Wind Rider's Oath David Weber

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Chapter Twenty-One


"Leeana, this is Garlahna Lorhanalfressa. She'll be your mentor during your probationary period."

Leeana saw a very young war maid, no more than six years older than she was. Garlahna was considerably shorter than Leeana, with brown hair and brown eyes. She looked as if she ought to be smiling, but at the moment her expression and body language were soberly attentive, almost brusquely businesslike. She stood at a sort of parade rest, feet slightly spread and hands clasped behind her, her attention evenly divided between Leeana and Erlis Rahnafressa. Erlis was the fair-haired, brown-eyed Commander of One Hundred—roughly equivalent to the rank of captain in the Empire of the Axe's Royal and Imperial Army—who appeared to be in charge of training new war maid . . . recruits. At forty-three, she was a bit old for her rank, but she looked like a competent, no-nonsense sort of person. Perhaps the left arm she'd lost just above the elbow explained why she'd risen no higher in rank. She reminded Leeana a great deal of a female version of Sir Jahlahan Swordspinner.

The three of them stood in the soggy grass behind the roofed exercise salle, and Leeana felt as if she'd dressed inappropriately for a formal party. She wore the leather trousers and smock her mother had deplored with increasing frequency, yet this time she was the one who seemed dreadfully overdressed for the occasion. Erlis and Garlahna both wore the traditional war maid chari and yathu. The former was a short green kilt which fell barely to mid-thigh, and the latter was something which might have been described (in a moment of extreme charity) as a short, abbreviated—very abbreviated—bodice. But it wasn't boned and happened to be made out of fabric-lined, glove-supple leather. Whereas the main support of a regular bodice came from below, with little or no weight actually bearing on the shoulders, the yathu was equipped with buckle-adjustable shoulder straps which crossed on the wearer's shoulder blades. It was shorter, snugger, and stronger than any conventional "bodice" Leeana had ever seen. She could see where that support might come in handy, she supposed, but she hardly needed it. Not yet, at least. Garlahna, on the other hand, although shorter than Leeana, was considerably bustier, which her yathu made amply—one might almost have said abundantly—apparent.

Although Leeana had heard tales of the "licentious" and "shocking" war maid garments, she'd never actually seen them until she reached Kalatha, and she found herself somewhat in two minds about them. They certainly seemed practical enough, but still . . . The fact that both war maids were also barefoot, despite the chilly spring breeze and the muddy footing, whereas she still wore her riding boots, didn't make her feel one bit less overdressed, either.

"Garlahna, this is Leeana Hanathafressa," Erlis continued calmly, and Leeana's entire body tensed.

Her concern for anything as unimportant as what she might or might not be wearing vanished instantly, and her head twitched as it tried to whip around towards Erlis. She stopped herself in time, but it was hard, hard. It was the first time anyone had ever called her that, and the loss of her father's name hit her like an axe. Yet she'd known it was coming. Every war maid was known legally by her mother's given name, not whatever surname she might have borne before she became a war maid. It wasn't as if Leeana had a choice—she didn't—or as if she didn't love her mother or hated to be known as Hanatha's daughter. But she still felt as if in that moment, when Erlis first used her matronym, she had somehow abandoned her father, and it hurt. Perhaps it hurt even more because, in a way, some small, deeply hidden piece of her insisted that that was precisely what she had done.

But much as it hurt, she refused to let herself look at Erlis in either surprise or pain. And certainly not in anger. She suspected that her reaction to that first, abrupt use of her new name was a test, or at least a part of the training process she was about to begin.

"I'm pleased to meet you, Leeana," Garlahna said after a moment. Her voice was deeper than Leeana's, with a musical throatiness. "I hope I can help you settle in here reasonably comfortably."

Leeana did glance at Erlis this time, out of the corner of her eye, and the Hundred nodded.

"Thank you . . . Garlahna," Leeana said then. "I hope I can fit in quickly, but—" she flashed a small smile "—I wonder if any new war maid ever really settles in comfortably."

She heard something suspiciously like a smothered snort from Erlis' direction, and Garlahna grinned. Then she smoothed the smile quickly from her expression and nodded with appropriate sobriety.

"It does come as quite a shock for most of us, whatever we expected ahead of time," she agreed.

"Most of us survive it, though," Erlis put in dryly, and Leeana looked back at her.

