Disclaimer: I do not make money off of Fire Emblem.
Summary: FE7, one-shot. Love plays little role in Madelyn's decision to flee to the plains with a complete stranger.
Not romantic love, anyway. :P
Pairings: Wallace/Madelyn/Hassar... sorta? Plus an unrequited love or two. Fun stuff.
Rating: K+ for mild violence and Madelyn's somewhat skeevy motivations.
Notes: Part of the same universe as the rest of my Elibe fics but can be read standalone. Obviously I am very bad at estimating fic length as this was NOWHERE near this long when I was planning it like uhhh last year. (Dude, thanks a lot, self. I'm already SO behind on life.) Notes have been posted at wariskind on LJ (see profile for links). All horrible typos are due to lack of sleep and will be fixed... someday.
Madelyn looked down upon the courtyard from her seat by the window. If she squinted, the people mingling below almost looked like ants scurrying across dry clods of earth.
A deep, booming voice distracted her from her thoughts. "-- and then the great she-bear, she stood up on both her legs and with one big wallop -- like this! Bam! -- poor Ben and his horse went flying! Bwahahaha! Can you imagine? The look on his face!"
Sir Wallace had dropped by, as usual, to entertain her and the servants with boastful tales of his knightly exploits. But those silly wild tales she usually loved listening to so much and the familiar tittering of her maids only seemed to grate on her nerves this particular morning.
"Really, Wallace, must you carry on so?" she said, more sharply than she had intended. The maids immediately silenced and ducked their heads in apology. Wallace himself broke off mid-sentence, mouth still hanging open. A brief look of hurt flashed across his face. She instantly regretted her words. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. It's just... I've had a lot on my mind."
"Oh! Oh, is that so, my lady?" Wallace laughed, recovering instantly to his usual boisterous self. "Well, then, shall I continue? Poor Sir Ben, if you'll recall, had had the misfortune of taking on a bet with yours truly --"
Madelyn sighed, but did not hide the small smile that crept onto her face as she turned back to the window.
Preparations for the midsummer festivities had been under way since over a month ago. This year's proceedings promised to be especially elaborate: they had received word that the young lord of Araphen would be visiting, though his reasons for going out of his way to attend the festivities in their backwater canton were left to the gossips to fabricate. Most of the guesses were fairly accurate, if not entirely correct. Madelyn, however, knew the truth, and knew in whose honor this year's festivities were actually being held.
She had decided, some time ago, that she didn't find it much of an honor.
Not that there was much she could do about it. Even now the highest-ranking servants of the castle, the aging Knight Commander, and Chancellor Reissman were gathered below with her father Lord Hausen to welcome the delegation from Araphen that had just arrived. Young Araphen was easy to pick out from the crowd: a handsome man with stern features and proud bearing, dressed in clothes that were subdued and yet obviously of quality make.
"Oohh!" squealed one of her maids, her attention drawn now to the scene below as well. "Now that's a real lord, that one."
"Young Lord Araphen?" exclaimed a second maid. "Is it true his mother was Etrurian?"
"Of course not!" declared Wallace, who did not seem at all disgruntled that his story had been interrupted yet again. "Why, everyone knows those Etrurian fops do nothing but spout flowery poetry and roll around in their silks and jewels all day long! Now, does young Lord Araphen look like a man like that?"
The maids giggled.
"No, right? With an expression like that? Man's clearly got a stick stuck up his you-know-where! Gwahahaha!"
"Sir Wallace!" scolded the maids, still doubled over in giggles. Even Madelyn had to bite back her laughter, though she was studiously pretending that she was not listening.
"Tell us more about the Etrurians and their silks and jewels!"
"How many jewels do you think Lord Araphen has?"
Madelyn shut their voices out at last. The late Marchioness Araphen had indeed hailed from Etruria, and had in fact wasted away after only a few years of marriage, separated from her silks and jewels, reciting poetry only to the vast, empty plains that her window overlooked. An early death to loneliness and yearning. Or so the story went. A frail woman, they said about her, even now, nearly two decades after her passing. Better for Marquess Araphen to have taken a wife born and bred in Lycia, they said, than a fine Etrurian lady who could not even do the proper duty of the mistress of a keep -- a lady unable to handle the affairs of the household, unable to withstand life on the borderlands.
But Madelyn said none of this out loud. Better to let them have their fun speculating, after all.
Soon enough, a second, smaller delegation caught her eye. Sacaens, she realized, from their strange, colorful garb: the dark-haired, sallow-skinned people of the plains. How strange. Though it was not uncommon for Sacaens to trade and negotiate or even seek employment with the cantons of Lycia, they were a rare sight in little backwater Caelin, normally doing their business only with the territories on the border, like Araphen.
Perhaps that was it. Perhaps they were hirelings of Araphen. They numbered only about ten, after all, not even a quarter of the occasional trade caravan that passed through these parts.
And yet the plainsmen stood in their own little group, held apart from the rest of the commotion, looking distinctly out of place. Each man stood quiet and still, in stark contrast to the men of Araphen, who were laughing and joking and busying about. And yet they were not entirely at ease either, if the way their dark eyes flickered about suspiciously and the stiffness with which they held their arms at their sides was any indication. They did not look like men who would bend their knee to just anyone. The Sacaens were a proud people, or so Madelyn had heard.
Only one of the plainsmen seemed unconcerned with his surroundings. Rather, he seemed to be surveying the proceedings with a mixture of aloof calculation and... what seemed almost like amusement, but for the unreadable expression on his face. One of his men -- for indeed, now that Madelyn reflected on it, they seemed like his men, and not Araphen's -- whispered something in his ear. He looked up, and for an instant his gaze met hers. She shrank back from the window, embarrassed that she had been caught staring.
When she next peeked out, he was no longer looking, but seemed instead to be embroiled in a deep discussion with his men.
"Wallace," she said then, interrupting the maids' chatter. "Who is that?"
