Disclaimer: Everything here (besides the few things you don't know) belongs to JK Rowling, creator of the worlds of Harry Potter.
A/N: lo and behold! The impossible has happened! Star of the North has actually updated Fall from Grace - all hail her for her fantastic recovery from the world of Writer's Block! And it's a looooooooong chapter that she has brought to you!
Heh. Missed me?
This chapter will once again feature Ceridwen and Gawain, and also a little of Ryan and a few other old acquaintances from Tale, but I promise that there will be more of Rosalind and Seraphine in chapters to come. I have not forgotten about them!
Chapter 4 - Elopement
"A delicate issue which concerned the Knights of the Phoenix is that of women. The average Knight lived over three quarters of the year away from home and family, in the company of no one but other Knights and the occasional camp follower which found their company fascinating. However, the higher ranks always frowned upon - at least theoretically - the act of taking said follower to bed.
"What do we have then? Bluntly said, we have hundreds of passion-starved men who live together in close quarters for long periods of the year in which they are separated from their wives or lovers or both. It is, as a wise man once put into words, a clear mix headed for disaster. More than once Knights were incapacitated during fights over a single camp follower, and not once, to the great shame of the entire Order, was a simple woman in the places the Knights went to was molested in the most inappropriate of ways.
"We seem to think that the Order was made of nothing but moral men whose primary cause was to protect and guard over the wizarding community, but in truth, like every society in the world, whether magic or Muggle, the Order, too, had its corrupt core.
"But this is a digression from the subject at hand. The problem of women continued to follow the Order all throughout the years of its existence, starting at the very beginning. Therefore we find that not many of the Knights tied themselves down to a wife until much later in life, when they were more settled and sent to less dangerous assignments. The few exceptions, however, seemed to somehow manage between their two lifestyles, and even managed healthy relationships including children…"
- The Legacy of the Phoenix, A Study of History (Challenges); Ryan Ravenclaw
Ceridwen made her way down the path angrily. It had been three days since her father had rejected Gawain's proposal and she had seen neither hair nor hide of him since. She even went as far as to sneak to his family's home and climb up to his window in an attempt to speak with him. His mother caught her in the act, however, and gave her the first piece of worthy information she had gotten every since her love had left her home with that sad expression on his face. So now she was following Lady Gryffindor's instructions and tracing the steps of her elusive man.
He would get an earful when she would catch up with him.
However, upon finally catching glimpse of him, all those thoughts left her mind abruptly. He was standing at the top of a bare hill on the eastern border of his lands, his dark, long hair whipping about him in the violent wind coming from the west. There was something wild, feral, in this picture in front of her eyes - something which mirrored her own pain and desperation.
She could still not believe the determination in her father's voice as he had sentenced her to be enslaved to a man she did not know and did not love. She wanted nothing but to curl up in Gawain's arms and discover that it had all been a bad dream, that her father would give his blessing to the couple and that they would live happily ever after.
But as she watched him standing there, his body exposed to the wind, not bothering to push away the strands flying into his face, she knew it was all true, that she had not dreamt it.
At first he either did not hear her voice over the wind or chose not to answer. He seemed oblivious to her presence, all his attention focusing on the distant hills that were not within the stretches of his property. Finally, however, he turned to face her, and she could see tears streaming down from his eyes.
"It was never meant to be, was it?" he asked only loudly enough to reach her ears, his face a mask of pain. "We were doomed from the start - he was never going to allow us to be together."
"Don't say that!" she yelled desperately, lifting her skirts high enough to allow her to run to him. "Gawain, you can't give up - not now!"
She tried to get to him, to throw her arms around him and beg for him to return to her home and speak with her father again, plead with him to change his mind. But as she was only a few steps away from him, she felt an invisible wall coming between them, not allowing her to go any further, to touch him, to kiss him.
"Gawain!" she shrieked, pounding on the empty air. "Let me through!"
"No," he said, his eyes deadened. "As we speak your marriage contract is already signed by both your father and Lord Bartholomew. You are promised to another man, and as a Knight I cannot touch the property of someone who is not me. You are off-limits to me, my love. We can never be together."
