Coming of Age

by Christine Morgan

Coming of Age
1994 Christine Morgan (
"They're here, they're here! Mother, they're here!" Vrushenka called, dashing into the sitting room. Her mother, Countess Marinka Baluryev, broke into a rare and radiant smile. "So early?" she marveled. She pushed aside a listing of the household accounts with one pale hand and carefully rose. The illness that had plagued her throughout the long, hard winter had finally released its hold, but the frail woman's strength was yet to return. Vrusheka went to the window and peered out. The snow had melted, all but a few patches in the deep shade in the courtyard's corners. The gates were swinging closed after having opened to admit the carriage and group of horses. At the top of the stairs leading to the main doors of their castle, her father stood wrapped in a bearskin cloak. "Oh, mother, let us go and meet them!" "Certainly not. You are not a child anymore to run about. You are a woman now, a Baluryev woman, and you will wait in the hall to meet our guests as is proper." "It's only Richard's family," she said, laughing. "Although Yuri is one of your father's oldest friends, although Sonja is like a sister to me, although you and Richard have been companions since infancy, we must still greet Baron Riktov and his family with proper formality." Her body may have been weak, but Marinka's voice was firm. "Now hurry, and don your best gown." "A gown?" Vrushenka stared at her mother. "I can't swordfight in a gown." It was Marinka's turn to stare. "Swordfight? Really, Vrushenka. You must start behaving like a lady. Your father has indulged you far too long. You are not a boy, and no matter of wishing on your father's part will turn you into one. You and Richard are far too old to chase each other around the castle playing at war. He is a squire now." "So am I, in all but name," Vrushenka protested. "I've been practicing all winter. Richard writes that he has been too, so we must see which of us is better. I've not seen him in almost two years, and he bested me last time." "Yes, I remember," Marinka said sternly. "He nearly broke your arm. I will not see that happen again." "True, because I'm going to win." "That is not what I meant. Be quick, now, and get dressed. I'll have no more backtalk from you." "But --" Marinka's hand snapped out, cat-quick, and smartly slapped her daughter. "Go." "Yes, Mother." Vrushenka obediently left the room, her cheek stinging but voicing no complaint, shedding no tears. Her mother hadn't struck her since she was nine years old. In five years, Vrushenka hadn't made it necessary. Her room showed the turmoil of her difficult age. The corner that had once contained her nanny's bed was now empty. Her toys, mostly hoop-and-stick sets, balls, play swords, and toy soldiers, had been confined to another corner, and would soon be moved completely out. They were being slowly replaced by musical instruments, tools for art and embroidery, and other womanly pursuits, all signs of her mother's wishes. Her trousers and boots were making way for skirts. She changed clothes, feeling silly. Richard would be expecting to run, to ride, to test their rivalry in various contests of skill. How could she do any of that if she had to act a lady? The long dress was too heavy, too cumbersome. She struggled with the laces until one of her mother's maids came in to help, pulling them so tight that Vrushenka could barely breathe. The snug bodice pushed her newly-blossomed breasts up so that they nearly spilled out the top. She had to be careful when she moved, else they might spring free. Ilyana, the maid, had been with the family since before Vrushenka was born. She took one look at her hair and made a clucking sound. It was haphazardly parted, and the strands that escaped the horsetail were tucked behind her ears. Before Vrushenka could protest, Ilyana unbound it and began pulling a brush through it. "Ow! Ilyana, there is no time!" "There is," she replied calmly. "The baron's party are refreshing themselves after their long ride, and your mother insisted." "Did you see them?" "No. Sweet Dorian, do you never comb this?" She tugged at the brush and Vrushenka winced. "What difference does my hair make?" The older woman chuckled. "Most girls your age would never say something like that. Your poor mother is near to pulling out her own hair in despair that you'll never become a lady." "I don't want to be a lady. I want to be a warrior like my father." "War is not a woman's place. You will stay home while your husband goes to battle." "Husband?!?" She laughed again. "A woman needs a husband. Your mother and Baroness Riktov think that you and Richard --" "What!?! Marry Richard? Me?" She whirled on her stool to face Ilyana, her hair half-combed and hanging in her eyes. "Your fathers think so too. They'd all but planned the wedding by the time you were two years old. No wonder your mother is in such distress, thinking you'll never give up your boyish ways. You're a pretty girl, Vrushenka. It's high time you started acting it." "Pretty?" she said, tasting the word. She had always considered herself fast, strong, clever, but had never given much thought to being pretty. Ilyana turned her around to face the polished steel mirror. "Pretty," she repeated, beginning to comb again. "You're your mother's image, before the sickness beseiged her." As she endured the grooming, Vrushenka studied herself and realized that Ilyana was