A yell from the castle's curtain wall greeted Sir Gareth of Naxen, as he dismounted and stretched. He looked up towards the wall - and saw nothing. Shaking his head, he looked to the tower - there flew his father's flag. Below that flew a smaller one - the flag of the second duchess of Naxen. Both his father and stepmother were at home, then. Certainly not unusual for this time of the year, considering the social season at Court was over. In a way, though, he'd been hoping to avoid his stepmother's suggestions of various eligible young ladies she knew.
"Check the right foreleg, please?" he said, un-strapping his shield from the saddle and handing his stallion's reins to a hostler. "And all the shoes - I'm afraid one could be loose."
The man bowed, in reply. "Certainly, sir." As the stablehand led the big animal away, another yell pierced the air of the outer courtyard. This time, the figure was visible - and unmistakable. Lianne ran towards him, her hair long and loose and her skirts flying.
He reached down and picked her up and twirled her about, to her delight. She had been responsible for the yell he'd heard from the wall. She'd been born to his father's second wife when he was seventeen - and at the time, preoccupied with his Ordeal, he hadn't thought he would become close to a sister seventeen years younger. But he had. The girl seemed to have every human soul in the keep charmed and enamored with her. Including him, her older brother.
"Lianne!" A very stern voice rang out over the laughter of the men. "Goddess be merciful, child!"
The girl in Gareth's arms blinked at him, dark eyes huge. "Oh. Marija's angry." He put her down as the nursemaid responsible for two generations of Naxen children stormed across the courtyard in search of her charge. "Girl, your mother will skin us both..." Marija stopped, wiping her hands on her apron.
"Master Gareth," she said, bowing to him. "I should have well known you had something to do with where Miss Lianne got to."
He smiled at his former nurse. "You know me too well, Marija. You can put off Anfisa for a while, I think."
The woman smiled and shook her head. "You're your father's son, sir. Capable of charming the... well, never mind. I think young miss here owes me an apology for making me chase after her, not knowing where she was."
Lianne looked appropriately chagrined and bowed her head. "Sorry, Marija."
"Good girl." Marija patted her charge on the back. "And it's good to see you, sir."
When the old nursemaid was gone, Gareth looked down at his sister. "What's changed since I've been gone, Lia?"
The little girl beamed and grabbed his hand, her small hand only able to hold onto the first two fingers. "All kinds of things," she said, excitedly. "There's two new babies in the village and a new calf and kittens in the barn and ... and...." She tugged at his arm, annoyed with him for not moving.
"We'll go, Lia," he promised, laughing inwardly at her antics. "We'll go. First, though, I brought you something." She followed him as he went to his packs, and she waited as patiently as an excited child could wait, while he dug for the present he'd brought home for her. She gasped and rocked back and forth on her heels, as he produced the new doll, clad in the height of Court fashions.
"For me?" Her eyes were wide, like saucers, and he smiled. "I don't know many other little girls." When he offered her the doll, Lianne took it, without grabbing it from him, and then flung her arms around him; unable to reach his neck, she settled for his waist.
"Thank you," she said, pulling back and beaming at him.
"I saw her in a shop," he told her, "and I couldn't leave her – I had to bring her home to my favorite girl." Her grin was worth more than words, and, as she brushed her hair from her face, he noticed she'd lost a baby tooth. Mithros, she was growing. He remembered her as a baby in his stepmother's arms, and then as a toddler who was always at his heels and followed him everywhere (and cried when he went somewhere she couldn't).
He swept her up and allowed her to sit on his shoulders. Her feet dangled and bumped against his chest. Of course, she had lost her shoes again. She was growing; she was heavier than he remembered. "Have you climbed any trees lately?"
"No." He couldn't see the child's face, but could hear the bitter tone in her voice. "Mother said I wasn't to. But I don't fall!"
"You? Fall from a tree? You're just like a monkey from the Copper Isles, dear Lia. I say we find a tree today, hmm?"
She giggled helplessly, her small body shaking. "Mother says grown men don't climb trees - and you're grown. Father's grown and he doesn't climb trees."
He bit back his laughter at the thought of their father - stately and regal, a king's best friend - climbing a tree. He'd missed the child. "No, Father doesn't," he admitted, patting her on the knee, "but I would wager he did when he was a lad. Ask Marija."