A/N: I have only changed one thing: Talia's age. In this story, Talia was born one year earlier, thus, Rolan doesn't come looking for her till she's fourteen. In addition, Talia hasn't read the story of Herald-Mage Vanyel, because her father wouldn't come into possession of the book until she was fourteen as well. She's also one year older when Vris gets married, letting her have slightly more insight into her older sister's mind.
Girls on Holdings get married at thirteen, and Rolan doesn't come till she's fourteen. This makes a difference.
Talia, a sturdy child who looked younger than her thirteen years, sat perched in a tangle of surprisingly comfortable, gnarled roots. She was an odd sight to those familiar with Holderkin, with her unruly hair, and the book propped up in her lap - both counter to Holderkin morals and norms. While she read, however, she was arrayed properly in a very Holderkin-style tunic and, and was engaged in an appropriate feminine pastime: carding undyed wool.
She paused periodically to turn a page in her book before going back to her carding, and if the wool got more energetically carded when the book grew more interesting and exciting, well, it all got mixed together eventually, and it all got carded to some extent.
the sharp cry brought the child out of her literary reverie in a split second. Her head shot up, the carding was stuffed back into her basket, and she climbed out of the jumbled roots with as much alacrity as she could summon.
"What have I done? Keldar never sounds this angry unless I've done something terrible!" she wracked her brain as she dragged her feet up the path, managing to combine sulkiness with surprising speed as she made her way to the door of the Holding, where Keldar, her father's Firstwife, stood waiting.
The woman was a model of Holderkin ideals and efficiency from her perfectly, tightly braided hair, to her clean and crisp apron. Talia, as usual, felt grubby and inadequate next to this paragon of femininity.
"Come along, child." Keldar said briskly, eyeing Talia with considerable distaste. "Cease your sulkiness. You're far too old to be dragging your feet like a little."
With that, Keldar strode inside, leaving Talia to once again bemoan her transparent emotions and Keldar's ability to predict precisely how Talia really felt about any given situation.
Without really noticing where Keldar was leading her, Talia followed the Firstwife into a room where she was immediately confronted by nine sets of blue and brown eyes ranging from Father's Mother's gentle brown gaze, to Isrel's habitually nervous glances. Talia gulped, set down her basket of wool, and clasped her hands behind her back.
"And now I find out what it is they've discovered I've done." she thought resignedly, and tried to paste a neutral expression onto her face.
Keldar took her seat with the other wives, and all ten women regarded Talia, who felt she rather knew what a chicken felt like when confronted with the axe.
"It's your thirteenth Birthing Day today, child," Keldar began, and Talia nearly burst out laughing with relief.
Her Birthing Day! Why, then the worst she had to look forward to was a lecture on responsibility and her duties! She very nearly relaxed when she suddenly remembered that her sister Vris had married when she was just thirteen, and sobered again abruptly, remembering the high-necked tunics and stiff gait her elder sister had been sporting at the last temple meeting. Vris had not come close enough to speak with Talia, but Talia had watched her as closely as she dared during the service, and was sure she'd seen dark bruises when the long sleeves of Vris's tunic shifted above her thin wrists.
Talia broke herself out of her remembrance and fear just in time to hear Isrel, who had apparently taken over the lecture - "What had it been about? Oh goddess, I hope I didn't miss anything important." Talia thought - conclude her portion of Talia's annual Birthing Day scolding with a nervous giggle and inquiry of
"So which would you rather it be?"
Talia froze, mind racing as she tried to imagine what the question had been in the first place.
"There are benefits to both..." she hedged cautiously, trying to keep her hands from wringing or her knees from trembling.
"Well, child?" Keldar asked impatiently, and with more than a touch of real anger. Talia took an inadvertent step backwards and clutched the sides of her tunic with both hands.
"I would be grateful if you would guide me in my choice." she told Keldar, feeling like she'd chosen perhaps the only safe option. Whatever these choices were, she knew that if she picked the "wrong" one, even if she had ostensibly been given free reign to make her own decision, Keldar would make her life miserable.
