Avenna walked a familiar path through her village, trying to hide her sudden happiness. The people who had surrounded her all of her life would get suspicious if they saw a smile on her face after she had been left behind the day before. She paused in the first rays of sunlight as she turned the last corner, steadying herself for her coming performance. She was going to speak to an old friend, but she couldn't let him see that she was hiding something. As much as the man cared for her, she knew she couldn't risk him knowing. Avenna knew that Brir would probably tell her that she was being rash and should find a better plan, but she didn't want another plan. This was the only way.
She took a deep breath and walked the last hundred feet to the bakery door. The smell of warm bread flooded her nostrils the instant it was cracked open. Her boots made only the softest scuffing nose as she stepped into the familiar store. It was dimly lit, and the candlelight played through the small room. The shelves were lined with fresh bread and pastry. She heard something clatter to the floor in the oven room. She couldn't help but laugh when she heard a frustrated, "Damn!" from a familiar voice. All sounds of movement instantly ceased. Then a seemingly calm and collected figure immerged from the small door.
"Good-day, how may I. oh. Avenna, how are you today?" Brir smiled a bit nervously. His gray hair was plastered to his portly face by a mix of sweat and flower. He had soft gray eyes that welcomed the soul and invited you to speak your troubles. He knew that she was likely to be in an irascible mood. He expected yells of vented frustration and rage from his friend. He had to keep himself from staggering when he was a tear running down her face. "My God, Avenna. what's wrong?"
"I. it's nothing," she said, reciting her prepared lines perfectly. "Mother sent me with her requests. She needs enough of your rolls for... for. well to feed at least half of the village." Tears still descended down her cheek as she watched her friend's reaction. She saw as Brir processed the information and his eyes suddenly widened in realization as he came to the only conclusion possible.
"You. she. she is planning a wedding!" Avenna lowered her eyes and bowed her head, and it seemed to Brir she seemed defeated. He didn't see the small smile that she hid in her apparent shame. "But to whom, and when?" Avenna forced the smile from her face and gazed sadly into her friend's eyes.
"As soon as the warriors return. Mother wants the rolls by tomorrow, just in case they achieve an early victory. I. well, Mother won't tell me who has asked for my hand, but I think I know. Brir, I. I can't. I hate him." Avenna let another dramatic tear fall as her eyes flared slightly. Though most of her conversation was a fa├žade, her anger, at least, was a real emotion. Brir looked even more concerned when he heard this.
"Tarrice? Oh Avenna!" he exclaimed, then muttered under his breath, 'That blundering fool." Avenna heard him and again had to hide her smile. "Avenna, I'm sorry, but. but." he searched, unable to find the words to comfort her. "Are you sure he's the one who asked?" As Avenna nodded, he sunk his head into his old and withered hands.
"There is nothing I can do, Brir. I know it. I don't like it, but I know it. Just please promise me you'll be there to listen. I'm going to need your advice and your comfort." Brir heard her unconvinced but defeated tone and pulled her into a tight embrace. She cried into his shoulder, playing her part well. She felt guilty about having to deceive her friend, but she knew there was no other way. Finally Brir let her go and put on a false, business-like manner.
"So, I suppose your mother is going to want meat, beer, and cider as well. Have you placed orders for those yet?" Avenna shook her head. "Well, I can take care of that. I'll go talk to the butcher and see if I can find some drinks. You want dried meat, I'm assuming?" Avenna nodded. Even she hadn't imagined her plan would have worked this easily. There was only one piece left.
"Brir, would you mind, I mean. would it be too much to ask. could you not tell anyone that I'm going to get married? I don't want there to be any more fuss than there is going to be anyway. I don't want rumors circulating if I can help it. You know as well as I do that certain people would, uh, say some disgusting things.."
"Don't worry," he cut her off. "I won't tell a soul. I'll just tell the butcher that the meat is for a customer. Do you want that to be ready for tomorrow as well?" Avenna nodded, unable to speak. She hated lying, and she wanted to tell him that she was going to be free at last. She couldn't say anything for fear that she wouldn't be able to keep her secret. Instead, she gave the old man a hug in thanks and left the store, wiping away her tears for the end of her performance.
Avenna headed for home, hoping that she would make it back before her mother woke up. She would be hard pressed to come up with a story to satisfy her mother. She turned the last corner, increasingly confident that she would get there in time, but as she neared the house, the door flew open. Avenna flinched as her mother's shrill voice rushed over the distance between them.
