An unexpected meeting.
|Running . . . I was running.
Heart pounding in my ears, my own laughter trailing out behind me like a skein of cloth, I darted behind a tree and silenced myself, grubby hands covering my mouth. Then, after peering around the tree to see a clear path and my pursuer nowhere near, I quietly made my way through the outskirts of Gwydir Forest, creeping along until I found a recent dead-fall.
A smug giggle escaping me, I crawled under a gap in the deadfall, behind the shroud of a bush and settled in to wait. I knew he’d never find me.
And I hadn’t settled long before I was, in fact, found. I was playing with a beetle crawling on my right trouser leg when a pale, triumphant face appeared just beyond the shroud of the bush hiding me.
“Found you!” A familiar voice declared, startling me into sitting up and bonking my head on the deadfall.
“Ow!” I saw stars and fireworks, and rubbed my curly head, while the other boy laughed and laughed. By the time I finished investigating my head for lumps and abrasions, my pursuer had climbed into the limited space under the dead-fall and behind the bush, and was wedged in with me, brushing my hands away from my head. He gently searched me scalp for injury and, upon finding none, pulled my head down and kissed the crown anyway.
“There,” the other boy said with no-nonsense satisfaction, his dark, dark eyes shining solemnly. “That’s better, isn’t it, Gwil?”
“I s-suppose,” I stammered, blushing hotly and batting the other boy’s hand away. “How is it that you always find me so quickly?”
A quick, seldom-seen grin was my only reply. At least till I pouted, and the other boy sighed fondly. “When you run, you leave behind a trail anyone can follow of trampled grass, broken branches, and disturbed earth. Were we playing hide and seek the castle, I might not have found you so quickly. But Tad’s been teaching me to track. And he can find anything,” he said worshipfully.
I spared a thought for my own Tad, dead before I was even born (and Mam had shortly followed, according to Modryb Elizabeth), and sighed, myself, wishing Ewythr Rhys liked me better. If he had, perhaps he might have taught me to track, at the same time as he taught his own son. I learned fast. Everyone said so. I was better at reading and sums than any other boy my age and many who were older. Perhaps—
With a stinging smack on the cheek that shook me out of my reverie, the other boy was wriggling out of the small crawl-space and running away, laughing himself. And I—I blinked and was staring up into two pairs of concerned eyes: one dark brown, the other bright green.
“*Cefnder, aros! Peidiwch â gadael i mi. . . !” I called out, bolting upright and startling both people who’d been leaning over me backwards to sit on their heels. I was breathing hard and fast and looking around me as if I’d misplaced my best friend.
Then I was looking at the two people again, closely. One of them was Bleddyn—and with that recognition came the knowledge of who I was, where I was from, and where I was at—who smiled a worried smile at me, reaching out to caress my face gently.
“**Wyt ti gyd â hawliau, mae fy nghalon?” he murmured softly, and I blinked blankly.
“***Nid wyt ti yn deall yr hyn yr wyf yn ei ddweud?” Bleddyn said, his brow furrowing, and I laughed weakly, putting a hand to my suddenly aching head.
“You know I don’t speak Welsh, baby.”
Now Bleddyn was the one to blink blankly. “But . . . you most certainly did, just now, as you awoke.”
“Did I?” I asked, unable to remember anything but that heart-pounding sensation of being about to lose—or maybe already having lost my best friend. It’d hurt like a knife in the heart, and my mind shied away from remembering it or anything attending it too keenly. “Oh-kay. If you say so.”
And I glanced at the woman sitting next to him, who—for all that she looked like Dierdre . . . a lot like Dierdre, from the oval face and green eyes, to the cleft of her chin and the wave and curl of her dark hair—was not my best friend. Though they looked so much alike, that even staring directly at her, I had to remind myself that Dierdre was both younger and paler still than this woman, and instead of the Dierdre’s pertly upturned, freckled nose, this woman had a longish, straight nose with nary a freckle on it.
Still, I supposed a swoon and a faint was . . . if not the most manly thing I’d ever done, then at least somewhat understandable under the circumstances.
I supposed everyone had a doppelganger out there, somewhere. It made sense that even in this time, when there were billions fewer people, that there were people who greatly resembled other people for no other reason than . . . well, the fact that they just resembled each other.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the woman, however, and she, in turn, kept staring at me as if she knew me.
Maybe she knows my 1626 doppelganger, I thought, then shuddered. That was too much coincidence, even for a man who believed in such a thing.
“Who are you?” I asked her, leaning closer to Bleddyn, who obligingly put his arm around my shoulders and turned his solemn gaze on the woman, too.
