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Riding High, PG

Summary: Clarisse wants something more out of her life, but Alan isn't as keen on her decision.

“Rilla sent me home early,” Clarisse explained, dumping her rain-slicked cloak onto the stone floor of the castle’s entrance hall.  She hoped that her mother didn’t see the splattering of blood amongst the mud, and instead assumed that she was resuming her youthful flair for creating disasters.
“Welcome back, dear.  What did you do to her this time?” Maura asked, kissing her daughter’s brow before collecting the garment to give to one of the servants. 
“Nothing! I swear!”  There was no point going into detail, she knew.  Everyone took Rilla’s side – well, everyone but Theodore.  Even Ansis had become completely un-fun since the wedding. She missed the amusing knight who would let her lock him up in imaginary dungeons and dangle her threateningly over the well.  But they all had to be grown-ups these days, and visiting them was a reminder that she was just the little sister Rilla never wanted.  And all Ansis wanted was time with Rilla. 
“I’ll have your things cleaned.  Why don’t you wash up for dinner?” Maura asked.  “Your father should be home by then.  You look exhausted; are you all right?”
“’m fine.  Is Theodore around?” Clarisse asked, making her way to the staircase.  She touched the stone bannister lovingly; Dunlath was her favorite place on earth, and a fortnight in Cavall made her appreciate it.  The journey back made her appreciate it even more. 
“Still in Corus, I’m afraid.”
“Language, dear.”
Clarisse sighed and trudged up the steps toward her bedroom. 
Really, Cavall hadn’t been as bad as all that.  Rilla and Ansis lived in a hunting lodge, far from the property old Lord Wyldon maintained.  It offered solitude and tranquility.  They were deep in the forest, closer to the Drell River than the village of Cavall, and Clarisse imagined it was lovely in the autumn.  In the late winter it was damp.  And boring.
Telling Rilla it was boring, on the other hand, was probably not the best way to go about things.  Nor was it ideal to sift through her face-paints and made a general mess of things.  Nor attempt to assist the cook when they had Ansis’s parents and sisters over for tea. 
Looking back, Clarisse wasn’t quite so sure why she’d begged to go visit.  She could’ve stayed with her grandparents on the coast, enjoying the warm southern breezes.  Or spent time with Theodore and May in the capital.  But they had the baby to worry about – they didn’t need a little brat of a sister, as Rilla had called her.
She flopped backward onto her bed with a sigh, not worrying about her muddied skirts and what they were doing to her duvet.  The trip back from Cavall had been exhausting. She’d wanted to keep up a brisk pace, but the Cavall guards accompanying her were much more cautious.  Too many places bandits could attack, they’d said.  And she’d laughed at them.
But now Oberinn was wounded, likely being patched up properly by the Dunlath soldiers.  And the captain would be telling her mother everything that she hadn’t been able to.
She rolled over and closed her eyes, her muddy hair falling over her face. She just wanted to sleep and forget the last fortnight.  Or at least the day she’d had. 
With a massive thud, Eugene hopped up onto the bed beside her, curling all sixteen pounds of himself around her and lulling her to sleep with his rumbling purr.
“They say she wasn’t harmed at all.”  Her mother’s voice was the first she heard upon waking. 
“I’ll be the judge of that.” 
A large, warm hand touched Clarisse’s shoulder and she opened her eyes.  Her father was gazing down at her, concern etched on his face. “Da,” she murmured, putting her hand over his.  “How was border patrol?”
“Safer than it was here, I’m told.”
She pushed herself up and yawned.  “It wasn’t bad here – just one small incident on the road.”
Her mother sat down on the bed next to her.  “Captain Elric says you were very calm, and your care is what kept his right hand man alive.”
“Is Oberinn going to be all right?”
Maura nodded.
“Good.  He saved my life, and took an arrow in the process.”  She didn’t say what she was thinking – that a soldier’s life wasn’t worth that of an ornery fifteen-year-old girl.  That she hadn’t expected loyalty from anyone outside of Dunlath – but Cavall and Dunlath were closer these days, and their noble houses belonged to each other now.
Was that what noble marriage was all about?  Suddenly loyalties to Naxen and Cavall became as strong as the loyalty to her own kin?  What would happen if Julian married?  Or if she did?
