DISCLAIMERS: The characters in this story are from my own rather
warped imagination and are mine, mine, mine! Not that anyone would
ever possibly want to but just to cover all bases, this story cannot be
used or sold for profit in any way.
RELATIONSHIP: Yep, if you do not or cannot celebrate love in whatever form it presents itself to us then please find another story to read.
RATING: R - This story does contain some graphic scenes.
NOTES: Anyone who feels like writing to me, I'd love to hear from you - please do drop me a note. However, please don't be nasty. Helpful critique is fine, wonderful praise is fine <eg>, "Hey, it was okay but why didn't you ..." is fine etc but bad stuff will be tossed and put where it belongs. If you don't like it, I don't need to know but I hope you do. Idryth@aol.com
SPECIAL NOTES #1: Once again, a huge thank you to Inga for her
invaluable assistance and support. My stories are definitely better
for her input.
SPECIAL NOTES #2: Chris and RG - Thank You! You've both helped to make this story possible and are a large part of why it's being posted.
SPECIAL NOTES #3: Thank you to everyone who has encouraged me to continue to write. You do make a difference.
'There's always tomorrow,' the blonde told herself. 'There has to be a way, there must be a way, that I can start over again,' she continued and then released a deep sigh of both mind and body. The sigh blossomed into a large cloud in the cold air but was totally ignored as she walked through it, her mind elsewhere.
The sight of the snow bending the tree branches down and the glistening icicles would've been beautiful to the blonde most times, but not today. The sound of the cracking ice and the peace that Mother Nature brings would have normally calmed her soul, but not when something weighed so heavily on her mind and heart.
'It was simply a misunderstanding.' Her mind raced in circles as she carefully walked along the all but hidden path and then the circle started anew when her mind returned to the start. To when she realized that she wasn't holding up her end of the bargain.
It had been a happy day; a day when things were going well and work was getting done in record time. A day filled with brilliant shafts of golden sunlight lancing through the windows, revealing the dust that had been missed in earlier cleaning efforts. Also filled with the laughter that erupted whilst teasing about the dust not being swept under just one carpet.
Getting down to the last of the work, Ariena hadn't quite finished when the dark haired Tegwyn arrived and gleefully gloated about already being finished with her chores whilst leaning back and watching Ariena work. The blonde stuck her tongue out at the tall woman and set about completing her tasks.
As she began to whistle a lively tune, Tegwyn straightened with a fluid motion that Ariena had never quite mastered and asked, "Well, I'm hungry, do you want me to bring you something back?"
With a grateful nod from Ariena, Tegwyn smiled, turned and walked out of the room, the whistle fading as she stepped further away.
Soon after, just as the blonde finished with the last of her chores, the very tall and thin Master of the hall entered the room with a rolled parchment in his hands and a frantic look on his face.
"Ah, Ariena! I'm glad you're here. I must complete the latest documents for Lord Rander but I have documents that must be copied immediately for him also. He's only here for a very short time and quite impatient to be off."
With a shiver, Ariena brought herself back to the present and to a halt as she noticed that the trail she'd been following was gone. Mentally berating herself, she mentally shook herself out of her stupor and started to search for the path. After a short time, she found the now barely noticeable trail and trudged on.
Walking up to the window, the Master of Rhyllen's Bards stepped into the rays of light. Sunlight brightened his silver streaked hair with an almost reverence and removed the traces of tired shadows from his face.
He paused, apparently in awe of the day, breathed in deeply and said, "My, I can see that everyone seems to be out enjoying the day and I can't blame them a bit!" Turning to Ariena he smiled ruefully. "Well, my girl, we'll have you out there soon too. I can finish these myself."
Ariena started and spoke quickly, "No, no! I'd like to help you. Perhaps I can find someone else to help too, if M'Lord Rander is in that much of a hurry?"
"If you can find someone!" the Master said with a chuckle. "If you don't mind, I certainly could use your help with it as you're fast and thorough."
Ariena quickly took the parchment, glanced at it and looked back at the older man. "I'll have them done as soon as I can!" she said with a determined nod.
