Fergus dispatched the last of the guards who had been holding Conor then scanned the glen. Wisps of smoke from the torches floated among the shadows cast by the trees. Moonlight gave a blue glow to the smoke, imparting a nightmare quality to the glen. But it wasn't a nightmare, it was real. Conor stood watching Gar gallop away unable to stop the man who had killed his love. Claire lay on the ground near Fergus, her honey blond hair fanned around her head like a halo. Her eyes were closed, her face relaxed, no sign of the terrible wound that had killed her visible. Suddenly, Fergus saw another young woman's face over Claire's, this one pale as fresh milk, hair jet black and lips a deep red. He shook his head to clear the vision and saw Conor turn slowly to face what he did not want to see. The boy walked slowly toward Fergus not yet looking at Claire.
"I'm sorry lad, I'm sorry."
Conor let his gaze drift to Claire's still form. Slowly he walked to her, lowered himself to the ground and curled himself around her protec tively. Fergus felt a pain grip his heart and time slipped backward.
He stood with King Derek in the great hall. Both men held tankards of ale despite the fact that it was still only mid morning. Derek was to meet his bride today. The first outrider had returned to say the new queen's party would arrive in less than half an hour. Derek had insisted some ale before meeting ones betrothed was appropriate no matter what time of day it was. Fergus agreed, although more because he hated being dressed up like a fop than because he was nervous. Once again he pulled the bottom of his tunic down and shifted the long cloak on his shoulders. He didn't like the way the cloak tugged at his sword. He also didn't like the way the tunic rode up under his sword belt. He was proud of the shape he was in but this outfit showed way too much of that shape for his liking. He took another long drink of ale and tugged the tunic down again.
"Stop fidgetting Fergus," Derek commanded. "You're making me more nervous than the arrival of my bride."
"I can't see why I have to be here. She's your bride," Fergus c omplained. He and Derek had known each other a long time, so even though Derek was king and Fergus his champion, there was an easy comradery between them.
"I told you, the messenger said King Hammish couldn't come because of trouble on his borders but he didn't want to postpone the wedding. He sent Rhiannon's sister with her as chaperone and I want you to be her escort while she's here." Fergus thought Derek sounded amused and aggravated at the same time. Derek knew that while Fergus had had his share of women, he was never really comfortable socializing with them. He had told Derek he felt like an ungainly oaf among a bed of roses and was always afraid he'd step on one and crush her. That always amused Derek , and he would point out that anyone who could use a sword the way Fergus did was not totally ungraceful. A clatter of horse's hooves and finery brought both men out of their silent reveries.
"Is my tunic straight," Derek asked, fussing as Fergus had a minute before. He had met Rhiannon and fallen deeply in love with her but thinking of marriage still frightened him.
"Sweet Brigid," Fergus exclaimed, "now it's your turn to stop fidgetting and get out there and greet your bride." He took Derek's mug and set it down next to his own, then followed his king and friend to meet their new queen.
A dozen armoured men formed a semi -circle around two mounted women. One sat a grey dappled mare, her gloved hands holding the reins comfortably. She was an attractive woman, soft, honey colored hair wind tossed around her shoulders. Her features were delicate, pale blue eyes being what Fergus remembered from their first meeting. Then he looked at the other woman, Rhiannon's sister and he forgot how to breath. She was dressed in burgundy riding leathers and had hooked her knee over the pommel of her saddle. Her forearm rested comfortably on her knee, her black stallion's reins loose in her hand. Black hair tummbled over one shoulder hiding part of her face. When she saw Derek, she jumped down from the stallion and went to greet him, giving him a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. Rhiannon frowned at her sister's exuberance but the frown turned to a smile as Derek walked toward her, arm around her sister. Now Fergus could see her face and realized she was stunning. Her eyes flashed from blue to green to gold as she talked an imatedly with Derek and Rhiannon. She laughed at something Rhiannon said and Fergus was sure he had never heard a more beautiful sound. She tossed her head and he saw sun sparks fly from her hair. Fergus realized Derek was assisting Rhiannon from her horse and knew he should do something but he couldn't get his brain to tell him what it was. He shook his head, setting his own dark hair flying. The wind whipped a piece of it into his eye, making the eye tear. He shook his head again which finally seemed to get his brain working. He approached the trio, giving Rhiannon a courtly bow and a friendly smile. Then he turned to her sister and realized she studying every inch of him. The surprise of her bold assesment stopped him again.
