As she watched the ripples form slowly in the water, Adelaide took a deep breath and tried to relax.
Two white swans were swimming near the edge of the clear blue lake.
She could see them looking at her, waiting. They knew that whenever she felt like this she would come to the lake. They knew what she felt like, what she wanted. At least, that’s what she told herself. Grabbing a small piece of bread out of her pocket, Adelaide knelt down near the water's edge and held out her hand. She waited patiently for them to come to her.
Several moments later the cob came closer and pecked it out of her hand. He subsequently swam back to the pen and shared it with his mate.
Adelaide remembered when it took a lot longer for the swans to come to her. She reminisced about the first time she had come here. It had been many years ago when she and her mother had walked along the lake and Adelaide had spotted the swans. She had begged her mother for something to give them and had held her arm up with some bread. Her hand had become numb from waiting and she had tossed the bread into the water, frustrated…
But now all these years later, they were used to her. They had even let the little cygnets get near her. She had been so happy the first day she saw them that she had let out a cry of delight, thereby scaring the little birds back to their parents.
She sighed. Would that I could be a swan like you, she mused.
At times she envied the swans. Swimming as they would, gently gliding on the clear blue waters of the lake or taking wing and flying through the skies, free. They seemed blissfully ignorant of the world around them.
Adelaide stood up and started walking back the way she came. She followed a pebbled path that snaked its way up a hillock, away from the lake. She was late – they would probably be looking for her. She started to walk faster.
As the pebbles turned into flat stones, the road became busier with people. A few moments later and she was surrounded by them. Towards the lake, towards the forest, towards the gardens – they were all going somewhere. Adelaide noticed a bunch of travelers standing near a fountain, talking and laughing animatedly about something. By the look of them they were about to depart on some sort of journey. They had laden horses with them and were all geared up. Adelaide wished she could go with them.
Up ahead a large, beautifully crafted dome-like structure came into view. Sunlight glinted off its top and Adelaide noticed a gathering of small birds near the edge, bathed in the warmth of the afternoon sun. People were walking in and out of the building. The large doors that gave way to the inside were engraved with two trees, maples, one on each door. As she continued on her way towards the building she heard footsteps closing in behind her. One pair quick shuffles, the other measured steps.
"So… how were the swans today?" Charlotte asked as she fell in besides Adelaide. "Did you see the cygnets again?"
"No, I didn't see them today," Adelaide said. "Not for several days, actually..."
"Well, I'm sure you you'll see them soon enough," Charlotte said encouragingly.
"I hope so…"
"The Head Abbess was looking for you," came the voice of Julia, who was now walking beside her as well.
Adelaide sighed. "I better get there before she starts shouting."
They picked up the pace. A minute or so later they neared the entrance of the Abbey. Adelaide looked back in the direction of the fountain. She could barely make out the group of travelers leaving the grounds.
"Here we go…" Adelaide said as they stepped inside.
"Have you seen that new captain yet?" Charlotte asked as they were cleaning the windows in one of the Abbey rooms.
The room looked out onto a garden and Adelaide was absentmindedly looking outside. Her thoughts turned to the captain that Charlotte was talking about. As usual whenever someone new entered the town of Cherble and wandered along the grounds of Lightmaple Abbey, it gathered a lot of attention. Female attention. It seemed that whenever the captain wasn't among other officers or guards he was surrounded by a throng of annoyingly loud and foolish girls. Similar to a flock of sheep. Of course Adelaide had seen him, he wasn’t hard to miss when he rode past the grounds. With his long, golden mane-like hair flowing in the wind as he galloped by on a beautiful white stallion...
"I wonder if he's seeing anyone..." Charlotte went on.
"Tottie come on, he just got here!" Julia scolded, but smiling none the less.
Adelaide sighed. "They should just leave him alone. I'm sure he has better things to do…"
"I was just wondering…” Charlotte went on, “Who knows, he could need some help getting used to Cherble or the Abbey," Charlotte said, grinning a bit.
"Well, if you would spend half the time doing your work as you spend daydreaming, you might even get a chance at asking him if he needs a hand," Julia said coyly.
Adelaide smiled at their idle chatter and continued to clean a window.
After they had finished cleaning the room they were in, the three of them went on to the next and the next, and the next, until finally Adelaide had lost count how many rooms they had cleaned. She wished there was another way to be inducted into the service of the Abbey. Her mother had wanted her to become a nun and since her mother was the Head Abbess, she couldn’t refuse. She had been living near the Abbey for as long as she could remember and had entered her fourth year as a novice. Julia had entered training a year before she did and was almost at the end of her training. This was Charlotte's first year, and the term novice didn't fit anyone better. She had been a mess when she had arrived at the Abbey several years ago and didn’t take to teaching of any kind easily. She always wanted to do something else. Apparently, being a novice wasn't as glamorous or nice as it sounded, or so she had told them after her first week here. Adelaide agreed couldn’t agree more. Though she knew that the training was required before moving on to other practices, she had also wanted to do something else. They often talked about going on adventures to faraway places, but besides walks to nearby villages, they never really did for fear of getting into trouble.
