The Queen of Meara
Chapter 30 - Part I
Mairona trotted in the gate to Rhemuth
Castle's inner ward, her ladies and guards fanning out behind her as
they were surrounded by pages and squires come to assist. "Good
ride today, Stoirm," she smiled, patting her mare's neck. It was
the same white palfrey Kelson had given her for their wedding, a
spirited but well-behaved horse.
"Good ride?" Richenda chuckled, motioning an older squire to assist her from the saddle. "I will not be able to walk straight for a week."
"Then I suppose you do not want to go out again tomorrow?" Mairona laughed, then handed the reins over to a page before lighting to the ground.
"Not even if you order my presence," Richenda grimaced, gingerly testing her legs with a few small steps.
"Your Highness!" a voice called across the courtyard. Mairona turned and saw Ailín flying down the stair from the great hall. "Your Highness! News from the king! Wonderful news!"
"What? What has happened?" Hiking her skirts, Mairona ran to meet Ailín on the stair as Richenda struggled to keep up.
"His Highness has contacted Father Duncan! Torenth is defeated! The army is heading for Meara!"
"And the casualties after the final battle?" Mairona asked, grabbing Ailín's arm.
"None that we are concerned about," the girl grinned. "A messenger will arrive with the official news in a few days."
Mairona let out a very un-queenly whoop as she rushed past Ailín into the hall. "Where is Duncan?" she asked breathlessly.
"He returned to St. Hilary's," Ailín replied, rushing to catch up.
"Oh." Stopping suddenly, Mairona whirled around to go right back out the door, but Richenda and Ailín were blocking the way in their haste to keep pace with their queen. Mairona took them both in an embrace, nearly dancing in her happiness. "'Tis over and everyone is safe!" she laughed. "Our husbands are safe!" Letting them go, she pushed her way between them and ran down the stairs for St. Hilary's.
The messenger came a week later, bringing official news and personal correspondence from a husband to his wife. After reading it all, Mairona burst in Nigel's quarters brandishing a rolled-up missive in her hand. He looked up at her affectionately, having grown very fond of her and her sudden entrances. They always provided a break in the monotony of his regent duties, and alleviated her own boredom as well. Nigel had done his best to include her as much as he could, but she bristled at the role she was given in her husband's absence. No, that wasn't quite right. It was the lack of a role that seemed to goad her.
This afternoon she wore a plain, well-made dress in the unassuming style she preferred since his nephew departed. Nigel mused that there was no one's head to turn in his absence. "Uncle," she greeted breathlessly. "How many men can you spare?"
"Well, lass, that would depend on what you intend to do with them," he smiled as he kissed her cheek in welcome.
"I mean to go for a short journey."
"Oh?" Nigel's brow furrowed. What could have prompted this and where did she think she was going? He had a disconcerting idea.
"Do not worry, Uncle, I am not running off to attempt heroics in Druimfada. That is Kelson's task, not mine."
He visibly settled at that. "I would not be surprised if you tried," he grinned. "Where do you have in mind?"
She dropped the parchment in front of him. "This just arrived from Kelson. By now he will be only two days' journey from here."
That stunned Nigel. Mairona was daring, and his nephew indulgent, but a queen in a war camp on the march? "He sent for you, then?"
"Ah, no. He does not know I am coming." She held his gaze with fierce determination, expecting the resistance that must follow.
"I am sorry, Mairona, I cannot allow this. Kelson would never forgive me if something happened to you on the way." He noticed her composure hadn't faltered, and braced himself for her willfulness.
"Uncle, Kelson is just a short distance away, coming from a victorious finish in Torenth and still several week's march from the danger in Druimfada. We were married but a month before he left, and you know how he feels about me. Do you truly think he would be angry at my arrival?"
She would have to do better than that. "Not angry at you, dear, but he would be displeased with me for exposing you to the bandits, robbers, and worse that come out from cover when war breaks. My answer is still no."
Apparently there was still something up her sleeve, because she was unruffled and even took a step forward. "I intend to go, Uncle, with or without your approval. Only Kelson may bid me stay, and he is not here. Now, which would make him angrier—you allowing me to go with sufficient escort, or letting me slip away alone and unprotected?" She stared at him defiantly, already knowing she had won.
"God help my nephew," he shook his head. "I shall pick you thirty knights and soldiers."
The smile she gave him was radiant as she kissed his cheek. "Thank you, Uncle. You are ever so kind."
