The Queen of Meara
Chapter 6 - Part 2
The road was hardly suitable for proper exercise. Dhugal and his father the Bishop Duncan McLain rode a few paces behind the king, who had invited Mairona to his side the moment they were free of the castle’s postern gate. A small group of the king’s personal guard formed the rear. The party made agonizing progress through snow that reached their mounts’ knees, guided only by the higher banks lining what should be a road. With all routes this difficult, trade suffered heavily on Rhemuth Plain, and Kelson wondered how some of the more remote and inhospitable settlements in his kingdom were doing for food and other necessities. Could they get a message out in time if they needed help?
“Sire?” Mairona called out, rescuing the king from thoughts of doom and gloom.
“There is yet little occupation for me to fill my days here. I have heard that you collect texts on Deryni history and teachings. May I be allowed to use your library?”
“Certainly!” he responded, intrigued at this new interest. “In fact, you may be able to assist me there. I have recently acquired a rare item on the life of St. Camber, which the Duchess of Corwyn has been studying for me. However, there are many annotations by a Mearan monk in his native tongue, and my lady Richenda does not speak Mearan. Perhaps you would care to translate?”
So, he encouraged ladies in intellectual studies and pursuits. Her heart thudded at this revelation. “It would be my pleasure,” she told him with unbridled sincerity.
“I will make it available to you,” he promised as they crested a rise that nearly matched the height of Rhemuth Castle. Eyes darted sideways to observe Mairona’s reaction to the view. She gasped.
"You can see for miles!” Mairona breathed, standing in her stirrups to take in the landscape in all directions. Kelson grinned, pleased at her wonder.
“Rhemuth Plain is vastly different from the mountains. You did not notice when you arrived?”
Swallowing, Mairona eased down into her high-backed saddle. “My thoughts were otherwise occupied,” she replied in a dead voice.
Aye, Kelson thought to himself distastefully as he turned back to what seemed to be the road. Thoughts such as danger, fear, and imminent death. Idiot! he berated himself.
Sniffling in the cold, Mairona sought to salvage the moment from her reaction, which she had regretted the moment it left her mouth. The king had only meant it in jest, after all. “What is the plain like in the spring?”
“Muddy!” shot out from behind. Twisting, Mairona caught Dhugal’s freckled grin and laughed. Kelson didn’t know whether to be happy that she hadn’t retreated within herself again, envious that it was Dhugal who brought her back to humor, or annoyed that his blood brother had been eavesdropping. His struggle was interrupted when Mairona’s horse snorted, stumbling violently. To his relief, she kept a firm seat, but when the beast recovered it heavily favored its left foreleg. Before he could think to assist, Mairona was on the ground and positioning herself to examine the lame leg.
Trying not to think about how cold the deep snow would be on his legs, Kelson dismounted and handed his reins over to the guard captain who halted at his side. The snow was icier than he had tried not to think about. Mairona had already felt down the mare’s leg with practiced hands and now had its upturned hoof resting against her thigh.
“She’s taken a stone,” Mairona announced without looking up. “I need a dagger to free it.”
“Dhugal!” Kelson called. The border duke slipped out of his saddle as easily as Mairona had and struggled through the snow. Kelson mused at how Mairona in her distraction had unwittingly slipped into the familiar role of command.
“My lady,” the duke greeted when he reached her. “Allow me.”
Nodding, Mairona released the mare’s hoof. “Take care, my lord. She does not like having her feet handled. I will hold her head.” Moving away, she took the mare’s headstall in one hand and stroked its sleek neck with her other. Placing her face close to the horse’s head, she spoke soft words in a language that was harsh and smoothly lyrical at the same time, similar to the sounds of Dhugal’s border tongue. The mare’s ears twitched, and its eyes rolled in protest of the digging at its foot, but it stood calmly under its mistress’ ministrations.
Dhugal’s sure hand worked swiftly and gently to extract the offending rock lodged between the shoe and a triangular ridge that traversed the center of the foot. After casually tossing it aside, he carefully probed the bruised area. “There is another problem. The removal has loosened the shoe’s nails, and it is like to come off soon. My lady, your palfrey should not bear weight until this is remedied.”
