to return to my other, long-neglected projects 'Tricks Aplenty' and 'I Win!', as well as 'To Ride. To Live. To Love.' and 'Uncommon Attraction.' I want to complete my work on them, too. Despite the messed up categories on ffn now, I hope you'll take the time to read my other stories, too.
As my kids transition into a new school year and I make the adjustments to my schedule to accommodate their activities, I'm certain that I will have time to write new stories, too. I am open to working on new stories, so please let me know if there are any 'plot bunnies' you might wish to see me adopt and develop. Once again, I appreciate all of you who took the time to read this ridiculously long adventure and I'm grateful for all of the reviews. I hope you've had as much fun reading my story as I've had writing it. :D Please let me know what you think about this final chapter, as well as what you think about the tale as a whole. Thanks!