Wind Rider's Oath David Weber

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Chapter Six

"So, there you are, Leeana."

Leeana's not quite stealthy progress along the passageway stopped as she paused and looked over her shoulder. Although the dark-haired woman in the open doorway behind her leaned heavily on the silver-worked, ebony cane under her right hand, she also stood very straight. Her left hand held a book, closed on a place-marking index finger, and a pair of gold, wire-framed, dwarvish-made reading glasses had been pushed up onto the top of her head to get them out of the way. It was subtly apparent, despite her full gown, that her right hip was carried higher than her left and her right leg was frailer, less well-muscled and thin. Yet despite that, and despite the faint traceries of silver in her dark hair, she was still a beautiful woman, with a well-formed, high-bosomed figure Leeana had both admired and envied for as long as she could remember. She was taller than Dame Kaeritha, although not quite so tall as Leeana, and her eyes were exactly the same deep, jade-green as Leeana's.

"Good afternoon, Mother," Leeana said with a slight smile. "Ah, I don't suppose I could convince you to go back to your book until I finish sneaking into my room and change, could I?"

"No," Baroness Hanatha said thoughtfully. "I don't believe you could."

"I was afraid of that," Leeana sighed. She turned and walked back towards her mother, still carrying her dripping poncho over one arm.

"Did you enjoy your ride?" Hanatha asked politely as she stepped back through the doorway to her private sitting room and let her daughter past her.

"Yes, I did." Leeana crossed to the wrought iron fire screen in front of her mother's hearth and hung the wet poncho across it to dry. Then she turned back to face Hanatha, who gave her head a small, smiling shake and sank into a pleasantly overstuffed chair under the comfortable chamber's rain-streaming skylight.

"Where did you go?" she asked. The fire's soft noises and the patter of rain on the skylight formed a soothing backdrop for her voice, and Leeana rubbed her hands, holding them out to the fire's warmth.

"Down to the river and up the bank to Highwayman's Height."

"I remember," Hanatha said. She leaned back in the chair, eyes dreamy with memories. "Down that hollow by Jargham's Farm. Are the crocuses still blooming along the bank above the farm?"

"Yes." Leeana paused and stopped herself before she cleared her throat. "Yes, they are. Purple and yellow. Although," she smiled, "it looks as if the rain is trying to wash them away."

"I imagine so. And I imagine the river's running quite high, as well. Do tell me you weren't foolish enough to attempt the ford below the Height."

"Of course I wasn't!" Leeana gave her mother a slightly indignant look. "Nobody would be crazy enough to try that with the river a good twenty yards out of its banks on either side!"

"No?" Hanatha gazed at her daughter for several seconds, then cocked her head and smiled. "Your father and I were, the year before we were married. Although, now that I think about it, it was only about fifteen yards out of its banks when we did it."

Leeana stared at her mother in disbelief, and Hanatha looked back calmly.

"I can't believe you two would have done something like that!" Leeana said finally. "Not after the way both of you go on at me about the risk to the succession if anything should happen to me. Father was the heir to Balthar, not just the heir conveyant, you know!"

"Yes," Hanatha said thoughtfully. "I believe I was aware of that, now that you mention it. Although, to be fair, there was your Uncle Garlayn, at that point, so he wasn't precisely the only heir. And he did have several sturdy, healthy male cousins who might have succeeded him. But, yes, despite that, it was incredibly foolish of both of us. And, by the way, Leeana, it was my idea."

Leeana sank onto a footstool, facing her mother's chair, and stared at her. She'd heard stories all of her life about her mother's youthful, headstrong defiance of stifling convention. Given the way both her parents fussed over any minor infractions on her own part, she'd always secretly assumed most of those stories were exaggerated. After all, they'd all come to her second- or third-hand, through servants' gossip, and she was only too well aware of how the family retainers tended to embroider the family's adventures. More than that, Hanatha was deeply beloved by all of Duke Tellian's household. That gave all of them, and particularly the older ones, who remembered the laughing young noblewoman Tellian Bowmaster had brought home, a tendency to emphasize what an outrageous, perpetually racing about handful she'd been. Especially since she would never go racing about again.

But if her mother—the same mother who was constantly suggesting that perhaps Leeana might want to moderate her own lifestyle just a bit—had been crazy enough to talk her father into swimming their horses across a river in full springtime flood—!

"Yes," Hanatha said wryly, "I was that foolish, dear. And I was three years older than you are now. Which, I suppose, probably does make it seem just a little unfair for me to complain about your own high jinks, doesn't it?"

"I wouldn't say that," Leeana began, and her mother laughed.

"Oh, I should certainly hope not!" Her dark green eyes danced, and she leaned back in her chair. "You're much too good a daughter to throw my own youthful misdeeds into my teeth. But we both know you're thinking it, don't we?"

"Well . . . yes, I suppose I am," Leeana admitted, unable not to smile back at her.

