Wednesday, November 12, 2008

In honor of this month and the many things I've got on the burner right now, I'm going to post one of my stories. It's got several parts, I'm breaking the chapters up into smaller chunks, and I'll try real hard to get the parts up in a timely manner. If you just can't wait to find the ending, this novel is available on Lulu, titled The White Lady.

......And now for the first part..........

Cedar sat gazing at the sky instead of working.  The scrubbing brush lay untouched in a puddle, and a bucket of hot, soapy, water was rapidly cooling.  From where she knelt she could see a small patch of sky framed by a high window and the distant mountains.  A year ago when a Warlord had come to collect the harvest one of his servants had been persuaded to tell her of the world outside Emberfaile. He spoke of a place called Velay, where the sun baked sand until the air appeared to waver.  It lay over the mountains, he told her, where his master had just fought a campaign to stalemate against men and women fighting together on fast horses painted with bright colors.  The servant might have said more, but Housekeeper had noticed Cedar and ordered her back to work.  She was close enough to breeding age then that they had brought her in from the fields and taught her to scrub and launder.   The Breeding Master was already observing her.
     A sharp cuff to the head jolted her out of daydreams.
"The floor won't scrub itself."  Jory, an older housemaid, said as she set down a fresh bucket of hot water.
"Aw, Jory, I was only--"
"I know.  You were only looking.  Emberfaile is all you need to know, child."  She stiffly got down on her knees.  The round bulge of her latest pregnancy made kneeling difficult.  "Soon you’ll have children to bear, and maybe that will keep your head fastened onto your shoulders."
"Didn't you ever wonder what it would be like?"
"Oh."  As Cedar's face fell, Jory relented.  "All right.  Once.  When I was sixteen the Priests came to look me over.  Housekeeper argued that I was too weak to be a good Priestess, but they decided they wanted me anyway.  The night before we were to leave I crept up to the watchtower and took my first look outside the walls."
"What was it like?"
"Cedar, I went straight from nursery to House.  I was never out in the fields.  When I saw land going on forever without walls it terrified me."  Jory rapped Cedar’s knuckles sharply with her brush.  The girl quickly resumed scrubbing.  "I went straight away to Housekeeper and begged her to help me.  She gave me a potion that made me so sick that I couldn’t see straight for two days.  The Priests left empty-handed and the Warden had her punished for what she did.  But I stayed, and now I work hard for her.  Unlike some I could name."
Cedar guiltily scrubbed harder.
"Do you think I'll ever leave?"
"That’s for the Warden to decide.  Not until you've born a child, that's for sure."
"I don’t think I'll be a good mother, Jory."
"What does that have to do with it?  The Breeding Master will decide when and who.  The child goes to the nursery after birth.  That's all there is to breeding.  I never bothered with my two brats after I bore them, and it will be the same with this one."  Jory patted her round stomach.
"It's almost time for harvest," Cedar changed the subject.  "I wonder which Warlord will come this year."
"If it's really that important to you," Jory sighed, "I can ask around.  But you must keep your mind on your work today.  Keep out of trouble."
"There will be a feast," she mused.  "The Warden will feed everyone the same."
"We'll be dying of heat in the kitchens."
"The good linens will be used, and everything smelling sweet."
"You will strain your back scrubbing.  The incense will give you a headache just like last year."
"Jory!" Cedar protested.
"Sorry," her friends smiled.  "It's new for you.  Your first year in the Great Hall.  The field hands don’t do the housework, the indoor servants do.  I'll finish scrubbing.  You go downstairs and help with the laundry."
     Cedar dropped her brush in the bucket, and straightened up slowly. 
"It won’t take much more," she offered.  "I did get most of it done before I started dreaming."
"Get on with you."  Jory flicked some suds at her.  Cedar giggled.  She turned to leave, but saw Jory shudder with a grimace.
"Are you alright?"
"I'm fine."  Jory forced a smile.  "You go."  She watched her young friend walk down the passage.  Another pain shot through her.  It was different from birthing pains, and she should not be having them for two more moons.  If they didn't stop soon she would find the Breeding Master.  He would know what to do.

