TITLE: Lora (working title)
By Rachel Rossano
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By Rachel Rossano
“You are not even worthy of this opportunity.” Aunt Roalalt looked down her nose as she sat poker straight on the uncomfortable carriage seat. Rain hammered down on the roof, but Lora’s aunt’s voice carried easily over the roar. “I had almost given up on finding you a position, but when my good friend, Lady Irene, told me about the Baron’s situation, I knew he might be desperate enough to hire you.”
Lora nodded dutifully. Her aunt was probably right. Raised with her four brothers, she had never had much experience with the social settings. Father had always stressed mental capabilities above the social skills a young woman needed to become a lady’s maid or companion.
“Even if he doesn’t find your skills with languages helpful, you can at least serve as a cook and housekeeper.” Her aunt sniffed and dabbed her nose with a fragile looking hanky. “Your dear mother would be horrified if she lived to see how you have been raised.”
Lora frowned and turned her attention to the rain streaking the glass panes of the coach. The vehicle jostled as it sped along the country road. Mother had approved of father’s beliefs and had encouraged them in their studies. True, she and her brothers would have been raised differently had mother lived, but not as differently as her aunt believed. Over the last few weeks, she had learned that Aunt Roalalt, mother’s only sister, had decided upon a different vision of Lora’s mother.
Quiet and graceful, Juna Guiania had always encouraged her children to grow and explore. Lora blinked back the tears that welled up in her eyes. She was long gone, Lora had been ten when she had fallen sick and within days passed forever out of their lives. She still remembered father’s face the morning he came to tell them. He had never smiled the same again.
“Here we are,” her aunt announced as the coach came to a jerky halt. “Now hurry out, child. I have a long way to go before I reach Lady Irene’s tonight.”
The door opened and a sodden footman leaned down to unfold the stairs for Lora’s descent. Obediently, Lora picked up her handbag, pulled the thin cloak close around her shoulders, and tugged the hood up over her hair. The footman offered her a hand and taking it, she stepped down into the muddy road.
As soon as her feet were firmly on the ground, Lora looked up and peered through the driving rain at the looming building before her. The glow of light could be seen from one of the windows on the second floor, but there were no other signs that anyone was in the building.
“Your trunk, miss,” the footman said as he plopped her box down next to her, washing her ankles and the bottom of her dampening cloak in mud. Then before she could say anything, he was gone. The coachman was clicking his tongue to the horses, and then the coach was moving away.
Lora watched it for a few moments as it disappeared into the driving rain. Everything in her wanted to run after it calling for it to stop and take her back into its dry interior, but she knew it would be useless. Aunt Roalalt had been abundantly clear that there was no place for a penniless orphan in her life. Forcing herself to turn back to the dark house, Lora straightened her shoulders beneath her already soaked cloak. Leaning down, she grabbed the rough rope handle of her box and began dragging it to the front door.
Once standing beneath the moderate shelter of the heavy stone pillared arch that framed the elaborately carved front doors, she pushed back her hood. She frowned up at the gargoyle that leered at her from the center of the left door and debated whether to knock or pull the heavy cord that most likely was attached to a bell. Remembering the lonely light in the window on the second floor, she decided on the bell.
She pulled the cord, but heard no sound from within the building. The wind picked up and blew the rain at and angle against the house. Lora stepped farther back into the alcove to the left of the door to avoid getting wetter.
“May I help you?” Lora looked up to find a tall thin man standing within the doorway holding a covered lamp aloft.
“I am Lora Guiania, Lady Irene sent me to be the Baron’s cook and housekeeper.” She watched as confusion passed across the man’s dark features. Apparently, the man had not been informed of her impending arrival.
“Come,” he said tersely. Leaning down with his free hand, he lifted her box by its rope handle. Turning, he carried it into the foyer beyond the open door. Obediently, Lora followed.
The hall was large, two stories high, and dark. She could make out the vague shapes of paintings and tapestries along the walls. A large staircase rose from the center of the room and then split as it reaches two arms connecting the two balconies that ran the length of the room opposite each other.