She wouldn’t be Dunlath anymore.
No, that’s not true.  Rilla was still as Dunlath as ever.
“My head hurts,” she whined.  She wasn’t sure if it was from the ride home or from all these pesky thoughts that had taken over a space that had previously been dedicated to arranging playful antics and tricks.  “I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want you to fuss,” she explained finally, leaning against her father.
“We won’t fuss.” Alan replied.  “Promise.  But did you remember the tricks your grandma and I taught you?”
She smiled.  Having knights for her father and grandmother meant lots of time spent learning how to elbow people in the solar plexus in order to scramble away, if need be.  Or how to stab someone who jumped onto your horse.
“I didn’t get a chance,” she said, “but I had my dagger out, just the same.”
“Good girl.”
“We have dinner ready, if you’re hungry,” Maura said, rising to her feet.  “Or we can have it sent up, if you’d prefer.  But either way, you’ll need to go to the barracks before nightfall, to speak to the Cavall guards.”
To thank them. To check on Oberinn.  Clarisse knew what was expected.  “I’ll have dinner with you,” she said.  “And then I’ll thank the guards.”
“While I send a report to Uncle Jon about the rise of ruffians in this area,” Alan said darkly.  “It’s getting worse.”
“Already written,” Maura said lightly, already in the hallway.  “I’ll have the courier take it in the morning.”
The trip to the guardhouse was a familiar one; as a child Clarisse had always leaned toward martial endeavors, be it shooting her short bow or simply shrieking battle cries as she chased her siblings through the grounds.  As she aged, she learned that the soldiers who kept Dunlath protected were also the men and women who had the most interesting stories to share. 
“I knew ye’d find some kind of trouble, when ye ran off to Cavall all alone,” a Dunlath guardsman said to her, when she arrived.
“Shows what you know, Jace,” she retorted.  “Trouble didn’t come until I was running back home!”   The other guards laughed and offered her a bite of bread and stew, but she refused.  At her request she was taken into the section of the barracks that occasionally served as an infirmary.  Oberinn was there, along with the captain of the Cavall guards.
“Lady Maura seemed quite shocked to hear the news when I told her,” Captain Elric said, his voice chastising.  The difference between Clarisse and the other noblewomen she met was that she liked being treated like a guardsman’s daughter.  She liked that they felt comfortable enough to tell her when she’d done wrong.  She listened to them more than she did her siblings or parents.   “I’d assumed you’d given her the news upon your homecoming, but she hadn’t heard a thing.”
Clarisse shrugged.  “I didn’t want her to fuss.”
Elric raised his eyebrows.  “Part of what makes her fuss is that you don’t tell her the truth, I’m betting.”
She turned her nose up at him, doing her best impression of Rilla on a bad day, and sat down in the small chair next to Oberinn’s cot.  His arm was properly bandaged now.  “Did they get the arrow out?” she asked.
“Yes, m’lady.  And they said you’d done a bang-up job of bandaging me, and you were smart not to try to pull it out yourself.”
She couldn’t help but preen a bit.  “My gran’s a healer, you know.  She didn’t want us to pick up a bow before knowing how to treat an arrow wound.  She’s thrash me for damaging your insides if it was possible to wait for a proper healer.”
“Smart woman, the Lioness.”  His mouth jerked into a pained smile.  “I can say that, when I’m not on Cavall grounds.”
The war between Alanna of Pirate’s Swoop and Wyldon of Cavall was a laugh to everyone who knew them.  It had been going on for well over forty years, Clarisse was told, and even in their old age they couldn’t stand each other’s presence long enough to receive a blessing from the Goddess.
“You did well,” she said finally, patting his good arm.  “And I’m very thankful that you knocked me out of the way.”
“’s my job,” he replied.
“Your duty is to protect Cavall, not Dunlath.  So even if you were assigned to me, I’m grateful that you treated me the same way you’d have done for Lady Margarry or her daughters.”  She smoothed his hair back from his brow, the way her mother always did when she was sick.  “Thank you, Oberinn.”
She rose and left the room, inclining her head toward Captain Elric, who bowed politely.   At times like these it was best to imagine she were Rilla or Lady Maura, rather than feel like she was putting on airs.  It didn’t make sense to have men who’d saved her bow at the sight of her.