"Rhiannon, is this Fergus? You told me how brave and loyal he is to your Derek but you forgot to tell me how handsome he is and how broad his shoulders are!" A saucy smile played around the woman's mouth and sparkled in her eyes as she tilted her head to look at Fergus. He felt an answering grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. He raised an eyebrow and took his time looking her over. He had to admit he liked what he saw. The leathers showed a trim, well proportioned figure, slim hipped and long legged. He realized she would be almost as tall as he. Fergus stood at attention, then bowed deeply from the waist, never taking his eyes from hers.
"You have me at a disadvantage lady," the grin from his lips clear in his voice. "You seem to know my name but I don't know yours."
Derek came forward, bringing Rhiannon with him. "This bold hussy is my sister Elspeth, Fergus. Derek tells me you'll be keeping her out of trouble while we're here."
BackElspeth put right foot behind left and executed a pretty curtsy, no easy feat in the masculine attire. Fergus marveled at how graceful she was as she flowed out of the curtsy to stand easily in front of him. He wondered if she had ever handled a sword and decided he'd enjoy teaching her how to use one if she hadn't.
"I'd better help you stable Aodh. He can be hard to deal with." Elspeth flashed another impish grin at Fergus.
"Never met a horse I couldn't handle," Fergus answered, taking the stallion's reins from Elspeth as he passed in front of her. Rhiannon's horse followed docily but the stallion whickered and pulled it's head up. "Aw, come on boy, we men have to stick together or we'll both find ourselves gelded," Fergus crooned low enough that he thought Elspeth wouldn't hear.
"I'd never do that to my beautiful stallion," Elspeth purred as she pulled the horses head down, rubbing her cheek against his. Fergus almost choked as she turned her face to him and added "either one of them!"
She ducked under Aodh's reins and walked on the other side of him, away from Fergus. "Which way are the stables , Fergus?"
"This way." Fergus led the horses away from the hall, toward a low, thatch roofed building on the other side of the compound. He saw grins disappear from the faces of the soldiers as he passed them. Apparently this was a game Elspeth played often. He hadn't yet decided if it was a cruel game or just the uninhibited nature of a spoiled, beautiful youngest daughter. "Your men can take care of their horses in those buildings," Fergus addressed the man he took to be the captain of the guard. "King Derek's horsemaster will get you anything you need and see that your men are settled. Go back to the hall when you're done. I understand you are to act as chaperone for the ladys?"
"For Princess Rhiannon, yes," the captain answered. "Lady Elspeth pretty much takes care of herself." He looked past Fergus at Elspeth and she stuck her tongue out at him. "I'm sure your sainted mother wouldn't approve of such childish behavior Elspeth."
Elspeth pushed her lower lip out into a pout. "All right Jasper, I'll behave. Fergus, where will we put Aodh and Rhiannon's horse? They've ridden a long way and need a to be groomed and fed."
Fergus was surprised at the sudden change from seductive imp to serious horse tender as Elspeth took her stallion's reins from him. She stroked the horses jaw, then reached up to scratch behind his ear and under his mane. A soft smile replaced the pout of a moment ago as she leaned her head against the stallion's shoulder. "I'll put them in the family stable over here, " Fergus pointed to a second low building. "Why don't you go back to the hall. Derek will have refreshments laid out by now, fruit, cheese, bread and sweet mead. It's been a long trip for you too Elspeth."
Elspeth turned to face Fergus, the smile deepening but not quite turning into a grin. "So you did hear my name!"
"I heard it all right, and everything else you said." Fergus shoved the mares rump out of his way then led her into a stall. "Put Aodh over there," he instructed, pointing to the next stall. "You'll find anything you need to groom him on the table against the wall. Grain is in the bin." Fergus unsaddled the mare and began to brush her. Elspeth removed Aodh's gear and Fergus noted that she had no trouble lifting the heavy saddle. They worked quietly for a while, the sound of their brushes creating a relaxing rhythm. Fergus finished the mare and turned to see how Elspeth was doing. He found that she had stopped working and was watching him.
"You really love horses, don't you?" Fergus raised an eyebrow and nodded.
"They're simple animals. If you treat them well, you can trust them to do the same for you. It's that simple with horses. Too bad people aren't that way."