The man looked at her with a soft smile and spoke quietly, "Thank you, Ariena, as usual you've come to my rescue and I know you'll get them finished." With one last fond glance at the girl, as she sat down to work at the table she had just finished polishing, he left the room.
'I will find a way!' She straightened with new resolve and forged her way through the increasingly difficult to traverse snow. Glancing up, she became a little worried, it all looked different. Still, she shook her head and continued on.
After munching on the snack that Tegwyn had brought, and putting up with more teasing from the dark haired girl, Ariena looked up from her scroll and said, "You said that you had things to do?"
Tegwyn grinned cockily back at her and said, "Yes, I do but I'll help rather than listen to you moan about it later. Going to give me some?"
With a grin and a word of thanks to her friend, Ariena handed Tegwyn some of the stiff parchment and they both set about working on the manuscripts in companionable silence.
After some time working at the task, Tegwyn looked up, stretched her long body and announced, "I better check on the horses, I'll finish this as soon as I get back."
Ariena nodded absently to her and continued to try and finish the task for their Master.
After a little while, Tegwyn returned sat down and started to play with the quill that she'd been using to write with earlier. Turning to Ariena, she asked, "I'm going to go look in on what the Lords are up to, want to come?"
Ariena favored her blue-eyed friend with a resigned look. "I want to finish this, you'll be back soon?"
Tegwyn grinned and nodded, quickly moving out of the room.
Not long after Tegwyn left, a very small boy ran crying into the room. Glancing up in surprise, Ariena looked up just in time to see the tiny Moran launch himself into her arms, sobbing the entire way.
In between sobs, Ariena held him tightly and asked what happened "'ena, I 'urted me. See?" He pointed to his bloodied knee.
"You certainly did!" she agreed with a grim nod and kiss to his forehead. "Letıs take care of this."
After much soothing and a little first aid, a much happier Moran left the room and Ariena returned to the table.
Eventually, Tegwyn returned and sat down again with a thump on the hard bench. "Nothing much going on," she groused with a sigh. When Ariena hardly acknowledged her presence, she pursed her lips and continued working on the manuscript with a deep sigh.
A few minutes later, a deeply concentrating Ariena flinched in surprise when her name was called loudly from the kitchen. Standing quickly, she rushed to the overly warm room. The wonderful smells of baking bread and stew greeting her as she stood in the doorway made her realize just how small the earlier snack had been.
As if he had eyes in the back of his head, the cook turned at Ariena's arrival. "Ariena, you know where the spring onions are don't you? I need them right now for the stew!"
Ariena thought for a moment and queried, "I thought that Bira was going get them for you?"
"Well, obviously she didn't!" yelled the cook as he slammed down his ladle onto the scarred table. "You know where they grow I think, can you help?"
Ariena responded immediately, "Of course, I'll be back in a few minutes." Turning quickly, Ariena headed towards the massive front doors. Walking through the hall, she noticed that Tegwyn was gone again. Stealing a quick glance at the manuscript her friend had been working on, she noticed that little had been done and shook her head, a prickle of irritation worming its way inside.
Grabbing a coat, she bundled up and head outside, into the refreshingly cool air. As she turned from closing the huge double doors, she saw Tegwyn and called after her.
The tall girl stopped, turned towards her and yelled, "Just wanted to check on what the guards were up to. I'll be right back!"
With that Tegwyn ran off towards the barracks. The small blonde sighed deeply as she watched her friend leave, again. The older girl had always been interested in the Guards and would certainly be joining them upon her next birthday, her eighteenth, as required by all those of blood. Ariena wondered momentarily just how it was in far off lands, where she'd heard that women weren't treated as the equals they were in Rhyllen. Where Teg wouldn't have to leave, wouldn't be put in danger.
Sighing again, Ariena tried to put that out of her mind as the ridiculous thought she knew it was. However, even with as blessed as she knew they were for living in the land they did, she didn't want to look ahead to the time, a little less than a year away, when Teg would be leaving for two years. Deliberately ignoring the lead weight heading straight for her stomach, Ariena turned away from the direction her friend had gone and headed off on her errand.