When she returned to the large room, the Cavall and Dunlath guards were swapping stories of daring rescues and adventures they’d been part of.
“When are you going to join up and save Tortall, like everyone else in your family?” one guard asked, her smile mischievous. 
Clarisse shrugged.  “Too late for page training, and I don’t want to be a knight.”  Not that she wouldn’t be good at it.  Hunting and tracking came naturally to her, and she knew the basics of sword-fighting, between her father’s and Theodore’s lessons.
“There’s the Queen’s Ladies, once you’re old enough.”
She wrinkled her nose.  The Queen’s Ladies had once been a desirable group for adventurous young women, but that was when the queen was younger and traveled through the realm more often.  It was still an ideal place for intelligent, loyal women.  But it wasn’t the place for Clarisse.  She didn’t care about ball gowns and hairstyles, or minding her manners.  She’d rather serve the crown princess, who traveled the realm with her husband and met with village headsmen and –women.  Their entourage occasionally encountered brigands and resolved disputes, and did more than just sit in a palace prettily.
“The Queen’s Riders were recruiting in Dunlath last week.  Aren’t ye old enough for that lot?” Luke asked. “You’ll have to play with common folk like us, but ye’ve never been the type to fuss about that.”
The Queen’s Riders was a group Clarisse could enjoy.  She’d given it plenty of thought before.  There wasn’t an ounce of fanciness, unlike the Queen’s Ladies.  Even the King’s Own had more pomp than the Riders, with their silver-and-blue tunics and their presence at every function the king planned.  The Riders were small and swift and fierce, riding to the aid of commoners and nobles alike.  Its ranks were filled with people from all classes – a noble girl like Clarisse would just be seen as a northerner, not as a granddaughter of the Lioness, or the last in line to inherit Dunlath.
“I am,” Clarisse said thoughtfully.  Her fifteenth birthday had been the previous month.  “I am old enough.”
Chapter Two
“Da tells me you’re up to something,” Theodore said, when Clarisse settled into the loveseat next to him.  This was normally when he’d throw one arm casually around her and squeeze – the closest they ever got to an embrace, because Clarisse wouldn’t have any of that from all but her father.  But his arms were full of baby – May was resting upstairs after a long day of travel, but little Corene was awake and active, flailing her arms and gurgling with delight as she stared at her proud papa.
“I’m not,” Clarisse said haughtily, leaning over to tap the baby’s nose with her forefinger.  She blinked, and her dark eyes crossed to focus on her own nose.
Theodore snorted.  “You know I can tell when you’re fibbing, right?  You get huffy and defensive, as if you’re appalled that I can be accusing you of such atrocities.  All the while you’re lying through your teeth, and you’re usually guilty of even more than I could ever come up with on my own.”
She rolled her eyes and flopped backward, slouching.  “No one trusts me.”
“No one has reason to.  I heard you created a ruckus in Cavall two weeks ago.  And tried to leave without soldiers to travel with you.”
“I didn’t create a ruckus—”
“Yes, I know,” he interrupted, grinning.  “They just naturally follow you.”
“Rilla just doesn’t know how to have fun.”
“Ansis says you caused a scene at dinner.”
“Telling everyone not to take a bite when you suddenly realize that you used salt instead of sugar in the dessert you lovingly made should be considered a kindness.”
“Perhaps,” he agreed.  “But maybe it’s better if it’s not suddenly screamed just as Lady Margarry is putting it in her mouth.  And it should probably be acknowledged that you shouldn’t have been making dessert in the first place.” 
“You sound just like Rilla,” she said scathingly, delighted to see the small frown that crossed his face. 
“Would you rather I sound like Da, and ask you about the trip back from Cavall?”
“No,” she answered.  He thankfully did not go further with this line of questioning, instead moving to the floor to re-swaddle his daughter.  “Theo, I may be up to something,” Clarisse said, watching him fold the blanket around the wriggling child.
“I knew you’d tell me eventually,” he said smugly.  “Da owes me a few gold bits.”
“I want to join the Riders.”  She blurted it out as if it were one long word instead of a sentence.  Words were easy – but sentences were full of ideas and purposes, and she didn’t want him to disapprove.
“The Riders?”  He glanced up at her over his shoulder, eyebrows furrowed.  “I thought you didn’t want to go through training.”
