rosemary laurey

The Shattered Stone
STONE HEARTS

Exiled, on her parents' death, from the only home she's ever known. Alys sets off to find her mother's kin in the far Western Lands. On the way, she meets the Monarch's envoy: Ranald ven Strad. The chance meeting leads to an astounding discovery.


excerpt

Ranald ven Strad called for breakfast. He'd arrived too late last night for more than bread and cheese. Aromas of ham, onions, and fresh coffee wafted up the stone stairs. Dear Goddess, was he famished.

By the time he descended, mine host had set him a place at the long table, with a loaf of fresh-baked bread, and a platter of fried ham, potatoes and onions. Ranald made short work of both food and drink. Leaning back in his chair, he sipped the last cup of coffee, and complimented mine host of the excellence of his table.

"Is kind of you to say so, Lord," he replied. "Was all our regrets we could not serve you dinner last night."

"The hot bath was more needed than food," Ranald replied, "and bread and cheese sufficed." He set his cup down on the scrubbed table. "Good as your hospitality is, I must leave as soon as the farrier reshoes my horse. He has arrived?"

"He was summoned, but was called first to repair a plow. Is harvest time, Lord."

Ranald understood. A farmer in need took precedence over any passing traveler, even a Monarch's envoy. "He will come today then?" He could not continue with Saj's feet as they were.

"He will come, Lord, but may well be after noon."

"Then, mine host, I will need room and stabling another night."

"Your present room, Lord?"

Ranald nodded but as the host bustled off to give orders in the kitchen, Ranald cursed under his breath. By the Goddess, he needed no more delays. The detour to avoid the plague-stricken villages to the east had already added several days to his journey. How much longer until he crossed the mountains? And how long much longer after that to find the man he sought, and fulfill his oath to the Monarch? Much as the delay chafed, Ranald could not continue with a lame horse.

After ascending to his chamber to lock his bags and ensure his maps and guides were well concealed, Ranald, tossed his cloak over his shoulders and set off for the stables. His horse was too valuable to neglect. He'd done right to wait, but if that farrier did not have Saj reshod by dawn, he, Ranald ven Strad would haul the man over his own anvil.

The stable yard was near-deserted. All sensible, and well-mounted travelers having departed. Saj whinnied at Ranald's approach. "Ready to be on your way?" Ranald asked as he stroked his horse's nose. "I'm afraid we must tarry a little longer and your accommodations are fair enough." The loose box was clean, with fresh straw, the stables being as well kept as the rooms. Mine host might be surly but he knew how to keep a house. Ranald hoped the man spoke truly in regards to the farrier. One day delay could be spared but would be at least a week before he reached the mountains and once there, he had little idea where to go to complete his mission. Would be like hunting for a pebble on the beach, but he'd given his word to his aging Monarch.

Seeing Saj was well cared for, Ranald walked towards the stable gate, thinking to walk down to the the village in the valley, and perhaps learn something about the road ahead.

At the open gateway, mine host argued with a lone traveler.

"We'll not take in the likes of you!" Mine host snapped at the small figure—an old woman if Ranald guessed rightly. An old woman with an even older hill pony, and both looked as if they'd traveled miles.

"Good morrow," Ranald said, to the innkeeper and the old—no young—woman. It was an unlined face under the drab hood, and surprise, Ranald caught a glimpse of hair like royal auburn.

Mine host nodded to acknowledge Ranald, and frowned back at the woman. "Be gone. Our rooms are all getting changed for tonight, we have no place for you."

She looked ready to drop on her feet, and the pony looked little better. "Have you traveled far?"

Bright green eyes gave him a wary glance. "From the east, sir." She nodded, as a courtesy. "I have traveled for two nights and my pony needs food and rest."

Her pony was not the only one.

"I told her, lord. Rooms are rented by the night not by the day and..."

"All are unready for guests," Ranald finished for him.

"Is so."

"But mine is ready."