The light outside was slowly turning dark as they finished cleaning a large room filled with books and chairs.
Adelaide went to fetch some water outside to finish up and took a shortcut through one of the side entrances, which was not used often. She heard animated voices coming from outside. She stopped and tried to hear who it was. Hearing nothing, she ignored it and went on.
Twilight was falling amongst the trees growing around the Abbey, giving each on a slightly different hue. The trees had an eerie feel to them at this time of day. Even after all this time living here, Adelaide wasn't quite comfortable with it. For some reason the light made her feel bad.
After filling a pail of water, she headed back the way she came. She wondered what the people arguing had been talking about. She hoped it didn't have anything to do with Charlotte, who was known to cause trouble once in a while.
As Adelaide approached the side entrance, she was belatedly aware of someone else rushing out at the same time. As they crashed into each other, Adelaide lost hold of her pail of water.
"Oh!" A rush of air left her as she stumbled to the ground.
The pail rolled to a stop in front of a pair of boots, the water spilling all around them.
She heard a grunt.
"Forgive me," a strained, masculine voice said. "I wasn't paying attention. Allow me.” The man held out a hand.
Adelaide took the stranger's hand and let herself be drawn up. As she looked at the stranger, she was surprised to see it was the newly arrived captain, standing in front of her. Long golden hair and green eyes. His coat was dripping.
"I apologize... I wasn’t really looking where I was headed. I… was looking for someone." The man stared at Adelaide with an odd look to his eyes.
"That's… that's okay, really," Adelaide said, her voice barely audible. She looked at his coat. "I'm sorry about that."
The man seemed confused. "Please, don't worry about that. It’s just water.”
Adelaide noticed that one of the man's wrists was wrapped in linen cloth. There was a red stain on it, which seemed to be getting redder by the second. She caught his eye and he pulled his sleeve down.
"Are you okay? You're… bleeding..." Adelaide said as she looked at him, a furrow in her brow.
"I'm fine. I was just looking for the Head Abbess. I was told I could find her here."
Adelaide wondered where her mother would be at this time of day.
"Well... she is sort of occupied at the moment." She looked at his hand again. "Is there anything I can do?”
The man seemed to look at her for a very long time. Adelaide was starting to feel self-conscious before the man went on. "I suppose so. Yes, I'd appreciate it.” He hesitated. “Do you know where they keep medicine in this building?"
"Yes," she said warily.
"Well, the Head Abbess gave me a salve which, unfortunately, ran out this morning. It's called hunter's remorse – ever heard of it?"
Adelaide considered the name. Where had she hear that name before? She remembered her mother using it before... on someone who was badly wounded. She wondered what had happened to the captain’s hand.
"Yes, I know of it... a...a dark purple paste, right?"
The man smiled slightly. "Exactly. Now, is there a way you might be able to acquire some?"
Adelaide hesitated for a moment. She wasn't sure if she was allowed to just grab it. Minor medicinal remedies, sure, but this was different.
She looked at the man and nodded. "Of course, I'll be right back."
Adelaide entered the Abbey and hurried to a large room, hidden in the back of the building. Thankfully, no one was around. Once she was inside, she quickly glanced around the large room. Dozens of shelves and racks were filled with vials, pots, jars and various oddities of all sorts and shades. After several minutes of searching she found what she was looking for – a small, square wooden box. Engraved on the lid was a black flower, somewhat similar to the roses that grew around her house. She grabbed it and hurried back outside, careful to avoid anyone noticing her passing by. She was all too aware what would happen if she was caught.
When Adelaide once again walked through the side entrance, she noticed the man sitting on a bench several yards away. A big willow tree loomed over him, casting long shadows over the ground.
The man regarded her as she approached. He seemed to tense a bit.
Adelaide sat down next to the man and noticed that they were mostly out of view sitting on the bench as they were.
"Here it is," she said holding out the small wooden box.
“Any problems along the way?”
Adelaide shook her head.
"Good. Now take this." The man handed her a small pack of cloth. "I need to treat this wrist of mine and I’m going to need your help.”
Adelaide thought he heard a note of resentment, or was she imagining things?
"Are you sure you want to do this?" the man asked pausing.
"Yes,” Adelaide replied.
The man slowly unwound the linen around his right wrist and laid it aside. Adelaide saw that the wound, a dark gash across his hand and wrist, was still bleeding slightly.
She swallowed. "What happened?" Adelaide said, concern and curiosity mixed together.
"A foolish mistake," the man said. "Hand me the box."
Adelaide did so and wondered how the man had gotten a gash like that. She started to get nervous.
"I'm going to put some of this paste on my hand and," motioning to a piece of cloth, “I’ll need you to press down on it afterwards. Don’t hold back. Otherwise it won’t work."
"Are you sure this is going to work? Shouldn't we get the… Head Abbess first?"