right. Her features were eerily like those of her mother's in the portrait that hung in her father's study. Her eyes were the same shade of blue. Her hair was the same color, as white- gold as the light of the rising sun gleaming on snow-capped mountains. She was a bit startled to see how the low, square neckline flattered her appearance, especially when Ilyana had coaxed her wild hair into a neat style of coiled braids. "There. Pretty as a flower," Ilyana said. "Thank you," Vrushenka said, meaning it. She got up, smoothed her skirt, and hurried out of her room. As she descended to the grand hall, she could hear voices, her father's deep laugh, the even deeper tones of Baron Riktov, and the excited chatter of her mother and Lady Sonja. She hastened her steps as much as her garb would allow, trying not to trip over her hem. Richard was facing away from her as she entered, but she knew him at once although he was nearly half a foot taller than she remembered. His shoulders, always broad, were now even wider. She frowned fleetingly as she saw the swordbelt at his waist, feeling awkward because she was unarmed. The baron and his wife saw her, and both smiled warmly. Seeing their expressions, Richard turned. His eyes widened and he took a half-step forward. "Vrushenka?" "Richard!" She burst out laughing. "You've got a beard!" "You've got --" he began, gazing at her bust, then broke off and flushed dark red. Count Baluryev and Baron Riktov chuckled. Their wives looked scandalized but slyly pleased. It had only been two years since they'd seen each other. Vrushenka could not believe what a difference those years had made. She remembered Richard as a youth of twelve, with just a shadow of fuzz on his chin, and now he sported a short dark brown beard. A small unfamiliar scar on his cheek gave maturity to his handsome features. His eyes were the same, dark and merry, though they jumped from her hips to her bosom to her face, awkwardly, until he finally wound up staring at his own fur-trimmed boots. "Come on!" She seized his hand. "Come to the stable. I want to show you my new horse. His name is Sezar, by Hovek's Pride out of Snowmane." "Go on, run along," the baron said. "You two must have much to catch up on." Their mothers exchanged conspiritorial glances. Vrushenka, remembering what Ilyana had said, chose to ignore them and tugged Richard along. "You look so different," he said as they passed the kitchens, where the sounds of bustling activity mingled with the scents of food in preparation for the evening's feast. "So do you." She peered up at him. "Are you going to get much taller?" "I'm almost the height of my father already," he said proudly. "He says he expects me to pass him by Yuletide, but I think he speaks in jest. Next Yuletide, mayhap. You, though! I can scarce believe it!" "Ilyana says I look like my mother when she was a girl." She scowled. "Ever since last summer, Mother's been trying to make me act the lady. Look at this gown. I cannot run in it, or ride excepting sidesaddle, and you have no idea how uncomfortable it is to perch in that manner." "You mean you've turned frilly on me?" He grinned. "This horse of yours must be a placid prancing high-stepper. After, do you mean to show me your needlework?" "Is it needlework you want? You'll need a team of seamstresses to stitch you back up after I show you my craft," she teased. "So you say, but I see no sword, unless you have it beneath that skirt. By the look of it, you could hide a coach and four under there." "You'll eat those words, Richard Yurivich Riktov." "That is bound to be easier than eating the teacakes you've doubtless learned to bake." "Oh!" she squealed in outrage, swatting him. "My teacakes are cloud-light and sweet as springtime! Not that you'll ever taste them now! When I've done with you, you'll be eating naught but soup and thin porridge for you'll have no teeth!" "You speak boldly. Have you actions to back your deeds?" He set his hand on the hilt of his sword. "I would normally not raise arms against a lady, but you seem to claim not to be one." "Well, we cannot settle it now. I am unarmed." "Tsk. Unwise." "So you tell me, as if I did not already know. Mother doesn't think it's a woman's place to carry a sword. By the gods, Richard, if Father hadn't taken me under his wing, I would have had no training at all over the past year!" She shoved open the heavy door and they went forth into the afternoon light. Summer's hold on Tarlak was never strong. The cold in the air grew apace with the shadows of the walls, and patches of ice lingered in some of the corners where sunlight never touched. The chill meant little to either of them, accustomed as they were to the long winters. Vrushenka had heard that summers in the neighboring land of Orain often got hot enough to melt butter left in the sun, hot as the hearth before a blazing fire. That, she believed, was as untrue as many of the wild tales from the south. "My father thinks I might be knighted this fall," Richard said. "I'm adept enough with lance and sword to compete in the tournament at the royal castle." "He's taking you to High Valley?" She could not hide the envy in her voice. "To meet the king?" "Yes, if the king is sane enough to attend. They say his madness has gotten worse every year, ever since the queen died." "My mother says he'll probably never marry again," Vrushenka said. "That means Alexandra will be queen after his death. Mother seems to