“I didn’t want to go through page training,” Clarisse insisted.  “I didn’t want to waste eight years of my life to become a knight errant.”
“Thanks,” he said, rolling his eyes and cradling his Corene against his chest again.  “I love to know that you think the time I spent learning how to save the realm was wasted.”
“You always wanted to be a knight.  I never did,” she replied, making a face.  “But there are other ways to fight for the realm, you know.”
“How about working with Grandda instead?” he asked.  He returned to the sofa and carefully put Corene in Clarisse’s arms. “You’re good at solving his puzzles and cracking codes. And he’d probably let you do field work, eventually.”
She liked the encrypted messages, but that was about it.  She didn’t want to be a spy; that was the kind of quiet, sneakiness she associated with Julian.  He was clever and calm, when she would rather burst through the trees and announce the attack she was making.  She could handle secrecy, but wasn’t comfortable with the treachery spies dealt with on a regular basis.
“I want this, though,” she said calmly, looking down at Corene’s scrunched up little face.  “I want to try it, at least.  If Da lets me.”
“I think you should be more worried about Mother,” Theodore said.  They all knew who ran Fief Dunlath.
“Yes, but if you and Da are on my side, she’s bound to agree,” she replied with a grin.  “Better, even, if we can get Douglass to agree.”
Theodore looked thoughtful.  “Very true.  I’m sure he’d support you if you reminded him that it will get you out of the fief sooner than if you waited until marriage.”
She punched him with one arm.  “Douglass and I have been getting along just fine lately.”
“Because you were at Cavall.”
“You should be nicer when I’m holding your child.”  Her smile turned wicked.  “She’s awfully heavy, and I’d hate to drop her.”
“I trained eight years in preparation for moments like these,” Theodore replied, knocking Clarisse playfully on the back of the head.
“It’s nice to have you home,” she said softly, leaning against him.  “How long are you staying?”
“A month or two,” he replied and ruffled her hair.  “Long enough to help you make your case.” 
Sir Alan was not happy with the turn of events. 
“This isn’t fair, you know,” Clarisse said hotly over dinner, holding her knife as though she were going to stab someone, rather than slice beef.  “Gran is the most legendary knight this realm has seen in a century, and her own son thinks it’s inappropriate for me to join a military group because I’m a girl.”
“You know that’s not why,” her father replied, closing his eyes with impatience. 
Clarisse adored her father more than anyone else on earth, save maybe Theodore.  She loved his hazel eyes and his constantly-amused expressions, but now she was deprived of seeing either.  And it had been this way for almost a week.
“Do you worry that I’ll be maimed or killed? Because that can happen on the road to Cavall, you know!”
“Clarisse.”  Lady Maura’s voice was cool and unaffected.  It was always like this – her father was emotional and her mother spoke with calm reason, and she was left feeling like she was a monster for offending either sensibilities.  “We’ve heard this argument at the last four meals.  Can we not have one peaceful experience?  Poor May is going to pack her belongings and head to Naxen if we continue this way.”
Clarisse glared at the head of the table, but Maura didn’t take notice.   So she tossed a grimace down to the other end of the table, where Theodore sat quietly, pushing his peas across his plate.
“Traitor!” she hissed his way.
May looked up at Clarisse with her serious Naxen-brown eyes, but a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth.  “Give them time,” she said, so softly Clarisse was certain no one else could hear.  Not even her brother.
Something about May’s voice soothed her annoyance, and she offered a small smile in return. 
“I’ve heard much about your trip to visit Ansis and Rilla,” May said sweetly, changing the topic entirely.  Maura smiled gratefully from her end of the dining table.  “But no one has told me if you had a good time while you were there.”
Clarisse shrugged.  “I think I had a better time of it than Rilla, but that’s not saying much.”
May’s laugh absolutely tinkled. Clarisse didn’t know that voices worked that way, but seeing the dopey expression on her brother’s face, she was kind of glad that hers didn’t.  “Rilla is always put out by you, from what Teddy tells me.”
“Usually with good reason.”  The murmured sentence came from across the table, where Douglass smirked behind his wine goblet.
“Siblings never get along perfectly,” May said.  “I think all of us would likely agree to that.”
