As Leda is now well in progress on Wattpad, I thought I’d post another sample chapter here as it works quite well as a stand alone piece. Leda has been rescued from drowning by crofters.
You can catch up with the whole story here: www.wattpad.com/story/85174329-leda-part-three-of-the-duellist-trilogy
Yaga sighed and slumped down on the edge of the bed. “You tell her,” she said, throwing Lev a harsh, hard look.
He seemed to deflate suddenly, no longer the bear-like, burly fisherman who’d saved Leda from the lake, but an aging, weakened, careworn man. He crossed the croft to its furthest end, peering out through the tiny square of window at Brennac – its waters reflecting a soot coloured sky, the clouds rain swollen and ready to burst.
“I don’t suppose you know much of life down here on the crofts, Leda. Not living up there in your great fortress in Dal Reniac.”
“I know enough.” She curtly jutted her chin. “I’ve lived at Hannac most of my life, I know all my parents’ tenants.”
“Aye, it’s not the same, though.” He turned back into the room, his face grey and haggard. “You’ve not lived amongst us – until now. You’ll not know. It’s not just the years of fishing and farming, out in all weathers and all hours – day and night. It’s not even this – that your child cries for food at a time of lack such as is now, and you’ve nought to give them save water from the lake.”
“What is it, then?” she asked gently.
“Leda, it’s… us. The crofters – that is, we place bonds on ourselves. We watch each other. We wait. Who didn’t visit the shrine last week, who seems to look at another’s wife or husband, who’s dressed like a lord – wears fancy clothes – or who takes too much ale. Every moment, every minute of our lives we watch. We talk. We laugh, mock and sometimes we even chase out those who don’t belong – who, in our eyes at least don’t belong. Isn’t that so, wife?”
Yaga nodded, her eyes cast down to the floor.
“But Lev, Colvé is no different – or so my parents tell me. There are few who can truly call themselves free.” She thought of the night of the coronation – of her harsh exchange with Hal – and a hot, vicious seam of shame welled within.
“No, I’m sure,” said Yaga. “I’m sure folks are the same anywhere. But you see, Leda, here in a village like ours, we – we see more. The torment can be too great. And so it was with…with our daughter, Oræl.”
Leda sucked in her breath. “Your daughter?”
“Aye.” Lev’s eyes grew glossy, threatening to spill. He dragged a small stool to the centre of the room and sat down, clutching his knees in a strangely childlike way. “She was…always different, Oræl. Always wanting to fish with me – you could never keep her inside. Always had to be dashing about. If she wasn’t fishing, she’d be swimming or hunting. She was a wild, wild girl.” He smiled, and Leda detected a hint of pride.
“But that was alright, so long as she was a child,” Yaga continued. “Spirits, how good it is to speak of this to another. We’ve never told a soul, have we, Lev?”
“No. Never.” He rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands.
“As time went on, though,” Yaga continued, “the folks here saw it. Said it were a shame – in a young woman. Fit to be married, to have children of her own, and there she was – careering about the place like a savage. Fishing’s men’s work, they said. You remind her of that. With your belt strap, if need be.”
Lev winced. “Once. Once, I did it. Didn’t work, though. Just made her look at me different. After all, I was the one who’d allowed her to fish – she’s good at it. Where was the harm, I’d thought.”
“She’s…she’s alive?” Leda ventured.
“Oh aye. Alive. But not to us. Not to us.” Driven to tears, Yaga rose and left the croft. Leda stared at Lev.
“Yaga blames me, of course,” he said. “Thinks it’s all my fault.”
He shook his head. “The village was outraged. said they’d no longer have such a…a cursed creature like Oræl amongst them. There were even those who said she was a ræsling.”
Leda suddenly understood. “You made her go?”
Lev’s face crumpled, his eyes welled and finally spilled, and he sank his bare head into his hands. “I thought I was helping her, Leda. I thought I was saving her. I told her she’d no more a home in my croft until she’d learned her place – I’d find her a good lad from the village, I told her. She could settle down, bear us some grandchildren. I loved her – I didn’t want her to change. She’s my Oræl and she always will be. But I was a coward.”
He rose, and then, with unexpected viciousness, kicked the stool across the room. It crashed into a pile of nets. “I was such a damned coward.”
“Aye, Lev. You were.” Yaga spoke quietly from the doorway, her face now dry, her composure regained. “I warned him to leave her be. You could never keep Oræl down. She’d always have her way.”
“Just like someone else I know,” Leda murmured. “Where is she now?”
“Fishing up north somewhere – out of Anstræc most likely,” said Lev, trembling. “I went up there, begged her to come back. She just told me to take my boots off her boat.”
There was something so profoundly sad about Oræl’s story. Leda recognised Hal in the girl’s refusal to bend or break. She heard, too, the threat of loveless marriage which had been a reality for Meracad and could very nearly have become her own fate – that denial of freedom, that slow, living death. She saw this girl running, like herself, making her mark, casting her nets into Brennac’s dark waters while the world conspired to make her its slave.
“I’ll find her,” she said suddenly. “I’ll bring her back to you.”
Yaga’s smile was mournful. “It’s good of you, Leda, but you yourself are – well, the Emperor’s men are searching for you.”
“They’ll catch you.”
“They won’t.” They’ll never catch me, she decided. Not alive, at least.
“Leda, what are you doing? Where are you going?”
It had started to rain. She stepped outside for the first day in many – turned her face to the clouds dressed in her crofter’s coarse woven dress, her feet bare, the mud of the village oozing between her toes. Across the dirt road two men stared at her – both weather brown and wrinkled – one with a coarse growth of greying beard across his chin, the other clean shaven, wiry, his expression hardening from surprise to recognition. She didn’t care. The rain fell harder, soaking her to the bone as she strode to the centre of the village – to the post on which hung her likeness, and that of her mother. As more faces peered from croft doors, she stripped the parchment from the post and held it aloft.
“This is me – Leda Nérac, Lady of Dal Reniac. Just so you can tell the Emperor’s men when they pass this road again that you’ve seen me.” She crumpled the paper in her fists. “Or you can remain faithful to me – support me and my family. The Emperor is dangerous.”
All eyes were on her now. In spite of the rain, her blood felt hot.
“He is a tyrant. You may not believe me now, but by all the spirits you will do when the time comes. So make your choice. You can hand me in, if you like, but if you let me go now, I’ll return home to Dal Reniac, and I’ll fight for you.”
Not a word. Not a murmur.
“I ask just one thing – give yourselves freedom. Only you can do that.”
She turned at last to Lev and Yaga who stood shivering in their doorway, Lev’s arm folded around his wife’s shoulders. “I keep my promises,” she said.
A single track wound its way from the village, up across moorland towards the jagged crags which overhung the lake. Leda began to walk. And no one followed her.