Part II—Catriona's Story

The Year of Our Lord 1128

Christmas Court, Rhemuth

Rhemuth had not changed much in the years of my absence. I felt far more greatly changed than Kelson's great jewel of a city, much more at peace with myself than I had been those three years past when I rode away from the two I loved most, afraid to look back for fear of my own weakness, for fear I would change my mind about doing what had to be done. Taking the hard path, though I liked it not, for it seemed ever my destiny to take the more difficult road.

My horse snorted, his breath sending a plume of warm steam into the cold winter air. I pulled my cloak closer around me, looking forward to reaching the Castle, and to the comforts of a warm hearth and warm bed after long days of travel. Rothana and the Servants would be expecting me, for I had sent a message on ahead to Kelson's new Deryni Schola asking for them to prepare for my arrival, although there was one other stop I wished to make along the way to that rest, for my heart longed to see my anamchara.

My heart longed for another as well, though duty required that I seek audience with another man before I sought him out. The man who could give me leave to offer my love to his heart's brother, or deny me my longing for reasons of his own, for reasons of state.

I did not travel alone. Beside me rode two kinsmen, brother and nephew, for the High Lord of Llyr also had a boon to request of our ally the Haldane King.

Young Corin's eyes sparkled at his first sight of Kelson's capital. "It's much bigger than Shiele, isn't it, father?" At nearly eleven years, he'd traveled with my brother throughout the Isle of Llyr, but had never ventured outside our kingdom until this journey through Gwynedd to Kelson's Court.

Michael smiled at his young son. "Aye, that it is. I remember how daunting Rhemuth seemed to me, when I was a young page fostered here. I thought for certain I'd be lost among the winding streets if ever I ventured out of the castle."

"Did you ever?" Corin asked, turning wide eyes up at his father. "Get lost, I mean?"

My brother smiled. "Once or twice. Though I found my way back out again, obviously, since it's been many a year since I found myself wandering through the back alleys of Rhemuth trying to get back to the Castle."

I snorted, amused. "You had only to look up, Michael a deartháir. It's not like you can miss that great hulk of a building on the skyline."

Corin laughed, his green eyes sparkling as he touched his heels lightly to his pony's flanks, spurring the mount slightly ahead in his impatience to reach our destination.

"Do you know where you're going, brother's son?" I asked him.

"That great hulk of a building up ahead?" he threw back over his shoulder.

."Close. You'll see Rhemuth Castle soon enough, I promise. But first, the Basilica at St. Hilary's."

#

We went first not to the Schola itself, but to the study of the Auxiliary Bishop of Rhemuth. As the door opened to my knock, Duncan McLain peered out, his eyes of summer sky lighting up as he recognized who stood before him.

"Anamchara!" he exclaimed with a joyous laugh, enfolding me in his warm embrace, heedless of who observed us. I closed my eyes as I drew him close, breathing in the odd, familiar mixture of polished leather, church incense, parchment and sunshine that I ever associated with this man who was my first love. My eyes turned slightly moist, and I blinked back the sudden tears, pulling back slightly to smile up at him.

"Now I feel like I've come home at last," I said.

Behind him, I suddenly noticed Denis Arilan, his eyes cautiously observant, although he, too, greeted me with a welcoming smile, if not one touched with as much warmth as my anamchara's. I pulled away from Duncan and smiled at the older bishop, unable to resist needling him. "Hello, handsome." Arilan looked nonplussed, which was my intent. I caught Duncan's eye, hiding my grin, although an answering twinkle in his eyes assured me he was well aware of what I was up to and that I would most certainly hear about from him later.

"You will remember my brother Michael, I am sure. I would like to present my nephew Corin, who is hoping to follow in his father's footsteps, learning how to serve as page and squire under Duke Nigel's training, if Kelson is willing to accept the lad into his service."

Duncan bowed a formal greeting to my brother the High Lord first, then smiled down at my brother's son. "Well met, Corin of Llyr," he said. Looking back at me, he raised an eyebrow. "Does this mean...?" He left the question unspoken, but we both knew his meaning.

"Does your son still think fondly of me, my anamchara? Or has he found some other in my absence? I must know before I go before your King, for there is little point in asking if I might freely offer for him if he is no longer minded to accept my suit."

"Dhugal has waited in hopes of your return. You might have written, Catriona." His voice was gently reproving.

"I needed the time, a chara."

