Andrea Novis Episode 4
Copyright © 2015 by Michael Litzky
As Sir Robert’s heavy hands marched her out of the throne room agonizing thoughts tore at Andrea Novis’s calm. This was no bluff!
She should try to fight her way free, as she had not done nine months ago. If only she had had the sense to pretend to be dazed and weak from the ordeal. They would not have expected her to have exercised every day and practiced her meditation movements. She could have waited until the right moment and then punched and kicked her way to freedom!
Her steady step did not falter. She would be strong. She would focus on helping those others down there in the dark as much as she could, as much as they would let her.
“We have changed our minds,” the phlegmy voice called, using the royal plural incorrectly. It should have been “changed our mind.” Andrea Novis did not leap at hope again. But King Markul continued, “Since she will have none of us, let her be returned to her father’s court. We release her. She is free.”
He did not need to beg her to say nothing of what had happened here. He and his whole cruel court knew her father too well. Anything she did tell him of her ordeal would provoke only that thin frown, those narrowed eyes, that emotionless, “Well perhaps you have learned something.”
From the entryway, she inclined her head graciously, again treating Markul as the visitor. Once again, his face held that hopeful expression, as if even now all he wanted was to hear her thank him for her freedom. She could no longer be pleased with herself. She felt now like a madcap faerie trying to act human and feared that if she shook herself too firmly, King Markul and his court and the whole of civilization would fall away in a plume of dust.
Sir Robert walked her down to the stable. Her horse, Amber, had indeed been better cared for than she had, and was saddled, ready for her.
Sir Robert offered his pale, well-groomed hand to help her mount.
Without looking at him, she stroked the beautiful beast’s warm body, spoke soft words into his ear, received a moist nuzzle on her cheek which meant more to her than any contact she’d had since leaving the dungeon. Then she set her left foot in the stirrup and swung herself up in one fluid motion, not caring that she showed some leg in doing so. She arranged her silken purple gown while Sir Robert swallowed hard.
“I will be pleased to escort you to your father’s halls,” he offered. But Andrea Novis, seeing that the castle gates were open, set her horse into a trot with a single cluck. She felt the urbane eyes on her back as she rode alone through the archway and across the bridge.
Free of the castle, she urged Amber into a gallop.
Wildly conflicting emotions raged through her. The vastness of the sky with its piled clouds like dollops of pale cream! The rich emerald of late morning grass and dark trees!
She rounded a grassy down and came to a lip of land. Below stretched the valley lands, seen through a gleaming shield as the sun burned off the last of the mist. She rode past a patchwork of humble farms where rich soil burst with winter squash and hard berries.
Andrea Novis found herself crying at the size and intense colors, the way birds flung themselves through heart-aching blue while trees wrapped themselves around grassy downs in heartful embrace. As she galloped on, chilled but not wanting to stop on Markul’s lands, she blessed the pale sun which warmed her when she wasn’t under the hard shadow of the trees.
At last she crossed the border into Vinaldur and the long peace of her father’s kingdom wrapped her round. She turned Amber into the first side trail, found a sunny grove and slid from his sweating back.
She had no fear of attack by “common” people. The villagers and farmers and even the roving nomads of Vinaldur were the salt of the earth. And so with no fear of anything except that Markul might yet have her followed and brought back, she stood sobbing in the warmth of the still glade.
In the cell, she had opened her mind to one image per day of the outside world. Just before her sexual exercise (a carefully chosen position in her routine: if the yearning for freedom threatened to overwhelm her, she would have an immediate reward), she put herself into some place real or imagined. A forest glade like this one, a hall in her father’s castle, her teacher’s study with the carven gargoyle heads on the arms of the redwood chair in which she sat to learn and the colored rug before the fire on which they knelt to meditate.
And now it was no imagining! She knelt on the grass, happily soaking her knees and perhaps staining her perfect dress (she had not preserved it from damage in Markul’s dungeon because she cared about pretty clothes!). Leaping up again, she ran to a tree and flung her arms around it, nestled her cheek against its rough imperfection, let the scent of water and soil and sharp sweet pine and wild blackberry fill her head.
An animal rustled, dangerously big and loud! But it was only a rabbit, brown and speckled with greyish black. Its liquid eyes tracked her nervously; it quivered, then vanished with a thrash into the bushes. Her hands ached to stroke its fur. She placed both hands over her heart instead, willed it into the steady beat which had sustained her for the endless time in the dark.
Amber chewed a few blades of grass, watching Andrea Novis with large brown eyes, then clumped over and laid his great head on her shoulder. She cried again as she stroked his warm angular face. Only once had she cried in the cell. After that shattering experience, she had forestalled any thoughts that might lead to tears. Now she was crying at the fall of a dewdrop, the flight of a rabbit, the gentle affection of a horse.
Eventually, she dug into the untouched saddlebags, found sensible riding clothes and changed. Much more comfortable, she swung herself back into the saddle and rode on.
The turret of her father’s castle rose over the distant horizon but Andrea Novis turned off the high road onto a path of packed red dirt. She could have ridden into the evening, stopping to take a warmer cloak from the saddlebag, but her heart led her down a side lane. Amber was sweating by this time so she dismounted and walked him the last mile to a small white thatch-roofed cottage surrounded by the intense green of blackberry and nettle, the deep peace of maple and cedar.
Her teacher had already come out onto the porch. She felt his kindly gaze but kept her eyes on the stable. As she removed Amber’s saddle, rubbed him down, gave him several swallows of water and set him up with a flake of hay and some oats, she felt her anger at the old man for letting a nine-month go by seemingly without a thought for her. She expected that of her father but not of Ramsey Longbottom, her teacher. And yet, her first desire was to boast to him of how well she had done during her long ordeal.
She laid her cheek against Amber’s, looked into his trusting eye. He gave a soft nicker. She stroked and kissed his middle which had worn a saddle for her convenience, then put a light blanket over him.
The old man waited quietly for her as she approached the porch. She looked up into his eyes.
There she saw such pride and respect that she actually danced the last few steps. When she reached him at last, he put comforting arms around her and led her into the firelit study which was the best home she had ever known.
To be continued…