"That's not true. Most people are the same way." The tilt of Elspeth's head and the intensity of her look made her words a challenge not a statement. Fergus came around to stand in front of her. He had been right about her height, she was almost as tall as he which made her a very tall woman.
"Are you telling me that if I treat you kindly, I can trust you to do the same?"
"Yes, of course!"
"I can trust you not to delib erately get into trouble while you're here?"
"Yes," came a wary answer. Elspeth smiled, then looked at the ground. "I was pretty bold, wasn't I?"
Fergus ignored the question. He wanted to ask if he could trust her not to break his heart but he was afraid of the answer. "I can trust you not to stick your tongue out and not to pout?" he asked instead. "I can trust you to be a friend?"
"Yes...Yes you can trust me to be a friend....in fact, I think I'd like that." This time Elspeth looked straight at Fergus with an open smile on her lips and in her eyes. "All I need to do is feed Aodh. Then could we go to the hall to get something to eat.? All of a sudden I'm famished."
Fergus laughed, a bit off balance from the sudden change in subject. "Now that you mention it, I'm pretty hungry myself." He picked up a bucket and scooped grain from the bin and put it in a trough for the mare then did the same for the stallion. "Maybe we won't be gelded after all boy," he muttered. He stroked the horse's shoulder then looked for Elspeth. She was taking gear off her saddle. Fergus was pleased to see one of the items was a sword in its scabbard, another was a bow and quiver. "Do you hunt with that bow?"
"Of course I do!" The impish grin was back. "I'll bet I'm a better hunter than you are," she challenged.
"We'll see about that tomarrow, now it's time to eat." Fergus put his hand lightly on her back and guided her out of the stable. He was surprised to see how late in the day it was.
They made their way to the main hall only to find everyone gone. "Let's go raid the kitchen," Fergus suggested. They took slices of beef and bread and mugs of sweet mead and went outside to eat. Elspeth ate with great appetite and talked about her father's lands and the coming wedding between bites of food ,giving Fergus glimpses of her life. He told her about Derek and life in Derek's hall and more about himself than he had ever told anyone else. They were sitting in comfortable silence, sipping the mead and munching on early fall apples when Derek and Rhiannon found them.
"Elspeth, I need you to help me get ready for the wedding tonight and you need to get yourself looking like the lady you're supposed to be!"
Elspeth started to stick her tongue out at her sister, then looked at Fergus. He frowned at her but a smile played around his lips. "You're right Rhiannon, I do smell somewhat horsey. I'll be right with you." Rhiannon shot a questioning look at Fergus.
"Your sister is a very considerate, biddable young woman Rhiannon. I can't imagine why anyone would suggest she gets in trouble." Fergus got up and offered a hand to Elspeth. She surprised her sister by taking his hand and letting him pull her up. She stood close to Fergus for a long moment, smiling at him. Fergus smiled back until he realized they were being watched. He turned Elspeth toward her sister. Rhiannon took Elspeth into the hall with a knowing smile for Fergus.
"What was that all about," Derek asked.
"Derek, she's beautiful, witty and when she's not showing off for an audience, she's interesting and strong and...." Fergus let his thoughts trail off knowing he had given away too much of his feelings already.
"I don't know how Hammish has managed to raise two such captivating women but we men are not safe when they're around. I felt the same way you do the first time I met Rhiannon and just look where that led."
Fergus turned to look at Derek, a shocked expression on his face. "You're not sug gesting I marry the woman? I've only just met her!"
"No Fergus, I wasn't thinking any such thing but apparently you are." Derek's shoulders shook with barely suppressed laughter. "I knew it would happen to you one day my friend, but I didn't think it would happen so quickly." Now he was laughing openly. "Get used to the idea, Fergus. The lady has you hooked. If it's any consolation I suspect she feels the same way. I've seen Elspeth at her father's court and she isn't usually so cooperative." Derek entered his rooms leaving Fergus to continue down the hall to his.
