The lords and ladies of Britannia had been arriving at Hawksnest all month. Every spare room in the villa was already occupied and the most illustrious guests weren't expected until just before the feast. Two huge tents filled the paddock: shelter for the extra servants and retainers. Everyone would be comfortable–so long as the weather didn't turn to rain.
Erwald Ironhawk, normally an even-tempered man, scurried from the hall, down to the kitchen, up to the solar, and back again, shouting orders to shadows and servants alike. His wife, Lady Barbara, followed at a discreet distance, soothing the ruffled feathers and setting things to right.
“This shall pass,” she said to herself and the red-faced butler. “He'll be himself again once the feast is served. “By this time next week, we'll be laughing at ourselves.”
The butler pursed his lips skeptically.
Barbara shrugged. “There's no way we can get wine from Trinsic by midnight. It's not as if we could send an ox-cart out to the hill to wait until the moon gate appears–so don't worry about it, Alfwin. When the time comes, send up our own good wine. If my lord notices--which I very much doubt--tell him you did so on my authority.”
“Yes, my lady.”
Alfwin sped along the atrium walkway to the stairs that would take him down to his precious wine butts. Lady Barbara watched him go, then stared at the place where he had been, wondering if the vast estate of Hawksnest would, indeed, survive tonight's feast. Her eyes watered; she was looking straight at the red-orange disk of the setting sun. As if to confirm her worst suspicion, the clang of the campanile-tower tocsin echoed against the white marble walls of the atrium.
The lookout had sighted the first of the Companions riding out of the forest–and here she was, still in a house-gown! The wave of panic Lady Barbara had resisted heroically these last ten days crested above her. Companions were arriving; the sun was setting. Her husband's villa--her villa actually, the land was passed through her family line; her lord was simply the eldest son of a wealthy paladin merchant of Trinsic–was hosting the springtide Conclave of the Peers of Virtue.
Scooping up an armful of skirt, Barbara, Lady Ironhawk–born mistress of Hawksnest, dutiful mother of two sons, and sober wife these last twenty years–ran to her tiring room like a hare fleeing the hounds.
She was herself a Virtue Peer having received enlightenment at the shrine of Spirituality before the dawn of her eighteenth birthday, but she had not taken her quest further despite her father's urging. The shrine of Spirituality–one of the eight virtues revealed by Britannia's legendary Avatar--lay beyond the plane of the temporal world. It was equally far from everywhere; she had not needed to travel the length and breadth of the land to visit it--merely enter the nearby moon gate at midnight.
Her husband, whom she had not known at the time, had received enlightenment from the shrines of Honor, Justice, Valor, and Honesty before assaying the midnight venture to Spirituality's shrine. Each Peer charted his, or her, own course along the paths of Virtue. Erwald got as far as Spirituality, and not beyond it.
No Britannian had yet duplicated the Avatar's quest.
The Companions, the guests of honor at any Peerage Conclave, completed the quest with the Avatar, but they--like the nameless Avatar himself–were not Britannians. Though men and women of mortal flesh, the Companions seemed not to age and were said to come from a place beyond the spheres and stars about which they never spoke.
“My lady, I thought you'd never get here. Hurry, there's still time for your bath. The water's all sweet and steaming,” said Agatha as she embraced Lady Barbara, loosening the laces of her gown as she did.
Barbara's embrace was simpler and, perhaps, more sincere: she hadn't known her own mother. Despite the residence of an honored and well-paid healer, Lady Adelaise had died hours after giving birth to her only child. The magic of Britannia could work miracles, but it could not rewrite destiny. Adelaise had been destined to die at the age of twenty. Agatha, a suntanned farmer from one of the outlying estate cottages, had been destined to nurse and raise her overlord's daughter instead of her own, stillborn son.
“This way, my lady.”
House servants, trained by Agatha's steady hand, collected Barbara's discarded gown as she stepped out of it. A well-run estate depended on such delicate dialogue: Barbara, Erwald, their children, Jordan and Darrel, and a double-handful of equally privileged retainers created the, disorder which, in turn, provided respectable employment for many times their number of servants. The luxuries of their tables and tiring rooms supported the plainer, yet comfortable, life available elsewhere within the villa, and, to a lesser extent, in the dozens of outlying cottages.
