Daughter of the Wolf-head
The ride back to the fortress was pleasant. Prince Artak talked easily of his homeland, the weather, the horses but never referred to Agata's loss of her family or the invasion of Iberia.
Surely he must be aware of it, she thought. Maybe he doesn't want to touch on a painful topic. Still, it was odd.
Agata shrugged it off. The prince was a pleasant companion, quite the nicest man Agata had met.
He nudged his horse closer to Agata's until their knees almost brushed.
"You have met my man, Lord Izak?" he asked.
"He was of invaluable service to me," she answered, "without him, I might not have reached my uncle's fortress."
He reached over and laid a hand over hers where it rested on her horse's neck, holding the tough leather reins neatly clasped in her fingers.
"I'm glad," he said, gazing soulfully into her face.
Agata snatched her fingers away and directed her horse to sidle sideways putting a gap between her and the prince.
Colour leapt into her face.
"I beg pardon, my lady," Prince Artak swept his hat off with a flourish and held it across his chest, "I felt such a rush of joy that my liege man was of such service to the last scion of the House of Bagration."
Agata cast a sideways glance at him. Did he know about Pertinax? Although she was the sole survivor of the late king and his queen, Pertinax was also a child of the king - by one of his concubines. Her chest tightened. Where had Prince Ren hidden Pertinax? She decided to say nothing of him to this new prince.
The sun was rising steeply in the sky and Agata's stomach rumbled. She loosened the reins of her mount and allowed him to leap forward to cover the sound. The wind swept past her temples and whipped her hair. Agata closed her eyes and breathed deep, setting her anxieties adrift on the wild breeze. On horseback, out in the mountains - this was where she was happiest.
She heard the prince yell and looked back. The prince was thundering after her, eyes alight and one arm flying with each stride of his horse. He wore a grin from ear to ear. The other horsemen followed similarly enjoying the gallop but Kait was bent over the neck of her steed, urging it faster, determined to catch up to her princess.
Seeing her, Agata felt a pang. It was one thing for her to throw caution to the winds and fling off at high speed but Kait had already had a fright with Agata's earlier tumble, then her encounter with the foreign lord when her women were absent. Kait would be raging.
Regretfully, Agata leaned gently on her horse's mouth. He laid his ears back and chewed on his bit as the other horses swept up. He danced and sidled about fretfully but Agata held firm with a gentle hand.
"A fine gallop, Princess," the prince cried, "but too dangerous for a lady."
Looking over the prince's shoulder, Agata caught Pilar rolling her eyes and fought to keep a straight face but Kait pulled up beside Agata and took a firm hold of her horse's rein.
"The prince is right," she snapped.
Prince Artak heard the exchange and caught Agata's eye. His gaze was sympathetic and rueful all in one. He smiled and Agata felt her spirits lift. He was a prince and likely had his own faithful retainers who would scold if they thought it necessary.
The rest of the ride was sedate. Agata rode with Kait on one side at a small distance and the Prince on the other. She found him easy company. He spoke of the cold winter and the preparations for spring.
"Do you bring many men to Prince Ren's fortress?" Agata asked.
He paused and after a moment cleared his throat.
"Well, I have a good sized war band coming and," he turned those bright blue eyes to meet hers and smiled carelessly, "if my talks with Prince Ren prosper, there could be a whole army coming to support your cause."
His gaze dropped to Agata's mouth before returning to lock into her eyes once more. For the second time that morning, Agata felt colour rush into her cheeks. One minute Prince Artak was pleasant and easy company and then, in a moment, he put her at a complete loss. Tight bands squeezed her chest and made it difficult to breathe. If she wanted the support of his warriors, she would have to wed him. A feeling of nausea churned her stomach and stole up to her throat. Was there no way out for her? Her mother's miserable, ravaged face rose in her mind's eye, all pale skin and burnished, tousled hair. Her eyes staring both wild and desperate.
"Never marry, daughter."
It was one of the few memories she had of her tortured, distant mother.