“Wait here while I tell the master you have arrived,” the man instructed her. Silently he mounted the stairs. She watched as he climbed the right staircase and disappeared into the shadows. He had taken the only light, leaving her to stand in darkness until he returned.
Her cloak, now heavy with water, began to pull her down. Unfastening the clasp at her throat, she slipped it from her shoulders. Shivering in the cold drafts of the hall, she carefully folded the sodden material and laid it on her box. Slowly her eyes adjusted to the absence of the lamplight and she began to see shapes and shadows. The rain poured against the distant roof and somewhere distant something creaked. As she stood listening to the sounds of an old house on a rainy night, she found her eyelids getting heavy. Rubbing her eyes she tried to keep them open.
~I wonder what the old Baron is like. Her Aunt’s descriptions had brought to mind an elderly gentleman or at least a man into his forties. After all he has explored the Northern Regions of Rynlan and the Western reaches of Anavrea. He is the foremost authority on Ratharian culture and an expert in numerous languages.~ The image of a mild, older man, bookish, but spry, presented itself to Lora’s eye. ~Maybe this isn’t as bad as I was dreading.~
“What are you smiling at?” a voice demanded. Lora opened her eyes and blinked in the bright light coming from the lamp inches from her face. Squinting, she tried focus beyond the flickering wick, but her eyes refused to obey.
“I asked you a question, girl.” The voice barked again. “I am not in the habit of repeating myself.” The tone annoyed Lora.
“I am not in the habit of explaining my thoughts, sir,” she replied.
A low chuckle came from beyond the lamp. “Quinn, you didn’t tell me she had a quick tongue.” The man said as he moved the lamp away and set it on a nearby table. “So, my Aunt Irene has seen fit to hire me a housekeeper.” He turned back to her, keeping his face in the shadows. “It is just like her to decide I cannot hire one myself. Well, child, where are your references?” He held out a hand.
Lora found she could not speak. Shaking her head she looked up at the shadowed figure. He was tall and broad, but that was all she could discern while he stood as he did between her and the light so the shadows hid his face and everything, but the outline of his form. The hand that hung between them looked large.
“What! No references?” He peered at her; his eyes glimmers in the dark void of his face. “Well then there must be something else that recommends you. My aunt is usually very thorough in her choosing of hired help. Are you instructed to report to her all my strange actions?”
“No, sir,” Lora managed.
“Spit it out, girl,” he demanded. “I don’t have all night to stand here asking you questions. How did you end up on my doorstep on a night like this?”
Swallowing carefully, Lora tried desperately to formulate an answer. It was hard to understand what he wanted, since he obviously was looking for something.
“My aunt, Lady Roalalt is a friend of Lady Irene, who told her you were in need of a housekeeper and cook. Since my father has just died, leaving me no place to go, Lady Irene told her that I had the position. I assumed that Lady Irene had spoken to you…”
He cut her off with a wave. “My aunt believes she can arrange my life while I am at home. So,” he said, walking away deeper into the shadows, “You do not know the Lady Irene?”
“I have never met her, sir.”
“And you have no orders to report to her?”
“No, sir,” she replied.
“Very well,” he said in a tone of finality. Turning on his heel, he faced her once again. He stared at her face a moment, as if to read something there. She still could not see his face, but she could feel the pressure of his gaze. Then, he turned abruptly and walked into the shadows to the left of the stairs. A door was opened and closed out of sight as he departed the room.
“This way, miss,” the thin man said as he melted out of the shadows on her left. He crossed to her box and again lifted it. He cloak slid off of it to the floor. Taking the lamp in his free hand, he turned toward the stairs. Lora had to scramble to retrieve her cloak and catch up with him as he started up the stairs.
“So, I have the job?” She asked, still unsure of what had happened.
“It appears so, miss,” he replied without hesitating.
She followed the somber man up the left-hand staircase. They were stepping into the second hall off of the foyer balcony when she finally got up the nerve to ask another question. “How many servants and occupants are there?”
The man paused to look at her a moment as if to accuse her of asking too many questions. “I need to know how many to cook breakfast for tomorrow morning,” she hurried to explain.
