|House of the Orchid
Author: Ever Twinwood PM
In a matriarchal world where marriage does not exist, Castor battles with the ideas of belonging and love and Jubilee is uncovering the secrets of her dark past. While they navigate the troubled waters of politics and social niceties, more serious matters permeate the Ladies' conferences. The Men of the East are on the move. War is coming.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy - Chapters: 6 - Words: 24,204 - Reviews: 2 - Favs: 2 - Updated: 11-16-12 - Published: 06-25-12 - id: 3035784
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The next morning, Oberon gave a leather pouch full of mostly copper and a few silver pieces to Viddan, and after a hasty breakfast they departed. The early morning sky was bleak, but the rain had let up, and the waters of Poladrin Brook had not yet broken the confines of the bank. The grey waters lapped angrily though, the water a vicious turmoil compared to its still blueness of the previous evening. The people of the city already out and about watched the rise and fall nervously. The flatboats, moored securely at the dock, surged at the ends of their ropes.
Gage and Lazarus led the pack and riding animals from their temporary shelter and Oberon and the Orchid sisters mounted up, Pace having graciously offered the younger girl his deer for the remainder of the ride. Cosette frowned at this, but said nothing.
"Where do you suppose Thisbe will have you and me stay?" Solace asked Castor. She had woken refreshed and cheerful, speaking to Castor during breakfast as though nothing was amiss.
"Dunno," he said. "Nothing could be worse than that floor." Ahead of them, Oberon's stag broke into a trot as he led the party out. Solace flicked her reins and she and her consort moved out of sight of the smallhouse.
They splashed through deep puddles on the cobbled road and were soon at the edge of the city. The working folk hardly glanced at them as they passed, too intent on clearing the litter of fallen branches and loose dirt from around the streams that twisted through and around the city so that they might get to the daily work of panning for gold. Those headed to the dock, however, spared them plenty of interest, and a handful of wayward children trailed them playfully.
"Where are you going?" called one old man. Others stopped to observe with interest. "You'd best not be headed for Brook House. The Lady of Gold won't like that."
"They aren't from the city, Papa." A woman with cropped hair and arms muscled from long years of hauling heavy fish nets ushered him along, keeping her almond shaped eyes to the ground. Lada watched them disappear with a frown.
"My Lady," Oberon stopped his deer short and Lada shook off whatever thought had caused her to stop. "Are you coming?"
"Yes. Let's keep moving."
They reached the estate without further incidence. They came upon it suddenly, a great, looming house with walls of smooth grey stone and blue-stained oak logs. It sat beside the brook, the water lapping at the legs of the large dock attached to the northern wall. Seven or eight fishing boats dotted the river a few yards out from the shore, nets dangling over their sides. The huge trees of the forest had been cleared away long ago, and now sat far back, leaving vast fields for planting and grazing; however, many lay fallow, and saplings and invasive thorny plants were creeping closer at the feet of their grandmothers.
Oberon stopped them where the ground changed from the packed dirt of the common road to the rocky lanes of the estate. On either side of them, apple trees shaded them from the midmorning sun, stunted, overripe fruit speckled with rot. Those on deerback dismounted and they waited for several minutes, Cosette and Oberon calling out more than once before a hand finally noticed them. She strolled over in no particular hurry, eyes squinted against the late morning sun.
"Are you here from the city? The Lady's been waiting three weeks for you. I'd have a good excuse from the Cold Lady if I wished to live the night."
"I am the Lady of the House of the Orchid, here at your Lady's gracious invitation." Lada's voice carried across the nearly empty yard and the young hand quailed before her, entire demeanor changed. "If you would be so kind as to show me to the House of the Brook?"
"Yes, at once, Lady," she said with every ounce of respect she could muster. She turned smartly on her heel and marched down the orchard path, the Orchid natives strung out behind her. Castor, holding the reins of his Lady's much gentler doe, stepped carefully around the rotten fruit littering the ground before him. Sweat dripped down his wide nose.
Solace kicked at a worm-eaten apple. "I've never been here before," she said apprehensively. "My mother thought to send me here once in the fall, but things at home distracted her and it didn't occur after all."
She crushed the apple under her heel. Mushy flesh oozed out and a sickly scent drenched her. She wrinkled her nose distastefully. "I wish she had. At least it would have been something fun for once."
Castor pondered this as two thin, sullen boys darted into view.