The scent of hot beeswax and fragrant flowers filled the hall. Derek's people loved him and had decorated the hall to look like a forest glade. Trestle tables full of food lined the walls of the hall and everyone was dressed in their best attire. Many of the women had woven crowns of flowers to decorate their hair. Children scampered amoung the adults enjoying the fact that their parents were not paying attention to them. Derek stood to one side of Galen, Fergus next to him. Rhiannon and Elspeth stood across from them. Fergus could hear the sound of the Druid's voice as he performed the ceremony that would unite Derek and Rhiannon "from this life to the next" but it was only a droning sound, he couldn't hear the words. He was too intent on absorbing everything about Elspeth. She had metamorphized into a soft, delicate, aluring woman. She wore a pale blue dress over a deep green undertunic. Her hair was pulled back into a thick braid with tiny white flowers woven into it. It hung over her right shoulder almost to her waist. Her eyes sparkeled as she watched Rhiannon and Derek. Fergus looked away as Derek kissed his new bride, afraid his desire to hold Elspeth close and kiss her would be all too evident. A cheer went up from the guests and Fergus saw that Derek had turned Rhiannon toward his tribe, presenting his new wife to them. Again they cheered, then a few of them came forward to lead her onto the floor to dance. Derek took Elspeth's hand and they joined the dancers leaving a surprised Fergus alone. Derek had a wicked grin on his face as he whirled Elspeth past him but Fergus didn't mind. He took pleasure in watching Elspeth move through the complicated steps of the dance and knew his turn would come. Soon Derek brought Elspeth back , then turned to reclaim his wife as dance partner. Fergus held his hand out to Elspeth. She rested her hand lightly in his and he swung her into the swirl of dancers. Fegus saw the evening fly by in a series of images, Elspeth laughing at something he said, talking with a farmer's wife, playing with the children, looking up to find him in the crowd, sending a warm smile his way.
As the moon set and the sky darkened, the revelers drifted off to their homes or fell asleep where they sat. Rhiannon leaned against Derek, her head on his chest, eyes closed, peacefully asleep. Derek looked completely content and smiled at Fergus as he led Elspeth toward the kitchens. They threaded their way through the bustle of people cleaning up the remains of the feast and went out into the night.
Elspeth spread her arms wide, threw her head back and spun around. "Isn't it a glorious night Fergus? Everyone looked so beautiful and Derek and Rhiannon are so happy." She stopped in front of Fergus and put her hands on his shoulders. Fergus took a step forward and put his arms around Elspeth, pulling her close. Instead of resisting, she raised up on her toes, putting her hands behind his head. She tilted her head to one side, eyes open, daring him to kiss her. He did, long, hard and deep. Elspeth took a deep breath when he released her, then let it out, slowly. She looked past Fergus with a frown on her face and his heart stopped.
"Do you believe two people can fall in love in one day," she asked?
Fergus gapped at her then started to laugh. He spun her sideways, put his arm behind her back and scooped her off her feet. He spun around and around as she had done earlier. "I believe it now," he said and leaned down to kiss her again.
She put her arms around his neck and when he let her legs fall, she slid against him, holding him tightly. "I feel as though we've been co nnected all our lives and fate has finally put us together."
"Sweet Brigid, I wish it hadn't taken so long. Think of all the years we've wasted."
"But just think of all the years we'll have together from now on." Elspeth smiled at him and Fergus saw sunshine in the dark of night.
"I'm not a king or even a prince. In fact, as Derek's sworn man, I don't even hold land. But I'll love you and protect you better than anyone else could. I hope that's enough for your father."
"I know it will be. He's never refused me anything I've wanted and I want you more than I've ever wanted anything. When can we go ask his permision to marry?"
Fergus cocked an eyebrow and waited for Elspeth to realize she had just proposed to him instead of the other way around.
"That is what you had in mind, wasn't it," she asked.
Fergus hugged her tightly as he laughed. "Yes, that's exactly what I had in mind. It's going to be nice having a wife who can read my mind. I won't ever have to talk to her."
Elspeth slapped his arm and stamped a foot. "Stop making fun of me. I know I should have waited for you to ask but sometimes men are so slow about those things and you knew I was a "bold hussy" from the start"
"That's one of the things I love about you," he answered. Taking her left hand in his, he kissed her palm, then her fingers. He twirled her around until he could rest his arm on her shoulder, still holding her hand. They strolled through the orchard, then back to the front of the hall.
"I know I'm going to have trouble getting to sleep but if we're going to leave for your father's tomarrow, we have to get some rest."
" I don't suppose we could sleep....." Elspeth let the thought trail off.
"Much as I'd like that...no we couldn't," Fergus stated emphatically. "Bold hussy is one thing but I don't want your father taking my head for dishonoring his daughter before I get a chance to ask for her hand."
