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The Phoenix Quest I: A Kindled Heart

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Lady Alanna of Pirate’s Swoop and Olau, King’s Champion of Tortall, stretched her back as she surveyed the vast expanse of Lake Tirragen in front of her. The Grand Progress had stopped at Fief Tirragen, and the royal party had been treated to a lavish meal by the surly Darius of Tirragen. Alanna didn’t enjoy the meal at all. The steward of Tirragen reminded Alanna too much of his oldest brother, Alexander of Tirragen. He looked like a much older version of him, so much so that it spooked her.

She understood the reasons King Jonathan stopped along the fiefdoms that were involved in the treason more than a decade ago, and she admitted to herself that draining their purse was a good way of keeping them in line. But it brought back bad memories, and it made her cross. She couldn’t even move freely in the main camps because of the cursed order to stay away from Keladry of Mindelan. And so she went for a ride to find some quiet, finding it at last near the woods to the south of Lake Tirragen.

Or not. A snap on twigs too close to her made her whirl around, sword in hand. How could she not hear the footsteps before this? “Who’s there?”

A small figure appeared from behind a tree. Moonlight showed a young girl perhaps eight or nine in age, her dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her eyes were wide but determined, though it was hard to tell their colour in the moonlight.

She bowed like a boy, and Alanna raised an eyebrow. “M-my lady, I’m sorry for disturbing you here when you look like you want some quiet. But — but this is the only time I can see you, and I — I’d like a word, please.”

Alanna could see the girl’s hands shaking before she brought them behind her back. Was she so terrifying these days? “What’s your name, girl?”

“Emmeline of Tirragen, my lady.”

Alanna widened her eyes slightly in surprise. She studied the girl as she sheathed her sword slowly. The girl’s dress had seen better days, and it hung a little too high over a thin frame, as if it was taken by surprise by its owner’s growth spurt. She knew that Tirragen was not the rich fief it once was, but the noble family was old. Surely they could do better than this. “What do you have to say?”

The girl swallowed nervously, but kept her chin up. “I’d like to become a knight, my lady. But my family cannot afford the training. I hope — I hope you can help fund my page training, before I find a knight-master who can help when I’m a squire.”

Again, Alanna fought to hide her surprise. Many questions fought for attention in her mind, and she struggled to pick one. “Why are you asking me? Your previous lord tried to kill me.”

Emmeline winced and hung her head. “I know, and I am sorry. I was born after — after he was dead, but we feel the consequences still at Tirragen. Things won’t improve if we don’t do something about it. If I become a knight I can serve the realm, and one day I’ll do some great deeds to redeem my family’s name.” She shook her head a little, “I’m sorry, that wasn’t what you asked. I asked you because — because I don’t think anyone else would even consider, because I’m a girl.”

Alanna’s eyes softened. Did Alex ever think about the consequences of his treason on his people, his lands? Even if she didn’t like being around here, this was a big fiefdom, and there were many still who were unfairly implicated by Alex.

She took a step closer to Emmeline, and slowly walked a circle around the girl, trying to gauge her fitness. The girl was too thin, though she held herself gracefully and quietly enough that she had caught Alanna by surprise in the woods. With training and proper meals, she would improve her fitness. But she would have to work to build up muscle.

A long mark on Emmeline’s forearm caught her eye, and she grabbed her wrist and turned it towards the moonlight. It was part of a fading bruise. From the shape it looked like someone grabbed her hand very hard.

“Who did this?” Alanna asked sharply, assessing Emmeline’s situation in a new light. Tirragen couldn’t be as poor as she made it out to be. There must be more to the story.

Emmeline flinched and tried to pull her hand back, but Alanna held firm. “It’s nothing, my lady.”

Alanna took her other arm and held it against the moonlight as well. There was no bruise there, but a long scar that looked like it came from a whip, or a belt lashing. Alanna felt her blood boil — who would do this to a child?