"Stop!" the young woman shouted at the shirkers. "Who is that? They need you in the fields!" The boys dodged past her in the shadow of the fruit trees, not bothering to keep their faces hidden.
"Looks like the Brook has a lot of work to do," Oberon muttered under his breath.
They came to a halt outside the huge stone doors. Up close, the house appeared even more dilapidated than from a distance; stones were crumbling and half the shutters sagged, vibrant green moss creeping up the walls.
"Here you are, Lady," stated the hand as she pulled open the doors and stepped off to the side with a nod of her head. "Go on in and ask after the Lady, someone will show you up. I'll take your hands to the fields to let your beasts loose to graze." And so leaving Lazarus and Gage behind, the Ladies and their consorts stepped into the building. The doors swung shut behind them with a deafening thud that echoed in the towering entrance hall.
The hall was empty but for a little boy playing at marbles in a corner. When he saw them he gave a tiny yelp and disappeared through a narrow door. A moment later, a small man strode into the room through the same door taking short, hasty steps. He introduced himself huffily, somewhat out of breath.
"I am Janvier, the Lady's Chief of Household. How might I be of service?"
"I am the Lady of the House of the Orchid. I'd very much like to see the Lady of the Brook at once, if you could arrange it." Oberon cleared his throat noisily and Lada glanced at him. Her lips twitched, and Castor could have sworn a smile sat there for a split second. "And perhaps rest and refreshment for my daughters and the men as I speak with her."
"I'm afraid the Lady is indisposed at the moment, but a meal can be arranged. She will join you this evening after the heat of the day has worn off."
Lada pursed her lips, eyebrow arched with an unspoken thought. "Very well."
Janvier led them up the marble staircase and through a windowed hall, then ushered them down another set of stairs to the main kitchen, leaving them in the care of the kitchen crew with a deep bow before backing into the hall. He swiveled on his heel and clattered away.
The room was sweltering with the heat of several stoves. Large pots boiled away atop them, holding glistening jars stuffed full of tomatoes of all sizes. In the deep of winter, the jarred vegetables would be brought out from the stores to make sauces or to be seasoned and eaten on their own.
"Six of you?" A woman with sunken cheeks lifted the lid of a chest and began carefully dolling out portions of smoked fish and fresh vegetables.
"Could you see to it my hands are fed as well? They aren't with us at the moment."
"With certainty." She gestured for them to be seated at an unadorned wooden table shoved roughly out of the way beside an unused stove. She set the plates in front of them and resumed her tedious work jarring tomatoes.
The plates were nearly clear when footsteps sounded in the hall above them. Angry voices slithered down the stairs, quickly drawing close.
"How dare you dilly dally with excuses of my health! She should have been shown to me at once."
"Lady, I thought not to harm – "
"And I care what you think why? Chief or no, all matters are to be brought before me at once. You should not need to be reminded."
"Lady, I – "
"Go! Resume your duties. I'll not be bothered with your presumptions again tonight. If you feel the need to report anything, send it by way of a kitchen hand."
The clattering footsteps of the white-haired Chief of Household died away, and a woman appeared alone at the top of the narrow wooden steps of the kitchen staircase. She descended the steps with dignity, head high and black eyes hooded. She was clothed in a simple cotton tunic, but the stitching was elegant and her summer cape, soft and cool, was made of fine material. Everything from her boots to the band in her hair was dyed a deep blue, and a gold and turquoise choker sat high on her neck.
She scanned the strangers dining at her table, her eyes coming to a stop on Lada. "Dear Lady," she said, voice as much a mask as her dark face. "I should hate to interrupt your rest and food, but we have a matter of great urgency to discuss. Please, come with me."
Lada stood, not so much as glancing at her half-eaten food, let alone her companions. The top of her head just reached the Brook's chest. Together, the women left the kitchen.
"And now Mum will set this whole rat hole straight," Solace said, rolling her eyes.
"Solace!" Cosette scolded. She looked to the workers of the House, but they were occupied with their tedious task and seemed not to have noticed. "We are not home. You would do well to mind your tongue."
The girl glowered sourly at her elder sister and scraped at an irregular red stain on the table with a jagged nail. "And you are not the Lady. You would do well to remember that."
Cosette's eyes widened and she breathed in sharply. "Careful, little sister. Mother isn't here."
