"It's been over six months now Leeda. Give up your darks," Nat said for about the tenth time that day.
"And replace them with what?" I asked trying to show unconcern and some cheerfulness.
We both walked in the woods gathering wild rose hips, me for my use over the coming winter and him for the church apothecary.
"Had I coin I would buy you a proper wardrobe."
"Nat, don't. You're my cousin, not my keeper. Besides, what of your vow of poverty? Do you honestly think I would see you break it when your service means such so much to you and others? Stop worrying it to death. You've done all in your power for me but there are simply some things that cannot be put back the way they once were."
"It hurts my heart to see you ignored and tossed aside; to see you so careworn where once you were so young and happy. You should be doing the same things all the other young girls are doing. The Meeting is next week. I know you could not go to the last one because you had just started your period of mourning but you should go this time."
Spying another shrub full of the bright orange hips I pointed them out and then told Nat, "I might be young - after all not even the Elders go so far as to call me old at sixteen summers - but a girl I am never to be again. I'm a widow and must behave accordingly or risk censure and well you know it."
"Hah! Fine thing for a village Brother to say."
"And I'll say it again. Bah! A wife at fourteen, a widow at fifteen, and forever alone at sixteen? Your parents would have never stood for it. And it never should have happened."
"But they weren't here. They're in Heaven and that is too good a place for me to wish them out of and back into the sorrows of this life. As for what should have happened and what did? Does it really make a difference anymore? I must deal in what is, not in the coin of might have beens that have no profit."
"And what is, is that you are barely sixteen. The old Guardian bid you only live in half mourning and the time has come for you to give up your widow's wear and find you another husband ... one that will give you a home and children to care for. The old fart couldn't even do that for you as a balm. You wouldn't have been sent packing if you'd given him a child, even had it been a girl."
Nat didn't mean to hurt me, he was simply a practical man and bent on seeing me fixed before he left to go to training at the Regional Seminary.
"Nat, be at peace. I am. I had to give up all the silly dreams of girlhood long enough ago that I barely remember what it was like to have them. Besides, can you hear the talk that would be should I simply show up at the Meeting without a sponsor and advertise myself like Farmer Bryant's cat when she's in heat?"
"Leeda!" Nat gasped, shocked at my words.
"Well? Can you? " I laughed to cover the embarrassment of speaking of the realities of my place." I barely have a reputation now. Were I to go to the Meeting and fail to find someone to take me on I'd have no reputation at all. You know many already think I'm cursed or a witch or some other nonsense. And now with this bloody status hanging over my head most men wouldn't even try to approach me. The situation remains the same as it did before I was sent to Linderhall ... I have no family beyond you, no connections, no portion, and no dower. A widow to a high man I am but all that does is place me higher at a parade table ... it gives me no great coin to add to a man's coffers."
Nat was silent as he knew the truth and we finished our foraging with the discussion finally closed. Poor Nat. He still felt guilty for having to be the one to explain things to me. Contrary to what I'd told him my memory of the way things used to be is quite sharp ... certainly sharper than those that would prefer the past to stay in the past.
The day had been a beautiful one, at least in appearance. Wildflowers filled the spoiled areas along the roads and heavily travelled paths, and everything was fresh and green, fully awake again after a long, hard winter. I had finished my studies for the day and was in fine spirits having gotten a glowing report from the Headmaster and Headmistress both. I ran along a familiar trail to share my good news with the young man I loved with all my heart ... Rom Waverly.
Rom was the golden boy and youngest son of the mayor of our town. We'd been close our whole lives and it hadn't even ended after my father - the head Woodsman of Harper - as well as the rest of my family had succumbed to a plague that ripped through this part of our region. Rom and I both made assumptions that perhaps we shouldn't have but life had never truly led either one of us to think we could not have what we wanted so long as we worked for it and it would hurt no one else.
I was turned away within sight of the Mayor's house - once long ago occupied by my own ancestors - by the Mayoral Guard but thought little of it thinking that the Mayor had unexpected and important guests. It's not like it hadn't happened before. Disappointed but knowing I still had work to do of my own I turned towards the cabin I shared with my only living relative, my cousin Nat Harper. I was surprised to find him sitting in the dooryard waiting for me as usually he was still at church that time of day.