It didn't take long before Ariena had placated the cook with the onions and was back working on the manuscript. She had, after all, been the one who found the onions sprouting in a secluded and protected glade the week before and, therefore, it had been a quick trip. Still, she shook her head at the fact that nobody seemed to be able to do anything without her anymore and blew a breath of annoyance through her blonde bangs.
Before the sun had barely moved, another interruption came about as Cerys, a wiry red headed guard, marched through the hall, worn but well kept hardened leather armor moving easily with each step. "Ah, Ariena, Teg says that she'll be back as soon as she can. She went to help with the weapons."
Taking the time to thank the guard politely, Ariena found it difficult to push aside her anger and settle back down to work. Even more difficult when, very soon after, the guard returned and asked if the blonde could help her take some food to where the Lords were gathered.
Resisting the urge to sigh deeply, the blonde looked around for others to help but everyone seemed to have disappeared. Stuffing down her growing annoyance was becoming quite a chore, but she resolved to do just that. She had volunteered to help with the copying after all.
Once the Lords had been fed, Ariena trudged back to the stone hall and sat down heavily on the bench. Her resolve seemed to have faded into the mist as her teeth ground together and she once again continued with the manuscript. She was so intent on trying to finish and keep her anger to herself that she didn't even glance up when Tegwyn finally returned.
A quirky grin resident on her face, Tegwyn teased, ³All done yet?"
Apparently choosing not to notice Ariena's obvious irritation, the taller girl continued to tease the blonde until she finally spoke through gritted teeth, "Teg, I need to finish this. Are you going to finish yours?"
With a resigned sigh, Tegwyn's grin faded and she flopped onto the bench, proceeding to do a little more work on the manuscripts.
"I just don't understand why I didn't see," breathed Ariena to the uncaring landscape, as she finally caught sight of what she thought was the manor house. Suppressing a sigh of relief, she renewed her efforts and was soon trudging as quickly as she could through the snow.
Ariena cringed when her peripheral vision caught the same guard that had been through the hall earlier poking her head around the corner of the stairway and looking towards the seated blonde.
"Ariena, could you fetch more wine for the Lords?" she queried before disappearing again.
Irritation getting close to a boiling point, Ariena looked over at an apparently studiously working Tegwyn and stood with a deep sigh. Once in the wine cellar, the irritation started to switch to anger when the blonde discovered that the wine that Lord Rander liked wasn't in the normal place. Muttering angrily, she searched the dark, cold stone room and finally found her prize. After taking a few moments to control her anger, she started to the rooms where the Lords were.
As soon as she stepped into the hall, Tegwyn jumped up. "Let me take it, Ari. Please?"
Eager to get back to her work, Ariena nodded gratefully at her friend. "Thanks, Teg." Her misty green eyes watched as her friend left the hall before they once more focused on the parchment before her.
Noticing that time was doing its level best to imitate sand flowing through her fingers, Ariena tried her hardest to redouble her efforts and somehow managed to get to her last page. As she shook the sand from the parchment and the last words began to dry, she glanced up and noticed just how much time had passed since Tegwyn had left. Anger began to flare again. It was apparent to her that the promise the other girl had made to help had been forgotten.
Unfortunately, before she could see how far Tegwyn had gotten on her page, the Master Bard walked into the hall. "Ah, there you are. M'Lord Rander is ready to leave. Could I have the pages please?"
Glancing over at Tegwyn's barely begun page, Ariena blanched and looked up at the Master with regret. Handing him the pages she had finished, she got to her feet and announced, "I can finish this last one quickly! I know a shortcut through the forest that the horses can't take and can catch up with him." Her heart fell at the obviously disappointed look on the older man's face. "I'm so sorry, there was just so much that happened..."
Holding up a stern hand, the Master stopped the rest of the sentence. "Ariena, it's been snowing for weeks. It's not safe, I'll just have to finish up and take them myself tonight."
The girl shook her head. "Please, I know the path like the back of my hand and can catch up to them before they cross the river. It's just this one page."
The Master appeared to consider and then nodded. "It would be a help and you do know the land. Unfortunately, this must be done. Can I depend on you to do this?"