"Go on. Say whatever you'd like." Solace folded her arms with a smirk. Flecks of red littered the area around her plate.
Cosette looked sidewise at the man on her left. Oberon, chair tilted back and feet crossed beside his empty platter, was watching the exchange with interest. Cosette smiled sweetly at Solace and laid her dimpled, short-fingered hand on her sister's arm.
"I have nothing to say. I only mean to look out for you, lovely. Mum wouldn't want you to cause offense – unintentionally, of course."
Solace shook the hand off. "Of course."
Three hands walked in from the gardens, covered in grime and jabbering loudly about the crop shortage. A warm breeze followed them in. Under the cover of the noise, the sisters finished their food. Pace tidied up the platters and searched among the kitchen hands. He caught a young man's eye and beckoned him over. "We are guests of the Lady," he said. "Might you show us to more suitable quarters?"
The boy's mouth opened and closed, ridiculously unsure of what to say.
"Take them to the inner southeastern wing, Pim," instructed the woman who had served them earlier.
"Yes, Ermengarde," he said, dipping his blonde head to her with relief. Hands full of tomatoes, she ignored the response.
They followed Pim through countless twisting corridors and gaping antechambers, leaving the forequarters of the House far behind.
After ten minutes of stumbling through dank, unused halls on the second floor of the house, Pim opened an oak door inward onto a large, cozy common area. Lit by a skylight set into the roof a story above them, miniscule particles of dust were visible floating in the air as they settled on top of the already thick layer coating the room's surfaces.
"Well, ah, this is home for now, I suppose," Pim told them. His stubbly chin quavered and he turned and fled down the corridor from whence they came.
Pace, not hiding his amusement, stepped into their quarters first. "I hope they haven't lost us in here," he said as the others joined him. "I can find my way around an estate as well as the next person, but goodness, those halls were a bit confusing to be natural! I'm certain whoever built this place was playing a joke on the Brooks."
"It was most likely an ordinary greathouse to begin with, Pace." Oberon looked back into the hall with an appraising eye. "These stones are set in a much newer design than those in the entrance. The house has been added to, piece by piece."
"It would be inconvenient to redirect hallways and such every time they needed to add on a room," Solace said. "I like it this way."
"Still, I'd expect them to make it a bit less of a maze," the younger man protested.
"Perhaps the builders thought to make inquisitive strangers starve to death as they wandered the halls in search of an exit." Solace jumped in surprise and she and her companions turned as one to the shadowy far wall. A man rose from his unnoticed place on an overstuffed chair and fixed Pace with a one-eyed stare; his right eye was clouded over. "The kitchen has been stocked. Your bedchambers are up those stairs; you will find the doors open with the keys in the locks. Take care to use them wisely. The Lady will find the room with the red door to her liking, I am sure. There are occupied servants quarters beneath you should you lack for anything, and someone will be up to freshen your chosen bedrooms before nightfall. Good day." He offered a crisp bow before exiting by means of the lower stairwell.
"Creepy," Solace stated. She leaned over the rail and stared down into the darkness after him. "I wonder what happened to his eye."
"Could've been born that way," Castor said. He started up to the bedrooms. "C'mon," he called from the landing. Solace hesitated, expression one of irritation, but with a glance at her sister said nothing and instead began to ascend the creaky steps.
The stairs opened onto a railed ledge that circled the walls, topped by the skylight. Nine doors swung wide on their hinges – four yellow, three blue, one black, and one red. Castor headed for a yellow door to his left, shutting the door behind him. The room, lit by another skylight, smelled of age. He sunk onto the musty bed and flopped back. His feet hung off the end, and he sighed, resigned, a too-tall man in a world built with women in mind. He stared through the skylight at the cloudless sapphire sky. He was beginning to wonder if the whole roof was constructed of glass.
A hollow knock sounded. Castor heaved himself from the sagging mattress and pushed open the door. No one was there. The knock came again and he turned toward it. He noticed a door beside a chest of drawers. He crossed the room and twisted the key that stuck out of the lock, then pulled it open. Solace stood there, grinning.
"Boo," she said playfully. Balancing with a hand on his chest, she stood on tiptoe and kissed his chin.
Castor peered over her head into the neighboring room. The walls were decorated with paintings of bright yellow flowers and boats laden with gold. He spied a dark door on the wall opposite as well. "Are all the rooms connected?" he asked.
