Authors Note- A very warm welcome to my two new followers, Lunier & Battlespirit. You guys were a great motivation for me in releasing this chapter so soon. Please enjoy and review :)
Claudia spoke to the Duke the following morning and he agreed that Ahara could stay, so long as she was welcome by the King to do so, her being one of the knights he kept a close eye on. And so, Ahara sent him a letter explaining herself and that afternoon, received her reply and moved into the rooms next to Claudia in the barracks.
Claudia's new batch of riders were buzzing with the news all morning that the Lady Knight of Llowden was living in the same building as them, and their Lieutenant tried in vain to take their minds off it by making them run laps to the market district and back for half the day.
As they were sitting in the afternoon sun and Claudia was resting from the blood binds she'd completed, Ahara asked her a small question that had been on her mind a long time.
"Do the other griffins mind that she gets special treatment…?" She gestured to the small, pure white griffin curled up against the older woman's back.
"Not at all. She's not only rare in her colouring; she's also quite sickly and frail. She hasn't developed right and she needs a lot of special care… They're appreciative that she hasn't been left to die… Plus, I'm the clan leader, I don't generally get questioned too much unless I do something really stupid." Claudia replied and stroked the mass of white feathers and fur behind her.
"I see. She's gorgeous, is she going to be okay..?" Ahara studied Claudia's face and saw nothing but that affectionate warm smile that was almost always present on it.
"I think so. She seems to be doing better and better, and I'm so glad for that. I'm really very attached to her now." She chuckled slightly and folded her arms in her lap.
Ahara felt a kind of serenity around Claudia that she usually didn't have in her life – it felt strange to just be sitting there, feeling the warm sun on her face and the pleasant proximity of another human being. She wasn't sure what made her feel like that, and she also wasn't sure that she wanted to over think it. Claudia, as much as she was renowned for her solitary nature, also seemed to be enjoying herself. Her distant soft smile seemed closer now, and a little warmer, which made Ahara the happiest she had ever been.
"This is when -" she had to pause to yawn. "I usually take a nap…" Claudia stretched a little and lay back on the grass with her arms folded under her head. "Would you mind if I do so..?"
"Of course not, I'm here to help, not interrupt your schedule…" Ahara replied offhandedly and stood. "I might to check on the stabled griffins." She looked down and watched as the small griffin climbed onto Claudia's stomach and rested her head and front legs on her, curling the rest of her body against the woman's side.
She laughed a little and walked slowly across the grass to the stables, looking over her shoulder once or twice to see Claudia happily snoozing in the sun – and then – she ran into someone, hard, their elbow catching her in the jaw, and hers contacting in the stranger's stomach. She recoiled at once, automatically widening her stance and raising her arms to protect her chest and face, but once she looked up at who she had run into, she felt like an idiot, and relaxed, returning to her normal stance as the stranger's eyes widened.
Rubbing her jaw with one hand, she bowed slightly and apologized for the accident, still looking the young man in the face as she did so. He barely moved, except for his mouth started to hang open a little, and his eyes were about as wide as they could possibly be as he stared at her.
"Are you alright…?" She asked, waving her hand in front of his face slightly, which seemed to make him stir.
"uh, uh, yes of course. I'm sorry, my Lady, it's just… I've wanted to meet you for such a long time.. I-is your jaw alright, I'm so sorry…" The man babbled, stuttering and drawling on for too long, Ahara started just blocking him out after a short time, and eventually she just cut him off.
"I'm fine, and look, private, I'm sorry that I ran into you, but you need to show a little respect to a superior officer." Her voice was suddenly thin and hard, she was genuinely sorry for causing the problem, but he had as of yet failed to even bow to her. At first she thought he might not have known who she was, and her being out of uniform, that would have been fine, but he knew, and he was a new enlistment – she, a knight - and he was talking so plainly to her.
It wasn't that she felt that her superiority needed to be acknowledged for her own reasons, she had just found over the years that it helped with general discipline if the troops treated their officers properly. And not only was she an officer, but also nobility. She had to admit that it felt a little odd, being almost half the young man's height, only a few years older and demanding this sort of postulating from him, but she had surely earned it.
He seemed to come to his senses somewhat now, and stood straight, giving the best salute and bow he could muster, a nice formal apology and thanking her for the pleasure of finally meeting her. At this she was a little puzzled. She dismissed him and quickly went on her way, finally making it into the stables where the griffins seemed restless in their small pens.
