July 4th - Llyndruth Plain
"Now are you certain you have everything that you need?" asked my uncle, as he held out an arm to assist me into the litter. Brendan and Sister Luke were already settled in theirs.
"Yes, thank you, uncle," I replied, "We shall be perfectly fine. Please don't worry."
"I shall be back in Dhassa in two or three day's time, I expect. Will you still be there when I arrive?"
"I don't intend to leave for Rheljan before the end of the week. I want to send ahead to my father, rather than just turning up on his doorstep, and I don't know how much he will have heard about what has happened. Better that he gets used to the idea of his daughter being a traitor's widow gently, I think."
"Ah, my dear, what I wouldn't give to have had things turn out differently." Uncle Thomas squeezed my hand compassionately, and I lowered my eyes. I couldn't meet his, as in truth would I rather things had turned out differently? I would be returning to the north as Bran's wife rather than his widow and with the image of Alaric Morgan fixed in my memory.
"Thank you, uncle. It is tragic for Brendan that all this has happened, and he will be a long time getting over it, if he ever does completely." There, I hoped that sounded the right note of regret, while not actually saying that I grieved over Bran's passing. It wouldn't do to lie to one's uncle, especially when that uncle happens to be a bishop, but I wondered if he understood what I said. Surely he must have realised that there was little love between Bran and me.
Over my uncle's shoulder, I could see the King and Alaric emerge from Kelson's pavilion, the scarlet of the King's tunic making a splash of colour on a misty morning. Alaric was carrying a bundle wrapped in fabric and he and Kelson were talking earnestly, carrying on a conversation they had been having in the tent.
"We shall talk more of this later," Kelson was saying as he reached the litter, and he and Alaric both bent to kiss my uncle's ring.
Kelson bowed slightly to me, while Alaric hung back, leaving the King and me to speak alone.
"My Lady Richenda, I trust all your travel arrangements are in order?" said Kelson. "Your uncle has been most insistent that all possible attention should be paid to your comfort," he smiled, "and you know that bishops have a habit of getting their own way."
Uncle Thomas chuckled. "I have become very fond of my great-niece and her son over the past few months, sire. Surely an uncle is allowed to indulge his favourite niece?"
"I wish you a pleasant journey to Dhassa and onwards to your home," said Kelson. "Duke Alaric has some possessions of your husband's that he thought you should have, so I shall leave him to give those to you. Bishop Cardiel, would you attend me, please?" He bowed slightly again and turned on his heels, my uncle giving me a last farewell before following him to his pavilion. The meaningful look that Kelson gave Alaric left me in no doubt.
He knows, doesn't he?
He finally worked it out. And I've just been read a lecture on politically sensitive matches. I stared at him in alarm. It had not occurred to me that the King would forbid our relationship, although of course he could. Don't worry, my love, he was joking - mostly. But we are quite scandalous, you know. His eyes glittered with amusement as they met mine.
"Lady Richenda, as you requested, here is your husband's dagger." He ducked a quick bow as he spoke – outwardly the proper courtier. "And a few other bits I thought you might not want servants poking through. I'll have the rest packed up and sent on to Marley." His lips twitched in a brief smile. And there's something for you in there too.
Something for me? Heavens, and I had nothing for him! I had been so wrapped up in everything it hadn't even crossed my mind to send him away with a keepsake. I frantically thought what I could give him – all my belongings were in the boxes in the wagon and I didn't even have any jewellery on me, not even a hairpin.
My mind flashed back to how he had stroked my hair the previous night, and how much he had admired it. On an impulse I reached up and loosened the scarf that bound my hair, shaking it free and letting the waves tumble around my face. There would be plenty of time on the journey to attempt a serviceable braid and no-one in the litter to see my indecently flowing curls. I could wear my the hood of my cloak up in Dhassa until I was safely inside, just in case.
"And this is a little something for you, my lord," I smiled, "until we meet again."
"Which please God will not be too long," he murmured fervently, pressing the scarf to his face, and shifting slightly to block the view of me from prying eyes. "Ah, it smells of you. Lavender and rosemary. The scent may fade, my lady, but the memory will not." He tucked the scarf inside his tunic and bowed. I offered my hand and he kissed it, courtier-like and formal, but his eyes met mine as he did so, and he sent a mental caress which raised shivers from my head to my toes and set my heart to pounding again. "This will have to last me for now. But I shall write, after your mourning is over, and as often as I can."
