Riassunto: Life in Wysters isn't always easy, no matter what side of the fence you come from. Hefretia, the future baroness of House Olonguard, and Ortensia Rhy'sa, who was no one but her father's daughter, knew it well enough.
Note: Scritta per la M3 della 2° settimana del COWT9 per "Nobili origini"
Warning: IS2G if someone from my campaign finds this I'mma cry.
Hefretia Olonguard comes into the world in a way most unbecoming of someone of her social standard, or such is how her nanny likes to tell it when she recounts the story for the rest of the servants. Hefretia had been screaming louder than any noble should, really, and she had trashed and tried to escape the grasp of anyone who had tried to hold her.
This, as much any other story about Hefretia, is one that best describes the soon to be Baroness of Wysters.
Not maybe people talk about what happened after that, obviously, and most stayed away from recounting the terrible hour after Hefretia's birth, when all the clerics at the city's disposal had tried to help the poor Baroness survive the fatigue of childbirth with scarce success.
Hefretia's mother had died where Hefretia had lived.
And that is something that describes the Olonguard family concisely enough.
No one knows what is the curse that's placed upon the family, not many are sure that it's a curse at all, but in one hundreds years, ever since the family had reached the peak of their power, every member of the family had started dying of unusual circumstances.
Hefretia's mother was but the last of those and Hefretia, at a mere six years of age, didn't really understand why people talked about curses and whispered about magic.
Hefretia was a wild spirit, she didn't enjoy staying cooped up inside her rooms or their estate, as big as it was. She would have much preferred running free in the gardens, or in the market where she sometimes saw the other kids playing from her window.
She couldn't, of course, because she was a lady and ladies never could go and play like commoners.
"You see, my dear," her father used to tell her, "as nobles we have a certain kind of conduct to uphold. Not just because of our standing, but because it gives our people something to dream. Something to look up to. We're the image everyone should try to reach."
Hefretia, who didn't really understand, would try to make sense of her father's words as best she could. "So, we exist for them?" she tried, with a little tilt of her head. "That means that we should be kinder with them, father, share what we have with them."
"It's not that easy, my dear. We are the roaring lion of Wyster. We stand here to protect them, and so our lives are devoted to them, sure, but never forget that we're also human. We have our vice, we have our desires. And others do as well. If you open yourself up to them, they might not be the people you expect them to be."
To her, it seemed like her father was scared. She didn't know if he was scared of the people, the bad ones that run around in the street, or to lose the standing he so forcefully grabbed.
Still, Hefretia was young and these weren't discussions that such a child should have.
The history of the Olonguard family and their raise towards nobility isn't as straightforward as the ones of the other nobles of Wysters.
The history of the Runio, the most important and well-knows of the noble families, was of course well known and well recounted in all of the Middle Lands. The most famous of the Runio's is Albert, the tree cutter, and while he's now long dead, many still pray upon his name and believe him to be a champion of Pelor's will.
When Albert was young, he had cut down one of the trees that reached past the Forest of Echo and near the border of Wyster. People had been scared of the trees, knowing full well the horrors that the people from Flyenn could cause inside the Forest of Echo. Some nights, people would see strange lights dancing from the trees and strange whispers arriving to their ears. It had been Albert Runio to cut down the first of the trees and soon, all the others had followed so that the edge of the Forest had been pushed back and away from the city borders.
The wood cut from the trees had been used to build the Runio's estate, that now stood where the first tree had been cut down.
The Artenstaff, of course, didn't have such a glorious beginning. Unlike the Runio, they had been appointed by the capital as lords of the city in honor of their grandparent ability with the brush. The Artenstaff's collection is one of the most renowned counting almost two hundreds between paintings and sculptures, most created by members of the Artenstaff family, or donated to them in an act of fealty. They aren't, however, the most well loved in Wysters and whispers of their abuse of power and illegitimacy as a noble family, usually accompanied any rumor about them.
The Olonguard, however, didn't have such a clean story. If someone had to recount the story of how the Olonguard family rose to their title, they would have said kindness. The Olonguard family line had started with a well mannered man and a very strong willed woman. He had been a cleric devoted to Pelor and prone to help the people of the city for free, even going against the wishes of the church. His wife had been everything a lady shouldn't be, but she had been the shield that protected the people from thief attacks, before Wyster really became a city capable of protecting itself.
Their rise to power had been graduate, but entirely given freely by the population. Donations, servants deciding to work for free. The story of the Olonguard was one of servitude and honor.
Nowadays, however, it was one of tragedy and death.
