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Chapter One - Cecily
“Cecily,” a female voice called from above. “Cecily, are you down there?”
Cecily stepped out the hovel door and beyond the shadow cast by its low roof. Looking up the steep embankment, she saw her sister, Aurora, looking down. Almost instantly, Aurora spotted her.
“Father wants you in his study,” Aurora called. “I will wait for you up here. Hurry, it is urgent.”
Cecily nodded and ducked back inside the cooler recesses of the small one room shelter. Quickly clearing the heavy oak desk that ran along one wall, she crossed to pull the curtain over the one window in the building. It faced the west and offered a breathtaking view of the valley below Fairean Manor. A perfect place to perch and watch the sunset or the night fade as the sunrise chased it away. Looking around one last time to make sure all was in place, Cecily spotted her shawl draped on the back of the desk chair. Grabbing it, she exited and closed the heavy door behind her. Sliding the bolt home and locking it there with a deft twist of the wrist, she started up the narrow path to the top of the rise. She had just slipped the key beneath her collar when her sister called again.
“Hurry,” she begged. “Father, the King, David and some visitors are waiting on you.”
Cecily scrambled up the last few feet and fell into step with Aurora. They walked in silence and Cecily cast a sidelong look at her sister. Aurora’s face was pale and her mouth had a tightness about it that usually meant she was concerned about something. Aurora was the elder of the two of them. Her auburn hair was darker than Cecily’s and it hung like a smooth waterfall behind her shoulders. Cecily’s hair never was like her sister’s; instead, it was a riot of curls that she usually barely tamed into a thick rope of a braid. Aurora was also slightly taller and carried herself with authority. Cecily always wondered if it was because of the duties that their mother had given her.
Mother, Lady Lanalind, had retired from public life because of long term health difficulties. She had suffered through the plague that had struck only seven years ago and never completely recovered. On Aurora’s twentieth birthday, she had given her eldest daughter the keys to the manor and the responsibilities that came with the ownership. Both girls had learned to perform all the tasks expected of a highborn lady, but Aurora was the lady of the house, responsible for all the functional aspects. She did her job well and would make a proficient lady for any lord.
They reached a bend in the trail and Aurora looked over and caught Cecily examining her face. She smiled, but it did not reach her dark blue eyes. “You are probably wondering why I was sent to fetch you.” She observed. “To tell you the truth,” she sighed. “I am not sure. All I know is that the king arrived about an hour ago. He was very agitated and immediately asked for Father. He said something about news from Braulyn before they disappeared into the library with the two men he brought with him.” As they crested the hill, they came within view of the manor. “David was sent for immediately and they did not come out until supper was served.” David Michela was their father’s steward and right-hand man. Aurora and he were sweethearts.
The late afternoon sun highlighted the high stone walls of the manor house with red and gold. The familiar sight made Cecily want to stop and appreciate the simple beauty of the evening, but Aurora’s voice reminded her of the task at hand. “Do you suppose war has been declared?”
Cecily shrugged and pulled her wrap more closely around her shoulders before signing, “I don’t know.” It probably was going to be declared any day; her guess might be better than Aurora’s but even she could not predict the will of the Kurios.
“Hurry,” Aurora quickened her step and waved for Cecily to keep up. “Dinner should be just finishing. Father said that they would be going directly back to the library afterwards. You are to meet them there.” Crossing the terrace with its contingent of royal guard, they approached the front entrance at a brisk walk.
In the front hall, just inside, they separated. Aurora disappeared down the passage to the kitchens. She had to make sure rooms were prepared for the unexpected visitors. Cecily left her shawl on the bench at the bottom of the stair and headed toward the library by way of the courtyard.
Cecily's footsteps echoed back at her as she ran across the open area. She quickly covered the distance between her and the door back into the main building. As usual, the massive oak door opened easily when she pulled at the handle and she smoothly slipped inside.
Like everything else around the castle, the door was in perfect artistic and working condition. The manor house, a small fortress, was everything one could expect in the main residence of nobility. The stately, but secure, building was surrounded by acres of well tended fields and patrolled woodlands filled with game and other wildlife. Everything, down to the door hinges, was in constant readiness, all displaying signs of having a good master.