"Hm?" Wallace leaned over to see where she was pointing. She flinched at his sudden proximity, but fortunately, neither he nor the maids noticed. "Oh, him. Just some little princeling from the plains. Arrived earlier this morning."
The maids snickered again, presumably at the idea that some dirty savage from the plains could be described as a prince.
"Yes, I gathered. But why?"
"Hm... Well, to be honest, my lady, I have no idea!" He guffawed, as if he had just told the funniest joke in the world. "Shall I go find out for you, my lady?"
Madelyn sighed again, but smiled anyway. "Do whatever you please."
The bonfire dance -- the one time in the entire year where peasants and nobles alike mingled freely in celebration -- had always been her favorite part of the festivities, but this year Madelyn found herself nervous and on edge. Her father had even ordered a new dress from Etruria for her just for the occasion -- a rare indulgence. It was indeed a beautiful dress. The smooth, verdant silk brought out the greens in her eyes, her father had said. But all Madelyn could think about was how much it must have cost.
Suddenly, she heard a familiar voice above the music and the merrymaking. "Madelyn!"
She turned, recognizing that light, laughing tone as that of her good friend, Cordelia of the flame-kissed hair, and broke out into a smile.
"Cordy! I'm so glad you made it. It's been so long..." They embraced. Madelyn blinked back tears.
"But of course," said Cordy, her dark eyes dancing with mischief. "I wouldn't miss the bonfire for anything." Then she said, "My word, Lyn. How can you even move in that thing?"
Madelyn laughed it off, not wishing to mar the joy of the occasion with her own personal concerns. Cordy herself was dressed in sensible red skirts with a brown vest and flowing white blouse. At first glance, one might have mistaken her for one of the farmer's daughters or servant girls laughing and milling about nearby. But a single glimpse of her outrageously patterned stockings and the finely wrought silver chain she wore about her neck immediately dispelled all such impressions. No less than a nobleman's daughter could have possibly afforded such items. She hadn't changed at all, her dear, reckless Cordy. Already there were people whispering and pointing at the two of them. What a pair they must make! Madelyn thought. The aloof daughter of Lord Hausen, Marquess of Caelin, and wild, incorrigible Lady Cordelia, who had caused such a scandal after eloping with her artist lover four springs ago -- how dare she show her face at court again?
But they were not at court, and Cordy either did not notice the stares, or else relished the attention she was garnering. Madelyn had never been able to tell.
"But where is your husband?" asked Madelyn then.
At that Cordy's face fell. "Caught cold again, the poor dear. He's resting in bed back home -- I said I'd stay with him, but he knew how much I'd been looking forward to tonight... He insisted that I come."
But then Cordy shook her head and laughed. "Enough of that! In place of Bran, I've brought a certain special someone to meet you instead... Kent! Oh, where is that boy..."
Cordy began shoving through the crowd, looking here and there. Madelyn followed behind, carefully picking her way through so as not to trip or ruin her fine dress.
At last Cordy cried out, "There you are!" and rushed over to a little boy with a tousled head of light auburn hair. The boy had been quietly absorbed in watching a carpenter fixing one of the wooden effigies that had been toppled sometime during the night's revelry, but as Cordy approached, he looked up and smiled, face glowing from the firelight.
Madelyn gasped. "Cordy, is that -- your son?"
Cordy beamed. "Kent! Come over here and say hello to Mama's friend!"
"You didn't mention this in your letters at all!"
The boy managed a soft "Hello, Mama's friend," before ducking back behind Cordy's skirts.
"Well," said Cordy, actually looking somewhat sheepish. "There just didn't seem to be a good chance... and I wanted to tell you in person."
"Oh, Cordy." Madelyn struggled for words to express the emotions brimming in her heart, but in the end settled for a smile. "He's adorable, Cordy. Who does he take after, you or Brandon?"
"Well, he has my hair, of course. And my eyes. Everything else though, he's Bran's boy through and through!"
They laughed, and for the first time in many months, Madelyn's heart felt light.
Cordy excused herself for the night all too soon. Little Kent, who had been discreetly attempting to hide his yawns for quite a while by then, had dozed off on his feet. "Too much excitement," laughed Cordy, and Madelyn had nodded, smiling, in understanding.
But now she was alone again. She looked around, wondering where Wallace had gone. If it were anything like previous years, she would probably find him drinking with his fellow knights, snacking on roasted potatoes and telling his usual stories. The silly man had always been a clumsy dancer, more apt to scare off all the girls with his bearlike enthusiasm than charm them off their feet.
"Excuse me." Someone tapped her shoulder, and she whirled around, startled.
It was the young lord of Araphen.
"Lady Madelyn, I presume?" He did not wait for her answer, but bowed and kissed her hand in a single swift motion. "I am Adrian of Araphen. Might I have the pleasure of this dance?"
As she could think of no suitable reply, she simply nodded and took his proffered hand. It was cool and firm to the touch.
"I hear you like to read," said Lord Araphen, clapping in rhythm as she twirled around him, her skirts swishing against her ankles.
"Yes," she said.
"What kind of things do you read?"
"Oh..." she said absently. "The ledgers, I suppose."
Lord Araphen seemed taken aback. But then he laughed. "The ledgers. Indeed."
The offhand tone of his remark threw her steps off, and she tripped. Lord Araphen immediately reached out to steady her.
"Actually, I have received permission from my lord father to undertake an endeavor I believe must interest you. I have begun purchasing rare tomes and texts with the intention of building a library, one to rival any of the libraries in Etruria or Ostia. Let it not be said that our proximity to those uncivilized plains has made us men of Araphen any less cultured! It is in our interests to ensure that even the roughshod men of our border patrols appreciate the finer things in life..."