The storms had started within an hour after Mairona's party cleared Rhemuth's walls the subsequent morn. Riding through the rain was never an enjoyable prospect, and Saraid had been grumbling all day that impossible road conditions were a sign from God proving Mairona was out of her mind. Indeed, the horses made little headway as they sank in over a foot of mud until Mairona ordered her party off the road. The rolling plain was still soggy, but the horses didn't falter as much in the grass. Although she wouldn't admit it, she was even more miserable that Saraid. This whole journey had been Mairona's idea though, and she would be damned if anyone discovered she was starting to think embroidery in the solar wasn't so boring after all. Only the thought of seeing Kelson again maintained her resolve.
At least Ailín thrilled at the adventure, and the escort guards Nigel sent with them weren't bothered, as knights and soldiers were accustomed to marching through even the worst weather. By the following day Mairona was certain they thought the whole thing amusing. What queen had ever left the safety of Rhemuth keep for a war camp, even for a night's tryst? Little did they know her true reasons—
As they crested a hill, another gust of wind blew her cloak's hood off. Its strength and suddenness took her breath away.
"Madam!" Ailín cried, pointing. "My lady Mairona, I see the camp!"
Standing in the leather loops that served as stirrups, she followed Ailín's finger. There were tents down in the valley, and the motion of milling soldiers could be seen even from their height. "By Brigid, I believe you are right!" And about time, too, she added silently. "Well, ladies, I do believe that promises warmth and a dry bed!"
"But my lady, 'tis yet early afternoon!" Ailín protested with a grin.
"Aye, and I for one am absolutely exhausted!" Mairona returned with a wicked grin. "If you would rather tour the camp with Dhugal until dark, that is your doing."
Said Dhugal's new bride gave a twittering laugh, then stifled a pretend yawn. "Ah, me, but I do seem to be tired after all."
"I thought as much." Then without warning, Mairona set her heels to her mare's flank and plunged dangerously fast into the valley.
Euliss stood sentry on the west side of camp, as bored as the rest of the army since the rain had kept them from marching out that morning. If the past two days had been any indication, it would be some time yet before they could move out. His musings vanished when he saw a party of riders appear over the hill, and he cried warning to his fellow soldiers. Swiftly, a company gathered by the time the unknown arrivals started moving into the valley, and they all held their breath to a man as one rider plummeted at insane speed down the slippery slope. Euliss thought surely that man was favored by heaven, because the horse never faltered. Then the figure got close enough for him to see that "man" wore a woman's skirts.
"Sweet holy Mother of God!" he exclaimed as his fellow soldiers looked at each other with grins. They had finally seen the colors the escort guard were carrying, a joining of the Haldane lion with Druimfada's tower, showing it could only be the queen.
In the middle of the camp, Morgan entered his young king's tent with carefully controlled dignity. Dhugal and Ewan were seated around Kelson, the most uncomfortable parts of their armor laying in scattered pieces, and they had been there long enough to drain at least one goblet of wine each. The squire Ivo tried valiantly to pick up after them and make sure his master was served wine and food when necessary, but he appeared to be fighting a losing battle.
"Forgive me, my lord," Morgan said as he bowed his head in greeting.
"What took you, Alaric?" the king asked, sliding over to make room for the new arrival.
"I had to escort some unusual visitors." With that, Alaric could contain his composure no longer and his face split into a huge grin. The trio seated around the low table at the other end blinked at each other in curiosity.
"Well?" Kelson demanded. "Who could it be? Rolf begging me for forgiveness and mercy?"
"Pity, no. I think you had better see for yourself." With great ceremony he pulled back the entry hanging. Kelson, Dhugal, and Ewan all froze in wide-eyed disbelief as the bedraggled queen and Duchess of Cassan stumbled in.
"What the devil?" Dhugal exclaimed, his face going from amazement to pure joy at the site of Ailín. Ewan's eyes laughed, knowing with one look at the travel-worn duo who had been the instigator of this. Kelson alone was unreadable as he stood.
"Dhugal, at this unexpected turn of events I am certain you will want to withdraw. Ewan, Morgan, you may retire as well."
Dhugal and Ailín, having been wed only a night before the army marched out, barely heard. He held out his arms for her to run into them, standing motionless in excited if unexpected reunion before obeying Kelson. Morgan and Ewan followed soon after, silent laughter dissolved at Kelson's voice. It sounded like the queen would not be welcomed as warmly as the duchess.
Story also located at the Author's website - Brenwell Manor
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