The estate of Hawksnest revolved around Erwald Lord lronhawk and his extended family as the world of Britannia revolved around the sun.
One girl held the light brown tresses of Lady Barbara's hair away from the water while another scrubbed her back. The estate's mistress had only to sit on the submerged stool where she worried whether the Hawksnest vintage truly was as fine as those her husband's family traded at Trinsic. She glanced at the window, foolishly fearing that Erwald, bathing in his own tiring room on the opposite side of the atrium, could see the doubts rising from her head. Doubly foolish: Thoughts were private in Britannia; no mage was powerful enough to pierce the protective curtain of the human spirit. More immediately, her husband put his faith in calendars, not weather. He had not given the order to remove the leaded glass of winter from the villa's windows: Nothing at all could be seen clearly through them.
Agatha held up a linen drying sheet in which she wrapped her lady as she emerged from the bath, clipping it tight with a jeweled broach. The entourage reentered the tiring room proper. Barbara sat on another stool. The woman who artfully arranged Barbara's hair was, like the lady herself, born and raised on the estate. The scented creams massaged into her neck were, likewise, products of their own gardens and apothecary. The linen had been grown here, retted here, dyed here, and woven on the loom that dominated the solar above her bedroom. Except for Lady Barbara's jewelry and the embroidered silk girdle Agatha adjusted carefully around her waist and hips, everything had been produced from start to finish at Hawksnest.
“Is my husband dressed?” Lady Barbara asked, slipping her hands through the slashed arms-eyes of the formal blue surcote that would protect her bleached linen gown from the rigors of a six-hour banquet.
Agatha nodded. “Yes, my lady, his buskins are laced and he awaits you in the atrium.” Servants knew exactly what was happening anywhere on the vast estate. Their knowledge was utterly independent of magic. Nothing moved, nothing broke, no one laughed or cried, but a servant saw it and shared the observation with a comrade. After a lifetime among them, the lord and lady of the estate seldom noticed their ever-waiting audience. The audience, however, never forgot the play.
“And my children?”
Agatha shot a glance past her lady's shoulder; a grimace spread over her face. “Darrel's got himself filthy already. They're bathing him in the kitchen. Hugh's been looking for Jordan all afternoon and can't find him.”
Wrinkles appeared on Lady Barbara's forehead; for a moment she looked every one of her thirty-seven years. She was used to the mayhern that followed her younger son, Darrel, throughout the villa. She didn't like it, but she was used to it. Jordan's misbehavior was atypical of him, and all the more puzzling. She thought it had something to do with tonight's feast–she hadn't noticed it before the preparations reached a fever pitch at the beginning of the month–but Jordan was eighteen and there could be a hundred explanations for his disappearance.
“Althea?” Lady Barbara seized on the simplest of those hundred explanations.
Althea had lived at Hawksnest nearly her whole life. Lord Erwald brought her and her older brother, Balthan, back from a similar Conclave more than ten years ago. Their father was a Virtue Peer who, Erwald said, received only the enlightenment of Honor before abandoning his Quest. Simon the Wanderer, as he called himself, supported his family for a time in Trinsic, city of Honor and Lord Erwald's mercantile family. As the years passed in frustration, Simon lost his glimmer of enlightenment. Eventually--or so Erwald said–he put out as a common seaman on an eastbound merchant-explorer that never returned to port. Lady Barbara judged it more likely that Althea and Balthan's father had drowned himself in wine at one of Trinsic's less than reputable taverns.
The Peerage didn't have much to say about those who fell away from Virtue's path. Their egalitarian philosophy proposed that the Avatar's quest was accessible to anyone, provided they were ceaseless in their striving and knew their spirit's strength. Compassion and Sacrifice were virtues as well, and the Peers, as individuals, stood by each other, offering as much help as the sufferer would freely take. But a man like Simon the Wanderer shattered from the inside out and there was no saving him.
So Erwald lronhawk saved his peer's children instead. He brought them to Hawksnest where his servants tended to their well-being and he undertook to chart their course through life. Neither child was particularly challenging in that regard. Balthan displayed a talent for magic from the start. He taught himself the spells of linear magic: handfire, hearthfire, dust-be-gone, stir-the-pot–spells so simple they lacked proper names. But when Balthan set a waxed, knotted thread in the chicken coop and the poor birds scratched all day in sun-wise circles, Erwald sent him straight to the arcane Lyceum south of the city of Moonglow.
