This is the second installment of Ash Fall. To read the Prologue and description, click here. Ash Fall will be published under K. Lynn Bay.
Three years later…
The last ranks of Thiel’s orchards fell behind. Asha set her jaw and stared straight ahead. She would see them again. Someday. She’d see Ama and Papi again, and the warm brown stone of her home rising above the orchards, hear the bright shout of the River Firell as it tumbled and tousled its way down from the mountains.
Tears ached at the back of her throat, but she swallowed them down. Weeping at the beginning of her betrothal journey would scarcely be auspicious.
“Oh, Ash,” Miranna said, breathless. “Do you believe we’re finally on our way?”
Asha glanced at her cousin. Miranna swept a few windblown strands of hair off her face and craned in the saddle to better see the road ahead. At least someone was excited.
“I thought the day would never arrive!” Miranna said.
“It came more quickly than I dreamed,” Asha said. “Far too quickly,” she muttered under her breath.
Elan, riding on Asha’s other side, gave a slight shake of the head. Of the two of them, Asha was closest to Elan. Elan often seemed more like a much older sister than simply one of her ladies. Asha loved her dry wit and good sense, knew she could count on her clear vision and honesty.
“Your mother and father never knew each other before they married,” Elan said. “Yet look how happy they are.”
Asha turned. “Really? Ama never told me that.”
Elan nodded in her placid way. “The marriage was meant to seal the connection with her family for their trade ties in Abrushan.” Her brows kinked. “If all had remained as it once was, Thiel would’ve been as rich as Conn. Richer.”
As it had once been. “I remember the trade caravans, when I was little,” Asha said. “All the horses and people and wagons, the smells and the noise. And then the great hall full of lights, the long tables covered with food. I’d hide underneath and watch the traders. I remember a northerner bending down to look at me one time. I was afraid of his huge, bristly beard and big fur hat.”
Miranna listened, bemused. “I don’t remember any of that. Only the harvest time festivals.”
“You were too young,” Asha said. “The Drakhari came to the mountains when I was…oh, I don’t know. Seven or eight, I suppose.”
“No more trade caravans through the mountains after that,” Elan said.
After that, Thiel had only grown poorer and more isolated, the trade all going south to places like Hannon and Conn. A far, far longer route, but one safe from Drakhari raids.
Asha’s horse took advantage of her distraction, snatching a mouthful of grass from beside the road. Asha gave her a disapproving cluck and a nudge with her heels. The mare turned a laughing eye on her, shook her mane and stepped out again.
Miranna reached over and squeezed her hand. “You’re so lucky! What do you think it’ll be like, living in Conn?”
Asha let her cousin’s enthusiasm wash over her, tried to take it in. “Ama told me the Conns live in a great house with a fountain in the courtyard and balconies in the windows. Barges with sails of yellow and red ply the river that runs at its feet.”
“And you’ll have beautiful dresses and gold bands for your hair and jewels for your wrists.” Miranna slid her a sly look. “I saw what was in that chest the envoy brought.”
“Dresses and jewels,” Asha said without enthusiasm. “My new husband is what I’m worried about.”
Miranna made an unladylike noise. “Why on earth are you worried about that? You’ll scarcely see him after the wedding, I’ll wager. I’ve heard rich families are like that. After the heir is made, husbands go about their lives, and ladies go about theirs.”
Asha bit back a reply.
“Mira, you’re not helping,” Elan said.
“What’s wrong with that?” Miranna said. “If it was me, I’d be perfectly happy.”
“Asha’s priorities might be rather different,” Elan said.
Asha’s priorities had been, before a month ago, to find a man who loved her as much as Papi loved Ama and spend her life with him. Not to be given like a trade token to some faceless family for reasons she didn’t like to think about.