Something had always set Louise apart from other girls.
She tried dancing, and even enjoyed it, but she was no better at it than anyone she had ever known, so she picked up needlework, and academics, and music, but none of these things resonated with her, made her happy, made her feel as if she were an individual, special, unique.
At first, when she noticed them—the differences—she thought they were cruel. She also thought, on the surface, that she should do something about them, should change them, should wipe away that silly, imaginary barrier that made her unique in ways she didn't want to be.
But it took her so long to pinpoint what it was, exactly, that made her different, that she had grown to like those parts of herself, and so she kept them, held onto them, rejoiced in the fact that she was not like her peers. After all, her mother had whispered to her once, when she had been just a child, to forsake a God-given talent would be to forsake God Himself. St. Elimine would weep to see such a thing.
A favorite story of hers was one her father had heard when he visited Lycia. It was a strange tale, and he had written it down shortly after hearing it just to share with her when he returned home.
Later in life, she would forget much of the flowery details of the story, the description of the clear bubbling water in the brook, of the grass and the trees, but she would never forget the important parts.
"Once upon a time," she remembered her father saying, "there was a royal hart. He was wise and strong, and he lived in a beautiful forest. He had lived so long that tales of him spread around the land; many hunters tried to find him, but most could not even catch a glimpse of him. Finally, a clever hunter came to try and kill him, to take his antlers and his meat home as a prize. But he was smarter than the others; he didn't immediately seek out the royal hart—he lived in the forest, biding his time, learning the lay of the land…"
She remembered hating the idea that such a noble creature would be hunted, but she also understood that such things happened. The hart, she remembered, was sensible and strong, but the hunter learned the twisting forest trails so well that when he finally saw the hart, he was able to corner him against a wall of rock.
The rock wasn't very high, but it was tall enough that the hart could not jump it. In fact, he could do nothing but stare into the face of the man about to kill him. He blinked his great brown eyes, and waited for his death to come as the hunter pulled back on his bow, but it never did.
For over the rock jumped a doe, quick-footed and agile, ignored by hunters in favor of a larger prize, and she threw herself at the hunter; the man was knocked to the ground, his bow lost among the forest leaves.
"I'm glad the hart escaped," she said to her father when he finished the story for the first time.
"Me, too," he said, smiling, pulling her blankets up to her chin. "But remember, the hart didn't escape alone."
"That's right," she said, smiling. "He had help."
Just before her tenth year, her mother gave birth to a son, a weak, flailing sort of a thing, dark pink and wrinkled. She had not been impressed. Neither had the midwives.
"Eh few days at ta most," she heard one of them say with a shake of her head as she scrubbed the bloody bedding. "Too weak, kin barely breathe on 'is own. Jus' unlucky's'all."
When she made her way back to the birthing room, she saw her mother sleeping, lines etched in her forehead even in rest. Still unnamed—perhaps because they were afraid to put a name to the face—her brother, not quite as ugly and wrinkly as he had been early that morning, lay against her mother's bare breast, his breaths coming, but only just.
She left, unable to watch for fear he would stop breathing right there in front of her.
Her father was broad-shouldered and tall, conventionally handsome in appearance. She found him just where she knew she would—with his bow and arrows, shooting invisible foes.
"Father," she said by way of greeting, and climbed onto the lowest part of the fence, leaning over the top, to watch him.
His arrow landed inside the smallest ring on his target—an old oak tree.
"Louise," he said, picking up another arrow with practiced ease. After nocking it, he turned kind, hazel eyes to hers. "It will be all right," he said.
He didn't believe his own words, she knew. Oh, maybe he wanted to believe them, but wanting to do something and actually doing it were two very different things.
When his arrow lodged itself firmly into the tree, closer to the middle this time, he sighed, rolled his shoulders, muttered, "There, there," and nodded as if hitting his mark could fix anything, everything.
She could not confess to having understood much about her father before this particular moment, but something changed that day in her. With a twinge of interest, she pointed at the bow over the wooden fence. "May I try, Father?"
At first he laughed, a deep, warm chuckle that made her imagine he was ruffling her hair, saying, "Silly girl, what a notion!", but soon his laugh faded and he looked down at her solemnly, eyes moving from her to the bow he had had specifically made for him. A brief smattering of understanding passed between them—neither of them could fully understand the other's feelings, but they could understand the basic concept of hurting, and what that felt like—and he beckoned her over the fence with a tilt of his head.