"I'm sure your talks with the Prince will be pleasant, " she said clumsily and spurred her horse forward, once more using the horse to escape an uncomfortable situation.
She kept close to Kait until the stone walls of Arzen fortress rose high above and they passed under the portcullis. Agata swung off the horse and handed him to a stable boy. Flanked by Kait and Pilar, she bid the Prince a courteous, cold goodbye.
"I will see you at evening meal," he called lightly.
She gave a nod and sped away.
"He's so handsome," Pilar said slyly as they entered the last corridor before Agata's chambers, "he might not be so bad to marry."
"Dynastic marriages aren't made based on looks, Pilar," Kait said curtly.
Both women saw the pallor on their princess's face and exchanged glances.
"Are you alright?" Kait asked, her voice gruff.
Agata shook her head, misery weighing her down.
"I am not, Kait. I am trapped here with my head on a chopping block. I don't want any part of either of the Arstruni princes. Yet I must, if I am to regain Iberia and find Pertinax."
Kait remained silent. Pilar too. There was nothing to say. The princess had said it all.
Kait tapped on the chamber door and hearing Baba Gu's voice, pushed it open. She held it until Agata passed through.
Agata stepped into the warmth, drawn by the low-burning fire. She stood in front of it and pulled at the fingers of her riding gloves, stripping them off and tossing them on a chair.
"He's a fine man, but," she paused, staring into nothingness, "there is something about him that makes me uneasy."
"Tsk, tsk," Baba Gu shook her head and lifted her hands in mock horror, "'tis the nerves, to be certain. All maidens feel that way on the cusp of the marriage bed."
"Baba!" Agata was pale with fury, "you shouldn't say such things."
"Tis true, my chick, 'tis very true," the old lady insisted, laughing softly.
"I think you've forgotten my mother and how she suffered," Agata was not amused.
A peculiar look passed over Baba's face. She paused and swayed on her feet, reaching for the back of the chair to steady herself.
Pilar whirled the chair around and ushered Baba Gu into it. The old lady lifted quivering hands to press against her wrinkled cheeks. She stayed that way for several moments, and the other three glanced at each other with a question in their eyes.
Finally, Baba lifted her head to gaze at Agata and her eyes were swimming with tears.
"I will never forget Madriel. She was my chick, my child who I nursed from a baby. I know all she suffered! I suffered with her...but your father..." she faltered and stopped speaking.
"I know what my father was," Agata said through gritted teeth, "he was a murderer and a cruel man."
"Oh, so cruel," Baba whispered, she raised herself up and looked at Agata straitly, "but all men are not so, and I see no other way for you, my child."
Agata, thought of the two princes.
"Sadly, I think all princes are just so," she unbuckled her wide belt, breathing deeply through her nose, "Baba, I need to wash."
The old lady watched her sadly.
"My child, there is no way out for a highborn girl."
Agata lips tightened and she made no answer. She continued to pull off her soiled garments and Baba whisked away to order hot water brought to the princess's quarters.
"Sit, Primavera," Pilar ordered.
She knelt at Agata's feet and pulled off her boots. Agata preferred these companions from her past in the mountains of Iberia to attend her rather than accept the ladies of Prince Ren's household. Her freedoms and privacy had been eroded enough as it was and those women would report everything they saw and heard to her uncle. Her foot tapped restlessly, encased in its stocking. The confinement of life behind walls was eating away at her soul.
When she and Pilar and Kait were out in the mountains, hunting game birds, she had imagined herself a free leader once more. Then Prince Artak had come and brought all the creeping terror of her situation right back. No more would she come and go as she pleased and if she received aid from one or the other of the Artsruni princes, she would not be in command.
Kait and Pilar busied themselves about small tasks, seeing to Agata's clothing and gear and tending to her black hound, Q'ursha.
She leaned back in the chair and drowsed until a knock heralded the arrival of her bath.
Kait and Pilar opened the door and directed the men-servants to place the wooden tub before the fire. Many more followed with pails of water, the heated steam rising from them.
"How did they ready it so fast, Baba?"