"Damn your honour, Gawain! How can you reduce me to the level of property?" she spat the offensive word. "Does that make it easier on you? Thinking that what you're giving up is not worth the effort? How can you do this to me? To us?"
She waited for his reply, but he only turned away, refusing to look at her, as though even that was trespassing on another's possession. She felt tears running down her cheeks to match those previously shed by him. "Very well, Gawain. If you cannot face your fears and stand for your own, there is nothing I can do, now is there? Just remember - I love you, and you - you just closed the lid over our last chance at happiness.
And with that she fled.
Gawain did not know how he had made it back to camp, or how he managed to shrug the questions of his companions at his deadened expression and empty eyes. He vaguely knew, on some level, that they all realized that Lord Jervis had rejected him as a worthy husband to his daughter and that Gawain did not want to speak of it.
He pushed everyone away during those few weeks back, never speaking to any of his old friends, ignoring the Lord Commander's summons despite it being mutinous, and only giving the most cursory amount of thought to anyone trying to catch his attention. He rarely ate and his sleep was punctured by nightmares, featuring Ceridwen and her last words to him, spoken in that vehement tone.
In only a short while there were dark circles beneath his eyes and he lost significant weight. He was always tired, but was so afraid to sleep that he had taken to walking every time he felt his eyes falter. He became a loner, keeping to himself and only doing his duties because that was what they were - duties. It was possibly the only thing that kept him going.
He could not believe that he would never be able to hold his love again, to touch her soft body or kiss her inviting lips. He hated the man that would be able to do that because Lord Jervis saw him as worthier than Gawain.
He was slowly drowning - in shame and guilt for the way he treated Ceridwen for the possibly last time they had seen each other, calling her property and not allowing her to get near him, in pain and self-misery for losing the only woman he would ever love to another man, and finally, in anger and fury for the unfairness of the world and of Lord Jervis.
He had no reason to live anymore and just wanted to let go and let the stream carry him away - it did not matter to where.
Finally, his behaviour became so extreme that even the devoted Ryan who had stuck by him despite his apathy had had enough. One evening, as they were having their weekly Strategy lesson and Gawain was obviously out of sorts, not bothering too much with listening to what the boy was trying to say, Ryan slammed his fist on the table, his eyes burning.
"Are you regretting your decision to do as the Lord Commander asked?"
His sharp question startled Gawain so much that for the first time in three weeks he actually focused on his charge instead of simply glancing over him. "What?"
"I asked - are you regretting your decision to do as the Lord Commander asked and teach me?"
"Why would I do that?" he asked in befuddlement. "I would never take back that decision."
"Then why are you acting as though I am a burden to you and that our lessons together are nothing but a repulsive duty that you must do and wish to discard as soon as possible?" Ryan's face was dark and angry as Gawain had never seen it before. The young boy was always cheerful and optimistic. No matter what happened - rain or shine, numerous bruises or shouting swordsmasters, Ryan always had a grin splitting his face from ear to ear. This time, however, he was angry - and more than that. He was furious. That expression did not sit well with his normally cheery complexion. This, more than anything, startled him awake after three weeks of not caring about anything.
"What do you mean?"
"What do I mean?" he suddenly sounded more exasperated than angry. "You've been so absorbed in your own grief to notice anything around you. Everyone can see it. This business with your lady is eating you from inside and it's ruining you. You have to do something about it."
"And what can I do?" Gawain burst, angry that a child that young thought himself more knowledgeable in the love and heartache departments than he and showing real emotion once again, something he vowed to himself would never happen. "Her father would not allow me to marry her. Once he has declared it - I have nothing to do about it. I may have been able to try and persuade him, but he has already made contract with another lord to marry Ceridwen off to his son! There's nothing left for me to do! Nothing - do you hear!"
"You love her, don't you?" Ryan asked unfazed, his hazel eyes serious.
Gawain gave him a look that he thought would convey his answer, but Ryan stubbornly waited for a verbal reply. Finally he gave up. "Yes, Ryan. I do love her very much. I would die for her if she needed me to do so."
