V. The Castle

When Ell was finally able to escape madame Farning and return to his suit it was late afternoon and the sun was slowly setting across the sky. With him he bore an immense amount of food which he could give Ranadin who must have been bored to death in her little closet of a room but then.

He opened the door only to find the snakewoman soundly asleep. He inched in as carefully as he could and set the food on to Ranadin’s table. He tried to exit as carefully as he had come, but he snagged his toe on the bed posts.

“Au!” Ranadin heard and was up in a flash ready to defend herself only to find Ell trying to swallow down a thousand different curse words that had appeared in his mind convincing him that uttering them could relieve his pain. Ranadin laughed and then glimpsed at the food the young man had kindly provided.

“How long was I asleep?” she wondered getting up and taking a seat at the table.

“It’s afternoon now. I’m sorry it took me so long, but once madame Farning, the castle cook, sees you, there is no escape.”

Ranadin noticed that Ell had washed and changed. She then turned to look at her own hands that were black with grime.

“I think I’m in need of a wash myself”, she observed causing Ell to leave. Soon she could here puffing as a servant came to fill Ell’s tub with warm water.

“Yes, I will wash myself. No, there really is no need. Do believe me. Yes, I will be fine. Yes, thank you”, she could hear him reassure the one who had brought the water in. Soon after the door clicked and Ell’s head appeared in the chamber door.

“The way is clear. You can now enter the bathing chamber”, he recommended. Ranadin grabbed her pack where she had packed an extra layer in the form of her formal wear. Undressing she got into the heavenly warm water. Next to the tub was some soap which she used to scrub her skin clean. All of a sudden Ell surged into the chamber.

“Ell”, came the voice of a young woman from the parlour.

“Yes, Ytja?” the young man called back.

“I heard you had returned. Father would like to meet with you”, the woman answered and moved around the room. Ell swore into his armpit and then spoke loudly through the door.

“I can’t right now. I’m bathing. I’ll see you at supper. Tell that to uncle.”

“Fine, cousin dear”, the woman answered and then left with a loud banging of the door. Ell than turned to Ranadin who was watching him with a raised eyebrow.

“I’m sorry. Part of the act”, he stammered noticing her nakedness. A blush formed on his neck and his face turned red.

“I understand”, Ranadin said and gave him a pleasant smile. This made the young man escape the room hurriedly.

It wasn’t long after Ell left and Ranadin got up from the bath and rinsed herself with a bucket of cold water. The servant had helpfully set out a cotton towel which she used to dry herself. She then dressed in her formal wear and knocked on the bathing chamber door in order to alert Ell to make sure the coast was clear.

Soon enough he opened the door and breathed deeply as he saw her. Ranadin was wearing a long white tunic which was low cut and had split sleeves accentuated with excess fabric. The tunic was long enough to be considered a very short dress. Under she had a black collared shirt that covered her tightly to the wrists. On top she had golden wrist guards. Her legs were covered with black leggings and her feet were covered with her boots that now shined. She glowed like a small sun with her golden eyes, white hair and skin.

“You must come to dinner and meet my family”, Ell whispered in awe. A terrified expression appeared on Ranadin’s face and she shook her head rigorously, absolutely speechless…

*****

Nobody looked at the beautiful, white haired woman Ell the Adanorian escorted into the ballroom. In normal circumstances such a beauty would have been acknowledged, but currently the king of Deles was visiting and the king was a very demanding guest, especially when it came to his food.

If the occupants of the castle wished to stay in the favour of the king they had to provide him with the very best they could afford. This created extra work for the staff who was so very busy they had no time to notice anything out of the ordinary or to be aware of anybody else, except of his royal majesty.

The ballroom was filled with the king’s courtiers and noblemen and women of the surrounding countryside who had come to Joarik’s estate to fight for the king’s attention and the chance for greater power.

The king on his part hated these particular bloodsuckers who dressed in fashionable wear and imitated those of higher standing than them without pride. Joarik had gotten into his brother’s graces by his own merit, but the country noblemen and women completely disregarded both facts. They were dishonest twats who had nothing to lose kissing the king’s royal bum, so the king was doomed to suffer their presence wherever he went.