"Do people really admire me…?" She asked out loud to no one in particular as she stroked the feathers of a pushy griffin that wanted her attention, and jumped when someone answered back in a husky voice.
"Of course they do. Why wouldn't they..?" It said, from somewhere further along in the building, shadowed by the many griffins along each wall.
"Who's there..?" She asked, trying not to sound intimidated, but carefully stepping into a stronger stance, just in case.
"Just me, just me…" the voice echoed as it worked its way closer and emerged from the shadows not far from where Ahara was standing. It was the Duke, a close relative of the King, who owned the land she was currently living on, where Claudia kept and trained her griffins.
"Oh, my Lord…" She spoke quietly and bowed respectfully, sighing a breath of relief but staying in her strong stance just in case. She'd heard things about this man, everyone had, it was hard to ignore.
"Come on, stand up, Lady Knight of Llowden, you deserve better, do you not..?" He stopped to laugh a little, an ugly belly laugh that made his padded frame shake slightly. "I saw your little incident, out there…" He motioned to where she had bumped into the private and suddenly Ahara was a little worried. Did she come off as power hungry…? "Not to worry, I'm sure that stature has to be a disability sometimes. Especially around men. Everyone's making up for something.."
Ahara frowned and kept letting him talk without interruption, though she didn't know where he was going with this, she didn't like it at all. Was he criticizing her for her reaction, her height, or her sex..? She wasn't sure, and maybe it was all three. Her teeth were set on edge and for the first time since she returned to the city she wondered why she wasn't armed.
A chill ran down her spine as he fixed his eyes on her and stepped closer, leaning against a griffin stall.
"I'm sorry my Lord, I'm not sure what you mean. He should have shown respect to me. Not because I necessarily deserve it, but because of my rank, just as I show you respect, my Lord." Ahara spoke slowly, trying to sound as sure of herself as possible, though she was finding it somewhat difficult, something about him just unnerved her completely.
"Of course, of course… the great Lieutenant Colonel Llowden, rider of beasts. How did you make it so far, so young, Lady Knight..?" He stepped closer again laughed harder at her now. She refused to step back.
Suddenly his tone changed and he was no longer sarcastic, he was as serious as he could be as he leaned closer and Ahara could feel his breath in her face.
"I don't like you, Llowden. I don't like how everyone praises you when you're just a little girl with parents that pay the King large tributes. Word says you pay our great king in other ways too… How else are you where you are instead of being a housemaid back in your precious Fief Llowden…? Hmm..?" His speech was faster now, more urgent and… angry. Ahara's feet started shaking, but not out of fear now. She had put up with the rumours her entire life, but this was too much, him, standing there, treating her like a trashy whore who's been given everything on a silver platter.
"With all due respect, my Lord, these are but rumours." Her voice was on the verge of shaking and she was doing everything she could to stand her ground and become unwavering. "I do not need to explain myself to you." Her fisted clenched at her side and she could feel her skin getting hot, only to have it turn freezing cold again as he leaned closer yet, a vicious sneer on his face.
"Well, I -" He began, but a voice from behind her cut him off abruptly, a bubbly voice, forced from sounding concerned.
"There you are, Ahara, I need you over in the yard – Oh, my Lord, good afternoon." Claudia cut in, and bowed politely to the Duke before walking over to them. He stepped back a little, as naturally as possible and smiled at the interrupter. Ahara took to chance to step back as well, taking a large pace towards the lit end of the building.
"Claudia, will you be joining the household for dinner this evening..?" He asked pleasantly, trying to imitate the older woman's own warm smile.
"Oh, thank you for the offer, my Lord, but I must decline. My young one isn't well at all; I need to tend to her." She bowed again as she replied and though Ahara could see she was laying on the reverence, the Duke seemed to be rather enjoying it. She wondered if he was always like this with her. It seemed like he wanted her for more than dinner.
Ahara flinched as he laid a hand on her shoulder and laughed a little. "Of course, care for your birds – perhaps another time..?"
Claudia nodded and turned to Ahara. "Come, I need your help…" and with that, she led her away from the Duke and out into the afternoon sun again.
Ahara started shaking, starting with her hands, but spreading down to her chest and legs, making it hard to breath and walk, and she noticed now that Claudia's hands were fists and white knuckled at her sides.