"That's very noble of you," Ryan said with an impish cast to his eyes, "but I do believe she would prefer having you intact for the wedding night."
Before Gawain could proceed to strangle his young protégé (though by Ryan's remark he found himself wondering how an eleven-year-old child even knew of such matters), Ryan ran out of reach, nimble as a mouse, and from the safety of distance called "If you love her so much, you great fool, then marry her no matter what her father says! Rules were made to be broken!"
Though he practically slaved Ryan around for the next week or so for his impudence, Gawain had to admit that the boy's words stuck.
Rules were made to be broken, and if he truly loved Ceridwen as he always claimed, than there was no reason for him not to marry her despite her father's rejection of his offer.
It took him a while to figure it out, but soon a plan was formed, and he knew just the people to aid him with it - as crazy as initially it may sound. He knew it may take him a while to convince the people he had in mind, but he also knew that at least one of them would stick by him no matter what - and that he already had one firm ally in the form of a very clumsy, very impertinent and surprisingly - very acute - boy.
His first step then, would be to go to that one man who would support him without question.
Sir Rhys was a man who had seen, heard and experienced many strange things in his lifetime, being one of the more veteran Knights in the field, but every now and then came someone and revealed to the Knight that one learned something new every day.
He looked at his younger friend with wide-eyed astonishment. He had known Gawain ever since the lad had joined the Order, still naïve and ignorant of what the world truly entailed for men like him. He knew him as an impulsive yet fantastically sharp person, whose decisions were mostly worthy and correct for the time they were made. This time, however, he simply could not wrap his mind around the idea Gawain was trying to get through to him.
"You want what?" he repeated in a weak voice.
"To elope," Gawain explained as though it was that obvious. It was an expression very much reminiscent of the one adopted by Ryan, Gawain's charge whenever he thought his words were self-explanatory, no matter what anyone else thought. The two were spending far too much time in each other's company. "Cerdiwen's father will not allow us to marry, and so we want to elope."
"You mean you, Gawain, want to elope," Rhys pointed out. "Did you even ask Ceridwen about this?"
"No, but I know she would come," the young man said with confidence Rhys knew he truly felt. "Will you help us, then?"
Sighing, Rhys nodded. He could never say no to Gawain. The boy had always been just too determined. "Who else is in?"
"Deiniol, Hallsteinn, Gwilym, Reynard - if I can convince him that the Old Man won't punish him - and Ryan, of course."
"It was his idea to begin with."
The two were spending far, far too long a time together.
"I know what you're thinking, Rhys."
"And what am I thinking, precisely?"
"You're thinking that because this was Ryan's idea it is reckless and not thought out."
"When did you become a mind reader?" Rhys asked innocently.
"Don't be sarcastic, Rhys. Ryan just gave me the general idea: Rules were made to be broken. If Ceridwen will have me, then I will make her my wife no matter what."
Rhys could hear Ryan saying the same things. It just sounded like something that boy would say, with his permanently innocent expression that hid the mischievous soul within. He truly loved the boy, like many of his fellow Knights, but really… It was as though Gawain was retreating into that selfsame age himself.
"So…" he said, striving to make peace. "What is your plan?"
"My dearest Ceridwen,
"I do realize that our parting was not of the friendliest kind. I had acted like a swine, and I want you to know that I will understand if this letter will find its way to your fireplace, unread. Regardless, I do hope you will read this letter, for her I will outline an idea that may or may not appeal to you. Either way, I will know your decision in the Council ball.
"First, I want you to know that I love you and have not stopped loving you despite my coldness towards you when last we met. An excellent youth named Ryan had made me see this. You will like him, I think. I will make sure you two meet if ever you accept my proposal.
"And so, without further ado, I will explain my plan to you:
"We are to elope.
"Yes, I can see you gaping at the letter now, wondering if I had lost my mind, but I assure you that I have not. I only speak from the bottom of my heart and with all the love that I have. I do realize the implications this will have on your relationship with your family and your father in particular, but know that I cannot stand to think that you will marry another. I just cannot have it.
"Please, my lovely Ceridwen. Please consider this. Please consider me as your husband at the price of disobeying your father. I will give you everything that I have - I will give up everything that I have just to have you in my arms for the rest of our lives.
