arper sat in the bouncing carriage, trying to smooth out a wrinkle that has just appeared in her dress without much success. Then opening the small bag, she carried she pulled out the small mirror that her grandfather had given to her for her sixteenth birthday a month before. She smoothed back her hair and checked her complexion and smiled at herself, before tucking it away carefully, wishing she could see the generous grandfather whom she only knew through her mother’s stories.
I do wish I could fly. The carriage couldn’t go any faster, it would completely bounce her out of the seat, and she would be late to Lady Eugenia’s tea by about ten minutes. Acceptable, but barely, by Elusian standards who arrived usually half an hour before you truly wanted them to arrive. Then they would stand about lingering and gossiping about whatever until the appointed time…no. She was going to be very late.
If the sword master would ever just listen to me. I—he…. Harper sighed again. She had loved swords and sword fighting as long as she could remember. The first time she had taken up the sword was at Lady Felecia’s birthday party when some rascal lord’s son had played a nasty trick on the birthday girl, and all of the girls had ran away screaming in complete terror. She had instantly taken the sword from an unsuspecting by standing lad and had smacked the most offending boy square across the head, causing him to howl.
Everyone had told her mother that she should be soundly scolded and severely punished for such an outrageous act by a girl. Instantly, she had been taken home without a slice of cake or single chocolate bonbon that had been promised in the throwing of candy.
Her mother’s silence during the long carriage ride made Harper terrified of what might happen at home. At last they arrived, and she followed her silent mother to the armory. Where her mother turned slowly around and then smiled softly.
“How did you know to hit him on the head?”
This question baffled Harper for a long moment. “I just did,” she answered at last, seeing her mother truly expected an answer.
Slowly her mother nodded. “Instinct perhaps? The first move that any student of the sword learns is to hit someone on the head and hit them well. Though I hope you don’t use that way to settle most of your arguments in the future…Harper, why didn’t you run away when the rest of the girls did?”
“It was wrong, and something must be done about it.”
Her mother’s smile widened, “You certainly have the blood of Falway in your veins. Tell me, would you like to learn how to fight with a sword?”
Harper couldn’t find the words to answer. This was far from what she was expecting in a punishment from her mother.
“You see Harper, I was your age when I began my sword lessons, every girl in Falway has at least basic lessons and I believe you are ready, if you want them.”
“Yes,” said her mother sweetly.
“I want them! I want to learn how to use a sword.”
“Good, but Harper, don’t use your sword on every boy, all right?”
And so it had begun, nearly ten years ago, she had learned the use of the blade beneath her mother’s tutelage until the accident that and still the sword master never took her lessons seriously and went on and on talking about swords and the art of fighting instead of actually showing and practicing.
At last the carriage stopped
The door opened and Harper was ushered in and announced by the footman.
“I am glad you joined us at last,” said Eugenia standing up and giving a slight curtsy in way of greeting. “Please allow me to introduce the rest of our party, her highness the crown Princess Raine, and her younger sister Princess Elaine, and as you well know Lady Felicia, Lady Gloria, and Lady Celeste”
Harper felt a warm glow of embarrassment flushing into her cheeks as she dropped a low curtsy towards the princesses. “It is a privilege to be here, I apologize for my tardiness.”
The familiar haughty laugh of Gloria broke the brief silence. “I knew you would be late, what kept you this time? Your sword lessons again?”
Harper stayed in her curtsy, it was customary for a word of a ruler to release one from the position of reverence.
“You swordfight?” asked an elegant voice, who Harper couldn’t place. It must be her highness. Harper slowly rose and looked in the princess’ direction and answered as the bright spots on her cheeks grew brighter. “Indeed, I do. I find it a healthy pastime.”
“I wish I could sword fight, it looks dreadfully fun,” put in Princess Elaine.
Her older sister looked at her with skepticism. “Do you? I do believe you doing it, would be entertaining.”
Princess Elaine made a face that she didn’t appreciate her sister’s tone of voice.
Eugenia quickly changed the subject to the ever unawkward and thankfully unobjectable topic of the weather.