"Of course you are. And I often thought your grandmother was dreadfully unfair when she took me to task for some dreadful lapse on my part. And to some extent, I imagine she was—just as I realize that I'm applying something of a double standard when I upbraid you. Unfortunately," she continued to smile, but her voice became more serious, "this business of being a parent sometimes does require us to be a bit unfair."

"I never thought you were really unfair," Leeana told her. "Not like Aunt Gayarla, for example."

"There's a difference between unfair and capricious, dear," Hanatha said. "And worthy as your father's sister-in-law is in many ways, I'm afraid she's always alternated between tyranny and overindulgence where your cousins are concerned. And it's gotten worse since Garlayn died. Indeed, I'm often surprised Trianal managed to turn out so well, although Staphos and— Well. Never mind."

She shook her head and returned to her original thread.

"No, Leeana. What I meant is that sometimes—more often than I would prefer, really—I find myself telling you not to do things since I know just how . . . unwise they are because, when I was your age, I did those very same things. I'm afraid it truly is a matter of experience and the burned hand teaching best. The way parents discover the things their children shouldn't do all too often turns out to be that they did the same things, made the same mistakes, they're trying to prevent their children from repeating. It's messy, and not a very organized way to go about things. Unfortunately, it seems to be the way that human beings' minds are arranged."

"Maybe it is, Mother," Leeana said slowly, after several seconds of careful consideration, "and I know I may be prejudiced, but I happen to think you turned out pretty well." Her mother snorted softly in obvious amusement, and Leeana smiled. But she also continued in the same serious tone of voice. "You and Father, more than anyone else I've ever met, seem to know exactly who you are and exactly what you mean to one another. And you don't just love each other—you laugh with each other. Sometimes just with your eyes, but I always know, and I love it so whenever you do. If making the same 'mistakes' makes me turn out just like you, I can't think of anything I'd rather have happen."

Hanatha's eyes softened, and she inhaled deeply. She studied her daughter's face, seeing the subtle merging of her own features and her husband's in the graceful bone structure and the strong, yet feminine nose, and she shook her head again, gently.

"Knowing you think that makes me a very proud woman, Leeana. But you aren't me. And who you are is a very wonderful person, someone your Father and I love almost more than life itself. I don't want you to be another me, like something turned out by one of Cook's cookie cutters. I want you to be you, and to live your own life. But even if you and I both wanted you to turn out exactly like me, it wouldn't happen. It can't, because you're your father's daughter . . . and because we can't have any more children."

Leeana bit the inside of her lip, hearing the echo of her own conversation with Dame Kaeritha, and unshed tears burned behind her eyes.

Her mother was still young, despite the silver strands pain and suffering had put into her hair, no more than a few years older than Kaeritha. She'd been only eighteen when she wed her husband, and Leeana had been born before her twenty-second birthday. If there'd been any true justice in the world, Leeana thought bitterly, her mother would have had at least two or three more children by now. For that matter, she would still have had time to have two or three more now. If only—

She stopped her thoughts and took herself sternly to task. Perhaps it was unjust, or at least unfair, that her mother had been injured so severely. And it was certainly a tragedy. But most women who'd suffered such injuries would have died. At the very least, they would have been completely crippled for whatever remained of their lives. But Hanatha Bowmaster was the Baroness of Balthar. The finest physicians in Balthar had attended her, and managed to keep her alive until a mage healer had arrived from the Sōthōfalas mage academy. And that healer had been escorted to Balthar by a fellow mage, a wind walker, which had gotten her there faster than even a courser might have.

But there were limits in all things, Leeana reminded herself. She'd heard the story of how Prince Bahzell had healed Brandark in his very first exercise of the healing power which was his as a champion of Tomanāk. Yet despite the touch of a very god, Brandark's truncated ear and missing fingers had not magically regrown. And just as they hadn't, the healer who had attended her mother almost four full days after the accident had been unable to restore full mobility to a leg which had been practically dead any more than she had been able to restore Baroness Hanatha's fertility.

"I know that, Mother," she said after a moment. "I wish you could, and not just because of any differences it might have made in my own life."

"Leeana," Hanatha said very gently, "we wish we might have had more children, too. But not because we could possibly have loved them more, or been more satisfied with them, than we've been with you. Yet the fact that you have no brothers is why you can't live your life the way I lived mine, and for that I apologize with all my heart."

Her green eyes glistened, and Leeana opened her mouth to reject any need for her mother to apologize for something over which no one but the gods themselves had any power. But Hanatha shook her head, stopping her before she spoke.

"I ought to have encouraged your Father to seek a divorce and take another wife," she said very softly. "I knew it at the time, too. But I couldn't, Leeana. I wasn't that strong. And even if I had been, I knew in my heart that there was no way I could have convinced him to. And so, whatever you may think, he and I do owe you an apology for the way our own selfish decisions have constrained your life."

"Don't be foolish, Mother!" Leeana said fiercely. "If Father had been able to set you aside so easily, I certainly wouldn't be the person I am now, because I love him. And I wouldn't love a man who could do that. Of course there are things about my life I'd change if I could! I think that must be true of anyone. But I would never, ever have wanted them changed if the price had been to separate you and Father. Never!"

