[Rickard is property of Edd, whose profile is hopelessly out of date; character used with his permission. ]
She could barely breathe; her ribs felt tight, as if they might at any moment snap. Her eyes watered and her lungs burned as she tried to make her breaths as shallow as possible, steeling herself against the pressure on her scalp and the tearing, wrenching sensations that reverberated all the way down her neck –
“For Gods’ sakes, girl, wipe that war-grimace off your face!”
Sabine Colville had the look of a woman who was in over her head, as she jerked a comb through Daniyah’s thick mane of wiry hair. It had, of course, been her idea to undo the myriad braids which had contained the unruly mass before now – she had envisioned all sorts of beautiful styles which might be much more suitable for a courtly occasion. Now, even Daniyah could see she was having second thoughts; the young squire tried a smile through the pain being inflicted on her scalp, and, for at least the dozenth time that evening, silently cursed fashion for being so bloody constrictive.
“I’m sorry, Lady Colville; only…” She wavered a second, then took a deep breath and blurted stubbornly – “Do we really have to do this?” Even as the words left her lips, Daniyah knew it was a pointless question.
She was twelve, and built along sturdy lines; there was little enough to differentiate her from Rickard, Sabine’s son and her training partner. Not even the corset, pulled tight as it would go, could force much curve to her form; Sabine, however, was not content to leave well enough be.
“You’re a girl, dear; it doesn’t hurt to dress like it every now and again! Besides, I’m sure we can work with this – you’ll be so lovely once we just… do something with your hair…” She tugged at the brush, and Daniyah was wise enough to withhold her sigh; what little breath she had was too precious to waste on expressing her dismay.
Being in a dress didn’t change how she felt about herself. She was proud of her strength – she’d worked hard to attain it, and it was well suited to the tasks she was required to perform each day. She could tilt at the quintain and hit the mark almost every time; she could grapple with Rickard and send him face-down in the dirt. Daniyah spent hours scouring armor, sharpening blades, and working with weaponry every day. She loved the things she could do, and without her body just as it was, she wouldn’t be able to do them. That she didn’t look ‘ladylike’ didn’t bother her.
But Sabine was fussy about these things, and though she wasn’t as physically strong, perhaps, as her husband was, or even as Daniyah was – it was Sabine who ran the household with a lily-white fist wrapped in an iron glove. Most of the time, the young squire admired Sabine’s strength of character; but the woman had the idea that every young person, even young women who could joust and swordfight, needed to also know how to navigate in the confines of polite society.
To Daniyah’s displeasure, ‘polite society’ was a combination of most of her least favorite things. Confining clothing, the basics of cosmetic application, fussy manners, and coiffed hair were tedious enough… but the worst of it was the dancing.
If it was just dancing, she might have enjoyed it; she liked to move, and there was a natural rhythm to music that appealed to her. But this was partnered dancing, with none other than her erstwhile opponent, Rickard – and neither of them all too graceful at it. He had a tendency to blush and step on her, while she didn’t like to be ledabout the dance floor like a dog on a leash. She never felt graceful or light, like Sabine constantly urged for – she felt uncomfortable and confined in her clothes. Though her foster-mother assured her she was lovely in the Bretonic dresses she was made to don for the occasions, Daniyah had eyes and could see well enough that she looked like an ox in silks. It wasn’t fitting and she hated it.
“… just… let me… – there’s a salve for this, hold on a moment, I think I’ll just – fetch that…”
Sabine rose abruptly, forgetting the comb still lodged firmly in Daniyah’s unfettered hair, and disappeared into the hallway. Longingly, Daniyah looked out the window and wished herself in the stables. The stars had just come out from between the clouds, and both moons formed opposing crescents in the sky – she fancied they looked like two knights fighting back to back, with the stars for their opponents. She knew the night air would be cold and crisp, and no doubt she’d be set to some task or other, cleaning stalls or caring for the lamed mare Devlin acquired some months ago to see if they could mend her.
