The Queen of Meara
Chapter 33 - Part I
much as he knew Mairona needed comfort, Kelson had to meet with his
military generals to plan the taking of Druimfada. That left her in
Fergal's care, and something about that and her recent distance niggled
the back of his brain. Still, he could do little without looking like a
jealous fool. She had a lifetime to fall in love with Fergal, and never
had, so there was little reason she should now. Yet, the vision of her
rejecting his compassion and running so easily to Fergal still played
repeatedly in his mind.
While Kelson and his commanders raised their tents outside the city walls, Mairona began to see about the care of her people. She kept the infant always on her hip, and in a quiet moment fed her. One of the peasant women, who owned one of the surviving cows, had generously given a bowl of rare milk she so badly needed herself. The child was old enough to drink it with help, and Mairona spoke quietly to her.
"You are Morrigan, are you not?" The infant looked up at the sound of her name. "It is fitting for you to be named after the ancient goddess of war."
It was a long day, overseeing the construction of temporary shelters out of the remaining timber strong enough to be reused, clearing rubble away from somewhat-habitable buildings, and giving her people the will to rebuild their lives. Most of the survivors who remained in the town would sleep under a roof that night, even if that roof had no walls to keep out the wind. By late afternoon, the child's aunt had been found, and the babe returned to her closest kin. Mairona cried in loss as she turned away with empty arms,.
At the end of the day, sooty, sweaty, and exhausted, Mairona was escorted by Fergal, Seánin, and the rest of her personal guard as she walked the outer city walls in silence, forbidding either of them from interrupting her meditations as she reclaimed memories released when the shield wall disintegrated, sorting the true and the false. Her entire premise for visiting Rhemuth had been a lie; the truth solidly blocked months ago, safe from Deryni prying, and replaced with false memories. It had all been done with such skill that even she had not suspected in the intervening time, even though it had all been done according to her will. A new version of the events leading to the escape from Druimfada unfolded themselves in her mind.
Rolf had been gloating, for certes, that day in her hall last February. He was much too confident in their success by her measure. But then, it was ever easy for her to find fault with the greedy earl who had the good fortune to be a powerful neighbor, and so could not be dismissed outright. A missive lay nearly forgotten in her hand, and she started tapping it against her opposing arm in annoyance. "This is very risky, what we do here, Rolf." She called him by his Christian name, knowing it goaded him and there was little he could do about it. By right of blood she was his queen, Queen of Meara. "We do not know the extent of the Haldane's abilities. He may see through our ruse immediately."
"Or he may refuse to come into our trap at all, and all will be lost. Will your courage hold in the face of the devil?" he challenged.
She rankled at the term devil. While the Haldanes had never been friends to her people, the current head of that family, the young King of Gwynedd, had won the distinction of being Satan's spawn mostly by being Deryni. Mairona was Deryni, too. So was Rolf of Tirkeeve, for that matter. "Do not make the mistake of considering me a child. My courage is as strong as any man's!" she shot back, nearly crumpling the parchment in her hand. "Better ask if you can stomach treason, for that is what we do here." Before he could respond, she held up her hand to silence him. "My lord, we quarrel for nothing and not to Meara's benefit. Let us do our work and be done with it."
"Very well," he replied with an insincere smile as she moved to him and held out the parchment with jeweled fingers.
"See that Fergal gets this in a few days time, when he cannot follow me."
"Aye, my lady." He took the missive and placed it on the table in front of them. "Are you ready?"
"I am," she answered, willing herself to relax. Rolf placed the tips of his fingers on her forehead and forged a link between the two. Her true memories and motivations were masked deep behind that impenetrable shield wall he helped her construct, then replaced with false ones of violent disagreement that would lure the Haldane king to Druimfada.
When he had finished, she had been helpless before his will until he released her, which he wouldn't do just yet. She now remembered staring blankly at the wall before her as Rolf put one hand on her shoulder and took up the missive in the other. He led her around the table to the chamber's door. As they passed the fireplace, he tossed the missive intended for Fergal into the tallest flames, then coaxed his queen out the door and up the spiral stair to her bedchamber.
As Mairona reflected on this, anger grew as she saw how poor Fergal must have suffered in ignorance, hurt and confused over why she would have left him without a word. That anger was nothing compared to the rage about to course through her veins.