I woke early and you were gone, Princess," Baba replied, "then a woman of Prince Ren's advised me that Prince Artak approached. I knew you'd be needing the hot water."
The old woman directed Kait and Pilar to carry over a curtained screen and place it around the tub. The men finished pouring in the water, filling the tub almost to the brim before leaving.
"Now Princess," Baba said.
Agata slipped behind the curtain and removed her undergarments. The wooden sides of the barrel were rough under her touch as she stepped in and slid under the steaming water. She breathed out slowly and settled her shoulders against the timber. The water heated her skin making every nerve ending tingle. She closed her eyes.
The sound of her women moving about the chamber and talking quietly among themselves filled her with a sense of tranquillity. She breathed deeply, filling her lungs with steam and the images of two very different men rose in her mind's eye. Prince Gurgen and Prince Artak. The former so dark and intensely sinister, the other as fair as an angel, seemingly pleasant but incredibly disturbing at the same time. The choice was set before her. It would probably be her last choice. Gurgen or Artak? Which one would be best for Iberia? Which one would help her find Pertinax? Which one would be kind? She tightened her lips and shook her head. Neither of them would provide anything but the chance to regain Iberia from the pagan Marauders and preserve her illustrious grandfather's legacy.
Without choosing one of them to be her husband, there would be such a power struggle between the invading Marauders and the countries surrounding Iberia, that the country would be brought to ruin.
Agata tucked her knees up tight and sank beneath the water. It covered her head, shutting out the world above. Her old dream of leaving worldly things behind and entering the convent was even more appealing now and yet still more impossible.
I will not marry, she thought despairingly, I refuse. There must be another way.
Gurgen and Artak. Both would bring the advantages that she needed, that she must have, but Gurgen's temperament was frightening. The man was power hungry and an unprincipled dastard. There would be no sweetness in a life where he was her lord. But Artak? He seemed pleasant and steady yet the thought of belonging to him body and soul left her feeling cold. She pushed that foolish thought aside. Persons of her rank did not look to marry for feelings. She'd been taught that it was a vulgar thing but Agata couldn't help but think that it was a privilege not often enjoyed by the nobility.
Her lungs began to burn and she heard Baba Gu's voice distorted by the water, raised in a question. She must come up for breath and she must decide which man to wed or lose Iberia forever. If only Pertinax could be found.
Her face and shoulders felt cold after their immersion in the hot water. Steam curled off her skin. Baba Gu stepped in behind the curtain and rubbed a fragrant ointment into her hair, working it into a lather. She dipped a jug in the tub and poured water over Agata's bright head. She lathered and rinsed many times until Agata's hair was squeaky clean and sweet smelling.
Kait answered a quiet tap on the door. Agata heard her speaking followed by the door shutting.
"Princess, your uncle wishes to see you in his chambers once you are finished bathing."
Again the finger of alarm that turned her into a quivering mess, pressed into her chest.
Agata surged out of the water, oblivious to Baba Gu's outraged clucks over spilled water. She clutched the sheet Baba swathed around her shoulders and stepped near the fire.
She stood frowning as Baba dried her off.
"You know, Baba, I can do this myself."
"It's not fitting, my Princess."
Pilar handed Baba a long under dress and Baba placed it over Agata's head, followed by a gown of silver brocade. The bodice fitted snugly over her compact bust and long, narrow waist and fell away in soft folded lengths from her hips to the floor.
"You didn't attend me this way in my father's palace at Narikala."
Kait handed her a belt of hammered gold and Agata turned to face her childhood nurse as she fastened it around her waist.
A flush of colour rose in Baba Gu's cheeks. She looked away from Agata and dropped her chin, her hands hanging limply by her sides.
"The court ladies insisted that I leave you to your own devices, Princess," her colour deepened, "or incur the wrath of your father, the King."
Kait and Pilar stopped what they were doing and watched. Agata knew Baba was right. After her mother's death, the King had taken many things away from Agata. She'd never known why.