Ell and Ranadin were sitting at a side table far away from his family that was located on both sides of the king. Ranadin tried her best to keep her eyes hidden. Their unusual golden colour was a dead give-away to what she was. They ate quietly in the corner speaking amongst themselves when Ytja walked by.

“Ell, here you are. Father wants you to come and meet the king. And do bring your friend along. You have nothing to be ashamed of. She is a very striking beauty.”

“I am not ashamed of her, dear cousin. She is merely extremely shy. I do apologize, but I must decline the most generous offer”, he answered her.

“It was not a request, Ell”, Ytja remarked to his displeasure resulting in him doing as had been ordered. They moved carefully towards the great table. Ranadin followed him keeping her eyes fiercely to the ground letting her long hair which she had left open for the occasion cover most of her face.

Uncaring of Ell’s attempts to take them to his uncles the long way around the ballroom, they did eventually end up in front of the king and lord Joarik who looked to his brother for permission to speak. Getting this permission he quickly rose and raced to hug his nephew.

“Welcome back, Ell!” he greeted heartily. The young man smiled to his uncle, but did not turn Joarik’s attention to Ranadin. This was futile as the man noticed her himself.

“And who is this, nephew?” he asked curious. Ell glanced at the snakewoman trying to seem nonchalant.

“This is Lady Rana of Alta. I met her on the road here. She is on her way north to be married to a boring hermit of a nobleman. She had been abducted, and as it is not appropriate for women to travel alone, I decided to take responsibility of her safety. She is quite shy, my lord”, he explained without pause turning then to greet the king. The king acknowledged his bow. Ranadin curtsied mustering as much respect into the gesture as she could.

“You have quite beautiful locks”, the king commented.

“I thank your majesty for your graciousness”, Ranadin answered apprehensively constantly afraid of being revealed. Thankfully the low regard for women in this culture worked to her advantage and it was not uncommon to see such humbleness. They were asked to join them at the table and Ranadin was seated between Ytja and her mother Frenna.

*****

Ytja watched jealously as Ell kept looking at lady Rana with a crease of worry on his forehead trying to determine if the Altaian noblewoman was doing well. The woman constantly hid her face under her beautiful hair and ate as if she feared to be revealed for some horrible crime.

“Have you travelled much then?” Frenna asked.

“No, your grace”, the lady answered politely.

“What is it like in Alta this time of year?” was Ytja’s question. Rana did not turn to look at her, but spoke to the plate.

“I am unsure. We are never in Alta this time of year. We normally life more north on my father’s estate as it is cooler there in the summer. But I have been told it is unbearably hot, lady Ytja.”

“What is your family like?” Frenna quizzed.

“I love them very much, your grace”, the noblewoman responded.

“Please, any friend of Ell’s is a friend of ours. I invite you to call me Frenna”, Ytja’s mother requested and smiled her talented diplomat’s smile. Ytja thought she saw the lady smile inside of her hair. She was about to continue her examination when a servant came to speak with lady Rana. She got up full of dignity and changed places with Ell. His place had been by the king. The worry on his face deepened as he saw where Ranadin was now.

“You must really like her”, Ytja whispered to her cousin who had changed quite a bit after he had disappeared. Ell turned to look at her with weariness in his eyes.

“Ytja, if you knew what this is about, you would not be so bitter”, he whispered back.

“Then tell me”, she tried to lure.

“It is not so simple, dearest”, he answered and did not speak for the rest of the evening all his concentration on lady Rana. Ytja folded her arms and pouted. Even the dessert could not cheer her up and it was her favourite, madame Farning’s legendary chocolate cake.

*****

Ranadin was stiff with fear when she got the invitation to sit by the king of Deles. She was finally in a place where each snakekin of Caroon would have liked to be, a dream of centuries, made of quite different things than the dreams of humans. She was sitting next to the leader of the murderers of her kin and she wished deeply in her heart that killing him at that point would have done some good. But a new king would always rise.

Just around this particular table there were several who had the chance to rise to the throne after the current king. Even her friend Ell was an heir. Maybe it would be better if he were king, but Ranadin did not have her battle staff and she would be dead before she could have killed the other heirs to the king to make Ell first in line.