“Master is the only resident. Lachine, the gardener, and I are the only servants, Miss. I am the only one to serve the master. He breakfasts in his rooms at seven. This will be your room.” He set her trunk down before the last door on the left and handed her the lamp. “Good night, miss.” He bowed and disappeared into the shadows.
Lora shivered as she looked into the shadows after him. What was it with these men and walking about in the night without light? Frowning, she turned and opened the door to her new room. Stale air assailed her with its usual smells of dust and mold. The smell wasn’t promising, but she was here to be the housekeeper and she had to expect some lack of care. Leaning down she grabbed the handle of her trunk and set to the task of dragging it over the doorsill and onto the rug beyond.
She would worry about what lay ahead tomorrow. At least she had a dry place to sleep tonight.
The next morning, Lora woke early. The daylight revealed much more than she wanted to face as she sat up in her new bed. Dust clung to every surface, horizontal and vertical. Cobwebs draped the corners and some of the furniture. The sunlight that did manage to come in the windows was dimmed by the years of grime that coated the panes. If her bedroom was a sample of the condition of the rest of the house, she was going to have more than enough to keep her busy.
With a sigh, she pushed back the dirty bedclothes and began the search for dry clothing. Her only dresses were wrinkled from being pack tightly in her box, but they were preferable to the damp traveling dress from the night before. As soon as she was dressed, she decided she should venture forth to find the kitchen. She had visions of the amount of work she had waiting for her there.
After creeping through the silent and dust-laden corridors to the foyer, she discovered the kitchen behind a door to the left of the stairs. Rotting food, used dishes, and rags covered the counters and the heavy table that stood in the center of the room. The hearth hadn’t been cleaned in ages, and her shoes stuck to the floor. Just looking at the mess made her skin crawl. Rolling up her sleeves, she set to work.
Locating the water pump and the woodpile, she tackled the dishes with boiling water. She found no soap and not a bit of clean rag; so, she resorted to using a piece of broken pottery to scrape the crusted food from the pans. While the dishes dried, she swept out the hearth, found a scrub brush and used it to clean the table and counters. She was halfway across the kitchen floor, when a pair of muddy feet appeared before her on clean section.
She looked up to find a short stocky man looking down on her with a frown. “What are you doing?” he asked in a thickly accented voice. His darker complexion, black hair and eyes spoke of his Ratharian heritage if his accent hadn’t given him away.
Her back hurt and her arms ached. The sight of this man standing over her after tracking dirty across her newly cleaned floor brought up her temper. “Get those muddy boots of this minute,” she ordered as she rose from her knees. “I have just washed that floor and I am not about to have you dirtying it up again.” Reaching for the nearest weapon, the ratty broom she had found in one to the cupboards, she advanced on him as she would have one of her older brothers.
Surprise flickered briefly in his dark face. “I am here to cook breakfast,” he explained, holding up his hands to ward off the wooden handle she held before her like a club.
“Breakfast will be made after I finish the floor,” she told him. “You are just delaying it by getting the floor dirty again. Now get.” She waved the broom at him, showering him with bits of dust and dirt. He retreated back out into the hall, but remained in the doorway.
Satisfied he was not going to walk back across the floor, she returned to her task while pointedly ignoring his watchful gaze.
“My name is Lachine,” he said suddenly.
She ignored him. The floor was almost finished now.
“Jorthta Ethan doesn’t like waiting for his breakfast,” he informed her a few minutes later. Jorthta was a Ratharian military title similar to a Captain.
“Well, he is just going to have to wait until it is ready like the rest of us,” she replied as she rose to her feet and surveyed the stone floor. Slipping out of her shoes, she crossed to the pantry. Looking inside, she found it full. Taking down the ingredients for porridge, she set them on the counter. Grabbing the water pail on her way to the door, she slipped into her shoes and headed out to the water pump.
Twenty minutes later, she had a good-sized batch of porridge bubbling over the fire and bacon sizzling on a skillet. After a mutually declared truce, Lachine had pointed out the location of the bacon and the moracca beans. A pot of hot moracca was steaming on the table as Lachine instructed her on the workings of the household.
