in which a hawk makes an excellent breakfast companion
Rhema was alone. Very alone. The sole mistress of the ghost house of Iderburg. “When we are married,” she said to herself one day, “it will not do for him to keep leaving me alone like this.” Then she thought, “Or perhaps it will do very nicely.”
On Mondays and Wednesdays she received lessons from Mrs. Delannoy, the head mistress of a local school of etiquette. Mrs. Delannoy was a small woman, but what she lacked in height, she made up for in style. Her shoes always matched her gloves, her skirt always matched her purse, and her hair was always situated in a great poof on top of her head, as if she wore a mushroom for a hat. She carried with her at all times a large satchel, a short umbrella, and hard expression. She instructed Rhema in everything from the proper way to eat in public to how one is to behave when doing nothing at all. Rhema had never previously suspected that there could be so many ways to do nothing at all, but, as Mrs. Delannoy never ceased to assure her, “A lady has no better opportunity to illuminate her quality than when she is in a state of repose.”
Mrs. Delannoy was full of advice of this sort. “Repetition is for the lazy or the poor,” she once told Rhema after Rhema had made the grievous mistake of carrying the same parasol three days in a row. “Did you know that my dear, late Sir Delannoy bought me a new parasol every time he went out on the town?” The ‘dear, late Sir Delannoy’ was Mrs. Delannoy’s second favorite subject. She wore a great silver locket around her neck with his photograph inside of it. Whenever anyone took question to something Mrs. Delannoy said or did, her answer was always, “I know for a fact that Sir Delannoy disapproved of serving coffee with tea,” or “Sir Delannoy once said to me, before he passed on, that the most attractive quality of a woman is her standing posture.”
“I highly doubt that Sir Delannoy could have said so many things in the space of the one year in which they were married.” This came from Mr. Highwater, who took up the role as Rhema’s Tuesday and Thursday tutor. As it turned out, he was quite the expert on Gallish history and politics. His preferred teaching method involved pacing back and forth for hours, tapping his pocket watch, and lecturing his single pupil. History was a subject in which he took the most profound interest. He spoke about the lineage of the kings as if he were telling his own family stories. He raised his voice in anger when he told about the English occupation of 1350, and he lowered his tone in reverence as he recalled the tale of Saint Roger, who starved to death in protest of the oppression of the church. Mr. Highwater proved a patient instructor. Rhema tried her best to pay attention to his lessons, which, in her opinion, were infinitely more useful than anything Mrs. Delannoy taught her.
“Behind those walls, all the hope of Gallia once stood,” Mr. Highwater said one day, absently twirling his pocket watch and looking out the window at the crumbled section of the castle wall. “Do you know that Everard the First fended off the entire Freesian militia for forty-two days behind those walls?”
“Forty-two, you say?” repeated Rhema, making a note of it in case he tested her on it later.
“He won, in the end, and sent those freesies back to whence they came. But two thousand people died before that happened, many of them ordinary men, women, and children from the unprotected city.”
Rhema had heard the story before, but her old governess never told this part of the tale of Everard’s Stand.
“What is your assessment of it?” Mr. Highwater said, a single eyebrow lifting in her direction. ‘What is your assessment of it?’ was what Mr. Highwater often asked when he already had an assessment of his own.
“It was a great tragedy.”
“Yes, that it was. Yet many also call it a great victory. Would you agree?”
“I suppose I would, in general. I do not think it could have been prevented short of Everard surrendering, and we would not be here now if Everard had surrendered.”
“I can see how one would come to that conclusion, Miss de Frees, but allow me to ask you a question.”
Statements such as this usually preceded trick questions. Rhema clutched her book in an attempt to gain its power of insight.
“What is the difference,” he asked, “between the soldier who dies in battle and the farmer who is slain defending his own land?”
“Choice?” said Rhema. This answer seemed too simple. It could not be right.
“Are you certain? You do not sound certain.”
“The soldier chose the life of war. The farmer did not.”
“But the soldier’s individual actions are under orders. The farmer’s is not.”
“Yes, but it is hardly a choice at all. He is not likely to leave the things he loves to be destroyed.”
“Which is the same reason a soldier might fight for his country.”
He was trying to trick her somehow. Wasn’t the teacher supposed to give her answers, not all these questions?
“So you mean to say there is no difference?” she said
“No difference between what?”
Rhema gripped hard the leather book. “Between someone who fights out of love and someone who fights out of duty.”
“That is a possibility.”
Rhema’s mouth twitched. “Are you trying to confuse me, Mr. Highwater?”
“I am trying to make you think. I dare say, you will never think of Everard’s Stand the same way again, will you?”
Rhema shook her head. Mr. Highwater smiled and moved on to another lecture.