“Listen, Emmeline,” She said quietly, meeting the girl’s nervous gaze, “if I’m to help you, you have to be honest with me. No one should treat you like this. And you can’t run away by going to page training, there are other ways to deal with this.”

Emmeline swallowed. “But what will you do, my lady? My family can’t afford any more scandal —”

“Your family did this?” Alanna fumed, her voice dangerously quiet as she thought of words she would have with the lord.

Emmeline looked away, and her voice was edged with bitterness when she replied, “Family only in name. My brother is the Lord of Tirragen, but he’s only twelve. Uncle Darius is the steward, and he — he wished I’m a boy. Xander was supposed to be the knight to redeem our name, but he was crippled by illness three years ago. Darius doesn’t think girls should fight, and he won’t fund my training even though I told him I’d do it.”

“Did he do this to you?”

Emmeline turned her right arm a little, indicating the bruise, “Xander won’t let him hurt me. This was — this was an accident.”

Alanna lifted her other arm, “What of the scar then? How is that an accident?”

Emmeline hung her head, and muttered something.

“Speak up, girl. If you want to be a knight, you need to speak up.”

Emmeline raised her head, her eyes defiant. “I said my father was drunk that day, my lady. He was always drunk. He didn’t mean it.”

Alanna was quiet as she looked into those defiant eyes. How could someone so young suffer so much at the hands of her own family? There were countless children whose lives were changed by wars. Those were suffering that Alanna could try to lessen. But how could she help people like Emmeline?

Well, she asked, didn’t she?

Alanna let go of Emmeline’s left hand, and place her free hand on the bruise. “I’m going to heal this,” She warned before her purple Gift glowed over the bruise for a moment. She sent out her Gift through the girl’s body in the same breath, prodding. There were no more bruises, thankfully. But she could feel the signs of healed flesh, and she was certain that there were more long scars on the girl’s back.

Emmeline snatched her hand back the moment Alanna let go, and she hid both hands behind her back. “Thank you, my lady.”

Alanna straightened up. “Don’t thank me so soon. You’ll get countless more if you go for knight training. It’s not a way to escape bruises, I’ll tell you that. You’ll be beaten, called names, and assigned so much work that you don’t think you’ll ever finish. On top of that, you’ll need to work much harder than the boys to build up muscle and strength. Are you sure you want to be a knight?”

There was a fire in the girl’s eyes. “I’m not afraid of pain or work, my lady. I’m afraid of having things stay the same my whole life, and Tirragen would just waste away. I can only change things by becoming a knight, and that’s what I’ll do.”

The power to change things. Alanna fought to hide a smile. Wasn’t that what she herself sought, growing up in Trebond?

“Will your family let you go if I agree to fund it? What about your mother?” If her brother was Lord of Tirragen, then her father must have passed away.

“Xander will let me go, he will make Darius do it,” Emmeline said quickly, and paused for a bit. “I never knew my mother. She died giving birth to me.”

Yet another thing that they had in common. Alanna shook her head. “Well, there’s that then. Fine, I will fund your training. I will write a letter to haMinch, the training master about the finances.”

Emmeline bowed deeply. “Thank you, thank you, my lady.”

Alanna placed firm hands on her small shoulders, and pulled her back up. Emmeline was blinking hard, and the corners of her eyes shone in reflected moonlight.

“I may not be able to see you very often. There are still rumours that I can somehow magick someone to help her get her shield. The King or haMinch may forbid contact between us once your training starts, so no one can say you cheated. But I’ll keep an eye on you, Emmeline. I have a feeling that you’ll do Tirragen and me proud one day.”

Emmeline nodded, a wobbly smile slowly forming on her face. “Thank you, my lady. I’ll — I’ll make sure I do. Please excuse me, I need to tell Xander about this.”

Alanna nodded, and Emmeline bowed again before she left.

“Gods all bless, Emmeline of Tirragen.”