Elspeth gave a rueful laugh and a little pout. "No, I don't want that either. I suppose I'd better go or we'll just stand here all night."
"I suppose you'd better." Reluctantly, Fergus let go of E lspeth's hand. She leaned over and kissed him quickly then turned and went into the hall. Fergus took a deep breath, closed his eyes and said a prayer of thanks to Sweet Brigid. He went into the hall, up to his rooms and spent a restless few hours trying to get to sleep. Exhaustion finally did it's job and he slept soundly until late afternoon.
He heard Elspeth's laugh as he entered the hall. She was talking animatedly to Rhiannon and Fergus was sure she had told her sister of last nights development. He found he liked the idea that everyone knew, a feeling akin to pride that he and Elspeth would soon be joined for the rest of their lives. He savagely pushed down the fear that her father wouldn't approve the match. He stood quietly watching the women until Derek came up behind him and slapped him on the back. "You don't waste any time do you friend? Of course, Elspeth has told us you two are leaving tomorrow to talk to her father." Derek's voice held a question.
"That's what we planned if you have no objections." Fergus knew Derek would give his blessing but he did have the responsiblity of being King's champion to take into consideration before leaving.
"I don't think I could stop Elspeth from taking you if I wanted to." Fergus turned to see why Derek had made the statement sound like a question. Derek's face asked if Fergus had been talked into this marriage or if it was his idea.
"Derek, it has to be the goddess Brigid who arranged this. I've never felt so right about a thing in my life."
Derek relaxed and clapped Fergus on the back again. "Then I'm very happy for you friend, although I think you're going to have a very exciting life with Elspeth."
"She is a handfull but there's more to her than that. We'll be just fine." Fergus returned to watching Elspeth until she noticed him. She actually leaped up and ran to him, throwing her arms around his neck. He gave her a more chaste kiss than the night before, then took her hands and walked to where Rhiannon sat.
"Will your father approve Rhiannon? Do you?"
"Fergus, I'm pleased beyond words. You'll make a perfect brother-in-law and I can't think of anyone else who could handle Elspeth b etter." She went on tiptoe to give him a sisterly kiss on the cheek. That was one hurdle overcome. He hoped their father would be as easy.
"If you've no more need for me Derek, we'd like to leave tomorrow, early. With luck, King Hammish will have his border troubles settled and be able to come back with us."
"That's fine with me," Derek smiled, happy for his friend.
"That will give my new bride time to prepare for our first celebration together. We were going to walk around the land, let Queen Rhianon see what her kingdom looks like. Would you two like to come along?
Fergus looked at Elspeth, a silent communication already in place between them. "No Derek, you take time alone with your new bride."
"Fergus and I are going to spar for a while," Elspeth chimed in.
"We are?" Fergus cocked an eyebrow at her but was pleased with the idea. It's too late to go hunting and I saw you looking at my sword when I brought it in yesterday. I've heard all night how good you are. I want to find out if all those people were right."
"Oh, I'm very good with a sword, lady." Fergus grinned at Elspeth. "But you'll have to wait til our wedding night to find out how good." He spun away from the slap she was going to give him and headed for the front doors of the hall, picking up his blade from the rack near the doors as he went."Ill meet you in the practice yard," he shot back at Elspeth. She nodded agreement, then went in the opposite direction from Fergus.
"Make sure you're careful Elspeth," Rhianon warned. "I'd hate to have to postpone that wedding."
"I will be Rhianon" Elspeth paused in front of her sister, then reached out to hug her. "I'm so happy Rhia! I want to spend the rest of my life making him as happy as he makes me."
Fergus smile deepened as he went out the door.
Elspeth was very good with the fine sword her father had reluctantly given her. She regaled Fergus with stories of how she had begged, pleaded with and finally teased her father into letting her train. They fought back and forth and around the p ractice yard until Fergus disarmed Elspeth. Then they started again. She picked up much from Fergus without his having to explain. She came close to disarming him once but his greater reach and strength prevented it. By the time they were both breathing heavily and pulling their wet tunics away from their heated bodies, the sun was almost down. A crowd had gathered and cheered as they saluted each other and walked toward the great hall.
"Do you think anyone would notice if we took supper out into the field like we did yesterday," Elspeth asked? "It was so peaceful there."
"Your wish is my command my Lady." Fergus gave her an exagerated bow, then raced up the steps ahead of her. "I'll be out there before you will!"
