A Michaelmas Mystery
Deryni Summer Challenge 2002 Entry
By: Melissa Houle
Ibrahim couldn’t say
exactly what woke him. He was just awake between one heartbeat and his
next and that it was almost pitch dark in the loft, and hours later than
he’d planned. The stable was quiet below, except for an occasional
rustle of straw or stomp of a shod hoof.
Allah strike me dead! I had no business going to sleep!
Ibrahim crawled over near the ladder to investigate the possibility of climbing down unseen. . He sensed Compline was now long past, let alone Vespers. There was the danger of being stopped by the Watch in the city streets for being abroad this late. Ibrahim wasn’t terribly worried about that, however. Once past the castle gates, he was confident that he could make it down to the cathedral unseen; he’d been told he moved with the silence of a hunting cat The hard part was the castle gate, however. Almost no one would be coming in or out, and anyone who tried at this time of night was sure to be stopped and asked to identify themselves and their business--two things that Ibrahim would rather not do. Half way to the ladder, Ibrahim froze. Once again, he very nearly swore, only just remembering he must not speak aloud. There were voices below, very near the foot of the ladder; a girl’s giggles and a man’s deeper laughter.
Not quite as soundlessly, Ibrahim backed up swiftly on his hands and knees, and burrowed under some hay to hide himself.
The woman came up first, and to Ibrahim’s relief, she hurried off to her right down the length of the stable. She was still laughing about something. Ibrahim caught a glimpse of her back as she passed, and saw that she swung her wide hips boldly as she walked. She carried a pair of stout leather shoes, but the hem of her plain beige kirtle was innocent of any decoration. The gown looked new and relatively clean, but the cut was too ordinary and the fabric too plain to clothe a noblewoman. She had to be one of the numerous female servants employed in Rhemuth Castle. Her head was uncovered and long brown curls hung down her back.
The man had come up now though and was standing still at the head of the ladder for a moment, sensibly letting his eyes adjust to the dimness. He carried a bundle of something wrapped in a napkin.
“Where ARE you?” he called in a teasing voice. “Where’s that pretty lass Meg that I was talkin’ to just now?” His voice had a definite highland burr to it.
“Come FIND me!” Meg caroled a few yards away, now. “Great kingy of Gwyneddy!”
“I’m not the kingy of Gwyneddy, I’m the dukey of Cassany,” the young man warbled back.
Something in his voice suggested to Ibrahim that the duke might have rolled his eyes, just then. Ibrahim certainly did.
“If ye say “kingy of Gwyneddy” in the real kingy’s hearing, His Majesty would boot ye so hard, ye’d wake up in the Connait the next morning!” the duke said as he began walking in the girl’s direction. He stumbled on the uneven plank flooring and cursed the darkness. A pause and then suddenly the loft was altogether too well lit with silvery handfire for Ibrahim’s liking. He froze in his corner and it took all his self-control to remain silent. Carefully, he raised his shields and kept his mind as quiescent as possible.. He wished he dared burrow deeper into the concealment of the hay, but feared any noise would alert the other two to his presence. The young man certainly matched the basic description of the Duke of Cassan he’d had from his master. He definitely didn’t want to form a lasting impression on Dhugal McLain who was perhaps Kelson of Gwynedd’s closest boon companion. Fortunately, the duke appeared far more interested in the girl than in really looking around the stable loft.
By the light of the handfire, Ibrahim studied the girl, too. If he was to be a captive audience at this tryst, he might as well enjoy it. She had a round, pretty, highly colored face, and big brown eyes to go with the lush brown hair. She was still young and lithe, but was full and curvy at breast, hip and bottom, Ibrahim couldn’t help but notice. And she had partly unlaced the front of her gown, showing more of those breasts than a prostitute of Khokanistan would do until some money had changed hands.. She was smiling up at the duke, but her eyes were just a little anxious as she eyed his handfire.
“Ach, it’s just light, lass, it will nae hurt you,” the Duke said. “There’s nothin’ evil in it, an’ it ‘s safer up here than a lantern with all this hay aboot.” He compressed the ball with his hand and the light became dimmer to Ibrahim’s relief and evidently to Meg’s. He could still see them easily though and saw that the Duke had set down his napkin-wrapped bundle, and was now kissing Meg on the lips, his nearer hand clasping her rib cage just below her right breast.
“What did you bring me, Dukey? A present?” Meg cooed. She sounded very like the doves that ambled or flew all around these stables during the day, Ibrahim thought. A dove with a bad case of avarice.
“Well, in a way,” McLain chuckled. “More of a midnight snack than a present.”
“Oh, you are sweet, m’lord,” Meg giggled. If she was disappointed, she was at least attempting to conceal it. “I’m that hungry, but servants aren’t allowed to eat between meals.”