After our greeting he told me to come inside, that he had important matters he needed to discuss with me. He was fifteen minutes convincing me he wasn't playing a cruel joke and another fifteen calming me down enough so that he could finish what needed saying.
"Leeda, I hate this. You should have a woman to explain this all to you. God have mercy, why did this cup have to be set before either one of us?"
"Nat ... why? Why does it have to be like this?" I cried, heartbroken.
"Come and sit Cousin and I'll try and explain things. Would that we had a Sister here to at least try and ..." He shook his head and sat me at the wooden table that still had the teeth marks my oldest brother had left in it when he'd teethed his first couple of pearlies. "Leeda, you know a match between you and Rom was always ... well ... unlikely. I'd hoped you'd come to outgrow your infatuation before something like this happened."
"Not true," I denied hotly. "Rom said his father spoke well of me and of our family."
"And well he should. A mayor speaking poorly of a girl can destroy her cause as surely as he can raise her status with a good word. Our family's reputation is good and we are free of any corruption in our birth records ... few enough can say that. On top of that you are a fine girl with fine talents. But, be honest, you have no portion ... no dower ... no ... no influence to use to get you what you seek."
Resenting what I saw as an injustice I said, "I may not have a dower or portion but I'm not completely useless. I am near triple certified in homekeeping at the women's college. No one my age has ever succeeded at such. Even Rom's mother, who was the youngest to ever attain a triple, was well into her 20th summer, married, and carrying her second child when she got hers."
"True, and had you your triple and a position at the Mission or some other likely place, you might be able to overcome your lack of dower and all the rest. But ... but you don't Leeda. Smart you may be though not all men want such in their household. And strong and a hard worker you surely are. The problem is that Rom's father is too ambitious and has been set on forming an alliance with Beauville for a long time, the same as his father before him. The death of Fan's brother is what has pushed her father - who you know is the Mayor of Beauville and a wealthy man in his own right - to agree to the alliance. With no sons the man is worried that The Linder will appoint a new Mayor; or even take Fan for his own and pull Beauville completely under his influence and claim there is no longer a need for a mayor at all. The Beaumont family is near as old as ours and have become nearly as thin in number. It seems inevitable that the Mayors' Council would do all in their power to keep the independent towns out from under the direct control of The Linder."
I remember not wanting to hear the truth but being too practical and honest to deny it. Still I fought the losing battle. "Rom loves me. He told me so. The only reason he hasn't asked his parents before now to officially accept a bond between us is because he is only 16. He has three years yet of battle training before he should even be thinking of a marriage contract."
Shaking his head Nat informed me, "Well, that's all changed and with the Mayor Council's blessing regardless of the normal rules of progression. His father has revoked his admission to the university and told him that he can train with the fighters of Harper as well as he can train someplace else. He is to marry Fan in the morning and that is all there is to it for either of you."
"In the morning?!" I asked horrified at the suddenness of it all. Knowing everyone would be expected to attend such an important event I said, "I ... I ... I won't go! I can't watch. I won't and no one can make me. I'll ... I'll die of a broken heart right there in the church."
That's when I saw Nat wince and knew there was something else. Although looking back I'm also sure it was in response to my overdramatic and emotional declaration.
"Leeda, you won't have to watch. You ... you won't be here."
"What do you mean? Have I done something wrong? Are you sending me away? Am I losing my home as well as everything else? Has someone said that I've been bad and that's why all this is taking place this way?"
He shook his head. "Easy Leeda. At least take a breath between questions. And the answer is no. I think you are too young for what is and what will transpire. But it has been taken out of my hands."
Becoming frightened I asked, "What has been taken from your hands?"
"Leeda ... you ... you are going to Linderhall."
"Ex ... excuse me?" I asked. Linderhall, the seat of power in our region, the home of the Guardian, those people once called Governors before the Days of Destruction. It spoke of something going on far above my place.