The man smiled faintly. "I thought you just said she was occupied."
"Yes, well... I'm not sure."
"Sure you are, now grab that cloth and be ready to press..." The man then opened the small wooden box and took some of the dark paste out of it with his left hand. He took a deep breath and Adelaide saw his jaws clench. He spread it on his wound and grunted. He nodded at which Adelaide quickly pressed the cloth on his hand. The man grunted again and started breathing faster.
Instinctively Adelaide started to let go, but the man said, "Don't..." and she continued to put pressure on the cloth.
A few moments passed by before the man’s breathing started to ease and slowed down. He unclenched his jaws, looked down at his hand and gazed at Adelaide.
"Thank you," he said. "You can let go now."
Adelaide slowly took the cloth of and was surprised to see that the gash was lighter in color and almost seemed smaller than it had seconds ago.
"What's in that stuff?" Adelaide wondered, bewildered by the effect it had on his wound.
“You’re asking me?”
“I uhh…” She faltered and started laughing.
The man smiled. “I’m glad I amuse you,” he said, standing up and taking a deep breath.
Adelaide copied him.
The man held out his hand. "Thank you."
Amused at the gesture Adelaide gave him a hand and replied, "Of course."
“I’m Andrew, by the way.”
“Adelaide,” she replied.
His green eyes glinted. "Adelaide, I'm afraid I have one more favor to ask of you," Andrew said and grinned. "Could you wrap me up?"
When Adelaide got home, she made for her bedroom, trying to move as quietly as she could. As she neared the stairs, her mother's voice rang out from the hallway.
"Adelaide, could you come over here?"
Adelaide made a face and headed to the room her mother was in. A simple room with several books, a desk and a chair, occupied by her mother. Her mother had changed from her usual white robes into somewhat simple, peach colored ones.
Her mother regarded her for a moment. "Is everything all right? You do not usually come home at this time of hour."
"Yes mother, I was just... cleaning up. It took a bit longer than we expected. And now I'm really tired…"
Her mother gave her an appraising look. Adelaide knew that she didn't believe her and waited for her mother to respond. Something must have changed her mind, for her mother said, "Of course. Rest well my dear. We shall talk on the morrow."
"Good night," Adelaide said, exiting the room. She half ran up the stairs to her room. She wondered what changed her mother's mind.
As Adelaide sat down on her bed, she looked out at the lake, which was visible through an open window. She felt odd. She wasn't sure what to make of her day. Did she really look that tired? Or was it something else? Confused and exhausted, Adelaide lay down and soon fell into a restless sleep.
The following day Adelaide spent her time cleaning dozens of urns and pots. She spent most of her morning with Julia, who told her that Charlotte wasn't coming. Supposedly, she was sick.
As Adelaide swept a damp cloth around the curvy edges of a large, ornate urn, she reflected on a dream she had had last night. She had dreamed of the sea. At least she thought it was the sea. She’d actually never seen it before. She wasn't sure what that meant, if it meant anything at all. She knew her parents had met someplace near the sea, a long time ago, but her mother never talked about it. Was this where they met? She pondered the dream for a while before her thoughts turned to the previous night and Andrew.
"What’s wrong?" Julia asked her when they had spent more than an hour in silence, cleaning.
"What?" Adelaide asked, lost in thought.
"You seem a bit distracted…"
Adelaide looked at the urn she was cleaning and saw that it was already clean. She stopped, put it away and started cleaning another one next to it.
"I'm fine," Adelaide said.
"Are you sure?" Julia asked, suspiciously.
"I was just thinking about a dream I had..."
Julia gave her a curious look. "Did something happen last night?"
"What?" Adelaide asked, startled. “No.”
"Well, I didn't see you after you went out to get some water… I figured you'd gone home, but something tells me you didn't do so straight away."
Adelaide remained silent. Oh, why did I have to become friends with her? Adelaide thought to herself. Julia always knew if something was even the tiniest bit awry. Adelaide thought about last night and wondered if Andrew would want people to know what happened.
"Something happened. Tell me," Julia urged.
"It's nothing; I just bumped into someone before heading home."
"Bumped in to whom?"
"Just a guy who didn't know the way around the Abbey apparently."
"Yes a guy, okay. But nothing happened, so just leave it," Adelaide said, annoyed.
"Right... you don't want to say his name, that's fine," she said, feigning hurt. "Oh Adelaide, come on! I'm tired of the same gossip every day. At least tell me his name..." she said looking at her imploringly.
"Fine! The new captain, okay?!"
"You know his name?" Adelaide asked surprised.
"Of course I do. Charlotte has been talking about him ever since he arrived. Well most girls have. You seem surprised?"
"No. It's nothing, never mind,” Adelaide said, trying to stop where the conversation was going.
"So what happened?"
"Nothing, I told you. We just bumped into each other."
"Sure, sure." Julia paused for a moment. "Well just be careful. You know what those northerners are like..."