They both stared at him, with two different versions of horror. Ignoring the host's shocked gape, Ranald turned to the young woman. "I fear I importune, lady, but you look weary, and I have a room all prepared. I spent last night there but have no use for it until this evening. If you would care to avail yourself of it, it is yours. And I know mine host here has a spare stable for your mount." She looked torn between relief and anxiety. "I will be gone all day, lady. I have business in the village. The room will be all yours until this evening and no one will disturb you."

Propriety and caution warred with fatigue. Fatigue won. "I am indebted, sir, and I can pay for the use of the room."

"No need, lady, mine host does not charge twice for lodgings." Mine host was speechless, but unwilling to argue with one who carried the Monarch's Authority. "The loose box next to Saj's is empty I believe, is it not mine host?"

A grudging grunt agreed.

She looked uncertainly at Ranald as she led her pony to the stable. "I am truly indebted, sir."

"Lady, do not talk of debts. My room is at your service and you have the word of Ranald Ven Strad you will be undisturbed."

She smiled and bobbed a curtsy. "I thanks you sir, I am Alys, the daughter of Haran the mason."

Not a local mason it seemed. "Let me help you lady, would be unwise to leave your luggage here in the stables." As he spoke, he unlatched the straps, and lifted the saddle bags off the pony.

"I must brush Braniv down. We have crossed more than one river." That was obvious by the state of the pony's shanks.

"There is a good stable hand here, he will take care of your pony." If not, she was likely to drop here on the straw.

Ranald caught the eye of the ostler, and gave instructions that the hill pony was to be brushed, fed and watered, and cared for as Saj. And when the farrier appeared, he'd best check the pony's hooves too. A coin in the man's palm removed any objections.

Ranald followed the girl—she was scarcely a woman after all—up the stairs, carrying her saddle bags, and opened the chamber door. As he expected, the bed had been fresh made while he breakfasted. No rooms prepared when it was the work of a few minutes! A spiteful lie indeed. What the host expected her to do? Sleep by the roadside. She looked as thought she'd done that too much already. "Here is the chamber, Alys Masondaughter. It is yours all day if you so wish."

"Sir." Green eyes looked up at him, still cautious, but almost trusting. "I thank you, and so does Braniv. Another day on the road and we both would have keeled over."—

"I am glad to be of service." To reassure her of his intentions, he stepped back to the door. "I wish you a restful day, and pleasant dreams."

"You are the soul of chivalry, sir. My thanks."

Chivalry? Yes, he'd be raised on the code. Foolishly trusting? Mayhap, but she looked honest. And to have walked past and ignore her plight would lower him to level of mine unwelcoming host—a matter Ranald must needs address and soon. "Lady, I am glad to have been of service." He closed the door behind him and went in search of the host.

Alys looked around her. The room was well-furnished: heavy curtains at the glass-paned window, a heavy quilt on the feather bed, even a hooked carpet, that she'd muddied with her boots. She took them off, washed her face and hands with water from the pitcher on the nightstand, and used the commode in the corner alcove—sheer luxury after days of squatting behind trees and hedges. The welcome bed was fresh made with spotless linen. Dirty as she was, she'd soil the fresh-ironed sheets. She pulled a spare shift from her bags, and wrapped it around the pillow, then spread her cloak on top of the bed and lay down, wrapping the thick fabric around her. She was asleep in minutes.

It wasn't entirely a fruitless morning. Ranald found the smith mending a plow in the forge, and received assurance that he'd reshoe both the horse and the pony once he finished, which would take a while, the blade being shattered. Ranald then wandered the village, noting the houses and the state of the streets, in case the Monarch ever wanted details of these distant towns. After stopping at a small alehouse for cheese and cider, Ranald made his way back to the inn, just in time to meet a lad leading Saj, and the pony. At least that order was being followed. The pony had been well-brushed. He hoped Alys received as much consideration and been undisturbed.