She took the challenge and raced ahead of him, making a face at him as she disappeared into her room. Fergus was waiting with a basket he had cajoled the cook into filling for him. He decided the wait was worth it when Elspeth appeared. She had chosen to wear a dress the color of a summer sky. It hugged her body to her slim waist, then flared over her hips to swirl around her ankles. She had unbriaded her hair and it flowed over her shoulders like a heavy black shadow. Fergus put the basket down and picked a sprig of heather. Elspeth reached for it but Fergus pulled it back. She took a step forward and reached again. This time Fergus held it up above his head. Elspeth reached for it and Fergus put his arms around her, tickling her ear with the flower.
"I want to keep you this close always Elspeth."
"This is just where I want to be Fergus." Elspeth tilted her head back and Fergus kissed her. They were both smiling when their lips parted. Fergus picked up the basket in one hand and put the other arm around Elspeth. They made their way to the grove of tree where they had shared so much of themselves just the day before. Again, they laughed and talked and planned together.
When the meal was done Fergus put his back against one of the huge old oaks and stretched his long legs out in front of him. Elspeth curled up next to him with her head on his shoulder. They were both asleep in moments.
A cramp in his arm woke Fergus. A thin slice of yellow sun shone on the horizon casting gold up into the blue sky. Fergus thanked Sweet Brigid for a day that promised to be perfect for a long ride. He looked down at Elspeth, still sleeping against his shoulder. She had gotten her way, they had slept together. He smiled at the thought. He tried to slide his arm from under her neck without waking her but she stirred, then opened her eyes. "Good morning love," he said softly. Elspeth looked up at him, stretched, then put her arms around his neck and kissed him soundly. "We need to be off to see your father soon because if you keep kissing me like that..." He let the thought unfinished but was rewarded by a knowing grin from Elspeth. She came up on her knees and kissed him again, then stood up and waited for him. He picked up the basket that had contained their late night supper and put his arm around her as they headed for the hall.
Derek and Rhianon were already up and eating breakfast. Rhianon shot a black look at Elspeth. The look on Derek's face said there had better be a good reason for the two of them coming in wearing last night's clothes.
"Good morning Rhianon, Derek," Elspeth greeted, helping herself to a piece of fruit from her sisters plate. "Did you both sleep well? We did."
Rhianon shook her head and smiled at her sister. "You are an adult so I suppose I shouldn't ask but where did you sleep?"
"We fell asleep in the grove," Fergus explained quickly. "Fully dressed, everything prim and proper," he assured Rhianon. Derek was trying to look stern but his lips t witched, wanting to curve up into a grin. "We need to be on our way to ask your father's permission to marry before this wench gets me strung up. I don't think we need more than two guards Derek."
"That's fine Fergus. Take whomever you want." Derek turned to one of the kitchen boys and gave instructions to get food packed for the trip.
"I'm going to change to riding clothes, Fergus. I'll meet you back here." Elspeth took another piece of fruit and left.
"You know I wouldn't do anything to hurt or dishonor Elspeth, don't you Rhianon?"
"Of course, Fergus." Rhianon smiled at his discomfort but it made Fergus feel better to know she was not upset.
"It shouldn't be more than a days ride to King Hammish hall. A few days there, then back here for another wedding." Fergus was su rprised the thought didn't make him as nervous as Derek had been. He felt only pleasure to think of spending the rest of his life with Elspeth. "Would you tell Elspeth I'll meet her at the stable. I want to be sure the horses are provisioned." Fergus left when both Rhianon and Derek nodded.
Less than an hour later, they were on their way, two of Derek's soldiers riding a respectful distance behind them. Brigid kept the mornings promise. The sun rose, a golden ball, warming the earth. The scent of wildflowers and fertile ground a perfume to raise the spirits. Elspeth's stallion pranced with nervous energy, infecting Fergus stallion.
"Give him his head, Elspeth," Fergus suggested. She gave him a q uestioning look that he answered with a wink and a smile. He let his stallion race ahead and was gratified to see that it didn't take long for Elspeth to catch up. They sped along the road through the forest, leaving the guards far behind. Elspeth laughed ex uberantly as she urged Aodh past him. He caught up with her a minute later and smiled back at her. He felt a surge of love so intense it caused a pain in his chest. She was the most magnificent woman the goddess had ever given to a man. He felt blessed. They raced along, he ahead then she, then he again, for miles. Fergus pulled up suddenly, causing his horse to rear. He got him under control and caught up to Elspeth where she waited for him.