think that bodes ill for Tarlak. Why is it that a daughter cannot be as good an heir as a son? It is unfair." "It is tradition." "Tradition. I am weary of tradition. I have battled it all of my life. Would that I could slay that particular beast! Would that I, too, could go to High Valley and win right to arms in a tournament! But if I were to breathe so much as a word of it, Mother would crush the notion like a flower beneath a wagon's wheel." "You could go anyway," he suggested, a sly glint in his eye. "Go, and not tell her until after you've been knighted." "And what am I supposed to do, disguise myself as a boy?" "Two years ago, I would have thought it possible," he said, looking her over more freely now that their parents weren't watching. "Now, though, I doubt you could." She felt a brief and strange urge to cross her arms over her chest. She had never been so awkward around Richard, never! They had been born only scant weeks apart, and with their fathers off at war for most of those first years of life, their mothers had stayed together and raised them both. Even after the war, Vrushenka could hardly think of a holiday that the two families had not combined, until Richard's uncle had died and left Barony of Tskotania to his brother, Richard's father. Richard was the closest she'd ever known to a brother, a best friend, a companion. It had never mattered that she was a girl and he a boy. It had never made the slightest difference. Until now. The ease and comfort of their friendship had been stolen by time, and neither of them dared mention the reasons. She was not going to let it happen! She had no sisters, no cousins, no other friends her own age. She was not going to lose Richard! So she did not cross her arms but instead looked down at herself. "I suppose I couldn't dress as a boy," she said. "Not with these." He blinked, then grinned again. "Do they get in the way when you practice swordplay?" "Yes, and they bounce all over when I ride, too." They laughed together, and Vrushenka inwardly sighed with relief as the tension eased. She led him into the stable, the one place in the castle that was always warm. It was also fragrant with the smells of manure, hay, leather, and horses. "Here he is," Vrushenka said. Sezar poked his head over the door of the stall and nickered. He was a yearling, with the smooth strong lines of a warhorse and the promise of speed evident in his sleek muscles. His thick coat was the glossy brown of well-polished ironwood. His mane and tail and the shaggy tufts on his lower legs were ink-black. A single white star blazed on his face, above and between deep brown eyes. "He's magnificent," Richard said, admiring the horse. "I've no doubt he could drive a lance through a breastplate with ease." "Well, I'm certain never to find out." Vrushenka kicked at a clump of hay. "Mother doesn't like him. She thinks I'll get hurt." "You? I remember the time I dared you to ride Axehoof, and you did. If that Great Beast in horse's form didn't hurt you, how could Sezar? You've a way with animals." "Horses, at least. And dogs. Which Mother says are men's animals. Women, she says, should prefer cats and birds. When she found out about Axehoof ... gods save me! My bottom ached more from her hairbrush than from the ride! I think I still have the welts." "Really?" He examined her backside. "I can't tell, with this skirt." He made a playful grab at the hem and she jumped away. As he came after her, she suddenly changed direction and tripped him. He fell, but caught her foot and pulled her down. Hay and dust puffed up around them. "You're getting my gown dirty!" she cried. "Mother will kill me!" "I'll muss your hair, too," he threatened. She flung hay at him and scrambled away. He sprang at her, knocking her flat, and sat on her while undoing Ilyana's hard work in a matter of moments. She jabbed her fingers at his sides, where he'd always been extemely ticklish. That much, at least, hadn't changed, and his howl was gratifying. He leapt off her so fast he might have been on fire. It was her turn to spring, showing no mercy, both of them gasping and laughing as he struggled to keep her hands at bay while at the same time seeking her own ticklish spots on the backs of her knees. Her skirt was finally her ally, hampering him instead of her, until he thrust his hands under it. She kicked and twisted to no avail, and when he attacked her knees, she shrieked. "Cry mercy!" he yelled. "Cry mercy, or I'll not stop!" "Never!" she panted. He renewed his attack and she heaved her entire body, trying to throw him off. He lost his grip, but his hands slid upward to her thighs. The touch shocked them both and they froze. Richard was staring down at her. She realized that her skirt was rucked all the way to her hips, and her breasts had come free of her bodice in their wrestling. She was bare above and below. His sword-roughened hands moved against her soft skin, pushing her skirt higher. "Vrushenka," he said in a low voice. Her face tingled as a blush darkened her cheeks. Her breath and heartbeat quickened, no longer from exertion but from a strange rush of feeling, akin to hunger but not hunger, a mingling of fear and excitement. She looked up at Richard, unable to speak. Slowly, as if in a dream, he lifted one hand from her leg and reached for her exposed breasts. She wanted to push him away, wanted to pull him close, wanted a hundred different things at once. She was exquisitely