For a brief moment, she found herself wondering what Sabine would do if her young protégé were to vanish – but the thought was quickly banished with a brief frown at herself. It was ill-becoming of a squire, to shirk the duties assigned her by her Knight-Master. It didn’t matter how little she cared for the lessons she was being taught her; she would do her best to apply herself to them and learn what she could.
Still, the whole thing was pointless. It was clear she’d never be the kind of ‘ladylike’ Sabine seemed to strive for… and the dancing lessons felt more like a terrible form of punishment than education. But it was her duty to obey as her lord commanded.
“One-two-three one-two-three one-two-three one-“
Though he was the older of the two by a year, Rickard Colville was only barely taller than his partner and looked quite a bit more discomfited by the situation than she did. His palms were sweaty, his cheeks perpetually flushed, and his muddy brown eyes kept moving anywhere but to meet her own level gaze. The pair of them moved about as gracefully as a cat navigates without its whiskers, with much awkward bumping and the occasional tangling of feet. He seemed loathe to touch her, as though she were made of spun glass – a far cry from their accustomed grappling and fighting in the practice yards, and a change of pace that she rather resented.
It was the ridiculous clothes, she decided firmly, that made men act like gabbling fools around women; her hair had been tamed by Sabine’s arsenal of tonics, and was pulled into an elegant twist at the nape of her neck. Powders and inks had been applied to her features, smoothing the wind-chapped and acne-dotted planes of her skin into artificial silkiness. She barely recognized the girl in the mirror, and didn’t much care for her – she didn’t look like a person half so much as a doll, and the effect was unsettling.
Rickard, meanwhile, had been equally well-groomed. He wore an expertly tailored vest and smelled like soap, his hair pulled back in a horsetail, and his normal wispy facial hair conspicuously absent. He might have looked handsome, if it wasn’t for the fact that she knew him entirely too well as a windbag who was more interested in debating politics that he knew next to nothing about, than doing his fair share of the chores. And why were his hands so clammy and tentative-? It was unpleasant; if he was going to lead, he ought to lead, not mince and fumble. She shot him a dirty look, and dragged his hand back down to the bottom of her corset, placing it there firmly and hissing in a whisper – “You’re stepping on me again!”
“Rickard, dear, she’s right – you have to hold firmly, lead the dance, don’t stumble through it!”
The dining hall had been cleared for the occasion, and Sir Colville was keeping beat on a small hand drum, smiling knowingly at the pair and not lifting a finger to free them from the torment his wife seemed insistent upon.
“Aye, son – shall I fetch the cane to help remind you?” He called less-than helpfully, still grinning a wicked grin. Rickard was quick to seize upon the opportunity to shoot his father a deep scowl.
Distracted, his boot found the hem of Daniyah’s gown; she fell off balance at the sudden forced halt and seized his shoulder just as he moved his other foot. The sily fabric of her gown shifted treacherously beneath his shoe, and, Off-balance, he careened straight into Daniyah, toppling both of them to the ground.
She couldn’t even move; the corset pinched at her ribs and made it impossible to breathe. There was duty, and then there was pointless torment. Her entire scalp felt tight where the hair had been forcibly tamed, her heeled boots felt like walking on stilts, and the whole thing was ridiculous. She couldn’t even sit up without Rickard’s hand, which he was too busy wringing to offer as he roll off her and tripped over his own tongue apologizing profusely.
It was too much. “I’m done! I can’t – do this anymore – tonight-“ Her breathless words were punctuated by unladylike grunts as she fumbled beneath the gown and – at long last – tugged the corset strings loose. Oh,sweet release! She gasped for breath and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, face hot with humiliation.
She yanked the boots from her feet and chucked them at Rickard’s stupid face, furious; to her dismay, hot tears stung at her eyes. Her heart thumped fit to burst, and she struggled for her feet amid her finery, shedding layers of the gown as she went. “I just – can’t!”
And then she was out the door and flying, bare feet striking the cold packed dirt, down to what Sabine would declare her ‘immodest undergarments’; it always struck her as strange, that her skivvies in fancy lady clothes covered as much as her usual practical training gear. She could feel the tears leaking from eyes but stubbornly choked back her misery, making a bee-line for the stables and for the musty hay-loft overhead.