“Jorthta Ethan eats in his room most mornings. Quinn brings it to him.” Lachine placed a plate and a bowl on a tray. Pouring himself a cup of moracca, he sat down at the table.
His youthful face reminded Lora of the youngest of her brothers, Bruan. The way he tried to act tough, but really was gentle as a kitten also reminded her of him. All of her brothers had been that way with her. Gentle, yet playful.
Pushing away the memories, she asked, “Why do you refer to the Baron as Jorthta while Quinn calls him Master?” She pushed the bacon around the skillet with a knife.
“Quinn has known him since his childhood. In some ways, he raised him. I only served under him while he was in the Ratharian infantry.”
Leaning over the bacon, Lora tried to piece together the impressions she had gained from the night before. She was unable to put a face to her new employer. Was it possible he was Ratharian? She frowned. Then how did he gain the title of Baron, a noble title of the northlands? Something was decidedly odd about all of this. Using her skirt as a potholder, she lifted the skillet from the heat. As she turned, she discovered there were two new men standing in the doorway to the kitchen. She was so surprised she almost dropped the pan.
Noticing her gaze over his shoulder, Lachine sprang to his feet and turned to the door. The older man from the night before was standing behind the man who must be her new employer. The Baron was looking over the newly cleaned kitchen with appreciation. Whatever his bloodline, he was not Ratharian. His gray-green eyes were sharp and calculating, missing nothing as they scanned the clean dishes, the swept hearth, and finally rested on her face. His face was not handsome according to the classic definition of handsome, but it was strong and full of character. As he looked at her, she felt he was measuring her worth.
“Good morning, sir,” she managed. Quickly devoting more attention than necessary to transferring the bacon to the plate, she tried to get her hands to remain steady.
“Good morning,” he replied. “I am going to be eating my meals in the kitchen for the time being.” Stepping into the room, he took a seat at the head of the table. As she turned to retrieve the pot of porridge from the fire, she took some comfort in the fact that Lachine and Quinn were also disconcerted. They stood awkwardly for a moment, exchanged a glance, and then took seats also.
Unsure of whether she was expected to serve and then wait or sit down and join them, Lora decided to serve them and then busy herself with something else. Using the ladle she had cleaned earlier, she served the men, who watched in silence. As she placed the pot on the table, the Baron spoke.
“Are you going to eat?” He motioned to the empty bowl and plate she had left on the table.
“I thought you would wish me to wait on you.”
“Sit and eat,” he instructed her with a frown. “I don’t need waiting on unless we have guests.”
Silently she obeyed. As soon as she had taken her first bite, the Baron spoke to Lachine in Ratharian.
“I heard a ruckus as I was coming in this morning. Were you bothering her?”
Lachine looked up in surprise and replied in the same language. “Quite the opposite, she threw me out of the kitchen and threatened me with a broom.”
Both the Baron and Quinn stopped eating to look at the younger man in surprise. “Why?” Quinn asked.
“He tracked mud on my clean floor,” Lora replied in Ratharian without thinking. Then realizing what she had just done, she looked up to find all three men looking at her as if she had grown a third head.
“She understands Ratharian,” Lachine said in awe.
“And speaks it as well,” the Baron added with a frown. “Get you jaw off the table, Lach; I don’t want to see your breakfast.” Leaning back in his chair, he crossed his arms and studied her. “Tell me, Miss Guiania, how did you get this position?”
“I told you last night.”
“So, you expect me to believe that you were
chosen for this position by my aunt simply because your aunt is her friend? You also just happen to understand and speak Ratharian, a strange skill for a young woman of working class. There are too many coincidences in this for my taste, Miss Guiania. I want the complete story and I want it now. I have too much at stake to risk it now by having you sneaking about my house collecting information for who knows who.”
Fear rose in Lora’s throat. She had nowhere to go. If she lost this position, she had no one else to turn to and her aunt would never consider taking her back or even helping her find a new position. She met the Baron’s gaze and told him the truth and prayed he would believe her.
“Everything that I told you last night is true. I am an orphan; my mother died when I was ten and my father died two weeks ago. All the money leftover from father’s estate is invested in my brothers’ education. I learned Ratharian at home along with my brothers. Father believed it was a skill that would come in handy later on for the boys. I learned it to understand what they were talking about all the time.”