The following days seemed to go by in a blur. For some reason, the days all felt the same to Adelaide. Summer was almost at its end and the forest seemed to be ablaze with color. Late-blooming trees stood interspersed with dozens of green ones. A plethora of birds could be heard throughout the day, whenever one walked among the forest surrounding Lightmaple. The cygnets seemed to be flourishing, their size increasing by the day.
Adelaide, Charlotte and Julia were sitting on a bench overlooking the lake.
Near the edge, Julia was handing the cygnets some bread. Adelaide had told Charlotte about Andrew as well, after much fuss and begging, but now wished she hadn't.
"What did you girls talk about? And don't tell me it was nothing! He wouldn't come see you again just for nothing…" Charlotte said, sitting next to Adelaide on the bench. She had been asking questions about Adelaide's stroll for hours.
Adelaide had come across Andrew the other day, coming back from another a trip up north. Apparently, he had been sent out to look into some rumors, or so she had heard.. Charlotte seemed to be annoyed that they'd even talked to each other. Adelaide was starting to get tired of her constant questioning. The last time Charlotte had been like this it was because some guy had given an apple to Julia for helping him out. Apparently Charlotte had had an eye on him and she hadn't talked to Julia for weeks. Now it seemed Adelaide was the target of her ridiculous love pursuits.
Adelaide sighed. "We just talked…" she told Charlotte for the umpteenth time.
"About what?" Charlotte went on.
"It's none of your business, okay?" Adelaide responded, annoyed.
"Well it is if you're talking about me…"
"Tottie, trust me – we're not talking about you, okay?"
That seemed to shut her up.
"Is he enjoying his duty as a captain?" Julia asked as she walked to them and sat on the bench.
"Of course he does, who wouldn't? Everyone looks to him for support in times like these," Charlotte said, affronted.
"Times like these?" Adelaide asked with a small smile.
"You know, the rumors that have been going around? Who do you think has to go out there and investigate?" She emphasized the word 'there' as if the world outside of the forest were terrible.
"Oh come on, I'm sure it's nothing. They’re just rumors," Julia said, chiming in.
"I'm not sure. It doesn't sound like it's just rumors. Have you noticed the messengers coming by? You think they're all bringing good news?"
"Promise me you won’t tell, but..." Adelaide said lowering her voice. "I've heard that the mayor of Cherble is looking for another beau..."
"What?!" Charlotte exclaimed, and astonished look on her face. She looked at Julia and then back at Adelaide.
They both started laughing. Charlotte couldn't help but join in. What were they talking about? Silly rumors...
When Adelaide came home later that day, she saw her mother standing outside.
As she neared her, her mother said," Walk with me."
Adelaide dutifully joined the Head Abbess for a walk. She waited till her mother said something.
After several moments her mother said, "There's something we need to talk about."
Her mother's tone made her nervous. "Is something wrong?" Did they forget to clean something?
"No dear, everything is fine... for now."
It was a nice evening – the scent of blooming flowers wafted in a slight breeze. The skies were dotted with a few clouds and the sun was glowing radiantly near the horizon. Adelaide heard blackbirds singing close by. The sound of them comforted her somewhat. Adelaide noticed that they were heading to the lake. A few minutes of silence went by before they neared the lake's edge and they stopped. Her mother sat down on a bench, the same bench Adelaide and her friends usually sat on, and beckoned her to sit.
"Adelaide, how well do you know the new captain of the guards?"
"Andrew?" Adelaide said, somewhat disconcerted. Did her mother know what happened? Charlotte!
Her mother's eyes narrowed a bit at her quick response. "Yes... Andrew. I take it the two of you have met?"
"We have. Why?" Where was her mother heading?
"Well you see, the mayor has ordered several of his enlisted men, our captain among others, to go to city of Anastor. I'm sure you have heard the rumors by now. They spread quickly through our grounds..." She paused and looked out at the lake.
Adelaide followed her gaze.
A moment went by before she continued. "In any case, it's come to my attention that the Senate of Anastor is going to be hold another meeting at the city to discuss these rumors and perhaps what action they think needs to be taken."
"Why are you telling me this?" Adelaide asked, not sure where she fit in.
"Well, the mayor has asked for someone from our abbey to join this party of his. A representative, if you will. It's important that we know what is happening. Wyedon isn’t that far from here and whatever the Senate plans to do, this might affect us as well. I would've asked someone else to go, but it seems that our captain has asked for you..." she said and looked at Adelaide, her gaze unreadable.
Surprise and anxiety started to war inside of Adelaide. "Me?" Adelaide asked, bewildered.
"Yes. I don’t know why, but in any case, even though I'd rather you stay here, it might be time for you to do something besides cleaning all day. You've done your duties sufficiently well and it was only time before I'd have to assign you to something…"
Adelaide wasn't sure if she was talking to her mother or the Head Abbess. Why would Andrew ask for her? And how could she leave now? She'd been dying to get away from her surroundings, but now she was asked, she wasn't sure anymore. She stared ahead.