The Wives faces perked up, but when Father's Mother cleared her throat, all of them fell respectfully silent.
"You are a good child, Talia," she said, casting her warm gaze over the girl, "but you are prone to fits of fancy and thoughtlessness. On the other hand, you are intelligent and good with the littles as well as with coordinating large efforts, so I believe you would do equally well as either a Firstwife or Underwife."
Talia blanched deeply; she could feel herself growing slightly dizzy. Marriage! She had thought of Vris and her bruises as a worst possible option to Keldar calling her in and for once her pessimism had been utterly accurate. Talia's throat nearly closed over and she fought back the tears that threatened in her burning eyes.
Knowing she could not possibly speak, she inclined her head to Father's Mother and hoped her silence would be taken for respect.
"Perhaps being a Firstwife would force her into maturity," Keldar commented, "but her forgetfulness could cause many disasters, were she to wed a man with his own Holding."
"Being an Underwife is so much simpler, especially when one is young." Isrel chimed in, agreeing with Keldar by rote.
Talia fought to keep her feet from fleeing out the door and taking the rest of her with it, but her shuffling caught Isrel's attention.
"Talia has something to say!" Isrel said with a nervous titter.
Talia did not, in fact, have something to say, but with her mind clouded with fear, her throat with a lump, and her stomach with a dozen badgers trying to claw their way out, she could only think of one thing, and she blurted it out in a rush.
"Please, oh please, pick someone who is kind. And gentle." she pleaded, fingers twisting in her tunic involuntarily.
"I don't want to have to wear high necked tunics to hide bruises." she finished, somewhat lamely, and flushed, focusing on the floor as to avoid the Wives' glares.
To her shock, no one mocked her; not even Keldar had something cutting to say. Father's Mother lifted Talia's chin gently with one hand.
"Everyone wishes for a kind husband when they are young." she told Talia earnestly, "Most men are kind, but with some, that kindness must be searched for and nurtured before it grows evident."
Talia's lip quivered. This was not what she meant! She didn't want any husband, not even a kind one. She wanted...she wanted...she didn't know what she wanted. She wanted to read books, and not to watch all twenty of the littles at once, and to sit in her secret cave and daydream, and to do something heroic, like rescue a princess.
She kept all this inside, however, and was summarily dismissed with her carding combs and wool while the Wives, presumably, picked out her future husband.
Talia fled, once outside the Holding, feet flying and throat getting increasingly more painful and swollen as she sped towards the steep embankment where she'd found a tiny cave years before.
Once there she flung herself through the small opening onto the bits of rag and rug she'd accumulated in her hidey-hole and let herself sob as she'd been wanting to do since Father's Mother had said the word "wife."
Face-down in her musty rugs, Talia wept until she was hiccoughing and gagging from it, then she sat up, rubbed her eyes, and took deep, slow breaths until the raggedness eased from her lungs. She felt sore and tender inside with every breath as though her heart and brain had gotten battered and bruised.
Married. Another sob threatened to escape her, but she forced it down ruthlessly.
She would be married soon, and pregnant not a moment after that, and then she would likely die or be worn out with a babe a year, or every two years if she were lucky, and probably die in the birthing bed as her mother had done with Talia herself.
By this time the sun had fallen low in the sky, and Talia reluctantly crawled out of the cave with her basket and trudged back to the Holding.
She detoured by the workroom to replace her basket of carding, the book tucked into the side of it, but presented herself in the kitchen with a clean face and hands, for once right on time to help make supper.
Keldar turned in response to the large, creaky kitchen door swinging open and the look of surprise on her face was somewhat gratifying, but mostly irritated Talia.
I can be on time. she thought resentfully. I'm responsible, even if you've never wanted to see it!
But she kept her face blank and as blandly respectful as she could manage. Keldar pointed at a pile of onions with a long, wickedly sharp knife that none of the littles were allowed to touch.
"Dice those, girl." Keldar instructed, and turned back to her own work.
