Philipp Barhart straightened from his work and wiped his brow, shading his eyes to watch his youngest daughter as she dashed across the fields toward him, clutching something white in her hand and waving it wildly in the air. He smiled. She looks so much like her mother, he thought. So lovely. So full of joy. "What is it, Ada?"
"It's a letter from Wolfram!" she replied, leaping over a cluster of pumpkins in her path, her sun-blond hair streaming in a long braid behind her. "A caravan from Metamor dropped it off as they passed by!" She held it out to him, bouncing excitedly. "You should have seen the people riding with it, Papa! They were-"
The old farmer leaned his pitchfork against the half-finished hay mound and took the wrapped bundle from his daughter while she chattered away, turning it over in his hands a few times before handing it back to her. "Take it to your mama," he said. "You can read it tonight, after dinner."
Philipp laughed. "Now, none of that. No pouting, and no calf eyes, Ada. You can wait. There's still work to be done, and daylight for it to be done in. Take it to your mother." Without waiting for her reply, he turned back to his work.
"You heard Papa," said Frederick. The oldest of Phillip's sons and never fond of his next-oldest brother even in the best of times, Frederick had not stopped tossing hay through the whole of Ada's breathless speech. His darkly tanned brow was, as usual, furrowed with irritation at the mention of Wolfram's name. "We're busy. After dinner."
Ada stuck her tongue out at her brother, but she went.
"Madam? A message for you."
"Just leave it on my desk, Jacob."
"I believe it is from your son, madam." A snap and a clatter from the next room drew the speaker's attention. He did not move, but merely waited patiently. "Is everything all right, milady?" His face somehow managed to hold its placid expression through the fusillade of curses that followed, and yet when he asked, "Did milady break another buttonhook?" his voice held the understated amusement that only a servant of exceptionally long tenure could get away with.
Daria Marcus sighed. "Eight years," she grumbled, "and I still can't get this buttoned up right. To think that I once insisted Maria wear all this frillery." A metallic ping followed, trailed by more curses. "-That- was the buttonhook breaking," she said, tossing the broken tool aside, and turning in front of her tri-paneled mirror to see if she'd done any damage to her ruffled dress. "Before that was a button coming off. A little help, please, before I'm late for my meeting with Steward Macaban."
"Certainly, madam," Jacob said, producing a second buttonhook from a pocket as he approached. "Would madam like to read her letter while I fix her buttons?"
Daria made an exasperated face at her most trusted servant. "Jacob, you've been with my family since I was a snotty-nosed three-year-old boy. Stop calling me 'madam'."
Handing the letter over her shoulder, the old tabby cat replied in a perfect deadpan. "Of course, madam."
"Mmm. Good cookin', Ma," Philipp said, leaning back in his chair and settling his favorite pipe between his teeth. He took his time filling and lighting it, waiting for everyone to quiet down. "Conrad, Barrett, quit pestering your brother. He'll finish when he's ready." Waiting a few more moments until his pipe was properly lit, he added with a hidden smile, "Emily, Ada, help your mother clear the dishes, please." Frederick took the hint and hastened to finish his meal before his plate was taken away.
Turning to his two younger sons once the table was cleared, the old farmer asked, as nonchalantly as he could manage with the two of them looking fit to burst from waiting, "You have any trouble at the farrier's today?"
"Philipp!" After taking an admonishing swat at her husband with a dishrag, Amelia Barhart turned to Ada and nodded. "Never mind your father. He's just teasing you." Reaching up into an overhead cupboard, she took down the letter and the wrapped parcel that had come with it, setting both on the table and swatting Barrett's hand when he tried to make a grab for the package. "Let your sister read us the letter first," she said as she sat down, making a mental note that her youngest boy needed a haircut. His dark hair was getting downright shaggy. "Go ahead, dear."
Ada stood up straight and tall as she'd been taught, the only one of the Barhart children the family had been able to afford to send to school, and she beamed with pride as she read aloud:
"Dear Mama and Papa and family,
Things have been busy here at Metamor this past month, and I have a lot of good news to share. First off, I actually wrote this letter. Yes, you read that right! I can read and write now, and it's wonderful! It has taken about a month of classes, but it is worth every moment. Drift and Xavier have both been good sports about it, but I think they're getting tired of me reading out loud every sign we pass on the street. I just can't help it!"
