The Apple Tree
The gardens were in summer bloom, glowing green in the sun. Trees were heavy with fruit, and hedges nearing wild abandon. The season had proven fertile, and the gardeners couldn’t seem to keep them under control. The sun shone warmly down on Evaine, who tucked a lock of black hair behind her ear as crystalline green eyes read a Latin history on the end of the Interregnum. It had been only a month ago when she deciphered a mysterious message in an illumination, instructing her to search for St. Camber in the life of a contemporary bishop. Now she hunted for information on that priest, a man named Alister Cullen. She sighed in frustration, both at the glossing of Cullen’s deeds in this tome and at the lack of understanding why this man was so important. If the message and illumination hadn’t been attributed to a monk who supposedly knew St. Camber, she would give this up as a dead end. Camber and Cullen had seemed on friendly terms, but what more could be learned? Patience, she chided herself. Good scholarship requires better patience. Taking a deep breath, she resolved to view the elusiveness of pertinent records as a challenge rather than a setback.
It was then she noticed she was no longer alone in the gardens. A flash of bright color betrayed the presence of a small group of courtiers’ daughters. Evaine never would have heard their chatter as they entered, for alone her world was one of silence. She had been born nearly deaf and was only able to hear through others’ ears.
Close inspection proved the group to be relative newcomers, and unkind ones if her memory served. Evaine’s siblings were fiercely protective of their oldest sister, but they could not silence all the murmurings that deaf means dumb. It wasn’t meant only in the silent sense of the word, either.
These girls cast her sidelong glances, obviously talking about her. In front of her face! Did they think her that stupid? Obviously so, or they did not consider her important enough to care. Evaine pretended to keep to her history, but kept them under surveillance. One of the girls, a pretty blonde, mimicked her cruelly by playing a fool idiot who didn’t even know which end of the text was up. That was the final straw.
Schooling her face but not her anger, Evaine put her book down carefully. Papa and Mama would scold her for what she was about to do, but she had been pushed beyond all limits. It did not matter that at seventeen she was no longer a child, even adults should not have to endure this. Evaine stood, picking flowers as she made her way casually to the girls. Bush by bush, pluck another bloom, and she was nearly upon them. Now she could extend her senses to see if any were Deryni-no. Excellent.
Evaine was upon them now, and they did not rise to greet the royal princess. More insult. A small stumble, and her carefully gathered flowers scattered to the ground. Silently, she stooped to retrieve them. One brunette had the decency to pick some up that had fallen by her side. She offered them wordlessly to Evaine, apparently not expecting the princess to understand anything she might say. Evaine took the flowers back with the barest brushing of fingers.
It was enough. Evaine surged across that touch, subtly linking with the unwitting girl. Now Evaine had her ears. “You are kind,” she said. The girls’ eyes grew wide, not expecting such clear speech from the deaf princess.
“It is my pleasure,” the girl replied uncertainly.
“A pleasure no one else partook of,” Evaine pointed out with a mild smile. She let her words alone carry their bite, and underlined them with a meaningful glance at their leader.
The blonde assumed that perhaps Evaine read lips, as some deaf people learned to do, and spoke now that she had the princess’ attention. “I see you enjoy your book, my lady,” she said. Evaine merely nodded, encouraging the girl to misunderstand how much she comprehended. “Perhaps you would be interested in a riddle I have, hmmm?” The blonde raised her eyebrow until Evaine nodded assent. “Very well. Here it is: ‘I babble though I do not speak, I turn the wheel six days a week. On my own I never sour. I may be white as a flower.’” The blonde smiled, thinly masking her malicious intent.
Evaine nearly laughed. This girl was trying to prove her lack of wit, and the very first line gave the answer away! After giving a show of thought, so it couldn’t be said she had learned the answer before, Evaine replied carefully.
“’Tis water, of course. It babbles as a brook, and pure it will never spoil. As snow it turns white as a daisy or bleached baker’s flour, which leads to the second line. It turns the miller’s wheel from Monday through Saturday, but not on the Sabbath.”