Her heart sinking at the disappointment laced voice of her Master, she forced a smile, then nodded and immediately sat down to finish Tegwyn's page. Ignoring the sounds from outside as the party left, she worked quickly and diligently until the page was complete. As the last word was written, she set about gathering her winter gear and bundling it on. After placing the precious parchment in a protected pouch, she moved quickly towards the door and was almost bowled over as Tegwyn came bounding in.
"Hey! The Lords have left; I have to show you something! Where ya going?"
Green eyes flashed angrily as Ariena's fury finally bubbled up and out. "I'm heading to catch Lord Rander with the page you didn't finish! Because of you, I got into trouble with the Master. What were you doing all this time?!" Taking a breath, she released more bottled up anger on her unsuspecting friend, who stared at her with widened eyes.
"I can't trust you to do one thing! Not one thing! Never again, Teg. Never again will I trust you to do anything you promise! You knew how important it was! I should know better than to believe in you." The blonde stopped, eyes watering as sparks fairly flew from her fury radiating body as everything that had happened that day caught up with her. "Can nobody do anything here but me? I hate ..."
Seeing the shocked, deeply hurt look on Tegwyn's face as she started to say the last sentence, Ariena caught herself just in time to stop the rest as she remembered how she'd sworn to never say those words to her friend.
She caught her bottom lip in-between her teeth as her mind spun back in time.
She could still feel the straw under her rough skirt as she promised.
Could still feel the heat of the dark haired girl's angled body as she had shared a devastation Ariena had never experienced from her friend before.
Could still remember frantically searching for her well-hidden friend after she'd heard that Tegwyn's father had been killed in a freak hunting accident.
Could still feel the tears of sympathy rolling down her face as Tegwyn revealed in a choked voice how she'd had an argument with her father right before he left and how she'd told him that she hated him.
Could remember how special she'd felt at being allowed to hold her normally reticent friend as the other girl sobbed.
At the sight of those accusing blue eyes, Ariena felt a cold hand grab her heart and she quickly turned on her heel, stomping out of the hall and through the massive doors into bleak landscape.
Barely remembering the alternating rage and shame sustained journey, Ariena used the shortcut and caught up with Lord Rander's party before the snow started to fall again. It was with a huge sigh of relief that she handed the pouch containing the last page to Rander's squire.
The squire thanked her with a wink and put the pouch safely in his pack. Turning back to look at her with a grin on his cold chapped face, the squire asked, "So, did you like the birthday gift?"
Ariena blinked. "My birthday gift ...?"
The squire poked her ribs with his gloved hand. "Aye! That Tegwyn, she really worked hard today to keep it secret from you and get everything just perfect. I can't tell you how many times your Master had her running around. Then he'd send her back to you to make sure you were busy. She was having such a time keeping everyone quiet! A beautiful animal, isn't it?"
Ariena's slight shake of her head and look of plain astonishment was enough to tell the squire that something was wrong. "Oh lords, you didn't know, did you?" With Ariena's silence, he continued sadly, "I am sorry, lass. I had no idea they hadn't given it to you yet. Please don't say anything?"
Ariena shook herself long enough to say, "Of course, I won't say a word."
With a grateful squeeze of her hand, the man gave her one last smile and looked up as the first flakes of snow started to fall. As he climbed up on his horse he admonished, "Better get back soon! I have to catch up with MıLord. The name's Brycen, I'll see you next time and Happy Birthday!" As he cantered off, he looked back and waved briefly before disappearing into the trees.
As her mind came back to the present, Ariena realized how she had not given her friend credit. She had not paid attention to her heart and mind and instead had just thought about her disappointment. About her own feelings and anger. Not even thinking about her own sixteenth birthday.
Walking through the wonder of winter with her mind in turmoil, she couldn't see the weakening of the ice under the snow. Didn't notice the cracking sounds. Couldn't see the cracks forming under the snow as the weight of even her small framed body and the snow became too much.
As she glanced up from her morose and detailed examination of her well-worn boots, Ariena realized with a start that the murky shape in the distance wasn't the manor house. In her surprise at realizing that she had been mistaking a formation of rocks for the manor, she sucked in a breath so cold that it made her lungs ache for a few moments.