Talia diced dutifully, mind empty with exhaustion and fear. Formless, wordless questions swirled in her brain as she went from one task to another, to supper, to bathing the littles, to her own, cold bath, and to bed. As soon as her head hit the pillow, she fell asleep, and her dreams were filled with more of the same, formless, fearful queries.
Talia sat bolt upright, clutching at the covers, inadvertently yanking them away from Aylin, who was on the far side of the bed from her. Keldar came into view as she blinked the haziness of sleep out of her eyes.
"Keldar? I...I..." Talia couldn't remember anything she'd done which was bad enough for the Firstwife to awaken her so early. As her vision cleared further, she realized that Keldar didn't look angry, merely slightly annoyed, which was one of the most positive expressions her father's wife ever directed at her.
"Get dressed and come to the wives' workroom." Keldar said briskly - the woman was always brisk, short, commonsensical, or some variation thereof - and vanished down the stairs out of the attic.
Talia scrubbed at her eyes for a moment, then dressed as quickly as she could and ran down the stairs, still tying the waistband of her trews.
Once through the door to the workroom, she saw with a sinking heart that all the Wives and Father's Mother were once again assembled and waiting for her. Much more slowly, she sidled against the wall and folded her hands resignedly.
"The Wives rise at this hour." Asena, one of the youngest Wives spoke up unexpectedly, making Talia flinch. Asena rolled her eyes but went on placidly,
"It's a mark and a half before sunrise; this is only slightly earlier than when we habitually rise. You've never been allowed in our rooms, but we have several, which we all share. Your honored father, of course, has his own room."
The enormity of the lecture suddenly dawned on Talia. This was How To Be A Wife - a lesson she'd never wanted. Despite herself, she was intrigued. The Wives and her Honored Father's lives had always been a mystery to her.
"We sleep in our own beds every night unless your honored father indicates that we are to share his bed. One of us does so every night. When we share his bed, we do whatever he wishes. We do not protest or attempt to put him off no matter our own feelings on the matter. It is our duty to fulfill his desires."
"Unless we're having our we tell him and he leaves us alone." Isrel jumped in with her habitual nervous giggle, which was abruptly swallowed when Keldar shot her a look.
"There are only two reasons why we would not share his bed: if we have our courses, or if we are ill. " Keldar said firmly. "This does include the month-long course after having a babe." she added.
Talia swallowed hard. This was not making marriage sound any more attractive.
"We are getting slightly off track." Keldar sighed, then visibly gathered her train of thought.
"We rise a mark before dawn, and begin our morning work a half mark before." she said. "We begin with breakfast. The eldest of the littles assist us." she nodded at Talia, who was intimately familiar with the making of breakfast.
"Not all of us are needed to make porridge and put the loaves in the oven, of course." Keldar continued, "the rest of us rouse the littles, nurse the babes, and direct the oldest as they dress the youngers."
Talia sat, primly upright through the entirety of the interminable lecture. Her eyes felt like they were glazing over, but she memorized every word. Keldar's wrath over forgotten instructions was to be avoided at all costs; forgetting these words would surely be even worse!
The candle on the center of the table spat and hissed, indicating a mark before sun's rising, and the Wives rose. Talia stood as well, beckoned by Keldar's imperious finger.
"You will spend every day from now till your wedding with one of us." she told Talia, who beat back tears at the proclamation. No more stolen hours for herself?
"Today, you will work with me, and see what goes into being a Firstwife."
Talia's head was spinning by the time they put the last little to bed that night. Who knew that Keldar did so much! She planned each meal, organized all the littles' tasks, arbitrated between the underwives disagreements, alternately cared for and scolded littles, cooked, wove, spun, dyed, sewed, cleaned, and organized almost literally everything on the Hold. Talia was reluctantly in awe of the woman in a way she had never been before.
She trudged down the stairs to take her own nightly bath, making a face at the thought of the cold, dingy water which would be left to her after all the younger littles had bathed. To her surprise, the Wives and her father were all in the kitchen filling their own basins. She stopped in her shock, only to be prodded into movement when Keldar handed her a basin.