The rest of Rhema’s time was her own. She wrote letters to her friends and family and continued the extraneous studying she had begun with the Philosopher’s Club. On weekends she sometimes went down to the town with Mrs. Delannoy or even the VanGall twins, who, after learning of the engagement, strove to enter the good graces of the princess-to-be. She spent many evenings alone. She would read, or play cards, or do puzzles. There was something relaxing about puzzles. Each time the pieces clicked together, she gained a small victory. There was comfort in knowing that something in the world fit together.
Some days she stood on the balcony and stared across the hill at the castle. It looked close enough to walk to. As she had little else to do one August morning, she decided to do just that. She took her walking stick, told the servants not to bother her, and went down the hill toward the castle. The valley between the hills was full of tall yellow grass that tickled her calves on the her walk and grasped to the end of her skirt, as if trying to hold her back from the edge of the moat.
The moat had only one bridge, and that bridge stood fast by the main castle entrance, which was a much longer walk than Rhema planned on making. The water wasn’t so deep as she remembered, but it lurked black, still, and lifeless at the bottom of its bed. The only life it supported was rank algae which colored the mud on either bank and then disappeared somewhere into the stagnant water, out of which not even reflections escaped. “You will not catch me twice,” said Rhema to the water. The proud water said nothing in return.
A nearby tree gripped to the edge of the moat. Its trunk had been severed in two by lightning, the twisted half extending over the water. Below, a thick branch had fallen into the muck, giving off the tempting appearance of a bridge. This bridge seemed to her far more appealing than the people-occupied real bridge up the way.
What will it be, the low road or the high road? The branch over the water certainly seemed safer than trying to crawl across the split trunk, but she was not properly dressed to face the mud. However, balancing on the trunk presented her with the opportunity to both fall out of tree and into a moat at the same time for the second time in her life.
A hawk shrieked overhead. It flew over her and circled the castle wall.
“You are right of course. What is life without adventure?” She threw her walking stick to the opposite bank. “You see, now I have no other choice but to go and get it.” She mounted the broken tree trunk and inched across. Her white, high-buttoned shoes rebelled against the splintering surface. Afraid it wouldn’t hold, she gathered her skirt into her hands and leapt to the other side, landing in the rough grass and praising God that she had not fallen.
The watchmen on the distant wall started shouting. When she looked up, she could see one pointing vaguely in her direction.
“Oh dear, I have upset them.” Rhema pushed herself up, shaking the ache out of a surely-bruised shoulder. “The Baroness of Sever is taking strolls over top of moats. Mrs. Delannoy will have my head if she gets word of this.” She found her walking stick, picked the newly acquired souvenirs of nature off the front of her dress, and trod uphill toward the decaying gap in the west castle wall. Her left leg throbbed worse and worse with every step she took. When she reached the wall, she perched herself on top of a large, broken stone that at some point in history had been a bastion.
The watchmen scuffled inside the towers. Two men emerged out of the bottom of the west corner and ran in her direction. They wore the uniforms of the civil guard and the faces of men who had spent a few too many hours staring at a blank horizon.
The fastest man, one Mr. Franklin Hodgins, exclaimed, “Baroness van Sever!” He removed his hat, revealing a familiar balding spot, and bowed. The second watchman, Mr. Bill Biggins, did the same.
“I am still the Baroness de Frees, if you please,” said Rhema.
“What are you doing out here, Baroness?” Hodgins said to the dirt in front of Rhema’s feet.
“Practicing how to hold down a bastion before a Bastion holds down me.”
Hodgins released a quick surprised laugh, almost letting down his guard enough to make eye contact with her. Bill Biggins was not amused.
“Do you require assistance, Baroness?” said Hodgins.
“I am going to be late for my midday meal. Is there any way you can assist me in that?”
“By order of His Majesty, the palace is at your service for anything you need.”
“Then by all means, direct me toward the kitchen, and I will be greatly in your debt, sirs.”
“Would you not prefer to have your lunch brought to the dining hall?”
“The kitchen will suffice. I do not want anybody to be further put out than they are already have on my account. A small snack, and I will be on my way back to Westbridge.”
“As you wish, Baroness.” Hodgins gestured for her to walk on ahead of him through the gap in the wall and toward the palace.
While they led her through the same secret entrance in which she and Roger had once played hide and seek, Rhema wondered how much power she had exactly, and if she could use it to get a walking bridge built over the west side of the moat. The passage was smaller and dustier than she remembered, hardly suitable to be gone through at all. The vestige of the long-vanished greatness of the Galls. How could the great Iderburg Fortress, the place that had stood up to canons and armies, be allowed to fall into such disrepair?
After getting a sandwich from the kitchen, she did not return immediately to Westbridge. She went back to all the familiar places in the wall, looking at the loose, dangerous stones and cobweb-infested corners.
“Behind these walls, all the hope of Gallia once stood,” she said. Hodgins, who had joined her as an escort, removed his hat in reverence.