After tea, they walked through the extensive gardens of Lady Eugenia’s family grounds.
As the girls walked briskly Harper had no trouble keeping up but she noticed how Princess Elaine lingered behind, and as naturally as possible paused to examine the buds of a blooming flower and waited for Princess Elaine to catch up.
“What are looking at?”
Harper looked over her shoulder and smiled. “I think this flower is rather lovely, the shade of pink is just perfection. What do you think of it?”
“It’s a simpler rose than most,” observed the princess. “But the color is very lovely.”
“I love how it’s elegant but still dainty, and yet when it fully blooms you see its origins of the wild rose.”
Princess Elaine nodded and stepped closer to examine the flower, and carefully plucked one from the thorny stem.
“Shall we walk together? It seems we have fallen behind them a little,” suggested Harper.
“I don’t mind that we have fallen behind them, if you don’t. But we should follow lest they think we’ve completely disappeared from the earth,” said Princess Elaine turning towards the path again.
“Indeed, your highness I don’t mind at all,” said Harper falling a step behind Princess Elaine.
“They do babble a lot, don’t they?”
“They do, like birds, lovely and chattering”
Princess Elaine pressed her lips together tightly, words seemed on the tip of her tongue as she opened and then shut her mouth, then opened then closed her mouth with sigh.
“Is something on your mind your highness?”
“Hmm?” asked Princess Elaine with a backward glance.
“You seem as if there might be something…you might want to say?”
“Indeed, I am just wondering, curious…do people confide in you often?”
“A few, my mother, Eugenia, some of the servants, why your highness?”
Princess Elaine continued walking with a slight nod.
Harper watched as she walked slowly behind her. Wondering if she should bridge the silence between them as the young Princess seemed deep in meditation.
Princess Elaine halted abruptly. “Do you believe in the Bible?”
“Indeed, I do.”
“That is a comfort,” she answered and continued forward. “Do you think, that things that happened in the Bible still happen today?”
“What are you asking?”
“Like miracles, prophesies, and dreams and such?”
Harper thought for a moment. “I suppose, I’ve never given much thought to it I guess. I’ve learned about it the Bible, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across it in real life.”
“But do you think it could happen?”
“I don’t see why not.”
Princess Elaine nodded solemnly.
“Is something troubling you, your highness?”
“Just musing, I’ve been considering going into the convent you know.”
“I did not know.”
Princess Elaine laughed, Harper noticed the forced merry notes in her voice. “It is perhaps not common knowledge, but it is something I have considered.”
“And what about the holy life attracts you your highness? Do you have a fervor to serve our Lord?”
The princess smiled with a slight forcedness, “With my sister being the future, queen, I have very little taste for politics. Indeed, I should like to find a secluded life where I would not be a burden to anyone. I think being a nun, and serving the poor and needy might be a wise idea. In marriage, I would have little say, and very little power.”
“Do you wish for power?”
“No, I wish for none and I think perhaps the life of the nun would be the best way for me to ensure that I would lose none and yet gain none.”
“Very well thought your highness.”
“I am glad you agree with me. You’re a very comforting sort of person. Has anyone told you that before?”
“No, I don’t believe they have.”
“Well, you are. I hope we shall have opportunities to talk more in the future. But See, the other girls are beckoning for us to catch up. We should do so.”
Harper and Princess Elaine quickened their pace and soon arrived at the side of Princess Raine, and Ladies Euginia, Gloria, Celeste and Felicia.
“What were the two of you talking about?” questioned Princess Raine.
“The future and its unknowns and the church,” answered Princess Elaine.
Princess Raine gave her a pointed look that was looking for answers, and Harper understood the words of Princess Elaine more thoroughly. There was nothing comforting nor warm about Princess Raine, her manners were cold and austere. She smiled as she responded “Exactly so your highness. The future, and the Bible two subjects all young ladies should be concerned with.”
“Indeed so,” abruptly said Princess Raine, making a slight face before turning once again and continuing their walk, in silence.