Lord Lanalind was an influential member of the nobility of Larkaria. His family was one of the few left with no casualties that followed the plague that had claimed most of his generation. Young King Thane III, who had lost his father to the plague, relied on him for advice and military support. It was usual, when there was a crisis at hand, for the royal family to pay a visit to Lord and Lady Lanalind at their estate, Fairean.
This was most likely no exception. With a possible civil war looming in Braulyn, Larkaria's neighbor across the Silver Channel to the north, King visited often. Sometimes just to discuss the newest events occurring in Braulyn and her cousin to the east, Sardmara. The only thing that was unexpected about this visit was the men he had brought with him. The king rarely brought company.
The cool, dim corridor greeted Cecily as she slipped through the door. Without waiting for her eyes to adjust to the lack of sunlight, she strode across the thick rug to the study door. The guard posted on either side merely nodded their heads to her presence. She was well known to them. Pausing long enough to take a deep breath and run a hand down her skirt, she knocked on the carved ivy trim. Unlike the echoing courtyard, her hand only made a small sound, just enough to attract notice. After a few seconds, the door opened and Cecily entered Lord Lanalind's study.
The room was dim, the light coming from windows facing the north and east. No one had come to light the candles yet because the sun had not set. There was no fire in the hearth. Waiting for her presence to be acknowledged, Cecily discreetly surveyed the far end of the room. The five men were already present. Three of them she instantly recognized. David was engaging one of the strangers in an animated conversation over a piece of parchment on the desk before them and her father’s graying head was bent so he could hear the king sitting behind the desk.
“Cecily Lanalind, my lords,” Timoty, the servant, announced her presence and then melted into the shadows beside the door.
All the men turned and her father smiled. Behind him, the king rose from his chair. Her father beckoned for her to approach, “We have been waiting for you.”
Stopping a short distance from the king, who was now at her father’s side, she dropped the required curtsey. “Cecily,” the king acknowledged her presence and when she raised her head, he smiled. “It is good to see you.” Tilting her head, Cecily smiled in return.
“Richard and Robin,” her father took her hand and brought her to face the nearest stranger. “This is my youngest daughter, Cecily. Cecily this is Richard and Robin Blythe, fresh from the mainland and full of news and information for us to put to our uses.” She had a brief glimpse of the interested dark eyes and dark hair of one of them before both men gave a formal half bow, to which she returned the required nod.
“Enough with the introductions,” King Thane interrupted. “We do not have much time and the most she needs to know at this point is that they can be trusted.” With marked haste, the king reclaimed his seat. Frowning at the mess of paper before him, he told everyone to sit.
Chairs had been arranged so it was obvious that they had all been sitting before the interruption of dinner. One of the Blythes pulled over another for her and they were all seated. In the background, Timoty moved silently about the room lighting candles.
“As you are already aware,” the king began. “Braulyn is on the brink of civil war. Your father and I,” he gestured in Lord Lanalind’s direction, “have been trying to determine the best stance to take, if we take any at all. This has been difficult since we have had very little first hand information about the situation. Three days ago, these two men arrived on our shores with their family. Through various connections they were able to get the message to me that they had valuable information that they were willing to share at no cost. When I actually made contact, they have made it clear that they wished to help. The details of that we are going to touch on later, but right now we need your help.” Turning to the man at her right, the king asked, “Would you please outline the situation for her?”
The man nodded slowly. “How much detail will she require?” Timoty left silently and the candles flickered briefly in the draft of the closing door.
“Give her a clear picture of recent events and the different positions of the two sides. If she has questions, she can ask.” Thane directed.
As she turned her attention back to the stranger, Cecily caught him in thought. After a second, though, he lifted his head and regarded her with an intense, dark blue-green gaze. “During the plague, about seven years ago, Braulyn lost most of its royal family, the Jenrans, within a matter of days. At the time, the entire country was in chaos because of the massive death rate; so, it took a few days for most of the population to get the news. By then the noble families were already bickering over the throne. Only the intimate family servants knew the exact facts of who was dead and who lived. The king’s personal bodyguard and his wife took the two living children, Simon and Grace, and fled the capital.”
