Andrien stood on the very top of the gatehouse, looking over the hustle and bustle of the arriving nobles.  He was glad to be home if he was entirely honest with himself.  Traveling was nice and he’d seen sights he’d never expected to see before, however it was also tiring.  His back and legs still ached from the riding and walking he’d done on his journey.

The crenelations came to the middle of most men, making them come to almost chest level on him.  He leaned on the wall, secure in the knowledge that none of his father’s noble visitors could see him.  The Northhunters had arrived, he could see the running wolf emblem on their cloaks and the shields of their knights.  If they’d arrived then they were going to accept the king’s suit for peace between their two houses.

The Runecasters and Northhunters had been battling one another for longer than he had memory.  He sighed and pushed away from the wall.  His father would wonder where he was.  If he absented himself for too long, he’d be punished.

Andrien made for the south staircase.  Someone had modified it at some point in the past – some ancestor or other with too much time on his hands – such that the steps were much less steep than most in the castle.  If he asked the magister the man would likely bore him to tears with some old story so he’d simply decided that someone in the family’s past had been as short as he was.

His father would be furious if he ever mentioned that notion, but it soothed his bruised ego when he ran up the only flight of stairs in the entire castle that he could easily climb to get away from everyone – his sister and father especially.

“Father’s looking for you,” a cheerful voice greeted him as he rounded the corner at the base of the steps.  He looked up into the grinning face of his older brother, an honored member of the king’s guard.

“Here I am,” Andrien said.

“Walk with me,” Georgi said as he turned his steps toward the bailey.

“Take small steps,” Andrien said.  He fell into step – mostly – with his much taller older brother.  There was a difference of more than five hands between them in height.  He couldn’t possibly match the man’s stride.

It took longer than Georgi would have liked but they arrived in the bailey and came to stand behind their father.  The Northhunter’s delegation was already standing opposite them – the Lord and Lady Northhunter, their children, knights and men-at-arms.  He darted a glance at his father and caught a look that promised a good clout later if not a beating.  His father would never beat him if there were guests.

The king stood between the two parties.  He was a boyhood friend of Lord Northhunter and kin by marriage to the Runecasters.  It was within his best interests that peace be made between the two warring families.  “The feud between the Runecaster family and Northhunters threatens to bring the whole realm into civil war,” he said.  Andrien wasn’t entirely certain that the circumstances were that dire but he kept his mouth shut for once.  “Traditionally, the method for restoring peace between two such families is to join them in marriage.”

“Runecaster’s children are grown,” Lady Northhunter said.  “Ours are little more than children.”

“My youngest son is still unwed,” his father said.

Andrien startled and whirled to face him.  “Father!” he started.  He looked down, away from the stern look on his father’s face.  “Even their eldest daughter is still a little girl.”

“I’m not a little girl,” the girl in question said.  “I’m almost fifteen.”

“Even at her age she’s taller than you,” his sister murmured.  “Maybe it’s for the best.  You’ll need a stepladder for a fully grown woman.”

“I do just fine with fully grown women,” Andrien growled.  “I’ll be twenty-seven on my next naming day.  She’s young enough that she could nearly be my own daughter.”

“That will do, Andrien,” his father said.  His voice was soft.  The other assembled nobles likely didn’t hear the danger in the tone.  Andrien did, however.  He sighed and nodded, just once, to show he understood.  He’d pushed his father far enough.  “If your majesty requires a marriage to join our families in peace, my youngest son is amicable to the idea.”

“Amicable, yes,” Andrien agreed.  His tone was more resigned than anything.  He looked up at the girl who he was to be betrothed to.  She was pretty, with a promise of beauty as she grew to womanhood.  Her dark auburn hair was loose save for a pair of braids, one at each temple, which were drawn back to form a sort of headband.  Her eyes were wide and dark, but not round.  They were shaped much like a pair of half-moons, laid sideways.  A smattering of freckles danced over her nose and cheeks.

He eyes widened a fraction as she realized what was going on.  “I’m being betrothed?” she asked.

“So it would seem,” Lord Northhunter said.  “Shall we three discuss this in a more private setting?”  He sent a keen gaze toward the king.

“As you wish.”  The king led them away, his wife followed until both he and her father waved her away.  She turned back with a scowl at Andrien.

Andrien spun away, pointedly ignoring her.  He looked instead up at Lady Northhunter.  “My lady,” he said, keeping his tone deferential.  “It would seem you will soon enough be my mother-in-law.  It were best if we got to know one another better.  A walk in the garden, perhaps?”

