Challenge Story

Author's Note:

First and foremost, to those of you currently muttering, "Another story? Finish one, woman!", this is already half complete. It was an idea I had a little under six months ago for a full-length story, which I finally decided to write and post (in a somewhat shorter form) in response to my challenge in The Original Fiction Ficathon, challenge #19. The details of the challenge will be posted with the last chapter.

Second, this is a piece of the history for The Children of the Wilds, from the story that Alida's mother abbreviates in the third chapter. If you enjoy this and haven't already read what I've posted of The Children of the Wilds, I do hope that you'll consider reading it afterwards. Or right now. Whenever you like.

Finally, like everyone else, I'm less than perfect. If there are mistakes, either spelling or grammatical, or simply plot holes or twists that are never resolved, do be sure to point them out to me! That's the only way that I'm going to find out about them, after all.

Now, onto the story itself. Do enjoy, and don't forget to review!

Part One: The Lady of Marae

"I'm pregnant!" Hessa wailed in a surprisingly loud whisper, wringing her hands for emphasis. I bent over and retrieved the hairbrush from where she had dropped it when I'd asked what was bothering her, and patiently sat her down on the bed and began brushing her hair, partially to comfort her and partially to hide the small smile that was beginning to touch my lips.

"I suppose that means that my husband has an heir now. That's good," I replied dismissively. "Thorn and Wilds, Hessa, do you try to get your hair this tangled?"

"Rahima! This is important!"

I shook my head, amused, and then froze when a last thought occurred to me. "Hessa," I began softly, resting one hand on her shoulder. "Altair… He didn't force you, did he?"

"No!" She whipped her head around to stare at me, grey eyes wide with horror. "Thorn and Wilds, no! But… Rahima, I'm sanpere. I've got nothing but a bloodline for my child, and even that was ruined by my father."

"How long?" I resumed brushing her hair, happy that her frustration had at least distracted her from the fact that she was supposed to be brushing my hair, and not the other way around. It was soothing for me, at least.

"A month." She was staring at the bed she was sitting on now, her shoulders hunched miserably.

"Mhm." I started work on a particularly stubborn snarl. "You sure?"

"Yes. Rahima, what am I going to do?"

"Does Altair know?"

"Not yet. Wait…. You knew?" She seemed to shrink even further down, as though she had only just remembered we were talking about my husband. Most wives would have felt the at least the beginnings of territorial possessiveness by now, I was sure, and Hessa would have found herself without a job. But we were talking about Altair, whom I had known for so long that he was all but my brother, and who I knew had always truly been in love with Hessa. Was I worried? Yes – that Hessa would panic and do something foolish, like killing herself. About what the child might mean to my bonding? Not at all.

I sighed quietly. No one would guess that she was my cousin at first glance, or even second glance. More like fourth glance, or a very critical third glance combined with a familiarity with my aunt. It wasn't physical appearance that caused this, since she was my cousin both on my mother and my father's side, and as grey eyed and pale-haired as me. It was the way she moved, the way she looked at the ground when addressing anyone she considered to be of any rank, the way she hunched her shoulders as though expecting a blow to come from nowhere, they way she rarely spoke up for herself.

As she had reminded me, she was sanpere, fatherless and classless. Oh, everyone knew who her father was – my father's brother, Jairlan – and everyone knew about the story, too. About how Jairlan had stalked her mother almost obsessively, trapping her in an abandoned room one day when most of the family was missing and forcing her. About how her mother, knowing that she was pregnant, had pretended not to know, instead choosing to charge Jairlan with rape to sentence him to death. That was one of the stranger laws we of Danash had: A rapist's sentence was death, unless it cause a child, in which he had to care for the child and the mother.

In my lording of Marae, and most of Danash, fatherless children were more or less considered a fact of life. Sex happened, and children happened because of it, and if two people had a few minutes of fun, what of it? They were happy, and even if the pair never bonded, the child had been born out of a moment of happiness, the way it was meant to happen. But Hessa's mother had been raped, something as unnatural as water-breathing cats and flying pigs, and because of it, she too was an oddity.