Lady Barbara suspected Althea's talent for magic was greater than her brother's, but Althea was as shy and quiet as her brother was outspoken. She was devoted to the daily life of the estate. Althea's skills freed Lady Barbara from many of her traditional duties, thereby giving her abundant time to fret about the children.
Now that Althea was no longer a gawky child, Lord Erwald was starting to think about her dowry and his Peerage friends with spare sons. Barbara said nothing–her usual course when her lord husband was hip-deep in his schemes. Jordan wasn't blind and neither, for all her dutiful timidity, was Althea. The servants had seen the two of them together more than once. Of course, they'd seen Althea with that young blacksmith, Drumon, much more often; and Jordan preferred the company of his Valorian stallion to any mere man or woman.
The campanile tocsin clanged double-time, disrupting the thoughts of everyone in the villa. The heavy, padded surcote was not a soft housegown to be tossed over one arm while she ran like a barefoot farmer. Agatha took the straps worked into the garment's hem and followed her lady down the stairs at a stately walk.
“My lady,” Erwald gave the greeting an intimacy no servant would have imagined or dared.
They hugged and kissed while their separate entourages frowned at the damage such an embrace did to their clothes, then Erwald took the hem straps from his wife's maidservant. He held Barbara's left hand in his right and brought the straps behind his back in his left. The dark blue brocaded fabric of her surcote perfectly matched that of his dalmatic. No one could mistake that they were the lord and lady of this estate, nor that they were bedecked for one of their society's most formal occasions.
The tocsin ceased its clanging.
“Let us greet our guests,” Lord lronhawk suggested.
“Gard tells me it is Lady Gwenneth and her husband, lolo Arbelest, Bard and Companion.”
As if there might be another Iolo Arbelest who was neither a bard nor Lord British's boon Companion.
Throughout the many years that Lord British ruled his eponymous land, he actively discouraged his people from honoring him or his Companions overmuch. He was ruler by circumstance, not by right or birth, or so he said; likewise his Companions. It was a measure of the love, and awe, the people had for him that they respected his wishes. They erected no statues in his honor. They called him lord, as they called all men of wealth and position, not sire, highness, or majesty.
“Julia slipped in without anyone recognizing her. Geoffrey's been sighted from the tower–” Erwald ticked off the best-known names in the land, names that were almost invariably not given to anyone's children because the Companions, like Lord British himself, lived unchanging from one generation of Peers to the next. “Save for Shamino and Blackthorn, I think they'll all be here.”
Lady Barbara moved in step with her husband, “Blackthorn's not coming? He always–”
She swallowed her words, but not before they cast their pall over them both. Barely four months had passed since court-heralds had raced pell-mell through the land bearing the unthinkable tidings that Lord British and all those with him had failed to return as planned from an expedition into the newly discovered caverns deep in Spiritwood forest. The realm was well-ordered and secure; it had not plunged into chaos. It was, instead, suspended in disbelief. No one stepped into the void Lord British left behind, but Lord Blackthorn, a Companion whose talents lay in administration rather than adventure, took upon himself those many insignificant but essential things that could not be left undone.
“I forgot,” Lady Barbara apologized. She missed a step at her husband's side trying to recompose her face into a radiant smile.
Erwald squeezed her hand. “We all forget,” he assured her. “Lord British meant that we should not grow dependent on him. Perhaps he knew that some day he would leave–perhaps just vanish into the Underworld as he seems to have done. BIackthorn's a good man. He'll be a good overlord."
There was little conviction in Erwald Ironhawk's voice. Blackthorn was a good man; all the Companions were good men and women, as were the Peers. The simple laws and philosophy of Britannia inclined most citizens toward goodness. A good man, however, was not necessarily a good leader, nor a good ruler. Already, in ways that were difficult to put into words, Lord Blackthorn demonstrated a certain dogmatic adherence to Lord British's precepts that ran counter to their spirit.
The Peers of Hawksnest looked at and beyond each other. Life was pleasant on their estate and elsewhere in Britannia, the product of five generations of peaceful prosperity. They inherited a world unchanged from their parents' hands and had blissfully expected to pass the same to their children. Lord British's disappearance had, so far, changed nothing in their day-to-day lives, but the future they had once embraced with confidence they now confronted with anxiety.
