The Forests of Evenlear, Part Eight: An Invitation
The next week passed quickly. My pupils were settling into their lessons quite well, and I was beginning to feel more at ease in the role of teacher. On the last day of the school week, I received my first evaluation from the school board. I had known it was coming and its approach gave me no end of anxiety, but nonetheless I was delighted to find that the board had ranked me favorably in all areas. I promptly sent their report home in a letter to my family.
Mid-week, Aunt Monria reminded me that the first ball of the season was approaching, and had I been invited to go by anyone besides she and Uncle Oruc? Had I any notion of what I would wear? Was there anyone I wished to invite and take along as my guest?
Her last question caught my interest. “Do you mean that I can invite a friend—even though I am going as your guest?”
“Why of course, Lythia dear. These events are by invitation only, true enough, but it’s quite common practice for invitees to bring their own guests along. I know you haven’t had a great deal of time to make friends since coming to Havenwing, but is there someone you wish to invite?”
I started to speak, then bit my lip. A rather absurd idea was taking shape in my thoughts—but I didn’t want to say anything just yet. “I may,” I said, “but let me wait a bit, and I’ll see.”
The weekend came, and the weather could not have been more autumnishly perfect as I rode to my rendezvous with Mira.
The idea that had come to me earlier in the week persisted, and I had decided that I was going to do it. Yes, I would! Mira was a farm girl, not a young lady of society, but so was I. Schoolteacher of Havenwing I might be, but I was still a farm girl of Castlebrook too, and if one country girl could attend a Havenwing ball, so could another.
I was going to invite Mira to the ball.
We met mid-morning at the place where we had exchanged introductions the week before. To my surprise, she greeted me with an enthusiastic hug.
“I am so glad you came! I can hardly believe it!” she said, laughing.
“Well of course I came,” I said. “We agreed to meet here.”
Mira’s smile was so contagiously wide, I just had to smile with her. “I know, I know,” she said, taking a step back and spreading her arms at her sides, “but I just—oh, it just makes me so happy to see you again! You really are my friend!”
Mira was quite possibly the strangest girl I had ever met, but somehow I couldn’t help loving her for it. She was so wild and free and ecstatic about everything, and I felt myself waking into her enthusiasm. Why not? “Yes,” I said, “I am your friend, and you are mine. Now let’s go and have a real friends’ day of it!”
“What shall we do?”
I looked around at the rolling hills, the fenced paddocks, the farm houses here and there, and my horse. Then I turned to Mira and shrugged. “Why don’t we go for a ride? There’s no reason we have to stay in this spot.”
Her eyes widened. “You would let me ride your horse?”
Her reaction puzzled me. “Haven’t you ever ridden one?”
She shook her head. “I’ve never even touched one!”
“What?” How in all the Clearings was it possible? “Come now, Mira, surely you must have been on one sometime.”
She shook her head again. “My family has never had one. We walk where we need to go.”
It was my turn to shake my head as I reached for her wrist and pulled her towards the horse I had borrowed for the day—a sweet-tempered mare named Thistle. “Young lady, it is past high time you were on the back of a horse.”
“Alright, then,” Mira giggled as I led her around to Thistle’s left side.
“Now you must always mount from this side, because… well, just because,” I said. “Put your left foot in here…” I put my foot in the stirrup to demonstrate. “…and reach up here and grab hold, bounce a little on your right foot a little to give yourself momentum…” I bounced and swung up into the saddle. “…and pull yourself up like this. It’s simple.”
Mira looked up at me, still grinning. “I think I can do it,” she said confidently.
“Well of course you can do it,” I said, dismounting and standing beside her. I looked down. I had on a split skirt designed for riding; she had no such thing, but her skirt was full enough that I didn’t think she would have a problem. “Go ahead,” I urged her, “I’ll hold the reins for you.”
Mira took a deep breath. “Right, then.” She marched up to Thistle’s side, put her foot in the stirrup, and swung up into the saddle easily.
“Oh!” She laughed as Thistle shifted her weight.
“There you are, well done!” I said, shielding my eyes from the sun as I looked up at her.
“I feel so high up, just like—” Her smile vanished, just for a second.
“Like what?” I asked.
The smile was back. “Like I imagined it would be, only better. Now how will you get up?”
“Pull your left foot out of the stirrup and I’ll get up behind you,” I said.
She did, and I handed the reins to her and situated myself behind her.
“But now how will you direct her?” Mira laughed, holding up the reins.
“You’re going to do that,” I said.
