This is Part One of a short story about young Hira Noh, a character from my novel Sword of Jashan. It’s set about twenty years before the events of the novels, so there are no spoilers. Links to parts two and three are at the bottom of the story. (Please click the links on the sidebars for info about the novels.)
Daughter of the Righ
by Anne Marie Lutz, ©2014
Hira Noh stomped hard on the graveled drive near the manor’s front door. Mud was jammed into every crevice of her boot soles. She grimaced at the encrusted stuff and began to walk around to the servant’s entrance.
The footman who had been waiting for her grinned. “I’ll get a boot brush, my lady.”
She had reached the garden on the west side of the manor when she heard a deep voice.
“Lady Hira! I am glad you have returned. May I have a word with you, if you can spare me a moment?”
There was a brazier lit on the terrace. The tall man who lounged on one of the benches before the brazier was dressed as if for court. Jewels sparked from his coat in a manner unsuited for the country. The afternoon sun, brilliant in spite of the early spring chill, deepened the harsh lines on his face and made his eyes seem even harder. Or perhaps that was just the contrast from the gold Collar bound around his neck.
Two household servants stood near the door. One bore a tray holding precious green glasses dark with wine.
She arranged her face into the smile that she knew was expected. “Lord Laikon, I didn’t know there was anyone here.” She watched his eyes travel down her person. “I’m afraid I am not suited to receive anyone just now. I just got back from a visit to one of our farm tenants.”
A muscle twitched in his jaw. “Lady Hira, it is more than a minor inconvenience for me to be away from Southgard. Surely you can join me for a few moments.” Color magery, red as blood, wreathed his hands.
The man was angry at her. What right had he? It was not Hira’s fault her father had ignored her express distaste for this man, who was well known to be a tyrant to his people.
She lifted her chin at him and saw his teeth clench. A fine foundation for a life together, this veiled confrontation during the supposed courtship. Hira bit off a quick refusal and strode toward the back door. She felt Laikon’s eyes following her until she rounded the corner.
Inside the mudroom, the footman awaited with the boot brush. Hira thanked him and made a token effort to wipe the mud from her boots, but she was too angry to do a thorough job. After just a few moments she dropped the brush and stormed through the kitchen, heading for her father’s study.
“My lady!” squawked one of the scullery maids. The girl clattered to her feet as Hira rushed by.
Her lord father’s study was sunlit and warm. Books leaned against each other on the polished shelves. A mirror, tool of the color mage’s art, stood draped with a silk covering in the corner of the room.
Her father was not there, but the door stood ajar and she heard his voice from downstairs. She sat in the stuffed chair she usually occupied when she visited her father here, and hoped he was giving the arrogant Lord Laikon a piece of his mind.
By the time her father walked through the door into his study, Hira’s resentment had only grown.
Her father stood in the beam of light thrown from the late sun falling through the window. She noticed for the first time how old he was looking. The gray at his temples had spread, and his eyes looked weary. His gait was stiff as he went to his chair behind the ledger-cluttered desk and sat down.
She refused to soften at his apparent weariness. “Is he gone?” she demanded.
“For now,” he said. “I have blamed your recalcitrance on the foibles of women. He doesn’t know you don’t have such weaknesses.”
“Father.” Her voice hardened. “My lord. I will have nothing to do with him, as I’ve told you. You know what is said about him.”
“So he takes concubines.” Lord Harkold shook his head. “This is not unusual. A Collared Lord must have some relief from being practically imprisoned in his fief.”
“You never did so.”
He sighed. “No. I have held true to your mother, as if she were still alive. I will never be with another woman.” His fingers touched the gleaming Collar at his neck. Hira noticed the skin wrinkled on either side of the metal, as if the Collar were too tight.
“Well, it’s not the concubines that offend me anyway. It’s what he does when he is tired of them. It’s what he has done to his slaves and his tenants. He is a cruel man, Father. I won’t marry him.”
“I would not see you given to a cruel man. He is nothing more than stern, and hard with his slaves. He will treat you as a righ lady should be treated, Hira. Have no doubt.”
“I won’t do it.”
Lord Harkold glared at her. “I have clearly made a mistake in letting you think you have a choice. You will do as you are told, girl. You are done with the stables and the tenants – you’ve been a blessing to me, but I shouldn’t have let you become so willful. Look at you!” He gestured at her and she looked down at the sheepskin coat, the mud on her boots that now smeared the carpeted floor. She knew her hair was windblown and her cheeks flushed.