Madelyn nodded pleasantly. It was not a lie that she liked reading the castle ledgers. It would become part of her duty when she married and became lady of her own keep, after all, but duty seemed like such a heavy word to describe an activity she found so much pleasure in. It reminded her of the times she had spent huddled with her mother poring over documents when she was still young, when her mother had not yet passed away. The lists and the numbers and the mundane details of everyday life in the castle were comforting, familiar. It gave her pleasure when everything was running smoothly, when everything fit together perfectly, like a key in its lock.
She supposed her father must have been overstating the facts again.
Suddenly, a gale of deep, rollicking laughter drifted into her hearing, and she tilted her head to see, to her surprise, Wallace. Well, it was not so much Wallace that she found surprising, but rather, the company he was keeping.
"Hm?" said Araphen, who seemed to have been in the middle of describing the newest wing of Castle Araphen, which he was supervising the construction of.
"Oh, nothing. My apologies, m'lord."
Still, the next time she skipped to a good angle, she snuck a glance in Wallace's direction again, trying to make sure she had not seen wrong. But sure enough, there they were, the Sacaen prince and his men, sharing tankards with Wallace. Wallace was jabbering on loudly, cracking jokes right and left as usual. The Sacaen prince seemed amused, and Madelyn swore she saw him laugh once or twice. She had never seen a Sacaen laugh. Indeed, she had almost thought that perhaps laughter was alien to them, impossible for them due to some obscure law or custom or religious observance she was unaware of. Even his men, though still quiet, seemed far more at ease than they had been earlier in the day, and were all clearly enjoying themselves as well, occasionally cracking into smiles or breaking into streams of chatter.
Without her realizing it, a smile crept onto her face.
At that moment, a second roar of laughter blared over the music, this one even louder than the first. All around Madelyn, dancers stopped mid-spin and stared momentarily before losing interest and turning back to their partners. Lord Araphen halted as well, a faint hint of irritation on his face. He looked over with clear distaste at Wallace and the Sacaens, who seemed to have just been told some particularly amusing joke or story.
"What savages," he muttered.
Madelyn bristled at his words, though she was not entirely certain why. Too late, she remembered herself and tried to hide her reaction, but Araphen must have sensed something, for when he turned back to her, his expression was once more pleasant and charming. "Ah, pardon my language. Of course, not all of them are that bad. We see many of them in Araphen, naturally. Some of the more violent ones used to raid the villages on the border regularly, but they've learned to fear the strength of our knights. They're mostly harmless now. Still a few bad apples among the lot, but I suppose that's always the case. Though I do wonder why this group has journeyed so far inland..."
"What tribe are they from?" she asked abruptly.
"I mean, I've heard that the Sacaens are divided into many different tribes, each with their own customs and attire..."
"Ah. Yes. Of course," said Araphen stiffly, and immediately proceeded to change the subject.
Madelyn made a mental note to herself to ask Wallace on the morrow.
Madelyn woke in an agreeable mood. After getting ready for the day, she wandered out her room and down the hall, humming bits and snatches of tunes from the previous night.
"Oh come, all ye maidens fair -- oof!"
She had just opened her mouth to apologize to whoever she had bumped into when she looked up and realized that it was the Sacaen prince.
"Oh --" she said, face coloring. Had he heard her singing? He must have. She had not even noticed his approach. "I -- I'm sorry."
He did not respond, but simply stared at her. Madelyn fidgeted. Seeing him up close for the first time, Madelyn found that he was... not uncomely. But different, she thought, from most of the men she knew. "Clean" was the word she wanted to use, though everyone knew the people of the plains were grubby and ragged and ate their meat raw. And with their hands.
"Um, I heard that you arrived in our humble canton yesterday morning. I hope you have found your stay enjoyable thus far."
After a moment, the man laughed. It was a low, pleasant sound. Then he said something. It sounded like her name, and yet different.
He repeated whatever he had said, and Madelyn realized he was speaking in his own language. She blushed again, this time at her unintentional rudeness. After seeing him with Wallace the night before, she had assumed --
She stammered out a few more rote apologies and fled.
Only to run into her uncle Lord Lundgren.
"Watch where you're going, girl!" he barked, stopping to glare at her for a moment before continuing on his way. Under his breath, he muttered, "Foolish child. Running in the hallways -- no sense of propriety -- Or any sense at all, for that matter. Just like that senile brother of mine..."
Uncle Lundgren had never liked her much. He hadn't liked her mother much either, but then the man didn't seem to like anyone, really, his own brother included. He didn't even seem to like his wife much! Rather, he always acted as if the whole world was out to get him. Madelyn felt sorry for him, and sorrier for his wife and young son, but even so, it did not make her occasional forced encounters with him any more pleasant.
Indeed, her pleasant mood from earlier that morning had all but dissipated by the time a young knight she recognized as Sir Eagler, Wallace's sterner friend and at-times rival, came with a summons for her from her father.
Lord Hausen was very pleased.
"I saw you last night," he said, eyes twinkling. "Getting along well with young Lord Araphen, aren't you?"
"Good, good. I'm glad. Then I suppose we should go ahead and make the announcement at the banquet in three days' time, eh?"
Something in her voice must have betrayed her true feelings, for Lord Hausen leaned over in concern. "Madelyn, my daughter. Is something troubling you?"
"Oh..." said Madelyn. "It's just... I've been wondering how much that dress you bought me cost, Father."
Lord Hausen brightened immediately, groaning in jest. "Not that again! After my dear brother Lundgren hounds me about it all morning, now you're on my case as well? Now, now, Madelyn. No need to worry your pretty little head over this. Such a trifling expense will hardly bankrupt our treasury."
"If you say so, Father," she replied. She wondered if any of the traveling merchants who occasionally passed through might buy it off of her. And yet even if one were willing, the price they would pay likely wouldn't cover all the expenses that had been involved, especially once they had finished haggling. Madelyn liked to think she could drive a hard bargain when she needed to, but it was unseemly, she supposed, for the lady of the castle to be seen participating in such base activities, necessary as they might be at times.
But it was no use worrying over things that would soon be out of her hands, had perhaps never been within her control at all.