The Baron’s gaze never wavered as he watched her face. “And you swear this is the truth?” he asked.
Raising her right hand she solemnly swore it was.
After a long moment of silence, he finally nodded. “Alright you can stay, but only on two conditions.” Holding up one long finger, he said, “You speak of nothing you see or hear within this house to anyone and two,” another finger joined the first, “You keep out of my way. If you can do that, I will allow you to stay.”
Nodding her agreement, she turned her attention to her breakfast. Thankfully, the others did the same, falling into conversation in Ratharian about the events of the day. Lora found herself breathing a deep sigh of relief when the three of them finally finished and left her alone in the kitchen. ~What have I gotten myself into?~ she asked herself and then started cleaning up the breakfast mess.
After finishing with the breakfast mess, Lora decided to explore the house so she could plan her mode of attack. The foyer had received some attention at some point. The floor had been swept in the past week and someone had dusted the more obvious places. The wing to the left of the front door s displayed neglect similar to her bedchamber. Dust and dirty clung to everything. Her footprints were left in the dust on the floor that had taken years to accumulate.
The first floor of the wing to the right of the door showed signs of life, though Lora found herself despairing at the heavy cobwebs spanning the high corners and heavy once maroon drapes covering the towering windows that marched down the side of the dining room. She was pulling back one of the curtains to assess the condition of the windows when she heard a footfall behind her.
“The Master wishes to speak to you in his office, miss,” Quinn informed her as she turned from the grit covered panes. “If you would follow me,” he said stiffly. Turning he exited the room. Wiping her dust covered hands on her apron, Lora followed.
The Baron’s study was only two doors down from the dining hall’s main entrance. Quinn knocked and entered in an almost liquid movement. “Miss Guiania, sir,” he intoned and then retreated back out the door, closing it softly behind him.
Lora noted with surprise that this was the only room in the manor that looked remotely used. Webs still clung to the corners, but the furniture was dust free and polished. The thick rug beneath her feet was clean and the windows shone brightly in the mid morning sun. A fire was burning merrily in the wide fireplace and leaning back in the chair next to it reading intently a many-paged letter was her employer.
“I will be with you in a moment,” he informed her. Shuffling the pages in her hand he seemed to search for an item of interest on a previous page. Apparently finding it, he muttered something and then shoved the stack back into order. Rising he looked up at her.
“Quinn told me you have been wandering about the house like a lost lamb,” he said.
Straightening her shoulders, she lifted her chin. “I have been assessing the job and deciding where to begin.”
Nodding, he motioned for her to take the chair he had just risen from. “A sound idea,” he said as he set the letter on the desk and then leaned against it examining her. “This is a large house and I only need the use of part of it. As you have noticed, no one has been using the far wing for years. I myself have only been here three months. As housekeeper, I required you only maintain the rooms I need: the foyer, parlor, dining room and the passages between them. Quinn will maintain this room and my bedchamber next door.”
He motioned in the direction of a door that Lora assumed connected to the room to the right. “I will provide for any supplies that you might require. Just ask Quinn and he will pass your request on to me. Lachine will also be available for your use if you should need any heavy lifting or moving done. Do you have any questions?” His sharp gaze fastened onto her face. Suppressing the urge to squirm, Lora shook her head. She didn’t trust her voice to remain steady.
“Good,” the Baron said curtly as he straightened to his full height. “I have a guest arriving in four days for dinner; please see that we are prepared to receive him.” Apparently feeling the interview over, he turned and picked up one of the tomes sitting on the desk.
Rising to decrease the distance between her and his height, Lora cleared her throat. He looked at her over his shoulder.
Lora suddenly felt heat creeping up her cheeks. “Is the guest expected to stay the night?”
“No,” the Baron replied curtly and turned back to the book.
Taking that to be a dismissal, Lora crossed to the door and exited into the dim hall beyond. As soon as the latch caught, she released a sigh of relief. At least now she knew what was expected of her.
© 2005 Rachel Rossano
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