“I suppose,” she said.  “Come along, Darina,” she added.  She smiled at the rest of her children and added, “Stay with the guards.”

Andrien led the way to the walled garden that wasn’t far from where the crowd milled in the bailey.  Once away from prying eyes, he relaxed a bit.  “A gift, is she?” he murmured.

“What?” Darina asked.

“Your name means gift in the old tongue,” he said.  He paused to look across a still pool.  Tiny fish swam beneath the placid waters.  He heaved a sigh and looked up at her.  “Are you scared?” he asked.  “You’ll be wed to… well, everyone here calls me a monster.”

“I’m not scared,” she said.  Her tone was firm enough but she held herself as far as she could from him while still standing not two feet away.

“You’re no monster,” Lady Northhunter said.  She caught him beneath the chin and looked him over.  “Handsome enough,” she said, “Even with that scar across your cheek and nose.”

“How’d you come by it?” Darina wanted to know.  She was curious in spite of herself, he could tell.  Andrien was old enough that most men his age were battle-seasoned, especially men from their houses.

“Battle,” he said.  “My first and last.”  He sighed.  “The breaking of the Siege of Kingsford – the reason why the king seeks to make peace now.  He can’t afford to have war both within and without.  If he can’t end the one, he must end the other.”

“I heard that you were instrumental in breaking the Siege,” Lady Northhunter said.

“I’ve studied strategy extensively.  Books teach facts and figures, but not much about blood and pain.”  He shook his head.  “I made a foolish gamble and it paid off.”  He looked between the two and sighed.  “I can’t say what the future will bring, my lady, but I make you this promise: on my honor, dubious as many may hold it, I will never hurt your daughter.”

“I thank you for your promise,” Lady Northhunter said.  She looked up, beyond him.  “It appears the meeting has already finished.”

“Then, I suppose, we’d best rejoin them.”  Andrien moved with as much speed as he could back to the entrance of the garden.  He could still feel the heat of his father’s gaze upon him.  The old fox always suspected plots, even when there was none.  He dearly hoped that the Northhunters would be careful around the old man.

“The arrangements have been made, satisfactory to both houses,” the king said.  “The formal betrothal ceremony will take place this very evening.”

“My elder son will show you to suitable quarters,” his father said.  “Andrien, a word with you.  You should know what will be expected of you in the ceremony.”

“Yes, Father,” Andrien said.  In moments they were alone in the garden.  He started to turn away but was brought up short by a strong grip on his arm.  He closed his eyes briefly.  It was best if his father didn’t know that he was afraid. “Father?” he said, keeping his voice steady.

“What exactly were you discussing with Lady Northhunter?” he asked, his voice was dangerously soft.

“Nothing really,” Andrien started.  He cried out as the larger man squeezed his elbow joint.  In spite of himself, he struggled and protested, “It hurts, Father.  Please.”

“What were you discussing?” he repeated.  His voice was only slightly louder now – still not loud enough to draw a crowd or even stares from passersby.

“My role in the breaking the Siege and I… promised her I’d never hurt her daughter.  That’s all.”  He tried once again to break free from his father’s grasp but the motion hurt.  He felt the bones in his elbow grinding together as the older man’s grip tightened.  “There was nothing more, I swear it. ”  He bit back a plea.  The older Runecaster would only be angrier if he thought his son was sniveling, no matter the pain he was in.

He met his father’s eyes just in time to catch the familiar look that always preceded a clouting and shifted his weight just enough to only receive a glancing blow.  Still, he stumbled as his father released him.  He stood, rubbing at his elbow and doing his best not to glare.

“You will be a proper husband to Lady Darina, Andrien.  It’s past time you were married anyway,” Father scolded.

Now his anger got the better of him.  “I was married, if you’ll recall.  You didn’t approve of her because she was a commoner but I was married.”

“She wasn’t a simple commoner.  She was a whore only after your name and money,” his father argued.  “That marriage was annulled and I’ll hear no more of it.  You will bed the little Northhunter and get her with child and the we’ll see to it that you inherit her father’s holding.”

“She has an older brother,” Andrien pointed out.  He felt his eyes widen in realization.  “The king is forcing me into this marriage to make a peace between our houses, not so you can grab more land and power,” he snapped.

He had enough time to realize that he’d pushed his father too far before the first blow fell.  By the time the older man was finished, he was on the ground, hands raised defensively, his eyes closed and head bowed.  His father stood panting over him.  “Get up,” he growled.  “Get yourself dressed.  The formal betrothal will be tonight.”