Laughter resounded around the table.
"Speaking of Drift, the poor sap is engaged! He proposed to Alexis during the Harvest Festival. I'm a little worried about him. Alexis is a wild child and she's really rubbing off on him."
Frederick snorted. "Now there's the pot calling the kettle black." His father smirked around his pipe.
"Yes, Fritzie, I know that's the pot calling the kettle black. Who would know better than me what a wild child acts like?"
"He's got you there, Frederick," Emily said, earning a dark glower from her eldest brother. He hated that nickname, and Wolfram knew it.
"Don't grind your teeth, son," Phillip drawled without even looking. "Keep reading, Ada."
"You should have seen the outfit she talked him into wearing for his dance in the talent show at the Harvest Festival, a long loincloth in front and behind, and nothing else! Mama would Not Have Approved. Still, the dance itself was fun, and finding out that the outfit was a joke that Alexis had pulled on Drift was priceless. Poor Drift. He's so trusting, it almost takes the fun out of pranking him. Almost.
"Engagements seem to be breaking out all over the place. At a party later in the evening, another Keeper proposed to his sweetheart, and Xavier said that the Duke himself proposed to his lady the next evening. Still no prospects for me, Mama. I'm having too much fun! I haven't gotten into the Long Scouts yet, but I haven't given up hope. In the meantime, I've joined the Keep's regular army. That's right, Papa, your boy's in the army now!
Daria Marcus finished reading the letter, chuckled softly, and reached out to a shelf nearby. She trailed her fingers across the portraits of her son and her daughter there while Jacob finished sewing on a replacement for the button she had broken. "My little girl and my little boy. How grown up they've become, and yet they still feud like when they were children." She chuckled, holding up the letter. "Even when they don't know it. Not even a week ago, Melissa wrote to say how much she was enjoying herself in Marigund, and now Xavier writes to say both what a profit he made during the Harvest Festival -and- how much he's learning at Metamor."
Jacob chuckled. "Do you remember how delighted Melissa was when the Curse made her a black cat? And how furious she was when it made Xavier a black leopard?"
Throwing up her hands in simulated teenage outrage, Daria wailed, "'He's copying me -again-!!'" before breaking out in laughter. "Eighteen months apart, and they behave like twins." She sighed, her amusement fading. "I just wish I'd been able to send both of them to the Mage Guild, or at least send Xavier to Metamor back when he first started showing his talent." Her hand drifted to the necklace she always wore, fingering the keepsakes of her two children that she kept there, a blue crystal and a small shard of lightning-shattered wood. "Damn Loriod," she swore, as much at her own foolishness at letting him blackmail her as the actual act itself.
"You're a bit late, if you want him damned," Jacob replied with a wry snort, setting down the needle and thread and straightening the lacy frills on Daria's dress. "Still, if milady insists, I'll try to put in a foul word for him next time I'm at temple."
Daria chuckled. Jacob was of the Yehudim faith, not her Lothanasi, but she couldn't fault his faithfulness to his chosen god. "No, that's all right. I'm fairly certain that wouldn't be proper." She fussed with her hair in the mirror for a bit and then added, "Lovely sentiment, though. Pass me my pearls, please."
She held up Xavier's letter to the light to read. "Dear Father, thank you for the excellent price on the corn shipment. Between that, Drift's tinwork, and Wolfram's brewing acumen, we were able to turn quite a profit. That profit was enlarged slightly by an idea from Alexis, which I pass on to you. She suggested that we emboss Drift's tinwork cups with a Harvest Festival emblem and a date, to make it a 'collectable'. It seemed to work: I was able to cajole a few more coppers out of several customers over it. Perhaps the strategy may be useful to you?