Once they had gained her room at the top of the tower, Rolf had no qualms about stripping her of her clothing. It was with great reluctance that he whispered in her ear, "Time to sleep, my sweet." She crawled into her great bed and slipped between the coverlets with a mindless obedience. He took one last, longing look at her bathed in colorless moonlight. Grudgingly, he turned and let himself out of the chamber.
That beast! He had taken advantage of her helplessness, stripped her nude! She would rather lie in a den of snakes then let Rolf see her unclothed.
The sound of the door slamming brought Mairona back to her senses. She sat straight up in bed, clutching the linens to her heaving breast. Fear shone on her face, and she extended her senses around the chamber to make sure she was now truly alone, that Rolf and his repulsive threat of forced marriage were gone. Yes, thank God. He couldn't— he just wouldn't dare! She must call Saraid— No, not until I know what to do. She had to stop him—how?
How could she ensure her safety? Rolf must leave Druimfada after tonight, but no. She had tried that before, only to prove that her men were desperately outnumbered. If Rolf couldn't be ejected, then she must go. Tears stung at her eyes at the painful thought of fleeing her beloved home, then started to flow when she was shamed to admit she wasn't strong enough to protect herself or her people. She must leave, though, or Rolf would win. Where to go?
The king! Of course! She must plead to the King of Gwynedd, and pray to God he didn't clap her in chains for being named the pretender Queen of Meara. That was none of her doing, after all, and her family had been loyal to the Haldanes for three generations now. Yes, she would go to the king's court at Rhemuth.
Mairona dried her tears on the linens, then jumped off the bed and approached the entry to an adjoining chamber. She remembered at the last minute to open the door softly and not make overmuch noise. "Saraid!" she called to wake her sleeping maid. "Saraid, get up. We must leave to Rhemuth ere dawn breaks."
Oh, God—she had really managed to make an enormous mess of things. Why did she have to marry the Haldane? How did she let that happen? "I wish to be alone," she clipped curtly to her escort. "Withdraw a distance."
She didn't look to make sure they obeyed—she didn't need to. Her arms folded on the wall's new crenellations, constructed by her command and just finished last year. Most of them had been torn down in the mercenaries' sacking, but this length still stood firm. Her chin rested on her arms as she looked down to the valley below and cried. At least no one would question that.
What demon had possessed Rolf to burn the town? How could he betray her like this? What did he think he would gain? One thing was clear in her sight; Rolf had destroyed everything, any chance of success. Somehow, that eased her heart instead of angering her. It was astounding how five months had changed everything, and how she could ruin all in one day.
What in damnation could she do now? Why in all hell did she have care for the Haldane? Why did he have to be so damned—Gentle. Kind. Loving. Why couldn't he just be the demon king as the mountain Mearans believed? No use in lamenting now, there would be time later. Now was a time for action. What were her current choices?
She could gain entrance to her castle, and lead its defense against Gwynedd. That would only be stalling for time, during which men would needlessly lose their lives, and Druimfada Town would whither and die.
She could confess to Kelson, throw herself on his mercy, and likely end up executed. Being an unwilling Pretender Queen was one thing; plotting the death of the King of Gwynedd was something else entirely. In the aftermath, he would still lay siege to Druimfada Castle, men would needlessly die— She had already visited that scenario.
She could follow through with her plan, despite Rolf's going mad. Lead Kelson to his death, return to her castle, and—No. She couldn't possibly—Tears surged anew as her heart bled at the thought of her husband falling to the ground, his face twisted in tortuous shock as his lifeblood spilled helplessly, wondering why his time was cut so short—No. She would not let her emotion affect her thoughts. Prince Nigel was Kelson's heir presumptive, and Nigel was a renowned military genius who would crush Meara, and show little mercy in his quest for revenge.
What option was left? She could hide all, and if she were fortunate, she could bring peace between Druimfada and Kelson before he discovered her. At least then her people would have a chance to rebuild the chaos strewn before her, and they would live. Aye, that was the only real option, even though she would still die a traitor. That was what she had to do.
Sniffling one last time, she dried her eyes and took a few deep breaths to calm and center herself. With each intake she stood taller, with each exhalation her eyes and mouth set in greater determination. Finally, she turned to the guard who had retreated to give her some space and a semblance of privacy.
"I will return to the king's tent now," she told them.
Story also located at the Author's website - Brenwell Manor
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