"I think so. But there's a lock on both sides." She held up a small silver key that resembled the one used on his side of the door. "See? There's a door to the next room over." She pointed behind him. Sure enough, a door was set into the stone wall beside the bed.
Solace tugged on Castor's hand. He returned his attention to her and allowed her to lead him into the second yellow room. She closed the door, placed the silver key in the lock, and turned.
"Hey, Castor," she whispered, and moved close. She twined her fingers in his and raised his hand to her lips. Her breath was hot and moist on his skin.
Castor laid his free hand on her waist. He breathed deeply as she pressed her lips to the back of his hand, then his wrist, working her way up his arm. He leaned down and kissed her, tasting salt. She smelled of sweat and flowers and rotten fruit. Solace stepped back toward the bed, coaxing him along with kisses. Yanking his shirt over his head, he followed.
Castor woke to the call of songbirds and the distant baying of hounds on an early morning hunt. The soft light of dawn bathed the room. Solace was sound asleep beside him, waves of dark tresses encircling her rosy-cheeked face in tumbling disarray.
Castor sat up carefully so as not to disturb her and swung his long legs over the side of the bed. He hoisted himself up and stretched his tired muscles with a massive yawn. He stooped and retrieved his abandoned, wrinkled garments. A pungent aroma clung to them, but he paid it no heed and dressed in the small square of space left in the dim, cluttered room. They'd been here two days, and though they were brought anything they asked for, their questions went unanswered and there was no sign of Lada – come to think of it, there had been no sign of either Lady.
With a final glance at the still-sleeping girl, Castor slipped from the room. He turned the key in their shared door and pocketed it, leaving her in peace from her sister and the men.
Ten minutes later, Castor quietly stepped through a little-used door, blinking as his eyes transitioned from the darkness of the stone corridors to the light of the yard. He took another bite of the bitter, green apple he had snagged from the kitchen in the Orchid quarters. He surveyed the grounds, munching.
A man on his way to the fields spotted him. "Oy, quit lazing about. Get to somewhere someone needs you, or I'll be calling a boss after you." Castor opened his mouth, briefly puzzled. "I mean it! We've had enough problems with shirkers of late, and I won't stand for it." Not wanting to cause trouble, Castor banished his explanation and tossed his apple core into a murky fish pond, then tramped behind the man to the fields. Danger out of sight, black and gold fish attacked the floating bits of apple.
Before Castor could join the man in the rows of vegetables, a tiny woman intercepted him. She scratched at the black plaits wrapped around her head. "Where are you going? You're not one of my bean field workers."
"They said to come help whoever needed it," Castor said. He could feel his cheeks flushing with heat.
"I've got all the help I need, young man." She sucked in her cheeks. Regarding his hulking biceps with fastidious assessment, the woman whistled a long, low note through her teeth. "I'm sure they can find use for you in the buffalo pasture. Over that way, just follow the shit. Tell them Cantata sent you." A hint of frustration creeping in, Castor made for the field she had indicated. As he walked away, he could hear her chuckling behind him.
A big man – only an inch or three shorter than Castor – hailed him when he walked onto the pasture. A large bull elk grazed beside him and his arms were weighed down with the beast's tack.
"Did you wander out of the fields?"
"A woman sent me," Castor said. "Apparently I can help you?"
"Ah – ah – I don't know her name. She told me, but I don't remember. Vatana, Palotta, something like that."
The man observed him with short-lived humor. "Cantata, you mean?"
"Yes. That. Her."
"I can use your help, alright. We're after some of the big buck calves today, yearlings and some fellows who got away from us last year. Can you throw a rope?"
"Yes sir. I've been working with deer and buffalo since I left my mother."
"Why just bucks?"
"That's what the Lady asked for. Go find yourself a mount and saddle up. I'd like to start before they bed down for the day."
Castor joined a throng of hands lunging about in the grassy field as they caught suitable mounts. Spying a massive bull at the edge of the woods, Castor jogged over. The deer, satisfying his hunger on the low shrubbery, didn't bother flinching away. Castor put a hand in the coarse, dark brown fur and hoisted himself onto his back. He twined the fingers of both hands in the hair coating the animal's neck. The elk tossed his head, giving his heavy antlers a great shake. He was well-ridden and at a squeeze of his rider's knees galloped easily to the man in charge of the expedition.
"Where might I find some tack?" Castor asked.
