Gaila shivered as she materialized. The palace corridors were as cold and draughty as she remembered. Winter had well and truly come. The distant mountains were outlined in glistening white snow against the ink dark sky. Pulling her fur-lined cloak around her, Gaila glided forward silently, frowning as she noticed how quiet the hallways were. Usually there were servants bustling, self-important young men strutting, well-dressed ladies preening, and at night, couples taking advantage of the dark nooks and crannies to steal gropes and kisses. Perhaps there really was a serious reason that the Knight of the Silver Armor had disturbed her rest. She smoothed her silver hair, took a deep breath and entered the reception chamber.
The Knight was sitting by the fire, holding his hands out to the flames. Courtiers milled around in the background talking amongst themselves. A large hairy hound lying on the floor by the Knight’s chair leapt up and growled as he spotted Gaila. Conversation ceased and all eyes turned to her. She advanced and curtsied, her amber eyes surveying the Knight appraisingly. He looked up and gestured for the others to leave. They straggled out, trying to stare at her discreetly, aware they might never meet a Seer in person again. The dog subsided at the Knight’s command, and he indicated that Gaila should take the chair opposite his. She sat gracefully.
“My Lord, what is so urgent?”
The Knight gave a wheezy laugh.
“I thought you Seers were immortal and unchangeable. You’re looking a bit ragged there, Gaila.”
Gaila laughed, a delightful tinkling sound, and looked at him pointedly.
The Knight’s face was disfigured by an old battle scar which traversed his cheeks and puckered his face into a gargoyle-like grimace when he smiled.
“I beg your pardon,” he said, grinning ruefully. “I know I am no oil painting myself.”
“We are immortal, but not unchangeable. We must rejuvenate every hundred years or so on the Sacred Peak. You interrupted my rest,” Gaila said.
“I am sorry,” said the Knight. “I would not have summoned you unless it was urgent.”
He snapped his fingers at a servant who hurried off to bring refreshments.
“Unlike others, you have never wasted my time with trivialities. That is why I came. Now tell me what is happening.”
He heaved himself up and began to pace the room.
“My daughter Rosalia is now of marriageable age. She is beautiful and accomplished, speaks Gallanish and Darinese, plays the lyre, dances like a dream and is an expert horse woman. She hunts as hard as any of my men and has even participated in the joust. You should have seen the men’s faces when they realized they had competed against a slip of a girl.”
He chuckled at the memory.
“Thus says her father, who is totally impartial, of course” said Gaila, smiling. “Does this paragon have any faults?”
“She’s known to be stubborn when she makes up her mind about something and to get into an escapade or two when she should have been minding her lessons instead.”
“So, a chip off the old block,” said Gaila. “I am sure you have many suitors lining up for her hand. Even if she was ugly, her inheritance of your territories would attract many. What is the problem?”
“The High Lord is looking for a wife,”
Gaila raised her eyebrows but said nothing as the servant reappeared at that moment with a flagon of wine, goblets and a plate of bread, cheese and nuts. She set it out and hurried off after curtseying.
Gaila sipped her wine and nibbled some bread. The Knight noisily slurped back a goblet full and poured more for himself.
“Now I understand your unease,” she said. “The High Lord’s wives do not have a record of longevity. What happened to the most recent?”
“Beheaded,” said the Knight. “Some trumped up excuse that she was unfaithful. Not that I would have blamed her. She was nineteen and he is over sixty. He has stinking ulcers on his legs and is constantly in a foul mood because of the pain. His court is terrified of him. He is becoming more and more irrational as he senses that death is near and he has no male heir. He has three daughters from his previous wives, but unlike me, he does not value them.”
“You are unusual in that respect,” said Gaila. “Most Knights only see their daughters as pawns to marry off.”
The Knight sat down heavily and gazed into his goblet, shrugging.
"I am a subject of mirth amongst my knightly peers because I am so attached to her. Girls are considered hindrances by them, or at best, marriage material, as you say.
But I loved her mother. Most of them never cared about their wives,” he said sadly. “We did not marry by choice, but I was smitten as soon as I saw her. That is why I never remarried after she died of the fever when Rosalia was two. Rosalia is as good as any son could be. I will not see her married to that old monster, but I owe him allegiance. If I refuse, he will devastate my kingdom and take her by force. You are my only hope to spare us from this fate. He wants an answer by midnight tomorrow.”
Gaila stared at him.
“You want to refuse him without making him angry. That is asking a lot, even of a Seer, especially since I was not able to complete my rejuvenation and fully restore my strength. Have you told Rosalia of this?”
He shook his head.
“To be honest, I have not found the courage. She will not submit willingly, that I know. It is my fault. If her mother had lived, or if we had had sons, she might have learned to comport herself as a proper maiden, but I…I have never had the heart to force her to behave as a highborn girl should. She has been the son I never had."
"Why should the High Lord be interested in her? There must be many other more suitable brides."
The Knight shook his head.
"He has married women older than him and tired of them. He has married younger women who have been unfaithful to him. Even those Knights who do not have a high opinion of women do not want their daughters to marry him. Some have sent their daughters abroad, others have hidden them. He thinks Rosalia has no choice as no one else will accept such an independent female...and he hates me."
Gaila stared at him intently.
"My old friend, I believe something else also troubles you?"
"I am sick. This is my last winter. Rosalia will be on her own soon."
"I see," said Gaila. "If she marries the High Lord, he will have your territories."
