(Note: Sometimes the work we do is never meant to be written down but serves only as a way to explore our characters and their stories. Wendy Wheeler of Slug Tribe calls this “story work.” It helps gives dimension to your novel even if it doesn’t make it into the final version. I’m not sure if this is really how Crae met Stavin, or even if this is why Lady Sarita was so unhappy in Red Gold Bridge, but it’s the story that came out when I explored this question.)
It was a fine day for a journey. The morning mist burned off under the strong summer sun, and they rode with their cloaks rolled up and tied at the back of their saddles. It was a six days’s ride to Salt, which bordered Red Gold Bridge’s southern border, along the Aeritan River. Crae led Alarin through the wilderness that he and Lynn had fled through last winter. They had fled Trieve when Kenery had marched through on his way to join up with the council’s army. Galloped right into the swords of Hare, the tricky Brythern lord, he remembered.
Back then, winter had draped the land in a blanket of unbroken snow. The stars had burned fiercely overhead, and the cold had caused him and Lynn to wrap up together in one blanket. They had not given in to their desires though, but he remembered it now with a kind of homesickness. As tired and cold and desperate as they were, she had lain within the curve of his body, and he had stayed awake, arms around her, as she slept, taking the peacefulness for what it was, knowing it could not last.
The weather was very different now. They walked along a narrow game trail, their stirrups brushing the tall grasses with tiny purple flowers, letting loose grains of pollen and dust. The air smelled warm, the sun beating down putting a shine into their horses’ coats. They were able to trot and walk and trot again, keeping a steady pace without hurrying. The first day was fine, Crae falling into the ease of travel. Alarin was a good traveling companion too, quick with a joke or a story. Crae pulled out his tale easily; the young man had always been a smallholder and had grown up in one of the Trieve villages. His father was a blacksmith, his mother shepherd and spinster, whose good yarn was known for its softness and evenness. He had brothers and sisters – all were grown.
Farming was not for him. “I wish that I had taken up soldiering as a boy,” he said. “A captain came through a few years ago, looking for men, but my parents asked me not to go. And no one has come since, but you. I’d like to become more proficient with a sword, and get a place somewhere.”
Crae nodded. A farm boy with ambitions for soldiering wasn’t unusual. The world could seem awfully small when you spent it in one place.
“I would not want to lose you but you can talk with the captains and the lords we meet at council,” he said. “You are a good hand with a sword, for sure. We had the proof of that.”
“If you think that you want me to stay,” Alarin began. Crae laughed, and the horses bobbed their heads at the sound. Sham snorted as if taking part in the conversation.
“No, your parents have the right to ask you to stay but I don’t. Help me find a good captain, though, before you take your leave.”
“No one shoddy or ill-fitting,” Alarin promised. He threw a glance at Crae.
“What about you? How did you become captain at Red Gold Bridge?”
It had been ten years since he had persuaded Lady Sarita to make him her captain. She had been young then – well, he had as well. He had stood in the entrance to her chamber at the grand house in Wessen as she and her householders had packed her belongings. She had married Lord Tharp a month before, and they were off that day to Red Gold Bridge.
She was beautiful. Crae couldn’t help but note it. Her hair was covered under her well-tied kerchief, but it only accented the clear lines of her face and her pale complexion. Freckles dusted across her nose and her eyes were a clear brown under arched brows. She was tall and well-formed and he stammered a little as he laid out his request.
“I am a second in command under your mother’s captain,” he told her, standing as tall as he could in her doorway. The sunlight shafted across the room, raising dust motes as women and men bustled around him. “I would be honored to put my sword and my bow at your service at Red Gold Bridge.”
She had a way of looking directly at people as if she could see through them and she looked straight at him now. “You would leave your home and come with me?” She sounded surprised. One brow arched.
“I would, Lady Sarita.” He wanted to say something about being a familiar face from home, but he it sounded presumptuous, and they barely knew one another. The other members of the Wessen family unbent but not Sarita. She was like her mother in that respect, though the two ladies fought oh so much.
“It’s a forest,” she said, looking out the window at the plains of Wessen, the good horses the country was known for grazing in their fields. “The sun only comes through between the trees, although Eyvig said there are meadows.”
He wondered if she was talking to him, or herself. Sure enough, she turned her gaze back on him. “Could you stand to leave the wide open spaces in Wessen?”