It quickly came to her that she must have been following the wrong path for some time. Stopping to try and get her bearings she finally realized, in a heart pounding moment, that the faint sounds she'd not been really paying attention to were the ominous sounds of ice cracking. Instantly, she realized the danger.
Glancing around to get the lay of the land, she mentally berated herself at not paying enough attention to realize that she had to be on one of the larger ponds that peppered the area as she started to rapidly move towards where she thought true land was.
She almost made it.
Absurdly amazed that everything seemed so quick and quiet as she felt her body start to slip through the snow and ice, she clawed frantically to try and stop her descent into the freezing water.
Breathing a huge sigh of relief, she managed to claw to a stop just as her boots began to sink into the pond. Unfortunately, it was a sigh that lasted only as long as her tenuous grip on the snow did. Her hands started to slip again as the weight of her body proved too much to the tiny crystals.
She sank further down, her legs now in the shockingly cold water up to her knees. Feeling the intense cold begin to sap strength from her already, she began to frantically grasp at anything she could. Crumbling snow and ice escaped her grasp as she slid down to her waist and then, with hardly a ripple, plunged all the way in the water.
The cold, so cold, intense pain and then almost instantly debilitating numbness as she tried to fight for her life shocked her beyond belief.
In an unbelievably brief period of time, the pain, cold and useless scrabbling against the snow and ice she had fallen through proved incredibly tiring and her strength began to wane.
Trying to catch a breath, she stopped fighting for a moment but immediately began to dip under the water. The weight of her clothes adding just that much more difficulty to the task she faced.
It was tempting, so tempting, to give into the pull of the dark water. To allow the dull pain to take her under and end the struggle.
Her jaw tensed as her fiery spirit spluttered to life again.
No, she wouldn't allow herself to just give in.
That was ... not ... going to happen.
Fighting one more time to the surface, she tried again to find something to hold onto. Despairingly, she once again found her hands slipping uselessly along the snow and ice and back into the water.
It was so difficult to realize that she was probably not going to survive the mess she had gotten herself into but she refused to give up.
There was too much to do, too much to say and ... everything ... everyone ... meant far too much.
Once more she fought.
Once more she threw her hands up onto the ice and clawed with all her might, rejoicing as her cramping hands found purchase and began to make a tiny bit of ground.
The happiness was short lived, however, as one hand slipped off the glassy surface and splashed down beside her. Tears of frustration sprang to her eyes as her body began to sink back into the water.
Ariena's other hand began to lose its grip and her soul cried out in despair. Knowing, instinctively, that this was her last chance.
Kicking with her all but numb legs to try and gain the ground she'd lost, she once again swung her other arm out of the water and against the slick surface with the last of her strength.
As she scrambled to hold on, she choked back a sob and yelled, between chattering teeth, "I will not die!"
In slow motion, Ariena's hands slipped almost to the edge of the cracking and crumbling ice. Her head bowed as she felt the creeping numbness wash over her with a vengeance.
With an ease that belied the fight she was trying to keep up, the cold stole the last of her strength and her body began to slide noiselessly back into the freezing water.
Unable to flex her fingers or even kick her legs, Ariena took a last halting breath and prepared herself for the final descent into the murky depths.
Just as her fingers slipped torturously, she forced her head up to look up one more time and simply blinked as she saw a sight her addled mind had trouble believing.
"You won't believe it, Ari! We were so worried when you didn't come back quickly; I asked the Master if I could take Rascal." At the blonde's questioning look, Tegwyn stopped speaking and looked at her shyly, "Your birthday present, from all of us. He's gorgeous, a beautiful bay he is and I couldn't have done it without him!"
Tegwyn sat back at Ariena's side and said "But anyway, I couldn't find you. I was just trying every direction, even the trails that I couldn't really take Rascal. Then, I heard something, a cry or ... I don't know. Anyway, I headed that way."
Blue eyes focused intently on her friend and she asked quietly, "Did you hear me at all?"