We left it at that, me ever mindful of Arilan's eyes upon us, watching with avid interest.

#

We left Duncan's study, walking the short distance to the dormitory attached to the new Schola. Rothana of Nur Hallaj greeted us there, murmuring a courteous welcome to my kinsmen as she walked with us to the refectory. We dined at last, allowing the hot meal and the warmth of the hall to ease the chill that had permeated us throughout on the long days' ride into Rhemuth.

"How fares the King of Gwynedd?" I asked my spiritual sister cautiously, not wishing to reopen old scars, yet needing to know more recent news of Kelson Haldane than those odd bits and pieces that had managed to reach my ears in the hidden vale of St. Kyriell, so cut off from the rest of his kingdom. To my relief, my inquiry brought no flash of pain into her eyes anymore. Instead, a quietly joyous light filled her features as she answered me.

"Kelson does quite well. I do believe he has found contentment and even happiness in his new Queen." Her smile grew. "I had hoped he would. I would not have chosen her for him if I did not believe them well suited for each other, but still...hearts can be such awkward and rebellious things." A sparkle of understanding humor lit her dark eyes, for well she knew of my own struggles of the heart, as I had learned of hers. The friendship formed between us over the three years spent together learning the secrets of St. Kyriell's had forged such an understanding, and I had benefited richly from Rothana's wisdom and counsel.

"Her name is Araxie, is it not? One of his distant Haldane cousins?"

"Yes, out of Duke Richard's line. Her grandfather was Kelson's great-grandfather. Duke Richard waited until his later years to wed and get heiresses."

"I had hoped to be back in Rhemuth sooner, in time for their wedding and the Queen's Coronation, but I had family matters to attend to first." I glanced down the table at young Corin.

Rothana nodded. "I am certain, under the circumstances, that Kelson will be quite understanding of your absence from that special day." The young nun grinned conspiratorially at me. "After all, you had your own to prepare for as well. How goes that matter?"

I stood, handing my empty plate to one of the Servants of Saint Camber who stood nearby waiting to clean up after our repast, nodding my silent thanks to him. "I know not yet, but I go now to find out if Kelson is minded to allow me to pursue it. Pray for me, sister?"

"Of course, with all my heart!"

#

I left my kinsmen then, slipping off into the growing dusk to make my way to the long-familiar corridors of Rhemuth Castle. The Great Hall was empty, for there was no Court business so late that day, nor was there any feast or revel scheduled for that evening. I inquired of a young squire in Haldane livery where I might find the King that evening, and if I might be presented to him for a brief informal visit, as I was an old friend newly returned to Rhemuth. He went to inquire, leading me to a small antechamber outside of Kelson's private apartments. I sat, expecting that the squire would return in a few minutes to usher me in to the royal presence.

Instead, the door to Kelson's apartment opened, and another man came out—a tall man, his bright Border-braided locks containing the mingled highlights and shadows of the weather-burnished roof of that building I'd just left, with its fiery coppers shading to deeper bronze. His amber eyes swept the room, their powerful gaze coming to rest on my face, that gaze containing the potent energy of the shiral stones their color suggested. His lean, sleek-muscled form was relaxed, yet spoke of leashed power. This was no mere youth who looked back at me, but a man grown into his full strength and Deryni potential.

I had not expected to see Dhugal yet, not before I'd spoken to his blood-brother.

I stood slowly, unable to tear my eyes from the man my heart had yearned for these three years gone, so familiar and yet so very different now. "Good evening, Dhugal. I had not expected to see you until the morrow." I smiled at him, my heart tremulous. "You've grown."

He stepped across the small chamber to face me directly, standing just beyond arm's reach. "Aye, I s'pose I have at tha'. It's been three years, Cat; a man does change." He reached slowly to take one of my hands, his amber gaze searching my face. "Ye've changed as well." A faint smile lurked at one corner of his mouth. "Ye're softer lookin' now, more womanly. I dinnae s'pose ye've had as much time tae keep up yer sword trainin' in St Kyriell's."

A soft laugh. "Not much time, no." My eyes searched his face, looking for any hints that I was welcome back into his heart after such a long absence. His features had lost their boyish softness, their masculine planes and angles newly accentuated by a closely-cropped beard. As I studied him, I noticed his open appraisal of me as well, and blushed, suddenly shy.

"I would've been back sooner," I told him, "but there was a family matter which called me back to Llyr for a time."

He nodded, but did not ask.