“We need to fix the walls,” Rhema said – a mere murmur of a thought.
“What was that, Your Ladyship?”
“Someone should fix the walls.” The new idea filled her like a hot drink “Someone should rebuild them like they used to be.”
“Indeed, Baroness, someone should.”
“But how does one go about it?”
“A written proposal might be a start, Baroness,” said Hodgins.
“A written proposal to whom?”
“To the king, I should suppose.”
Rhema nodded and breathed. “I will see you tomorrow, Mr. Hodgins.”
The next day, Mr. Hodgins did see her again, coming down the hill from Westbridge, swinging her parasol, balancing across the precariously broken tree trunk, and headed straight for the gap in the west wall. He immediately sent for a lunch to be brought down to her.
She asked him more questions until he no longer knew the answers, and what he did not know the answers to, she asked Mr. Highwater. She wrote the proposal, and the king gladly approved it, placing her as the project’s supervisor.
Rhema had never supervised any project larger than a dinner party before, and she was never entirely convinced that she had managed the dinner party correctly. Fortunately, she did little of the actual work. A team of architects, engineers, and accountants showed up at Westbridge in the next week. All she had to say was ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and as the architects, engineers, and accountants all seemed so knowledgeable, the answer was almost always ‘yes.’
The watchmen kept her company when she went to watch them work, and a picnic lunch became the usual menu. One morning, they and the workmen surprised their baroness with a makeshift bridge dropped over the top of the moat, right below the tree. It was hardly more than a long plank of wood stretched precariously from side to side, but Rhema found it wonderful. She never took a carriage to the castle in good weather again.
Bastion wrote sporadically, not nearly as often as he had during the previous year, and no longer under the assumed name. His letters reverted to cold politeness, as if they were again no more than friendly acquaintances.
“He never says what he truly thinks,” said Rhema one day as she ruminated over his most recent correspondence and finished her breakfast. She had become accustomed to eating alone. It often surprised her that satisfaction could be found even in the most solitary occupations. When she desired company, she could visit her friends or family, and when she desired solitude, there was nothing easier to be had. She thought of how if she were married and had children, she would never again experience the sort of freedom she currently had. But when she thought long enough about it, there was no denying that there was a certain life joy that she was missing, which could only be had at the cost of privacy. What an awful cost! She wondered how it was for Jonathan and Becky, for Charlie and Charis, for her parents even, to have everything in their lives shared with another human being.
Bastion’s signature, scrawled under a familiar ‘affectionately yours’ was the closest thing she had to a companion, and she wasn’t yet sure if she liked it. She looked out the window, where she was surprised to lock eyes with a hawk. The hawk perched silently on a balcony rail watching her eat.
“Staying put at last, I see,” said Rhema to the hawk, who blinked his curious yellow eyes in an unsettling way. “I guess you do not much mind flying alone.” The hawk preened his feathers. “Go on then. Do not allow me to interrupt you.” She took another bite from her poached eggs. “It is rude to sit down to meal with someone without introducing yourself.” She got no impression from the hawk that it wanted to tell her anything.
“I have never seen a bird so patient. I wonder...”
Slowly, Rhema rose from her chair. One step at a time, she approached the window until she was close enough to lean against the sill and watch him.
“How magnificent you are,” she said. “And this is as close as you will probably ever let me near you.”
The hawk spread his wings and leapt off the balcony, catching an upward breeze and gliding under the clouds. Rhema watched him until he was gone, awed by his elegance. Then she laughed at herself thinking, If I do not stop talking to birds, I will surely go mad, if I am not already.
She returned to her table and took out pen and paper, ready to answer Bastion’s letter. “Bastion—“ she began. That was as far as it went. The empty paper gleamed. It would no longer do to write only what was expected. She would have to make that perfectly clear to the man who intended to marry her.
A hawk sat down to breakfast with me today. He did not tell me his name, but on the whole I found him to be a welcome change of company and of fine character. He shrieked once when he flew away. I have decided that this is the most profound conversation I have had with anybody for months. I mention this encounter because I feel that it is time I am given a satisfactory reason for why I am here talking with hawks rather than elsewhere, where I would no doubt be talking with some other type of bird. I may be young, but do not think me bereft of reason. I have been told that it was by your choice that I am in my present position, rather than the princess or the duchess. Of the three of us, it is well known that I am the least, for lack of a better term, civilized. If I have been found deserving to be a wife, then perhaps you will also find me deserving of an explanation. The question of my merit haunts me daily. As you are ever elsewhere, I have no one to pose these questions to but the hawks. I beg your next letter be something of true substance, or that there not be another letter at all.
Yours respectfully,Baroness Rhema de Frees
Within the week, she received a telegram from Bastion that said only this:
To Her Ladyship, the Baroness of Sever.
What did the hawk look like?