Her statement was met with nods from every one of them, Maura’s laugh a touch bitter.  Clarisse didn’t know if she was laughing because her children gave such an extreme version of that statement, or if she was thinking about her own older sister.  They all knew of Lady Yolane and what she had done, even though Maura didn’t share the story often.
“I did have fun,” Clarisse said at last.  “I spent some time exploring the forests and fishing in the Drell River.  And Ansis and I even hunted together, along with his sisters.  I wish I could ride like a Cavall.  Ansis says it’s in their blood – they’re just born to love horses.”
Theodore nodded and finally spoke up.  “When I started page training, Ansis was practically teaching the rest of us about combat riding.  And he was only a third-year.”
“I wouldn’t mind learning to be that good.  You know who else rides really well?” Clarisse asked, her eyes darting across the table toward her father.
“Clarisse.”  It was a warning.
“The Queen’s Riders,” she continued, although it really wasn’t necessary.  “And training begins in two weeks – which should give me just enough time to pack my belongings and get there in time.  Theodore can escort me, since his next border patrol doesn’t begin until the end of April.”
“Now, wait a minute. Just because I support you doesn’t mean you can assume—” Theodore protested, but he was cut off by Alan.
“Enough,” he said firmly.  “We’ll have no more of this.”  Sir Alan was not often the disciplinarian in the family, but when he was angry, the children listened.  Clarisse felt a strange conflict within herself; it was a combination of shame and rage.  She rarely went against her father’s wishes – not when it mattered – but this was too much.  Staring down at her plate, her mind raced, trying to find the most effective way to get what she wanted.
The table was filled with awkward silence for a very long moment, but gradually the others began to eat again.  Douglass and Theodore even managed a stilted conversation about ongoings in the capital.  But Clarisse couldn’t sit and listen to inane chatter when she was boiling on the inside.
She nearly jumped when May placed her hand on her knee.  Her eyes were met with another gentle smile, encouraging and sympathetic all at once.  Clarisse wanted to soften – she liked May so much, and didn’t want to disappoint her.  But instead she shook her head.
“I’m going, whether Theodore escorts me or not.”  She stood, flinging her napkin onto the table.  “I don’t care that it’s not what you want.  This is what I want to do with my life.”  With one last defiant look at her father, she turned on her heel and left the dining room.
Clarisse wasn’t very good at handling the silent treatment.  After the outburst at dinner, she had expected her father to come up to her room to discuss the conflict. That was his normal way of handling things – root out the problem and talk about it.  He’d mentioned once that his parents had raised him on the idea that speaking about conflicts was the best way to avoid misunderstandings, to prevent it from becoming even greater. 
But now he wasn’t speaking to her.  He’d left her alone that night, and the following day their paths didn’t cross.  At first she thought it was a coincidence, but in the evening he wasn’t at dinner.  Her mother said he was in the village, working the kinks out of a land dispute between two farmers, and would probably take his supper at the public house.  But Clarisse couldn’t shake the feeling that he was avoiding her.  So when he came back to the castle, instead of running down the wide stone staircase and throwing herself at him, as she had done ever since she was a small child, she remained in her room, angrily stabbing pins into Lord Theodore’s ears.
The following morning she’d taken to the caves and forests of Dunlath, wearing an old pair of Julian’s breeches and carrying the belt-knife from her grandmother.  What would life as a Rider be like, she wondered?  Would the training be as intense as Theodore’s had been for knighthood? 
She eventually took a rest by a stream where several wolves were lapping up water.  One of the larger males – Fancytail – leaned against her, thumping his best feature quite madly.
“Your Aunt Aly ran away,” a voice said, and her father emerged from the trail heading into the depths of the forest. “When I was a little older than you.”
“Da.”  Her voice was stiff and strained, and she did not turn her body toward him.  She remained where she was, her hands deep in Fancytail’s rich fur.
“She meant to run away for a few days, to escape our mother for a while, and ended up captured by pirates.”
Clarisse nodded.  She knew the story.
“It’s not safe to journey alone; you know that all the better since your return from Cavall.”  He sat on a large rock beside her, as far away from the wolves as he could manage.  “I don’t agree with what you’re doing, but I’m not going to let you run off and do it alone, either.”
“Why don’t you agree?”  She finally looked up at him, wincing at the hardness in his expression. 
