Finally, the dance wound to a close and she darted back across the square with boots and umbrella, for the rain had set in with a will.
Supper was informally served in the large front room, facing directly onto the square. The plates were cleared and Anaria turned to her mother.
“Please may I have my book back now?”
Her mother sighed but nodded with a fond smile and retrieved it from the side cupboard it had been stowed in. She was rewarded with Anaria’s first real smile of the night. Clutching her book she made to leave the room but was stopped by Master Gent jovially suggesting the two young people make plans for the morrow to perhaps visit the forest village that yielded the fine timbers so desired by people of means in Orna and beyond.
She needed to put an end to this right now, “If Sebastian wants to go, he’s welcome to. I am otherwise occupied.”
Her father frowned, “Study and visiting.”
“Neither are urgent Ana, you can postpone them and accompany Sebastian.”
Sebastian tried to take her hand, she crossed her arms over her book.
“My dear, surely it would be useful to spend some time together and discuss, ahem, business.”
“I am not your dear and you wouldn’t know business if it jumped up and bit you on the nose. I refuse to be manipulated into a life as your skivvy, so stop trying to use your false charm on me.”
Sebastian stood back and sneered, “Well aren’t we a miss high-and-mighty. Let’s see how well you do without my father’s shipping contracts.”
She gaped at him and her father shifted uncomfortably, “Now Anaria…”
“Oh, so money is more important to you than your own daughter? If you’re so eager to have that slimy toad for a son, why don’t you just adopt him?”
Master Gent forced a laugh, “Now there’s an idea, we could swap children for a while and have them learn each other’s businesses.”
Anaria paused, that actually sounded rather interesting, but by now her father was boiling. Embarrassment is strong fuel for fury and with it, reason flies out of the window.
“No, I will not indulge you any longer, you will either marry Sebastian or I will hand you off to the next man who walks though that door, and until you are out of this house, NO MORE BOOKS.”
He pulled Anaria’s book from her arms, strode to the window and threw it out into the night.
Anaria’s head swam, there was a strange buzzing in her ears, and black dots danced in her vision. She focused on breathing, the rest of the room stood frozen.
There was a knock at the door.
After an uncomfortable glance around the room, Anaria’s mother went to open it. There in the rain stood a young forester, slightly scruffy, very wet, holding Anaria’s book in one hand.
“I saw this come out of your window ma’am, knowing you wouldn’t want such a precious thing out in the cold, well, here it is.”
Anaria’s father stretched his face into a forced grin, “Come in, come in. You’re just the man we’ve been looking for. Er, you’re not married are you?”
The forester stepped inside the door, but no further than the flagstones, “No sir?”
Her father waved his hand towards her, “This is my spoiled, disobedient, disrespectful daughter. She needs to learn her place and from now on, that place is with you.”
Sebastian started sniggering, “So much for miss high-and-mighty. I’ll come and take tea with you in your hovel in the woods shall I?”
The forester frowned, “You want me to take your daughter to wife, knowing nothing of me, my situation, or my character?”
“She’s a wilful, unfilial child and I will not have her in the house a moment longer.”
Anaria’s mother burst into tears.
“Very well, but she’ll need more proper clothes than that outfit, she’ll catch her death in this weather.”
At this juncture, Master Gent collared a still spitefully triumphant Sebastian and made his awkward, unhappy farewells.
Anaria’s father looked at her, “What are you waiting for? Go and get changed.”
She drew in a deep breath, then another, bit her cheek to keep from crying, and walked regally to her room to pack.
“And be quick about it.”
A short time later, Anaria returned to her still furious but now slightly scared father, her weeping mother and the calmly collected forester.
He moved forward to take her bag from her.
“You’re to take nothing from this house but the clothes on your back.”
“Now sir, you’ve already handed me an extra mouth to feed. It would go much easier on me if you would allow her to bring a change of underwear and such.”
Her father went bright red and suddenly looked much less certain and self-righteous. Anaria donned her boots and cloak, accepted her book from the forester and followed him out into the cold, dark night, chased by her mother’s sobs.
The rain had paused for a moment but the ground was slippery and footing uncertain, the forester offered her his arm, “Well now, I know this is a strange way to start a marriage but I hope we’ll rub along together comfortably enough.”
It was all too much, Anaria’s own sobs started.
Her forester looked slightly alarmed and patted her hand in an attempt at reassurance. He continued to lead her away from her home though, and was soon boosting her up onto the seat of an old cart, tucking her bag beneath and wrapping her in a waterproof cloak similar to his own.
He hopped up beside her and shook the reins to get the horse moving, “We’ve a way to go, so a bit of time to chat. We should probably introduce ourselves.”
Anaria could not stop crying, she nodded and gasped and tried to force it down. Her companion patted her shoulder.
“My mother says sometimes it’s better to just let it all out. Helps clear the head.”
That earned him a brief, brave, watery smile as they left the lights of the town and ambled into the forest, a small lantern hanging from the front of the cart the only illumination.
Her sobs slowly calmed and eventually, somehow, smoothed into the deep, even breaths of sleep. The forester carefully tucked an arm around her shoulders to keep her upright and continued down the road.