aware of the hay prickling her bottom and the backs of her thighs, the coarseness of his woolen hose against her legs, dozens of other sensations, yet at the same time she was unaware of them all, focusing only on his approaching hand. Her body moved of its own volition, arching her back to meet his touch. Just as his fingers brushed the sideswell of her breast, the slamming of the stable door startled them out of their daze. Again they froze, the sudden dread of discovery dousing them like the iciest water. Voices and footsteps drew near to the corner of the L-shaped building. Richard moved fast, leaping to his feet, his expression the same as it had been in their younger days when they had been caught in some disobedience. He pulled her up and she tugged at her bodice, trying to force her bosom back into it. Richard stooped to beat hay from her skirt. Her bodice finally properly adjusted, she stepped closer to Sezar's stall just as two grooms came around the bend. They were looking at her oddly. She was horribly certain that they had seen despite her and Richard's swift actions. Her face flamed anew. She resisted the urge to glance at herself, afraid that perhaps her skirt was caught up in back, or that her laces were not properly done after all. "Lady Vrushenka," the older of them finally said. "Will you be wanting us to saddle your mount?" "No," she managed to say. As she shook her head to emphasize, she glimpsed a lock of her hair, tangled, with a long piece of hay dangling from it. Dismayed, she realized that her hair was hanging around her shoulders in complete disarray. Richard, next to her, kept his eyes on the floor. He seemed even more flustered and shaken than she felt, as if he dared not so much as look at the men for fear of betraying himself. "No," she repeated. "I'm not dressed for riding. I was just showing Sezar to Richard. We'll go riding tomorrow, probably." She was speaking too fast, nearly babbling. The grooms exchanged glances. She smiled at them, as if she was the same Vrushenka they had always known, the boyish and athletic girl who preferred riding and jumping from the loft into the haystacks to dances and needlepoint. They returned her smile, but hesitatingly. "As you wish, Lady Vrushenka," the elder one said. "Mikhail, why do you call me that?" she asked. "You've never addressed me by that title before. It is as if I've never dirtied my hands alongside you, tending the horses and cleaning the stalls." "Your ladymother the countess requested it," he said. "Further, you are not to assist us in our duties henceforth." "What?" she wailed. "Why not?" "The countess suggested that you would be pursuing more ladylike activities," Mikhail said uncomfortably. The younger groom snickered and swept his eyes over her knowingly. Her blush deepened. Richard, who had been attempting to make himself invisible like the wizards in the legends, suddenly raised his head and gave the man a smoking glare that made him step back a pace, though he was three years older and a stone heavier. Apparently not noticing, Mikhail spread his hands helplessly. "Do not think that you have ever been unwelcome here, lady. It is only by your mother's request that I must forbid you those tasks." "I see," she said glumly. "Thank you for telling me. I'll speak to her, although I doubt it would do much good." The other groom was not looking at her now, studiously avoiding her and seemingly fascinated by some intricate detail in the woodgrain of a nearby post. Vrushenka patted at her hair, but setting it right was a deed beyond her, akin to emptying the sea with a silver spoon. She beckoned to Richard and hastened toward the door. Just around the corner, she paused to try once more and restore order to her hair. Richard stopped beside her. "Vrushenka, I ..." he began in a whisper, but trailed off uncertainly. He made as if to touch her shoulder but faltered, his hand hovering in midair for a moment before dropping to his side. She did not know what to say either, but before she could even make the attempt, she heard a burst of laughter. "Ladylike activities! Gods help me, Mikhail, when you said that, I'd near to choked! Aye, she's gone and grown up, a little girl no more, but no lady I've ever known has gone a-frolicking in the stables like a common wench!" Anger flooded Richard's features. "That bastard!" he hissed. "I'll give him a thrashing such that his own mother wouldn't know him!" "Richard, no!" She clutched his arm. "Lady Vrushenka is no wench," Mikhail said sternly. "She and young Richard have ever been the best of friends." "Aye, good friends indeed! Would that I'd a friend so good! My furs would ne'er be empty again!" "They were doubtless only playing at some game, as they often did as children." "Game?" He roared ribald laughter again. "What do you suppose they were playing? Cup-and-ball? Hide the turnip?" "Enough from you, Anton! You'll say nothing of this, or I'll see you leave the count's service." Richard's fists were clenched. She was still holding his arm, and could feel the strength in his tense muscles. "I'll see him leave this world!" he snarled. "Shh!" She pulled him toward the door. "Let us just go." He followed, muttering such black oaths under his breath that Vrushenka could hardly believe her ears. "My father says that a knight must always control his temper," she said lightly. "It is unseemly for a man to show his anger." "It is unseemly for a man to show any