It was difficult not to take perverse pleasure in the blonde’s astounded expression, and Evaine didn’t even try to resist as she dealt her own shot. “I have a riddle for you. ‘ I see the flower with my eyes, smell its fragrance with my nose, taste its fruit on my lips, feel its silky petals on my skin. I listen to the wind blow through its leaves, though not with my ears. What am I?”
The blonde froze, knowing she was now the one made a fool, and she did not like it one bit.
“You do not know?” Evaine continued. “The answer is a deaf Deryni. I speak six languages and read eight. I ask you, would you know which end was up on an ancient Mearan text?”
Having spoken her peace, Evaine did not wait to see the girl’s reaction. Breaking her contact with the brunette, she fled for the opposite end of the gardens and her apple tree. Its mature branches had been her solace ever since she was a child. Hiking up skirts under her belt, she pulled herself up to her favorite perch on a gnarled limb ten feet above the ground. From here she could survey the entire garden, yet still have the illusion of privacy with the screen of branches.
Evaine was feared for her difference, and that was what caused the cruelty. She knew it well, but it didn’t make her feel any less lonely. Other Deryni were cautiously tolerated, for it was never known when they used their abilities. She needed hers constantly to use others to hear. What else may they pick up other than audible sound? That fear set her apart. The ironic thing, she mused bitterly, was that she escaped from her loneliness by seeking solitude.
A crimson motion in the corner opposite both her and the gathering of girls caught her eye. It was her father, with her mother not far behind. Though Evaine heard nothing, Mama must have called, for Papa turned around and took her in his arms with a grin. From this distance she couldn’t see the gray starting to gain hold at his temples, or the wrinkles beginning to line their eyes. They looked as young and joyous as they must have when they married eighteen years ago. Her parents kissed, unaware they were being observed, and then Papa pulled Mama toward the door leading up to the solar and their rooms. Papa would be leaving soon for Liam’s Torenthi capital of Beldour, and he and Mama could not seem to spend enough time together. A bittersweet smile played on Evaine’s lips. It pleased her that her parents found such delight in each other after so many years. A rarity in any marriage, devotion like that was almost never seen in a royal pair.
It wasn’t fair, though. She was seventeen, nearly the same age her mother had been when she married. So far, Papa had turned down every man who had sought her hand. To do him justice, it had been the right decision every time. Wedding a human was out of the question, and the few Deryni who had wanted to ally themselves with Gwynedd’s king would not make her happy. Still, how many men were there who would be good matches, yet would not court her because they either did not want a deaf wife or were too lowborn? If no one could be found, she would be pressured to enter the religious life, vocation or no. In her case, that was no. It wasn’t fair, she repeated as she reached out to pluck an apple. It wasn’t ripe enough to eat yet, but that wasn’t what she intended. Evaine pressed her fingernails into the fruit’s skin, leaving repeating patterns of juicy half-moon cuts.
Another movement demanded her attention, this one where the group of girls still sat. It was another new arrival, sun gleaming off a close-cropped silvery-blonde head. Kelric Morgan, the Duke of Corwyn’s twenty-one year old son and heir, entered the gardens. The young girls fawned over him, and he appeared to give each a smile and gracious word. That wasn’t fair, either. All they needed to get his attention were pretty faces. It didn’t matter what material their hearts were made of.
Evaine stared at her apple artwork, having lost interest in its creation. She threw it as hard as she could, wanting to watch it arc far over the gardens, but the tree’s branches got in the way. Leaves shivered as it bounced from one limb to another on its way to the ground. Feeling sorry for herself, she leaned against the trunk and looked up at the sky.
She stayed like that for several minutes until she felt the tree jiggle. Bracing herself against its motion, she looked around for the disturbance’s source. There was no wind she could feel, so where? Ah, there, below. Kelric had lifted himself up to the first branch and was quickly ascending to her level. He invaded her privacy, and she didn’t know whether to be happy he sought her company or upset at the intrusion.
Smiling and dipping his head in greeting, Kelric settled on a branch that angled him in her direction. She nodded back, watching him warily. After propping a foot against an opposing limb, he held his hand out to her, asking permission to enter rapport and mind-speak. Evaine shook her head, not wanting him to know she had been indulging in self-pity. He gestured insistently, reaching close to her. Sighing, she grasped his hand long enough to establish contact. The garden suddenly became a very noisy place, with birds chirping, the girls’ prattle, and the sounds of the castle around her.