"So I ask again," her mother went on, gazing at Adelaide, "How well do you know this Andrew?"
"I have to go..." Adelaide was starting to get emotional but forced herself not to let it show.
The three of them were standing on a balcony overlooking the lake. Charlotte was leaning on the edge, Julia against a wall.
Charlotte turned around to gaze quizzically at Adelaide and asked, "Go where?"
The sky behind her was full of clouds, though not dark or threatening. The sound of small waterfall could be heard in the distance, its rushing water mirroring how Adelaide felt.
"Anastor," Adelaide replied. For some reason, she still wasn't sure if she wanted to do this. Was it because her mother rather wanted her to stay here? Or was it that Andrew had asked for her to come?
"Anastor? Why would you go there?" Charlotte asked.
"There's going to be a summit or something and the mayor of Cherble is sending a group of people, and I was asked to go with them.
"A summit? About what? The rumors? And why did they ask you?"
"I don't know," Adelaide lied. "I was told they're going to decide if anything needs to be done…"
Another long moment passed before her Julia stirred. "When do you leave?" She had been standing quietly nearby the whole time.
Adelaide was glad that she didn't hammer her with details. "The day after tomorrow," Adelaide said softly.
Suddenly Charlotte ran up to Adelaide and embraced her tightly.
Surprised, Adelaide returned the embrace and a second later felt Julia join as well.
"Be careful," Charlotte said, tears in her eyes.
Several days later, Adelaide found herself miles removed from the one place she had known her whole life. Never before had she traveled this far from her home. She had visited other villages in Heaton a couple of times, and once had been to Halfhill to the east, but never further than that.
She was tired. Riding a horse wasn't something she did habitually and it was not as comfortable as others made it look. She was not sure where they were going – the lands they were crossing seemed all the same to her. She wondered what would happen if they got lost on their way to the city. How long would they be out here in the wilds? She was anxious indeed – but in a good way. She liked to think so, at least. At first she had been overjoyed to finally be off on an adventure. To see what lay beyond the lands she knew. To perhaps glimpse where she came from. She had never known her father, or whether he still lived - her mother had only told her it was somewhere near the sea. She wondered if she’d ever know who he was.
But now that she was here, traveling across rolling hills of grass and heather, she started to miss her home. She missed her friends and, she had to admit, her mother as well.
But whatever longing there was, it was alleviated by the time she spent with her new companions, chief among them Andrew. Every day the linen around his wrist and hand had to be checked and replaced. Adelaide saw that the wound was healing, but she noticed that once in a while he would fist his hand whenever he thought people weren't looking. Adelaide had asked him what had caused it several times, but every time she did Andrew would just wave his hand and say it was nothing.
Besides the two of them, there were several others. A couple of men Andrew supposedly worked with, a clergyman of some sorts and a woman from Cherble. Andrew usually rode with his fellow men. Adelaide was surprised to see how at ease they seemed when talking with him. It didn't matter if he was talking to his fellows or the other travelers, he appeared to listen avidly and ask thoughtful questions when it seemed appropriate. They liked him. A part of Adelaide wondered if that was the reason he had risen to the position he was in now. Whenever the men went out to scout ahead, or look for something to hunt (for sport or food), Adelaide ended up spending time together with the horses, the clergyman or the other woman. The clergyman was on his way back to Anastor after a business trip (or so he called it) in Cherble. Lightmaple didn't usually have male students and so a male clergyman was something she hadn't seen much of. Apparently the clergyman had met the woman on his way to Cherble. Adelaide noticed that the man couldn't keep his eyes off her, but if that feeling was mutual she did not know. The woman kept mostly to herself, usually leaving their camp in the evening, only to come back the next morning with a hare or some other creature that she had caught. The clergyman had commended her hunting ability on several occasions but was only treated with a slight smile or neglect on her part.
Adelaide wasn't sure if Andrew knew where they were going – to her it all looked the same – but if he didn’t, it didn't show.
On the sixth night of their journey, Adelaide found herself waiting for Andrew and the rest of the men who were out hunting. She sat in front of a fire that had been made from what little wood was available and enjoyed the warmth it gave. It wasn't cold – actually, it was a very pleasant evening. It had been mostly overcast the first few days, but now the clouds were finally clearing. The skies were alight with stars, so many that it had made her head spin at first. It was beautiful.
Adelaide peered at the small flames crackling in the slight breeze. She wondered if she had made a rash decision. Andrew had asked her before they left if she was sure she wanted to come. Adelaide replied that everything was fine and he had taken her word for it.
Several moments later, Adelaide heard the tell tail sound of horses galloping. Andrew and the scouts had returned with the body of a doe. Her face fell when she saw the dead animal, hanging off the back of a horse. Another thing she wasn't used to, hunting animals for food. At the Abbey they never ate meat, for this was seen as an affront to their goddess. Fish they ate, but since no stream or river had been seen for a while, they were forced to resort to other means.