“I’m not a giggling debutante, father. Do you want me to behave like one?”
He shook his head. “No. I treasure you as you are, Hira. But I am a man of weak resolve when it comes to my daughter. Because of that, I have failed you. Your place is not in the study, or the office or the tenants’ fields, no matter your intelligence. Instead, your duty is to bear righ sons and color mages. This you will do, with the lord I have chosen for you.”
Hira stood in the little stable. She ran a hand over Star’s shoulder, and the old mare whickered in pleasure. The stable doors opened onto the back of Hon Mithon’s house, with the merchant’s insignia hanging above the door.
The door creaked open. Brecon slid out, closed the door behind him and strode toward the stable. The sun lit his hair and his faded leather coat. He walked until his wide shoulders filled the gap in the stable doors.
“They said there was a message for me,” Brecon said. “I didn’t know it was you, Lady Hira.”
“I had to speak with you,” she said.
Star rumbled under Hira’s hand. Brecon’s face relaxed. He had always loved Star, who had been a gift when he was just a boy. Brecon and Hira had ridden the mare barebacked and barefooted, letting her pick her surefooted way down to the creek where they could wade in the shallows and find little water creatures under the benevolent eye of Hira’s tutor.
Those days were long gone.
“My father doesn’t want you here. He says it’s unfitting.”
“And do you do every little thing he orders?” Hira said. She took a deep breath, and when she spoke her voice was firmer. “I feel as if I have nowhere to go, Brecon. Can’t you just listen for a little while?”
He came further into the stable. “You know I will. But Hira, I hear you’ve been promised now, and I don’t want to cause you any difficulty.”
“I am not promised!” Hira spun to face him. She knew her eyes were wet.
Whatever he saw in her face softened him. “Hira, what’s wrong?”
“Lord Laikon, Bree,” she said. “That’s who my lord father wishes me to marry and bed with, to make little righ who will be just as bad as Lord Laikon. I told him I wouldn’t do it, but he holds stern.”
“Unknown God! He agreed to wed you to Laikon?” Brecon’s face reddened. “I thought he cared for you!”
“He does. But he gives no credence to the rumors. I see nothing else to do but leave here, Bree.”
“But, you are a gently-bred righ. Where will you go? Who will protect you? Hira, you know I can’t join you or my life will be forfeit. Laikon would pursue me all through the south!”
“I don’t ask you to, friend. I won’t let you. Look at me.” Hira waved a hand across her sheepskin coat, the dagger belted at her waist. “I’m well able to fend for myself, and I – I will take a servant with me, if you insist. But I must go. I refuse to be a sweet for Lord Laikon.”
Brecon cast a frowning look back at his house. “I wish I could invite you here, but my parents warned me. They say the righ should be left alone, that you don’t belong here.”
“I don’t belong anywhere,” Hira said. The truth of it rose up inside her, clear and stark. “I don’t belong with the other righ ladies who are raised to look pretty and serve their lords. I don’t belong among the merchants or the tenants, and even my lord father doesn’t understand me. He says he’s sorry he raised me so.” The tears came again and she forced them back.
Brecon stood looking at her uncertainly. “I’m not sorry,” he said. “You’ve always been a good friend, Hira. I wish there was more I could do.”
“You’re the only one who knows me,” Hira said. “Someday you may have to explain me to my future husband.”
He snorted. “I can imagine the look on his face.”
Hira imagined that conversation and laughed with the tears still in her eyes.
“Look, I know a caravan master. He comes through in a sennight. He owes my father, and I think he’ll agree to take you with him. He’s an honorable man, Hira, and he’ll see you safe along the way.”
“Where does he go?”
“Does it matter?” Brecon watched her. “He’ll be returning from Leyland and stopping at villages north of the disputed lands. He heads to the Five Rivers.”
“From there I can go anywhere.”
“If you have money, and if you hire guards so you’re not waylaid in the streets. Five Rivers is dangerous, Hira. You shouldn’t go there unattended.”
“I swear I’ll hire a guard when I arrive there.” She stepped forward and hugged him. “Bree, you are my savior. I knew you would think of some way out.”
“If you’re troubled in any way in Five Rivers, I won’t forgive myself.”
“I’ve heard stories. I won’t dismiss them lightly.” Hira smiled. “Thank you Bree. When I have a chance, I’ll send you word. And I’ll always remember my truest friend, even if I am welcome nowhere else.”