"And you'll have your opportunity to begin surviving it first thing tomorrow morning, Leeana," the Hundred continued briskly. "You'll be joining us for calisthenics at dawn. Once you've had a chance to warm up, I'll evaluate the level of your current general physical skills. After breakfast, you'll have your first session with Ravlahn—that's Ravlahn Thregafressa, my assistant arms master—and me. We'll see where you are in terms of self-defense and -weapons skills. Then, after lunch," Erlis continued, apparently oblivious to Leeana's reaction, "you'll have an hour or two with Lanitha Sarthayafressa. She's our archivist, but she's also the principal of our school here in Kalatha. She'll evaluate your basic literacy, your math ability, and your general knowledge. That should take you to an hour or so before supper, and you'll be assigned to one of the dining hall crews for that. I'm not sure which of the cooks will be in charge of the kitchen, but Garlahna will be responsible for finding that out and seeing to it that you report in the right place at the right time."

She paused and smiled at Leeana, possibly with a tiny edge of compassion.

"Any questions?" she asked then.

"Ah, no, Hundred Erlis," Leeana replied after a moment spent womanfully throttling the dozens of questions she wanted to ask.

"Good." Leeana thought she might detect a trace of approval in Erlis' eyes, but if she had, the hundred let no sign of it show in her voice or expression. "In that case, I'll leave you with Garlahna."

She nodded briskly, turned on her heel, and strode away, leaving the two young women alone.

* * *

Leeana stood gazing at Garlahna while butterflies seemed to circle one another in some sort of intricate dance in her midsection. She felt a fluttery-pulsed uncertainty she was not accustomed to, and none of the social formulae or skills she'd been taught as a baron's daughter offered her any hint about what to do next.

"So, Leeana," Garlahna said before the awkward pause could stretch too long. "I suppose we'd better see about your room assignment and getting you settled in." She smiled. "Trust me—you won't have time to do any of it tomorrow!"

"That's how it sounded to me, too," Leeana admitted with a wan smile.

"Oh, don't let Hundred Erlis' act fool you," Garlahna said cheerfully. "It's lots worse than she makes it sound!"

"Oh, thank you!" Leeana replied, and found herself sharing a tension-soothing laugh with her "mentor."

She stood back mentally to give Garlahna a quick examination. She'd already noted the other young woman's broad, somewhat rustic accent, although Garlahna's grammar was much better than she would have expected from that accent. Garlahna was from somewhere in the eastern part of the West Riding, she guessed, near the Spear River, and her parents had probably been small freeholders, or the retainers of one of her father's minor lords. As such, the social gulf between their births could not possibly have yawned wider, yet Garlahna seemed totally unaware that she was speaking to the only child of the Lord Warden of the West Riding. Which, Leeana conceded, was as it ought to be, because she no longer was her parents' child—not legally, at any rate. But it was still interesting that Garlahna could manage that disassociation between who she now was and who she once had been.

"You're welcome," Garlahna told her, once their shared laughter had eased. Then she waved one hand in a small, dismissive gesture.

"Don't worry about it too much, Leeana. All of us have had to survive it somehow. In some ways, it's almost like a kind of ceremony—a trial by combat, I guess you might call it—before we're really war maids. Actually," she wrinkled her nose as she gave Leeana a critical, evaluating glance, "I kind of suspect you'll do better than most of us. At least you've got the legs for speed, which is more than I ever did. And," she grinned again, "you're nowhere near as top-heavy as I am!"

Leeana felt the very tips of her ears heat and was just as happy her hair covered them. There was, she noted, just a hint of complacency in Garlahna's voice.

"I hope I won't disappoint you," she said after a heartbeat. "But, not wanting to change the subject, or anything, I do have one other question."

"Ask away," Garlahna invited.

"What do I do about my horse?"

"Your horse?" Garlahna sounded surprised.

"Yes," Leeana said. "My horse."

"You've got a horse?" Garlahna shook her head.

"What's so surprising about that?" Leeana asked, her voice just a bit cautious.

"Is it really yours?" Garlahna countered, and for some reason, she sounded even more cautious than Leeana had.

"Of course he's mine. Why?"

"I mean, does he belong to you, or to Baron Tellian?"

"He—" Leeana began, then paused. "He was a gift from my—from . . . Baron Tellian," she said after a long moment. "On my twelfth birthday."

"Did he actually give you its ownership papers?" Garlahna's tone had taken on more than a hint of sympathy, and Leeana shook her head.

"No," she admitted, feeling tears sting the backs of her eyes. "Boots has been my horse for over two years now. Everyone knew it. I guess . . . I guess the Baron never saw any reason why he had to formally present me with his papers."