He only showed her the basics—posture, how to properly nock the arrow, how to aim—before letting her try.
She knew he didn't expect anything to come of it, a nine-year-old girl holding a bow that seemed as big as she herself was. Maybe he thought that she would find a bit of relief in just releasing the arrow, in simply doing something, because there was nothing he could do to mend the circumstances, nothing at all, and that was what hurt him more than anything.
Her small arms trembled as she pulled back, trying desperately to remember her father's instructions. When she let the arrow fly, much to her—and her father's—surprise—if his gasp was enough to go on—the arrow landed square in the middle of the crudely-painted bull's-eye on the tree.
She laughed. He shook his head.
They both thought it had to be dumb luck. What was it they called it in Bern: "Beginner's" luck?
She reached for another arrow, only to have her father stop her.
"No, no, no," he was saying, and gently pried her fingers apart. "Don't touch the fletching."
She opened her hand. "Oh," she said.
"If you muss the fletching, or break it, the arrow will not fly straight. This is practice, you see," he said, "and practice is worthwhile, but when it matters, when hitting the target matters, you need your arrow to fly perfectly so that you do not miss your target." He smoothed out the fletching she had rumpled, and handed her a new arrow. "If my arrow misses the mark on the hunt, Louise," he said softly, gently, as he gave her shoulder a squeeze, "then a beast will suffer for nothing."
A bit of her understood, then, what he meant. He hunted for sport, but it would almost be a crime to have an arrow pierce the hindquarters of a royal hart, wounding it but not killing it; giving the great beast time to limp away to suffer or perhaps die elsewhere. She nodded in understanding, and handled her next arrow more carefully.
"Now then," he said. "Try again."
It was no fluke, or perhaps beginner's luck lasted as long as a person was a beginner, for her second arrow landed within the bull's-eye—though against the edge and not in the middle.
"Very good," her father said, a strange expression upon his face, but he would not let her try again.
On her tenth birthday, after the guests had gone, he presented to her an oddly-shaped package that had been wrapped in brown paper and string.
"Now be gentle with it," he said, and when she opened it up she saw the most magnificent gift she had ever been given.
"Yew," her father said, squaring his shoulders. "Had to send to Bern for the wood, but it's perfect. See how it's shaped, how the limbs curve away from you when you hold it up properly? It should be easier to handle for you, just a little."
She nodded in silence, and looked down at the quiver. It was very impractical, she would note, years later, but as a ten-year-old girl, she found it delightful. Carved into the wood were trees, a doe and two fawns drinking from a bubbling brook. She ran her fingers over it, speechless.
"Thank you, Father," she managed to whisper before flinging herself into his arms.
At fourteen, she came to the realization that luck could not possibly factor into her skill with the bow. It was a natural skill, one that, she wondered often to herself, had to be some sort of mistake. But the teachings of St. Elimine said that God simply did not make mistakes, and perhaps a deity would not be a deity if they could make mistakes. But why, then, she wondered, would He give her such an impractical skill?
Young Pent, the heir of the Reglay castle and its grounds, was looking to marry. Perhaps, she thought as she sat in the garden swing, it was worth a chance. She had only glimpsed him before in the past, as formal dances were crowded affairs and there were always too many faces to remember, but Pent's reputation preceded him—and it was a good one.
Surely, she could do no better than Lord Pent. He was kind and handsome, the type of person who thirsted for, and sought, knowledge.
Others had expressed a…passing interest in her. She was young, and pretty, and she knew how to run a household. But in the end she always turned them away, because that was all they wanted out of her, and she thought that if that was all she could ever be, all she could ever do, she would rather do the choosing herself.
Somewhat selfishly, she thought that if he were so bent on knowledge, he would perhaps leave her to do what she pleased more often than not, so they would both benefit from such a match, because she doubted she would feel the need to interrupt his studies.
So when the sealed parchment arrived with a date and time, she had a response sent immediately.
There were at least twenty women in the room, some twice her age, some several years her junior.
Her hair was pulled back, partially up, with violets woven into something of a crown. Her mother had hurried to get a dress made especially for the occasion, soft lavender with darker flowers embroidered onto the bodice and hems of the skirts.
Her arms had grown thicker from practice with her archery, and she had opted to wear flowing sleeves so as to not draw attention to the fact that her arms were, quite possibly, bigger than those of the studious Lord Pent.