“Yes Father,” Andrien breathed.  He scrambled to his feet, nearly falling again as his injured elbow almost gave under him.  “By your leave, I’ll visit the magister first.”

“Go get dressed,” his father repeated.  “You aren’t so frail as that.”

“Yes, Father.”  Andrien bowed and spun away.  He moved as fast as he could back to the bailey and then into the gatehouse.  He would not cry in front of the servants to let word get back to his father.  Instead, he went up the one flight of stairs in the whole castle that he could easily mount.  He reached the uppermost floor faster than he dreamed possible and plopped down, cradling his elbow in one hand.  Tears blurred his vision but he dashed them away.

“So stupid,” he growled.  “Stupid bastard.”

“That’s not very nice,” a young sounding voice said from above him.  He looked up both startled and embarrassed at having been caught.  Before him was a little girl, like enough in looks to his betrothed that she must be a younger sister.  “Are you crying?  But adults don’t cry.”

Andrien surged to his feet and spun away.  “I’m not crying,” he snapped.

“Did you hurt your elbow?  Is that why you’re crying?” the girl persisted.

“I’m not crying,” he repeated.

“You should have the magister look at it.  It looks all swollen and red.  It must hurt a lot.  I’d cry too but I’m just a little girl.”

He spun to face her.  “I’m not crying,” he shouted, his voice cracking.  “My father said I wasn’t to see a magister.  I’m meant to be getting dressed for my betrothal.”

“Up here?” the girl asked.  She looked around, a frown puckering her lips.

“No, obviously not,” Andrien snapped.  “I’m disobeying him because I wanted to get away from everyone and quickly and I can’t climb any stairs except the south staircase of the gatehouse quickly enough.”  He heaved a sigh and spun away.  “Gods what a family I’m marrying into.  My wife will be terrified of me and my sister-at-law will be vexing in a way that no one has ever been before.”

“Allie?” a soft voice said from the north staircase.

“Here’s another one,” Andrien said.  “She’s up here.  Please take her with you so I can have some privacy.”

Wide gray eyes met his and the young man who’d been looking for Allie came fully into view.  He could only be Lord Emil, the Northhunter heir.  “Sorry if Albena was bothering you, Lord Andrien” he said.  “She’s curious and wanted to explore.”

“He’s meant to be getting dressed for his betrothal,” Albena said.

His brows twitched and he frowned in a vexingly similar expression to his younger sister.  “Up here?” he asked.

“No, not up here, obviously!” Andrien shouted.  “Gods, help me.”  He spun away and went back down the steps to the bailey.  His steps didn’t slow until he was in the keep and heading up to the second floor.  He set a hand on the banister to aid climbing the over-steep staircase and gasped as pain lanced down his arm.

He sat on the steps, clutching at his elbow and breathing slowly as he tried to master the pain.  After a moment he stood and started to reach out to grasp the banister once more.  As the pain shot through his arm again he cursed and leaned on the banister.

“Are you hurt, my lord?” a soft voice, holding the accent distinctive to the north, said from behind him.  Andrien spun around so fast that he stumbled off the steps.  He would have fallen had the speaker not caught him.  “Are you hurt?” Lord Northhunter asked once more.

Brown eyes met blue and Andrien looked away quickly.  “I fell,” he said, using his usual excuse.  “I’m clumsy.  Father says it’s not serious and I must get dressed for the betrothal feast.”

“Let’s get you up to your rooms then and I’ll send the magister to you so he can see to it.  Even wounds that aren’t serious should be seen to, lest they become more severe.”  He offered his arm to Andrien and helped him up the steep flight of stairs.

He moved slowly and with infinitely more patience than anyone had ever shown Andrien.  Soon enough, they reached the top of the stairs and Andrien stepped back.  “Thank you,” he said, his voice even softer than usual.  His eyes darted around for a moment as he searched for words.  No one had ever been so patient with him, even his older brother would hurry him on the stairs.  “My rooms are just down there.  The magister knows them.”

“I’ll send him up to you then.  Until the feast.”  Lord Northhunter inclined his head and took his leave.  It wouldn’t be hard for him to find the magister, even in an unfamiliar castle.  They were nearly always in one of the towers, or a set of rooms, often on the south side of the keep.