And the question remained, would Ell still be her friend and the friend of snakekin if she killed his family? More than likely not. So Ranadin had to be satisfied with sitting there at the table next to the one person she hated the most in the world and hope to the heavens she was not revealed. That the king did not want to speak to her, but only had the desire to surround himself with beautiful people.

“Lady Rana”, the king began. Ranadin’s heart skipped a beat.

“Yes, your majesty?”

“Why is it I have never heard of you? One would think your beauty known across my kingdom”, he wondered.

“My father is very protective of me, your majesty.”

“And yet he lets you travel alone?”

“He died on the way. We were attacked.”

This silenced the king for a moment. His curiosity had been aroused. There was something odd about this woman. Something very unusual. He had never met somebody so young who had such wisdom. Lady Rana was quite a rare treasure.

“Who is the fortunate man to have your hand in marriage?”

“I do not know him”, Ranadin answered fearing she was answering more and more through her own mouth than the mouth of her persona.

“Your father was a very peculiar man”, the king stated.

“Yes, your majesty. He was a hermit.”

“A hermit with daughter of such radiance?”

“He became so when my mother died, your majesty.”

“I’m sorry to hear about your loss.”

“I thank you for your words, your majesty”, Ranadin said receiving the king’s apology. It was ironic that the king had been the one of her mother’s capturers, one of the murderers of her father.

“If you will excuse me, your majesty, but I am quite fatigued from all the travelling. May I have your blessing to leave your presence?” Ranadin asked picturing the peace of Ell’s servant quarters in her mind. The king allowed her to leave. Ell followed her example and jogged to her. Ranadin faked feeling weak by holding her head as if it was pained. To all the world she was very pale, so she did not need do much to convince her audience of her condition. Ell supported her as a true gentleman and helped her away from the room. As they passed Ytja, he tried to catch her gaze, but failed.

*****

“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea”, Ell stated as he closed the door to his suit safely behind them.

“A good idea? If the king were to find out who I am…”

Ranadin dared not finish the sentence. Anything could have happened and she was still in the castle. She was not safe.

“Will they not wonder about where I am sleeping?” she asked clearly interrupting whatever was on Ell’s mind as he froze in shock. He had been pacing back and forth and now he slapped himself on the forehead.

“Oh dammit! Of course Lady Rana of Alta must have a guest room”, he exclaimed and let out a string of colourful curses that he had learn as a young boy from the seamen visiting Adanor.

“And what of the lady Rana who has only two sets of clothes of which the other is unsuitable for a sensitive and shy noblewoman? When it comes to the weak creature I portray I do know that they usually have an extensive wardrobe with them.”

“You were robbed”, Ell reminded her. Ranadin lifted a finger to silence him smiling wickedly. The brilliance of the young man’s mind continued to astound her.

Ell called a servant who was allowed in on the secret that there was something odd about the lady Rana. The man was mute and illiterate, and in addition Ell trusted him completely. He was called Tep and he led Ranadin through the long winding corridors of the castle to an empty set of rooms in the guest wing. All other rooms were filled by guests flocking to the king’s presence like moths to a flame.

In the morning Tep told his wife who was deaf that a high born lady had nothing but one gown to wear. Ranadin had gotten up early as was her custom ready to dress in her travelling clothes when Tep’s wife Tea appeared to protest her choice in dress.

“This is not appropriate!” she exclaimed and disappeared only to return with a generous amount of gowns that fit Ranadin surprisingly well. They had belonged to Ell’s grandmother who had been a beautiful petite woman with light hair. As a part of her role as castle seamstress Tea had maintained the wardrobe in the chambers of lord Joarik’s mother that had gone untouched since her death.

After dressing into the beautiful sunflower coloured dress with golden embroidery in the sleeves, hem and collar Ranadin felt restricted as normally her clothes had been designed for comfort and agility. She did not forget her role, but pretended to be the timid noblewoman and ended up wondering in the many hallways of the vast castle until she met Ell who was on his way to practice sword fighting. He had been neglecting his training long enough.

“Could I not leave already? If I ran I could come to the mountains only in a few days and I would be safe amongst my people”, she complained.

“The more north you go, the more there is habitation. Most Delesians live around here”, Ell explained causing Ranadin to curse.

“Is there no wilderness?”

He shook his head sadly. Ranadin was stuck.

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