"Call off your ruddy hounds; they've no' treed a fox, they've treed me!"
One of the horsemen swiftly dismounted to comply; the others reined in their mounts, peering into the foliage above trying to determine the source of the young female voice. Duke Ewan and the whippers-in finally had the hounds under control, handing them off to their handlers.
Another of the riders edged his horse forward. "A thousand pardons, my lady, wherever you are. Ah...do you require assistance coming down?"
A long fall of red curls suddenly appeared below one of the lower branches, like some odd species of auburn moss. Above it, a fetching face appeared, albeit one that gazed upon the party below from an upside-down viewpoint. The gray-green eyes in that case sought out the young man who had just spoken.
"Oh, it's you!" she said, her eyes widening at the sight of the Haldane royal arms discreetly blazoned on his hunting garb. The head disappeared back up into the autumn foliage. The leaves rustled briefly, and then a young woman jumped down. At least Kelson assumed she was a young woman; that face and shape certainly belonged to no lad, although the clothing appeared to have been passed down to her by one. The oddly-clad lass started to curtsy, realized about halfway down the awkwardness of the gesture while wearing trews instead of skirts, and converted the rest of the reverence into a reasonable approximation of a courtly bow instead. She laughed at herself, far less unselfconscious than most young ladies her age encountering Kelson for the first time under unusual circumstances. "Sorry; I wasnae expectin' to meet royalty today." A tilt of the auburn-haired head. "Jesú, you look like my cousin Braeden!" She looked at Kelson, stunned. "Mayhap Aunt Eithne was right, and we do have a Haldane in the woodpile."
Before Kelson could consider how to react to that unexpected statement, the hounds started baying again. This time Kelson saw the reason why; the fox fur stole the lass wore draped around her neck, its head hanging over one of her shoulders. The girl's head whipped around to face the excited hounds. "Hush, you!" She made a shushing gesture with one hand. To the King's surprise, the hounds seemed to settle again after that, only breaking the silence periodically with an inquisitive woof.
"Good God, Ailidh nic Ardry, is that you?" Another rider approached, his copper-bronze hair shining in the dappled sunlight under the tree, amber eyes studying the young woman carefully. "What are you doing so far from home?"
"Dhugal MacArdry?" The gray-green eyes widened with surprise chased by delight. "I dinnae recognize you!" She laughed. "Then again, you dinnae have much of a mustache yet when you were, what, eleven?"
"Twelve." The amber eyes laughed down at her, then glanced at his King. "Your Majesty," he said formally, given the bystanders witnessing the scene curiously, although the formality of the introduction was somewhat alleviated by his next words, "allow me to present my kinswoman and the former bane of my existence, Ailidh nic Ardry, formerly of Transha but her mother remarried...who was it again, Ailidh?"
"Odhran MacEwan," she said, "the Baron o' Marlor." A grin escaped her. "He's sent me down to Rhemuth to get civilized." The smoky green eyes sparkled with mischief. "You see how well that's workin'."
"Oh, aye. I hope he's not taking bets on it happening!" Dhugal teased.
Kelson stifled a grin of his own. "You can take a lass out of the Border lands, but you can't take the Borderer out of the lass?" He gave Dhugal a sidelong amused look, then turned back to his blood-brother's kinswoman. "Well met, Mistress Ailidh. And again, I'm sorry if we inconvenienced you." His gaze flitted to the fox head draped across her shoulder, then back to her eyes again. "We didn't realize we were stole-hunting."
She laughed. "I should have known better than to wear a fox skin during the huntin' season, but there was a nip in the air this mornin', and I dinnae think it through." She glanced down at her threadworn tunic and trews with a sigh. "I promise to wear somethin' more suitable to Christmas Court too. Jesú, I look like such a lad!"
"Oh, little danger of that," Dhugal corrected her with a grin, as Kelson merely chuckled. "You've changed a bit since you were twelve, too. So, if Marlor's sent you down to Rhemuth for some 'civilizing', who has he sent you to?"
Ailidh sighed. "La Contessa Constanza d'Alcara di Fianna. She's some manner of cousin-in-law to ol' Odhran, as I recall, but I dinnae know the whole pedigree. I'm to join her household as a lady-in-waitin'."
"Not her ghillie?" Dhugal's amber eyes skimmed her trews-clad form, bright with mirth.