She was vaguely aware of the men hauling the deer on a makeshift spit. A minute went by before Adelaide smelled it. It made her stand up and walk away. A dozen feet away, standing near a lone tree, she found the woman standing alone, staring at the skies. Adelaide joined her and they stood thus for several minutes in silence. She was relieved that the smell from the fire did not follow her here.
"What are you looking at?" Adelaide wondered aloud.
The woman was quiet for a moment, then, "The same as you, I reckon." She turned to face Adelaide. "Oh, were you expecting some thoughtful insight? They're just stars…" The woman looked passed Adelaide and smiled, and continued to walk back to the fire.
Adelaide wasn't sure what to make of that. What does that clergyman see in her?
"Are you all right?" a male voice asked behind her, startling Adelaide.
She turned around and saw Andrew standing a few feet away, his face unreadable.
"Of course, why wouldn’t I be?" Adelaide responded.
Andrew seemed to consider that, before he went on, "Well for one, food is ready and you should eat. And secondly it's cold and you should be near the fire where it's warm."
Adelaide was about to retort for telling her what to do when Andrew held out his hand and she noticed an apple in his palm.
"You don't have to eat meat if you don’t want to, you know…"
Adelaide was sitting next to Andrew as she took a greedy bite of the apple. She hadn't noticed how hungry she had been. She felt Andrew's piercing eyes on her and felt a little uncomfortable. “How did you know I don't like meat?" she asked after swallowing a chunk of apple.
The question seemed to amuse him. "I noticed every time someone gave you some, you gave it to your horse or the clergyman."
Adelaide wasn't sure if that was just being keen or creepy. She continued eating the apple. It was rather good, she wondered if he had more.
"Does your father live in Anastor?" Andrew asked, breaking Adelaide from her reverie.
Adelaide stopped eating. "What?" Where did that come from?
"Does your father live in Anastor?" Andrew repeated.
"I… I don't know. I've never met him.” She paused. “Why are you asking me this?"
"I was just wondering why you agreed to accompany me to Anastor."
Adelaide wasn't entirely sure either. All she said was, "Oh."
They were silent for a moment.
"You haven't answered my question," Andrew urged.
"Well, you never answer mine!"
"No you don't! You never tell me what happened to your hand…"
"Why are you smiling?!"
"Because you’re making quite the scene."
Adelaide looked around and saw that all eyes were on the two of them. Heat flooded to her cheeks.
Andrew laughed. A deep, hearty laugh that made Adelaide feel even more foolish.
She stared at her hands for a moment, wishing they would look away.
"Don't worry about them."
Adelaide looked up and saw Andrew staring intently at her. What’s wrong with me? Adelaide wondered why she couldn't stay mad at him. She was relieved to see the other members of the group seemed to have lost interest in the two of them and were presently ignoring them.
Adelaide tried to grit her teeth, but failed to return the smile. Argh! He's so frustrating…
After thirteen days of riding, the rolling hills of grass slowly gave way to flatter lands. They came upon fields of grain and crops, finally signs of civilization. Along the way they had stayed at several inns, a really pleasant one the previous day in Oakmoor, but besides that the lands had seemed empty to Adelaide. Empty and vast. According to Andrew they had just passed a large forest called Diepwoud, which lay nestled near the foothills of a mountain range, and would be at Anastor soon.
Adelaide was glad they were nearly at the end of their journey – she didn't know how much more of this she could handle. She'd wondered what the city would be like. Her thoughts turned to Andrew's question, which had been gnawing her for days. Could her father be living in Anastor? She didn't know much about him. Her mother never talked about him, and what she did know wasn't much. Supposedly they had met at sea, and that her father, a sailor, had lived near it ever since. Anastor therefor fit the bill. Adelaide wondered if her father were still alive and if he would recognize her if they ever met.
As they went on, the fields of grain increased in their frequency and size and small buildings started to pop up here and there. Barns, granaries and sheds that belonged to farmers and tillers, according to Andrew. The fields were oddly shaped like squares or rectangles, and were bordered by small rows of bushes or trees. Hills still dotted the landscape around her but slowly came to an abrupt halt up ahead.
And that was when she saw it. Sitting near the edge of the bluffs, rising high up to the sky in stark contrast to the grass and heather around it, was a white, walled city. Red-domed towers rose up from multiple places near the edge of the city and Adelaide noticed one building that reminded her of the Abbey in Cherble in the middle, though a lot bigger.
"The Great Keep," Andrew said, following her gaze.
It looked huge, Adelaide wondered how people had built it.
They followed a stone path that led from many of the bigger buildings outside, to the city. It meandered through the crop-patches and crossed over a small river by bridge. It then continued straight to a gatehouse near the wall. As they slowly got closer Adelaide saw that the walls were indeed made of some kind of white stone. After Andrew exchanged words with the guards patrolling on the gatehouse, they continued through and found a street lined with buildings on both sides. Dozens, no, hundreds of houses with people scuttling up and down. Most of them were made of wood and brick, while some of the grander buildings had the same white color of the wall. They were all so closely built together, it seemed as if not an inch was spared.
