The Most Relucant Bridegroom
Deryni Summer Challenge 2002 Entry
By: Katy Colby
Startled, Albin turned so
quickly he nearly tripped over his own feet. A woman stood in the
doorway, swathed in the soft blue and white robes of a novice nun. A few
coppery curls escaped the confines of her wimple, and from the flush on
her cheeks she had been exerting herself more than most.
She glanced at him before turning her attention to Jathan. If he'd ever seen eyes that green, Albin swore he'd sell his favorite stallion for hides and glue.
Then, to his surprise, she gave Jathan a respectful curtsy. "Forgive me, my lord. I came in search of a stableman. We have only just arrived and need assistance with one of our horses."
Jathan's smile widened. Albin realized the cause of the young sister's confusion. While he was dressed in common linen, Jathan wore a studded leather jerkin and velvet breeches. A heavy silver ring set with carigorns graced his hand. Fine leather boots covered his legs. He looked the nobleman in every respect.
Jathan cast Albin a mischievous look, then extended his hand to the novice. "Your interruption is most welcome, Sister. I am certain my . . . boy. . ," his grin widened, "can assist you."
*What do you think you are doing?* Albin fairly shouted in Jathan's mind.
*Giving you the chance to view the prizes before you meet them formally.*
*And did it never occur to you that I will be recognized the moment we walk out that door?*
*Don't be ridiculous. With all the confusion out there they wouldn't notice if Cinhil I rose up and walked out of the crypt.* Jathan gave Albin a mental nudge. "What are you waiting for, squire? The lady asked for help and we are going to aid her."
Albin followed the little nun into the courtyard. With graceful steps she slipped through the crowd and led him to a small party, apparently newly arrived. From the disarray of their rich clothing and the complete lack of any baggage he realized something serious must have happened.
His companion took the reins of a sorrel mare and motioned Albin closer. "Cinnamon is limping."
Given the state of these travelers she was worried about a horse? Albin shrugged off his confusion at the nun's priorities and approached the mare. At least this was something he could manage. He loved horses.
He examined the mare's legs one by one. The problem was easy enough to find. A shoe had come loose and fallen away, leaving the hoof bare on the cobblestones.
He fetched a small hammer, nails, a heavy blade for trimming the hoof, and a spare shoe from the stables. When he returned, Jathan stood between two young women, whose elegant dresses looked as if they'd been run on a mill wheel. Both were simpering in fine style. The sight nearly made Albin retch.
The nun smiled when she saw where his gaze wandered. "My sisters," she explained before he could voice a question. "They had the very good fortune to meet Prince Albin upon their arrival. I fear they have high hopes."
The real Prince Albin raised an eyebrow. Behind pursed lips he muttered something so foul he'd be on his knees for a solid week doing penance. Then again, that might keep him from the clutches of who knew how many twittering idiots.
He managed to sound civil when he spoke again. "Your sisters are here bent on matchmaking?"
"As is every other lovely young maid within traveling distance."
"Not every one." The remark slipped out before he could catch himself. To cover the error he braced the hoof between his knees and shoved several nails into his mouth for safekeeping. That should stop him from saying anything else stupid.
She actually giggled. "Nearly all, then. Nothing attracts hopefuls like an eligible prince."
Albin concentrated on trimming the rough edges from the hoof with a heavy knife. Fortunately the task required complete concentration so he could not watch his best friend playing his part or count the freckles on the little nun's nose.
"Tell me, what do you think of your master?" Both her question and her hesitant voice made him glance up.
As he was done with the knife anyway, Albin tucked it into his belt and picked up the horseshoe. He gathered the nails in his other hand so he could answer without sounding like an idiot even if he felt like one. "He's a complicated fellow. Often gets himself into more trouble than he can handle." He shot Jathan a scalding glare.
The little nun took the nails from him. She had to bend over to hold them where he could easily reach. "I am concerned about how he will treat my sisters, should he wed one of them."
One glance at her exquisite eyes told him she was truly concerned for her kinswomen. Albin felt like the veriest clod. He'd been marveling over the pattern of freckles on her upturned nose.
He could not taunt her with vague answers. "I would not worry overmuch, Sister. Should the prince, by some miracle, agree to marry any of these assembled maidens I know he will be most gentle with his bride."
Relief shone through the soft smile she gave him. "I feared it might be otherwise. You see, our mother died when Margareth and Elspeth were still too young to remember her. Father does his best, but his mind is often elsewhere as it should be, on the affairs of state. Daughters have little place in the greater matters."
"Nor do sons." The words came out under Albin's breath.
"I beg your pardon?"
*K'dassa! Her hearing was good.*
"Forgive me, Sister. I was merely commenting that we are having this conversation and have not introduced ourselves." He set the first nail and stretched out his mind. It was easy enough to part the tough layers of the hoof so the nail settled smoothly with only a few taps of the hammer.
She smiled again. It seemed the sun danced over her face despite the soft gray clouds overhead.
Albin forgot what he was doing as he watched her watching him. The second and third nails went in well, in spite of his inattention. On the fourth nail, however, his luck ran out. He mashed his finger soundly with the hammer.
His finger stung nearly as much as his pride. The little nun's eyes twinkled with mirth.
He dropped the hoof, noting as he did that the nail was securely set despite the accident.
She caught his hand in both of hers and examined it, apparently not at all put off by the amount of dirt the horse had left on him. "It doesn't look bad, you might soak it in some cold water, if you can, to bring down the swelling."
Then she turned and walked toward her sisters, her hands folded demurely in front of her.
As Albin turned back toward the stables his foot caught one remaining horseshoe nail left in the dirt. The little nun must have dropped it when she examined his injured finger.
He snatched it up and stuck it in his belt for safekeeping.