"Oh, go on with you!" She looked back up at the King. "Dhugal's really not changed all that much after all! Still the same teasin' pest he ever was."
Kelson grinned openly then. "Oh yes, I know."
Kelson and Dhugal were in the King's private apartment, several hours later, warm and snug by a cozy fire. Kelson sat back in a comfortable chair, stockinged feet stretched out before him as a squire sat a few feet away polishing his boots, while Dhugal sat on the bearskin rug near the hearth, idly listening to the crackling flames.
Dhugal looked up at Kelson with a slight smile. "Aye, I suppose I was." He chuckled. "I was just thinking back on us finding Ailidh nic Ardry this morning. Now, that was the last person I ever expected to find near Rhemuth, especially up a tree." He cocked his head, considering that last statement. "No, on second thought, that was the only unsurprising thing about it."
Kelson laughed. "Yes, tell me about your Mistress Ailidh. I sensed quite a history there."
Dhugal grinned. "Kel, that sounds all wrong when you put it that way. We do have a history, but we weren't that close. We were only twelve, for God's sake!" He lay back on the rug, lacing his fingers under his head. "And she was more Caldreana's friend than mine, really."
"When I put it what way?" Kelson thought back on his last words, then laughed. "All right," he teased, "tell me about not-your-mistress Ailidh."
"Well...there's not all that much to tell, really. I suppose I've known her all my life, only I barely remember playing with her now and again before coming here to Rhemuth as a page. So I mainly remember her from that first year or two after Michael died and I returned to Transha as Cauley's heir to be trained in what I'd need to know to become the Earl of Transha after him." Dhugal rolled to his side, propping himself up on one elbow. "Ailidh was still there at the time, and she was one of my sis-I mean, my aunt Caldreana's best friends, so of course the two of them were always looking for ways to plague the hell out of me."
Kelson grinned. "Like what?"
"Oh, let's see... There was the time I took a big mouthful of what I thought were ordinary mixed vegetables, only to find out they'd been preserved in vinegar and hot peppers..."
Dhugal's blood brother chuckled. "And?"
"And I woke up once and found little purple flowers braided in my hair..."
Kelson suppressed a snicker. "I'm sure that looked quite fetching."
"And then there was the time some of the other lads and I decided to go for a late night swim, and the girls decided to steal our clothes from the shore while we weren't paying attention, and brought them back to the keep. I'm pretty sure Ailidh was behind that plan; it was far more her style than Caldreana's. So imagine it, Kel, a good dozen of us lads, soaking wet and starkers, shivering in the cold moonlight looking for our damn kilts and tunics, and then realizing they'd been reived right out from under us."
Kelson burst out laughing. "Oh God! What did you do?"
"Well, what could we do? We had to return sometime! But we waited until the wee hours, and then went in the back way. There they were, waiting for us in the Great Hall, but sound asleep by then, so we just tiptoed past and were snug in our own beds when they awoke the next morning." He grinned. "We never did figure out a good way to return the favor. Not one that wouldn't have gotten us soundly thrashed by old Cauley, anyway." Dhugal subsided into silence for a long moment, then added. "Ailidh was only in Transha for a year or two after my return, though, no more than that. Then her mother remarried—well, you heard about that from her earlier—and they moved to Marlor. She wrote letters to Caldreana for a while after that. I don't know if they've kept in touch all this time or not, though; I don't hear much from Caldie since she's got married. Just a few times a year at best." He smiled. "She's turned into such a bonny lass, though. When I knew her in Transha, she was all elbows and scabby knees, and skinny as a stick."
Kelson laughed. "Well, that's certainly not the case now!" He shook his head. "Tight trews on a woman; sweet Jesú, I'm glad I was on horseback and hid behind a saddle when I saw that!" The King's cheeks colored slightly. "Is she descended from a Haldane, do you think?"
Dhugal shrugged. "I have no idea. That was the first I'd heard of the rumor. Ailidh's not a particularly close cousin of mine; she descends from a cadet line of the MacArdrys. She may have done, though. Some of your Haldane lot got around." He grinned. "I doubt she'd be a close cousin to you though, if she's one at all, if you happened to be interested..."