Madelyn wasn't quite sure what had gotten into her. She had never ridden out of the castle grounds on her own before. Always she had been attended by a retinue of servants, accompanied by Wallace or Eagler or one of the other knights. It was true that Cordy and her husband's farm was only a day's ride away, perhaps less if she pushed it, and took no breaks -- quite a comfortable location, despite all the scandal the couple had caused, and the fact that Cordy's father had disowned her as soon as the news broke. But Madelyn had never been there once in the four years since Cordy had run off.
And yet, as soon as she left her father's study, the maids had come to inform her that Cordy had left for home on sudden notice early that morning, upon receiving news that her husband's illness had worsened. And Madelyn had known then that she could not possibly stay, though Chancellor Reissman would probably scold her when she got back, or worse. Not to mention her father -- as good-humored as Lord Hausen normally was, when he lost his temper he was just as frightening as sour Uncle Lundgren.
But she had to go.
The night had grown pitch black by the time she finally arrived. She dismounted from her exhausted horse and knocked.
It was Cordy who came to the door. "Madelyn! What on earth are you doing here?"
"I'm sorry, Cordy. I -- I heard --"
Cordy's features were lined with a weariness that seemed terribly out of place on a face that, in Madelyn's memories, was always so bright, so vivacious. Her dress was fraying, the weave plain and coarse, a far cry from the clothes she had worn the previous night. Yet even now, Cordy played the perfect host, inquiring after Madelyn's well-being, making small talk about her husband's situation. His fever had broken, she said. The worst had already passed.
"But what about you, Madelyn? I appreciate your concern for us, but... Did something happen?"
Madelyn shook her head, already regretting the horribly selfish motives behind her uncharacteristic impulsiveness.
But Cordy was nothing if not stubborn.
"Come now, Lyn," she said. "Stay the night with us. You must be tired -- We'll talk in the morning."
Their house was small and worn-down, Madelyn realized the next morning, as she nibbled on the meager porridge she had been offered by her hosts as breakfast. Not quite shabby, but the roof seemed ready to collapse at any time, and there were carefully concealed cracks in the walls.
Cordy's husband Brandon was already up and about, looking paler and more haggard than usual, but otherwise cheerful. Cordy was smiling again too, as she sat folding clothes in the corner with the bumbling help of her little son.
Madelyn offered to help as well, but Cordy shook her head. "You're our guest, Lyn! I couldn't possibly."
Not, Madelyn reflected, that she would be much more help than little Kent, even if Cordy did let her. For one thing, she was still sore all over from her hard ride the previous day. She noticed also, for the first time, the red coarseness of Cordy's hands, so different now from her own. Feeling rather disoriented, she wandered outside to wait. She stared at the fields, green-tinged-gold, rolling beneath the vast blue sky. Not unlike the plains of Sacae as Madelyn had often imagined them from Wallace's stories.
Brandon soon emerged from the stable nearby and sat down beside her. "There's so much work to be done," he said wryly. "I've been laid up so long, poor Cordy's had her hands full. I hope the good weather lasts."
"It is nice out today," Madelyn replied. The sun's rays were not yet at their strongest, and a slight breeze swept through the grass.
"Yes," he agreed, and they settled into a comfortable silence.
"You came alone, I gather?" said Brandon after some time.
"I'm surprised. What happened to that giant of a knight who used to always follow you around?"
"Oh, that silly man!" Madelyn said slowly. "I suppose he must have gotten lost!"
Brandon chuckled. "Ah, yes. I remember now. Sir Wallace and his infamous sense of direction."
She said, "Lord Araphen called him a savage last night."
He tilted his head slightly. "Oh? Whatever brought that about?"
Madelyn flushed as she explained. "Well, I suppose he didn't. Not exactly. It was more that he implied it, through association. Wallace was joking around with a group of Sacaen men, you see. And he --"
Brandon's mild gray eyes were as kind as ever. "The man can't help it. The people of the borderlands have no fondness for the men of the plains. I'm sure he meant nothing by it. You shouldn't let yourself get so worked up over something like this."
"I know," said Madelyn. And then she said, "I'm getting married."
"Ah." After a moment, he said, "To Araphen?"
Silence again, so fragile that Madelyn almost wished Cordy would come out and shatter it with her usual brash commentary.
Then he flashed a brief, unreadable smile at her. "Wait here."
He disappeared into the house, and when he came back out he was carrying a stool, along with his treasured easel and paints.
"Oh, no," said Madelyn, realizing his intentions. "I couldn't possibly -- I've already kept you from your work long enough --"
But he simply waved it off. "I'm still in no condition to do anything too strenuous anyway. Now, hold still."
She plastered a smile onto her face and did.
"No, don't force yourself."
She dropped the smile.
His movements were practiced and swift, his fingers long and slender and elegant. The breeze ruffled his chestnut hair as he gazed at his canvas in studious concentration. He had lost weight, Madelyn thought, and felt the years fall away before her eyes. As if she were fifteen again, seeing him for the first time. Her body protested, still weary from the previous day's exertions, but she bit her lip and ignored the throbbing ache. Cordy ventured out with her son from time to time to check on their progress, waving and making faces at her, but Madelyn barely noticed.
She knew how much his paints cost. How much time and care it took to gather the proper materials, and then to mix and adjust them according to his personal preferences. She did not need to ask to know that this was likely the first time he had painted in years, and that these were the same paints she and Cordy had helped him make, all those years ago.
Brandon had apprenticed in Etruria with the finest masters. A genius, they had called him. He could have made his name in Etruria, in Bern, in Ostia, with any number of wealthy lords. But instead he had returned to Caelin, to the little backwater land of his birth, to offer his services to his own lord. And even that he had given up entirely when he ran off with Cordy.
The sun was nearing its zenith when he said, "Done. Come take a look!"