"Of course I knew. When I see you looking at him, I have to wonder why I don't love him." I patted her shoulder comfortingly. "Don't worry about it. It isn't as though I have a child to take over the lording when Altair retires, or as though I'll ever have one to compete with your child. I'll take care of everything at supper."

Hessa jerked in alarm, although not over her child. "Supper! Rahima, you still aren't dressed for supper! And the Lord of Este's representative is coming tonight! We have to hurry!"

Sometimes I think that Hessa would die if she weren't allowed to fret over every little thing. And so long as that is all that she worried about – the little things, I mean – I didn't mind. But she was kin on both sides, and moreover, I liked her, and anyone who tried to bother her about anything serious would find themselves dealing with the Lady of Marae.

I lifted and lowered limbs obediently as Hessa dressed me, for all that the gown was simple enough that I could have done it myself. She liked fussing, and she'd been worried enough over the past few days that I felt I could tolerate it for a few hours. It helped that the dress was one of my favourites, of course. Loose and flowing, the rich green and gold samite belted at the waist with a wonderfully patterned copper link belt that Hessa called gorgeous and I called a peace offering. For that's what it was, in reality – a reminder from Altair that it hadn't been his idea to bond to me, but the decision of two Lords who needed to cement their alliances. Although I agreed that it was gorgeous.

Once she had finished braiding my hair, she smiled at me. It didn't quite hide her nervousness, but I appreciated the effort she'd made, since nervous people made me tense. "You don't have to tell him you know," she said quietly. "I could just go… somewhere for a while, pretend this never happened. I'll find someone to mother him… her… and then…"

I hugged her tightly. "You're kin, Hessa. I'll take care of you no matter what. I'll take it all the way to the king if I have to, but I'll have your child recognized in this family." And with that, I slipped into the rich green slipper-like shoes that went with the dress and started down to supper.

Altair and I had been close friends from childhood, up until the point where I realized that my father wasn't joking when he'd said the two of us would someday marry. It had taken the two of us months to forgive one another the indignity, but after that, the relationship had continued as before, the two of us remaining friends and nothing more. And so things had proceeded to the pint where I was assuring my cousin that I didn't mind the fact that she was – once she'd gotten over her worries – happily pregnant by my husband.

Marae, the lording we ruled jointly, more than made up for the occasionally ridiculous marriage. It was peaceful, being quite near the border of the Tamelands, we never had drought or plague, pestilence was minimal and there were very few raiders and brigands. That last was due to the general amnesty that Altair and I had granted upon taking control of Marae, granting anyone guilty of the more minor crimes – petty theft, bankruptcy and the like – a job in the manor proper. The fact that the jobs included meals and a place to sleep added appeal, and we soon had the vast majority of redemption-seeking criminals in Danash working for us.

I smiled brightly at the red haired man carefully removing the large glass tailor's balls and lighting the candles behind them, a relatively new extension of the idea that lit corridors and rooms brilliantly. He smiled back, although I noticed that his movements were exaggerated as he replaced the expensive glass ball. He'd been accused of theft, I remembered, by a woman he'd loved on nothing more than a petty whim of hers, and convicted on the strength of her mother's wealth.

Perhaps that was the real reason that Hessa was so careful. The laws were there, yes, but nobles could and did disregard them whenever it struck their fancy. Even I was guilty of such things, though only for revoking a mastigrate's judgment without consultation with the witnesses or original judge. Still, we were dangerous in that regard, and the lower classes remembered that better than we did.

I stepped into the small dining room, smiling at Altair and inclining my head slightly to the Lord of Este's representative. He was taller than my husband, although not by much, and there was something about the way he moved… not quite polished, no, but more like the shimmer of silk that the quiet fall of cloth. I wasn't quite certain if I liked it, so I seated myself next to Altair, whispering quietly, "What's his name again?"