Good day, your Highness, he sent, ever careful and willing to treat her with the respect her station required. You look to need company.
Perhaps. She closed her eyes, resting her head on the trunk.
His sea-blue eyes frowned. My lady, what troubles you?
Evaine didn’t want to talk about it, so she avoided the question. You do not have to use titles with me. No one else bothers for the deaf princess.
That is why I do, he replied, beginning to suspect what was the matter. If you do not wish to speak of it with me, that is fine. If you do, I am willing to listen.
She opened her eyes to study him, trying to sum up his intentions. He let her examine him as thoroughly as she dared to be certain he was honest. He must be, or her brother Camber would not trust him so. Finally, she decided to confess. ’Tis petty of me. I am too old to let this irk me, she started.
Let what irk you? Kelric replied.
Them! Evaine gestured violently toward the group of gossips. They make fun of me, act like I cannot see or hear them. They treat me as a dull-witted fool.
Kelric wanted to take her hand in reassurance, but thought better of it when he remembered her station. He merely brushed her fingers instead. They are the petty ones, and they are wrong. Did they find the secret message in that Camber history? Did they determine its meaning? Who else could do that but you?
But surely someone else must be putting these ideas in my head, she responded bitterly.
We both know that is not true, he returned.
Wonderful. Now I can live my life as a scholarly nun.
Kelric leaned forward as far as he could without losing his perch. Is that what you wish?
No, she replied sadly. I have no vocation. But who would wed the deaf princess for anything but a connection to the king? And since Papa will not allow that, I have little choice.
That is ridiculous, he told her, all deference to her rank disappearing. He brushed her cheek lightly, then held it when she didn’t engage in her usual trick of shrinking away. If your mother had half your beauty at seventeen, I do not wonder that the king would have no other. Your hair shines as the midnight sky, and you have eyes that reflect the green of a summer meadow. What man would not jump at the chance to wed you?
Plenty, she returned, but her bitterness had lost conviction. Instead, her eyes held his in endearing vulnerability.
Then they do not appreciate your gifts. He faltered for a moment as he took a steadying breath. I have seen what they do to you, my lady, and I have respected you for holding yourself with dignity. Adult or child, no one should endure such impertinence. His eyes broke contact, looking down as he withdrew his hand. I cannot tell you how I admire you.
When Kelric overcame his uncertainty and looked at her, she graced him with a dazzling smile. He cursed at the fates when the moment was interrupted by a disturbance, causing him to look away. She could hear the clamor through his ears.
What is it? she asked, then noticed the girls were leaving. Does that mean ’tis time for the meal?
Aye, he replied. Of all the lousy timing-
Evaine knew she was not supposed to hear that last comment, and couldn’t help giggling. He looked chagrined.
I gave myself away, did I? he asked sheepishly.
Aye, she smiled again, then grew shy. Kelric, will you, ah, allow me to share your trencher in the hall?
He lit up at that. It would be my honor, your Highness, he grinned.
No. It would be mine. Evaine’s golden aura sparkled briefly, making her sable hair seem sun-kissed for a moment.
Kelric descended first, waiting patiently and quickly averting his eyes when Evaine’s skirt caught on a twig. Even though she didn’t need help, she let him lift her down from the lowest branch and made no comment when he failed to remove his hands from her waist.
I know what you are contemplating, she sent him.
Forgive me. I am merely an earl, and have no right to harbor such thoughts of a royal princess. He pulled away, but she caught his hand.
You are also a ducal heir with royal blood in your veins. Why convince yourself of this supposed unworthiness when I would rather you just do it?
Looking in her eyes, he found only welcome. Nervously, he pulled her behind a hedge and bent his lips to hers. All in all it was a chaste kiss, one that brought joy to both. They came away smiling at each other for several heartbeats. After a moment he offered his arm. Would my lady accompany me to the hall?
She will, Evaine replied, then her face fell. No, she cannot. I forgot my book! It must be returned to the library first. I shall meet you at the table.
And I shall eagerly await you.
She smiled at him, suddenly shy again, then picked up her discarded history and ran for the library.
Story also located at the Author's website - Brenwell Manor