"If you agree, then meet me at the Council ball. I shall be waiting by the statue of Merlin in the entrance hall. If you do not arrive by the end of the evening, I shall know your decision is against me. If you will… please do, my love, for I have no life without you.
Ceridwen was waiting in her mother's drawing room for Caleb, her father's manservant, to come and call for her. She was sitting motionless, wearing her finest of house-gowns, her hands frozen in her lap, her eyes staring straight forward. She could have been a statue for all the movement she made, all prettied up for her husband-to-be.
For this was why she was waiting. Lord Leopold, son of Lord Bartholomew, was coming to Lord Jervis' household to look upon the face of his future bride and to escort them all to the Council ball at Stonehenge. Ceridwen was wondering just how much older than herself he was, having never met him before.
The only thing that was keeping her in her place and not running for her life, was the comforting weight in the pocket of her gown of the parchment that had arrived only the night before, bearing Gawain's seal. She still could believe what was written in it, but was immensely relieved that she had not listened to her first impulse and threw it immediately into the fire. Had she done that, she would not have had hope.
"My lady?" Caleb's voice called formally. "Your betrothed has arrived. Your father asks for your presence in the hall."
Betrothed… That word was just wrong in context to anyone but Gawain. But Ceridwen knew that she must not betray the plan her love had formed. She will play the little obedient lady, crushed under her father's heel as a dutiful daughter should be. Oh, yes, she will play his game. He would be the one losing in the end.
"Ah! Ceridwen!" her father called the moment she stepped into the hall. "I would like you to meet Lord Leopold. He has been very anxious to meet you, you know!" There was a very heavy undertone in his voice, making sure she knew her place and that she would play along.
He and her mother were standing next to tall man in fine clothing, her mother's hand lightly resting on her father's arm, making a show of being a good wife. This was Ceridwen's cue for obedience.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, my lord," she said through clenched teeth. She was not at all pleased to meet the man who was supposed to replace her beloved Gawain as her husband. True, he was not particularly ugly, nor did his body emit rank stench like some of her father's acquaintances'. Lord Bartholomew's youngest son was a soft-spoken, willowy man in his late twenties, whose manners were impeccable and who made sure his appearance was respectable as well, but he simply was no match to Gawain.
Somewhere in the back of her mind Ceridwen felt guilty at what she was going to do, making Lord Leopold look like a complete fool. He would be just one step away from being a cuckold in their society. But this feeling of guilt was quickly suppressed by her determination to be with Gawain no matter what. No decorum would stop her from achieving that goal. Her father had begun this, and she was about to fight him nail and tooth, no matter the consequences.
"You are lovely just as your father had described," Leopold said as he stooped low to kiss the back of her hand. "I am looking forward to spending the dance with you."
"As am I," she lied blatantly, forcing a smile on frozen features.
He looked amused but said nothing. Maybe he could see the prejudiced dislike in her eyes, or maybe he just saw her as an amusing child, a toy to be played with. Either way, she did not care. He was the tool by which her love was torn away from her and therefore, to her, he was very much despicable.
Dinner that night almost made Ceridwen want to cry. Her mother would speak of nothing but the wedding - what gown Ceridwen should wear, what flowers would decorate the hall of Lord Jervis' house, who would be invited (with a subtle comment as to whom will not be invited) and where the newly-weds would spend their first night together. Her father spoke solely to Lord Leopold, and all he spoke of was the managing of estates and the bride price he was expected to pay to the younger man.
Her brothers were no help either. All three seemed to like the stranger to their home, finding him much more stable and trustworthy than the young man they had known since childhood. She was about to cry in outrage at that, not believing their complete dismissal of Gawain.
All through that evening, she kept concentrating on the single thought, that come next week, no matter what her family thought or said, she would be in Gawain's arms, as his wife, and Lord Leopold would remain unmarried. She knew she was being cold-hearted, but so had been her father only three weeks before when he dismissed Gawain. They all deserved it. And she - she deserved to be happy.
When night came, and she was finally left alone in her room, Ceridwen began planning her escape.