I gathered up my courage. "I hope I am still welcome to your brother's Court, and to the King's heart-brother as well."

The faint smile grew. "I cannae speak for Kelson, o' course, but I've nae reason tae think the Lady o' Llyr is any less dear tae him than ever ye were. As for myself…." He lifted his free hand, the one not already holding one of mine, and softly traced my cheek. "Ye tak' too bluidy long tae make up yer mind, Catriona, but I s'pose if I'm tae love a woman, I need tae get used tae her imperfections." His amber eyes crinkled at me as I gaped at him, nonplussed, and then he drew me close, smothering my faint protests with a kiss that began with a tenderness that soon yielded to a growing urgency, until I forgot that I had anything to protest at all.

#

I stood in the King's presence. His gray Haldane eyes warmed as he saw me, and he rose from his chair, clasping me in a swift embrace, then turned to present me to his Queen.

"Araxie, this is Catriona, the Lady of Llyr and Kyle of Shiele."

Kelson's golden-haired Queen smiled her welcome at me, her own Haldane gaze, so uncanny a reflection of Kelson's own, surveying me with frank curiosity. "Welcome back to Rhemuth, our sister of Llyr," she said. "I've long wished to meet you." She grinned at her husband. "Kelson's memories of you are a trifle confusing. Is it true you can assume a young man's form at will?"

I laughed, slipping the illusory form of The Kyle over myself for a brief moment with the ease of long years of practice, although it had been several years since I'd last worn this guise. The Kyle bowed towards the Queen of Gwynedd. "At your service, Majesty!"

Araxie chuckled. "Oh my, that is convincing! Knowing how it's done, I can manage to see through the illusion, but it takes considerable effort. So, is it The Kyle of Shiele or Catriona of Llyr who comes before us to request a boon?"

I stared at Kelson's new Queen, startled. "How do you know that's why I've come, Your Majesty?"

Kelson glanced down quickly with a stifled grin, then gave his wife a sidelong glance of amusement.

"Well, I don't for certain," Araxie admitted. "but there's one favor that Kelson and I are very much hoping you have returned to our Court to ask for."

With renewed hope, I dropped to one knee before the King and Queen of Gwynedd. "I shall wait until tomorrow's Court to make my formal petition, for as Kelson mo bratháir already knows, I have other business before the Court of Gwynedd as well. But there is a private matter of the heart for which I seek your counsel and favor this evening. If it please Your Majesties, I wish to make formal offer tomorrow for your Duke of Cassan in marriage. I know full well what impediments lay between us in such a match, and what concerns you might have in giving your most powerful Border Duke to the inheratrix of Llyr. With that in mind, I would willingly cede all birthright to Llyr to my brother's son Corin and to his future daughters in perpetuity, that I might be free to wed where my heart wills and be Dhugal MacArdry's wife, to stand at his side wherever his paths may lead. Will this be acceptable before my brother—and sister—of Gwynedd?"

Kelson stood, offering his hand to me to help me rise. "Under those terms, it is not only acceptable, but also one of my heart's deepest desires." He shared a smile with his Queen. "Dhugal has been too long alone, and I would have him know the same joys I have found in my Araxie."

#

The following day, the chamberlain called us forth into Royal Court, into the presence of Their Majesties Kelson and Araxie of Gwynedd. I stepped forward as The Lady of Llyr, my kinsmen walking on either side of me as we crossed the length of the Great Hall of Rhemuth to stand before Kelson's throne.

As we had agreed upon beforehand, my brother presented his petition first, asking that Kelson allow his son Corin to be fostered with the House of Haldane, to be trained in service under Duke Nigel until he attained the age of knighthood, as his father had been allowed to do before him. The Haldane King gladly agreed to this renewal of our long-standing alliance with his House, and after accepting Corin's oath to serve the House of Haldane as faithfully and as fully as may be required of a princeling whose fealty to his own sovereign and lands must precede the bonds of any other vow, he motioned my brother's son over to stand with Duke Nigel. I smiled proudly at the lad, now heir to all that my own firstborn son would have stood to inherit, were it not for the request that I had come now to make before Gwynedd's King.

His business with the Court of Gwynedd concluded, the High Lord of Llyr stepped back, smiling at me. I took a step forward and made a reverent curtsey towards Gwynedd's liegelord.

"My brother of Gwynedd, I request a boon!"

"I would hear your boon, my sister of Llyr, and grant it gladly, if it be just and in my power to give."