Carefully Nat explained, "The Linder found out about the plan for the alliance and demands a high tribute for his office not being asked permission first. And old he may be, he and his house can still make trouble by refusing to buy our grains or by pulling his men from duty along our outer borders. So worried that their plans might come to naught, the houses of Waverly and Beaumont are gathering several wagon loads of goods to clinch the deal and garner The Linder's peace and agreement. You, as the last female Harper, are their final bargaining chip to sweeten the deal and will be going to ... going to his bed." Before my bleat of outrage could turn into anything else Nat said, "It will be a marriage, I was at least able to secure that much, but ..."
Horrified I gasped, "There has to be a mistake. The Linder is already married Nat. I saw her when she rode with him during the last parade."
"He's currently married to not one, but two women. The second, though from a different town, is a half-sister to the first. You will be a third wife. I know it is not practiced in most of our region but you know the history ... the Guardians sometime have more than one wife to bring assets or power or alliances to the Hall and the region they govern. The Linder has been married many times but only two remain alive, the others are either gone from childbirth or disease. And why am I explaining this part? Surely at the women's college you've been taught the histories and genealogies."
I did know it unfortunately. It is just in school such things always seemed so far away and of no import to the life I expected to have.
I cried a little more and Nat let me but I stopped myself before he had to. I finally thought to ask, "Why is Rom going along with this? Has he not fought for me at all? He said he loved me. He said ... many things."
Cautiously Nat asked, "You and Rom have not ... not ..."
Blushing furiously I told Nat, "No. And Rom never tried to force me either. Neither of us are sullied thank you very much."
He relaxed. "Good. And I'm sorry for ... for asking Leeda. It's just ... you are so young but have so ... so much time to ... to order your own life. Not everyone has thought it proper."
I sighed. "I know. That's one of the reasons why Sister Evelyn always told me I'd have to be even more careful than other girls my age. But none of that explains why Rom ... why he ..." I shook my head. Showing my age I spat, "And Fan is old."
Nat snorted though not unkindly. "I know you are hurt Leeda but do not exaggerate to make yourself feel somehow justified. Fan is not old, she's barely twenty-five. Granted that's older than most wait for marriage but her father gave her the luxury to find her own match and her betrothed was off fighting on the borderlands when he met his death two months back. This is the third one that she's lost to a savage's arrow and that's yet another reason why Rom will be kept away from the fighting."
"That's still much older than Rom."
"Aye, she is, but that might not be such a bad thing. I swear the chucklehead's mother still chooses his underpants for him."
Still willing to defend my young love I snapped, "Nat! That's not true!"
Only slightly apologetically Nat said, "Well maybe not in full, but she certainly makes sure that everything he chooses meets with her approval. I think the reason why she never really objected to you is because she saw herself in your shoes. I bet she thought that the reason why Rom was so attached to you is because of your schooling aligning so much with her own and that you and she share similar looks ... I forget the begats but her family and ours have intermarried more than once since the Days of Destruction."
I wouldn't acknowledge it openly but I knew on some level that what he said was true.
"Nat," I said quietly. "The Linder is ... he's old. Very old. He should be a grandfather many times over by his years. I ... I don't ... don't want ..."
"I know Leeda. I know," he said sorrowfully at my shudder.
But there was nothing he could do. I rode away the next morning under heavy guard ... meant more for the goods contained in the wagons than for me ... and my life has never been the same since.
I won't go over the days that came and went except to say that there was a brief moment in time when the view from the top of Linderhall's tallest tower became too beautiful to my eyes and heart and I wondered too hard and too often what it would be like to fly from its height. The Housekeeper who was called Mizz Marta, and some distant relation to the Linder family, for reasons of her own took an interest in me and kept me away from the tower until my thoughts on flying subsided. Nothing direct was ever said but I admit in my heart I owe her my life and will forever more.
She also helped me to find my rudder. I may have had no favor with my sister wives, nor my husband, nor any in their social sphere, but I certainly found a place in that area called Below Stairs where those that worked for the Guardian and for the upkeep of the Hall, plied their trades. Had I not ... but I did and it gave me reason to carry on. I also found a mentor in Mizz Marta who, in addition to a fine housekeeper, was both a yarb woman and a midwife with years of training and experience. My life may have changed, my dreams crushed, but I still have my talents and no one but God himself can take those from me.