The Low Lovers of Anastelle Yrai


"Yes! yes! I am coming! What is it?" she cried back anxiously. Was Lallia's baby coming early? She must send Fiotr back to the shepherds if so for the midwife.

Fiotr's head of untidy dark curls appeared below her round a bend in the path, his wiry little figure was scrambling up the hillside to her, as agile as a goat. "A visitor for you!" he shouted.

Anata paused on the snowy path then began coming down more slowly. "What kind of visitor?" but she knew that Fiotr would not have come eagerly seeking her if it had been one of hers and Lallia's girl friends: the merry merchants' daughters and wealthier peasant women with whom they enjoyed saucy stories and a basket of salted nuts -- after making sure the twins were well out of earshot.

"Oooh! an officer-aristo!" Fiotr was near enough now that she could see the thrilled shine in his dark slanted eyes. "All scarred and whatever. Must have been in some dreadful battles. Prithou, Anata, prithou, will you get him to tell of them?"

Bloody Hell! could not the van P'shan family have kept the whereabouts of her home privy from that disgusting scum? Anata had hoped for better protection from them, especially old Lady el Farin van P'shan, Lord van P'shan's second wife. They had greatly enjoyed each other's company on the journey back from the el Maiens' hunting party. Lady van P'shan loved to pretend to be scandalous and Anata was a saucy wench so they got on famously. Anata of course did not presume on their friendship by going and hanging about the sworn Lady of the region in her precarious situation of poverty although she went once or twice for tea and cakes and to a ball when sent a particular invitation. She had hoped Lady van P'shan would refuse to tell el V'lair where to find her home. Then she remembered that he could easily get any information he wished about her family from the palace servants. She sighed as she scrambled down the path towards the tumbledown old grey hill fort which her family held in fealty from the sworn Lords of P'shan.

She came through the courtyard where she saw a magnificent chestnut stallion being led off into the stables by one of the farm hands. She went into the low old doorway of the fort, stamping the snow off her warm sheepskin boots before taking them off to put by the other boots and shoes. She crossed the dark stone-walled hall with the narrow windows high up and the huge fireplace cold and empty. She took off her thick sheepskin coat as she went and threw it into the dark wooden coat chest which stood with the other heavy old formal furniture in the reception hall that they never used. There was a magnificent riding coat draped over the back of one of the chairs, too good to be put with their coats in the chest, it was severely undecorated and cut in such a simple style that it was evident it had cost some huge amount of money.

It was so damned cold and they were so wretched poor that even some over-privileged son of the high nobility coming to offer jewels and whatever for the privilege of sniffing the bottom of the daughter of the household must be entertained in the kitchen.

Anata set her face into a forbidding sneer as she went through the doorway into the sudden warmth of the kitchen, crossly aware that this would not succeed in diminishing the allure of her beautiful features and plump curving body. Lallia was standing at the end of the table in front of the hot blue enamelled range, she had put her knitting aside and was smoothing down the jumper patterned in knitted flowers over her big belly, shy in the presence of an aristocrat. Jamies was sitting at the end of the table pouring the tea, his felt jacket with the pictures of deer embroidered over it still had straw stuck to it; he had evidently had to rush in direct from tending to the farm animals in order to show due courtesy to her noble guest. Their father was not there, of course. Even though she was keen for el V'lair to be repulsed, Anata felt relieved. Fiotr pushed past her and scurried over to sit with Petra by the side of her visitor.

Her visitor was rising very politely from his chair at the table to offer her his greeting, tall and lean in a fine suit of dark grey felt as simple and elegant as his coat hanging on the chair in the reception hall. "Dame Anastelle Yrai," he held out his sword hand. His head: fair with round blue eyes like summer skies in a face dreadfully scarred by the war-dogs, turned towards her. His face was always inexpressive because it was so badly scarred but his mouth pouted softly as if in hopes of some inappropriate light kiss.