Andrien went to his rooms and paused at the looking glass.  Albena had been right in her assessment of his arm.  It was swollen and red.  He sighed and went to his wardrobe.  Using his left hand, he was able to pull out a crisp white dress tunic, dark red robe and slacks of a darker red.  The robe’s hems were trimmed with tiny running lions, reminiscent of the lion on his family’s crest.

He started to pull the tunic he was wearing off but was stymied by the pain in his elbow.  Behind him the door opened and he turned to find not just the magister but Lord Northhunter and his elder brother entering the room.

“Fell down again, Andrien?” Georgi asked.  “Did you break anything this time?”

“I’m having trouble moving my arm,” Andrien replied.  “I’ll need help dressing.”

“I’ll send for a servant.”  His brother departed, leaving him alone with the magister and his prospective father-in-law.

“Between the swelling and inability to move it, you might have dislocated your elbow,” the magister said.  The old man knelt down beside him and manipulated his arm slightly.  He nodded briskly and looked up at Lord Northhunter.  “My lord, if you would, hold him firmly.  I’ll need to move the joint back into alignment.”

Andrien stiffened as Lord Northhunter knelt beside him.  “Breathe,” he murmured to himself.  He leaned most of his weight on the older man, who was truthfully not much older than his elder brother, and closed his eyes.

He felt a strangely hot sensation in his elbow and then the pain of the bones moving back into place.  In spite of his best efforts, the pain was enough to send him to his knees and draw out a muffled cry.  In moments it was over.  The intense stabbing pain had eased to a dull throb and he opened his eyes to realized that he was sitting in Lord Northhunter’s lap.  “Sorry,” he breathed, starting to move to his feet.

“Let the magister bind it first, young one,” the northerner admonished.

Andrien felt heartily embarrassed by the position he’d put himself in but held his peace.  He watched as the magister wrapped binding cords from his upper arm, over his elbow to his lower arm.

“Those must remain in place for at least a week, my lord,” the old man said.  He held out a hand and eased Andrien to his feet.  “Did you strike your head when you fell this time?”

“No,” Andrien said quickly.  “Just my arm, this time.”

“Lord Andrien seems to fall quite often, especially when his father is frustrated with him,” the magister said.

Andrien felt his eyes widen and he fought the urge to shout at the man to shut his mouth.  Instead he looked away, shaking his head.  “Thank you both for your help,” he said briskly.

“Do you still have the sling that I gave you the last time you hurt your arm, my lord?” the magister asked.  “That was only about two months ago, as I recall.  The time before that you concussed yourself.”

“Yes, yes, that will do,” he snapped.  “I need to dress for dinner.”  He looked up as the door opened.  “Here is the servant that my brother found.  If you’ll excuse me?”

“Good day then,” the magister said.  He stood slowly and made his way out of the room.  Lord Northhunter paused to incline his head before he also left the room.

Georgi entered as they were leaving and settled on a chair as the servant began helping Andrien out of his clothes.  “Father managed to dislocate your elbow this time?” he said.

“Don’t you start too,” he murmured.  “The magister was practically telling Lord Northhunter all about how he abuses me.”

“There’s no one here but us two,” his brother said.

“Is the servant deaf or dumb, Brother?” he asked.

“Neither.  He’s a servant.”  His brother grinned and cast a glance at the young man who was now helping Andrien on with his tunic.  “He won’t talk about what we’re discussing.”

“Of course not, because servants never gossip,” Andrien said, sarcasm heavy in his tone.  “So, is my bride moving in with me or am I going to live in the North?”

“What and finally move out from under our father’s thumb?  You know he won’t allow that, little brother.”  He looked around and smiled.  “They’ll move you into bigger rooms finally, so there’s space for you and your bride and any… little ones that come along.”

“People can dream,” Andrien murmured, focusing on moving out from under his father’s thumb and not the notion of having children with a girl almost half his age.  He sighed and in spite of his admonitions to his brother about speaking freely in front of the servants, said, “He means for me to inherit the Northhunter’s holding, you know.”

“Brilliant trick if he could pull that off,” Georgi said wryly.  “They have three sons, two are younger than your intended but still… that’s about as likely as pigs flying or you growing another four or five hands in height.  It would be quite the coup if he managed it though.  He does realize that it would mean you’d have to move there, doesn’t he?”

“But then I’d owe him, Brother, and we always pay our debts,” Andrien said.  He waved the servant away as he went to find the sling that the magister had given him the last time he’d hurt his arm.  “He’s going to be furious when he sees my arm in a sling.  He didn’t want me to see the magister in the first place.”

“Then he shouldn’t have dislocated your elbow,” his brother snapped.