"Ettore of Este," the Lord said smoothly, "I don't believe I've introduced my wife to you. This is my Lady Rahima of Marae. My Lady, this is Ettore of Este, Lahthan of Este's chosen representative, who will be acting as the negotiator while we decided what to do about the grain trade between Este and Marae."

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Ettore."

"The pleasure is all mine, Lady," he responded gracefully, and that was the end of that, for the servingmen and servingwomen came in with the evening meal, and it is an insult to the cook to allow talk to cool the first few bites of food. The was beef, cooked just until the pink had begun to go brown, with the juices still running down onto the potatoes and other vegetables that decorated the serving platter. There was also a light salad and, as always, a pitcher of water, although I noted that someone had thought to bring out wine for the guest.

"What are they offering?" I murmured, seemingly concentrating on cutting off another piece of meat. Marae produced a great deal of eastern Danash's grain, and as such more or less controlled grain prices all across the country. For another territory to try and lower that price, they had better be offering something good.

"Near-monopoly on their pepper trade," Altair replied just as quietly. "We can't control what they pay the king in tax, but that doesn't count. Only Este is warm enough to produce peppercorn, and it doesn't come cheap. We control pepper and grain, and we can double the Marae fortune."

"There's a catch."

"Probably. But we'll deal with it when we come to it."

"Have you heard about the new inheritance law?" Ettore asked after a few moments, and we shook our heads. "It was a trend in the merchant families, and now they've made it law for the noble classes. Only children born into a bonding are being acknowledged as their parents' heirs, whereas the others are bastards."

I said nothing, stunned. Why on earth would anyone denounce a child simply because it hadn't been born into a bonding? That would be like blaming a flower for blooming a bit too early and risking the winter from, or blaming the sun for rising a little earlier than it had the day before. It was a fact of life, and to try to change it was ridiculous. More than ridiculous, idiotic. If the higher ranking nobles and merchants were so concerned about who should inherit that they felt the need to make such laws, then they truly had far too much time on their hands.

"What would the point of making such a law be?" Altair asked, a puzzled frown creasing his forehead. "Children are children."

Ettore shook his head fiercely. "Not so. Because illegitimate children usually aren't acknowledged, they can claim any man as their father. Lately, they've been claiming inheritances just like any true-born child, even if they aren't an heir. They've been taking advantage of tradition in order to gain money that they might not under other circumstances, and it has to stop. You can't understand how important this is."

"No," Altair agreed. "I suppose not. After all, we in Marae have always acknowledged our children."

It was Ettore's turn to look surprised. "Really? But what if there was a child that you didn't want to acknowledge, maybe because of who the mother was."

"Why would I sleep with a woman whose child I wouldn't want to claim?"

Deciding that I didn't want to listen to an argument, I cut them off before they could begin to truly fight. "It's the law now, so it doesn't really do any good to argue about it. Besides, I have wonderful news." Two pairs of eyes, Altair's blue and Ettore's brown, fixed on me, and I took a deep breath. "You'll have an heir in eight months, my Lord."

My husband gaped at me, and I could see the thoughts running through his head. An heir? I have an heir? Since when? But, no, that doesn't make sense, Rahima and I don't – a faint blush colouring his cheeks, and then realization: Hessa. Hessa is expecting. I saw the question in his eyes and nodded happily in reply.

Ettore of Este, unaware of the situation, smiled. "My congratulations to the happy couple, then. Will you be seeking the attentions of a midwife now, or will you wait for another month or so?"

Oh, Thorn and Wilds. I hadn't thought of that. I'd had two pregnant cousins, though, and I knew what would happen: within the first few weeks after the announcement, every female relative and friend I had, along with all of their friends and relatives would come to wish me luck and to give me advice. Then they would disperse, only to return during the eighth month of pregnancy to help with the delivery and the naming of the child. And there was no way that I could hide the fact that it was Hessa's child with that many people around. But Este would be sending representatives to work out the intricacies of the grain trade and other deals, so even if I could swear the women to silence, it would be known that the child I hoped to pass off as Altair's heir was, in fact, a – what was that word? A bastard. That would never do.