"I did say you would spend every day with us." she reminded Talia, looking faintly amused. "That includes bathing as a Wife does, and sleeping when, and how much a wife does."
Hot water! Talia nearly clapped with glee until she remembered not to drop her basin. She could count the number of times she'd gotten a truly hot bath since being a little herself on one hand! With fingers left over!
The days fairly flew past, and they were more full than any Talia had previously had. In addition to spending each day with each of the Wives, she also slept less, and had more work to do. Talia and the Wives were nearly frantic in their pace as they sewed and prepared all that was necessary for Talia to take with her when she wed. Blankets, quilts, sheets, clothing suitable for an adult female, soaps, and tiny clothing for her first babes all had to be finished. Nearly nothing had to be started from scratch - Talia realized they had been planning for her to wed at this time all along. It oughtn't to have surprised her this much, she mused to herself in one of the few moments she had to sit and think - albeit while busy with her needle - every holder girl she'd ever heard of was married at thirteen or fourteen.
Married. She bent her head over her work to let her shoulder-length hair spill over her face to hide her expression.
Oh, Goddess, she didn't want to be married! She feared and loathed the notion equally. But...what else could she do? The drudges who worked the nastiest and lowest jobs on the Hold were disgraced daughters of other Holdings who had failed too egregiously to wed, and too outrageously to be sent to the Goddess's cloister.
So; to be wed, to be a (prematurely aged, broken, and abused) drudge, or to be a cloistered, silent votary? It was no choice at all.
Talia silently wept over her sewing.
"Talia." she snapped upright in response to the sharply worded call.
"Asena?" she recognized the young Wife, only two years older than herself, who stood before Talia with her first - and so far, only - child dandled on her hip.
Asena's face softened when she saw the traces of tears on Talia's face. She sighed, and sat down next to the girl, setting the little on the floor to amuse himself with scraps of cloth.
"Keldar sent me here to give you the last talk." she explained, reaching for Talia's work and setting it aside.
"The last talk?" Talia asked, apprehension rising. Asena blinked.
"The last talk before your wedding." she clarified.
"Before my wedding?!" Talia's voice rose another octave, but just as she reached a pure panic, she was shaken, hard. Her eyes snapped back to Asena's face, who was watching her with something like sympathy.
"It's frightening, yes, but you needn't be terrified." Asena told her firmly, and leaned back against the wall. "So be silent and listen!" her words were tempered with a hint of a smile.
"Keldar and the others have already told you to be obedient in all things to your honored husband and elder sister-wives. I have seen that you are very obedient to your honored father, and only slightly less so to your elder brothers."
Asena paused, gathering her thoughts.
"I do not want to frighten you unecessarily, but you must follow that advice no matter what. It is your duty to obey your honored husband in all things. You may advise him, but you may not argue. You will not like the results if you are not obedient. Talia."
Asena looked at her very seriously, and Talia shivered a little under the weight of that gaze.
"It may not seem possible to you, but you have had remarkable freedom as a girlchild, and remarkable leeway. You read, you sit in trees, you read tales, you linger at your tasks, and you have not been treated as harshly as I was as a girlchild for my own lesser offences. Talia. As a wife, you must be perfect. Your honored husband will not forgive less.
"I have been given leave to tell you that you will be a Firstwife. There is a young man, Alessin, whose first and only wife has just died. There is one little of two summers. His wife and babe died in the birthing bed this last month. He lives in his father's Hold, only a half-day by cart from here, but I expect once he takes a few more Wives he will move to his own Hold. From all accounts he's a genial young man, only eighteen years old, but very sober."
Talia had begun to shiver compulsively. Alessin. Her husband. She had known she would be wed, and soon, but hearing the name of her future spouse made it terrifyingly present, and sudden.
"Obey my honored husband in all things." she repeated faintly. "I can obey." Asena gave a short, approving nod.