Kelson shook his head. "I'm not. Not in that way, at least." He sighed. "I'm not blind, Dhugal, and I'm still capable of taking an interest in a woman, especially one that intriguing. But it's Rothana I wish to wed, and none other."
Dhugal nodded, a certain faraway honey-haired woman's face flashing through his mind, replacing the mirth of a few moments before with a quiet sadness. "Aye. I know the feeling."
The Contessa glanced over her shoulder at Dhugal as she entered the sitting room of her apartment in Rhemuth Castle, one dark brow raised in silent speculation. "Ailidh, you have a visitor," she called out softly.
The younger woman called out from an adjoining room. "I beg pardon, my lady. I dinn—didn't hear anyone at the door."
"I know you didn't. I found him in the corridor about to knock."
Ailidh entered the room, smoothing her skirts as she did so, and looked up. "Dhugal!"
The new Duke of Cassan, dressed as befitted his station rather than in the simpler hunting garb of the day before, sketched a bow.
Contessa Constanza smiled indulgently at the young woman as she took a seat and picked up her needlework. "I realize you have a previous acquaintance, but just as a reminder, the proper form of address for the Duke of Cassan is 'Your Grace', and you should remember to always address him as such in public. However, since you're not in public, you needn't stand on formalities unless His Grace would prefer it."
Dhugal smiled. "'His Grace' would not prefer it. So, my lady, I understand you have the unenviable task of turning this sow's ear into a silk purse?" he said, turning his teasing amber gaze towards the Contessa's lady-in-waiting, who pretended to glare back.
"Oh, thanks a lot!"
Contessa Constanza gave a light laugh. "I can but try." She reached into her workbasket for a length of silk thread. "Ailidh, if you would like a little bit of privacy while you two catch up, you may retreat to the window embrasure. Just be mindful of what we spoke about last night."
"Yes, my Lady," Ailidh replied, sounding surprisingly demure to Dhugal's ears as she dipped a perfectly proper curtsey. "Your Grace?" The gray-green eyes slanted at him contained a trace of their old mischief as she led him to the window seats only partially hidden from the Contessa's view.
He chuckled as he took one of the two bench seats built into the small alcove, not at all surprised when she took the other one facing him rather than sitting close beside him, tucking her slippered feet under the hem of her skirts and folding her hands in her skirts as if she'd ever been the proper Rhemuth court-bred lady. The transformation in the border-bred girl made him grin, and on a sudden impulse he leaned forward to murmur, too low for the Contessa's hearing, "So, you're awfully formal now for a lassie who's seen me swimming in my skin."
She stifled a laugh. "Oh, it was a dark enough night to hide most o' the view. What little there was of it..."
Dhugal pretended outrage. "Hey! The water was cold that night."
Ailidh grinned. "Aye, I can imagine! That was, what, late September?"
"It was." The amber eyes gleamed across the narrow alcove at her. "And by the way, since you're learning how to be a civilized lass now, this isn't proper courtly conversation. I believe we're supposed to start off with discussing the weather." He suppressed a smirk.
"We are discussin' the weather...sort of. And anyway, you started it!" She kicked a slippered toe at his boot. "It's not like I don't know any better than to yell an invitation across the Great Hall to King Kelson to go fish ticklin' with me in the Eirian after Feast." She rolled gray-green eyes at Dhugal, who laughed.
"No, you'd want to swim the Eirian before Feast. Either that, or wait an hour after for the food to settle." He shook his head, regarding the satin-clad young woman sitting before him. "I never dreamed I'd say this, but I've actually missed you. Sort of."
She smiled. "I've missed you too, Dhugal." Smile became grin. "But my aim is gettin' better."
Dhugal chuckled, looking out the window for a long moment. "You still write to Caldreana?"
"Aye." Ailidh shifted in her seat, tucking her feet under her. "Sometimes she even writes back." She sighed. "I'm glad she seems happy enough in her marriage." A faint shadow crossed her face.
"Were you worried she wouldn't be?" Dhugal turned his attention back to Ailidh, who shrugged.
"I had no reason to think she wouldnae, but no reason to think she would, either." The gray-green eyes turned to him. "Have you got around to it yet? I figure I'd have heard, but then again, I only heard the news about your new rank—and your real father—about a month past."
Dhugal thought briefly of Catriona, gone since late summer to St. Kyriell's. "No. I've thought about it, but..." He shook his head.
