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Authors: Mercedes Lackey

The River's Gift

BOOK: The River's Gift
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High above Ariella's head, a mere speck of
a lark soared and caroled in the azure sky, its song descending in a sweet
rain of silver notes. Beneath her bare feet, soft grass studded with
meadowsweet and tiny clover blossoms flowed cool and velvety. Ariella ran
mostly for the joy of release, but partly from guilt—if she got out of earshot
of the Manor quickly enough, she would be able to say in truth that she hadn't
heard Magda calling her.

And inevitably, her chaperone would call,
as soon as she realized that Ariella was not at the loom in the solar, at her
embroidery frame in her room, or her fine sewing in the garden. Magda was
supposed to be educating her—

Except that she doesn't teach me anything that hasn't
to do with a needle
, Ariella thought with youthful scorn.
Everything I've learned about
herbs and simples came from the monks at the Abbey. And everything I've learned
about the forest I learned by myself, with no one to teach me. So there!
Magda had become more fretful, more insistent of late that her
charge "behave
as a proper lady." Perhaps it was
the advent of her sixteenth birthday that had brought all this nonsense
on—Magda seemed to place great significance on it, though as far as Ariella
could see, one more
birthday
made no difference at
all to her. Her Papa treated
her the
same, the serfs
and servants had not changed towards her. Only Magda acted as though sixteen
years meant something portentous.

So
Ariella ran through the meadow to escape her tormentor, the single-minded old
woman who tried to keep her pent up inside the dark, chill manor or confined to
the stiflingly manicured garden in the center courtyard. She ran, and she hoped
that today she could outrun that unwelcome call of, "Lady Ariella! This is
unseemly!"

"Behaving as a proper lady" did
not include discarding her hennin headdress and veil, heavily embroidered linen
gown, chemise, leather shoes and stockings, donning an old, threadbare,
homespun dress and kilting it up above her knees, then running off bare-legged,
bareheaded and barefooted to the forest. Proper behavior required too much of
one who had run free since she had been able to run at all.

And if a lady could not course through the
wild forest surrounding her home, then she did not want to be a lady.

Ariella reached the safety of the forest
and ducked beneath an overhanging bough, not even the least out of breath. She
paused for a moment among the shadows and peered through a screen of leaves
across the meadow to the Manor.

The stone-walled building slumbered behind
its moat, with a single sleepy guard standing watch on the wall and a pair of
swans gliding undisturbed on the waters. She breathed a shallow sigh.
If luck be with me, Magda is safely
asleep, never knowing that I am not where she believes me to be.
If
Magda had gone off to take her nap, she'd not awaken until her maidservant came
to summon her to the evening meal. By then, Ariella would be safely home, and
if there was nothing to show in the way of fine work for the passing of the
hours, Magda would only chide her for day-dreaming the time away.

Now that she was safely within the
invisible walls of her sylvan sanctuary, Ariella sat down on a drift of last
year's leaves and took the time to braid her hair. When she was done, she bound
up the end of the shining golden tail, as thick as her wrist and as long as her
arm, with a bit of leather thong she fished out of the left-side pocket tied
about her waist. Her two pockets bulged with her pilfered stores, and Magda
would have had a litter of kittens if she'd known that Ariella frequently
ransacked the stillroom to get her treasures.

In her mind she heard Magda's shrill voice,
cracking as it always did when the old woman grew agitated. "Those simples
are for humans, not the beasts of the field! God have mercy, that I should be
cursed with the task of civilizing such a fool of a girl!"

It was hard not to feel resentment towards
the old busybody, who grudged every leaf of plantain and drop of cordial as if
she and not Ariella had been the one who'd gathered and produced the remedies
kept in the still- room.
I could
understand her attitude if she'd been the one working all winter distilling
essences and blending tinctures— but surely if I made these things, I should be
allowed to decide to use them!

Ariella sighed again, this time deeply, as
she slipped through the tangle of bushes and briars as easily as a bit of mist,
rarely catching so much as a thread of her skirt on a thorn. But after all, she
had plenty of practice to learn to move so surely here. That was one thing that
Magda could never say, that she was clumsy.

Bringing Magda here to take charge over her
had been her father's idea, and a poor one Ariella thought it was. She guessed
that it had been in response to that minstrel's distasteful interest not long
after she'd turned twelve when her shape had taken on strange new curves and
she'd outgrown the bodices of her gowns almost overnight. He'd only tried to
kiss her hand, for heaven's sake! Oh, and he'd made moon-calf eyes at her, and
sung love-songs at her, but that was hardly anything to fret over.
I haven't needed a nursemaid since
I was four, and I don't need one now,
Ariella thought
rebelliously, passing crab- wise between two close-growing trees and coming out
on a deer-trail.
As if I
couldn't take care of myself with a cheeky mountebank!
Aye,
or anyone else, for that matter!
She knew she'd only to whistle
anywhere on the Manor grounds, and no matter where they were
,
her father's pack of mastiffs would come running to her side, ready to defend
her against all threats. Why, not even an armored knight would take his chances
against six full-grown mastiffs, much less a silly singer! And for all that she
was slender and willow-slim, she was strong, and not the kind of swooning simpleton
who wouldn't be willing to pick up a poker or a dagger and defend herself, if
it came to that.