“She will ride with me,” Kelson announced. Mairona looked at him with a hint of question, and to his joy there was no fear or hesitation in her eyes. In fact, the corners of her lips curled up for a moment. Cocking an eyebrow in silent reply, Kelson took his horse from the guard captain and hoisted himself back into the saddle. As he pulled his mantle off the steed’s haunches, Dhugal lifted Mairona to her new perch behind the great saddle, her split skirts straddling the tall gelding’s broad hips.
That only left the question of what to do with her hands. Despite their growing attachment, the man before her was the king, and she would not dare uninvited physical contact in front of so many others. She tried the saddle’s curved rear lip, but her fingers nearly brushed his back. Finally she settled on resting her gloves on her thighs, thinking that there was little risk of her losing her seat at the painfully slow walking pace to which they were confined.
“Are you comfortable?” he asked over his shoulder.
“Aye,” she responded, his sudden proximity lending her senses hyper-acuity as they registered all things Kelson. The way his gloves crinkled as his fingers secured the reins in relaxed control, the way his mantle smelled of the tanner’s arts and previous exercise, how his back moved when he turned forward again, the brief pressure of his leg brushing against hers as he urged his reluctant mount around towards Rhemuth. As biting as the wind was, as numb as her wet feet were, she would sit there for hours. As they rode back through the small group, the rear guard parted to let them pass, then fell back into place as they headed toward the castle.
“My lady,” Kelson started, but was silenced when his horse skidded at a dip in the road. The beast’s additional burden made footing more treacherous, and Mairona instinctively clutched onto the saddle’s rear rim as the horse’s motion threw Kelson back. Mairona cried out as her fingers were smashed between his weight and the saddle’s leather-covered wood, but she forced herself to keep her grip despite the pain so she could maintain her seat. The horse recovered after a few scrambled paces, snorting annoyance at the uneven ground and the additional weight that encumbered his hindquarters. Halting the gelding firmly, Kelson leaned forward and twisted around as much as the restrictive saddle allowed.
“Mairona, are you injured?”
Warmth bloomed in her chest at the alarm in his voice, and in the way he had dropped all formality in his apprehension. She stretched and flexed her hands experimentally. “I still count ten fingers, and they all work adequately. No harm has been done.”
“That relieves me.” Letting out a slow breath, Kelson smiled the regret that he didn’t speak. “Perhaps I will make a less painful handhold than the saddle.”
“Your shoulders, my lord?” she asked, wondering just how much intimacy he would have her dare.
“Nay, that would hinder my movement should this beast stumble again. My waist will do.”
Kelson heard her uneven breath as she tentatively rested her hands just above his hips. So, he was having the same effect on her that her closeness was having on him. He almost wished the horse would falter again, wondering if she would tightened her grip. Dismissing the thought as riskier than the possible end result warranted, he nudged his R’Kassi gelding forward again.
“I see the footing in the plains can be just as treacherous as in the mountains,” she murmured, her foggy breath floating over his shoulder to kiss his frozen cheek with heat.
“It depends on the season, and in whom you place your trust,” he replied quietly, breathing deeply of the chill air. “Could you make Rhemuth your home?”
Her hands tightened pleasantly on his waist. “Druimfada will always be my home,” she said carefully, “but I believe I could be happy residing here.” She could not see the royal grin that radiated light clear across the plains, but she could feel that he was deeply moved. She was amazed by the changes of the last two days, how the king’s burgeoning joy at her mere presence stirred her just as deeply. It was the first time she had discovered a soul so kindred to hers, and now it was found she would do much to remain by its side. Despite her desires, though, she must never forget the obligation her father bestowed on her. “However, for my happiness to be complete, I would require the freedom to visit Druimfada frequently so I can carry out my duties to its people.”
Its people, not my people. Were her thoughts already expanding to include greater Gwynedd in addition to her family’s prosperous holding? Grasping both reins in his right hand, Kelson reached the other across his waist to take hold of hers. “I would allow that,” he told her softly. Her fingers squeezed his in acceptance.
Story also located at the Author's website - Brenwell Manor
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