"Well, just as well. It's not something to rush into." Ailidh's gaze turned to the window, looking out into the distance. "I did," she added, so low he almost didn't catch the words.
"You're married?" He stared in confusion at her unbound hair curling softly around her face.
She shrugged. "No." Her lips tightened. "Not anymore." She turned her attention back to him again, her smile a bit strained. "You remember Callum, right?"
"Callum..." The amber eyes widened, incredulous. "Not Callum MacInnis!"
"Aye. You loathed the bastard." The smile turned rueful. "I wish I had."
"So. You wed with Callum, then?" Dhugal's voice was soft with sympathy, even though, as Ailidh had said, he had loathed the young man, thinking him an arrogant braggart. Dhugal, for some reason, had never been able to trust the slightly older man, despite having no concrete reason for his feelings aside from what, at the time, he'd considered to be mere gut instinct. Ailidh, for all her mischievous ways, was a decent lass, deserving of far better a man than Callum had been. Dhugal searched his memories, remembering that the smooth-talking Callum had been quite the ladies' man, despite still being several months shy of his twentieth year. "Well, if that ended unhappily, at least you're free of him now. How long have you been widowed?"
She shook her head. "You've not heard then." A quiet unamused sound, not quite a chuckle. "I suppose that's a good thing, if I'm supposed to be makin' a fresh start in Rhemuth." The smoky green eyes met his. "He's not dead, Dhugal, though I'm sure sometimes he wishes he were. No, he sweet-talked me into marryin' him when I was in my fifteenth year. We had three weeks—and happy enough weeks they were, I suppose." She shrugged. "But then one day, when he was out travelin', there was a knock on the door, and who should be standin' there but his wife's brother. His other wife's, that is. One of his other wives; as it happened, he had three. Three of us, in different towns." Her eyes remained dry, filled with pain rather than tears, as if she'd shed all her tears those two long years ago. "So legally, of course, we were never truly married, though I'd thought we were at the time."
The amber eyes regarding her were filled with banked rage. "And ye say th' bastard is still alive?" he asked, his voice quiet, reverting back to the borderman's accent of his boyhood.
"Aye. But dinnae worry, Dhugal, he'll not be trickin' any other lasses the same way. Geillis put an end to that."
"And who is Geillis?"
She smiled grimly. "His first wife. She gelded him. In his sleep. Well...he was still sleepin' when she started the job; I doubt he still was by the finishin' of it."
Dhugal turned a little whiter at the thought, but the rage in him subsided. Compared to that, he figured any justice he might attempt to administer on behalf of his kinswoman would have paled in comparison.
"I'm so sorry, Ailidh." He wanted to gather his childhood friend in his arms, but her chaperone sat within sight of them, though they'd kept their conversation quiet enough to ensure some privacy. He was afraid the gesture might be misconstrued.
She shrugged. "No matter. I'm quite over him. And anyway, you did try to warn me."
"Well, I tried to warn you he was a rotter; I had no idea he was that much of one!"
"And you didn't know how to Truth-Read then. For that matter, neither did I." She waited a moment for the meaning of those words to hit him.
"You...Truth-Read?" he finally ventured, looking astonished.
She nodded, holding out her hand to him. He took it, sending a tentative mental probe in her direction, brushing against heretofore unsuspected shields. After a brief moment, she lowered them slightly, letting him in just enough for him to see that she was, in fact, Deryni also, though mostly still untrained.
"That's the other reason I was sent here to Rhemuth, and to the Contessa in particular." Ailidh glanced at the woman sitting in the main room of their shared apartment. "She's to see to my trainin' in more than just Courtly behavior." She grinned suddenly. "See, there are other reasons for women to come to Rhemuth other than just to throw themselves at that handsome Haldane in hopes of holy matrimony!"
Dhugal laughed. "Well, he'll be relieved to know you've got other reasons for coming to Court, I'm sure."
"I don't know, Dhugal. That's one fine lookin' Haldane! You think I'd make a good Queen? Just think, I could probably start three wars in the first week..." She grinned at her old friend and nemesis, the mischief back in her eyes and voice.
"Oh, why stop at three, Ailidh? Where's your sense of ambition?"
Their laughter rang out then, a healing salve for the soul.