Cecily nodded. She knew the following struggle for the throne lasted a year. She believed it would have lasted longer, but Sardmara sent forces into the capital and established a puppet king by the name of Mavis Drackett. Braulyn and her people suffered under his heavy and careless hand ever since.
Richard continued. “For years the discontent of the people has not been enough to rouse a force great enough to possibly overthrow Drackett. Until now…a young man has risen to claiming he is the real prince Simon that disappeared seven years ago. My brother,” he indicated the man sitting to his left, “and I have met with his right hand man. The same man claims to be the bodyguard who hid the royal children in the first place. These documents,” he motioned to the paper strewn desk, “supposedly prove that the boy is the lost prince, but we have not been able to piece the proof together well enough to justify action.”
“Because of circumstances out of our control, our family was forced to leave Braulyn in a great hurry. We brought the evidence to the King Thane hoping that he would be persuaded to assist the Prince in his attempt to reclaim his throne and birthright. He has brought us here to your father and now to you.”
Shooting her father a questioning look, she signed, “What exactly are you asking me to do?”
For a moment Richard’s brain did not comprehend that the girl had just said something. To be more exact, what her actions had meant. David must have because he interpreted.
“She wants to know exactly what we are asking for. Who wants to explain?”
Richard was still swallowing his surprise and the questions that had immediately jumped to his mind. The King Thane spoke first. “I am willing to support the prince’s claim if the prince is not an imposter. The very fact he is willing to prove it is commendable, but my conscience needs more than that as a basis for entangling Larkaria in this possible war. If you can verify that these documents support his claim and show me how strong it is, I can make an informed decision.”
The young woman next to Richard nodded her understanding. It appeared she could hear, but for some reason could not or would not speak. Richard glanced at his twin brother and sensed he was thinking along similar lines.
“You do realize that if you accept the task, you are not to pass anything connected to the events and information in this room to anyone unless authorized. If you do so, you will be guilty of treason against your country and king. The penalty for such action is death.” The king’s face, though serious, was not concerned. Richard got the impression that he already knew her answer and the warning was a formality. The girl nodded and then suddenly smiled. Then she moved her hands again in a different way. This time Richard watched closely, but still could not understand one word. When he returned his gaze to her face, she was watching him. Her green eyes glinted in the candlelight. She studied his face for a moment before smiling slightly.
“She said that she has no problem with the warning. Why would she destroy the security of the country protecting her?” David translated for her.
The king dipped his head and in a slightly amused voice said, “You have a point. Does that mean you will take the assignment?”
The woman nodded her head and moved her hands again. This time Lord Lanalind spoke for her. “When does she start?”
“Immediately,” the King rose to his feet and stepped away from the desk chair. Offering it to her, he asked, “Is there anything you require?”
Rising and surveying the work space, she mimicked writing on her hand. “Second drawer on the left,” Lanalind offered and rising he returned his chair to the place were it had been a few hours before. “I will have Timoty bring in tea. It is going to be a long night.”
All of them except Lanalind’s daughter moved to more comfortable seating. Richard chose a deep armchair. Timoty arrived with the refreshments Lanalind had requested and Richard soon found himself enjoying a cup of hot tea. Before leaving them, Timoty served the woman a plate of food. Recalling the dinner they had all eaten only an hour before, Richard could not remember seeing her there. He wished he had not missed catching her name during the introductions.
Lanalind sighed deeply as he settled onto the couch to Richard’s left. The King sprawled slightly as he did the same. “I really appreciate all this, Lanalind. I am going to have to express my thanks to Aurora before we leave.”
“She does not mind the extra rooms as much as the worry your visits evoke.” The older man stretched his neck carefully. “She is even more nervous since David has declared his intent to help.”
David Michela, the fair haired man to Richard’s right, frowned. “She understands the importance though. Without men willing to take risks, this country can do nothing but sit and wait.”
Both Lord Lanalind and the king were watching David intently. “My wife has a hard time too,” the king offered. A thick silence fell over the group and for a period all that could be heard was the shuffling of paper and the scratching of the quill behind them.
“Does your daughter speak?” Robin asked suddenly in a low tone.
