40a - Chapter 40 - Part 1 - The Queen of Meara By: Martine A. Lynch
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The Queen of Meara  



Chapter  40 - Part I


When Kelson had left the town walls, Dhugal climbed the tower stairs to Mairona's chamber. He knocked, and Saraid opened the door for him. "My lord," she whispered as she curtsied. He nodded and entered the room. Mairona sat by an open window, watching Kelson and his army depart. She turned to him with puffy, red eyes.

"Dhugal. I have asked the servants to prepare Halek's old quarters for you, and glass is being imported to install in the windows. There is a transfer portal there, which you may use to report to Kelson. You will also want to guard it from the likes of me." She watched him sadly.

He pulled up a stool, sitting a small distance from her. "Ye're nae prisoner, Mairona."

"No?" she forced a laugh. "Then what are the terms of my so-called freedom?"

Dhugal took a breath before answering, border burr touching his speech now that Kelson and the need for court manners were gone. "Ye're regent in name, but I'm tae know all decisions concernin' greater than household matters. I may overrule ye. I'm tae see all correspondence, written an' otherwise. Ye willnae leave the castle without an escort of my choosin', an' ye're not tae leave the town without me."

"A prison without walls," she mused, then focused on him. "Forgive me, I should not complain. By all rights I should be scheduled for a hanging." He had no response to that, so she continued. "Bring Ailín here, or rumors may start that the king's wife is sharing the bed of his sworn brother. He trusts you, of course, but I would not cause him any more pain."

"That is wise," he agreed. "She can also be your companion."

"I have precious few of those." Mairona pulled a handkerchief from the folds of her dress and dabbed her nose. "Tell me, I must know. How much does Kelson hate me?"

The copper-haired duke thought for a moment. "He'll be angry," Dhugal finally responded. "Angrier than I hae e'er seen. He doesnae offer blind trust tae many, an', weel—I dinnae think, though, that he will hate ye lang."

"In a way, that makes it worse. I know I hurt him deeply, and it is tearing me apart in little pieces. If I could do anything to change what I have done I would not hesitate, and I wish he understood that. The king must condemn me, but I mourn the loss of my husband." Her voice quavered on the last word, and she turned her head quickly away.

Dhugal rose and rested a hand on her shoulder. "Give his anger time tae cool. Then maybe he'll listen tae ye." Mairona refused to cry in front of him, but she was perilously on the edge. Biting her fist, she twisted her face away as far as she could. Dhugal saw she was not going to reply, and sensed she wanted to be alone. "Good day, my lady. I'll leave ye." She didn't say a word, so he took his hand from her shoulder and went away.

Kelson's spirits lifted when he rode through the castle gates at Rhemuth. Home at last! The business at Laas had taken nearly five months, fishing out more traitors. Ever since Meara came under Gwynedd's control, rebels had raised their heads every few years. His father Brion used to call his own regular ventures into that hilly country "spring cleaning," which was rather apt. Kelson had disbanded the army as soon as was safely possible to prevent a further drain on his treasury, but insisted on remaining in Laas to personally make sure Meara would not trouble him for many years to come. This rugged, mountainous land seemed to harbor a poison that Haldanes had trouble rooting out. It had even infected his wife.

Now it was all behind him, and he was back in familiar surroundings. November's gray skies had fallen on Gwynedd, the beginning of a quiet season that sometimes lasted to Christmas court. Soon he could easily fall back into a routine that would keep him from dwelling on his Mearan queen. In the immediate future, however, he had to endure the celebration of his return from the longest absence he had ever taken from Rhemuth. In a few days there would also be his birthday feast and the anniversary of his coronation. Hopefully afterwards there would be some peace for him to enter his twenty-first year and the seventh year of his reign.

A long journey had tired him, so he kept the welcoming court brief. As soon as was proper, he escaped up to his rooms for a much needed bath and relaxation. Weary legs pumped up the solar's spiral stair as his aunt and uncle followed. "Kelson, there is something you must know," Nigel started as they neared the top.

The king stopped and turned lethargically. "Uncle, if it can wait, let it. I am very tired and would appreciate no distractions as I wash the stink of the road away."

"Very well, 'tis not urgent" Nigel agreed, hoping his nephew wouldn't run into the subject of his "news" before he was warned.

A good, hot bath next to the fire and a long night's sleep left Kelson refreshed the next morning. He was slightly chagrined that he slept through Mass, but his body had needed the rest badly. He would have to confess to Father Duncan later, but surely God could not begrudge his faithful servant some recovery time. After a light repast, he exited his chambers to the solar, hoping it was the beginning of a thoroughly uneventful morning.

The sound of a young child's laughter immediately caught his attention—it must be his small cousin Eirian. The few ladies in the solar were turned away from him, they and his aunt absorbed in the antics of a black-haired toddler. "Aunt Meraude?" he called, catching her attention.

"Kelson!" she returned, then turned to her attendants. "Leave us," she commanded as she scooped up the squealing child. As they complied, Kelson's stomach did somersaults when he realized this child was too small and dark-skinned to be little Eirian.

"Aunt?" he asked, gesturing to the child. Meraude looked unusually nervous and uncertain.

"Kelson—" she started.

"What?" the toddler asked. Meraude swallowed, and tried again.

"Sire, this is who Nigel tried to tell you about. Meet your cousin and namesake."

Kelson's stomach completely dropped out at that. "Rothana's child? She named him after me?"

His aunt nodded. "Forgive me, I asked her to come so I could see my grandson. She arrived when you were away, thinking it would be easier. She was supposed to leave before you returned, but you made much better time than we expected."

"Rothana is here?" He felt his entire body go numb.

"Yes, she is."

He didn't say anything, and Meraude was not going to break the silence. His gaze moved to the toddler named after him, the boy who would be his own if not for that accident almost three years ago. His mother would never have given him the grief Mairona did. The child spoke, looking at Kelson with wide eyes.

"Who are you?" the boy asked, putting a finger in his mouth.

"He is the king," Meraude told him.

"And your cousin," he added. "My name is Kelson."

"My name!" the child exclaimed.

"Aye, that it is," the king replied sadly. Further conversation was interrupted when the stair door opened.

"Maman, I have returned. I hope little Kel behaved himself— Oh!"

Dear Lord, it was Rothana. Her brown eyes grew round as a dusky hand flew to her mouth when she saw Kelson. Meraude withdrew with little Kel to a far corner of the solar. "Good morrow, my lady," the king managed to say.


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