"What if she won't come?"
Ryan sighed exasperatedly for what seemed like the hundredth time since the finest of Britain's magic community began streaming into Stonehenge. It was just the same amount of times that Gawain had asked that specific question in different variations. Sometimes the young Squire wondered who was the adult in their relationship.
"She will be coming, Gawain," he said with as much patience as he could muster after so many times. "Don't fret. Just because she hasn't run into your arms five minutes into the reception doesn't mean that she's not about to come - do get a grip."
Gawain stared at him for a moment, looking like a lost puppy, before he blinked. "I'm doing it again, am I not?"
"Being a complete idiot? Yes, you are. Now get back to your place. You don't really want this Lord Jervis and Ceridwen's brothers spotting you lurking about. And I'm rather certain that her future husband will not be too happy to see you either - so do your disappearing act already."
"Are you patronizing me?" Gawain asked suspiciously, making Ryan discreetly as possible roll his eyes.
"Of course not. Run along."
While a grumbling Gawain made his way to his shadowy hiding place behind Merlin's statue, Ryan returned to his own post, just beside the grand doors of the entrance hall, spying at the newcomers via the main portal, looking for a young woman matching Ceridwen's description. His orders were to wait until he saw her, and then make his way to the escape route, to make sure the road was clear.
He was a little sorry that he would not be there for Gawain's wedding, but secrecy was first priority here, and as the Lord Commander's Squire he was expected to be by his lord's side throughout the evening. Naturally, he was not by his lord's side at the moment, but Lord Commander Dugald had told him that he may stay with Gawain for as long as he wished. 'As long as he wished' being until Gawain sneaked off with his soon-to-be-wife.
Provided she would come.
Gawain was on the verge of running back to where Ryan was and confiding his doubts and fears in him, but held himself back. He had the strangest feeling that Ryan, his young ward, was patronizing him. But then again, that was absolutely ridiculous, was it not? It was probably just his overactive imagination, prodded by his anxiousness. Ryan would never do such a thing.
Ryan was a good boy.
One day he wanted to have such a boy of his own, so intelligent and well-mannered.
Though perhaps will fewer bruises.
But for that, of course, he would need Ceridwen.
His lovely soon-to-be wife.
Where is she!
He was feeling so edgy. He did not realize when first he formed his plan what a nerve-racking experience it would be, standing and waiting for her to either show up or leave him to face the rest of his life alone. Whatever had possessed him to tell her that the answer he was waiting for could wait until she appeared (or did not) behind Merlin's statue? Why did he not just ask her to owl him with her reply? He was a fool - that is what he was.
Leaning on the statue of Merlin in the shadows it created in its corner, Gawain watched as the lords and ladies of magic Britain strode past, making their way in their fancy clothes into the ball chamber just off the entrance hall. He recognized many of them, both as his father's acquaintances from the time before the man died and from his own experience as a Knight and Lord. He tried distracting himself by imagining what they were saying, what was the newest gossip, but soon it failed him. Time was agonizingly slowly passing, and still there was no Ceridwen in sight.
Just on the verge of starting to bite his fingernails, some two hours into the reception preceding the ball, a low whistle caught his attention. Over the noise of the still coming dignitaries, he at first thought he was imagining things after his long wait. Then, however, it was followed by another. No one else seemed to hear it, which was just Ryan's talent. The boy was invisible and silent as a mouse when he wanted to be.
His heart pounding wildly in his chest, Gawain barely allowed himself to breathe. Two whistles. Ceridwen has arrived.
Now watching intently through the gap between the statue and the wall, Gawain felt his breath leaving his throat in a rattling sound. Were was she?
And then, walking gracefully towards the ball chamber, on a tall man's arm, she passed his hiding place, not even glancing his way. She was wearing her most beautiful gown - dark blue with a gold trim, that he always thought brought out her figure in the best possible way. And she was smiling at something the tall man had said. She was smiling. Gawain thought he could hear his heart break.
With the light dying in his eyes, he slumped down the statue's stand, until he was sitting on the floor with his back to the entrance hall, his eyes staring blankly at the marble wall in front of him.
He could not believe it. It was over.