"In all things, Talia." she emphasized. "Especially in the marriage bed. You've seen the animals, and presumably you paid attention when your honored Father's Mother spoke to you of your wifely duties..."
Talia flushed and nodded.
Talia eased her shoulders down and loosened the grip her fingers had on one another.
"No!" Asena laughed. "In the marriage bed. Relax. It will hurt more if you are tense. It hurts less and less with time as your body learns what it must do, but the tenser you are, the more it will hurt. The men expect some fear and blood - "
Talia blanched. Blood?!
" - but truly, not all women bleed, and as long as you're shy, as befits a maiden, there ought not be any cries of infidelity."
Talia was baffled. She'd never been out of the Holding after dark, unless she were on sheep watch, and the only cries of infidelity she'd heard directed at a woman was on the rare occasion that some girl went soft in the head and spent the night elsewhere. She had vague recollections of anger and outrage when a marriageable girl and boy - but unwed - were found in a barn together, but she'd been in barns many times with her brothers...
She gave the conundrum up as something she would mysteriously understand after her wedding and nodded along with Asena's gentle lecture.
Be obedient, don't loiter about her work, and relax in the marriage bed. She could do that.
Despite the faint sense of determination she'd felt a few days earlier, Talia was literally shaking with fear three mornings later, as her father's wives filled the room around her with last minute instructions, advice, and adjustments to her wedding clothes. The instructions and advice were all reiterations of earlier lectures, and her wedding clothes were just as serviceable and practical as any grown woman's dayclothes, although they were the first brand new articles of clothing she'd ever owned. The only way they differed was in the color - the clothes were a dark blue, symbolic of her purity, with tan and brown embroidered prayer sigils around the hems and cuffs of her long tunic and trews.
The wives were full of excitment and faint sympathy for her pale face and trembling hands. Even Keldar had softened her habitual stern and unforgiving demeanor long enough to seize Talia's hands and hold them tight for a moment just before the wives had made to accompany Talia out the door. Talia had clung to the Firstwife, uncharacteristically fond of the woman, or perhaps the illusion that as long as Keldar was near, Talia would revert to being a child too young to wed.
Keldar, however, had used Talia's grip to pull the girl out of the bedroom the Firstwife shared with Isrel, and into the hall, where her father was waiting.
"Come along, daughter." he barely glanced at her before sighing and taking her arm from Keldar and striding off down the hall. Talia, always petrified of her honored father, his thick leather belt and strong swinging arm, trotted alongside him meekly.
The rest of the day was a blur. She faintly recalled standing in the chapel in front of the entirety of her and Alessin's families, her hand being enveloped by a large, dry one, and a glimpse of dark brown eyes and darker hair in the moment she dared glance up at his face.
The priest, or at least she assumed he was a priest, who performed the ceremony droned on and on interminably. Talia, absolutely petrified, only caught bits of his sermon here and there, and most of that dedicated to obedience to her husband and God.
And then she was swept away to the feast. She and Alessin were seated on a dais with her father, Father's Mother, and Alessin's parents, with the rest of the Wives seated around them, and the littles interspersed near their mothers at their own small tables. It was a relatively hushed affair, characteristic of the Holderkin ideals of modesty and somberness in behavior.
She didn't taste any of the food she choked down, not even the sweetcakes she normally adored, or the neppy soup, which was her favorite. She merely sat, occasionally swallowing a tasteless bite, and supressing the urge to flinch every time Alessin's hand or leg brushed hers.
Obedient. Do not loiter. Relax.
Asena's advice ran through her head like a mantra; a bargain that she must fulfill to avoid bruises and high-necked tunics like Vris's.
She allowed Alessin to take her hand and pull her to her feet.
Do not loiter.
She followed him, neither hurrying nor hanging back as he led her to the horses they would ride to his Holding.
This she found simpler than the others. Riding was second nature to her, and she relaxed into the horse's paces, even though they were moving far faster than the stolid plow horses and mules she'd ridden before.
She followed her husband to his Holding.