"I've never seen so many people," Adelaide said to Andrew as they made their way through a crowd. Proud-looking people wearing fine clothing, children running around with tattered clothes or none at all.
"It's quite the sight indeed," Andrew said as he rode up to her and smiled. "Wait till you see the market...."
During the days that followed, Andrew was often away meeting people or being summoned somewhere. When they had arrived at the city, the group that had traveled from Cherble to Anastor disbanded and Adelaide said goodbye to the clergyman and the woman. Several of the soldiers that had joined them were housed nearby, but Adelaide hardly saw them. Not being allowed to go with them, or Andrew, Adelaide had a lot of time to herself. Andrew usually came back to their lodgings in the evening and so Adelaide spent her time exploring the city. Well, she tried to... The city was big. Very big. She had tried to walk to the markets Andrew had talked about but got lost several times. Apparently there were several markets. Two of them seemed largest, one way down near the docks with lots of seafood and other sea fare, and one located in the middle of the city which had more local produce and metals. Adelaide had chosen the latter and had to stop to ask for directions about a dozen times. While some people treated her as if she was some sort of dolt, others were more helpful, and eventually she was finally able to find the stalls. Cries and shouts from merchantmen were flying all over the place. She saw all kinds of fish, fruit, vegetables, cloths, spices and metals, a lot of them unknown to her. People were trying to sell it to her as well – she had to decline a fruit seller several times before he seemed to take the hint that she did not want a basket with black-colored berries...
Though Adelaide had not come any closer to finding her father, and she still had to get used to the crooked streets and the different customs of the people living in the city, she was starting to like it. The people here were very pertinent, and different though this was from how people usually conversed where she was from, there was a certain charm to it. There was always something new to see, and for seven days Adelaide walked the streets, curious about the city which was so different from her home yet somehow felt familiar.
As each day went by, Adelaide found herself looking forward to the evenings with increased interest. She couldn't wait to see Andrew again. Although she was interested in what was being decided about the rumors that they had come here for, she found she was more interested in how Andrew's days had been.
More than a week later, as evening fell over the city of Anastor, Adelaide was sitting in a chair in the common room of the lodgings they had been given. She was reading a book that one of the soldiers had left on the table, when Andrew came through the door. He seemed to be breathing rather fast and looked lost. When he turned his head and their eyes met, his face returned to its usual unreadable mask.
"What's wrong?" Adelaide asked, worried.
Andrew ignored her and sat down in the chair opposite her and studied the book she held in her hands.
"Could you take a look at my hand?" Andrew asked, his face still on the book.
"Of course… Let me grab the salve," Adelaide started to get up.
"No, just look at it." He unwrapped the linen and held out is hand.
Adelaide came closer and studied the wound. As she touched his hands, he seemed to stiffen. He had never done so before. Where once there had been a gash from his wrist halfway his hand, now merely was a thin line.
Adelaide smiled and let go of his hands, "It seems you won't be needing my healing skills anymore."
"It seems not," came Andrew's curt answer.
Suddenly, he started walking away, heading for the door again. He paused in the doorway and said, "Thank you."
He left her standing there, confused at what just happened.
"I have to leave..." Andrew said when he entered Adelaide's room late the next day.
Adelaide was looking down at the harbor, which lay near the base of the bluffs. It was a beautiful evening. The sky illuminated the hulls of the ships, the shouts of sailors reached her even this far up and all around the docks gulls flew high and cried their now familiar cry.
There was a tone in his voice that didn't sound like the usual thing he had said when he had to leave for a meeting or went to the Great Keep.
Adelaide felt unease creep up inside her as she turned around. Andrew looked confused and determined at the same time. Were they finally going back to Cherble? Her mother had sent her a letter asking how things went. She hadn’t replied yet, for she wasn’t sure if they needed to stay longer.
"What?" Adelaide, asked befuddled.
"I have to leave Anastor."
"Okay. Are we heading back to Cherble?"
"No." Andrew paused. "I've been ordered to travel to Wyedon. By ship."
"To Wyedon? Why? What ship?" Adelaide started to get anxious.
"My superiors,” he gritted when he said the word, “have ordered me to act as a guard for some pompous merchant going to Haypool.”
"A merchant?" Adelaide asked, askance.
"Apparently so. I don’t know why there going there know. And why for some reason they need a guard. I mean come on, there’s hundreds of them right outside. Why can’t they send some of them?” He started pacing up and down the room.
They were mute for a moment.
"They seem to think I'm somehow perfect for the job. They think that because I’m from Wyedon it will make things easier…” His tone seemed forced, as if he didn't want to go.
"And when you say 'I'…?" Adelaide asked quietly.
"I mean myself and several other men. You’ve met some of them already."
Her mind was elsewhere. "But what about your wound?"
"It's been fine for days now. It shouldn't be a problem anymore. You said it yourself it was fine."
Silence. The only sound came from outside. The cries of the harbor and sea.