He heard it as clearly as if she had said it out loud: she could not bear to leave, and only the marriage vows kept her on this course.
“The spaces of Wessen are not so wide open for all of us,” he told her. “I would have my own command. I’ve picked men, good men,” he added hastily.
She sat at the window and folded some clothes, smoothing them over her arms. She didn’t look at Crae but out the window. That he remembered clearly. The sun shone on her face and a few brown locks that curled at the nape of her neck were caught in the light. She was beautiful and hard, like a statue. Lord Tharp was lucky, was the consensus among the men at Wessen, the guards and the soldiers, the householders and the crafters. She was the most beautiful woman in all of Aeritan.
But Lord Tharp was a handsome man too – they had all heard the women sighing and giggling over him.
And she had accepted him, even married him. She should be happy, he thought.
But Lady Sarita was not. And so, ever hopeful, he decided to say it after all.
“I would be a friend from home, Lady.”
She looked at him directly and the surprise was clear in her expression. Crae groped for honesty. “We don’t know each other, but I’m ambitious, and want to lead my own men. And you – you will be far from home. Your own guard could escort you for visits to Wessen.”
She smiled at that, a genuine smile.
“You could at that. All right, Captain. We have an agreement.” She held out her hand and he shook it, and he knew he was half in love with her at that moment, for her beauty and her forthrightness, and the way she had smiled, as if he had given her a gift.
He came back to the present when Alarin sneezed at a cloud of pollen that rose around them. In the distance birds wheeled high up in the blue blue sky, lost against the wispy clouds. In the distance birds called to one another and bees buzzed drowsily in the flowers.
“That’s how it happened,” Crae said. He hadn’t known it then, but it was the beginning of more change than he had ever imagined. And as for ambition. Well. He was a lord now.
And she was still stranded in a forest with only shafts of sunlight instead of wide open spaces. He wondered if she had such spaces on the other side of the gordath. He hadn’t been able to fathom much of the stories Lynn had told him, and in truth most of the concerns were in this world.
Alarin grinned at him, his open face as impish as a boy’s.
“Got more than you bargained for?”
Crae laughed. “Sometimes I think so. Sometimes I just can’t believe it.”
The farmer had stepped out of line, perhaps, but Crae enjoyed the comradeship. It had been a while since he had that simple sort of friendship.
Not since Stavin died, anyway. As if he knew what Crae was thinking, Alarin said, “You were so different from Lord Stavin, we didn’t know what to expect. And you were just a captain, or had been. But you lead us well at least.”
At least. Crae gave him a keen look. “Did Stavin not lead you well?”
Alarin gave a rueful laugh. “He was a lord, and you were friends. I best not speak.”
Crae drew the reins through his fingers, feeling along the braided leather. The smell of sun-warmed horse, mingling with the tall grasses, made him sneeze too. When he could speak he said, “We were friends, and good friends. But we knew each other’s faults and favors too. He used to say I brooded too much. And he, oh lord, if he thought it he said it. But he was a good friend, one of the best. A good man.”
“How did you become friends?”
Crae grinned, remembering their first meeting. The lords’ convocation had been held at Red Gold Bridge the year of Lord Tharp and Lady Sarita’s wedding. Crae and the Red Gold Bridge captains had spent much of the weeks of the meeting keeping peace. Where men came together from different companies, plus the merchants from the river, keen to make a profit on the gathering, there was no end to the fights.
Stavin had been boasting in one of the taverns that sprung up by the docks. There were lines of them, under white tents that sprang up like mushrooms in the forest. Crae had gone in to break up the fight his loose tongue had started with some Camrin soldiers, and he ended up backing up the brash young lord instead.
“I told him later that I should have thrown him into holding with the others, but he said that he would have just argued his way out of it.”
They saw each other a few times a year, when Stavin came to Tharp’s holding on business, or Crae took his leave and journeyed to Trieve. Once Lady Sarita had disappeared, he never returned to Wessen, but he had no family there anymore anyway. His parents had died and he had no brothers or sisters.
Reminiscence made Crae ill at ease. The trail widened a bit and flattened out. Crae nodded. “We can make some time here. Let’s go.”
He urged Sham into a slow gallop and Alarin followed. The sound of the grasses brushing over their stirrups and the muffled hoofbeats of the horses mingled together in a strange counterpoint. He didn’t know what he was racing toward, but it was better than riding slow to meet it.