When they arrived back at the manor, the kitchen staff had already prepared the evening meal, but Lord Drystan insisted nothing be served until Her Majesty returned. Upon the sound of approaching horses, Aria had the staff in a frenzy and the table was served before Gwyneira and Niall entered the main dining hall.
Everyone stood in respect and obedience to the queen. She nodded briefly, then made her way to Cedric before taking her seat, motioning to all to be seated.
“Lord Drystan, you did not have to wait for me,” adding some formality to the matter felt awkward, but with other Nobles around, she did not want to be too casual. “I went to call upon Lord Eldred, but it appears he was not at home.”
Niall noted the edge in Cedric’s voice. “In fact, it seemed that he had not been home for quite some time,” the Commander interjected, “and there may have been some foul play involved.” Gwyneira glared at him.
Malachi choked, “Foul play?” He wiped liquid from his chin. “How so?”
“We can talk later,” Gwyneira continued, “but do you know if Eldred was planning on going anywhere, perhaps a long trip?” She looked back at Cedric.
Cedric wiped his brow with a napkin, then responded, “Why no, in fact, I thought he was looking forward to Harvest Fest.”
Malachi watched Cedric intently. “When was the last time you heard from him? Don’t you think it a bit odd that he hasn’t come by on the Eve of Harvest Fest?” his raised his voice.
“Well, you know how hermits can be,” he shot Malachi a puzzled look, then waved the napkin nervously. “He will go for weeks, even months without contact. When Her Majesty was going out, I assumed she was going to see him, and would then be bringing him back to supper.” He turned to Gwyneira, “He could be on one of his spiritual awakenings. But if you wish I can send men to go look for him.”
Gwyneira looked to the Commander and nodded.
“We can arrange it tomorrow,” Niall said.
“Wonderful,” Cedric perked up and motioned for the maids to bring the food, “then please, sit your Majesty, I’ve arranged some wonderful local delicacies for tonight’s feast!”
In the queen’s room, Sarah and Royse, were helping her prepare for the night, putting the gowns away and drawing the queen’s bath. Gwyneira sat by the vanity with a brush in hand, staring past the mirror, her eyes focused far away. Strong footsteps sounded down the hall, stopping at the door. Suddenly, a sharp rapping on the door startled Sarah, who nearly dropped the pail of water into the bath. Gwyneira rose, wrapped a long silk rope around herself and motioned for Sarah to go see who had come calling so late.
When Sarah cracked the door, she smiled broadly, the tension melted from her shoulders. Gwyneira tensed until she saw Master Niall step through the doorway.
Ah, she thought, now I know why Sarah always volunteers to be among my traveling party. “That will be all ladies,” she said, nodding to Sarah and then to the door. Sarah’s expression dimmed as she gathered the queen’s under-gown to wash for the morning.
After they were alone, Gwyneira smiled at her friend, “It seems you have an admirer.”
The Commander stood there for a moment, lost in thought. Looking around the room, he noticed how much larger it was than the modest quarters he had next door. He insisted on the room adjacent to the queen’s, which meant he had a small closet, intended for servants. As his eyes came to rest on Gwyneira, draped in a thin dressing gown, it finally registered. He blushed, something he rarely did.
He started, “I am just doing my duty to protect you, m’lady, if I thought, I mean all those times…” he stuttered, trying to make sense of her advances.
“Not me,” Gwyneira laughed, “Sarah. I think she has taken a liking to you.”
Niall napped his jaw shut, and squinted at her, “What makes you say that?”
“You must get out more. Tomorrow I will send her out with you to the market to find my offering for the Harvest Fest.” Gwyneira giggled.
“I can’t, I mean, I think you are not safe.” Niall cleared his throat and straightened his tunic. “I don’t trust Malachi. You know he has always been envious of your family and position, and now…” he hesitated. “May I speak freely?”
She paused and tilted her head, while she appreciated his respect, he rarely asked for permission. “Of course,” she replied softly.
“Now that your father has passed, Malachi is likely to try to… get you to give him Castle Brynmor, if not just take it. I suspect that is why he is here. Why else would he travel so far? We both know he detests long trips if there is no profit for him. What else would he gain from coming here?”
“Are you saying I cannot resist his charms?” she teased him.
He glared at her.
“Fine,” she conceded. “But there is no reason for him to want it. There’s nothing left there but old stones. If he really needs the dreary old place to boost his stature, then I think he has more to worry about than whether I give my blessing or not.”
Although Gwyneira did not entirely believe that, she dared not engage Niall’s suspicions, for though the Enchanter’s power of persuasions were strong, the Commander’s powers of force were nothing to trifle with. All she needed was a confrontation between two stubborn council members during an event meant to represent rebirth.
She was actually looking forward to the ritual bonfire to release her tension and sorrow and find a bit of peace in this crazy year. With Maclachi’s arrival, that now seemed unlikely. The least she could do was try to minimize the potential impact.
“You’ve had a long day you should have my bath instead. I’ll call Sarah to refresh it,” Gwyneira smiled wily as she made her way across the room to call her maids.
Niall tried to argue, but she put on her “queen” face and summoned Sarah to bring more hot water. Gwyneira gathered her night clothes and went across the room into the adjoining chamber assigned to her protector.
“Enjoy,” she said to him. She heard him muttering in disbelief as she shut the door.