Hefretia enjoys studying almost as much as she enjoys mudding her dress in the garden. She picks up sword fighting quickly and efficiently and soon, her self defense classes morph into training sessions that a guard would take.
Her nanny disapproved of this most vehemently. This is not a behaviour suitable for a lady, they tell her, but she looks at them and reminds them of her Grandmother, the first of the Olonguard, and how vicious she had been.
"This," she says, pointing to her ripped dress and bloody cheek, "is exactly how a Olonguard lady should act."
She's twelve and she knows what she wants now. Many people don't think she's old enough to make decision for herself, but the only opinion that matters to Hefretia is her own. Everyone else will get in live and fight her for a chance to speak.
Is why she doesn't ran away when she wants to visit the city, she strolls down of the front gates and dares everyone to stop her. Her father usually sighs at her antics, but he doesn't stop her.
One of Hefretia's favourite history teachers tells her that the men of Olonguard family always paled compared to the women.
Hefretia doesn't think it's completely accurate. Her father is a well loved man, he's not as involved in the life of the city as he could be, not like his father had been, but he helps where he can and he always talks with the merchants and the farmers and never sends anyone with a request away. It's more than the rest of the nobles of the city do.
Hefretia's father is just less than she is. Less stubborn, less fierce, less passionate, less stubborn. Those are not faults, but his strengths.
It's just that Hefretia doesn't like that way of doing things.
So she talks with the merchants, who of course recognize her immediately; she plays with the kids, who try to be mean to her, but she pushes them back two times as strong as they did her, and they accept her into their group. She spars, she works, she helps, she grows.
And when she's fourteen and in age to start thinking of marriage, she meets Ortensia.
The Rhy'sa aren't a well known family. They are farmers who live on the outskirts of town, just past the city walls and towards the south.
Their farm is far away from the Echo forest and they don't fear the whispers in the night. What they do fear are the thieves and the beasts that come to take away their stocks or their sparse but well earned coins.
It's why Ortensia grows up with a sword in her hand and no fear in her heart. She protects her family with her brothers and dreams of, one day, actually make a difference.
Life in the outskirts is different than in the city, they don't know the nobles very well, nor they have the advantage of walls and guards, but they bond with each other. Abandoned to themselves, the community is tight knitted and they always help each other if they can.
It's why Ortensia decides to help the Yhuta family of one farm over, to bring their cart towards the city. She's strong, stronger than a girl should be, and they give her some copper as payment.
It gives her something to do during the day, while her family is hard at work on the farm, and a couple of coin to help with finances.
Her dream, however, is to become a guard for the city. She wants to be able to protect her family, yes, but the rest of the city as well. She has plans, guard lookouts to reduce the threat of bandits in the night, and some pest control plans to reduce the attacks from the beasts.
When She helps the Yhuta into the city, she usually takes the opportunity to go and look where the guards usually train. She usually peaks from a spot behind the building that looks into the training fields and no one has spotted her yet after all this time.
That day, however, when she arrives at her usual spot, someone else is there. More than one, actually, a cluster of children looking at the training as well.
"You see," one of them says, "that is how you handle that sword you have. If you try to learn that, it might take me more than two seconds to disarm you."
The one who talks is a kid who wears too nice a dress to be an orphan or a commoner. Her voice is smooth, with none of the accent that the street kis use to have. It's obvious that she's well educated from that alone.
But then, there is her hair.
They flow over her face like a sea of brown and they are too shiny. This is someone who has enough coin to style her hair, Ortensia thinks stupidly.
It's in that moment that she gets spotted. The lady, because she's sure that's what the other kid is, turns to talk to one of the others and sees her standing there. Ortensia is dirty from the trek and probably sweaty because of the sun and the physical labour. She's ashamed of her appearance and, she thinks she would have liked to make a better impression.
She's not sure why that is, considering she doesn't know this lady and has never been interested in the nobles or to appear more presentable in front of them.
But it's not something she can shake, this sense of inferiority. Of deep rooted shame.
"Oh," the lady says, smiling, "who are you? I've never seen you before."
"I'm..." unlike the lady, Ortensia's accent is strong. She tries to hide it, mitigate it, but she can hear it tumbling from her mouth. "I'm Ortensia Rhy'sa. I come from the farms. I just wanted to look at the training."
"Yes," the lady smiles, "It's just fascinating, isn't it? Sylva never shows me such advanced techniques when we train and it's a shame. I always tell him, how will I be able to fight the invading Flyenn's if I never learn how to fight properly."
