We've come to the end of the story. Thank you to everyone who read and followed, favorited, reviewed or recommended this story. I'm so pleased to have gotten over 100 reviews, and I'm even more pleased that so many people enjoyed the story. I really appreciate all your kind words, and I'm constantly amazed and humbled that anything I write could have such an impact on people.
I'd like to extend special thanks to the people who, whether they knew it or not, motivated, inspired, and encouraged me to write this the best I could (though for the sake of brevity I won't list all of them). But I would be remiss not to mention by name again Elfy, with whose general suggestion I took off running, and Mel, who made sure I didn't give in to doubt. Thank you, ladies; I wouldn't and couldn't have done it without you.
When the old Bear King died, passing from one world to the next in a peaceful slumber, his beloved wife by his side as she had ever been, the kingdom mourned. His sons and son-in-law had taken him on a hunting trip and he'd caught a chill; with it came a cough that set his lungs rattling. He never let on how bad it was, but kissed his grandchildren and his children and his wife good night, and woke into a brighter country than any he'd seen on earth.
His people remembered him with the feasts and fights and songs he had loved, and they celebrated him with their tears. For every tale told of his courage and strength, there were two of his kindness, his generosity, his jollity, his great love for the people he'd ruled and their land.
The lords of the clans gathered in the great hall of DunBroch. Lord Dingwall had become a brilliant tactician, inscrutable and canny, his vague smile a fright to enemies everywhere, who never knew convoluted plans lurked behind that deceptively dim expression. Just as before, Lord Macintosh did not lack for pride, but now the source of it was his territory and his clanspeople, rather than his own merits; he was still considered one of the greatest swordsmen in the land, though, and possessed a stable full of enviable horses, a pair of which he brought as a gift for the new queen and her consort. Lord MacGuffin remained as loyal a vassal as the monarchy had ever known, but his steadfast strength was tempered by aloofness, a guarded demeanor that few, save his cheerful, sturdy wife, could overcome. They were joined by a handful of Vikings from the king's homeland, proud and fierce, come to celebrate their kinsman's success and reaffirm their pact with the kingdom. The leader of their contingent was a woman as beautiful as she was capable. More than one Scotsman lost his heart to her, though few were bold (or mayhap foolhardy) enough to approach her with anything more than friendly overtures, and even those were cordially rebuffed. When she embraced the king, some people swore they heard her say, poking him in the ribs, "Told you so, didn't I?"
"I don't know why I ever doubted you," he was rumored to have returned, with a fond roll of his eyes.
Together the kingdom's subjects and guests watched as the new queen knelt before her mother, who lowered a crown onto her daughter's head. The auburn-haired heir to the throne stood nearby, with his sister hand-in-hand with their uncles; their younger brother was old enough to stand but preferred to watch from his father's arms. When the queen arose her husband set his son down and in turn knelt at his wife's feet to repeat the promises he had made years ago, promises to honor and guard her, to uphold her rule and protect her life with his own, and despite the sorrow of their loss and the solemnity of the ceremony she smiled at him. For a second the crowd assembled saw not the princess they had known or the queen they would serve, but a well-beloved woman with the man who held her heart; no one who saw the look that passed between them could ever doubt that she had chosen her companion and consort rightly.
Then the throng dropped to their own knees and swore their loyalty to her, as they had to her father. For her part, the queen pledged to the people and to their country her life, her service, and her strength. Her heart she could not promise, because it was no longer hers to give away, and had not been for many years.
And so in the decades to come the kingdom was prosperous and happy under her rule. Oh, it was not without conflict, not without threat or hardship; but it was also filled with an unmatched fervor and determination and love, inspired by the queen's passion and the king's curiosity—all in all rather a mirror of the monarchs' marriage, of fates entwined and the life together that they'd each chosen, a life and love they would not trade for anything in the wide world over.