feeling, be it anger or grief," he said. "But it is also unseemly for a man to let an insult go unanswered. That dung-smelling lout insulted you." "If he did, then answering it should be my responsibility." "You cannot, though. You have to act the lady now." "That smells worse than a thousand stablehands! I'll not sit idly by and let others fight my battles!" As she heard her own voice rise, she realized that neither of them were truly angry with the groom. They were using their anger to mask their confusion, their embarrassment, over what had happened in the stable. She wasn't entirely sure what had happened. After all, it wasn't as if Richard had never seen her unclad before. They had been bathed together as children, and had often gone swimming together in their later years. The differences between them had seemed so minor, only a matter of something he had that she didn't, and the fact that her hair was longer than his. Now, for some reason, the thought of what he had that she didn't made her burn once more with that strange mix of emotions. And now she had something that he didn't, two somethings that he stole sideways glances at as they crossed the courtyard again. The moment they entered the castle, they were swept apart in the hurried preparations for the evening's feast. Richard was called away to meet several of her father's knights, many of whom would be attending the tournament at which Richard would be permitted to try and prove himself. Ilyana descended on Vrushekna, exclaiming in horror over the state of her hair and gown and hastening her to her room before the countess caught sight of her. Vrushenka suffered the combing with no protest, though the tangles were far worse this time thanks to Richard's mischief. She let Ilyana's chatter wash over her, nodding when it seemed called for, and otherwise just watched her reflection, wondering what had happened to her and what this would all mean. She did not want to lose Richard, her best friend. Now, though, she wondered if there might be something even better than friendship. The rush of sensation and odd hunger when he'd touched her had frightened her, but only because it was unexpected, strong, unknown. Nothing about it had been painful or bad. She wondered if it had anything to do with First Rites. When she turned fifteen, as was custom, the Dorus would explain to her the full meaning of Dorian's Gifts. She already knew of the first, the Gift of Life, which all living things possessed. The other two were somehow linked. Those who most honored Dorian by enjoying Her Gift of Pleasure were the ones most often blessed by Her Gift of Childbirth. She remembered hearing that in Orain and Orelar, the Doruses did more than explain the Gifts. They actually taught young women about them, so that the women could in turn instruct their husbands. Had what passed between her and Richard had something to do with Dorian's Gifts? They were meant to be shared between men and women, most especially between a man and his wife. She wished she could ask about it, but her First Rites would not take place for nearly a year and her mother had never spoken of such matters to her. Ilyana finished with her hair and sent her down to the hall. All was in readiness for the feast. The army of servants had swept every bit of old straw from the floor before laying down new, mixed with stalks of sweet vetch to freshen the air. The long trestle tables had been draped with crisp linen, sewn all about the hems with silver, black, and blue, her father's colors. The central firepit was filled with a stack of wood as big as a Nordseen funeral pyre, and the head steward was even now coaxing it into flame. Knights and their ladies strolled among the tables, a parade of bright armor and fine clothes. Children sported on the floor with the wolfhounds. Servants hurried back and forth from the kitchen, bearing platters heaped with loaves of bread and bowls brimming with fresh fruit. In welcoming his old friend, Count Baluryev had spared no expense. There were lemons and olives from far-off Rakvi, a land so distant it might as well have been imaginary. There were soft white wheels of Waliran cheese, rock-lobster stew, sugared almonds from Orelar, swans roasted and sewn back into their feathers, Orainian smoked venison, and even baked sweet onions from Talmar. Ale was plentiful, both strong dark homebrew and King's Finest from Orelar. For those who sought something besides ale, the clear and potent eaglesbreath or a variety of fruit cordials and brandies were available. Vrushenka took her place at the highest table, sitting between one of her father's generals and Richard. He greeted her politely, but seemed still to be reluctant to meet her eyes. The feast was the longest Vrushenka had ever endured, though it took no more time than any other. It was the uncomfortable silence between herself and Richard that stretched the time into an eternity. The food, splendid though it undoubtedly was, had all the taste and texture of boiled wood. She choked it down nonetheless, afraid her mother might notice if she failed to eat. The minstrels and jugglers that came between the tables to entertain did nothing to lighten her spirits. Instead, their merriment weighed upon her, sinking her further into confusion and despair. Richard was eating well, but she noticed that his heartiness seemed forced, as if he, too, was burdened by troublesome thoughts. When at last the meal was done