Ortensia had never heard of a lady that wanted to go and fight, if she's honest, but she doesn't want to say so.
"My name," the lady says, extending a hand, "is Hefretia Olonguard. It's a pleasure to meet you, Ortensia."
Ortensia looks at the extended hand and then at her own, dirty and full of calluses. She's a trained fighter and that rarely looks good. She's also much bigger than Hefretia is, and much less pretty.
She must hesitate too much because Hefretia retires her hand. She doesn't seem to appear hurt by Ortensia's refusal, and she keeps smiling. "Are you trained in the ways of the sword?"
Well, she trains with the brothers and father and she does know enough to be effective in a fight. But she's sure that's not what Hefretia means.
"I've fought before," it's what she settles for saying, "thieves and bandits that try to attack our home."
"Oh! So you've been in a real fight! That's terrible, of course, and I want to hear more about these attacks, I'm sure the guards would too," Hefretia talks quickly, but everything she says has some poise. She doesn't hurry too much, her words don't get jumbled. This is what a Lady looks like, then.
Still, Ortensia can't really do much but shrugs. "The guards don't really care. They are too busy protecting the city and we get left behind."
It seems that Hefretia doesn't enjoy her answer and she scowls. "Then we'll make them care."
There is a certainty in the way Hefretia says it, as if her words alone are powerful enough to will it so. It's probably true, after all she seems to be from a known family. "Thank you, mylady," Ortensia says, bowing. Is this how one talks to someone with power, right? She doesn't want to embarass her family, our cause them unnecessary harm by making Hefretia mad.
"Don't bow. I'm going to talk with my father and see what he can do," she says, looking at the other kids. "And I don't mean this as repayment, I will do it even if you say no, but I would love to see how someone who has learnt the sword in combat trains."
"What?" Ortensia can't help but ask, surprised.
Hefretia smiles, putting her hair behind her ear. "I would be honored if you could show to me the way you train. I could do the same, I've been training in sword fights since I was very little."
Ortensia doesn't know what she could show to someone that has been formally trained, but she can also admit that she's transfixed by Hefretia. There is something about her that makes her heart beat faster inside her chest and her palm sweatier than when she tends to the fields.
So Ortensia nods. "We have a deal."
And a deal they had. Hefretia talked to her father as she promised, and the two of them started sparring once a week, when Ortensia would accompany the Yhuta to the city.
Hefretia was good, all her tutors told her so, she had impeccable form and she had a perfect balance. But Hefretia learned soon enough that none of that would have helped her in a real fight.
Ortensia fought with passion and viciousness. There weren't any rules, there wasn't any honor. Every one of the blows Ortensia showed her, was a blown that could kill a man.
This, Hefretia thought, was what she was lacking, closed in her ivory tower.
At the same time, Ortensia seemed ashamed of what she was showing Hefretia, sometimes apologizing or looking downright uncomfortable. Their different status, the difference in their positions and birth, hun over their heads.
Ortensia never talked about it, and Hefretia wanted to erase it too much to bring it to their attention.
She tried to fill the gap in any way she could, so that Ortensia would feel better, so that they would finally be on equal footing. She taught Ortensia to read, and brought salve for her hands.
And when that didn't work, she tried to use her dirty dresses. She tried to hide her hair.
Ortensia noticed, because of course she did, and she looked at Hefretia with such reverence, that it was almost too much. People have looked up upon Hefretia all her life because of her title, but Ortensia's eyes didn't seem to be for her surname. And she didn't know what to do about that.
"You know, your father managed to convince the guards to post lookouts around the outskirts of town," Ortensia told her, one day, "and it has been almost a month since the last attack. I can join the guards now, if I wanted. I think it would be safe enough."
Hefretia smiled, proud of having made a difference. Regardless of her friendship with Ortensia, she cared deeply for the health of her citizens and she's only glad that she was able to help so much. She's also glad for Ortensia, and the fact that she's now able to pursue her dream.
"I'm thankful that we were able to help," Hefretia says, honestly.
"My father, he used to say that nobles have all this power and all this money, but they rarely use it for the people," Ortensia continues, looking at her hands, "that the only way we could survive is to never rely on them. But you helped. You have the power and the money and the right connections and you helped. I think my father might be wrong about nobles."
Not about all of them, Hefretia wants to tell her. She has studied the history of the Middle Lands extensively and she knows all there is to know about the noble families in the nations and even beyond.
Most are like what Ortensia's father described. The Artenstaff are the prime example. But Hefretia doesn't want to lose the kind and gentle warmth in Ortensia's eyes to the reality of the world.