"Lieutenant-Lord Hanya el Jien van Iarve, formerly of First Iarve!" She was delighted not to see the disgusting el V'lair van Athagine in her family home. Her face flushed up with pleasure, her dark slanted eyes sparkled merrily, her soft red mouth bowed out in response as if offering the light kiss he might have been seeking. She came tripping up to him in her warm knitted Northern peasant suit: close-fitting jacket and wide-hipped trousers all embroidered flowers and birds, her feet in colourful thick socks. She tilted her head about with the additional charm of a woman who knows she is extremely attractive and she likes you, the laugh was dancing on her mouth and in her eyes. "What a pleasure!" she said, laying her left hand delicately in his scarred right hand and tilting her head teasingly at him.

Lallia looked quickly slantwise at Jamies, making a giggling pout at him. He narrowed his eyes sidelong back at her. Hanya el Jien tightened his long scarred fingers on Anata's plump soft little fingers, his face remained inexpressive.

Anata sat down in the chair beside him, saying, "you have come for the winter sports?" she frowned as she said it, she was remembering that he limped very badly although he still rode well, he could hardly be keen to go skating and scrambling about the slopes of the H'velst Mountains with other fashionable (wealthy) aristos who came up here on holiday. "What news do you have?" she asked. "Any news of the war? How does it go, do Tashka and Clair and Vadya prevail or has that old snake van Sietter's army taken back the ground they gained?"

"It is Winter now so they are at a standstill," Hanya answered.

"Tashka's valour will prevail in the Spring, surely!" Anata said merrily then she added anxiously, "do you not think so?"

Hanya turned his blue eyes to the pottery bowl of tea with the simple design of animals on it which Jamies was passing to him across the scrubbed pale wood of the thick pine kitchen table. He said with a sigh in the charming dialect of his home region of Iarve, "ar't a good friend to hope for it but van Sietter has great superiority because he commands much better supply of arms."

Jamies lifted his head, making evident his surprise that a member of the high nobility would speak so much like a merchant but Anata had spent considerable time in Lieutenant-Lord Hanya el Jien's company at the el Maiens' hunting party; he had provided welcome cover from the irritating attentions of el V'lair and his own flirtatious cousin Pava el Jien van Vail because he was so much shyer than they were. Anata knew Hanya and his sister were heavily involved in mercantile networks and that their efforts to lend political support to these were the main cause of the civil war which had broken out between the neighbouring regions of Sietter and H'las. She said, "do you have no connection with the arms merchants yourself? You should make them help Tashka and Vadya and Clair instead of van Sietter." He raised his eyebrows at this, she saw his blue eyes in his inexpressive face become thoughtful on her.

"If I could get an hold on some letters of credit," Hanya was just thinking aloud, she was not interested in the details of his vulgar trading machinations, she said, "it must have been a long journey for you to come here from Castle Sietter, since you could not take the route through court."

"Um, quite long," he mumbled, suddenly ducking his head in an embarrassed fashion wholly inappropriate to a younger son of the high nobility. He said, "I have brought you a letter from my sister," fishing a packet out of the breast of his elegantly undecorated dark grey felt jacket and laying it on the table in front of her.

Lallia looked slantwise at Jamies again with the giggle in her eyes as if to say, 'Oh yes, what a long journey just to deliver a letter!' Jamies frowned quickly at her as he sipped his tea.

Anata took up the packet with the aristocratic seal on the back of it in considerable surprise. She had of course enjoyed meeting Lady Arianna el Jien van Sietter, the Lady wife of Clair el Maien, but she had never expected such a great Lady to correspond with a poverty-stricken Dame from the H'velst Mountains. When she opened the packet she was even more surprised to see that this was no casual note dashed off as a courtesy simply because her brother was going to the region where Dame Yrai happened to live. Lady el Jien wrote at length, not only such news of the war as she was privy to, but an intimate personal account of her own feelings about it and of herself and her two little boys, with whom Anata had enjoyed playing. Anata did not even have time to read the letter, she had to go rapidly on to the end where there was a whole paragraph begging Anata to be kind to her brother, whom Lady el Jien said did not often enjoy the company of people his own age and rank because his scars had made him shy.

Anata looked sidelong at Hanya el Jien, who was politely responding to some talk of the best places for skating and sledging on Jamies' part. It was disingenuous of Lady el Jien to describe her as being of Hanya's rank. He was a younger child of the high nobility who would be expected to marry the sworn Lady of some other region and rule it by her side. But Lady el Jien wrote in a manner which delicately made it plain that she -- a Lady famous for her chaste honour -- would welcome some association between her brother and Anata.