and the time had come for dancing and revelry, Vrushenka sought out her mother. Pleading a headache, though in truth it was her heart that ached, she begged to be excused. "You have a duty to your guests," Marinka said, frowning. "Does a soldier forsake his regiment because of a headache? Does a knight desert his lord to go and rest in his room?" "I am not a soldier, Mother, nor a knight!" she snapped. "And never will be, if you have your way!" Before Marinka could reply, even before the shocked look had left her face, Vrushenka spun and left. She did not flee, but made her way through the crowd nodding and exchanging pleasantries with those she passed until she could reach the door. With the feast and all the guests behind her, she gathered up her skirt and ran up to her bedchamber. She shut the door, lowered the bar for the first time in her life, and, also for the first time in her life, threw herself across the bed and cried into her pillow. The outburst surprised her. She did not even know why she wept, perhaps grieving for her childhood, perhaps upset by her mother's iron control over her life, perhaps most of all for the loss of her best friend. Whatever the reasons, she wept. It did not last long, but it wearied her and she fell asleep with tears drying on her face. She awoke feeling refreshed, as if she'd slept the whole night through, but there was no sunlight at her window and she could still hear the sounds of music from below. It was not yet midnight. Though her mother and some of the guests would have retired already, others would continue dancing until nearly dawn. She rose from her bed, splashed her face at the basin, straightened her gown, and went out into the corridor. A line of lamplight glowed faintly under Richard's door. She paused for a moment and took a deep breath, then marched toward his room, intending to make him talk to her. They could forget what had happened in the stable. They could pretend it had never been, and go on with their lives as friends once more. As a child, they had dashed back and forth between each other's rooms countless times, never bothering to knock. It was in that habit that she did not even think about her actions as she opened the door. She jerked to a halt, her mouth falling open. "Milady!" Anja gasped, clutching the blankets to her chest. Richard whirled to face her. "Vrushenka!" Anja was sixteen, the daughter of one of the count's guards. She was sitting on the edge of Richard's bed, her dress on the floor. Richard had been standing in front of her, clad only in his hose, holding his tunic in one hand. Vrushenka could not breathe. She could not move. Her eyes felt as if they'd never blink again. Anja scrambled out of bed, sobbing, trying to wrap herself in the blanket and put on her discarded dress at the same time. "Milady, please do not be cross! Please do not tell my father!" Richard looked as if he wished the floor would open and swallow him. He ignored Anja, his gaze fixed on Vrushenka. It was as if she saw him now for the first time ever. The changes she'd noticed before, his height and the short beard, were not the only ones. Hair had grown on his chest as well as his chin, and the muscles beneath it were well-defined. His legs, in the tight hose, were sculplted and strong. And where his legs joined ... Anja had gotten her arms into the sleeves but the dress was backwards and unfastened. She was still sobbing incoherently. Neither of them acknowledged her presence as she edged past Vrushenka and fled, slamming the door after herself as if she feared pursuit. "Richard, what ...?" Vrushenka finally managed to say. "What was she doing here?" He cleared his throat, wringing his tunic in his hands. "We were dancing after the feast. She began asking me questions. Had I ever kissed a girl, had I ever been touched by one, questions of that nature. She offered to ... well, to show me what it was like. We came up here, and before I knew what was happening, she had shed her dress and wanted me to take off my clothes." "So you did. But why?" "I wanted to know. Especially after today. Vrushenka! I never knew you would be so beautiful! The way you made me feel ... the way I touched you ... I wanted to touch you even more! I would have if those men hadn't come in." "You find me beautiful?"she asked, feeling suddenly shy. He nodded. "When I first saw you, it took my breath away. I'd seen pretty girls before, but you were different. You were yourself, my friend, a joy to be with, and you'd become beautiful too. Then, in the stable, it was as if I couldn't stop myself. I've not been able to stop thinking of it all evening. When Anja wanted to kiss me, I was wishing it was you." "I liked it when you touched me," she said. "It frightened me, yet at the same time I did not want it to end. I'd never felt that way before." "Would you let me kiss you?" he asked. "I've never kissed anyone, but I've seen it done. It seems not too difficult." She stepped uncertainly toward him and lifted her face to his. He kissed her. His beard tickled, but his lips were warm and pleasant. They moved apart and looked at each other. "That was nice," she said. "Again?" He framed her face with his hands and kissed her again, more firmly this time. She brought her own hands up, touching his arms, his shoulders. Richard groaned deep in his throat. He dropped one arm, wrapping it around her waist, and crushed her against him. Her bosom bulged over the top of