"My training proceeds apace. Saroth is an excellent teacher, and Metamor's archives on the subject have been most useful. Melissa sent me (and I'm sure you as well) a letter saying how happy she was at the Guild, but it sounds much too busy for me. If you should visit, I hope to take you for a walk through the hedge maze. When Wolfram and Drift aren't trying to prank me, I find it a wonderful place to relax." Maria chuckled, remembering the letter telling her about the prank her son's friends had pulled on him. "Speaking of which," she continued reading, "Tessa sends her regards and hopes to meet you at the Duke's wedding this winter."
"I looked into her background, as milady requested," Jacob said as he settled Daria's pearls around her neck. "She comes from good Sathmoran stock, and is of appropriate social rank. People who have seen the two together say that they balance each other well, and that it seems to be a good match."
Daria nodded. "Is that the carriage I hear out front?"
The tabby didn't even turn his head to look, his feline ears and years of experience enough to confirm it. "Yes, ma'am. Exactly on time."
"Thank you, Jacob," Daria said as she folded the letter and tucked it away. "That'll be all."
Ada looked up from the letter. "He says he sent a package, and that we should open it now." Conrad and Barrett both snatched for the package, each trying to reach it before the other, but she held up her hand to stop them. "Careful! It's fragile!"
Amelia pulled the canvas-wrapped package out of the reach of the two brothers as they started to squabble and started to untie the twine binding. "Boys, no fighting or it's off to bed right now," she said as she handed the twine to her older daughter. "Emily, wind that up and put it- oh, my!"
The whole family leaned forward in interest. "What?" "What is it, momma?" "Amelia?" Amelia gazed at the unwrapped portrait of her son and his friends for a moment longer, and then turned it so everyone could see.
The family sat in stunned silence for a long moment. Yes, they had known Wolfram would be changed, and he had described his new appearance, but there was something different about seeing it with one's own eyes. Phillip Barhart leaned slowly back in his chair and resettled his pipe between his teeth. "Well if that don't beat all…"
Emily turned the picture and pulled it closer so she could get a better look at her older brother. Conrad leaned in on her left to look, and elbowed Barrett in the ribs when he crowded in alongside. After a pointed look from his mother, he slid the portrait so his brother could see.
"He looks like old Siegfried," Emily said with a chuckle.
Phillip laughed. Siegfried had been a much-beloved ram the family had owned back when Emily, Wolfram, and Frederick were very young. He'd been a scrappy old bastard even then, and it seemed strangely fitting to the old farmer that his most adventurous and combative son had become such a spitting image.
Conrad and Barret burst into gleeful speculation, each overlapping the other. "Think he's headbutted anyone yet? Betcha he has." "I wonder if he shears his own wool?" "That would look silly!" "Do you think he 'baa's when he talks?" "Look at the arms on the dog guy!"
"I think he's the smith," Ada said, searching the letter for names. "Yeah. That's Drift. The black… umm…" She sounded out the word. "Le… leo-pard-"
"Leopard, dear," Philipp corrected. "I've heard of them. They're really big cats from down south."
"The black leopard," Ada continued, "is Xavier."
"He's got the look of a nobleman," Amelia said. "Look at his clothes, and the guard of his sword. Especially that pommel ruby. Wow."
"Why does the dog guy have the dagger on upside down?" Emily asked.
Her father replied, "I saw a militia man wearing one like that once. It's for a quick draw."
"I wonder what it feels like to have horns." "I'm guessing heavy, dummy." "Mama!" "Behave, you two."
His lips drawn into a thin line of annoyance, Frederick dragged the corner of the picture around with a single finger so he could get a better look at it. In an unimpressed drawl, he sneered, "I wonder what quality of lambs you could get out of him."
The remark jarred all conversation around the table to a halt. The silence lasted for a long moment, and then Amelia reached across the table and slapped her eldest son across the face. Philipp took his pipe out of his mouth and fixed Frederick with a stony glare. "I think you need to go take a long walk, son. Get your priorities straight." He jabbed the stem of the pipe warningly in Frederick's direction. "I don't ever want to hear filth like that come out of your mouth again. From you, or from anyone else in this family," he added, swinging a warning glance to the rest of his children lest they pick up their sibling's gaffe. "This is your brother, not some barnyard beast."