At Ariena's sleepy shake of the head, Tegwyn breathed a sigh of relief at the fact that the blonde hadn't heard her frantic cries. Then, she continued her, repeatedly asked for, dramatic re-enactment of finally finding her friend to the many people in the room that had come to check on Ariena.
"The snow was building up but I got to a place I finally recognized was that pond where we taught Bira to swim last summer. Remember?"
Tegwyn looked over the partially dozing Ariena who nodded absently as the blonde mentally berated her very tired self for not realizing where she had been.
"The snow usually makes things so quiet but I could hear something, perhaps the groaning of the ice on the pond. So, I left Rascal and got closer to the pond, moving along the edges carefully. Then I saw something small sliding into the water." Tegwyn stopped, her heart hammering in her chest at the memory of what she now realized were Ariena's hands slipping down into the water. Once again she looked over at her friend, misty green seemingly understanding what Tegwyn was feeling.
"Somehow, I knew it was you but the ice was groaning as if it would keep fracturing. I ran back to Rascal, grabbed the rope I'd brought with me and tied it around my waist and to the saddle. Then, lying down against the ice, I slid myself over to the widening hole." The memory of what she'd seen when Tegwyn got to the hole in the ice would probably be nightmare fodder for a very long time. Blonde hair fanned out in the water, just below the surface, arms out to the side, hands like claws.
She shook herself both mentally and, somewhat less enthusiastically, physically before looking back at the rapt audience. "I grabbed her arm and pulled until her head came out of the water. Then pulled and pulled until I couldn't pull anymore."
The dark haired girl swallowed, remembering how tired she'd been, how dangerous it had been but it had never crossed her mind to leave. She stood and crossed over to stand by the fireplace, nervously feeding the fire with more logs. "I couldn't get her out of the water, nothing helped."
Teg wasn't about to tell them that she'd been sobbing with frustration at the time and how the ice continued to fracture so that it was very evident that they would both end up in the water very soon. It had been so very terrifying. Her next decision had been very difficult, not because of the danger but because it meant she would have to leave her friend and that had been the hardest decision she'd ever had to make.
The only thing that had kept her going had been the fact that Ariena had spluttered slightly when her head breached the water. When she knew her friend was alive. "I untied the rope from me and tied it around her, then managed to get back to Rascal."
A ghost of a quirky grin wafted across her lips before fading as she looked back at her friend. "Rascal was so smart! Didn't give me any trouble at all. Straight back we went and managed to get you out of the water until I could get a hold of you safely. Then we got you home real quick!" Tegwyn didn't mention how difficult it had been to get the soaked body of her, apparently, hardly breathing friend over the horse. How she had no idea where the strength had come from.
Noticing Ariena slipping off into sleep, the Master cleared everyone out of the room but Teg.
Ariena roused from her drowsing long enough to whisper, over an increasingly sore throat, "You saved me, Teg. After what I said to you." Her sleepy head shook with exhaustion as tears formed.
"Aw, Ari, I should've known I was making you mad but I was so excited! I'm sorry it upset you," Tegwyn apologized, a blush staining her cheeks.
"Teg, I was so mean to you and you still came after me. Why didn't I know that you wouldn't do something like that without really good reason? I'm so sorry," Ariena admitted as her eyes started to close.
Fighting to stay awake, she held out a hand, which Tegwyn strode over and grasped immediately, and continued, "Thank you so much, I swear I will try to never do that again. Please don't let me do that again?"
As the blonde started to slip off, Tegwyn looked at her and smiled, "Ari, you're my friend and I was so excited that you were getting something you wanted so badly as a present, I just didn't think. I should've, at least, tried harder to explain something that you'd understand instead of just running off to do other things. I wasn't thinking. Please don't let ME do that again?"
With a sleepy smile, Ariena squeezed the hand in her own. "Thank you, my friend. I pray that I'm always there for you, should you need me. Just as you're there for me. Have always been there for me."
Tegwyn watched over her friend as she slipped into sleep and closed her own eyes, breathing a deep sigh of utmost relief. "I'll be there, my friend,² she whispered and settled into the chair to watch over the person who meant so very much to her. "I'll always be there."