her bodice, brushing against his chest. His other hand slid down the line of her jaw, over her neck, and down. Sparks like St. Elmo's fire shot through Vrushenka as he cupped one breast, teasing it out of the bodice, his kiss now harder and demanding. She clutched his shoulders, alarmed by his intensity and by her own racing pulse. She pulled her head away, gasping for breath. "Richard, wait!" He let his lips follow the path his hand had taken, kissing her jaw, her neck, the upper swells of her bosom. He was gripping her bottom now, pulling her hips tight against his. The sparks shooting through her had grown to a blaze. She stroked his hair, his back. He licked her nipple, which had grown stiff with excitement, and her fires leaped high. "Oh!" she heard herself say. "Oh, Richard, yes!" He responded by sucking on her breast, gathering her skirt off the floor. The cool draft up the backs of her bare legs made the heat she was feeling inside seem even hotter. Daring, she let her own hand roam down his back to his waist, and lower. She squeezed his bottom as he had done to hers. His moan was muffled by her flesh, and his sucked even more urgently, flicking his tongue across her nipple again and sending it into the valley between her breasts. He let go of her. It was done with such abruptness that she nearly fell. As she recovered her balance, he spun away from her and covered his face. "Vrushenka, you must go," he said. His voice was thick and low, as if he had difficulty speaking. She saw that he was shaking. "Richard, what's the matter? Did I do something wrong?" "No. You're doing everything right. Too right. That's why you must leave." "I don't understand." She touched him and he twitched away as if stung. She seized his shoulder and made him turn to look at her. "Please, Richard. Tell me what is the matter." He looked down at himself and she followed his gaze. As she'd seen before, when she'd first come into the room, there was a bulge in his hose where his legs joined. Now, closer to him, she could see that it was the outline of his manhood, much larger than the pale thing she'd seen when he was a boy. It seemed swollen, straining against the wool. "When a man is ... impassioned," he explained awkwardly, "he becomes affected in this manner. It happens other times as well, sometimes with no reason." "Does it hurt?" "Not exactly, no. Sometimes it will ease of its own accord, but other times a man can ... seek release by rubbing it." "What happens then?" she asked. "It ... feels very good," he stammered. "It feels good when you touch it?" He nodded. "What if I were to touch it?" Richard closed his eyes and bit his lip. A shudder went through him, but she did not believe it to be one of fear. Before he could speak again, she stepped close to him and rubbed her hand over the bulge. Whatever he had been about to say was lost on a shaky exhale of breath. He clung to the bedpost to avoid falling. She kissed him, still rubbing. "Does it feel good?" she murmured against his mouth. He mumbled assent. "I want to see it." He pulled away. "No, we ... you shouldn't ..." "You've seen me," she said. "Why, we're both practically bare now." She smiled impishly. "I know! I'll remove my gown, and then you'll have to undress as well. Otherwise, it would be unfair." "Vrushenka --" She unfastened her bodice, which had already come most of the way off, kicked off her shoes, and began unhooking her skirt. "You don't understand," he said desperately. "Do you not know what might happen if we the both of us are unclad together, kissing and touching as we have been?" She let her skirt fall around her feet and stood before him. "Richard, this is meant to be. We've always been friends, but these changes in us nearly tore us apart because we didn't know what to say, where to look, what to think, what to do. So we'll look and do whatever we want, satisfy all our curiosities, and save our friendship." She held out her arms. He backed away from her. "There is more to it than kissing and touching. You ask me to satisfy my curiosity, yet you don't know what that might mean! You've not heard the tales that I have." She sat on the edge of the bed. "Now, here I am as Anja was when I came in. You were willing to be like this with her. Why not with me? Is Anja so much prettier?" "No! She is to you as a housecat is to a v'leer, the one pretty and soft and able to be petted by anyone, the other sleek and wild and dangerous." "And like a v'leer, do I frighten you?" She drew back her shoulders and took a deep breath, putting her breasts forth proudly. "It is unseemly for a man to show fear." "Vrushenka, stop! You are the one who ought be afraid. You know not what you tempt me into doing!" "Then show me, Richard!" She extended a hand to him. "I am not frightened." He approached, his expression still showing his struggle between yearning and reluctance, but at last yearning won out. She watched avidly as he removed his hose, and she gasped when he was fully revealed. The mat of hair on his chest narrowed into a thin line down his flat stomach, then widened again into a thatch of dark curls around the base of his manhood, which jutted straight out like a lance. The tip of it was encased in a fold of loose skin. She touched it, finding that her hand curled nicely around its thickness. Richard moaned and tipped his head back. "Your skin here is so smooth," she said, moving her hand up and down. A large vein ran along trhe