"Why did you stop Fergus?"
"See the flashes of light through the trees?" He pointed left, then waited to see it again. "There," he said as Elspeth saw it too.
"What do you think it is," she asked, scensing his concern.
"Soldiers. The sun is glinting on their shields." He continued to watch the woods, finally looking back to see if the guards were catching up. He saw them coming up quickly. Apparently they had seen the same thing he had and come to the same conclusion. He let them pass by and crowded Elspeth closer to the woods.
"Let's use some caution here Elspeth. There's no reason for armed men to be this close to Derek's hall. It may be nothing but I don't want to take chances." To Fergus surprise, Elspeth reached back and pulled her sword out of the pack she had hung over Aodh's rump. He shook his head, then nodded his approval. "Just don't go charging ahead of us Elspeth. I'd guess you've never been in a real battle?"
Elspeth nodded and gripped the sword tighter.
"You'll do fine if it comes to that, but you're going to crack the hilt if you keep holding it that tight" He losened her fingers, then held her hand for a minute. "Don't worry, it's probably nothing threatening," he assured her.
One of the soldiers returned at a slow walk, letting Fergus know everything was all right. "It's King Hammish and his men, sir. He says he was on his way to King Derek's hall to be sure his daughters wedding went well. We assured him it did. He's waiting for you and Lady Elspeth" The man swung his mount around and followed Fergus and Elspeth.
"This is perfect Fergus. Now we won't have to go all the way to father' hall and he can be at our wedding."
Elspeth was excited but Fergus was starting to feel the first stiring of nervousness. He couldn't think of life without this woman beside him if Hammish said no. He was not as joyful at the site of the camp as Elspeth was. She rode straight to the largest tent where her father stood waiting to greet them. Strangely, her father wore full armour and had his sword in hand. Fergus noted that Hammish' soldiers were also armed. He pulled up next to Elspeth, close enough to prevent her from dismounting.
"King Hammish, it's a pleasure to see you," Fergus greeted warily. "Are your borders once secure enough for you to be away?"
"Yes Fergus. The trouble turned out to be just a small band of outlaws creating a great deal of havoc." He took Aodh's bridle and tried to lead him away from Fergus but
Fergus sidled his horse closer to Elspeth again. "Then you don't need all the armour you're wearing do you?"
"Fergus," Elspeth exclaimed, looking annoyed. "Why are you questioning my father like that?"
"Because he wouldn't be the first to take over another man's kingdon by way of his widowed daughter." Fergus regreted the shocked look Elspeth gave him but as Hammish' soldiers started to close in on them he was sure he was right about the reason for this gathering.
"It was kind of you to bring Derek's champion to me, Elspeth. Even if you didn't know what you were doing. Now move away from Fergus. I don't think he's going to surrender without a fight and I don't want you to get hurt."
"Father, what are you talking about?" Elspeth looked from her father to Fergus, com prehending that Fergus was right but not wanting to believe it. "You can't mean to take Derek's land. You have more than enough of your own. I won't believe you'd do this."
"There is no such thing as too much land my dear. Why do you think I let your sister be married to Derek. His land is rightfully hers when Derek is dead." There was no remorse in his voice, only cold calculating logic.
"Elspeth," Fergus said sharply, drawing he attention to him. "Do you love me?"
Hammish frowned but Elspeth nodded emphatically, never taking her eyes off Fergus.
He jerked his reins back the to the right, causing his horse to rear. Elspeth pulled Aodh's head to the left, pulling her reins from her father's hand. She hit Aodh's rump with the sword she still carried and he bolted in the direction he had come from. Fergus followed her with the guards close behind. Hammish camp was in chaos. Soldiers ran after them while others shouted orders to mount up. Fergus urged his horse to greater speed, coming up next to Elspeth.
Tears were streaming down her face but she nodded at Fergus. "We have to warn Derek," she shouted. Fergus just nodded and forged ahead, making sure Elspeth kept pace with him. He saw the two soldier's pull up and turn to face some of Hammish men who were catching up with them. It was a suicide mission and Fergus swore he's be sure their families were taken care of . He and Elspeth raced on, with only one man following them closely enough to make trouble.
