The terrain worsened as the group proceeded up the mountainside toward the monastery.
“One might think these monks do not appreciate visitors,” Sotiris huffed as they continued their climb. Charis could only mentally agree, as talking was out of the question.
When the mountainside became too treacherous for hooves, they left their horses behind at a sort of lean-to turned makeshift stables. It was supplied with hay and the like, and Gregory told them he’d re-purposed it years ago. When he’d been informed of their visit, he’d resupplied everything with a few days worth of food; just enough to get to the monastery, get what they were after, and get back down to the animals.
Gregory was in the lead, followed by Charis, Sotiris, Zoe then Damien. The path was only wide enough to go single-file, and the footing was tricky at best, with small rocks waiting to slide out from beneath their feet. The thought had barely crossed Charis’ mind when she did just that, and her breath caught in a strangled gasp as her momentum carried her toward the edge of the path. Strong arms grasped her upper body just as nothing but air was beneath her feet.
Her brain scrambled from the fear, and she clutched at the arms supporting most of her weight. Her breathing was ragged and her heart pounded. She slowly turned her head and opened her eyes to see a pair of concerned, cloudy grey ones looking back.
“Are you alright?” Sotiris asked, and his voice rumbled through his chest, which she was pressed against. She shivered, though she hoped he thought it was from the fear, and not from the way his words resonated deep within her being.
“Yes, thank you,” Charis said, still a touch breathless. Though to be honest it now had less to do with her near-death, and more to do with the way his scent clouded her mind and good reason, much like the bubbly wine the Ladies drank at court.
Sotiris scooted back, as he’d dropped for better leverage when he’d grabbed for her, until his back hit the side of the mountain. He released her and stood, so that he could help her to her feet. She kept a grip on his hand, but at this point she wasn’t sure if it was because she enjoyed touching him, or because she was still unsteady.
“Lady Charis, are you hurt?!” Zoe asked, fear and worry almost overtaking her good sense as she pressed close behind Sotiris to see around him.
“I will be fine, Zoe. I just need to place my feet more carefully from now on,” Charis said to reassure her friend. Zoe took a deep breath, and realized she was in a precarious position herself and moved back again, though her eyes remained worried.
Sotiris had let go, almost reluctantly it seemed to Charis, when Zoe had asked after wellbeing. Her fingers still tingled despite both of them wearing gloves, and she had to resist the urge to clasp her hands together; an old habit from her past.
Charis took a deep breath and looked up at Sotiris. She gave a small nod of thanks, then turned and motioned for Gregory to continue. She kept her hands away from each other by clenching and unclenching her fists. They continued up the mountain, though a fine, almost imperceptible tremble still ran through her hands.
To a stranger, Charis was poised, composed, and calm–as a Lady of her rank was expected to be. They would have to look closely to see the way her hands trembled as she clasped them together; all in a failed effort to keep them from said trembling.
“Unclasp your hands, Lady Charis, or you will wring them to death,” her teacher, Moriah, chided under her breath.
“Yes, Madam Moriah,” Charis mumbled, and pulled her hands apart. Charis willed them to be still, though they hardly ever obeyed. This time it was even more difficult, as Moriah had just ‘disciplined’ her with a switch that left the back of her thighs aching and burning.
“What have I told you about mumbling, Lady Charis?” Moriah asked. Her voice held a warning of more discipline to come if Charis did not straighten out her behavior.
Charis pushed her shoulders back and lifted her chin toward what Moriah would call a regal bearing.
“A Lady does not mumble. She must enunciate, and be loud enough to be heard, but not so loud as to draw undue attention to herself, or be obnoxious,” Charis recited from memory.
Moriah’s eyes narrowed a touch, but she gave a quick nod. It took all of Charis’ control not to sob with relief.
After what her mother deemed too much time in the wild for a Lady of her standing, she had called her daughter home for proper instruction. Moriah had come highly recommended by a family whose daughter had just been chosen by the Disciples of Light, thus freeing Moriah for a new family. Her mother and father sat in on her instruction for the first few days, and though Charis’ father had protested when the switch had first come out, Charis’ mother silenced him.
“She needs discipline, not coddling and being allowed to gallivant about in the woods. We will abide by Madam Moriah’s techniques,” her mother had sternly informed her father. Charis’ father defaulted to his wife on this matter, as he did for most issues concerning the running of the household.
In an effort to apologize, in a way, her father would claim his daughter still needed to socialize with the male gender–as she would not grow up into an all female world, would she? What better way to do so than to be around her father and their guards; whom her mother considered to be the most trustworthy males in regards to her daughter’s life and virtue.
Her mother had assented, though neither Charis nor her father thought they were fooling his wife. After the outings and playing in the woods, however, Charis took careful pains to make sure there were no twigs or dirt on her person or clothing.
One more year, she reminded herself, one more year and I can go to Selection and be free of this place. Though it left a hole in her heart to think she would not see her father often, or at all, after Selection, her heart could not help but swell at the thought of leaving her home.
Freedom, the word whispered through her mind like the sighing of a cool breeze on a hot summer day; or at least what young people perceived as freedom. To be beyond the control of their parents, the ones who held the most sway over them and their lives.
The sting of the switch on her forearm brought her out of her reverie.
“We will not have any woolgathering today, young Lady. Now, recite your history lesson for the day,” Moriah commanded.
Charis did not dare touch her arm where Moriah had swatted her, and instead focused on a spot across the room, never breaking eye contact with it.
“Before Georn or the astral planes were created, there was nothing but the Dark and the Light, each commanded by its own entity…” she intoned.
One more year, the small place in the back of her mind reassured, where the last of her stubborn resolve and daydreaming tendencies were tucked away. I can do this, she said, and continued on with her lesson.