Anata had not thought of him as young like herself. She bit her soft lip as she looked at him through her lashes. His scars and gravity of demeanour, his expert knowledge of trade, had always caused her to dismiss him as much older but she remembered that he was Lady Arianna's younger brother, he must be about Lord Clair el Maien's age, only a few years older than Tashka -- and herself.

Well on any road, she liked them a lot younger. He was some bloody member of the high nobility too: courteous and honourable and seriously involved in politics. He was no giggling puppy with whom to enjoy a tumble in the straw. She turned her alluring dark slanted eyes away from him, considering how best to manage him.

He was far too honourable and courteous to need managing. After an highly proper and brief chat, barely long enough for the one bowl of tea, he rose from the table and said politely that he must not detain them from their business of the day. Lallia asked hesitantly if he would stay for lunch, in spite of Jamies kicking her; she looked at Anata with a sly smile as she said it. He hesitated, before saying that if perhaps they cared to invite him some other day, he would be so delighted. They were all relieved, not only because the stew Lallia had in the back of the range would shame them by its poor quality and the lack of nine other courses to accompany it but also because if he stayed to share it there would not be enough to go round and some of them would have to go hungry.

"The el T'fels were hopeful of seeing you at a party they are having on Angel five-day," Hanya said to Anata, "but um ... Lady van P'shan remembered her that does't not care for dancing."

Lallia was so astonished and so fearful of Anata losing the chance of some lovely party in P'shan Palace that she cried out: "What can she mean! You love to dance, Anata."

Anata shot her a fierce glare, saying stiffly: "Yes, I am obliged not to care for dancing while my ankle is injured. I prithou do tell it to Lady van P'shan how grateful I am to her for her consideration." She felt quite prostrate with gratitude not to have to be dragged around the dance by el V'lair van Athagine.

"P-perhaps I might offer you a bowl of tea, one day, in one of the cafés?" Hanya el Jien stammered as he asked it and his blue eyes dipped in his scarred face. "Will the company in the cafés be more to your liking than that at the van P'shan parties?" he said it with a tilt of his head and a laughing gleam in his shy blue eye that said he thought it was not him she was seeking to avoid, although his limp made him a bad dancer, but he was not quite sure.

Unable to contain themselves longer, the twins burst out, "never mind stupid cafés! We will show you the best place for skating, with such a jolly tavern just by it."

"Lord el Jien has no wish for your company," Jamies said fiercely to them but Hanya only crinkled his eyes up at the boys in what might possibly have been a smile, saying, "I am not much of an one for skating but I should like to try the sledging if you will show me some slopes."

They walked out with him to the courtyard. He limped so badly that even the twins seemed to realise that most of the winter sports would be beyond him and they stopped chattering on about frozen lakes where they were sure he would enjoy to skate and trails along which they could take him hiking to see eagles fly. As he took up the reins of his magnificent stallion, he turned and said to Anata again: "M-may I offer you a bowl of tea one day?" The blush went up his scarred cheek and his blue eyes went down.

She reflected that she owed his sister courtesy for the kindness with which Lady el Jien had extended her hospitality and he was so shy, as his sister had said. Perhaps she might introduce him to some other young people and make him more sociable. She said, "Surely, my dear," with a smile that she did not mean to dance quite so charmingly on her soft red mouth and in her eyes. "Write to tell it me what day best suits you." He opened his mouth as if to say he was on holiday, any day would suit, but then he tilted his eyes at her with the glinting laugh in them as if he suddenly understood the subterfuge which would give her a two-three days while he wrote to her and sent her the note and then she would think for a day or three and write back to him but only when someone was going into Erjeine. She suddenly sniggered and had to dip her head to hide it in the collar of her jacket but she did not hide the laughing eyes which flashed back to the glint of a laugh in his round blue eyes.


It was a two-three days later that el V'lair came by.

