The Queen of Meara
Chapter 34 - Part II
Kelson did so, as much out of mounting
trepidation as to ease her mind. As one arm circled around her shoulders
and the other enclosed her waist, he wondered at how changed she was,
how utterly lost and despondent. It was so counter to her nature that he
knew something was terribly wrong, and her actions made it appear that
she believed the knowledge she carried would greatly upset or anger him.
She buried her head in his chest and sobbed, clutching him as if he
would be stolen away by some unseen force that was also tearing her
apart. Had he not already proven he was made of steadier stuff than she
believed? He pressed his lips against her hair as he spoke her name.
Shuddering, she brought herself under control, falling still in the way only trained Deryni do as they center and focus. She pulled away, putting space between them, but she could not let go his hand. "I helped Rolf plan the trap before I left for Rhemuth."
"How could you help?" Kelson asked, still not seeing the impossible. "By telling him the tunnel existed?"
"No." Trembling, she closed her eyes and breathed deeply before continuing. "My true memories were blocked until yesterday. I knew what he planned, and I told him where to best place his men."
Kelson threw her hand away violently, his eyes turning fierce and icy. Morgan quickly placed himself between Kelson and Mairona as Dhugal grabbed her arms, twisting them painfully behind her.
"Can you give any reason why you should not be cut down as a traitor?" the border duke spat with hatred.
"One," she stated, attempting to smile as she looked at her husband. It died in his lifeless gaze. "The gift I mentioned before. My king, I carry your daughter."
Dhugal let out a string of expletives in his native border tongue as Kelson stared. If Mairona's betrayal had been a fist in his gut, this revelation was the sword that pierced his heart.
"When?" he asked flatly.
"Since the day I came to meet you in camp," she replied. So, she had hidden that from him as well. Kelson rose, looking paler than before.
"Alaric," he called. "The trunk near my camp bed has a small wooden case in the bottom left corner. Take the merasha it contains and mix up a strong draught."
Merasha—the drug that plunged Deryni senses into chaos, effectively incapacitating their owner psychically and physically. The duke paused. "What of the child?" he asked.
If it were possible, Kelson's eyes grew steelier as he spoke in a voice that was dangerously soft. "The child is mine. You will make the draught, and Mairona will drink."
"No! Please, you cannot!" Mairona begged, falling to her knees. Dhugal struggled to keep hold of her arms, and she screamed as one was wrenched out of joint.
"You will be silent!" Kelson hissed, crossing the distance between them with an ominous determination. He did not raise his hand, but there was a drive in the urgency of his anger that made her shrink in fear, yet she would not back down.
"Do what you must, I will not resist you. Truth-Read me, see that I do not lie. The wall is gone, it will do no damage, and I swear I will let you pass through all barriers. I know my life is now forfeit, but think of your daughter!"
"We have Truth-Read you before, even Read you in rapport, and still you deceived. You will drink so you may do so no longer."
Mairona's lips quivered at Kelson's reversion to the royal "we." He stared her down as Morgan retrieved the merasha and mixed it with wine, and Mairona found she could not bear his gaze. "I tried—I did not mean—I did not know—" she blubbered, but found each thought killed by the increasing hardness and hatred in her husband's demeanor. Her efforts were halted when Morgan thrust a cup to her mouth, but she tossed her head away.
"May I at least have the privilege of taking my own poison?" she asked bitterly. Kelson nodded, and Dhugal released one of her arms, twisting the other even more violently to keep firm physical control. Wincing, she took the goblet and stilled herself with calming breaths. Anger at the unfairness of it all coursed through her, giving her the strength to dare the king's icy glare. "I will not deny that I helped put the plan in place, but all last night my mind screamed for help to put a stop to this. You lay next to me, with a hand on my arm no less, and would not listen!" she cried. His bearing did not change, did not soften. Resigning herself with difficulty, she raised the cup's brim to her lips and gulped down its bitter contents in their entirety before the drug could work into her blood.