She holds her belief tight in her chest and tries to find strength in her words.
Two years later, when Hefretia is sixteen and Ortensia has another year before completing her training to be a guard, her father tells her that she has to marry.
It doesn't really come as a surprise. No lady is usually without a husband for too long, and their family and their curse put a lot of importance upon heirs. Most of her father's cousins are now dead and while her own cousins are mostly still alive, they never know for how long.
Hefretia isn't surprised by the fact that she has to marry, really. Only by the name of her future husband.
"Loan Artenstaff?" she can't help but ask. Her father winces at her tone, and she can almost hear the mindful of your tone before he can say it, but she doesn't care. "He's a tool, father. What his family represents, what they all want, goes against anything we believe in."
"It's a good marriage," he tells her. She sees, however, that he's weary, that this decision was difficult for him to. She doesn't understand why he made it.
"I don't need to marry so soon, father," she tells him, hopes he can listen to reason. "I'm young and I can..."
"I don't know how much time I have, Hefretia. All my brothers are already dead, and I never wanted to believe in this curse, but what else can it be? And I'm hoping that by joining another family then maybe..."
"Maybe it will be enough to make it go away?" she whispers back, crouching in front of him. "I understand father, I really do. But why him? Why not the Runio? Why not anyone else?"
"Because people are scared, my child," he answers, pain clear in his eyes. "They are scared of the curse, of the bodies. They are all scared of us."
Then, she supposed, there's nothing else to do. She understands the pain in her father's eyes, the weight of this decision and how much it was hurting him to make it.
She never doubted of his love for her, nor she ever thought he would put their money in front of her happiness, but this was something different.
The survival of the family, her own and the survival of her children. She understands why he's tempted by this.
But Hefretia came into this world fighting, and she refuses to go out of it in any other way. "Give me time, father. If we're sure that there's a curse, then maybe we can break it. There must be something that tells us how. I'll search every library, talk to any priest. This isn't the right way and you know it."
She wonders if her father had always looked so old, or if it was the years wearing down on him too quickly.
Still, he cups her face with one of his hands and caresses her cheek. A slow gesture, a tender moment. She closes her eyes and almost weeps.
"You've inherited your mother's spirit, I fear. I fear so much that, one day, you'll hate me. Hate our family," he smiles sadly, looking away and towards the fireplace. "I fear leaving you alone more. With your stubbornness I don't think the curse will have much difficulty in taking care of you."
Hefretia laughs, even if there's nothing funny about this. She takes her father hands and kisses them. "But I've been trained in self-defence all my life, father. I'll give this damn curse the fight of its life."
Her father looks at her and smiles.
The marriage is off by the next day and, two days later, her father is dead.
She looks upon the body of her father and she doesn't even realize that she's holding onto her sword. The healers don't know how it happened. His body was healthy, and he was much too young for his body to simply give up.
The servants whispered of the curse, serpentine and malicious rumors that grew like a poison between all of them. But Hefretia. Hefretia knew better.
The timing, the interest in her title. She knew this was premeditated and she knew who was responsible but had no way to prove it.
A part of her wanted to storm the Artenstaff's estate anyway, her sword in one hand and her rage in the other. She would lay waste to them, destroy everything they hold dear and then much more.
But she's a lady, and she has responsibilities. And she has a city to protect.
"My lady... the Artenstaff are here to send their condolences," one of the guards tells her.
Looking at the body of her father, the new Lady Olonguard makes a decision.
"Send them away. I won't talk to any of them." She has a curse to break.
Ortensia hears of the news because the guards are in uproar. She tries to go to the Olonguard estate, but she's not allowed entrance. She sees that also the Artenstaff, with their many servants, are driven away and she tries to not take it personal. Hefretia probably didn't even know she was there.
Still, she promises to try the next day and spends the night in a bar where most of the folks talk about the late Baron and his daughter. They all have a kind word for the family and Ortensia tries to enjoy the night. She will see Hefretia tomorrow and offer her condolences.
She'll tell her about the kind words of the barmaid and the toast that the guards made in honor of her father and hope that it wil bring her some kind of peace.
And then she hears a couple of drunks. They are laughing, talking loudly, and commenting on Hefretia and the rumors of her engagement with the first son of the Artenstaff.
Ortensia will never repeat their words out loud or allow anyone else to speak them without consequences and so she stands up and decks them in the face.
The brawl that follows isn't surprising, really. The fact that her boss tells her that a future guard can't go around decking dickheads in bars isn't either.
"If I had remained silent," she tells him, "I wouldn't have deserved to be a guard anyway."