"Then I would ask but one thing of Your Majesty of Gwynedd, that I might be granted the freedom to offer my hand in marriage to one of your most loyal subjects. I realize the impediments that may lie in such a match between a subject of Gwynedd and the Lady of Llyr, and to that end I have been granted leave by the High Lord of Llyr to cede my birthright to my brother's son instead, and to give my full fealty to the Haldane King from henceforth, and the heirs of my body into Gwynedd's service."

A surprised murmur started up in the gathered audience behind me, but I kept my gaze forward, fixed on Kelson's face. The King of Gwynedd smiled broadly.

"I would gladly grant this boon, for I perceive this to be a love of the heart, and I would not stand in the way of a sister's happiness." He chuckled. "Nor of a brother's," he added softly, with an upward glance at Dhugal, who stood at his right and slightly behind the thrones. "But speak plainly now, Lady Catriona," he said more loudly, his voice pitched this time to carry throughout the Great Hall, "and say what man it is you would cede your birthright to have of me."

I dared now to look at my beloved full in his face, my heart in my throat, a sudden worry briefly making me falter, for it had just occurred to me that while I had informed Kelson of my intention the evening before, I had not actually asked Dhugal if he was still minded to marry me, but had merely assumed this from the passion of his parting embrace before he took his leave of me in the Royal chambers. His amber eyes held mine, and then he smiled, the easy grin that had captured my heart those many years ago.

I looked back at Kelson with head held high, my courage renewed. "I choose Dhugal Ardry MacArdry McLain, Duke of Cassan and Earl of Kierney and Transha, and High Lord of my heart, to walk all paths with me, and I with him, for all our days."

#

The day had arrived, bright and fair.

Our guests arrived, crowding into the small solar of my personal apartment in Rhemuth Castle. The aroma of Llyrian herbed bread baking on the hearth welcomed them as they arrived. Lady Mhairi greeted all who entered, taking cloaks and bidding them be seated for the wedding meal to come. Alaric and Richenda, Kelson and Araxie, Rothana of Nur Hallaj, my brother and his son as well.

Dhugal arrived, and Duncan with him, laughter still on their lips as they entered last, handing their cloaks to my lady-in-waiting as they did so. "I am told that I may safely offer the bride my finest mead," Duncan announced with a grin, "without having to make awkward explanations to my Archbishop afterwards."

I laughed. "Aye, mead I may have at your hand, but the best wine that House McLain can offer had best come from your son instead. And at least you brought me no ale." I looked past him at Dhugal, who hefted a ceremonial drinking horn and a sealed bottle.

"It's Fianna wine, from Kelson's own cellar." He exchanged a grin with his blood brother.

"Ah." I gave both men a mischievous smile. "Well, Kelson Haldane is certainly a most handsome and puissant prince, but I believe he's already spoken for."

"Quite," the King confirmed with a tender glance at his own bride. "Which is why Dhugal specifically chose a vessel from Transha to serve it in."

A quick check confirmed that the bread had finished baking. I removed the pan from the hearth, cutting a slice of bread and setting it on a separate plate to cool slightly. As I did so, Dhugal handed his blood brother the drinking horn to hold, pouring a portion of the Fianna into it and then setting the rest of the bottle aside for the rest of our guests to consume later, during the wedding meal itself.

These tasks done, we both crossed the room to meet at the center of it, facing each other, echoing the ageless betrothal pledge of Llyr in the presence of witnesses.

"I offer for thee, Dhugal MacArdry." I held the warm bread close to his lips. "Taste the sweetness of shared life and fruitfulness I offer thee."

"I accept thine offer, Catriona of Llyr. May th' Swift Sure Hand grant us both long life an' fruitfulness together." He took my hand, guiding it the rest of the way, taking a bite of the bread before releasing me. I ate what remained, as we shared this symbolic meal.

Then he held out the drinking horn. "I offer tae thee, Catriona of Llyr, from my bounty an' provision. Taste th' pleasures an' th' solace tha' I offer thee."

I drank deeply from the horn, then offered it back for him to consume what was left of the Fianna. "So shall I share in both thy sorrows and thy joys," I affirmed.

We joined hands then, and continuing on in the ways of my people, I began the sacred wedding oath once spoken by my mother and hers before her:

"I vow you the first cut of my meat, the first sip of my wine,
from this day it shall be only your name I cry out in the night
and into your eyes that I smile each morning."