Monkey-like, she scrambled up the ladder, bare feet tough as leather against the splintery steps. Here, she could still hear the soft sounds of the horses as they stirred beneath. it was dark and quiet and it smelled like sweet straw and summer hay, the scent gilded by dust and the horses. She darted to her favorite corner, uncomfortably aware that the finery she was wearing would no doubt gather every bit of dirt and dust in the stables, but too sick at heart to feel more than passing guilt over the matter.
Ensconced within her hiding place, Daniyah set about carefully loosening the stays of her corset. The soft glow of enchanted torchlight peeking through the loosely spaced slats of the hay-loft gave off only the faintest light, but it was enough for Daniyah. The corset still poked at her, but was no longer constricting her breath; she leaned against a bale of grassy feed-hay, letting out a deep sigh. Her fingertips traced the grain of the wood through the dust and loose straw.
Her mother had told her she must be good, that she must obey Sir Colville and always do her best. It had been a year since she’d been left here in his care, and in that time, she had done her best – he’d taught her so much, and he’d helped her. For the first time in her life, she hadn’t felt like she was in the way and a nuisance – she had been allowed to take up space without being a burden.
For the first time in a year, she’d finally lost her temper and completely disobeyed direct instructions. Not only that, she’d probably ruined the fine dress Sabine had had made for her, had thrown her shoes, and had cried – like some sort of spoiled child, she’d thrown a tantrum! None of this was fitting behavior for a squire. Her stomach clenched with dread as she considered the future, now that she’d ruined everything.
She’d be sent away, of course. Back to her mother, who would be disappointed in her. She’d never see Sabine or Devlin or even Rickard again. She’d never become a knight, she’d never master weapons – all because she couldn’t keep calm over a bit of dancing. The tears prickled and burned at the corners of her eyes, but furiously, she swiped them away with the back of her hand, dismayed at the amount of makeup that came away with them.
The Colvilles had deserved better than what she’d just done. It was too late to take it all back, but – it wasn’t too late to apologize. A Knight would apologize, wouldn’t she-? Then again, a Knight wouldn’t have made those mistakes, but… when she did, she’d own up to it, and apologize. She’d accept her punishment as fair, and do her best to atone for it. Now, even if she never was a Knight, she could at least act like one to the best of her ability.
By the time she’d changed and scrubbed herself free of cosmetics and pastes, the dining hall had been put right again, and Sir Devlin Colville sat alone, penning a later by the glow of an enchanted candlestick.
He was a grizzled forty years old, with a well-groomed beard touched with silver, and brown eyes the observed the world and seemed to make light of its hardships. In spite of the mischief that animated his spirit, he was a hard-driving taskmaster and not overly prone to fits of sentimentality. He was fair, but strict; for all that he was quick to smile, he was intent on making the two young people in his charge capable warriors.
Daniyah wanted to creep on her tip-toes, quiet as a mouse and small in her shame; but it would be too much like cowardice, wouldn’t it? A Knight didn’t shy away from unpleasantness, but faced it. She swallowed hard past the lump in her throat, and lifted her chin before deliberately striding towards the man who had instructed her for a year.
“Sir Colville.” Her voice was formal, as was her bow – just a bit lower than was strictly necessary. If he could see the slight quiver of her chin, he didn’t mention it; Sir Devlin Colville set aside his quill pen and regarded Daniyah somberly, lips just a little bit thin as he studied his truant squire.
“I – I apologize for my disgraceful behavior. I was wrong to throw my shoes, and to shed my skirts in mixed company. I owe Lady Colville an apology as well, and Rickard; what happened was a disgrace, and – and unworthy of one who would be a Knight.” She kept her arms stiff and straight at her sides, resisting the urge to tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear. She hadn’t had time to do more than one fat braid, and curls had already come loose to frolic at her skull.