Harper glanced down at Princess Elaine, who looked up to her with a hopeful smile. At last they returned to the house.
“Thank you for the lovely afternoon Eugenia, my sister and I had a lovely time, I am afraid it is time for us to return to the castle.”
“Thank you, your highnesses for being so gracious as to join me today. Know you are welcome at any time,” said Eugenia with a curtsy.
“Thank you,” smiled Princess Elaine and then turning to Harper she took her hand. “Thank you, we must talk again sometime.”
“Yes, I am available at any time your highness.”
Princess Elaine only smiled in response and followed her sister out of the door.
“Well, I must go it seems,” said Lady Gloria with a long sigh. “My mother has ordered the dress maker. With Princess Raine’s official coronation and engagement search commencing.”
Lady Felicia and Celeste also left in short order.
Eugunia grabbed her hand. “Please tell me you’re not running away too? I would like your company it’s been so long since we’ve chatted.”
“Nothing pressing as a dress maker or affairs of state and I left orders with the housekeeper before I left so I can stay.”
“How is your mother?”
“Doing well as expected. It’s been four years now since she’s been able to walk. It seems as if part of her has wasted away, but not her spirit. So that is good for all of us. She does what she can, and I fill in the rest.”
“You grew up faster than the rest of us I think. What were you and Princess Elaine talking about?”
“I am not exactly sure, she had some interesting questions, about the bible and then the future. She seems troubled.”
“Rumor has it that Princess Raine is very superstitious and anxious about coming to the throne. You know in so many other countries she’d be passed over and be sent away overseas to be married. I think she fears that someone will try and upset everything. You know she refused a letter of marriage from overseas. The King of Athena wanted to marry her, but of course neither of them could leave their thrones so she refused him. What a strange creature those people of Athena.”
“Athena! That barbaric country?” asked Harper surprised “I’ve heard the court is very sophisticated, but their war tactics are barbaric.”
“I’ve heard they even have a live show arena…were they go to watch people get killed!”
“I hear they only do it for criminals.”
“I would hate to be a criminal in that country, you stole a loaf of bread, we’ll feed you to a lion.”
“I don’t think they would be the cruel. How could people bear to go watch such a thing?”
“I can’t quite believe it. You know how people tell stories.”
“I’ve heard tell of stories of their people and brutality. They are noble fighters I’ve heard tell.”
“Speaking of fighting,” said Eugenia. “Don’t you think perhaps it’s time you give you your sword fighting?”
“We are of age to be…considered women. And, most men…”
“Are you afraid men won’t find me desirable?”
“I don’t know, it’s just so strange for a girl, you know what I mean?”
“Perhaps but is the custom of my mother’s people.”
“But you are not in your mother’s land, and if you gave it up, it would give one less thing to Lady Gloria to prickle about, she can be such a nosy annoying gossip sometimes.”
“You want me to give it up because it nettles Lady Gloria?”
“I don’t know. If it were to have a purpose…but you’ll never need it. That is what husbands are for, unless you plan on being spinster.”
“No, I don’t wish to be a spinster.”
“Then consider giving it up?”
“Because I care about you, and the other girls talk about you so badly behind your back. I try to stand up for you but…”
“Do I make it difficult for you?”
“It’s just you are so lovely and accomplished, you could have so much influence but because your swordfight no one listens to you. You could do so many things, I just think it’s holding you back. Couldn’t you just be content with archery? We all do it as a pastime, but swords, they are just so…masculine.”
“Does my sword fighting make it truly awkward for you?”
“No, yes…I don’t know. We are the oldest and dearest of friends, I have always thought the sport was admirable in you, but we are nearly grown up, and is it not a bit of a childish thing? You’ve been fighting since you were eight.”
“But it is the tradition of my mother’s people…and for some reason I am very loathe to give it up.”
“Somehow I knew that would be your answer. Do you want to do some more shooting? I think I need to hit a few more targets before I get what Lady Gloria said out of my head.”
“I’d like that, I tell you though, sword fighting would be a better pastime for venting.”