It was all over.
Ceridwen gave another fake smile at Lord Leopold's redundant story. She even managed to let out a small, lilting laugh. Had Gawain been there beside her, he would have been able to hear that there was nothing behind it. Leopold, however, was not learned in the ways of the young woman who was being forced into marrying him, and therefore could not tell that she was only pretending to enjoy his company.
The man, she realized as soon as they were left alone to their own devices, was as dull as they came. He was polite and charming, but he held no interest for her. He was the most boring person she had ever had the misfortune to meet. And this was the man she was expected to spend the rest of her life with?
Not bloody likely.
They had been late in coming to the ball because her lazy brothers left getting ready to the last possible moment. She was scared that Gawain may have given up hope and left already. Knowing she had to speed up her plans, she started looking for an opening - something that would allow her to leave Leopold for a few moments, something that will make him stay away and not come with her. It had to be repelling enough to make him forget his chivalry and follow her no matter what for the sake of her dignity. After all, it would not do for a betrothed young woman to wander alone in the dark halls of Stonehenge.
"Oh, my," she let out in a small squeak.
"What is it?" Leopold asked concernedly.
"I think that…Oh, my, but this isn't a proper thing to talk about with a man," she said, wincing.
"Are you in pain?" he asked, noting that wince.
"I… ow!" she doubled over, as though in pain.
"Should I take you outside?"
"No! I mean… it's… women's business… I'm sorry. It isn't really proper…" she let out in small gasps, hugging her abdomen. "I… please excuse me, Lord Leopold."
Assuring herself that the man was bright enough to realize what she was trying to convey, she fled the scene, still hugging her lower body. Sparing a glance behind her shoulder, she found herself smirking, seeing the mildly nauseated expression on the man's face. Congratulating herself on her acting abilities, Ceridwen straightened once out of view and made her way to the entrance hall.
The hall was empty as she stepped inside, and only dimly lit now that everyone was inside the ball chamber. Her heart beating loudly, she made her way to the grand statue of Merlin at the far corner of the hall. She prayed that he would still be there, that he had not given up on her.
Then she saw him, slumped as though in defeat, behind the statue, staring emptily at the wall.
"Gawain?" she called softly.
Though she truly thought she had spoken quietly, he jumped from his place as though she shouted. Scrambling to his feet, the love of her life stared at her with wide eyes, as though thinking she was a ghost, or perhaps a figment of his imagination. She did not know for how long they stood there, she, with his name on her lips, he, with wide, red-rimmed eyes. Finally, he spoke.
"You came," he croaked.
"Of course I did," she said, affronted. "Did you really think that I would not?"
"I…" he faltered, then recomposed himself. "I was a fool. However, we must go now, before anyone notices your absence."
"Yes, I gave Lord Leopold a very flimsy excuse, and I am certain that Mother would be after me in a matter of minutes. She knows it's not my time yet."
"Your time…?" he asked, confused, as he began leading her away from the statue.
"Never mind," she muttered. "Men really should not know of those matters."
Then they were silent again as they crossed the hall and went through a small door half-hidden behind one of the columns bordering the huge space.
"It's clear!" Ryan's urgent whisper reached Gawain's ears again and again as the two lovers slipped through deserted hallways and forgotten doors. His heart beating like a drum within his chest, he tightened his hold on Ceridwen's hand and pulled her after him and into the darkness. Ryan was before them every step of the way, making sure no one was in the way.
"Who was that?" her breath tickled the back of his neck. There was a tremour in her voice - whether stemming out of fear or excitement, he could not tell.
"That was Ryan," he whispered, leading her down the steep, barely-used stone staircase that was there destination and into a darkness barely made light by his lit wand. "You will meet him later on, when we are safely married. He's the one keeping an eye out for us. No one notices him anyway, so he's the best choice to do just that."
"Where are we going?" she then asked, and he realized that she was probably scared out of her wits. "I've never been to this part of Stonehenge before."
"It's only to be expected," he said in the calmest voice possible, hoping to give her comfort. "This is the old getaway tunnel. It leads through several underground levels, all the way to the outskirts of Amblesberie. It's only known to the Lords of the Council, so you should feel privileged. One only learns of this place when becoming a Lord."