“It’s easy. I’ll tell you how. Just gently squeeze her with your legs to get her going.”
And we were off to spend the rest of the beautiful morning riding.
By the time we stopped to have our picnic lunch, Mira was comfortable riding at a brisk trot, and doing it beautifully, too. I assured her that in no time at all she would be riding at a gallop as well as anyone, and I was already planning to ask Uncle Oruc if next weekend I could borrow two horses, one for myself and one for Mira.
We stopped on top of a round, green hill that fairly glittered in the brilliant autumn sunshine, and set about preparing our meal. Each of us had brought a lunch of our own, but by wordless agreement began spreading the fare out like a miniature feast on a large cloth napkin that Mira produced from her satchel.
Aunt Monria’s cook had sent me a few slices of a very good ham, steamed carrots (which, upon seeing their condition after a morning of riding, I decided I would advise her not to send in future), another bottle of grape juice, and two custard tarts.
While I unwrapped my waxcloth packages and arranged them, Mira was pulling from her satchel an assortment of the most curious containers I had ever seen. They were like spheres that had been slightly flattened into more of a disk shape, made of smooth, dark wood with swirling grain patterns. That was surprising enough in itself—wood was an expensive and rare commodity. Mira’s family must be better off than I had previously surmised. At Mira’s touch—I could see no lever or catch—the boxes opened on hinges like clamshells, revealing hollow interiors full of strange and wonderful-smelling foods. By comparison, my lunch looked positively pitiful!
Seeing my awestruck stare, Mira laughed a little. “Is there a ghost somewhere in there?”
I tried to collect myself. “Oh—no, no, it’s just that I’ve never seen anything quite like those bowls.”
Mira smiled and shrugged. “My father is a very good craftsman. But come on, I’m starving. Let’s not just sit staring at the serving dishes.”
We spent the next while enjoying our meal. Mira had never had a custard tart before, and promptly professed her mad and undying love for them. I, who had always found the pale, bland mushrooms put in soups and sauces rather unpleasant, found a new appreciation for the rich flavor of the dark-colored mushroom slices, cooked to crispness, that Mira had brought. Also among her offerings were a very hard, dry cheese with a strange, pungent flavor, some kind of soft, spongy bread that tasted of butter and some other flavor I could not identify, and some cold roasted meat that tasted rather like lamb, but with yet another unfamiliar seasoning. All of it was quite tasty.
“Mira,” I said when we had both finished, “I have something to ask you.”
She clasped her hands on her lap and sat forward, smiling eagerly.
“There is a ball in two weeks, in the city, and I am allowed to bring a guest if I wish,” I explained. “I would like it very much if you would come.”
Her eyes grew wide, and her expression was so surprised that it even overpowered her smile. “Lythia,” she whispered, “you want me to come to a ball... in the city?”
I couldn’t understand why she was so surprised. “Of course,” I said, trying to sound cheerful and lighthearted. “You are the best friend I have in Havenwing; why shouldn’t I want you to come?”
Mira shook her head. “But—but I couldn’t, it—it would never work! I mean—I wouldn’t belong there! No one would want me there.”
“But I don’t know any of your city dances. I would look a fool!”
“I am a terrible dancer,” I assured her, “but even so, there is no law that says you must dance. Come to the ball, and we’ll be wallflowers together.”
“But I’ve nothing suitable to wear! I’ve no idea what fine city ladies wear to fancy balls, but I’m sure none of my dresses would do.”
“Nonsense!” I insisted again. “You forget, I am just a country girl like you. You will look lovely. Please say you’ll come.”
For a moment Mira looked distraught, but then her jovial, mischievous smile returned and she looked at me with her eyes sparkling wildly. “I’ll do it!” she declared. “I will come to your ball!”
“Wonderful!” I said. “Oh, I am so glad!”
“But!” She held up one finger. “You must give me your word that you will come to the festival at my home—it is the very next week.”
“Of course I will,” I said. I loved the annual festivals that were held in Castlebrook in celebration of the harvest every year, and I would be happy to attend one in Havenwing too.
Mira paused and stared at me intently. “Really? You really give me your word that you will?”
I made an exasperated face. “Mira, when will you catch on that I really am your friend? I like you. Yes, I give you my word. I will come.”
Her smile was back in full bloom. “Good!” She reached over and gave my hand a squeeze. “Oh, Lythia, this is going to be so exciting!”
I couldn’t help laughing. Somehow, where Mira was involved, everything was always exciting.