Ah! Alys! She'd been on his mind all day. What was a lone woman—and young one at that—doing traveling the roads? Had her family no sense to let her wander alone? Mayhap the meeting was fortuitous. She'd mentioned kinsfolk in the west. She, or they, might have information to aid his mission. Was she sent by one of the goddesses to aid him in his search?Traveling with her would be no hardship. And who knew where she inherited that auburn hair? From some earlier Monarch making merry with a countrywoman?

That in itself was strange and merited question.

Musing, he made his way beck to the inn. The yard was deserted. No doubt afternoon was when they all rested up for the evening's work.

Quietly Ranald mounted the stair, hesitating before his chamber door. There was no sound within and no answer to his knock. He chinked the door and peered inside.

In the dimness of the curtained chamber, he glimpsed a dark shape asleep on the bed. Her muddy boots stood by the door, her saddle bags piled at the foot of the bed, but what caught his eye was the mane of auburn hair spread on the pillow. He had not been mistaken, this girl was a byblow of royal blood. That he must needs report that too when he returned, but meanwhile...

Ranald lingered, stepping over the threshold to better see the wind-reddened skin, and the work-worn hands that clutched the drab cape around her. Her lashes were dark, another mark of royal blood. Who was she? And why was she traveling these roads alone?

Mysteries intrigued Ranald, and this girl was a beautiful one. Brave enough to travel alone, but surprisingly vulnerable as she lay on the pillow, lips slightly parted, her low breathing the only sound in the quiet room. She had needed this rest so desperately, what was the host thinking to try to turn her away? Perhaps it was her unfamiliar looks. Her peasant attire? Whatever, it had to be divine guidance that led her across his path. She would be his entry to the people of the western lands, and for that he would give her his aid and protection. Thinking on that, he reached into the room, and picked up her boots.

Leaving, he almost bumped into mine host's wife as he closed the door. Her frown could have curdled buttermilk.

Ranald smiled at her. "Ah, mine hostess! I was about to search for you." He held out the boots. "My guest forgot to leave her boots out for cleaning. Perhaps you can see it is done."

"Perhaps," she admitted, folding her hands on her chest, and giving him a look that made him feel like a naughty squire caught filching sweetmeats.

"I am concerned about a young woman traveling without protection," he went on, meeting her beady eyes. "Since she is traveling west too, I will afford her the Monarch's protection," he paused to let that sink in. "She will be my charge."

Mine hostess was not a slow woman. "Indeed, sir. As you say."

"I knew I could rely or your kindness and concern." That cause an odd flicker in her eyes. Maybe he should restrain his sarcasm. "She is exhausted from her journey and needs must rest, but perhaps in a hour or two, you could send her a light collation, some soup, bread, cheese and some of the excellent cold ham? When she awakes, have the chambermaids bring up a tub of warm water for bathing and if you could, ensure her linen is washed and dries ready for us to leave in the morn." "Will be done, sir."

"Excellent, mine hostess! Of course, I will require another chamber for tonight."

"Indeed sir, will not be as fine as that one," she nodded towards the closed door. "But our second best room is available."

Which was more than it was for the poor girl this morning! Ranald inclined his head in thanks. "Mine hostess, I knew your hospitality would rise to meet my needs. My guest will dine with me tonight. A table set apart from the company would, I believe, be more comfortable for a young woman."

"By all means, sir, we have a small dining room if you prefer..."

He shook his head. "Would risk unkind conjecture, I fear. My aim is to protect her, not subject her to lascivious speculation."

"Quite, sir." She unbent enough to unfold her arms and smooth them on her apron. "I'll see she has refreshment, and a nice warm bath."

She bustled off, no doubt to berate her maids, and Ranald wandered back down the stairs. Calling for a tankard of cider from the pot boy, Ranald sat down in a corner and thought about Alys of the auburn hair and the green eyes. Why had her family, or concerned friends not supplied an escort? That he much he could do. As one of the Monarch's envoys, he had done so times upon times before. But never before had he escorted a woman who caught his attention the way she had.