Ibrahim could see the duke untying the corners of the cloth napkin.
“Grapes!” Meg squealed when he produced a large bunch of pale green fruits. “Oh, how did you know? They’re my favorites!
“Ach, lass, last week you said you liked strawberries best,” McLain teased.
“Well yes, but that was last week,” Meg pointed out. “This week grapes are my favorites.”
“I do like a lass with an open mind. Open up, now.” He popped a grape into Meg’s open mouth. She closed her eyes and gave a little moan of pleasure.
“Mmmmmm, they’re so sweeeet,” she sighed happily. “I don’t usually get anything this nice to eat.”
“Ah, go on with ye, lass,” Duke Dhugal chuckled, feeding her another grape. “If one must be a servant, the royal household is the place to be. There are plenty of lasses who would trade places with you for the chance to eat meat every day and sleep in a warm bed every night!”
Meg pouted, more to be alluring than out of any real displeasure, Ibrahim guessed. “You should try being a servant if you think it’s so wonderful, m’lord,” she complained then spoiled the look with a smile. “It’s hard work all day long, and everyone orders you about. And the chamberlain is ever so strict. So’s Her Majesty.”
“Queen Araxie is strict? She’s barely had time to settle in yet, lass.”
“No, Queen Jehana. We’re hardly allowed even to talk to men.”
“Weel, you’re talking to a man now, aren’t you darlin’?” McLain plucked another grape off the stem and tucked it between Meg’s breasts.
“You are a silly dukey!” she squealed laughing. “How am I supposed to eat a grape down there?”
“Here’s one for you, lass. The one down there’s for me.” He poked another grape into Meg’s mouth and then buried his face between her breasts. In pursuit of the fruit, perhaps.
Or perhaps not, Ibrahim thought. His respect for the duke’s flirting technique rose a few notches.
“Her Majesty wouldn’t like it at all if she knew where I was right now,” Meg said breathily. Her hands had come up to caress the duke’s hair.
“I willnae tell her if you won’t, Meg, my lass,” McLain chuckled. “An’ my father would frown and mutter if he knew where I was.”
Ibrahim could see him swallow something, and then push another grape down between Meg’s breasts-which were now even more exposed than before. He felt a reluctant stirring deep inside himself at the sight. It had been a very long time since he’d had a woman. Not for him, the austere, celibate life of the Anviller knights. He was glad to think that his disappearance - nowa fortnight in duration-would make it almost impossible to return to Djellarda without incurring suspicion.
“I wonder if Her Majesty was strict with the King too?” Meg asked. “He never even looks at us.” Her voice was wistful.
“Meg, lass, the King’s tucked up in bed with his own bonnie queen. You’ll not find him climbing hayloft ladders to meet serving girls in the dead of night, anyway. An’ particularly not now that he’s married.”
“Oh, I know,” Meg sighed. “But it’s a pity. He could have taken all of us up here if he’d wanted. We all think he’s the handsomest man ever. We cried all night when he got married this summer.”
“What, all of you lasses at once?” McLain asked lightly. “He’d have panicked!”
“No, silly!” Meg laughed. “One at a time, of course. But any of us would have gone anywhere to please him if he’d so much as crooked a finger at us.”
“Meg, he’s had princesses by the dozens paraded in front of him. If they couldn’t interest him, how could servant girls?”
“I wish I were a princess,” Meg sighed. “I helped Kayla tidy Her Majesty’s chambers this morning, since Anne had a toothache. And oh, she has nice things. I saw an ivory comb on her dressing table. It had little jewels set in gold all along the top, too!”
“Yes I know, I was with the King when he chose it for her,” McLain sighed patiently. “Meg-“
“I wish I were a queen, too,” Meg sighed. “All she has to do is sit about wearing beautiful clothes and be admired all day, and people bring her everything she needs. Do you know, I don’t think she’s ever had to pick up so much as a pin in her life!”
“She may not sweep floors or make beds or pick things up off the floor, but Her Majesty still has to work hard,” the Duke replied. “Being a Queen is very difficult.”
“Go on with you! She never does a stroke of work that I can see. Not real work, anyway. And every night she gets to sleep with the King. Do you think His Majesty likes her?”
“He’s in love with her, Meg! Of course he likes sleeping with her.”
“I meant, did you know he liked blonde ladies, most?”
“They sleep together all the time because everyone wants the new Queen to have a baby, soon,” Meg said importantly. “I heard Queen Jehana say so to the Duchess Meraude. But later on, he might like to try different girls.”
“Ah lass, if you’ve got your cap set for the King, I’d not count on it,” McLain sighed. “He doesn’t just sleep with his wife because he’s hoping for a baby.”
“What’s wrong with me?” Meg pouted.
