Before the two could speak more the sound of hoofbeats on the ground disturbed them, and Rafel looked up. Pasha and Toresh were racing towards them, and he stood hurriedly, reaching to catch Pasha’s reins. He only paused a moment before urging Tirena into the mare’s saddle. “Hurry! We must get back to the stronghold!”
Tirena did as she was told, letting him boost her up almost unladylike, then shrieked as he slapped the mare on the flank, sending her galloping towards the walls. “Rafel! What is wrong?” she cried, but he did not reply. She clung tightly to Pasha, trusting the mare to bring her back to the stronghold and hoping that Rafel was not far behind her.
The Marshal smiled and kissed her temple again. “You are most welcome lesha. You can ask me anything, and I will tell you whatever I know.”
“Why do I feel as if I’ve known you all my life, Rafel?” she asked. “Why does being with you feel so natural? Why is it so easy to, well, to care for you?”
He had been waiting for her to wonder that, and reached one hand to clasp hers in it. “If I told you it’s because we were destined to be together, would you believe me Tirena?”
Before he spoke Rafel looked out at the river, letting the rushing water help him to focus his thoughts on something other than the young woman sitting beside him. He cleared his throat, and looked to Tirena again. “We’ve told you a little of your parents, of Dom Talven and your mother Eiren, haven’t we?”
“Before you were born, the clans were warring with the humans whose lands border ours. The humans wished to eradicate us, calling us abominations of Nature. Your father was leading a pack against the village of Marona, and your mother, Jes keep her, would not be left behind even though she was very much pregnant.” Rafel paused then, frowning. “My father was part of that pack, and told me this story many times until he passed three winters ago.”
Tirena followed Rafel from the stableyard, getting used to the feeling of the mare beneath her as her appointed protector took her on a tour of the grounds. She saw for the first time how massive her father’s keep was – she had to remind herself this was her home now – and Rafel leaned close to nudge her when he caught her staring.
“Doma-sha. Are you even listening to me?” he asked, his voice low and soft.
Rafel guided her to the stables, a short walk from the keep proper, and an aging groomsman bowed slowly to her. “And who is this handsome fellow?” asked Talven’s daughter. Her attention made the man blush and she grinned.
“I’m Dor, doma. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
Dor escorted them into the stables, which smelled sweet, like hay and fresh oats. Horses whickered and stomped their hooves against the broad planked floor, coming to the open half-doors of their stalls. Another groom led a large roan stallion to the yard, already saddled, but paused to let Rafel run a hand along the beast’s withers.
After breakfast Tirena returned to her room, where she bathed with scented soap in perfectly heated water. Lera helped her wash her hair as well, and once the clanlord’s daughter was wrapped in a dressing gown she spent time brushing and styling it in a fashion common to their people. Tirena admired herself in the vanity mirror, amazed at her reflection.
“In the village, I dressed not unlike the boys, really, except I wore long skirts instead of trousers,” she said when Lera laughed at her amazement. “I’ve never looked so pretty.”
“Well, you’re pretty now, doma. Now come and get dressed,” commanded the girl kindly. “The Marshal will come fetch you for your ride soon enough, and you don’t want him seeing you in your nothings.”
Morning was heralded by noisy roosters, hounds baying and the whickering of horses in the stables. Tirena realized her windows were open when she awoke to a cacophony not unlike what she would have heard in the village she was raised in, though upon opening her eyes she was reminded her entire life had changed. She frowned, certain that they had been closed when she went to sleep, and reached for the dressing robe laid at the foot of the bed. She realized then that someone had been in the room, for there were fresh flowers on the bedside table, and the fire had been kindled to warm the room.
Quickly wrapping the robe around herself she called out hesitantly. “Is someone here?”