Dhugal's eyes smiled into mine as he completed the oath:

"I shall be a shield for yer back as ye are for mine,
nor shall a grievous word be spoken about us,
for our marriage is sacred between us an' no stranger shall hear my grievance.
Above an' beyond this, I will cherish an' honor you through this life
an' intae th' next."

When we had finished, Michael passed around goblets for all, that our guests could partake of the rest of the Fianna and Duncan's mead as well, while Mhairi cut off slices of bread for all and Corin ladled up hearty bowls of venison stew for everyone. And so began our wedding feast.

Midway through, my brother disappeared from the solar, reappearing a minute or two later to bend and whisper in my ear, his eyes sparkling with mischief. "I've left a wedding present by your bedside; something suitable for a priest of Shiele, I hope."

I raised an eyebrow, knowing my brother. "What sort of present, a deartháir?"

A mischievous grin. "Anointing oils. I'm sure you'll find some sort of sacramental use."

Once all were nearly done with the meal, Bishop Duncan slipped quietly into the adjoining chamber where Mhairi and Michael had already decked out the bridal bed and prepared the bathwaters ahead of time, that they might cool to a more comfortable warmth by the time the guests had departed. Sensing his intent, I whispered a quick excuse to Richenda, with whom I'd been conversing, and entered the bridal chamber behind him.

Duncan's blue eyes swept the room, then smiled their approval down at me. "It smells nice in here. Is that evergreen?"

"Aye...juniper and rosemary, with hints of bay and cedar. It's in the candles and the soap; I thought the outdoorsy scents more fitting for a border lord than frankincense and myrrh."

He chuckled softly, giving me a sidelong look. "Depends on the border lord, but yes, they're much more fitting for my son." He glanced across the room at the bridal bed, decked out with holly and ivy, as befitted a wedding bower in the wintry season. "I need to slip out a little early, but I wanted to bless your bed before I leave. And the bride, if she'll permit me."

"She would be greatly honored."

He squeezed my hand, then released it, moving towards the bed to say the traditional prayer of blessing over it in the manner of Gwynedd, the beloved voice uttering the Latin words with the practiced ease of long familiarity. Then, with a glance back at me, he prayed again, this time in the lilt and cadences of my own island tongue—a short Llyrian blessing. He laughed at my surprised look afterwards. "Your brother taught me that one, daughter of Llyr."

Duncan turned fully to me then, his eyes alight with tender fire as he cupped my face in his gentle hands and said, "Walk with God and with your husband then, all the days of your life together, come what may, my precious anamchara. I wish you and my son great joy in each other." Humor broke free in a boyish grin. "And in case I haven't already made it abundantly clear to that son already, I'll tell his bride as well—I want heirs!"

I laughed. "Well, far be it from me to disappoint my anamchara! I'll be sure to get to work on that straight away."

"Oh, you can wait until your guests leave first. I'm not in quite that much of a rush. Nine months and an hour will do." He bent then, brushing a swift kiss on each of my cheeks. A final kiss landed on my lips, butterfly light, gone in the next instant. Coming from him, the trinity of kisses felt like a benediction.

"Come, let me hand you back to your husband, then I'll be off."

We turned. Dhugal stood in the doorway, watching us with a faint questioning smile. "I dinnae know ye spoke Llyrian," he told his father.

"I'm afraid that blessing was the only Llyrian I know, besides 'Your ale tastes of horse piss' and a few other phrases of questionable merit," he informed his son, blue eyes laughing.

"Ah, I see," Dhugal replied, his amber gaze reflecting that laughter back at his sire. "An' wha's the Llyrian for 'Wi' all respect, get yer episcopal arse out o' my bedchamber so I can bed my bonny bride a'ready'? I hae need o' tha' one now, I think."

The bishop chuckled. "I can take a hint." His eyes met mine once more, and then he took my hand and placed it in his son's, transferring his gaze to Dhugal's with a smile, then took his leave of us and of our assembled company.

Once Duncan had left, the others took this as their cue to make their final farewells, coming forward in ones and twos to embrace Dhugal and myself and offer fond wishes for our future happiness. Kelson lingered behind, along with Sister Rothana, to be our bath-witnesses, the Queen having deferred that place of honor to the princess of Nur Hallaj, knowing that the young religious had been my confidant during my years of absence from Dhugal's side.