“Nothin’ at all darlin’,” McLain cooed. “You’re up in a hayloft with a duke who likes you quite a lot. That’s none so bad, is it?” He gave her another kiss, more sensual than the first. But Meg turned her face away from him afterwards, her expression sullen.
“Prince Conall liked me, so why wouldn’t the king ever sleep with me?”
“Prince Conall liked any girl under thirty and wearing a skirt, just about,” McLain grumbled. “He got that from old King Donal. His Majesty is a lot more cautious, that’s all. And if he notices you at all, it’s only as a maidservant and because he wants you to fetch something or else take it away.”
“He doesn’t like commoners, you mean?”
“Well, perhaps I do at that.”
Ibrahim could tell the Duke was holding on hard to his patience.
“Meg, you’re a maidservant. The King’s a fair bit above your likes and dislikes.”
“I attracted a duke, didn’t I?”
“Aye, ye did. But to tell ye the truth, lass, at heart, I’m more a border lord than I am a duke. I’m still not used to it, and all this grandeur makes me nervous.”
“So you’re saying if you were a real duke-duke, like the Duke of Corwyn, I wouldn’t interest you?” Meg turned away from McLain abruptly and began to re-lace the opening of her gown.
Ibrahim winced at the heat in Meg’s voice even as he enjoyed McLain’s discomfiture.
“I am a real duke, sweetheart,” McLain wheedled. “Now come, along and have some more grapes. If the King’s not interested, it’s just because of the way he is. It doesnae mean there’s anything wrong with you.”
“Really?” Meg tilted her head slightly back in the duke’s direction.
“In fact, almost everything is right with you, Meglet,” McLain crooned. “You’re pretty enough to be a noblewoman and prettier than some of the grand, titled ladies I’ve seen.” He crept his right hand around and caressed Meg’s breast again. She allowed this to happen, although she did not smile at him.
“Then would you marry me? Make me your duchess?”
“Would I what?!”
McLain’s face was a comical study of amusement, embarrassment and astonishment. Ibrahim thought that if a live fish had leaped through the man’s open mouth and slid down his throat, he could not look more comically surprised.
“Meg, now be realistic! The King would never let me marry you.”
Even if he wanted to marry her, Ibrahim thought with grim amusement. A man with less care for the feelings of others could make the magnitude of Meg’s presumption painfully clear to her. He rather liked the Duke for considering the feelings of a common servant girl. Of course, he might still want to bed her, and for that, she’d need to be willing.
“Why not?” Meg whined.
“I’m expected to marry a lady who’s got a good dowry and hopefully a title of her own, Meg. That’s the way marriage is for people like me. Yer father is a gardener, an’ yer mother works in the castle laundry. I don’t doubt they’re good, honest people, but ye’ve no dowry, no title and no lands. An’ ye wouldn’ know how to run a household consisting of hundreds of people, would ye?”
“I could learn!”
“Maybe ye could. But I’m afraid it’s impossible, darlin’. I’m sorry.”
“I might have had the King, but I was willing to settle for you,” Meg muttered.
“That’s very generous,” McLain drawled. “I’m sure I’m sensible of the honor.”
“But not anymore!” Meg fished the grape out of her bosom and threw it back at the duke, hitting him in the nose, making him yelp.
“Oh now Meglet, don’t go running off in a pet! The truth is hard sometimes, but it is the truth! The King doesnae want ye, he wants the wife he has. An’ it’s not just a question of dynastic convenience between them. As for me, it’s just not done for a duke to marry a servant girl!”
“No, but you’re willing to use me,” Meg flung back over her shoulder as she climbed to her feet. “But I only sleep with Kings and Princes, not with silly dukes!” She scooped up her shoes and came stomping back toward the ladder. She was too indignant to notice Ibrahim, fortunately, even when their faces were nearly on the level just before she disappeared down the ladder.
When she was gone, McLain suddenly let out an inarticulate bellow of frustration with all a thwarted young man’s passion in it
“This isn’t fair, Lord!” he shouted, shaking his left fist up at the stable roof. “I don’t ask You for much! But now that he’s married, once, just once can’t I meet a girl who doesn’t want to talk about him all the time? And one who might even think that the acquaintance of a friendly duke is worth cultivating!?”
Ibrahim felt a stir of both disappointment and sympathy for McLain himself. If he must wait for satisfaction until he returned home safely, watching was the next best thing, and he’d rather been enjoying this.
“It’s my father isn’t it?” McLain muttered as he too stood and began brushing hay and dust from his clothing. “Been wearing out his knees hasn’t he, with all his praying that You’ll keep me as the last virgin knight in Gwynedd? Sometimes being a bishop’s son can be a right nuisance!”
He positively stamped toward the ladder and slid more than climbed down the first few rungs. Then he froze as his eyes and Ibrahim’s met.