The lead rider gave the command to set out and we drew away from the camp. Alaric stared intently after us, the edge of the scarf just visible as it peeped out of his tunic.
He stood watching us depart until a squire in Haldane red emerged from the pavilion and came to speak to him. Alaric nodded and turned reluctantly to follow the squire. I watched until he ducked inside the King's tent, sending one last wistful look towards our departing company, and then disappeared from sight.
With a sigh, I unfolded the bundle. Tucked inside the fabric I found a letter, neatly secured with Alaric's gryphon seal, and set that aside for the moment. Bran's dagger was sheathed in a well-worn scabbard and Alaric had returned a few personal effects too – a ring, a chain Bran had often worn about his neck and a few letters tied with a ribbon, one of them the last one I had sent him from Dhassa, I noticed, although I doubted there was any sentimental reason why Bran had kept it. I wrapped the items back up carefully and picked up Alaric's letter.
I ran my fingers over the seal, extending my senses and getting an impression of such love and tenderness that it felt as though his arms enfolded me there and then, assuring me that all would be well. I could have sworn I could smell leather and wood smoke – the scents I had come to associate with him from right back at our first meeting at Saint Torin's. It seemed that his smile, his warmth and his strength had flowed into this splash of sealing wax, ready to pour out when I touched it. The final impression was a hint of regret at our parting and a gentle guarantee of our reunion soon. That on its own would have been enough to satisfy me without the words inside and I touched the seal to my lips.
What magic was this? A second message, triggered by the kiss? Without the constraints of formal tutoring, Alaric seemed to have experimented, explored in a way that those of us raised in the High Deryni tradition maybe did not. How to place a second message in a seal – perhaps known to others if not to me, but an ability that meant the world to me today.
That second message was a twinkle in his eye as he kissed the seal himself to set the magic. A rueful thought that I might not find it, yet a near certainty in his mind that I would and amusement at what my reaction would be. Jesú, but I loved him, and the playfulness as he used his magic was a contrast to the exhausted and troubled man that I had seen over the past few days. We needed to get to know each other properly, away from the stresses of the battlefield and the aftermath of combat and this glimpse of a peaceful Alaric made a start. I wondered where and when we would meet again, and prayed that he would still feel the same – that some other woman without the burden of treachery hanging over her would not catch his eye before then.
The words on the parchment were written in a strong, precise script, exactly as I would have expected his handwriting to be. As I read, tears started in my eyes – never in all the years of marriage to Bran had I received anything that I could remotely call a love letter. His had been terse, functional letters for the most part, conveying the information that needed to be told. Here in my hand lay a letter from another soldier, no longer than it needed to be, yet its words spoke directly to my heart.
My dearest Richenda,
Since I first saw you at Saint Torin's these months past, you have haunted my dreams. Although I had scarce any hope of discovering your identity, let alone finding you, you all unknowingly captured my heart. I knew that no-one would match the ideal of my mystery woman, and all others would be compared to you and be found wanting.
Now that I have found you, and you have let me dare hope that you may be mine someday, my dreams will be more restless still until we can be together again. Until that time, know that you have all my love.
And in a postscript he wrote Kelson knows, and says to assure you that he will keep faith with you, so banish those worries of convents and fostering from your mind. I think he fancies himself quite the matchmaker, so I impatiently await his plans to bring us together. AM
Don't ask me how many times I read the letter on the way to Dhassa, or how many times I pressed the seal to my lips to hear Alaric's quick laugh in my head, for I would be ashamed to admit it. Even after Brendan came to ride with me, I kept the letter under my hand, some irrational fear that it would somehow be lost making me keep it close.
We talked for a long time when he rode with me, remembering his father without tears this time. I shall talk to him about Bran and try to remember the good times, for my son's sake. It would not be right that he should completely forget his father, whatever he may have done. As for me, I will remember Bran with fondness so far as I can, for he gave me my son and without him Brendan would not be the little boy I adore.
Alaric has proved to be a good and faithful letter-writer. Yet even now, when my secret trove of letters grows large enough that it really needs a longer ribbon to bind it, I still return to that first letter when I miss him, which is often. After each reading, I touch the seal and I can see sparkling grey eyes and hear his gentle laugh.
And I swear I can smell leather and wood smoke.