Madelyn approached hesitantly. When she peered at the canvas, her heart leaped. The woman in the painting was laughing, head thrown back, in a field of gold. Her dark hair, the color of a sparrow's wing, was unbound like a girl's, tossing in the wind. She gazed ahead at some point beyond Madelyn, green eyes bright and penetrating.
"This -- this isn't --" Madelyn stammered.
"It is," Brandon said solemnly. "It's you as I remember you."
"Consider it a wedding gift," he said, and smiled. "From me and Cordy."
"I couldn't," she said.
"Then consider it as a favor for us," he said, and this time there was an undercurrent of something else in his voice that Madelyn could not quite place. "A gesture of goodwill to your lord father. If you could perhaps put in a good word for us..."
Suddenly, everything drew together in sharp clarity.
She said, "Just tell me one thing."
She hesitated. He waited.
"... Are you happy?"
The ensuing silence was more than enough answer.
"MY LADY! MY LADY MADELYN!"
Outside, a flock of birds scattered to the skies. Madelyn looked up with a start from the luncheon she was sharing with her friends. Only one person she knew possessed such a distinctive bellow.
"It's Wallace!" she said, hurriedly excusing herself from the table and rushing outside.
"LADY MADELYN!! I KNOW YOU'RE HERE!"
"AHA! THERE YOU ARE!"
"Wallace, what are you doing here?" she asked, though she already knew the answer.
"Do you even need to ask?" he said, panting as he dismounted from his poor frightened horse. "Why, I'm here to take you back home! Don't you know how worried everyone is? Why, Lord Hausen was so worried, I could see his hair growing white as he stood there!"
Brandon and Cordy had followed close behind her, little Kent clutching at his mother's skirts in obvious fear. Cordy, clearly biting back her laughter, said, "Hello, Sir Wallace."
Wallace blinked for a moment before smacking his fist in recognition. "Why, if it isn't Lady Cordelia! And Brandon the painter!" he roared. "Long time no see!"
"Won't you at least stay for lunch?" suggested Brandon. "Catch up on old times?"
"I'd love to, my good man! But no, no. We must hurry back straightaway! Else Lord Hausen shall have my hide! Bahahaha!"
"Sorry, Cordy," said Madelyn quietly. "I've been nothing but trouble."
"Not at all," replied Cordy with a soft smile and a quick squeeze of her hand. "Don't forget your gift!"
As they rode away, their horses slowed to a walk, Madelyn resisted her urge to look back. But even without looking, she could envision the scene in her mind's eye. Brandon and Cordy, holding hands, waving. Little Kent peeking out from behind his mother. The little house, shrinking on the horizon, swallowed by the fields and the sky.
"Wallace," she said.
"Mm?" he said. "What's the matter, my lady?"
She opened her mouth, but changed her mind at the last second. "So, did you find out what that Sacaen lordling and his men are here for?"
"No," admitted Wallace. "Not yet. But I did learn his name!"
"Says he's named Hassar! Hails from a tribe called the Lorca! When I told him I'd never heard of them, he only laughed. A good man! Gahaha! And did you know --"
His rumbling voice was oddly comforting.
To her surprise, her father was not angry with her when she returned with Wallace a day later. He merely heaved a great sigh of relief and said, "Don't ever do something like that again!" Madelyn could have even sworn she saw a tear in his eye as he accepted the portrait Brandon and Cordy had given her as their gift.
Her uncle was furious, however. He didn't even approve of Araphen, and probably would have been overjoyed to see her escapade put an end to the deal, but he probably just wanted an excuse to take out his anger on her. Chancellor Reissman likewise lectured her for at least an hour. She had not been subjected to one of his lectures since she was a child, and listening to him go on and on was more nostalgic, she found, than embarrassing. Especially after Lord Lundgren's even longer and far more scathing rant, which had made her feel utterly worthless.
The announcement of her intended marriage to Lord Araphen was made that night to a full hall, which exploded into cheers at the news. Araphen left with his men the next day to begin making preparations for the wedding, with the understanding that Madelyn would follow later. The wedding would be held in a month if all went well.
Soon enough, Madelyn found herself embroiled in her own preparations. There was barely enough time in the day for her to think, much less speak to anyone aside from her servants, and occasionally with Chancellor Reissman. There were details to learn, a dowry to assemble, personal belongings to be packed, accounts to be balanced.
And yet all through this whirlwind of activity, the Sacaens remained. Almost every day, it seemed, Madelyn heard a new snippet of gossip about them, and about Sir Wallace, whom everyone knew had taken immediately to the Sacaens' leader. No one really knew why they were still here, but everyone was deeply interested in them. A few of the maids giggled over some of the more handsome men in the group, though they were too intimidated to actually approach them. Sir Eagler reported dryly that the Sacaen prince had already replaced him in Wallace's eyes as his rival. And tales of the pair's outrageous training regime spread like wildfire throughout the castle.
But Madelyn only felt very tired.
It was by mere chance that she ran into Wallace at last, a week before her intended departure.
"My lady! Have you been well?"
"Very." She managed a small smile. "And you?"
"Most excellent!" He instantly launched into a detailing of the various exploits he had been getting up to with the Sacaen lordling.
"Wallace," she interrupted. "There's been something I've been wondering."
"What is it, Lady Madelyn?"
"That Sacaen -- Lord Hassar, wasn't it? He said something to me when we first met."
"Aha! And you wish to know what he said, do you not? Well, ask away! I, the amazing Wallace, have completely mastered the speech of the plains in my efforts to communicate with the good Lord Hassar! Gwahahaha!"
She smiled at his antics, then repeated the syllables, as best as she could recollect.
"Oh, that?" said Wallace. "'Little lark.' That's what they call the little songbirds that are so common in their lands. I wonder what he meant by it?"
So he had heard, thought Madelyn, but somehow it no longer seemed to matter to her.
"Wallace," she said instead, a second thought occurring to her. "If I were to disappear again, would you come find me? Like last time?"