The old Knight dropped to his knees in front of her, tears coursing down his ugly face.
“My Lady, I beg you. You are my last hope.”
Gaila got up and offered her hand.
“This is not necessary. Take me to my chamber and let me rest and think.”
He got to his feet laboriously and led her off through the palace to a large and luxurious bedchamber. A little servant girl stood trembling as Gaila entered.
“Relax, my child. What is your name?” Gaila said, amused. “I don’t know what they have told you, but we Seers do not bite. Just make sure that the fire is well stoked throughout the night. Turning into an icicle will not help me think.”
“Laria, Ma’am,” the maid said, venturing a timid smile, as she helped Gaila out of her cloak.
“Fetch me some warm water to bathe, Laria and then you may rest.”
Washed and rested, Gaila stretched out in the huge four-poster bed. She counted the beads on her necklace as she murmured charms to help her sleep, feeling the aches from the long day of travel. She had to return to the Sacred Peak soon or it would be impossible to restore her strength. An immortal life of pains and decrepitude did not appeal. She gazed into the grate, the incantations summoning visions of Rosalia in the flames, a chubby toddler, then a skinny tomboy, now an intelligent, strong-willed young woman. Gaila frowned in concentration as she tried to envision Rosalia’s future, but the picture was hazy and unclear. She shook her head in frustration before slipping into an uneasy sleep.
Despite Laria’s efforts, the fire had died down and there was ice lining the inside of the windowpanes when Gaila arose. The child had nodded off to sleep on the floor. Gaila looked at her in pity. This little girl had most likely shared a peasant hut somewhere with her entire family. Hard as her life was here, she probably considered herself fortunate. Gaila tossed a log on the fire, pulled her cloak around her and went to the window. It had snowed during the night and the landscape was pristine white against the grey sky. She heard voices down below and saw a group of young people, bundled against the cold, squealing with laughter. Rosalia, dressed in breeches, led the pack, throwing snowballs as fast and furious as any of the boys. Gaila laughed softly. No wonder her father was afraid of breaking the news of the High Lord’s marriage proposal. She heard Laria scrambling to her feet, stuttering in fright.
“You, your Ladyship, I am s-sorry…”
“It is fine, Laria. Fetch some breakfast and we will dine.”
Laria bolted from the room.
Gaila threw another log on the fire and stirred it with the poker. She stepped back in surprise as the flames flared up and she suddenly saw Rosalia. She fingered her beads and chanted, staring deep into the flames. The figure of Rosalia elongated to almost full size, her face pale and determined, tears on her cheeks. With a gasp, Gaila realized that Rosalia was wearing the crest of the High Lord’s family. Did this mean that Rosalia would marry him after all? As if she could read Gaila’s mind, Rosalia looked at her scornfully before the image flickered and disappeared in a shower of sparks. Deep in thought, Gaila sat down at the breakfast Laria had brought and ate absentmindedly. Finally, she pushed her plate away and turned to Laria.
“Tell my Lord Knight that I am ready to see him.”
Laria returned shortly, trembling with fear and excitement.
“Follow me, ma’am.”
Gaila dismissed her as they approached the Knight’s chamber, slipping her a silver coin. Laria’s eyes widened in awe as she scampered off, hiding the coin in her bodice. When they were alone, the Knight gazed expectantly at Gaila.
“Sire, you have been an unusual father. Do one more unusual thing and ask Rosalia for her opinion, as you would have asked a son. Ask her if she wishes to resign herself to marriage, or to help you defeat the High Lord."
The Knight frowned.
"Asking a woman for her opinion? This is unheard of. He may invade my territories and take her anyway.”
“There is that risk, of course. Prepare as if it may happen. You must tell Rosalia the whole story by midnight tonight.”
He stared at her in bewilderment.
“Rosalia join me and my army? They would never accept…and who will she marry?”
Gaila looked at him sternly.
“Does she have to marry? Your army will accept her if you tell them to. You asked me what you should do, and I have done so. Now I must go before I am unable to reach the Sacred Peak in time.”
A shimmering column of grey light enveloped her, and the Knight stepped back in fear, covering his eyes. When he looked again, Gaila was gone. He paced the floor in an agony of indecision, then took a deep breath before bellowing for Rosalia and for his officers.
Gaila stumbled into the Seers' Cave on the Sacred Peak and collapsed. Her sister Seers fussed over her, wrapping her tenderly in blankets and bringing her a warm posset to drink.
“You overdid it again, Gaila,” said Portiana, the oldest and bossiest of them. “That old battle axe isn't worth the effort.”
“I didn’t do it for him,” said Gaila weakly. “I did it for Rosalia and Laria and all those females who are underestimated. Look into the pool and tell me what has happened.”
The Seers clustered around the shimmering pool in the center of the cave, staring intently, looking from side to side, groaning with fear, then cheering in excitement.
“She did it! She led the army. Yes! Yes!” screamed Portiana, forgetting her dignity as a Senior Seer. “There was a battle, and the High Lord is dead. Rosalia is carrying his standard.”
She suddenly frowned.
“Oh, no, you won’t like this. Your ugly old friend, the Knight of the Silver Armor, is dead too.”
Gaila shook her head sadly.
“I was afraid of that when I saw that Rosalia was weeping in my vision. But he would rather have fallen in battle than wasted away from sickness. He has a worthy heir in Rosalia. She will rule well and be an example for future queens. Now, sisters, this has been enough excitement to last me for a while. Excuse me while I go and sleep for a century or two.”