"Keep going Elspeth," Fergus shouted as he wheeled his horse to face the man. He pulled his battle club from it's holder and hit the man squarely in the chest, knocking him from his horse. Fergus wheeled again, not stopping to check on the fallen man. That blow had crushed his breastbone into his heart and killed him. He caught up with Elspeth in time to see the gates of Derek's hold come into view.
"Close the gates to King Hammish' men," he shouted as he and Elspeth rode through. He jumped off his horse and ran into the hall. "Derek," he shouted. "Derek, Hammish is on his way and he isn't your ally."
Derek came into the hall followed by Rhiannon. "What's this about Fergus? Have you gone mad," Derek questioned.
"No he hasn't," Elspeth replied. "Oh Rhianon, it's true. Father is on his way to kill Derek, then take over his lands from you, when you're Derek's widow. It was awful. Father just stood there and didn't even try to deny it when Fergus accused him."
"Elspeth, I'm so sorry, but I have to defend Derek, even against your father." Fear that he would lose Elspeth if he had to kill Hammish to protect Derek made his knees weak.
"I know Fergus." Her voice held a wail of mourning that made Fergus cringe but it appeared she would stay with him. He turned as the great hall doors crashed open and Hammish stode in. The gatekeeper had been too slow to stop Hammish, although he only had four men with him.
"You can't do this father," Elspeth pleaded. "You and Derek have been friends for so long. Why?" The last was almost a keening wail.
"He's talking of uniting the clans, working together to keep the Romans out of our land. That's not what I want. We need the Romans and the advances they can bring us...bring me if I stop Derek." Both daughters looked aghast at their father but he ignore them. "My men have barred the door Derek. You and Fegus can't escape. You might as well surrender." "Rhianon, take Elspeth upstairs. Don't come back down until I come for you." He moved to stand next to Fergus, in front of Rhianon. Both men had swords drawn.
"Go with Rhianon, Elspeth," Fergus pleaded as he realized she still had her sword and had moved next to him.
"No, I'm not leaving you. My father wouldn't kill his own daughter just to please the Romans." She shot a challenging look at her father. He didn't respond, just raised his sword and swung at Derek.
Fergus shoved her out of the way with his hip and blocked the blow, forcing Hammish away from Derek. Hammish men split up, three to face Derek and one to face Elspeth. He moved toward her, a grin of overconfidence on his face, his sword pointing to the floor. Elspeth surprised him with a double handed swing that cut through his collarbone, severing the main artery. Bright blood spurted from his neck. Fergus saw the man fall and saw Elspeth turn to aid Derek. Hammish pushed him hard in the moment of inattentiveness and drove him back toward Derek. He and Hammish were almost equal in their fighting skills. They battled back and forth but hardly moved from the spot where they stood. Then Hammish swung his sword in an overhanded arc to the right, stepped back and brought his sword under Fergus parry. He brought his sword up to deliver a double handed blow to Fergus unprotected back just as Elspeth lunged to the left to impale her attacher. The force of Hammish blow cut deep into Elspeth side.
Fergus screamed "Nooooooooooo!" as Hammish pulled back on his sword and Elspeth slowly sank to her knees, watching blood flow from the ugly wound. Fergus attacked Hammish, beserk in his grief. He slashed left then right, driving Hammish across the room until his back was against the great hall doors. With a roar that held all the grief in the world he beheaded the murderer of his love. Fergus turned to see that Derek had finished the two soldiers and was on the floor holding Elspeth's still body against his chest.
"We have to take her to the sanctuary Fergus. We can't leave her here." Conor's grief sticken voice cut through Fergus memories, bringing him back to the present. Conor had picked Claire up and was standing in front of Fergus. Tears streamed from his eyes and he looked much older than his twenty years.
"Of course lad," Fergus said, gently taking Claire's lifeless body. "Get the horses and I'll hand her up to you." Again, time slipped backward.
Fergus went to his knees, taking Elspeth from Derek. Her long black hair fell over his arm, away from her face. Derek had closed her eyes and she looked as peaceful as she had sleeping next to him just this morning. He brushed a stray strand from her cheek then crushed her to his chest and howled.
Smoke from the funeral torch brought tears to Fergus' eyes as he watched Conor lean over Claire's bier. "I'll never love another as I loved you Elspeth," he said as he heard Conor say the same words to Claire. "I'll stay with Conor and help him fight to unite us so a day will come when men no longer have to mourn their lost loves."