Wallace seemed almost puzzled at the sudden change of subject, but answered immediately, "Why, certainly!"
"I'll find you no matter where you go, no matter how far! I swear it! Upon my --"
"Really," repeated Madelyn, more softly.
"But of course! It is my duty!" said Wallace. Then he said, "Why do you ask, my lady? Could it be that you doubt my knightly prowess?"
She could not bring herself to speak the truth.
"It's a secret!" she said instead, and left him to return to her preparations.
It was terribly easy, she found, to imagine the rest of her life. A comfortable life, a life of certainty, despite the equally certain difficulties of life on the borderlands. She could picture the wedding already, she dressed in her mother's bridal gown, hair pinned up with her mother's precious ornaments. Living afterwards in peaceful matrimony with handsome Lord Araphen and his clever schemes. No, not Lord Araphen, but her lord husband Adrian, who would, she knew, never fail to treat her with a terrible gentle kindness. Bearing his heirs, managing the affairs of his castle while he rode off to wage war against the plundering savages of the plains, to protect the farmers who dwelled on the borders of their domain. Writing letters to Cordy and Brandon and her father. Watching her children grow up as she and her husband grew old together. It was not an unhappy future. The relations between Caelin and Araphen would be stronger than ever before. No longer would Caelin have to fear being swallowed up by its neighbors and the other larger, more powerful cantons of Lycia. No longer would her father have to worry about overtaxing his people just to keep the troops funded, and in the process starving them all. Perhaps he and her uncle might even reconcile at last, with the main cause of their frequent disputes thus resolved. Madelyn could think of nothing happier.
At night she dreamed of tiny wings beating over a golden field of song.
Three days remained. All preparations for her departure were more or less complete. The castle was unnaturally quiet, in a way it had not been for months. Madelyn slipped out on her own for a breath of fresh air while no one was paying attention.
When she looked over at the stables as she headed towards the courtyard, she noticed the Sacaens gathered there with their horses. They were easily recognizable creatures, smaller and hardier than the horses of Lycia. She stepped forward, thinking for some strange reason to call out to them, then hesitated, her imagination running wild. Had they been planning a raid all this time? This, after all the hospitality she and her father had shown them, after the camaraderie they had struck up with Wallace -- But then she saw the packs slung across their saddles, and she realized they were leaving. Leaving, as mysteriously as they had arrived.
For some time she watched them. They chatted amongst themselves in their own tongue, relaxed, at ease. Perhaps they looked forward to returning home. They, too, must have felt homesick, so far away from their beloved plains these past few weeks. She wondered if Wallace knew.
She did call out, then. "Wait!"
The men looked up from their respective activities and watched her with curiosity, devoid of the hostility she had expected. Their leader gave her quizzical glance.
"Please," she started, but then something seemed to take root in her heart, tangling her tongue, twisting her words. "Lord Hassar! Please take me with you!"
But of course it was useless. He did not even understand Lycian. She had heard that even Wallace only spoke to them in gestures combined with fragments of their own language that he had somehow managed to pick up.
She had turned on her heel to flee when his voice, ironic and amused, stopped her. "I am no lord, my lady."
He spoke the dialect of eastern Lycia with slightly accented but otherwise perfect intonation.
"Hassar, then," she said, turning back, wondering at his fluency even as she ignored the heat rising in her cheeks. "Please, allow me to go with you!"
"I think you do not realize what you are saying, daughter of Marquess Caelin."
"I do. I want to go with you."
Hassar laughed, not unkindly. "Do you even understand where we are going, maddi? What are you running away from?"
"I --" she began, then lowered her gaze. "I'm not running away."
"Hm," he said. "And yet I hear tell the Marquess of Araphen is planning a great wedding for his son..."
"I'm not running away," Madelyn repeated softly. "I just..."
"On the plains, if her father arranges a good husband for her, a woman considers herself blessed for his wise guidance." Hassar turned back to his horse. His men took that as their cue to continue with their own duties. "Go home."
"You don't understand," said Madelyn. "This... is no longer my home."
"As long as it is your father's home, then it is yours as well. Our fathers and mothers know us best among all those who dwell under these skies, upon this earth. They alone desire our happiness above all."
"Then -- do your people not wed for political concerns?"
Hassar responded to her with the same patient gentleness one might use to calm a panicked horse. "Of course we do. My own sister married into the great Djute tribe not a year ago. But -- if a woman is not happy with her husband, then her father and her brothers and all the men of her clan will take up arms and bring her back. So you see --" he laughed again "-- our men consider it wise to keep their wives in good spirits."
She said, putting the thoughts in her heart into words for the first time, "I will not be happy with Lord Araphen."
"Then speak with your father, not with me!"
Madelyn bowed her head. He was right, of course. If she only told her father of her doubts, he would surely call off the wedding immediately, no matter that he would become the laughingstock of all the land, no matter that he would lose all credibility among the other lords for the rest of his life, no matter that he would make a dire enemy of the second most powerful canton of Lycia.
"I can't," she said, unable to stop herself. "As you said, he only wants the best for me. But he has never once given thought to what will be best for our canton. We are not a wealthy domain. And I know my uncle is right. My marriage to Araphen will not protect us forever -- Araphen is too far away, and too preoccupied with the border to pay much heed to internal affairs, should they ever arise. And I am sure they will. Khathelet has been eyeing our territory for so long... And is becoming a protectorate of Araphen any different, in the end, from entering the suzerainty of one of our neighboring cantons? But we have already agreed to it. If I told him I did not wish to go, my father wouldn't hesitate one moment to take my side, without even considering the consequences of his actions. And yet -- I don't know what he will do without me. It would be best if he himself would remarry, but -- he still mourns my mother. And even if he were willing, who would come to a place like this? I am his only child. His one and only daughter. I don't want to abandon him. I can't abandon him. I --"
She broke off, surprised to find Hassar studying her again, this time with grave consideration in his eyes.
"If that is so, then why do you wish to come with us?"