"Claudia…?" She probed, hoping they'd stop walking and talk.
"Not yet, keep walking." She said quietly, her voice sounding troubled.
When they finally reached the large fence, Claudia stepped through and Ahara followed – now they were out of sight of the doors of the stables, and the griffin trainer grabbed the younger woman's hand and set off again at a jog, further towards the boundary of the yard that was also the wall of a building. When they reached it, she released her hand and pushed her to the ground, standing above her with a fearsome look on her face. It reminded her of their first meeting not so long ago.
She looked away, looking deeply troubled and trembling a little.
"Claudia..? Are you –" alright? She wanted to ask, but she never got the chance, because something exploded, and at the centre of it was Claudia, no longer all calm knowing smiles and soft eyes.
"I can't believe him, I'm so sorry Ahara. I didn't know he'd be like this to you or I swear I never would have let you stay here!" She boomed, her arms shaking furiously and her face going red under her straw coloured hair. "What does he think gives him the right?!" She roughly combed through her hair with her fingers as if struggling with something internal. Ahara could easily see the extent of the scars on her face for the first time, and for a moment it was all she could focus on, until Claudia threw herself at the ground and sat in front on her, leaning forward and staring right into her eyes.
Her white-blue eyes were glazed with tears and her face was no longer red, but grey white – she looked ill as she stared at the knight intensely, her face only inches away.
Ahara's muscles went stiff.
"What did he do to you, before I started hearing..?!" She demanded, her body looking like stone.
"I.. He – Its fine Claudia, really, it's not like I haven't been attacked for doing what I do. It happens all the time! He just – I knew I couldn't do anything to him – he's an untouchable…" Ahara replied, trying to calm her friend down more than anything. "If I had been rash or hurt him, I would be severely punished..."
"It's not the point. He's not good to girls. Lots of girls. I refuse to eat with him because the girls of his household make me feel horrified; they're meek, broken things… They can't leave because they need the money…" She was suddenly softer than Ahara had ever seen her, she seemed… vulnerable. This really pained her. "I was so worried about you…"
"H-how did you find us..?" Ahara glanced up at her, but she had her face buried in her palms and her shoulder hunched around her.
"The griffins, they woke me…"
The knight sat in silence with her, and wondered at what he must have done before to deserve this kind of reaction from Claudia, it was actually a scary prospect and it made her shiver. She knew he didn't spend much time in the city, he was usually on his country lands, but still he prompted this from her…
"Claudia... has he ever threatened you…?" She asked timidly after many minutes of silence, and finally the older woman took her hands from her face and looked at her friend again.
"No, never me. I'm too old, and scarred. He likes to see pretty girls scared." She said slowly rubbing her eyes and then folding her arms in her lap again with a deep breath. "He seems to sort of like me, which is… unnerving."
Silence fell between them again and Ahara's hands finally stopped shaking. She examined her friend now, who was still obviously angry at herself for feeling that she put her in danger by allowing her to stay. She had still been vague as to what the Duke was renowned for, but she thought she got the general idea, and it was no surprise that she was so scared of what could have happened. Blaming herself though, no, Ahara didn't like that. She didn't blame her, and no one else surely could – it was so obvious that she felt such overwhelming guilt at not helping the girls that served in his house.
"Are you alright, Ahara..?" Claudia's voice broke her from her thoughts and she jumped to answer.
"Oh yes, of course… He just made me feel…" She paused for a moment, not wanting to say the word that had been going to be there: powerless.
"…. Scared, and really, really angry, but I've really gotten all this before. I had to demote one of my Captains once because he refused to obey my orders on the basis of my sex. Everyone told me he was fantastic under my predecessor, too. I felt terrible." Ahara spoke confidently, trying to stave off the guilt and fury surrounding them both with a change of the subject, but Claudia didn't seem to change at all, instead, she rose onto her knees, leaned forwards and wrapped her arms tightly around the other woman's shoulders, pulling her in to a full embrace.
"I don't want anything like that to happen to you ever again. I never want to see you hurt or scared." She whispered, and then slowly released her grip. Ahara smiled into the woman's shoulder and closed her eyes lightly.
"I'll try to stay out of trouble for you..." The knight breathed and placed a single hand on Claudia's back.