“I’ll just take your word for that,” said Eugenia “Now come, let’s shoot some arrows.”
Harper lingered visiting with Lady Eugenia until it was nearly dinner, then went home and ate around the dinner table with her brothers and father, but she missed her mother’s presence.
It was twilight when she brought some of the flowers fresh from the garden to her mother’s room
“How are you my daughter? Ah! Those are lovely.”
“I am doing well,” she said sitting on the edge of her mother’s bed and laying the flowers across her mother’s lap.
“How was your afternoon.”
“Fair enough. Lady Eugenia is always kind and wonderful, but you know…some girls aren’t so nice. But I met the Princesses today.”
“Did you now? How were they?”
“I rather liked the young princess.”
“And the one to be queen?”
Harper made a face. “I suppose she’ll make a good queen. I mean…we could do worse. Perhaps it’s only the burden on her shoulders that makes her cold and distant. But the tea was lovely, Eugenia and I had a shooting competition, Eugenia won of course,”
“That is good to hear. But what is troubling you.”
“Yes, it’s written all over your face.”
“Yes, does it have to do with your sword lessons?”
“How do you know?”
“It seems you fret over it frequently, especially after a gathering like this. Do you want to give it up my darling?”
“Give it up? No…it’s just I wish…I wish the other girls would understand and not mock me for it. That and he sword master doesn’t seem too keen on his new pupil. and my brothers won’t duel with me for practice. I feel as if I am failing it all.
“Harper, are you proud of being able to use a sword?”
Harper pinched her lips together. “I think I would be prouder of it, if other girls did it, and if…I didn’t feel so odd. I love sword fighting, everything feels so lovely and right sometimes, but…”
Harper was silent for a long time. “It’s so different mother.”
Her mother smiled, “I understand. You want to fit in, but you also want to do what you love…and they are in conflict. Is that right?”
Harper nodded. “Life is full of choices like this my darling. I think you are learning this young. You are swimming upstream, and while all your other friends, lovely and sweet as they are, or are not, you can’t share this part of yourself with them. It makes you feel foreign, and different, and you already feel that way, because I am your mother. A woman born a merchant’s daughter, who fell in love with an Elusian noble. Some of the noble girls are very rude, right?”
Tears came to Harper’s eyes. Some of the things they had called her once upon a time. Half-blood, Merchant Maid, foreign freak, Lady money. They always had made her so angry, but her mother had told her time, and time again she could not reply to such mean children, even though she had a few names she would like to have called them if had been given the chance.
“People can be very mean sometimes, and it can be extraordinarily hard when you wish to be friends.”
“Was it hard for you mother?”
“I had it easier, you see all the girls in Falway received at least basic sword lessons.”
“Sometimes I wish to go to Falway. All the stories and books I’ve read about Falway. I think I would love it.”
Her mother smiled. “I wish you could go. The water is so blue, the mountains so tall and all the shades of green and blue and grey, capped with white snow, even in summer. It’s beautiful.”
There was a long silence as both mother and daughter thought over what they had been discussing.
“Be strong and courageous, and the Lord shall strengthen thy heart.”
“Do you really think I can be?”
“I think you already are. But there is still much to learn to grow to gather, your whole life long my dearest. Your mother loves you very much, I wish I could shelter you from all of this…but…”
“For a flower to grow it must drink from the storms of life and learn to use the heat to nourish and sustain itself even when the sun is cruel.”
Her mother smiled. “Yes, my darling. You’ve heard me say it often enough I see.”
“I grew up under your care.”
“And now you are blooming, you are a lovely young woman, and I am very proud of you. Time will be too soon for you to wed and run your own household. I wish I could have been more of a mother to you these past few years, but still you flourish.”
“You are everything and more that a daughter could wish for.”
“I am grateful to hear that.”
They chatted a little longer before her mother felt tired and Harper left her to rest.
With the rest of her evening to fill Harper went to the library and browsed the books. She selected one about animals in foreign countries and her favorite Falway tales book which her grandfather had sent one Christmas.