I entered my bridal bower with Rothana, handing my wedding garments to her to fold neatly and store as I slipped into the awaiting bath. She lightly assured my husband, waiting on the other side of the wall, that she saw no flaws of note in his new bride that would prove any impediment to sealing our marriage. Kelson, for his part, did the same for Dhugal, the low murmur of voices and bursts of ribald laughter continuing behind the wall making me wonder what bawdy jests the blood brothers were exchanging between them, although Kelson discreetly kept these to himself, aside from calling out, "I don't think you'll have a problem with the bridegroom not being ready! He seems quite eager to mount his campaign into Llyr, although we've hit upon a slight snag. It appears his dressing robe has made it into your chamber before him. I don't suppose I might enter briefly...?"

"No!" said Rothana, wide-eyed as I erupted with laughter, echoing her refusal almost instantly. She searched the bridal bower, eventually finding the missing garment and hastily handing it to Kelson through the doorway. With his friend now decently covered, Kelson offered Rothana his arm, calling out his best wishes to me through the wall, and the last two of our witnesses left to rejoin the others, leaving me alone with my new husband at last.

#

"I dinnae s'pose it's quite th' done thing in Llyr tae consummate th' weddin' afore ye've even left th' bath?" Dhugal grinned at me as if he were contemplating his chances of persuading me into doing just that.

I laughed, slathering his wet limbs with the woodsy-green soap I'd made especially for this special day. "Oh, I'm sure it happens, though that certainly would defeat its ceremonial purpose." I handed him the soap bowl so he could lather me up as well. "On the other hand, there's nothing that says we can't return to the bath later. Unless, of course, you were planning on rolling over and going straight to sleep after we've sealed our vows?"

"No' a chance! Ye made a tactical error, Cat, in leavin' me three years tae think upon how best tae carry out a siege on Llyr." The amber eyes glinted impishly. "Nay, 'tis a lengthy campaign I hae planned for ye, a chuisle mo chridhe, an' ye'll be lucky if ye get any sleep at all..."

#

"I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine..." The Shulammite bride's words from the Canticum Canticorum echoed through my mind as my bridegroom enfolded me in his ardent embrace on our bridal bed, his mind and all his senses opening to my own and mine to his, drawing me into the rich and heady delights of our deeply shared rapport as we became fully known one to another for this first of many times to follow. The intimacy of hearts and minds thus joined was but sweet prelude to the joining of our flesh, as at long last Llyr yielded up the fullness of her treasures to bold Cassan.

# # #

Epilogue

The Year of Our Lord 1129

Eastertide, Rhemuth

I spotted my husband and his father up ahead, in the same green glade where, years earlier, Duncan and I had first met. Delighted, I touched my heels to my horse's flanks, urging him forward. The horse, equally delighted that I was allowing him his head, surged forward at full speed, not breaking stride until we had reached the edge of the grassy verge, where I slowed him back down to a walk.

Dhugal met us then, taking my horse's reins as I dismounted, and fixing me with a stern glare. "Catriona! Ye should know better than tae gallop along like tha'!"

"Oh, quit fussing. I'm neither ill nor infirm, and a little bit of speed and fresh air is hardly going to hurt me." I stopped to offer my lord a quick kiss, then turned to hug his father.

My protective husband, however, was far from letting the matter rest. "An' wha' if yer horse had stumbled an' ye'd taken a fall? Ye cannae be takin' sae many risks anymore!"

I rolled my eyes at him. "Dhugal MacArdry McLain, I assure you, we are fine! It really wasn't all that rough a ride. You know a gallop is much smoother than a trot. And besides..." I grinned unrepentantly at my border duke. "If this babe of yours could survive his own begetting, a mere horse isn't going to unseat him."

Dhugal gave a reluctant chuckle, his face flaming, as his father burst into hearty laughter. "Does this mean I'm to be a grandfather?" Duncan finally asked, once he could breathe again.

"Aye, sometime around Michaelmas, I think."

He beamed at me. "Late September? That's fast work, Kitten!"

"Well, you did all but order me to produce an heir for your son in nine months and an hour. I did my best to oblige, anamchara." I took his hand, gently placing it on my abdomen. "Your Excellency, allow me the privilege of introducing you to the future Duke of Cassan and Earl of Kierney and Transha, Lord Duncan Michael Cauley MacArdry McLain."

There was nothing in the warmth of that spring day to match the wonder in my soul-friend's eyes.

# # #