It seemed like she was the only one breathing, and she was breathing heavily. No one else moved, no one spoke, no one else lived but her, she who would soon be condemned to death. Dhugal could not be seen behind her, but Morgan stared, and Kelson glowered in the way she had feared so greatly when she first came to Rhemuth. How different everything was now, the dream turned to cold, harsh reality.
"Oh God!" she exclaimed, falling to her knees as nausea welled and balled in her throat. Small mercy, Dhugal let her remaining arm go so she could brace herself on the floor as the tent spun at the edge of her vision. This was no mild dose designed to dull her, but a larger concentration than she had ever faced in training, promising to render her completely helpless. "Camber and Brigid be with me," was her last coherent pleading thought as she fell forward, succumbing to merasha's disruption without resistance.
Sinking to his knees, Kelson motioned Dhugal and Morgan to join him. "I would have your assistance in this unpleasant business in case there are any additional surprises that need dismantling," he said. Both dukes placed their hands on their king's shoulders as he clamped his hands around Mairona's head. Keeping his emotions tightly shuttered, he drew on his friends' strength and penetrated the whirling mess that was left of her merasha-laced mind. She convulsed in the drug-induced pain his touch caused until his ungentle will forced her to lie still.
The ruins of the massive shield wall he had discovered on her arrival at Rhemuth were substantial. It had not been constructed in a lesson with her tutor after all, but assembled with Rolf's assistance to hide the gruesome plot they had pieced together. She had doubts even then, but they were smothered by a greed to remove herself from the powerful Tirkeeve's growing influence in Druimfada. She saw her path in reviving the ancient Crown of Meara, and plotted the Haldane's assassination as a means to independence more than any desire to commit treason. It was easy to bring down an unknown lowlander royal in order to free herself.
Yet that lowlander was no longer unknown, and he could not discount the guilt and grief that were shredding her soul to pieces. Her love had been genuine, and she had been honest when she claimed never to have lied to him, for she had been ignorant of the treason she had instigated. Filing each memory, thought, and emotion away with an analytic coolness, Kelson circled the rubble of shields as he planned how to dismantle what remained.
It came apart a piece at a time, uncovering new thoughts and memories—Rolf's true character coming to unnatural light as he burned her letter explaining all to Fergal—Tirkeeve's barely checked possessive lust as he prepared his hapless co-conspirator for her bed—the shield wall's warnings causing massive headaches in Rhemuth as her actions and emotions clashed with what lie hidden—the compulsion Rolf placed, forcing her to follow through on their plans in case she changed her mind in the meantime.
She had fought that compulsion as best she could on her own, winning against it in her willingness to sacrifice herself to save the husband she had grown to love. It was hardly the act of a traitor, but that was what she was, for the compulsion would never have been placed if she had not intended regicide on her own. She was more than a simple accomplice; she had actually planned Kelson's assassination to achieve her own ends.
Having seen enough, Kelson moved quickly to finish his work and make sure there was no other tampering lying in wait. Satisfied, he placed the groundwork to assure that she could never hide anything from him again, that he would be able to penetrate her strongest, deepest shields at will from now on, and forced Mairona to sleep. Her distress lessened as she lost consciousness, but a more primitive torment lingered behind. Seeking its source, Kelson' attention left Mairona's mind and settled on her abdomen, where his fetal daughter grew. The little one was too unformed to think or feel real emotion, but still radiated a primal animal panic as her mother's blood filled her with madness and chaos. Kelson tried to soothe her, but she was too undeveloped to respond to anything but physical comfort and alleviation of her pain.
Forgive me, Kelson breathed to his daughter as he withdrew, shuddering. He felt his dukes' hands clamp on his shoulders in alarm, but he waved them off as he opened his eyes. "I am merely strained," he stated as he stood, shaking his head to clear it of the images that still jumbled his thoughts. Morgan's concern for him was fatherly, Dhugal's fearful, but Kelson could not bring himself to relieve them. "Remove her, and leave me," he ordered instead. They nodded wordlessly, and Dhugal lifted Mairona to his arms as the dukes withdrew.