His clear, honest gaze seemed to see right through her. She could not lie to those eyes. And so she said nothing.
After a long silence, he said, "Would someone like you even be able to survive on the plains?"
Taken by surprise again, Madelyn could only say, "I --"
I can ride, she wanted to say, but even she was well aware of how insufficient that was. She had never once stepped foot outside of the boundaries of Caelin -- boundaries which could be traversed in a matter of days on horseback. She had never even been to Ostia. She had barely been two when the last oath rites were held, and had stayed in Caelin with her mother and her wet nurse while her father rode off, leaving his brother temporarily in charge.
"At least take me as far as Bulgar. You can leave me to my own devices there."
He sighed, as if to say, You would not last even a day in Bulgar.
"I have no wish to destroy the diplomatic relations I just established with your father. Like your Caelin, my tribe, the Lorca, cannot compare in size to tribes like the Kutolah or the Djute, and our herds are not as plentiful as theirs. Even so, our men are brave, and our women strong. And now we have obtained what the Kutolah and the Djute have not: friendship with a lord of Lycia. And we of the plains do not make friends lightly."
A trade agreement. So that was what he had come for, thought Madelyn, understanding how difficult it must have been for him to finally secure one, and despaired.
But Hassar flashed a swift, wolflike grin. "Still..." He said something in his own tongue.
His men stopped and stared in disbelief. One of them spoke fiercely in clear protest.
"What?" said Madelyn, looking back and forth between him and his men.
Hassar laughed. "Daughter of Caelin, you are a strange one indeed. I am impressed by your audacity, though whether it is courage or foolishness I cannot say. Still, I think I will play along with your little scheme."
Madelyn bit her lip. "But --"
"Worry not, maddi. I have made my decision. I know the sacrifices it shall entail. Or is it that you do not trust me? If that is so, I swear upon Father Sky and Mother Earth: I shall not betray you!" As he spoke he made a quick gesture from his lips to his heart.
"But if you know," she said, "then why...?"
"Listen!" he replied. "The winds speak. They are saying that all will be fine."
They rode swiftly through the night, Madelyn riding pillion behind Hassar. It was proof of his fine horsemanship that her extra presence did not seem to burden him or his mount too much; they were able to keep pace easily with the rest of his men.
When dawn broke, the first thing Hassar did was send his men ahead. The man who had protested the previous night grumbled, but left with the others. Their dislike of her was clear, Madelyn thought. But their trust in Hassar overrode all else.
Still, she could not help asking, "What did he say?"
She felt more than heard the amusement in his voice as he answered. "He said, 'You're crazy, chief. I told you no good would come of riding so far to deal with those pale-faced --'"
Madelyn repeated the word, confused. "Raka?"
"The rooted ones. Those who stay in one place all their lives, growing soft and useless in their sloth, selfishly consuming the blessings of Mother Earth without paying any heed to the others who share this space beneath the Great Sky."
"Is that what you think of us?"
"I think that you are interesting. I cannot understand it, that desire to remain. None of us can. My people are rootless. We follow the stars in the summer. We see the world as it changes. We listen to the voices of the wind, the stones, the grass. That, for us, is what it means to live."
"Don't you ever wish for a home -- some place to go back to?"
"Home," he said, "is here."
"We listen, too," she said, much later. "Our farmers watch the sky for signs of rain. Sometimes it comes, but sometimes there is only the sun. Both sun and rain are necessary for things to grow, but all things have their proper time, so they get worried when the weather gets unpredictable. It's the same for us at the castle, too. When it rains, the knights get restless, and no merchant in his right mind will come. So one must make certain to order supplies beforehand, enough to last out the rainy season, but nothing that will spoil too easily. And then, when the rains stop at last, all sorts of travelers begin to pass through again. You can smell their coming in the air."
"Of course," he replied. "The voices of sky and earth are always singing. Sometimes we may cover our ears and close our hearts to them, but the voices themselves never leave us. This is true for our people, no matter the tribe he belongs to. It must be true for yours as well."
Their initial speed soon began to dwindle. No matter how good the horse or his rider, bearing two grown adults at such speeds was no easy feat. And Madelyn was unused to travel, much less at the pressing rate they had been moving. Though her body had adapted somewhat as the days dragged on, she was still too exhausted whenever they stopped at night to eat much before she collapsed and fell asleep. Her dreams swirled with color and silence. She could not remember them once she awoke.
But perhaps that was for the better. Hassar was patient with her, so patient that her guilt threatened to overwhelm her at times, if she had the energy to think about it. He answered all her questions, sometimes even telling her the names of things in his own tongue. He taught her much about the lands that they passed through, though they were not the lands of his people, but of hers. And all she could offer in return were stories. Stories of her childhood, of her father Lord Hausen and of the mother she barely remembered, of Brandon and Cordy and their little son, of Wallace and Eagler and her father's knights. Of Wallace and his outrageous tales.
Before long, they reached the outskirts of Araphen.
A small troop of knights awaited them.
"Hold on!" said Hassar, reaching for his bow.
Madelyn buried her face in his back, listening to the twang of the bowstring and the creak of bending wood. One, two, three --
She did not know how he managed to keep their balance while loosing arrows, one after another, even as he urged his horse onward. Faster, faster.
She stopped counting. She did not want to know how many people he was killing, had killed, how many had died already in her name. Perhaps she was selfish; perhaps she was a coward. But for the sake of her father and of Caelin, she had been willing to do anything.
She was still willing.
He was injured. Days of hard riding had dulled his reflexes, and in a brief careless moment, a stray arrow had struck his shoulder. Madelyn recalled what she had been taught of the healing arts best as she could, wishing that she had thought to bring more vulneraries along with her. But too late, now, for regret. Madelyn had not allowed herself to weep, though she whispered apologies into the winds again and again until Hassar said at last, "Shh, shh. It's all right. Sing for me!"
So she had, though she hardly knew what she sang.