"Where have you been?" Her mother stormed out towards her, shaking her fist. Her hair, the same blonde as her daughter's, was pulled back so perfectly that not a single strand blew in the wind. In contrast, Avenna's loosely pulled back hair danced vehemently in the morning breeze. They had the same fair complexion, the same thin figure, and the same proud and upright stance, but in everything else, they were different. "I can't believe I've raised a daughter who runs around in the middle of the night doing who knows what? All I've ever done is been there for you, providing for you, being your mother, and this is the thanks I get!" Avenna had to keep herself from laughing bitterly. Instead, she focused on trying to come up with a reason for being gone. She quickly formed a story in her mind that she thought would take her mother off guard and hopefully keep her from guessing the truth.
"I. well, I went to the market early this morning, hoping to get home before you found out, but it took a little longer than I thought it was going to." She tried to make herself a little quieter and embarrassed than she would normally have been in this situation. Her mother looked suspicious.
"Doing what, may I ask?" she asked testily.
"I went to the blade master's stand." She paused a moment as her mother scowled. "I asked him how much he thought my sword would bring." At this, her mother's eyes went wide with surprise.
"Why in the world did you do that?" Avenna could tell her mother didn't believe her. Not yet, anyway.
"I . well, I'm thinking about selling it. I don't really need the sword anymore, and I'm going to need the money. I'll need the finest gown when I get married, and I know it won't come cheap." If her mother had looked surprised before, it was nothing compared to the look occupying her face after Avenna's statement. Her mouth was open in disbelief, and she looked so ridiculous that Avenna had a hard time trying not to laugh.
"But you.you're not seriously considering. you think you're going to. you're going to get married?" Avenna bowed her head a little bit, and her mother's expression slowly turned into an excited smile. "Oh Avenna, I knew you would see someday. I'm so happy that you're finally making good decisions. You know, I was talking to Syra Heron the other day. You know, Tarrice's mother. She said Tarrice was going to ask for your hand in marriage. If he asks, will you say yes?" Avenna put on her best 'shy and timid' expression and nodded, although it took every last ounce of her self- control to keep the fire from flaming up in her eyes. Her mother gave a little high-pitched squeal and pulled Avenna in a tight embrace. Avenna smiled slightly as her mother began to sob on her shoulder. The pieces were fitting together well.
"Mother, will you please not tell anyone yet, not even Syra. I want it to be a complete surprise to everyone." She knew her mother would want to brag to all of the ladies in the village, so she had to play to her mother's fancies. "It would be interesting to see the looks on the faces of all of the ladies when they hear that I'm to be wed to Tarrice. They'll be so surprised." Avenna could almost see that her mother was thinking, 'and jealous.'
"Of course I'll keep it a secret, child." She dried a few of her tears and pulled Avenna into a hug once more before letting her go into the house. Avenna could not help but notice the new bounce in her mother's step as she declared that Avenna should go rest. Avenna went into her room, but had no intention of going to sleep. She began sorting through her clothes. All of her dresses were thrown into one untidy pile. She carefully folded her tunics, leggings, spare cloak, and the rest of her normal attire and packed them into her bags. After sorting through her fine gowns, she chose two to take with her. One was the richest green and would have felt at home among the tallest trees. The silver trim flowed over the soft material like rivers through the majestic mountains bordering her country in the west. The other was an untainted white, glistening with silver stars that merged unobtrusively with the snowy cloth. She didn't know if she would ever need them, but these were the only two that she had ever liked. The rest were burdened with an excessive abound of lace and frills that her mother insisted looked wonderful.
The process took nearly two hours, so she hid the results of her labor under her bed when her mother had her noon meal ready. Getting through the time that she spent alone with her mother took every ounce of reserve Avenna possessed. She kept fussing over her daughter and telling her how proud she was. When the excruciating meal was finally over, Avenna told her mother that she was going to go for a walk. Her mother gave her a sickening, "Of course, dear," and Avenna left before she had to say anything else.