Cedar blinked as the sun shone into her eye.  She was up to her elbows in soapsuds and hot water again, only this time she was bent over a scrub board. 
"Did you see the line of wagons and retainers this morning?" a girl asked.  Her hair was hopelessly tangled and one of her shoulders bore a healing welt.
"It's the Warlord and his entourage, come for the Feast," an older woman said, her hands busy with the table linens.
"Do you know who it is?"  Cedar asked eagerly.
"Seare."  The old woman shrugged.  "Who else?  He is the closest.  His campaign in Lyria went badly this year.  He’ll need supplies and replacements for some of his servants."
"How do you know so much?" someone demanded.
"Children!" she laughed.  "I serve the Warden's chamber!  Or I did, anyway.  I may be only a cleaner now that my beauty is gone, but sometimes I hear him talking with the other Masters here.  I remember what I hear."
"Warlord Seare," Cedar rolled the words around in her mouth, sounding the feel of them.  They gave her a chill.
"There's a treat for us tonight.  A bard wandered in at noon.  He'll play in the Hall for the Warlord."
"Where is he?"  Cedar asked innocently.
"Don't try your tricks on me, youngling." the old woman shook her finger.  "You get to your work.  Housekeeper has been far too lenient with you, in my opinion.  You need more discipline and a lot less freedom to go here and there."
"Pregnancy will slow you down," another woman chimed in.  There was a chorus of agreement.  Cedar face grew hot.    
"The Breeding Master still hasn't decided has he?" one of them said kindly, seeing her blush.  Cedar shook her head.
"He has.  I had my interview last night.  Next week will be my first session,” she mumbled.  There was a long moment of silence.  Sheets and tablecloths slipped from chapped hands back into the soapsuds.  Cedar looked at her feet.  All at once they were surrounding her, hugging her, and tousling her hair.
"You won't be a child much longer," the first woman spoke.  "Soon you will receive your permanent assignment."
"Will you ask to stay in the House, or will you go back to the fields?"
"Why didn't you say something earlier?"
"How many do you think you'll bear?"
"Leave her alone."  The gritty voice of Housekeeper broke them apart.  "Tend to your work.  Cedar, come with me."
The women hurried back to their tubs and Cedar was left all alone to follow Housekeeper through the House.  Her white apron was starched and crisp, her hair parted along a rigid line.  Time had only hardened her as it was hardening her appearance.  When they reached her office, Housekeeper lifted a heavy iron ring and produced a large brass key.  Turning the lock she en­tered, sat behind a large desk, and Cedar stood on the edge of the carpet staring at her feet and twisting her hands nervously.  She had never been called up before Housekeeper before; she knew that nothing good could come of it.
"So."  Housekeeper looked down at her with sharp eyes.  "You are Cedar.  Do you know why you are here?"
"`No, Housekeeper.'" she corrected.
"No, Housekeeper," Cedar said.  She gripped her hangs even more tightly to avoid shaking.  Her palms were moist and she was acutely conscious of not having bathed for a week.
"Today you are fourteen.  A most auspicious age.  At fourteen you are old enough to bear children, and to receive your life's work."
     Housekeeper folded her hands on the desk and leaned forward.  Cedar could feel those eyes boring into her soul.
"You have slacked your work ever since coming to the House.  You have been caught daydreaming, sneaking up to the top of the guardhouse, and asking questions about the Outside.  This does not inspire confidence."
"No, Housekeeper."  Cedar mumbled.
"Speak clearly when spoken to."
"Yes, Housekeeper."
"What am I going to do with you?" she asked herself.  "What task that I set you to that you will not shirk?  The Breeding Master has spoken with me on this matter."
     She rose from the desk and crossed the room to stand at the window looking down on the courtyard.
"Your quota will not be set until after your first pregnancy.  You know the reason for this."
"The Breeding Master wishes to know how my body will take to childbearing, Housekeeper."
"Yes.  However, in the meantime you must be assigned.  Tonight you will attend the Harvest Festival.  Tomorrow you will return to the fields.  Hopefully the work will keep your mind occupied in more suitable ways."
     Cedar's heart fell through her stomach and straight to her feet.  She did not want to return to the fields.  Especially not at harvest.  The labor was backbreaking under an unforgiving sun.  She would not see Jory again, save only to exchange quick words when their paths crossed; an unlikely prospect.  She dimly heard the Housekeeper dismissing her.
"Cedar."  The words broke through her daze.  She came back to herself in the courtyard, with one of the nursery maids shaking her shoulders.  "Cedar."
"What is it?" she asked dully.
"Jory is calling for you.  She was brought to childbed an hour ago."
"She is not supposed to deliver yet, is she?"
"It is too early.  The child will not survive.  If we are lucky we can save her.  You must come."  Cedar let the shock wash over her, only one more of many shocks that had assaulted her this day.  She allowed the nursery maid to lead her away.

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