Maeleaclain Unrata was having a very good, but far too short-lived dream when he felt the blankets being pulled away sharply from his body.
“Get up, Lord Unrata!” he heard a familiar female voice say. “Your father is expecting a correspondence and His Highness Prince Feidhelm requests your presence for the inspection of the barracks-”
Mael sat up straight, grasping at the covers and pulling them back over him. “Marjole! I’m naked!” he protested. He watched her carefully. Though he was an Elf Lord in his prime, almost 150 years old, and Marjole was seven hundred, hunchbacked, white haired, old and wrinkled, he didn’t trust in his strength and youth to protect him from the nursemaid’s wisdom and cleverness.
“If you are experiencing a vermin problem, My Lord, I am sure Prince Feidhelm will lend you one of his mousing cats. There is no need to try to scare them yourself.” She moved slowly but steadily toward the curtain.
“Very funny,” he replied dryly. “What if I had a companion with me?”
“Then we would be doing whatever it took to apologize for the embarrassment that you have brought to our house and to Una Feidhelm, your betrothed.”
Mael grumbled and shifted in the bed, keeping the covers tight under his chin. “Me embarrass her? She is the one doing all sorts of strange, unfeminine things.”
“You must allow for differences in culture, My Lord. They are human. And f we wish to enlighten them, we must do it in a way that doesn’t offend and humiliate them.” Marjole pulled the curtains open and made her way back over to Mael. She tugged on his comforter and he pulled it even tighter about him. “Why must you antagonize her?”
“Antagonize her? Did you see what she did to my best white stallion? She dyed him with little red hearts. I can’t ride a horse like that. My best Elven bred stallion! I was going to give him to her father as a gift. I don’t know how he even got near him, but it’s humiliating.”
Marjole made a short lived sound that was suspiciously close to a laugh in Mael’s mind, but her face was expressionless.”They are called horse masters, my Lord. And perhaps if you hadn’t made fun of the painting she made for you, she wouldn’t have tried to expand her canvas.”
“Well, it was horrid.”
“You won’t be doing our people any good to offend the only willing allies we have.”
Mael grumbled again, but Marjole just tugged on his comforter. “Are you going to get up and dressed, or do I have to dress you as I did when you were a baby?”
“I can dress myself!”
“Get up and do it then,” she said, her voice implacable, like her steel grey eyes that bore down on him more powerfully than an enemy warrior with a sword in his hand.
“I will as soon as you leave. You are dismissed,” he said as determined as he could manage.
She nodded and turned away, but he could still hear her laughing through her nostrils. She went, closing the door behind her and Mael arose and quickly dressed. He wasn’t sure he could keep Majole out even if he locked the door. When he heard the door slam open, he spun about on the defensive, readying himself for whatever the old woman his father had sent with him would say or do–as best he could. It was perfectly clear why his father had sent her, he was more frightened of the woman than anyone save his father. But it was not his old nursemaid standing there in the door, it was a much younger elf servant. Young Caoimhin, his nephew’s adopted son.
“She has her pants on!” Caoimhin said breathlessly. He brushed his honey gold hair out of his eyes, revealing a grin from ear to ear.
Mael smiled back mischievously. “Saddle up my horse.”
“Which one?” Caoimhin asked cautiously, the smile fading as his brow rose.
Mael frowned and bit the inside of his lip. “The fastest horse I have,” he growled through gritted teeth.
Caoimhin nodded his head and sped off.
It had taken a little stealth, Una tucked her chestnut brown braid beneath her colar and pulled the cloth cap lower on her brow–until her bangs brushed her eyelashes, and a bribe to the stable master, but it all seemed worth it when she was on her horse, running free through the fields of her homeland. Her father wouldn’t have liked her wearing riding pants, let alone one that he borrowed from a servant, but riding had been her only solace in the last few weeks.
Her betrothed obviously didn’t like her, or didn’t want to like her, which she could understand deep down, but she wasn’t going to let him get away with treating her poorly. She would marry for the sake of the people, for the need of peace, but she wouldn’t be treated poorly for the same reasons. The purpose for his visiting had been for them to get to know each other and prepare for the inevitible, but it was not working out as well as she had hoped.
She urged her horse, Heather, a beautiful mare with a blue-gray dappled body eastward, toward the coast. She felt the wind in her face and tried to stop thinking about elves, marriages and treaties.
She slowed her horse as they approached a stream, dismounted and let her mare drink deeply. Una took a flask from the saddlebags and did the same, refreshing herself. She heard a noise in the distance and turned her head toward it. She saw the rider emerge from the forest road in the distance. The little red spots on the roan gave away the riders identity.
She sighed, but did not mount to run. He would want her to run and she wasn’t going to do anything he wanted her to do. She stood calmly by her mare, rubbing the horses sweaty neck to keep her calm a the horse and rider approached. As soon as he was within speaking distance, and before his horse had even come to a stop, he started his barking at her.
“Where is your armed guard? Did you ride out here alone?” Mael demanded, pulling his horse to a stop beside her.
“I don’t need a guard,” she replied, trying not to grind her teeth.
“Of course you need a guard. Are my people not at war? Are you not my betrothed?” He dismounted, swinging his leg over the saddle and hopping down.
She felt the cold dread she always felt when he approached her. “I am not defenseless. I was trained by a Zafiri weapons master-”
“Look at you! In pants! This is exactly the sort of embarasment my people would expect from humans.” Mael’s arms were akimbo as he walked around her, looking down his nose at her.
“And how else am I going to ride?” she demanded, her posture now matching his.
“Sidesaddle, like a proper woman would.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said with a wave of her hand, dimissing the idea.
“I’m not being ridiculous,” he replied through gritted teeth. “If you are going to be my wife, you are going to have to start acting like a woman – a gentlewoman, not this country-bred hellion with a tongue like razors you have been showing to everyone.”
Una didn’t reply, there was a lump in her throat that forced tears behind her eyes and she struggled to maintain control. Mael obviously took it as a cue to continue.
“Do your people know nothing but coarseness and hardness? he asked.
“Being coarse and hard is exactly why you came to us!” she barked back at him, looking up with her fierce hazel eyes. “Ten thousand coarse and hard Feidlemans to defeat your soft and polite enemies.”
He seemed to consider that for a moment, as if it were something he hadn’t before.
“You are a callous, thoughtless man,” she hissed at him, because she couldn’t manage to do anything more through the tightness in her throat and the tears threatening to spill over the rims of her eyes. “You have ruined every pleasure I have once enjoyed, now even my riding.”
Mael took a step back like he had been struck. He watched dumbfounded as she turned to mount her horse and he tried to think of something to say–something witty or stinging, like she would have replied–but nothing came to mind. He even, for a moment, considered an apology.