underside of the shaft and she rubbed her thumb over it. "Do you like that?" "Yes, gods, yes! Vrushenka, let me sit before my legs lose all strength!" "A moment." She leaned forward, curiously examining him. The fold of skin could be pulled back, she discovered, exposing a reddish bulb shaped like a helmet. "Oh, see!" she said, delighted. "How like a little warrior he is, armed for battle!" Richard uttered a low cry and clung to the bedpost again. A droplet of pale fluid seeped from a hole in the bulb. She touched it and brought her fingers to her nose. "It smells of the sea," she said. She tasted it and found it faintly salty, like tears. Another droplet oozed forth and this time she bent her head to lick it directly from the source. Remembering how he had kissed her breast, she flicked her tongue back and forth across the tip, then took the end into her mouth and sucked it as if it were candy. His cry this time was louder, his knees nearly buckling. "Oh! Vrushenka!" She released him and looked up. "Was that all right?" He fell onto the bed beside her. "Never had I thought it would feel so good!" "Shall I do it more?" She reached down, but he caught her wrist. "Not yet. The turn is mine to touch you." "Oh." She smiled shyly. "Very well." "Lie back," he instructed. She did so, and he stretched out beside her, propped up on one elbow. He bent first to kiss her again, touching her breasts as he did so, kneading the soft flesh gently. She arched her back, responding eagerly to his kisses. Once more she felt as if she were on fire. His hand crept down, over her belly, to the mound between her legs. Like him, she had grown hair in that place, hair of a darker shade of gold than that on her head. "When I was little," Richard whispered into her ear, "I looked at you and thought that you had once been made like me, but that you had somehow lost or broken yours." She instinctively parted her legs. His fingers moved between them, sending delicious shivers through her. "Oooh," she breathed. "Now I know better," he said. "We were made to be different, a sword and a sheath, a key and a lock." He probed gently, then slid a finger inside of her. He suddenly kissed her, fierce and passionate. Her fire had become liquid as well as flame, molten gold running through her veins. Her body was moving of its own accord, rising and falling tidally beneath his hand. She worked her own hand between their tightly-pressed bodies and gripped his manhood firmly. "If this was made to fit within me, then put it there!" she said. He kissed her again. "Truly?" "Yes!" She nearly sobbed the word. "Oh, Vrushenka, I love you," he said, raining kisses over her face and breasts as he moved to kneel between her legs. She could barely breathe, both from her body's thunderous sensations and the rippling shock of his words, words that were scarce heard even among married folk because such things were not spoken of. "I love you, Richard" she replied, spreading her thighs to him. He nudged the tip of his lance against her and began to push smoothly inside. He felt so large, stretching her. She softly cried out, and he stopped at once. "Are you all right? Does it hurt?" Concern overshadowed his passion. "I am well," she said. She clutched his shoulders. "Do not stop." He nodded, biting his lip between his teeth. "I'll not, though I do not know how long I can last!" He pushed forward again, but could then go no further, as if he had encountered a blockage within her. Though she had never been told, the knowledge was suddenly there as if it had always been there, and she knew there would be some pain. She raised her legs, strong legs from years of riding and swordfighting, and twined them around his hips. "Now, Richard!" she said urgently, tightening her legs and pulling him down. He thrust hard, a battering ram breaching the final defense. Pain as sharp and bright as lightning flashed through her, thankfully also as brief, and they were locked together, sealed, his entire length buried in her. "Oh, blessed Dorian!" he gasped. A dull ache was all that remained of her pain, and even that quickly vanished. She soon heard herself moaning in pleasure with each of his thrusts, her hips moving in pace with his, seeking and finding some ancient rhythm, and she was no longer molten flame but as white-hot as the sun, and then a thousand suns. He was calling her name again and again, his movements rapid and forceful. Then his whole body became as stone, jaw clenched, his hands fisting almost painfully in her hair, and he shuddered from head to toe before collapsing onto her. Tremors shook Vrushenka, like the aftershocks following an earthquake. She held Richard, her hands moving over his sweat-slick back, his weight crushing her pleasantly. He finally raised his head and looked down at her. "Did I hurt you?" he asked. She smiled, feeling languid and dreamlike. "Only a bit, and it was worth it had the pain been a hundred times as great." "I am so glad it was you," he murmured, brushing back her hair and kissing her forehead. "It seems right that we should be together this way, our first time, together." "Our first. Hopefully not our last." "Assuredly!" Reluctant to let go of him, she kissed his neck and his chest. "I think my mother will be pleased. I may not yet be the lady she wishes me to be, but I am overjoyed to be a woman." The End
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Coming of Age  / Copyright 1996 - Tim Morgan /