Frederick pushed away from the table in disgust and walked out the door. Concerned, Emily rose to follow him, but her father waved her down. "Let him go," he said. "Give him some time to cool down. Is there anything more in that letter, Ada?"
Amelia slipped out the door after a few minutes and found her eldest son in the stables, heaving hay up into the loft by the light of a hanging lantern. She could see from his stance that he was still angry, so she waited out of the light for him to wear himself down a little. The plowhorse whickered sleepily at her from his stall, but Amelia quieted him with a soothing stroke on the neck.
"Rotten sod," Frederick snarled, not hearing the quiet whicker behind him. "He should be here, helping tend the farm, not off seeking his 'fortune and glory'. Who does he think he is, sending home letters of fairy tales and riches to lure Conrad and Barrett off to get cursed like him? As if I don't already have enough work to do around here, with Papa getting older and Emily about to marry and move away." He cursed and tossed one more forkful of hay up into the loft, and then hung the hay fork back up on the wall with a weary clank. "He should be -here-."
"You know he couldn't stay, Frederick," Amelia said, and stepped into the light when he turned. "He was too wild, too full of wanderlust to be happy here." She stroked the plowhorse's nose when he nuzzled her, and then continued, softer. "He's just not a farmer, Frederick. He's got too much of my father in him."
"Grandpa?" Frederick asked, confused and surprised. "What's Grandpa got to do with it? You said he was a teamster for a caravan."
Amelia shook her head. "I told you all that in hopes that none of you would follow in his footsteps. Your grandfather, Hartwin Lowe, was a mercenary. That's why, when I realized Wolfram would never be happy here, I gave him Grandfather's old sword and suggested he travel to Metamor. I'd heard that George the Cutlass, a fine commander your grandfather once served under, was heading the Keep's military. If that man could keep my father alive through as many battles as he told tales about (and your grandfather's wild streak makes Wolfram look positively tame by comparison, dear son of mine), then he might be able to shape my unruly boy into a dependable man." She let him think on that for a few moments, and then put her hand on his shoulder. "Your brother needs to find where he fits in this world, Frederick. Everyone needs that. That's something you've never had to deal with, because you've always known. Your father has always been so happy that you've followed so closely in his footsteps." She leaned in and gave him a motherly kiss on the cheek. "You make me proud every day, my steadfast son. I'm sorry that we don't tell you that more often. Please don't begrudge your brother something he had to do." She waited a long moments to let that sink in. "He sent you a letter, too. It's addressed directly -to- you."
Frederick frowned. "Why? He knows I can't read."
"I can. Not as well as your sister, but enough." Amelia took the letter out of a pocket and unfolded it. She read it slowly, haltingly, occasionally having to pause to sound out words, but she did not let that stop her. "Dear Frederick…" She decided not to tell him that Wolfram had written, and then crossed out, 'Fritzie'. "I know we rarely got along growing up, but I'm glad you're there to help Papa watch over the farm. There's a lot I didn't tell in my letter to everyone, because I didn't want them to worry, but you were always the strong one. Metamor got hit hard last Yule. Really hard. They lost a lot of good people, and they'll be rebuilding for years. Rumor has it that Nasoj's power is broken now, but things are still very dangerous here. If something happens to me, I want you to know I'm glad you're there to keep everyone safe. They need you there, just like Metamor needs me here. Thanks, brother, and take care. Wolfram."
Daria Marcus left her meeting with Steward Macaban with a lot to think about as her carriage rattled down the road. Were Prince Phil and his steward really going to pursue a course of action she'd been debating for the last eight years? Back when Daria Marcus had been Darius Marcus, he had never questioned his inherent supremacy over the 'gentler sex', even his own wife. The Battle of the Three Gates had changed that. He had been at the second gate, and when the counterspell had taken hold, she had fought just as hard as when she had been a man, and killed just as many foes. That had been the beginning of the end for his ideas about supremacy.
Maria had helped it along before her death two years later, even to the very last day. Her horse had spooked while she was out riding and run off, pitching her onto rocky ground and breaking her back. Even so, she had dragged herself to a nearby farm, where the people had cared for her as best they could before she passed on. The damage was too extensive for any healer they could have summoned in time, but they had tried. Maria's last request had been to replace the two old plowhorses the farmer's son and daughter had nearly ridden to death trying to bring a healer in time, and Daria had followed through on that with deep gratitude.