Devlin watched her, a hand lifting scratch his beard thoughtfully. She quickly continued, misery heavy in her stomach. “I will pack my things, Sir. And… I am truly sorry to have wasted your time.”
The words stuck in her mouth like mud. She closed her eyes briefly, sternly willing back tears; a Knight didn’t cry… or at least, if they did, Sir Colville had never mentioned it. Courage, in the face of all things.
She was startled by the sudden weight of his hand on her shoulder, and she lifted her head, eyes opening to peer at the man. He looked as firm as ever. “Daniyah, I will tell you when my time has been wasted. You would run away, now?” Here, an eyebrow lifted as he regarded her coolly. “Over a dancing lesson?”
Daniyah frowned, uncertain. “I- I’m not running away… but – you’ll send me back home. I broke the rules. I disobeyed direct instructions, and lost my temper and…” She couldn’t quite finish. Her face felt hot and her throat tight.
“Oh, that you certainly did! Never seen anything like that out of you, girl – if I hadn’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t have believed it! Lamya’s daughter, the steadiest temperament you’ll ever meet! And yes, you did break the rules, you disobeyed direct instructions, tossed your clothing, and ran off before we could stop you – but you really think I’d give up on you that easily?” Here, he sounded almost affronted, and let his hand drop from her shoulder, shaking his head and gesturing to the table.
“Sit. You’re not going anywhere, but we do need to talk about this.”
Mute and uncertain, Daniyah did as she was told, her heart pounding unsteadily inside of her. She felt as if her body belonged to another girl, and that she was merely an observer; her skin tingled and her motions were stiff. “I don’t understand…”
Devlin shook his head, taking a seat across from her. “Daniyah, everyone makes a mess of things sometimes; part of what I’m here to teach you is how to clean up that mess after – and mind you, yes, you made a mess tonight. But I’m not going to send you back home just for losing your temper. You’ll get scut-work for a bit, and you’d better offer a damn good apology to my wife and Rickard; you’ll probably end up learning more about the courtly things because of this little debacle. But it isn’t the end of the world.”
He brushed a hand over his beard, eyes half closing as he leaned back in his chair. “Now. Do you know why you’re being made to learn to dance, and don a Lady’s dress?”
The mere inflection of his voice changed ‘lady’ into ‘Lady’; a lady could wear a dress. A Lady wore a fine gown, like the one she’d been placed into. Still feeling uncertain, Daniyah swallowed hard and managed to croak out a ‘no’.
Devlin allowed her a small smile. “A Knight’s armor can be more than just metal; I’ve instructed you in chivalry, but so far our focus has been on combat… well, part of chivalry is courtesy. And part of courtesy is courtly manners. I know – the get-ups can be quite the hassle. I’m no fan of them myself, to be quite honest – and poor Sabine gets her feet stepped on more than she’d ever let on. A Knight protects herself and those around her with courtesy and good manners just as often as with a shield and armor; there are battles that are fought with the mind, girl, not just the sword-arm. Now I’m not so good at those sorts of fights… but for all that Sabine may not train in the practice yards, don’t underestimate her. There is plenty she can teach you.”
Daniyah frowned. A thousand arguments sprang to life, but she kept them carefully trapped in the prison of her teeth. She was torn between feeling light as feather – she could stay! – and wanting to argue that corsets were unnecessary items created only to inflict suffering upon their wearers. Still, silence seemed the better answer… and Sir Colville was a Knight. Surely he knew better about these things than she did.
If he believed that words and manners were as useful as combat skills, then she’d believe it too. Regarding him with solemn eyes, the girl nodded her understanding, and was rewarded with another small smile as Sir Colville shook his head.
“That’s more familiar. Run along to bed, girl; you can offer your apologies to Sabine and Rickard in the morning. Rickard’s probably sore with you; Sabine made him dance with her, and she’s much taller than you are.”
Daniyah smiled tentatively in return; the image of Rickard being put through his paces by his mother was entertaining. Rising and offering a final bow, the young squire fairly skipped to her room to await the morning’s punishment chores.