"And what would we be doing once we arrive Amblesberie?" she continued in that same small voice that was so unlike her, trying to distract her from her growing fear.
"We will meet up with Rhys, Deiniol and Hallsteinn, then we will go to a secluded place where no one will be able to find us. There Rhys will marry us."
"Does he have the qualification for it?"
He chuckled despite himself. "Are you trying to get out of this, my darling Ceridwen?"
"No!" she said, fear no longer in her voice, but outrage.
"Calm down, my love," he soothed. "You should know better than most that no qualification is needed as long as he is older than us, is a respected elder in some sort of community and is willing to give his blessing. Rhys is like a father to me and is more than willing to do this for us despite the possibility of the Lord Commander being angry with him because of it. We will be lawfully wedded, Ceridwen - do not worry about it."
He knew, however, that she could not do anything but worry. She was going against her father's will, she will most likely be disowned by her family and her future was unknown. If that was not cause for worry, then what was?
Once again reaffirming his grip on her hand, he wished he could give her what comfort he had. And so, in silence they continued their journey to the belly of the earth, walking the trail set by some farseeing lord somewhere in the long forgotten past.
It could have been hours or even days later when they finally emerged from the tunnel. There was no feeling of time passing within the darkness, only the blind feel of roughly hewn stone wall against his palm. There was no way of measuring how long it had taken them. All he could think of was that he was grateful it was over. He was really not one for closed spaces. The breath of fresh air on his face made him sigh in relief and loosen his hold on Ceridwen only slightly.
The exit of the getaway tunnel was disguised by an ancient spell that he was not sure anyone living at that time could duplicate. It was so complicated and practically stank of Ancient Magic.
It appeared to be early morning as they stepped unto the soft grass that padded the exit from the tunnel. It had taken them the entire night to reach their destination. He was not surprised. Though he had never taken the route himself before, other lords told him that it was a very long walk underground.
But this was no time for contemplations. His sharp eyes began almost immediately to look for the three people he knew should be there. A short distance away from where they were standing stood the first houses of the Muggle village of Amblesberie, bathed by the golden light of the rising sun. To the other side was an untamed patch of woodland. Rhys and the other two Knights were nowhere to be found.
"Gawain… do you smell smoke?" Ceridwen wrinkled her nose at the smell of burning wood.
"Why - yes, I do believe you are right," he said, catching a whiff of the smell himself, and then seeing the thin, twisting column of smoke coming from behind a low hill to the left, just beside the trees.
Once again clasping hands, the two cautiously made their way to the source of the smoke. And there, just beyond the hill, was a small fire on which was a small, blackened pot that let out a pleasant fragrance of cooking meat and vegetables. Next to the fire sat three men, one older than the other two, who were about Gawain's own age.
Even without the armour on their bodies one could tell they were Knights.
Wary of alarming them, Gawain cleared his throat a safe distance away.
In seconds, the three had their wands trained at the young couple, and were already reaching for their swords. Then, however, they recognized the intruders and lowered their weapons with smiles on their faces.
"Gawain, my boy!" Rhys said in relief. "We haven't expected you for another hour yet!"
"We made good time from Stonehenge," Gawain said as he tried helping Ceridwen down the hill, only to be bluntly told off.
"Don't try cuddling me as though I was a child," she told him sharply as she marched to the three Knights. "I thank you for your willingness to help Gawain and myself, good sirs. I am Lady Ceridwen and I am very pleased to make your acquaintance."
"Got yourself a fiery one, eh?" Hallsteinn asked with a twinkle in his eyes. "I do believe you made the right choice. She will keep you right on your toes, old friend."
"I do believe you should close your mouth, Hallsteinn," Deiniol said pleasantly. "The fiery one looks as though she is ready to hex you all the way to Stonehenge and back - and I do believe she is quite capable of doing just that. Am I right, my lady?"
"Quite," Ceridwen said, and Gawain could tell that she took a liking to his two friends.
"Ceridwen," he hurriedly said. "I would like you to meet Sir Rhys. It is thanks to him that we were able to pull this off."