Avenna made her way through the maze-like village to the stables. Her saddlebags were right where she had dropped them the day before. The sight of the empty stall still made her sick to her stomach. The only thing that kept her from falling to her knees was the thought of how it would feel to ride Menelith tomorrow when she was finally free. She gathered all of her gear from the stables and then realized she hadn't figured out this part of her plan. She knew she had to hide her saddle and gear near Tarrice's stables, but she had to try and get them there without being noticed. She tried to think fast because she still had a lot to do, but her mind kept chasing ideas around in circles. She sank down into a pile of hay when her frustration took over. She sat with her head in her hands, and let herself relax, knowing she would think better if she could calm down. Her mind began wandering over things completely off the topic at hand. She began remembering her training sessions with her father. She saw her mother when she had been happy, the lines of age and struggle not yet staking their claim on her kindly face. She was playing with her brother on the rocky hill she had run up the day before. She was singing a lullaby to her sister as she lie crying in the cradle, but then all of these images flew past and she saw Tarrice, his snide grinning face too close to hers. As he moved towards her, she closed her eyes to hide from him, and all she saw was fire, burning away her fears, clearing her mind.
She sat up suddenly as she heard the pawing of nervous horses. She immediately knew what had upset them. She had put her hands down on the hay, and where they had been, small fires had started. She jumped to her feet and grabbed the bucket of water by the door. She poured it over the dancing flames. Her heart was pounding. How had the fire started? It wouldn't have taken much to start the stables on fire. Her breath came in short gasps as she tried to calm down. She stood numbly for a few moments and then realized she was shaking and felt weak. She sank back down in her pile of hay, and looked around the stable for a lit candle or forgotten lantern, but there was nothing. She looked down at her hands. They were warm and she could see they were fading from red back to her fair white.
As she sat there in confusion, a horse snorted. She looked up and saw a brown gelding tossing his head. She had to fight back tears. It was Khardon, the horse that had been her brother's before he died. He had only been a foal then. Now he was a handsome, strong beast. His father could not bear to part with him, but nobody had ever been able to tame him after her brother had died. He stared at Avenna with calm and insisting eyes, and she suddenly had a plan. She picked up her gear and opened the door to Khardon's stall. She was a bit nervous at first, but he stood unflinching as Avenna got him ready to ride. She led him out of the stables and swung onto his back.
He sped through the streets, quick and light as the wind. She took him through the village and used narrow alleys to arrive quietly and unseen in the forested area at the back of the Heron's land. They were one of only two families in the village with enough money to own their own stables. She tied Khardon to a tree and took all of her gear. She crept through the trees, silent as a shadow, and made her way to the stable. She neared the edge of the trees and paused. The building was about thirty yards ahead of her. The door was on the other side, so if anyone were there, they wouldn't be able to see her. From where she was, she couldn't see the Heron's huge home that she knew loomed just on the other side of the hill. She moved slowly, listening for voices, but heard none. When she reached the last few trees she stopped and studied the building. She could see no decent hiding place, so she started scanning the tree line for more options. She found what she was looking for in the form of an old and gnarled tree. The twisted trunk had several openings, so after glancing nervously around her, she went to it. Her saddle and gear were stashed in the decrepit tree, and then she dashed back through the trees as quietly as possible and found Khardon waiting for her. The only thing that she hadn't stashed in the tree was her saddlebag, which she still needed to pack.
Even though she knew she wasn't the best bareback rider in the world, she swung onto Khardon's back and clung to his mane. She took him back to the stables and into his stall. She brushed him down and made sure he had water. With one last pat on the head, Avenna silently thanked the horse and left the stables with her bags. She weaved back through the streets. She looked west when she arrived at her home. The sun was just beginning to sink behind the mountains. Her mission had taken her longer than she had expected. She went into the house and passed by her mother, telling her that she wasn't hungry and needed to sleep. Her mother just smiled and said, "Whatever you want, dear." She quickly buried herself in her room.
She packed her two gowns and what she called her "useful" clothing into the bags, as well as a knife, some matches, her money, and a few other various things she thought she might need. She took out her sword and made sure it was clean and ready to go. She left plenty of room in her bags for the food she would acquire the next day. By the time she had finished, the sun had set and the waxing gibbous moon had taken its place.
She got changed and ready to sleep. As she lie in bed, she remembered the incident in the stable. It had been driven from her mind by her sudden inspiration. Now it troubled her again. There was no explanation, no reason for it to happen. She had always been strange because of the flames that flared up in her eyes, but that's as far as they ever got. She tried to convince herself that someone must have been in there just before her and dropped and match or perhaps their pipe when they were smoking, but it didn't ease her mind at all. She drifted in and out of an uneasy sleep until she finally was so completely tired that her mind shut down and let her rest.