He sighed.  “Your mother and I talked about it, and she thinks I’m being harsh.”
“You are.”
“I don’t like the idea of someone choosing their life at such a young age.  Julian thought he knew what he wanted, only to change his mind after spending years in the City of the Gods. I changed my mind and began knight training at a painfully late age.”
“Julian always knew he didn’t want to be here, though,” Clarisse answered.  “And Theodore always wanted to be a knight, but you didn’t stop him.  He was only ten.”
“It’s different for sons,” Alan replied.  Clarisse bristled, as did Fancytail, and Alan held his hands up in defense.  “I just mean that it’s tradition for the eldest son to train for knighthood, the second son to go to the temples.  Women are free to explore either option, but are not expected to do so.”
“It’s not that simple, Da.  I’ve never been like Rilla or Mama – I don’t want to learn how to run a fief, I don’t want to marry and start a family.  I’ve never wanted that, and now I’ve found something that I do want.”
“What happens if you change your mind later and you feel like you’re tied to this – that you have to complete your training and continue in a military career you no longer want?”
“I’ll cross that bridge if I come to it,” she insisted.  “Should I abandon what I want to do because I’m afraid I might change my mind down the road?  I didn’t hear you giving that speech to Theodore before he proposed to May. I’m not going to be afraid of something that hasn’t happened – not if it’s keeping me from what I want.”
“And what, exactly, do you want out of joining the Riders?”
Clarisse turned to him, but paused to reflect before rushing in; the experience was relatively foreign to her.  But she knew that he had to express this in a way that her father would take seriously.  “I want to be able to use my strengths.  I never had the desire to fight so well to train for knighthood, but I’m good with knives and bows.  I ride well, and want to learn more.  I want to be able to help anyone I see who’s in need of it.”
He said nothing, a small frown on his face.  She couldn’t help but take his hand in hers.
“Da, when the bandits got us on our way from Cavall, Oberinn bled a lot.  I was able to use my Gift, and the basics Gran taught me, to keep him with us until a proper healer could tend to him.  My magic isn’t strong, but there’s enough that I can be an asset to any Rider group in a skirmish.  I can suture wounds, I can relieve minor aches and pains, and Gran showed me how to fight a simple infection.  All of that is better put to use where people are being harmed, whether it’s people in my group or the people being protected.”
He squeezed her hand in his.  “And if you change your mind?”
She laughed.  “Then I come back to Dunlath until I find something else to be passionate about!” 
“Your mother has a great deal of respect for the Queen’s Riders,” he said, after a very long pause.
“Everyone does, Da.  Except knights.”
“I’ll have you know that my knight-master admitted, during my tenure as squire, that the Queen’s Riders were worthy of all the respect in the world.”
“Because he married their commander.”  Clarisse said with a derisive snort. 
“True.”  He smiled; it was the first smile she’d seen since she’d broached the subject.
“Are you worried because I’m your little girl?” she asked hesitantly.  “You know, Gran would probably call you out to the courts for that kind of attitude.”
“Part of me will always be worried,” he admitted.  “Just like I worry every time Theodore goes on border patrol.  I thank the gods every day that Rilla and Julian opted for lives without combat.  But I suppose expecting you to choose to take the paths they chose was asking a bit much.”
“Two weeks in Cavall taught me that whatever Rilla’s path is, mine is the opposite.” 
Alan laughed outright.  “Someday, lass, you’ll understand your sister better.”
“I doubt it,” she said, snorting inelegantly.  “But I suppose it wouldn’t be a bad thing if I did.”
“Not bad at all,” Alan agreed.  He rose to his feet.  “Are you going to continue avoiding everyone, or will you come back to the castle with me?”
“I wasn’t avoiding everyone,” Clarisse said contrarily.  “I was avoiding you.”
“It’s nearing noon, and you don’t seem to have any provisions with you.  Will you join us for lunch?”
“I suppose,” she said, standing up after one last stroke along Fancytail’s spine. 
“I trust the Riders will teach you not to wander too far without provisions,” he said with a chuckle.
“Or maybe they’ll tell me it’s acceptable to resort to cannibalism, and let me eat any random knight who strays across my path,” she countered with a wolfish grin.
“I’ll warn Douglass and Theodore to stay far away.”


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