Jamies had gone with the men to cut wood and so Lallia and Anata had put some coarse meat and vegetables in a pot to the back of the banked down range and had gone back to bed, to save fuel. They climbed into Jamies and Lallia's big bed and curled up in the cushions and quilts embroidered with gold thread in peasant pictures. They were cutting down some of Jamies' old shirts for Fiotr and Petra. For a short while the twins came too but they would keep rolling about and fighting each other and pulling the covers off when they fell off the bed. Finally Anata kicked them in the backside and told them to go up to the shepherds' huts and help with the embroidery and knitting. Jamies always ensured the shepherds had enough fuel because he felt they were under his eye as the future Knight so it would be warm up there.

When the twins had gone, she and Lallia began to feel sleepy with the cold and huddled down in the embroidered quilts. Anata lay on her side, reading an old favourite novel with the quilts pulled up round her ears. Lallia was too big with the baby to do other than lie on her back, Anata pressed her back to Lallia's side so they were both warm and they lay under the piled quilts reading and dozing and waiting for the men to come home.

There was nobody to announce him so the bloody dog started coming up the stairs himself. They heard his heavy booted feet stamping on the steps -- he must have seen the row of boots and shoes in the hallway but he was so arrogant he just kept his boots on. His sword was jingling and he shouted out: "Halloo! Halloo! Is there no one about?" in an irritated voice as if it were a personal slight on him: the great el V'lair van bloody Athagine, that they could not afford six footmen to announce him.

Lallia sat up in the bed in astonishment and alarm. Anata laid an hand on her arm and screwed her face up to say, 'Shut it!' She was hoping he would think there was no one there and leave but the rude swine, of course he started flinging open all their bedroom doors and he flung back Jamies and Lallia's and stared at them in the bed and burst out laughing.

"What in Hell is this?" he demanded, looking offensively about at the cold room with its rough furnishings and peasant fabrics knitted and embroidered with pictures of animals and flowers and birds.

"What in Hell are you about?" she responded angrily. "How dare you come up to my brother's bedroom to disturb my sister by marriage." She got out of the bed and shook out her clothes: her wide-hipped black felt trousers with the pictures sewn into them in gold thread and her yellow cotton shirt, turning to pick up the embroidered felt jacket she had left on the bed and say; "Sleep some more, my dear," gently to Lallia. "I will bring you up a bowl of chamomile tea." She added sharply to el V'lair: "get down the stairs!"

She saw him pause and turn his head, thinking about it. His narrowed dark eyes slid from herself to Lallia in the big bed, her face soft and her hair so abundant with the pregnancy, but it was so cold and the room was clearly that of the married son of the household. He seemed to remember that the Yrais might be so poor that they could barely afford to scrape by but that they were still Knights under the eye of the autocratic and easily offended van P'shan, who lived by the cruelties of the Northern code of honour. He turned and went out of the room and down to the hallway.

She came down the stairs after him and picked out of the chest her best coat to put on, the one with the lovely knitted woollen picture of the sun rising over the mountains, feeling angry that she only had some peasant garment to wear which would make her look as if she were of low degree and nobody would care about her honour. She waved her hand at one of the heavy dark wooden chairs in the hallway by the big empty flagstoned hearth.

"Commander-Lord Tarra el V'lair van Athagine of Tenth Athagine," she said in formal greeting. "How kind of you to come and bring me news of my sworn Lords, the el T'fels. Will you take a bowl of wine?"

"Will it come as frozen hard as your bloody heart?" he responded. "I never thought to see the day I would beg for a bowl of tea! Is there nowhere in the house with a fire?"

"We Yrais hold a fort in fealty, not some mansion rich in unearned comforts," Anata replied, curling her lip at him. "We may sit in the kitchen if you so wish it." She made it sound as if it were beneath her to do so. "Excuse me while I manage your tea," she made that sound like some frivolous effeminate nonsense too. She went off to the kitchens and felt the kettle which was always on, poking the fire up in the range and resenting having to use precious fuel to get the water hot enough for the disgusting el V'lair van Athagine to have a bowl of tea.

He was stamping up and down the flagstoned floor of the hallway in a fruitless effort to get warm and started grumbling of it as soon as she came back in with the bowls of tea.

"So sorry not to be able to accommodate your Southern ways," she drawled. "You are welcome to consider the courtesy of your visit sufficient and return to P'shan Palace."

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