“Now, now, I fell,” Andrien pointed out.  “It dislocated when I fell.  Our dear, dear father had nothing to do with that.”

“Pigs have started flying now, have they?” Georgi said.  He turned and looked out the window.  “I do not understand how you put up with the way that he and Sister treat you.”

Andrien pulled the sling out of a drawer and turned toward his bed but found his brother already there.  “Let me help you with that,” the older man said.  “It feels better, right?”

“I’m fine, Brother,” Andrien assured him.  “Father is going to be furious.”  He looked away as Georgi adjusted the fall of the fabric and clipped the portion of material behind his elbow so the sling wouldn’t slide.  “How are we going to handfast if my right hand is in a sling?”

“Use your left hand,” Georgi said.  “Maybe he’ll learn not to hurt you before a major event.”

“Maybe I’ll learn to keep my mouth shut,” Andrien said.  He snorted in wry amusement.  “Actually this was because he didn’t think I was being entirely truthful.  He wanted to know what I said to Lady Northhunter.”

“What did you say to her?” Georgi said.  He stepped back to examine his handiwork.  “You’ll do.”

“Thanks,” Andrien said, his tone dry.  “I assured her that I have no intention of hurting her daughter.”

“Why would you hurt your wife?” Georgi said.

“Because she’s a little girl and getting married and it’s implied that we will consummate the union and a frightened little girl might get hurt in such a process.”  He sighed and headed toward the door.  Anticipating his brother’s next question he added, “I have no intention of bedding an unwilling girl, especially one who is almost half my age.  Best to wait until she’s ready.”

“What if she’s never ready?” Georgi asked.  “Will you continue on with your paramour?”

“Mila?”  He sighed and closed his eyes.  “At least until we’re actually married.  So stupid.”

“You’re in love with her,” Georgi said.  “You knew father would never allow such a thing.  Why would you let yourself fall for her?”

“It wasn’t like I could plan it or control it,” Andrien snapped.  “I tried to keep things… professional.  I tried to convince myself that she was only… after the money I pay her.  She’s so… she says that she is mine and I hers.”

“You pay her well to stroke your ego as well as your cock, little brother,” Georgi said.  “Best to end it quickly before Father finds out and ends it for you.”

“I’ll talk to her,” he said.  “Let’s go down to the feast.”  He headed out the door.  If he had his way he’d have a good start on strong drink before the ceremony.  Then he could blame whatever was said on the drink.

 

He stood with his family, across the courtyard from the Northhunter family.  Darina looked beautiful, but still so very young and frightened as she stood with her parents.  Her auburn hair was loose and bedecked with a wreath of bright flowers.  Her gown was blue with silver wolves chasing one another around the cuffs and hem, much like the lions on his robe were.  More silver embroidery accented her collar, high to emphasize her young age.

“Who gives these youths into union with one another?” the magister asked.

Behind him his father said, “I do.”  He heard the Lord and Lady Northhunter repeat the words across from him.

“Let the union between the youths of these two house signal an age of peace between these houses, just as the union will join the two families into one, let it join the kingdom, east and west,” the king added.

“So be it,” the magister said.  “Are the youths willing to be joined in this way?”

“I am,” Andrien said.  He shook his head slightly in spite of himself.  He knew it was necessary but he wasn’t happy about it.

His intended bride sniffled slightly but nodded.  “I am,” she said, her voice catching slightly.

“Let the four Guardians bless this union,” the magister said.  “Let the winds swirl from the east; let the waves roar to the west; let the fires burn in the south; let the earth tremble to the north in blessing of this union.”  He paused for a moment, as if waiting for the events he described to happen.  There might have been a slight breeze that answered his call but no fires, flood or earthquakes came to his call.

Andrien was already moving when the magister bade them come together and join hands.  He asked them a series of questions, assuring all present that they would honor, respect, protect and shelter one another, all the while wrapping a cord around their respective hands and wrists.

“Now you are bound together, though the cord is not tied,” the magister said.  “At a time chosen by both parents this binding will be made more permanent, the cord will be tied and you will be husband and wife.  Now you are bride and groom.  Let love grow between you as you learn one another’s ways.  Above you is the sun and below the earth.  Like the sun, let your love be a source of light and like the earth, let it be a strong foundation for your lives together.”

He carefully released them without unraveling the bonds that he made and they went between the two families and into the keep.  Andrien couldn’t help but wonder as he followed his bride up the steps and through the enormous double doors what the future held for them.

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