"Actually, I will be traveling to Fiacra's March with my handmaid Hessa," I said, striving to continue smiling as though I was delighted beyond all reason and not improvising wildly to keep within the bonds of this new law.

"Fiacra's March?" they demanded as one. "You're going to one of the Marches Thorn and Wilds, why?"

"They have very good healers in Fiacra's March," I informed them. "Some of the most difficult births have been ended happily thanks to a midwife from Fiacra's March. And this is the firstborn heir to Marae that we're talking about. I'm not going to risk anything happening to her – or him." I most certainly wasn't going to leave Marae heirless, and Hessa's child was the perfect solution. "Besides, it isn't as though the Marches are dangerous."

"Not dangerous?" Ettore sputtered. "Lady, the Marches are right on the border of the Wilds! There are diranelle and the Lone Guard, and dragons and gryphons and other things that could eat you in a bite! And you aren't even allowed to bring a guard within the borders of Fiacra's March."

"I know," I assured him. "The Marches are very well protected, though, and I would feel safest if my husband's heir were born there." Was Ettore really so dense that he didn't realize that I had never mentioned my child? Or were the women that he dealt with prone to speaking about their husband's children and their husband's decisions? "Altair…" I flashed him a look.

"We'll talk about this later, alright?"

"Later, then."

Supper proceeded as would be expected, with the three of us eating and talking of little things, although I carefully kept note of anything that Ettore said that might be of use during negotiations later. And, of course, there were the expected mentions of other pregnancies and congratulations to my Lord husband on the news that he would soon have a child from those who were serving food, although many of them smiled or winked at me, obviously aware of what had truly happened.

"My majordomo, Keiras, will be escorting you to your rooms," I told Ettore when we had finished desert. It was iced honey and a little fruit, for even though spring had finally taken hold of the world, it was still cool enough to make such dishes. "If you have any needs, please inform the steward. He will take care of anything within his power."

"Pregnant?" Altair demanded once the representative from Este had left the room. "How?"

"The usual way, I'd expect." In response to his stare, I added, "Oh, don't pretend you don't know how women become pregnant. Sometimes, when two people love each other very much, or just want some entertainment for an evening –"

"That is not what I meant. Just, how did you know…?"

"How did I know that you got my cousin pregnant? Well, she told me. And I'd known for…" I thought. "A year and a half. Possibly longer, but we've only been married for two years."

"Thorn and Wilds," he muttered. "What am I going to do about this? Is there some kind of plant or something?"

"Altair," I sighed, "I just took care of everything for you. Weren't you paying attention? I'm going to Fiacra's March. If that isn't dealing with any possible problem, I don't know what is. Look, don't worry about it. Anything that comes up, from an heir to a difficult pregnancy, can be dealt with in the Marches. Hessa and I will leave within the week, before she's at risk of damaging the child if she rides horseback, and we'll stay for as long as it takes to wean her. Or him."

He relaxed and smiled. "What would I do without you?"

You'd probably have bonded to Hessa, I thought. Then you wouldn't have this problem. But Hessa wouldn't have come with the ties between Marae and Aeldri, and soI said nothing, just smiled back and returned to my dressing chamber to prepare for bed.

Hessa was waiting just inside the door for me, forefinger of her right hand clenched tightly in her left and a worried expression on her face. "Did it go over alright? Does Altair know? What are we going to do?"

I began to undo the copper belt. "We talked, but there's a problem that I hadn't expected. It's become law that only the children of a bonded pair can inherit." She made a small, dismayed sound in the back of her throat, and I continued hastily before she could become panicked. "We're going to Fiacra's March, Hessa. They've got wonderful midwives, and there won't be any problems there."

She stared at me for a long moment. "The March?"

I nodded. "The March."