Looking around her, she saw that some of the women were prettier than she, but not all of them; if Lord Pent was after a lovely thing, he had plenty to choose from that were not Louise.
After tea, an announcement took them all by surprise.
"Display our talents?" one of the younger girls whispered to Louise, her face pale as she worried on her lower lip. "I've only had six years of the harp, I'm sure the others have had at least twice that."
Louise could not pretend to be confident at the announcement. They had all been trained in the same things, as they were all from equally prestigious houses. But they formed a line and one by one had to say what they were best at, how marrying them would benefit Lord Pent.
She supposed some of the girls would have lied, had they not had to exhibit their supposed skill in front of an audience.
One woman danced, most elegantly, while another played the harpsichord so well she was instantly the envy of all of the other women present.
Louise's stomach began to knot as more women displayed the ability to read or compose poetry, to sing, to embroider. How, she wondered, could she possibly come up with something to impress Lord Pent after this?
She reminded herself again of his qualities and tried not to fidget: handsome, wealthy, prestigious, studious, and kind, all very desirable qualities in a fine husband, she thought to herself. But how was she to out-perform these other women, all more skilled than herself at traditionally feminine things?
To herself, she considered giving up, considered saying, "My Lord, I am no better at singing, dancing, at reading or composing, at playing, as anyone here."
But when the young girl who had expressed fear earlier sat down to display her skill at the harp, an idea struck her.
It would be most unattractive to say she was worse at singing or dancing than the other women, to admit defeat before trying. It was better to try and fail than to fail to try at all.
When they turned to her, eyes curious, wondering what sort of talent she would display—would it be dance? Music? Singing?—her cheeks flushed with uncertainty. But she knew she couldn't back down, now. It was all she had, her only real God-given talent. She knew that uniqueness didn't always count for something, that most would find it rather odd, some would laugh, but she also knew that it would set her apart from the other women, set her so far apart that even if he chose another woman, he would never forget her—could never forget her.
Don't muss the fletching, she thought to herself. Don't lie, don't cover up the truth. Doing so will only keep your arrow from flying true.
"My skill," she began, cheeks burning, "is with the bow."
She remembered how the others had said they could play a song to help him rest, could dance to make him the envy of all of the other men, could give him peace of mind or entertainment… But she knew that those things were not truly useful, and so she straightened and looked to an invisible point on the far wall, her eyes glinting with determination.
The laughter rang in her ears, but she refused to hang her head in shame of her gift; she knew it was better than what anyone else could give him, even if he himself didn't realize it.
"Quiet, quiet," came a voice, and a slender, handsome man stepped forward. "What is your name?" he asked her, and she answered, her voice quavering only the slightest bit, expecting some sort of reprimand for suggesting she could be useful in such an odd, unconventional way. He smiled at her, carefully took her hand, and steered her toward the door. "Well, let us see your talent with the bow," he said, leading them out of his grand home and into the gardens; she knew that this man had to be Lord Pent himself.
She shuddered once with nervousness. She had only ever practiced alone, perhaps once or twice with her father, but here she was in front of a hundred people—the families of all of the women present, including her own parents—and she had to prove that she had the skills she claimed to possess.
When a servant handed her a simple bow, she took it at once, and ignored the murmurings behind her. "What shall I hit, my lord?" she asked, forcing her voice to be as calm as she could possibly make it.
He paused, and thoughtfully glanced around him at the gardens. There were plenty of things for her to shoot at, but at length he pointed to a wooden pole, on top of which sat an elaborate birdhouse. "There," he said, smiling at her.
"Just the pole?" she asked, half-expecting him to suggest she shoot one of the tiny rails on the birdhouse's porch.
He nodded, "If you can hit it at all," he said in a whisper, "Then I daresay you will have surprised the lot of them."
She took a deep breath and willed her audience away. With practiced ease, she nocked the arrow given to her, and aimed for the middle of the pole. Without hesitation, she let her arrow fly, and it struck the pole right where she had intended it to.
A hush fell over the group, and she turned to the servant and handed back the bow before curtsying to Lord Pent. "My lord," she said, her voice soft but firm, "if you choose me…I will protect you for all my life."
When she looked up, he was smiling, and he took her hand, bowing as he brought it to his lips. "Never," he said with the utmost sincerity, "have I met a girl whose heart was so clear." And she knew, then, that he had made his choice.
Lord Pent had amazing focus, but he could only ever fully concentrate on one thing at a time; she had not been mistaken that he would leave her alone much of the time, leave her to do whatever it was she wanted.