"What about me?" Adelaide asked, her voice barely audible.
"You should go back to Cherble. There is a caravan heading in that direction tomorrow as well. You'll be safe and comfortable traveling with them."
"But I don't want to go back..."
"I'll go with you! I won't be in the way. I'll do whatever you want me to. I won't be any trouble..."
"Adelaide," Andrew said and gazed at her. "You need to return home."
"No, I don't..."
"Adelaide, stop," Andrew put his hand on her shoulder. "I'll be back before you know it. I just have to go to Haypool for a little bit and then I’ll come back."
Adelaide shrugged off his hand. "You don't know that! You know what they say about Wyedon! Why are they making you go there? Don’t they know it’s dangerous?"
"I doubt a couple of trade ships will warrant a lot of attention. Besides I won't be going alone."
"So then I can come with you?" Adelaide suggested desperately, hopeful for a second. "Then you won't need to leave me..."
"No. I wouldn't want to risk something happening to you. You'll be safer going back to Cherble." He paused. "Adelaide, this has to happen. I have to go," Andrew said with a final edge to his voice.
Adelaide sunk onto her bed, tears starting to flow down her cheeks. "I can't lose you too…" Just like my father...
"What?" He smiled slightly. "You won't lose me…"
After a moment of silence Andrew sat next to her and took her hand in his. With his other hand he delicately held up her chin and said, "You will not lose me. I promise."
"You might not come back…"
Adelaide stared at him. She gazed into his eyes. His burning, green eyes. She looked at his hair. Long, golden hair flowing messily to his shoulders. She had come to rely on this face. The way he smiled. The way she made her feel at ease whenever she wasn't.
She couldn't take it anymore. She lunged forward and the next moment their lips touched and she started kissing him fervently.
At first he was taken aback, not expecting the kiss. His response was soft in surprise but slowly deepened. She could feel the warmth and passion emanating from him, slowly rising and pulsating through his lips, trying to make her feel better. She responded as well, placing her arms around his head, tugging him closer.
This would be their last night together. The thought shook her. She couldn't waste any more time. She had to make it last, savor it, remember it. She pushed him down onto the bed and tried to force the worries about what might happen away. Outside she heard the gulls cry.
The following morning Adelaide woke up with a start. She half expected Andrew to have left without saying goodbye, but was relieved to see him sleeping next to her on the bed. A sheet was draped over his lower body, revealing his bare back. She sighed.
The sun was slowly coming up – rays of light peeked their way through the balcony into their room. They lit up Andrew's back, strong and lean with a scar across his right shoulder. Adelaide hadn't noticed it last night and wondered what had caused it. Even though last night was probably one of the best nights of her life, it dawned on her that this might be the last time they would see each other… From outside she could hear faint voices shouting and calling.
Adelaide slowly got out of the bed and walked to the balcony. She could see the harbor down below, already teeming with life and activity. Dozens of large ships were getting stocked and loaded up with barrels, crates and cannons... Sailors, merchants and all kinds of other people were shouting at each other. Why are they always shouting?
On one of those ships Andrew would leave her... Which one was it? She’d seen a couple of ships before, but never the size of these, and never with cannons. These ships looked worn, loaded with all kinds of supplies. She wasn't sure what a trade ship would look like, probably with lots of stuff on it. She saw several ships that looked a lot alike and couldn't quite tell the difference. She thought she saw one with several familiar figures and a lot of barrels being loaded, but wasn't sure.
I need to find out which ship he will take.
She heard Andrew move and a few moments later he rose out of bed and walked over.
He put his arms around her. "Good morning," he said, his voice low.
"Morning," Adelaide said softly.
"Did you sleep well?"
"Yes," she lied.
"Adelaide. Look at me."
She turned around in his arms and watched as a mischievous smile lit his face. "I'll come back for you," he said.
She struggled to smile back and hugged him fiercely.
The skies had turned dark by the time the preparations were set and the ships were ready to depart. Coal-colored clouds filled the skies and Adelaide saw rain coming down in the distance.
How fitting, she thought to herself, feeling just like that.
Three ships were going to Haypool, two of which were galleys, whilst the third one was an old big barge with tattered sails. The last one had pieces of planks covering scars on the hull which were quite big. Adelaide wondered what had happened to its sails. She noticed that the ship had been named The Lady White.
Andrew was on one of the white ships, talking animatedly with a bunch of other sailors. At least he's not on that crappy old one...
Rain started to pour down near them now. She heard someone call out to depart and watched as anchors were hosted aboard and the sails were loosened. She wondered why they had to go now, during the rain.
Slowly the two white ships started to move away from the dock. Among the now-wet sailors on the closest one, Adelaide caught Andrew's eye and saw him smiling.
She smiled back and hoped he had seen it.
Adelaide noticed that The Lady White hadn't moved yet. She wondered why and looked back to the two white ships. Further and further they moved, until she could only see two vague shapes in the distance, blurred by the rain.
And then he was gone.