"Then he's not legally yours, Leeana," Garlahna said gently. She shook her head and reached out to lay a sympathetic hand on Leeana's shoulder. "It happens, sometimes," she went on quietly. "Most of the time when someone gets here with a horse, there's someone chasing her who can hardly wait to take it away again. And it always turns out that legally, she never owned it at all."

Leeana stared at her while she tried to cope with a sudden, vicious stab of pain. She'd known she would be giving up her entire life, everything she'd ever owned and everyone she'd ever known. Yet, somehow, she'd never thought about giving up Boots. He was . . . he was part of her life. Her friend, not "just" her horse. And . . . and . . .

And part of all she'd left behind, she thought wretchedly. She'd managed somehow to overlook that. But perhaps she hadn't overlooked it. Perhaps she'd just pretended that she had. Because deep inside, she'd known—she'd always known. It was just the suddenness of being forced to confront the knowledge, she told herself. The abrupt amputation.

"I—" She shook herself. "I never thought about that," she said in a valiantly normal tone which fooled neither her nor Garlahna. "Do you think I could have a few minutes to tell him goodbye before they take him away?"

"We can ask," Garlahna promised her. "But I wouldn't get my hopes up too much. Your fa—" It was her turn to stop herself short. Her eyes met Leeana's, and she smiled apologetically. "Baron Tellian will probably be in a hurry to head home, Leeana."

She paused again, then looked around, as if to make certain no one was within earshot, before she leaned closer to Leeana.

"I really shouldn't tell you this," she said conspiratorially, "but Baron Tellian was furious when the Mayor told him he couldn't see you because of your probationary status. We're not supposed to know about anything that went on between them, but one of my friends had an errand to run to Sharral for Hundred Erlis. She was in Sharral's office when the Baron got here, and she could hear him through the door."

She grimaced and rolled her eyes.

"Actually, I think everyone in the building could probably hear him! That happens pretty often in a case like this. In fact, when someone from a new war maid's family turns up, they're usually spitting lightning and farting thunder—" her eyes twinkled at something in Leeana's expression "—as Hundred Erlis would put it," she finished the sentence demurely. Then she shook her head.

"But that's normally because they're so pissed off that she's run away from them and gotten to one of our towns before they could catch up with her. And that wasn't why the Baron was mad. He was mad because they wouldn't let the two of you say goodbye to each other. Or, that's what my friend Tarisha said, anyway."

Tears flooded Leeana's eyes, and Garlahna squeezed her shoulder.

"The thing is," she continued gently, "that I don't think he's going to stay even overnight. I don't think he'll want to be this close to you when you can't even speak to each other. So I'm afraid he'll be gone before you could say goodbye to your horse, either."

"I see," Leeana half-whispered. Then she wiped her eyes with her hand, quickly, almost angrily. "I see," she repeated more normally. "And . . . thank you for telling me."

"You're welcome," Garlahna said. "Just don't tell Hundred Erlis I did!" She grinned hugely. "She'd skin me out and tan my hide for shoe leather if she knew I was blabbing to a probationary candidate about something like that!"

"Oh, we couldn't have that!" Leeana reassured her with a watery giggle.

"Thanks. And, I know it may not make you feel any better about your horse—Boots?—but it's probably actually for the best, you know. I never had a horse of my own, but I know how much work they take. And how much they cost to feed!" Garlahna grimaced. "If you got to keep him, you'd have to take care of him yourself."

Leeana felt herself stiffen slightly, and Garlahna shook her head quickly.

"I'm not saying you didn't already do that at home. Although, I'd be willing to bet you probably didn't have to muck out his stall yourself, did you?" she added shrewdly, and Leeana felt herself forced to shake her head.

"Well, you'd have to do that, too, here," Garlahna told her. "And, believe me, you're not going to have enough time to breathe, much less take care of horses, for the next couple of weeks! And even if you were, I'll bet you don't have any money with you. Or, at least, not enough to pay for a horse's stable space and food."

"No," Leeana admitted, "I don't. But," she added gamely, "I'm sure I could find some way to earn it!"

"Welllll, I suppose it's possible," Garlahna allowed. "There's always extra chores that need doing, and we can usually pick up the odd extra kormak for doing them. But like I say, it's not like you'd have time to be doing them."

"You're probably right," Leeana sighed.

"No 'probably' about it," Garlahna snorted. "I am right about it. But," she continued more briskly, "we shouldn't be standing here chattering away. Hundred Erlis will kick my backside if I don't get you squared away before dinner, so come on! Over to Administration for your room assignment first, and then over to Housekeeping for bed linens. And," she grinned wickedly, "to get rid of those tacky clothes you're wearing and get you measured for your own chari and yathu."




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