Hira opened her eyes on the heels of a cluttered dream to realize she had overslept. Her maidservant had not come to awaken her, and the rainswept morning was almost as gray as the night had been.
A wailing sob rose through the air, making her skin prickle.
Hira went to the window and looked outside. It had almost been like an animal’s cry, that keening sound. As she stood, straining to hear, the sound came again, resolving itself into a human voice.
She needed no maidservant to get dressed in the loose clothes she wore for working on the estate. As soon as she was dressed, she went down the hall and descended the main staircase. A few candles were lit on the mantel, brightening the gloom. A manservant vanished through the doors to the servants’ quarters as she peered around the room.
It was now clear to her that the sound was that of weeping – the mourning of a man who had no familiarity with gentle grief, wrenched out of him in response to great agony. It was coming from her lord father’s study.
Hira strode toward the doors. A man in servant’s brown appeared between her and the doors.
“Lady Hira,” said the footman. “Please don’t go in there.”
“But Lord Harkold – is he all right?” She almost turned away from the sympathy in his eyes.
“My lord is well,” the footman said. “But he has a visitor. You’re not wanted in there right now, Lady Hira.”
Hira brushed past the man. There was nothing he could do to stop her. She was privy to all the business of the estate, and she would find out what caused a visitor to sob in her father’s study as if death was on his heels.
A portly man was on his knees on the red-patterned carpet in the center of her father’s study. It was Hon Mithon, his usual rich clothing rumpled and awry. His cheeks were wet with tears, and he held a small, wicked-looking knife in his right hand.
Lord Harkold had been standing behind his desk. Now he stepped hurriedly around it, a look of urgency on his face. “Hira! Go back upstairs!”
She stared back and forth between Brecon’s father and her own. Something inside her did not want to know what was going on. She pushed it aside and asked. “Hon Mithon? Is something wrong?”
“Hira! I warn you.” Harkold sounded desperate. “Go. Here, I will take you myself.” He strode around the desk, reaching for her.
“Yes, something is wrong!” Mithon croaked. “My son, my beautiful son, is dead and I can’t go on without him!”
Hira felt as if the cold gray rain had swept over her. She floundered. “He is – Brecon is dead?”
“Now Hira, go upstairs. Take your woman with you, and I will be up to see to you,” Harkold stuttered. He was as pale as the candle wax.
“No. I won’t. Hon Mithon – what has happened to Brecon?”
“Ask your damned father!” The merchant struggled to his feet. “Ask him who murdered my son!”
Hira turned shocked eyes to her father.
“No I did not murder the boy!” Harkold blustered.
“It was done at your bidding,” Mithon said.
“Look.” Harkold abandoned his attempt to get Hira out of the room and turned to his accuser, keeping a wary distance from the knife. “I will pay you a weregild, because I am a compassionate man, and you and I are longtime associates. But Mithon, your son could not be allowed to aspire above his station.”
“Aspire – ” Hira stood with her mouth half open. “By Jashan’s eyes, father, he did nothing!”
“I told him to stay away from the accursed righ,” Mithon wept.
“Let’s not be foolish,” Hira’s father said. His hands went up to touch the golden Collar. “You cannot be allowed to run away with a mere merchant, Hira.”
She shouted, “He was just a friend!”
“You ran to him after Lord Laikon was gone.”
“You followed me?”
“No, I did not. But your betrothed sent someone to watch where you went.” Harkold flushed. “He sent a message to chastise me for your wildness, Hira. A very unsuitable communication from one Collared Lord to another!”
“Then it was Laikon,” Hira whispered. “By all the gods, if he wished me to reconsider and marry him, this was not the way.”
Mithon’s reddened eyes turned from Harkold to Hira. Through her stunned grief she saw his expression change. The knife came up.
“Stay down,” she said. “Stay where you are, Hon Mithon, or you will not live through this day.”
“None of this would have happened but for you,” the merchant said. “Always wanting to be where you should not be, dragging my boy into your – ”
“Guards!” shouted Harkold. The door slammed open and two armed men burst into the room. Harkold’s hands were red with color magery ready to be loosed.
The merchant crumpled to the floor again.
“People like us have no chance against you,” he moaned. “Oh my Brecon, my only son!” He held out the knife to one of the armed men, who took it and presented it to Harkold hilt first.
“Take lady Hira Noh upstairs,” commanded Harkold. “And station a man outside her door to see she stays there.”
“I will deliver you to your betrothed, willing or unwilling. You are a lady of the righ, Hira. It is time to grow up and do what you were bred for!”