His future wife turning to face his old teacher, she curtsied to the man. "Pleased to meet you, Sir Rhys," she said as charmingly as possible.
"Rhys will do, child," Rhys said. "If you are to marry Gawain, then you are as good as family to me."
"Thank you," she said obviously surprised. Gawain could see a smile dawning on her face.
"Shall we go?" he asked, a little impatiently.
"First eat," Rhys said decisively. "I very much doubt the two of you stayed for the feast that was before the ball, since I already hear the search for Ceridwen has begun shortly after that."
"What!" she cried. "How can you know this? And if it is true, then we must hurry! If my father or Lord Leopold find us before we are married…"
"Calm yourself, my dear," he said, calm himself. "I know this because Reynard, another man whom your beloved had managed persuading into joining this little escapade, was there on watch and sent us an owl the moment your absence was discovered, and Gwilym, another Knight, has taken steps to make sure they thought you were running by horse - and to the other direction. The two of them will keep us posted if anyone even thinks of looking near here. So please eat, and as soon as you do, we will proceed into the woods and do what we came here to do."
It was tense breakfast, and despite both of them being hungry, neither ate much. They were too much on edge to eat without the food getting stuck in their dry throats. Finally, after what seemed like forever, Rhys got up to his feet and with a few twirls of his wand had everything, from pot to fire, gone, leaving no trace that anyone had camped there.
Gawain did not know how much time had passed, for again it moved like a thick fog for him. All he knew was that they walked through the small wood, Ceridwen's hand again firmly in his as Rhys led them to a small glade where he preformed a short ceremony, with Hallsteinn and Deiniol as witnesses, very much different than the traditional one that the young couple had in mind when they realized they wanted to get married, oh-so-long ago.
But it was done. Within ten minutes, Ceridwen and Gawain were married. Without grandeur, without any flowery speeches, teary mothers or gruff fathers. They were lawfully married and even if Lord Jervis or Lord Leopold would find them now, there was nothing they could do. The couple was married and the bond was unbreakable.
Gawain could not believe that Ceridwen was together with him, in the camp of the Order, cuddling against him, his own. And this, truly, was what amazed him the most. Ceridwen was his. No other man would ever be able to touch her, no matter her father's wishes. She was Ceridwen Gryffindor now, and so she would remain for the rest of her life.
He liked that. Ceridwen Gryffindor. It sounded just right.
The four Knights and the lady made their way to the camp immediately after the couple was safely wedded. There were a few close calls in which search parties looking for the Lady Ceridwen almost caught them, but at last they managed it.
It seemed as though the entire Order had known that they would come, and they all congratulated Gawain on successfully snatching his lady from under the nose of Lord Leopold. Gawain was somewhat surprised that they all knew they were married, but finally understood that it was really obvious, once one thought over it. After all, they all heard about her disappearance, and they all knew that Gawain was supposed to be at the ball as well and had disappeared early into the evening.
It was that simple, really.
The only thing that made Gawain a little subdued was that the Lord Commander was yet to arrive and therefore he could not celebrate with his partner-in-crime, the mastermind of the entire operation, who was bound to stay by his lord's side.
He really did want Ceridwen to meet Ryan.
"Gawain?" her voice suddenly startled him from his thoughts.
"There's a bug in my food."
He leaned in to see what she was talking about and easily spotted the wriggling black creature, burrowing its way happily through the stew in his wife's plate. Smiling, he shrugged. "Don't worry about it. It's good for you."
Ceridwen's disgusted expression made it all worth it.
Ahh… the joys of the military kitchen… I actually wanted Gawain to say "It's protein," but thought it was too anachronistic. That's what my mum always tells me when some fly decided doing a suicide dive into my cup when we eat outside… And that's the lesson for today, my friends. Protein's good for you - even if it comes in bug shape! ((makes gagging sounds at the back))
I can't promise the date in which the next chapter will arrive, as currently I am more focused on completing The Story of Four Friends, but I will do my best not to take too long this time… wish me luck! Thanks to all my wonderful reviewers!
Hugs and Kisses to all!
-Star of the North