"No wonder I love you so much." Hanatha's tone was light, almost whimsical, but her eyes glowed, and Leeana smiled. They sat for several more moments in silence, and then Hanatha cleared her throat.

"At any rate," she said more briskly, "the reason I was lurking in the hall to intercept you, was to chide you for doing something we both know you love to do and also knew you shouldn't be doing."

"I know that, Mother, but—"

"There are no buts, Leeana," her mother said with stern compassion. "Perhaps there ought to be, but there aren't. You simply cannot do things like taking long, solitary rides. Dressing as you are right now—" she waved one hand at Leeana's leather trousers and worn-out smock "—would be bad enough in the eyes of most of your peers, but that much, at least, I'm not prepared to deny you. I want you to begin dressing more as befits your station and your age for normal wear, or when we have guests. But for stable tasks or garden work, or hacking about the countryside, comfortable clothes—if, perhaps, somewhat less worn out than the ones you have on now—are fine with me."

Leeana let out a deep breath of half-relief, but her mother wasn't done, and she continued in that same gently implacable tone.

"But one thing I am going to insist upon, Leeana. And if you can't agree to accept it, then I'm afraid you won't be taking any rides anywhere except under your Father's direct supervision."

Leeana swallowed apprehensively. She could count on the fingers of her hands the number of times her mother had issued such a flat decree of authority.

"You will never again go riding without at least Tarith in attendance," Hanatha told her. "Never, do you understand, Leeana?"

"But, Mother—"

"I said there are no buts this time," her mother interrupted firmly. "I don't intend to be any more unreasonable than I have to be, but I do intend to be obeyed. I've also spoken to Tarith about it." Tarith Shieldarm was Leeana's personal armsman, and had been since she learned to walk. "He understands that I do not expect him to play the role of informant. I need for you to be able to trust him, as you always have, and so I've instructed him that he is not to discuss your comings and goings with me or with your father so long as he's certain none of those comings and goings are without him. That, I hope I need not add, applies only here in Balthar. Here, everyone knows you and we can be relatively confident of your safety with only Tarith to look after you. We cannot be certain of that elsewhere, however, and I will expect Tarith's duty to safeguard you to take precedence over his responsibility to respect your confidences."

Leeana looked at her mother with dismay. She knew Tarith would die to protect her, and that he would respect and protect her privacy and the confidentiality of anything she said to him up to the very limits of his oath of fealty to her father. He was in every sense except blood itself a member of her family, a beloved uncle whose protectiveness might sometimes be exasperating, but whose devotion and rocklike reliability were beyond the very possibility of question. Yet her mother's -decision—and Leeana knew an unyielding decision when she heard one from the baroness—meant an end to any true privacy. Worse, it was a gentle, loving declaration that she would no longer be allowed to fool herself, even briefly, into forgetting that she was the heir conveyant of Balthar and the West Riding.

Tears gleamed on her eyelashes, and her mother sighed.

"I'm sorry, Leeana," she said regretfully. "I wish I could let you ride anywhere you wanted, with or without a guard. But I can't, love. Not even here in Balthar, anymore. The situation with your father, and the Council, and this business with Prince Bahzell and his father . . ." She shook her head. "There are too many enemies, Leeana. Too many people who would strike at your father any way they can. And it wasn't so many years ago that abductions and forced marriages were accepted, even if they were looked upon more than a little askance. I honestly don't think anyone would be stupid enough to believe for an instant that your father would allow any man who dared to touch you against your will to live, under any circumstances. But some of his enemies are almost as powerful, or even fully as powerful, as he. Some of them singly, some running as packs. I will not risk your safety at a time like this."

Leeana inhaled deeply as she heard the flat, unwavering determination of Hanatha's last sentence. Her mother was right, and she knew it, however little she liked it. Indeed, any other mother and father in the same position would probably have locked her up in one of Hill Guard's towers long ago. Yet that made the draught no less bitter on the tongue.

"You understand what I'm saying, and why?" her mother asked after a moment, and Leeana nodded.

"Yes, Ma'am," she said. "I hate it, but I understand it. And I don't hate you because of it."

"Thank you for that," Hanatha said softly.

"I wish—" Leeana began, then closed her mouth.

"You wish what, dear?" her mother prompted after a second or two.

"I don't know," Leeana said, feeling the hearth fire warm against her back as she sat on the stool at her mother's feet. She closed her eyes and shook her head slowly. "I wish it didn't have to be this way. I wish I could be who I am and still be someone else, someone who could do and be what she wanted to . . . and who didn't have to worry about someone else's using her as a weapon against her family."

"I don't blame you, darling," her mother said with a tiny smile. "But you can't, any more than your father or I can."

"I know." Leeana opened her eyes and returned her mother's smile. "I know, Momma. And I'll try to be good, really I will."

"You've always been good, even when you were bad," her mother said with a small, sad chuckle. "I'm not asking for miraculous changes in your behavior or who you are. I'm only insisting that you be careful, as well."

"I'll try," Leeana repeated.

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