"I...I was cowardly and I erred, my Princess. I should never have listened."
Kait's face was cold with disapproval but Pilar flushed as red as Baba and sympathy shone in her eyes. The old lady stood so forlornly in front of the girl who had been least among four Primavera princesses and was now the only one left.
Agata sniffed but after gazing at Baba with a hard stare, she relented.
"Never mind," she said gently, "perhaps it helped me. Surviving among those hills with my women was difficult."
Baba's head lifted sharply but Agata continued before she could speak.
"Remember this, Baba. I do not need you hovering over every step I take."
Chastened, the old lady nodded twice. Agata sat and Pilar buttoned up her boots while Baba busied herself patting Agata's hair dry and combing it out.
By the time she had finished, Agata's hair rippled down her back, the colour of a ripening cornfield bathed in the tawny gold of afternoon sunshine.
Baba dressed it simply with a braid at each temple and the rest falling loose. Under the cover of her head dress, the warm colour was evident.
"Your hair is a real glory, my princess," she stood back to admire the full effect and beckoned to Pilar, who brought the final piece of Agata's dress over.
Baba wouldn't allow any other the honour and gently lowered the raised head piece onto Agata's smooth, clean hair.
The tall oval sides of the piece were lined with felt on the inside. The outside was wrapped in rich, purple velvet so dark it almost looked black. The soft sheen of gold traced its way over the velvet. Worked into the gold, the figures of wild men, forgotten heroes of old, wrestled with snarling, winged griffins. The craftsmanship was so exquisite that the individual tendons and musculature of both man and beast stood out with lifelike realism.
It was an item of beauty and ferocity and an important statement of Princess Agata's impeccable royal lineage. Agata lifted her chin feeling the weight of it.
"Is wearing it necessary?" she addressed Baba but looked to Kait and Pilar also.
Kait cleared her throat, an unexpected sheen at the back of her eyes.
"Yes, Princess," her voice was husky, "tonight is important. Remind those arrogant Artsruni princes that you are Princess Agata Primavera of Bagration."
She stepped closer to Agata. Had they been back in the Lair, she would have embraced the princess but here, in Arzen Fortress, all the formalities of Agata's position intruded upon the close friendship forged in experience and battle, in triumphant victories and tragic losses.
"I know you think it is right to defer to your uncle. I also know that he and the princes intimidate you but please, I beg you, don't give yourself away lightly. Iberia needs you to be wise."
Agata nodded and wrapped her arms around Kait. A royal princess shouldn't be touched but as she was a failed commander on the cusp of losing her freedom forever, she broke those rules without remorse.
"Whatever decisions are made today, no one must take you or Pilar away from me."
She pulled Pilar into the hug and Q'ursha got up from his spot by the fire and nosed their legs curiously.
Agata pulled back, dashing the tears from her cheek with light finger tips. It was time. She could no longer delay the tug of fate. Today her destiny would be set upon a new path. She shivered, feeling invisible bands tighten around her neck and squeezing at her lungs. The rising, creeping terror was back sapping her of courage.
Her breathing became short and choppy.
"Here my lady."
Baba held a small vial to her nose.
"Breathe deep, twill restore your senses."
She was right. The pungent odour brought Agata back to the present with a snap. She smoothed her hands down over her fabric covered hips and set free a tightly held breath. All would be well. Many princesses had been sent to marry men who were total strangers. Often to the very men who threatened borders or the security of the realm under a monarch's care. Daughters were currency yet many had refused to agree to the decisions of their relatives. Doubt stole in among the fear.
Agata shook her head impatiently and twitched her skirt between her fingers. Do your duty, Agata. Do it for your people, for Christendom to reign in Iberia and do it for yourself. She despised self-pity and set her face sternly against it. She swept to the door and Pilar, reaching it before her, opened it with a snap.
"We are with you, Primavera," she smiled comfortingly, holding Agata's eyes, faithfulness shining bright.
Her loyalty reminded Agata of Q'ursha's. The hound never left her side unless ordered to do so. Pilar also served her without question.