The incident had sent her mind down a new course: if man was not so superior over woman, what did that say about man over man? For all her life, Daria had been certain of her rightful place above the lower classes, and had quietly resented how much of her family's wealth now came from merchant trade rather than the production of their land, as it had been before her grandfather had squandered much of that away. The farmer's efforts on Maria's behalf drove her to reconsider that resentment, for the two plow horses so willingly sacrificed had been all the wealth that the farmer possessed. Would she have gone to such lengths in a similar situation? If not, what did that say about the 'superiority of birth'?
Years had passed, and she had continued to ponder what to do. Finally, when she could bear it no longer, she had set her house in order and travelled to the Oracle of Samekkh to ask for his advice on how to set things right. The journey had been both expensive and tremendously difficult, but she had refused to spend any more sleepless nights worrying the problem back and forth in her mind, like a young kitten batting at a mouse without knowing where to bite to make the kill. Unless the Oracle herself denied her, she would have her answer.
The Oracle did not deny her, but the advice of Samekkh had not been what she expected. "The times have indeed changed," the Oracle said, "but it is not yet time to change with them. When a white banner flies from the house of Loriod, then follow where its leader leads."
The thought of copying that bastard Altera had turned her stomach, but the Loriod banner was green and gold. And once Jacob had thought to look past the nauseating idea of following Loriod's example and reminded her of the connotations of a white banner... Then the advice had not seemed so onerous. Now Loriod was dead, unable to blackmail her ever again, and the banner of Lorland was indeed white. And oh, what plans the new leaders had!
A lot of careful investigation had tipped their hand to her, and the visit to Steward Macaban had just confirmed it. They were going to raise Lorland up until its people were capable of ruling themselves, and now so was the family Marcus. Quietly. She hoped that her two children would understand. Melissa probably would: she was more worldly than her younger brother, and the Mage Guild had a reputation for rattling the class structure. Xavier, on the other hand… Xavier worried her. She turned her attention back to his letter, unfolded in her lap.
Drift got engaged. I tried to keep him busy and distracted… you know how Alexis worries me. This has, so far, not been successful: I cannot believe the man's appetite for hard work. Still, I will keep doing what I can to divert his attention. There is something wrong about her, something I can't quite place, but still something wrong. It is for the best that he be maneuvered away from her. May Velena forgive me.
Daria shook her head. In earlier years, she had once taught her son to manage and maneuver the lower classes, 'for their own good'. It was a decision she had come to regret. Xavier had grown up heart-set on 'restoring the family to its rightful place in society', rather than accepting that times had changed, and she blamed herself for that. The years ahead would be hard for him. "Be careful, my impetuous son," she said, stroking her fingers tenderly over his closing signature. "You're about to stick your hand in a hornet's nest, and even the best of intentions won't help you if they decide to sting."
In other news, Drift's building in Euper (whatever it is) is nearly done, in spite of some vandal's efforts at minor sabotage. The Watch is investigating, but they don't hold out much hope of catching whoever did it. More's the pity. Drift already considers the Watch next to useless, and this is not helping matters. He has also bought up enough wood and canvas to make at least two small sailing boats, but what he's got planned with it I don't know. He doesn't swim, and is not at all fond of being on the water, so boats are unlikely. Whatever he's up to, he seems to be doing pretty well overall. His smithy…
The letter continued as the carriage rolled on through the deepening twilight, and Daria read until the light grew too dim to see before putting it away. She would need to have a talk with her son sometime soon, she thought. Perhaps an invitation home was in order. Better for him to find out her plans directly from her than from the town crier. Yes, she would write a letter for just such a purpose in the morning.
Night hung cool and quiet over the spires and towers of Metamor Keep. Somewhere inside, white-furred hands cradled a mother's treasured keepsakes, and tears trembled on drooping whisker tips. Among the coals of a forge in the other room, a letter crinkled and burned.
Mama, Papa, Erin, Nathan,
I miss you.