“Don't think about it,” Erwald advised his wife as her brow wrinkled. “So long as we Peers adhere to the virtues of the Avatar, our lives, and the lives of those around us, will be secure.”
Lady Barbara closed her eyes. She took a long, deep breath and regained the facade of serenity that was expected of her. Extending her arms to an angle that was both elegant and uncomfortable, she reopened her eyes. “Our guests are waiting.”
The feast hall dominated the marble villa. Its walls rose twice as high as the surrounding atriums. The copper-gilt slopes of its roof formed a pyramid that blazed in the sun when it was, as it had recently been, polished. A ring of long tables, open in the middle and along the arc closest to the kitchen, nearly filled the hall. Every man, woman, and child of Hawksnest could be comfortably fed and entertained in the hall, but the Virtue Peers, though fewer in number than the residents of the estate, could hardly be seated cheek-by-jowl on common benches. Chairs of all sizes and descriptions, many of them brought great distances by their owners, studded the ring of tables like jewels in a crown.
The Virtue Peers were without internal ranks. There was one high chair, directly opposite the opening in the circle, and it was always empty, waiting for the Avatar who never came. The rest were set in the straw. A total stranger, standing where Lord Ironhawk stood in the east gallery overlooking the hall, might think the glittering men and women entering through the high doors in the south wall were simply picking the most convenient seat. Such a stranger would be wrong.
A veritable war of furniture had been fought in this hall these last ten days as retainers shuffled chair-suites from one part of the circular table to another. Erwald noted several significant changes in the last hour alone, but mostly he noticed that his own suite of five gilded, cushioned chairs–each surmounted with a rampant hawk of iron–remained precisely where they belonged: a quarter-turn, sun-wise, from the Avatar's empty dais.
Althea appeared at the western end of the gallery wearing a gown and surcote whose simpler brocade and embroidery proclaimed her lower position in the household. In point of fact, the girl had no need of ornament. She could have come to the feast in a threadbare house-gown straight from her herb garden, and not one in ten would have noticed. Her hair blazed more radiant than the feast-hall roof, her eyes were large and a deep, clear green.
In Erwald's private opinion, his ward was too pretty for her own good. Every Peer he knew was watching her. She was bright and winsome-everything a young woman should be, especially in the eyes of a man who had no daughters of his own. He'd set aside a handsome dowry for her, for all that it would be paid in gold, not land. He'd half a mind to start the negotiations this very night. He knew at least four Peers with sons of the proper age. If Lord Ironhawk could not imagine letting her choose her own husband, neither did he plan to marry her off to a man of his own age, or a boy half of hers.
Althea was not alone. Two young women who understood that they held their position at Lady Barbara's pleasure, not Althea's, accompanied her, as did a still-damp Darrel in a tunic as green as his father's dalmatic was blue.
I'll have that lad whipped 'til he thinks twice about running through the mud in new clothes,” Lord Ironhawk muttered, scarcely noticing that his second son was already walking slump-shouldered and staring at the planks beneath his feet.
“It won't do any good, my lord,” Barbara said reasonably, if not sympathetically “Boys are like that, sometimes. He means no harm. He's already afraid of you. He'll turn mean and hateful if you break him to your will.”
“He's got to learn.”
Lady Barbara shook her head but said nothing. She held out her hand for Darrel to kiss, the proper greeting from a lord's son to his lady mother. The boy brushed her hand aside, thrusting his arms through the slashing of her surcote to give her a desperate hug. Barbara gave silent thanks that he was freshly scrubbed, then stroked his hair.
“Come, hold your mother's other hand while we enter the hall.” She unwound him from her waist.
“Wife,” her lord husband protested, “this is not done–”
Barbara squared her shoulders. “Has Blackthorn started issuing laws all of a sudden?”
She nodded at Althea who merged into the family's tail with her attendants. Trumpets sounded as they descended the final stairway.
“Where's Jordan?” Erwald Ironhawk demanded, craning his neck around. “Where's my son and heir?”
But no one paid him any attention.
Copyright 1991, Richard Garriott & Lynn Abbey
All material on this site, unless otherwise specified, has been copyrighted by Lynn Abbey and cannot be reused without written permission.