The border drew near: Castle Araphen lay far behind, and the knights of Araphen with it. They had managed to elude most of the men, with minimal casualties among those they had been unable to avoid. And yet news had surely been sent to the border patrols. They could not yet relax. She dreamed of a mountain cat, large, glaring, forbidding. It bared its teeth at her, eyes glowing in the darkness, but when she woke the image had left her entirely but for a lingering sense of unease.
She heard the familiar roar echoing in the distance long before she heard the approaching hoofbeats from behind.
"HASSAR! YOU TREACHEROUS DOG!!"
They would not be able to outrun him. Hassar pulled their horse to a stop and dismounted. Madelyn slipped off after him, her legs unsteady, her step uncertain. Her neatly braided and pinned up hair had long since escaped their hold; she could feel the loose, unruly wisps flying all about her face.
In all the time she had known him, she had never seen Wallace so furious.
"So it's true what they say, that a Sacaen can never be trusted! I didn't want to believe it! I trusted you! I thought you were my friend! And yet, you -- you -- How dare you impugn Lady Madelyn's honor!"
Hassar's face was blank, but his entire body exuded the tautness of a bent bow. "I considered you a brother. And yet you stand there, insulting me, refusing even to hear me out?"
"What is there to hear, you monster?!" bellowed Wallace. "Lady Madelyn's presence here with you is proof enough of your dastardly deeds! Now, draw your sword! I swear upon my shield -- I shall slay you, here and now! To make up for misplaced trust, and for my failure to Lady Madelyn!"
"So be it," said Hassar.
It was as if, Madelyn thought, she did not exist at all. And why had Wallace come? Why him, of all people? Dearest Wallace, who could not walk three steps without losing his way, to whom straight lines were a myth, and maps utterly incomprehensible?
Except when it came to her.
The only time he never lost his way, had never lost his way, she realized, was whenever she was involved. When it came to her, north was north, south was south, as certain as the sun rose in the east and set in the west.
After all, wasn't that what she had been hoping for all along?
The glint of blades in the sun. Madelyn's body moved of its own accord: she blinked, and found that she had leapt between the two men. She shook and sank to her knees, panting, dizzy with something like desperation.
"No!" she cried. "I am to blame! Please, Wallace. For the sake of our friendship, please... Do not harm him."
Wallace wavered visibly. "My lady?"
"Forgive me," she whispered. "It's my fault. It's all my fault."
"My lady, you don't know what you're saying! This Sacaen mongrel --"
"Hassar has done nothing. He hasn't even touched me." Her voice cracked. "I was the one who --"
Hassar stepped up beside her, placing his hand on her shoulder in a gesture of reassurance. The lie slipped easily from her lips. "I love him."
Silence. Wallace's face twisted with anguish and disbelief. He lowered his sword.
"That can't be, my lady. What about Lord Araphen? What about... What did he say to you -- what did he --" He turned to Hassar, as if he could not bring himself to face her. "Is that true, Hassar?"
Hassar paused before answering. "Yes, we are in love. But it was my idea to run away. If we must be punished for what we have done, then kill me -- but do not harm her!"
Wallace's sword clattered to the ground. "How could I do such a thing?" he said. "She is my lady, Lord Hausen's daughter -- I could never..."
"Oh, Wallace," said Madelyn. "Why did you come? Why did you come?"
He said, still not looking at her, "I promised I'd find you. No matter where you disappeared to. I thought about what you said. About everything. About my duty, about why I --"
"Idiot!" she replied. "It's too late. Even if I were to return now... your duty no longer lies with me. It has never lain with me."
To that, Wallace did not respond.
At last, he bent, picked up his fallen sword, and sheathed it. "Hassar, my friend... forgive me," he said. "I have maligned you unjustly."
Hassar nodded. "I considered you my brother. That much has not changed."
Wallace bowed his head. "Then I take my leave. I will tell my lord Hausen that I lost your trail. My lady, Lord Hassar... I wish you all the happiness in the world."
"May the blessings of Father Sky be with you, my brother!" said Hassar then, in his own language.
Madelyn blinked through her tears and said, "Good-bye, Wallace!"
Wallace stopped in his tracks and cracked a grin. "Farewell, my lady! Don't forget about me!"
She offered a trembling smile in response. "Make sure my father doesn't do anything foolish."
Whatever he said in response, she did not hear. By the next time she looked up, he was already gone.
"Oh, you silly man. My poor, silly, gullible fool of a knight."
They had passed the border safely; Bulgar lay three days to the east. But Madelyn was still in a daze. Hassar sat down beside her, and watched her weep without speaking.
When she had finally calmed somewhat, he said, "It is not yet too late to go with him."
"I know," she said. "But I won't. I can't. Not anymore."
He hesitated. "Doesn't this make your efforts all for naught?"
"He would have killed you. I -- I didn't want to see either of you hurt."
"But surely that possibility had been in your considerations from the start?"
"Yes," she admitted, forcing herself to look him in the eye. "Forgive me. I thought, if I made you the villain, the enemy -- "
"Shh. As I told you that night, it was with full awareness that I chose to help you."
"But why? Why would you choose to do help someone like me -- at the cost of your life, of everything you worked so hard to achieve?"
Hassar smiled and touched her cheek fondly. "Oh, maddi, maddi. A little bird should not be caged. I simply unlatched the door. If she then desires to fly free, then nothing will stop her. Besides," he added, "I think I have obtained something far more valuable for my troubles."
She looked at him -- truly looked at him -- and it seemed to her suddenly that she saw him and all the days that had passed between them in vivid, blinding clarity.
"And if this little bird desires nothing but to fly and fly until the very ends of the world?"
His smile only grew wider. "Then," he said, "I shall fly at her side until she is satisfied."
Laughter bubbled up in her throat. She threw her head back, felt the wind dry her tears, run through her hair.
"Then let us fly!" she said.
When dawn broke, they rode north.