The man, seated atop his own mount now, pointed to a shed. "Spares are in there."
Soon they were moving through the forest. Used to reds though he was, Castor found the elk to be a nice change. His body fit much more easily on this creature's wide back than it did on a red stag. He sat tall, ducking for branches when the elk bowed his own head.
A dozen yards from the field, he glimpsed the short-antlered head of a spike. Its head swung up at the crashing of the adult deer through the woods, ears alert and nostrils quivering. He stamped the ground with his front hooves, and rearing, fled on the spot. At the well-aimed toss of a rope, the bull's legs were swept from beneath him before he could escape. Two women and their deer were on him instantly, getting ropes around his neck and tying them to the bands of leather and metal clasped about their steeds' necks. They turned back the way they came, herding the frightened fawn back to the field and beyond to the only animal enclosure of the estate.
Castor kept going. Spurring his bull on, he left the other riders behind. Deeper and deeper into the woods he went, relishing the chilly fresh air after two days cooped up with Solace's family.
The shouts of the eager steed hunters had faded into the noise of the forest. Dew soaked Castor's legs and his elk's heaving sides. The deer's ears swiveled suddenly, and at Castor's signal, he slowed. Castor lay forward on his neck and quietly, they moved toward a rustling just behind the screen of young trees.
A sloping meadow came into sight, and in it, a mixed herd of reds and elk. Several hinds grazed there, fawns bucking and kicking playfully. Just beyond them, female elk were bedding down among the trees and several large calves were loping about along the grassy rise.
There. Castor nudged his deer on. Two two-year old bulls were butting heads lazily a dozen yards above them. One opened his mouth in a yawn, showing off his flat yellow cuspeds. He glanced down the hill at the antlered head poking through the trees and butted at his fellow spike once more. Castor prepared a rope.
A hind lifted her head as he passed and lowered it again, unfazed, but with the next deer he was not so lucky. She barked a warning, and the dozing females sprung to their feet, dashing for the trees.
"Hiya!" Castor and his elk galloped to the top of the hill. The young bulls, arrogant and slow to react, merely blinked at him. In a second, his first rope lay around the larger calf's neck. He yanked sharply, bringing the surprised deer to his knees. Another rope was looped and knotted in Castor's spry fingers already, and he swung it above him in tight, choppy circles, ready to lasso the bull again.
Without warning, the bull he perched on rocked sideways and reared. The smaller calf had charged him, small antlers digging into his side as the youngster attempted to knock him down. The huge bull pawed the ground threateningly and the chastised calf backed away. The adult lowered his broad head, snorting heavily through his flaring nostrils.
The roped yearling feinted toward them, and as he shied away, the other made a second rush then turned, kicking his hind legs at his elder. The bull was angering now, and it was taking all of Castor's concentration to control him. Tempted to release his hostage and convince the bull to withdraw, he clenched his teeth and let his lariat fly.
The rope slid down around the kicking legs. Castor jerked the rope, bringing the legs together, and the no longer free elk crashed to the ground face first. Castor backed his mount up hastily, dragging the larger spike down as well. He looped his third and final rope about the newly caught deer's neck; loosening the lasso from around his legs with a practiced flick, he reeled it in.
Castor's steed loosed a screaming bugle. The calves, conceding, rose despondently with twitching tails and lowered heads.
"Hup hup," he ordered, tying the rope ends to the metal ring on the thick collar, and the bull obeyed, plodding down the slope. The dejected captives followed meekly behind.
They had nearly reached the foot of the hill when all three deer halted and turned, stomping menacingly. Castor scanned the forest off to the left to see what had spooked them. His bull backed away, snorting, and the younger elk tugged at their ropes anxiously. Very curious now, Castor dismounted.
"Stay," he commanded. The beast obeyed reluctantly. Castor peered into the woods. He thought he could make out something tall moving in the trees. A young bear, perhaps? He crept closer.
Crack. A twig snapped beneath his foot. The faint movement halted on the instant, then changed direction with purpose, moving this way through the trees.
Castor gasped. A wild-eyed man with long, tangled hair and a beard to match was striding toward him. Crude tattoos shrouded his bare arms. He clutched a hunting knife unlike any Castor had seen; two yards long and as thick as his hand, the glaring metal weapon took both hands to wield.
Castor struggled for words. "What are… Can I… Ah, are you – sir?"
Swinging the foreign blade high above his head, the man charged.