All three men’s heads came up and Lanalind suddenly smiled. “She has not spoken for almost nineteen years, young man. Don’t be embarrassed. The situation is unusual and you are not the first to wonder.”
Richard sipped his drink and was surprised to find it cold. Setting it aside, he watched the older man as he spoke. His lined face was calm and his voice mild. The words came easily. Richard could recognize an often told story when he heard one.
“Cecily is our youngest. She was born early and initially we thought she was not going to be with us long. It was not until she was six months old that we began to become secure in the hope that the Kurios was not going to take her from us. For a time nothing unusual happened, she learned to walk and would babble at us like most children do. She even started saying a word or two.”
“Two weeks after her first birthday she developed a slight fever and by the next day she was so sick we feared for her life yet again. We were so preoccupied with her general health at the time that my wife and I did not notice until much later that she stopped making any sounds on the second day. The doctors did all they could, but in the end all we could do was wait and pray. It took two weeks, but she did recover. It was then that we realized she did not make a sound. The doctors believe it was connected to the fever and we were initially afraid she had also lost her hearing, but as you can tell, she did not.”
“She has done quite well though. Immediately she began communicating with gestures and through the years it has become a language with a structure and vocabulary. I am thankful for that incredibly organized mind of hers. She maintains this library and has studied much more than I will ever manage. She and David run the household accounts for me.”
David nodded over his empty cup. “She has a great mind for details and analysis.” He smiled in amusement. “Her only fault is a weakness for books. The list of additions she wants for this library could fill a volume and empty any man’s purse.”
“Where do you get them?" Richard asked as he glanced at the laden shelves surrounding them. “In Braulyn, books are rare and expensive. Even men of your standing can rarely find one for a decent price.”
The topic of conversation turned to merchants and economics. Both Richard and Robin were eager to compare notes with Lanalind on prices and trading. The price of daily necessities in Braulyn had been fluctuating dramatically for the past few months. Before long, the king joined in to ask for their opinions on the changes in the defense system of Braulyn. Like the conversation, the evening continued pleasantly in spite of the late hour.
It was nearing midnight when Cecily finished sorting through the piles. By going over the notes she had made and consulting a few of the tomes in the library she fitted the pieces of the puzzle together. When she finished, she handed King Wynne Thane III the support neatly written out on a piece of parchment.
Crossing to the fireplace for better light, the king studied the contents. He appeared to only skim it before he passed it onto Lord Lanalind. He then nodded toward the Blythes as he said, "it seems that we are going to need their services." He turned to Robin. “What do you know about warships?"
Cecily left them to their scheming. As she slipped out, her father followed her. “Cecily,” his voice was muted, but she heard it clearly. She was almost sure she could predict what he had to say. Turning to face him in the corridor, she lifted the candle she had taken to light her way to bed.
His eyes were weary and Cecily could see that the lines around his mouth had deepened significantly since that morning. Although he had aged gracefully over the years, these new concerns were taking their toll on him. “Cecily,” he repeated as she looked up at him. “I believe it is time. I know it does not seem ideal with a civil war pending and the possible dangers. Who knows what the future will bring? If you do not go now, there might not be another chance until long after this conflict is over and that could be years…”
Raising her hand to slow her father’s words, she nodded her understanding. Setting the candle down on the table next to them, she signed, “I am ready and we promised Lisbrith Andris I would go in my eighteenth year.”
“…and here you are almost twenty.” Her father finished her thought and then reached out to touch her cheek. “I have been able to keep you here two extra years. I should be thankful,” he took a deep breath, “but I still don’t want to let you go.”
“I will be back,” Cecily signed, hoping to ease the sorrow in his dark eyes.
A bittersweet smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. “It will not be the same, child.” With great effort he stepped back toward the library door. “I will make arrangements for you tonight and tell you about them tomorrow. Sleep well, daughter.”
“I will, Father,” she signed and then took up the candle. By the time she had looked up, Lord Lanalind had already disappeared through the door. It was closing silently behind him. Kurios please keep him, She thought.
Suddenly, the silence in the corridor was heavy and overly warm. Deciding on crossing the courtyard instead of walking back through the empty halls, Cecily stepped out into the cool spring night.
(c)2004 Rachel Rossano
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