She couldn't help but worry about him, sometimes. He forgot to eat, forgot to do a lot of things when his nose was buried in an old tome. But when she saw him in his study, cheek against the yellowed pages, quietly snoring, she could not bring herself to feel any real resentment.
In some ways, she had chosen him, she thought, and would tuck a blanket around his hunched shoulders.
It was, in the thick of battle, that his talents were most obvious. His studying had not been for naught—he commanded amazing power; at his fingertips, with the wave of his hand and incantations she couldn't understand, he could set half the other side's forces ablaze.
Such power required intense concentration, however, and Louise knew this left him wide open. Those versed in magical arts were extremely valuable to any organized military campaign, but while they focused their energy, they were as easy a target as a wobbly-legged fawn, as a hart of ten backed against a wall; they could not run, could not move, could not break eye contact.
Great power came with a great price, and Louise did not think that things should work differently.
Anyone who even looked like they were nearing him, she killed without hesitation, without remorse, without guilt. She had promised, so long ago, and she would never go back on it.
The forest was teeming with their enemies. The half-light made it difficult to tell ally from foe, and the shadows that flickered through the foliage only served to make them all paranoid, confused, unsure.
But Louise knew that anyone who went after her husband was her enemy, and so she waited.
He was focused on what he could see—wagons that were not theirs burst into flame, and so, too, did those who dared to try to put it out. She stood with her back to him, finding the warmth and familiarity somewhat comforting, even in the thick of battle.
It was a feeling, deep down, that something was wrong, that spurred her to turn. On her left was a man aiming a small axe at Pent from beneath a tree. She didn't have time to warn him, to scream out his name. Instinctively, she threw her arm up in front of his face just as the axe reached them. No! she thought furiously, Oh no you don't!
The light leather armor that covered her forearm split at the contact, and blood began to flow as they were both knocked to the ground.
She ignored the blood, ignored Pent's dazed expression. Her bow had fallen from her hand, but she scooped it up. She didn't have time to really aim, didn't have time to think. In one smooth motion, she nocked her air and pulled back; she then let it go, praying that it would hit its mark.
The strangled gurgle told her that she had been successful, and she shakily got to her feet and glared at the body. "How dare he even think he could—while I was—the nerve—"
Pent stood, shaking his head to clear it as he reached for her hand. "Louise," he said, a whisper of a sigh, his thumb rubbing over the skin around the cut where her armor had not protected her quite so well.
Her anger evaporated. Of course the enemy would try to kill him! That was why she was there. To protect him, to keep him safe.
"There is more at stake here than just…" he said, trailing off, and tore the hem of his cloak to bind her arm.
"I know, my lord Pent," she said, smiling a little. "That is why I cannot fail."
She knew he thought she was just a little naïve, just a little silly. It didn't take much to die, didn't take hardly anything at all—her arrow, buried in the man's neck, told her that a moment was all it took—but she was fighting for something bigger than herself, bigger than Pent, bigger, even, than the baby that formed in the gentle swell of her belly. Some risks were worth taking; she had learned that long ago.
"I knew you were different," he said, a small smile tilting at the corner of his lips, though the lines in his forehead conveyed his worry. "I do love that about you, you know."
She found her smile disappearing, replaced shortly after by the love and adoration she felt for him.
"For all my life," she said to him, repeating her promise, and pressed a brief kiss to the bridge of his nose before she pulled another arrow from her quiver and turned to guard his back.
A hart is a very mature deer, usually a stag around five years of age. A "hart of ten" is a 10-point buck, and a "royal hart" is a 12-point buck. (Points refer to how many "points" are on their antlers.)
Yew is a tree that grows (supposedly best) in soil that has a lot of limestone—I thought it would be prudent to have it in Bern, in this case. It was a good bow wood, too. Louise's bow is a "recurve" bow, which is easier to handle if a person has shorter arms. The part about the fletching is true—if you muss it up or ruin it, your arrow will not fly true.
As you can see, I took liberties with the support conversations (the wording, the way it's told). I find it hard to believe that the other women had to display their talents, but Louise did not. (I felt having her hit the mark before saying she could protect Pent made a bigger impact on her statement.)
Feedback would be greatly appreciated—I'm pretty rusty on the writing front. I looked for typos/errors but if you spot any, please let me know so that I can fix them. And if you have any questions, feel free to ask!