Her father's supposed reason for calling
his aged cousin Magda out of her retirement in a convent to chaperone his
daughter was that he wanted her to learn "manners" and be more
"ladylike." Why he should wish such a thing, Ariella had no idea, for
she knew as certainly as she knew the sun would rise each day that her Papa had
no intention of giving her up in marriage to anyone, no matter how highborn—and
she was in full agreement with his plans. Why, how could she ever leave this
place, when there was so much that needed tending, her Papa not the least? She
had long since learned all there was to know about the proper management of
Swan Manor, although since the hiring of the new major domo, there was
precious little management she needed to deal with.

If
only she could persuade him to send silly Magda away again, she would be
perfectly content in every way.
I
have the Abbey library, I have Papa, and I have the forest. What more could
anyone need?
Oh, she'd heard enough ballads and tales from
minstrels and bards to know how a young maiden was supposed to spend her
days—dreaming of a romance, sighing after love, waiting for a husband. She
didn't have the words to express how much of a waste of time that seemed to
her.

She
realized that she was all bound up in her annoyance and growing angry, and she
stopped dead in her tracks, then, right in the middle of the game-trail.
I have to stop this,
she scolded herself.
I'm going
to frighten them off.

She closed her eyes and cleared her mind,
concentrating on the moment and nothing more.

First, the scent of the forest, green and
cool, with hints of resin and a waft of
old,
dead
leaves.
Then the feel of the trail beneath her feet, soft
with leaf-litter.
Last, the sounds all around her, the songs of larks
and starlings, the chirp of sparrows, the calling of crows and rooks, the trill
of wrens, the chattering of squirrels—the rustle of leaves in the breeze—the
creak of branches and the snapping of twigs.

When she felt calm and at peace, when all
of her annoyance with Magda was gone—that was when she felt the first soft
touch on her foot.

She opened her eyes and looked down, and as
she expected, there was a young rabbit gazing mournfully up at her, one ear
torn and bleeding freely, the marks of sharp teeth visible. At a guess, he had
escaped from the jaws of a stoat.

With a bit of waste wool to pad the ear, a
bit of soothing ointment, and grass plaited into string to bind it all up, the
rabbit was soon on his way. But before she was done with her work, she already
had a gathering about her feet of three more patients: a hedgehog with an injured
paw, a squirrel with a gashed side, and another rabbit, this one limping with
a broken leg.

There were no more small animals waiting
for her ministrations when she had finished with these three. She waited to
see if any more would appear, but none did, and she walked on until she came to
the river, where, by custom, she tended the larger creatures and the hunters.

There was an unvoiced truce among the
wounded; she had never seen an injured animal attacked by another in her
presence, although she very well knew that many of these creatures would not
hesitate a moment to kill and eat each other in different circumstances. She
often wondered about that, but nothing she had witnessed had given her an
answer.

Magic,
she thought with
content mingled with wonder. That must be the answer. It felt strange to be in
the presence of magic, and stranger still to be the one conjuring it. But it
was dangerous too; scores of tales told her how dangerous it was to be known as
a witch or a magician.

She heard the river long before she saw it,
rushing beyond the screen of the trees, cooling the breeze with its breath.
There was a great gray wolf waiting for her by the riverside, and when she
approached him—carefully, for experience told her that animals in pain
sometimes snapped at her if she startled them—he held his mouth open for her to
see the broken, abscessed tooth that must have been causing him agony.

"Oh, you poor thing!" she
exclaimed involuntarily, for she had suffered from a similar affliction as a
child and knew how much it must hurt. But this case would require more of her
"special" talent than usual; animals usually suffered silently
beneath her ministrations as she eased pain, but nothing would keep such a
dangerous beast quiet as she inflicted more pain than he already suffered.
Being bitten while trying to help did not figure into her plans.

Gently,
she bent down and she placed one hand on his head, and concentrated all of her
thoughts on one thing.
Sleep—

The
wolf resisted her at first—it went entirely against his natural instincts to
make himself so vulnerable without the protection of the pack around him—but
at last, with a sigh, his head drooped, his legs buckled, and he dropped to the
ground. She knelt beside him, making certain that he was not going to awaken
until she was ready for him to do so. He would not feel what she did to him
until she was finished, and then he would have relief instead of nagging pain.

Now
she did what she had to—using the small version of a horseshoe-nail-puller she
had coaxed the blacksmith into making for her, she clamped the iron jaws about
the rotten stump of a tooth, braced the wolf's head between her feet, and
pulled. She strained her arms until they hurt, and at last the tooth tore free
of the jaw, and pus and blood oozed out.

BOOK: The River's Gift
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