Sighing, he turned toward his camp table, only to see his squire cowering miserably in the corner. "Dolfin?" he called softly.
"My lord," the boy gulped. "My lord, forgive me, I did like her!"
"So did I, Dolfin," Kelson answered sadly. "No one did more than I. It is alright to be confused just now. Go, I wish to be alone."
Bowing jerkily, Dolfin fled with no regard to propriety. Solitary at last, Kelson sank to the ground and bent his knees to his chin, burying his face in them as he shook with soundless grief.
Mairona's fitful slumber was disturbed the next day by the clashing and clinking of multiple sets of armor. Her mouth was gummy, and only brute force tore her tongue away from the roof of her mouth. She could tell her eyes were dry and gritty before she opened them, and when her lids did pry apart she was greeted with blurry double vision. Squinting and blinking, she forced the eight men to reduce themselves to four, and willed her eyes to focus on them. Kelson was at the center, surrounded by Morgan, Dhugal, and Ewan.
"My lord King," her voice grated, as she rolled over and tried to push herself to her knees. He motioned to Dhugal, who knelt by her side and offered a cup.
"This will clear some of the lingering fuzziness," the coppery-haired duke stated evenly. The coldness had gone from his manner, but neither did he show friendliness. Teetering into a seated position, Mairona took the mug and drank greedily. It was water, laced with something bitter, which would either do as Dhugal said or poison her for her crime. She didn't care which she consumed. Her vision steadied and her balance centered as she finished and returned the cup.
"Thank you, my lord" she said huskily, then swung her head to bear on Kelson. It lolled back on her shoulders. "Tell me, Sire, when do I die?"
Kelson's hatred deflated at her calm acceptance even as his anger stirred at her assumption that he would execute a woman while she was with child. "You think I would murder my unborn daughter?" he returned.
"Then I have eight months," she concluded. "What of Saraid, Seanín and Fergal?"
"We found Saraid and Seanín ignorant and innocent of your crime. They are closely watched, no more. Fergal is under heavy guard, awaiting my judgment."
"I see," Mairona mumbled. "Thank you for sparing the innocent of my deeds."
"Where do your loyalties lay now?" he asked, betraying no hint of the turmoil within.
"With you, my lord," she answered without hesitation. "Whether I live or die, I choose to serve you."
There was no denying the truth of her words, for he had left no room for her to deceive him. "We shall see how strong that loyalty is," he told her. "We must go plan the assault on Druimfada Castle. Only human guards will be set outside the tent, so you will have the opportunity to run away and save yourself. However, if you are as faithful as you proclaim, you will still be here when we return."
His use of the formal, royal "we" tore at Mairona's heart. "I understand, my king," she whispered. Kelson threw a waterskin at her feet, then whirled on his heel and left the tent, motioning his dukes to join him.
Thirstier than she had ever thought possible, Mairona greedily tore the cap off the skin and drank deeply, letting its contents slosh down her chin. She gulped until she thought she would be sick, then replaced the stopper and analyzed her situation. Tears came unbidden, hanging on the tips of her lashes.
Unable to derive comfort from anything, Mairona wrapped her arms around her knees and rocked front-to-back slowly. To prove her loyalty, she must sit quietly in this tent and await— what? That achieved nothing. Kelson would besiege Druimfada for months, possibly over a year, until the castle starved itself out. She knew the food stores were full. With Kelson occupied here in the west, next year whatever new power raised itself in Torenth would have a perfect opening in the east.
Mairona knew what she must do, and took stock of her surroundings. The tent was small, and primitively appointed, but her trunk of belongings had been moved here. She opened her chest and tore it apart looking for nondescript clothes. When Kelson returned, Mairona would be gone. She was sealing her own fate, but hopefully her sacrifice would keep Gwynedd and Kelson strong.
Story also located at the Author's website - Brenwell Manor
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