Was impossible to forget the sight of her rich copper hair spread on the pillow. Her body might have been concealed by the drab cloak, but imagining the curve of her hip, or the sweet softness of her breasts was no hard task. Sweet Goddess aid him! He had taken upon himself to escort her to safely, not imagine her breasts—which would be pale and warm to his touch and...

He downed the last of the cider, and set off down the road to meet the stable lads returning with the shod horses, Anything to get his mind off breasts, auburn hair and temptation.

When Alys opened her eyes, for a moment, she had no idea where she was. How was she lying on a soft mattress, in a warm room?

Then it all came back: arriving exhausted this morning, being denied entry, and... Dear Goddess! She sat up with a start, remembering, in a flash, the surly host, and the man... Some sort of official by his garb, who had insisted the host admit her and given here his bed. Alys looked around, doubting if the warden's house back in the village had a chamber this fine. There was carpet on the floor, warm hangings at the windows, and food...

She was out of bed in seconds, drawn by the savory aroma of the covered pot on the small stove in the corner. Stew! Hot, spicy and bursting with chunks of meat and savory roots. Picking up the dish on the table, she ladled out a generous serving, tore of a chunk of bread, poured a mug of cider from the jug on the table, and settled back on the bed to eat.

Seldom had food tasted so wonderful! A second bowl soon disappeared. Satisfied, she leaned back in bed and frowned to herself.

Comfort in the shape of a warm room, a soft bed, and rich stew was all very well and welcome, but what now? Ranald—she remembered his name—had given his word not to presume or importune, but how good was his word? Would she be wise to sneak out now, take Braniv and get as far along the road as possible before nightfall? How soon was nightfall?

Slipping out of bed, Alys walked over to the window. The sun was lowering in the sky. She'd slept away the better part of the day. Hardly surprising. She had not slept well on the ground when she stopped to let Braniv rest. Truth to be told, she dreaded going back on the road. How many days or weeks would it be before she reached the mountains? And how long to cross them?

The sound of door latch lifting broke into her thoughts. The door opened and a broad-chested woman entered. "I hope you are well-rested, lady?"

The courtesy surprised Alys, who half-expected ejection from the room and the inn. "Indeed I am, and I thank you for the stew, was most toothsome."

The woman nodded. "You're most welcome, lady, and we thought you'd be glad of a bathe after your journey." As she spoke, two maids came in carrying a metal hip bath, followed by a several more, with jugs and buckets of hot water. Alys stared as they filled the bath, then descended for more water, clean towels and soap.

"If you'll place your soiled linen in the basket," the woman said, indicating a round lidded hamper, "we'll see them clean and ironed by morning. And if there's anything else you might be needing..."

Perhaps a pinch inside her elbow to wake her up. This had to be a dream. But in dreams she had never felt the need to pee! "Nothing more yet," Alys replied, and waited until they all withdrew.

For good measure, she moved the small table against the door. Not purely for modesty's sake, but out of fear someone might come in as she disrobed and notice the concealed money on her person.

It was only after Alys bathed, dried her hair using towels warmed on the stove, put on clean clothes, and (keeping back her petticoat with the hidden pockets) watched the laundry maid, take her linen to be washed and her cloak to have the mud brushed off, that she wondered what she must pay for these services. Was too late now, she thought as she laced up her now cleaned and shined boots. She had money to pay, and would haggle over the price if need be.

She was clean, fed and rested and her money was safe back on her person. Worrying her bags had been pilfered while she slept, Alys inspected them, but all was well and undisturbed. The strange books still hidden, and the broken stone safe deep in a side pocket. She rubbed the polished stone with her fingers and wondered where it came from, and why her mother had kept it all these years. Questions she would never have answered now. What matter, she was on her way And now...

A knock came on the door.

 

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