The respect of the other guards isn't enough to allow her to keep training as a guard, but it certainly soothes the burn.
That night he goes to the Olonguard estate once again. This time, he convinces one of the servants to tell Hefretia she's there and, after a couple of minutes, she gets escorted to the second floor of the villa.
Hefretia is seated in front of the fire, a book open in her lap. She looks up when Ortensia enters and she smiles at her.
Ortensia has seen Hefretia covered in mud and bruises, after two hours of sword training and covered in sweat. This, tired and sad, is the worst she has ever seen her.
And she's still the best thing Ortensia has ever seen.
"My condolences," she offers immediately, bowing to her, "Baroness".
Right now the chasm between their standing is bigger than ever. Ortensia has just been kicked out of the guards, and Hefretia is the Baroness of house Olonguard. She can't talk to her like she did three days ago and they both know it.
Ortensia can see it in the heavy set of Hefretia's shoulders.
"You know? Your name, is celestial in origin," Hefretia says, almost out of nowhere, "it means hydrangea. A beautiful flower, really."
Ortensia nods, even if she doesn't know what that has to do with anything.
"Someone with such a beautiful name shouldn't be forced to fight," Hefretia continues, with a sad smile, "but this world has never been kind to who it was supposed to be kind too. So I won't be either." She closes the book and stands.
Ortensia looks at her and is unable to avert her gaze. There is power in Hefretia's movement, a grace that had always been there but was well hidden in her boyish ways. This isn't the same woman from before but Ortensia is just as drawn to her.
"I will have to do many dangerous things from now on. There is a curse I've promised to break, and a powerful enemy that has just left my doorstep yesterday, but will come back someday," she walks towards Ortensia and stops just in front of her. "I need someone I can trust at my side. And while I know you have your dream and I always hoped you could have achieved it, I ask you to renounce it for me. Become my knight, Ortensia, protect me from the perils I can't protect myself from and I'll do the same for you."
"That's not how a knight works," she can't help but point out, but Hefretia just smiles.
"It's how it works between the two of us, and that shall always be so." Hefretia raises one of her hand and caresses her cheek. The contact is almost electric and Ortensia finds her lungs frozen and her heart quickened.
"I will give you my life in a heartbeat," Ortensia vows. "Everything that I am, everything that I can do, it has been yours all along."
Hefretia's smile and gaze are sad when she looks at her. "You should have given them to someone more deserving, that could take care of them for longer than I will."
"No," Ortensia says, covering Hefretia's hand with hers. "I'm your knight and I will protect your life forever. You will live for as long as you will let me protect you. Or I will go with you."
A moment of stillness passes between them before Hefretia pushes forward and kisses Ortensia lightly on her lips. It's a chaste kiss, but it's enough.
It's a promise of years to come. A promise of a life beyond this room.
"Kneel," she orders and Ortensia obeys immediately. Hefretia takes Ortensia's sword and puts the blade on her right shoulder.
The ceremony is quick and Hefretia only says a couple of words. They will have to make an official ceremony to really have it officialized, but this, right now, between them is enough.
Ortensia's armor is donned in lion heads. It's heavier than what she's used to, but everytime she looks in the mirror, she can't help but think that this is right. It might not be her dream, but it's as close as she could have ever imagined. It's also made of something much more valuable than what a normal guard's armor would be, and grants much more protection.
She's the knight of house Olonguard, she can't help but repeat herself, with a little bit of aw in her voice. Hefretia chose her, her and no one else.
"You look good," Hefretia says, walking inside the room. She's looking at the four lion heads on the armor and Ortensia knows she had something to do with the design.
"I can't say it's subtle..." Ortensia murmurs, but she smiles as well.
"What can I say," Hefretia shrugs, getting closer, "I need to mark what is mine."
"I told you long ago that all I am is yours, there is no need to mark me," Ortensia immediately replies.
Hefretia smiles and nods, but there's still some mischief in her eyes. "But you see, as I promised everything you would give me, I would give you in return," she says, pointing at her chest. Ortensia follows her finger and finally notices the necklace that wasn't there the day before.
It's a simple design, certainly not something a baroness would normally wear, and Ortensia immediately recognizes an hydrangea painted inside the pendant.
"I am yours as you are mine," Hefretia promises, looking at them in the mirror. "We'll find the reason for this curse, and we'll break it."
"I won't let you die, mylady," she promises, feeling the fire burn inside her. "I'll devote my life to make sure of that."
Hefretia smiles and kisses her, sweetly. "I know you will, my knight."