Her eyes ticked between us, and she smiled serenely, getting to her feet easily, dusting off her dress. “I am Gwenllian Robert, of Llyn Tynymynydd. And you are Karthik of Nayar, separated from his companions and a guest of Lord John.”
I glanced at Bleddyn, who was still frowning up at Gwenllian. “Word travels fast, I guess.”
Gwenllian chuckled, low and throaty, nothing like Dierdre’s ridiculous, dainty tee-hee-hee, and offered me her hand up. “Indeed, it does. Especially in the countryside.”
Before I could decide whether to take her hand, Bleddyn was on his feet and helping me to mine. The world wobbled unsteadily for a few moments, moments during which Bleddyn held me upright more than my own legs did. But the disorientation quickly passed, as did the inexplicable headache. But even when I was clearly steady Bleddyn held onto me, one arm around my waist possessively.
“Gweddw Robert,” he said gravely, inclining his head. “I thank you for your concern, but as you can see, Lord John’s guest is well, just a bit shaken from his swoon. A circumstance which will be remedied by a swift return to Castle Gwydyr.”
Which sentiment I would’ve whole-heartedly agreed with, had I not been fascinated by this woman who bore such a striking resemblance to my best friend. Could she possibly be some distant ancestor? After all, Dierdre’s family had ancestral roots in the U.K. I couldn’t remember where, exactly—I was certain her father’s side was all Irish, but her mother’s side? I didn’t remember for sure what they were, other than some kind of Briton.
“Lord’s blessing upon thee,” Bleddyn said formally, finally, steering me away from Gwenllian and away from the Falls, toward the horses.
“But—Bleddyn, she looks almost exactly like one of my friends! Dierdre! You can’t think that’s a coincidence?” I hissed as he dragged me along. I kept looking behind us, and Gwenllian was watching us go with a quietly contemplative look that made me shiver. “What if she knows something about—you know . . . how I got here? Bleddyn, slow down! Let me go!”
But Bleddyn merely shook his head and dragged me on toward the horses by my arm. His grip was like iron. “Karthik, this is one of the instances where you must rely on me to lead you a-right. And away from her,” he said under his breath, as if afraid that, even from this distance, Gwenllian could still hear us.
“What do you mean? Is she—not trustworthy?” I asked as we got to Arwel and Queen. Bleddyn helped me up onto Arwel then mounted behind me. When I looked back at the place we’d left Gwenllian, she was gone. I couldn’t spot her anywhere nearby.
“I do not know how trustworthy or not Gweddw—Widow Robert is. What I do know is that she is looked upon with disfavor by many in the county, since the death of her husband. No, since before he married her, there was disquiet about her,” Bleddyn said, sighing and clicking his teeth. Arwel started to walk, Queen no doubt right behind him.
“But . . . why was there, um, disquiet about her? What is she? Like, a gold-digger? A trophy-wife?”
“Never mind.” I snorted as Bleddyn’s arm settled around my waist and I leaned back against him slightly. “Tell me why she’s viewed with disfavor.”
Bleddyn sighed again, his warm breath stirring my hair as he nuzzled it briefly. “Ten years ago it had been said none could snare the heart of Eirian ap Robert, Lord John’s head gamekeeper. For years, many a maid and widow tried and none succeeded in capturing his fancy until she arrived, fresh off a merchant ship from Caerdyff, seeking a position at the castle.
“She got it immediately, as Gwynedd can always use extra hands around the castle. And Gwenllian Jones captured Eirian’s eye before that first week was closed. Within that first month, she was Gwenllian Robert. The unmarried women of the county and their mothers were most displeased.”
I snorted again. “I can imagine.”
Bleddyn made a noncommittal sound. “It was shortly after their marriage that the whispers began. Rumors that Gwenllian Robert was no ordinary woman. That she was a faerie maiden come to work mischief among men—”
“Oh, Lord,” I muttered, rolling my eyes. This was what happened when people didn’t have cable television and the internet.
“—and it certainly did not help matters that she was, by Gwynedd’s own mouth, an uncanny hand at healing the sick. Always did her tonics and tinctures work to cure the ill. After a few winters in which Gwenllian Robert saved many from fevers and maladies that might have cost lives, the tide of the county—all those unhappy maidens and their mothers—found it within themselves to accept her in their society.”
“How big of them.”
“Three winters ago, however, when sickness fell upon the county faster than healers could work to combat it, Gwenllian Robert was nowhere to be seen near the middle of winter. For days, no one saw her or Eirian. It was only when I was dispatched to find out why the lord’s gamekeeper had not reported to his job in so many days, that I found them: Eirian ap Robert, in his bed, several days dead of fever, and Gwenllian Robert barely clinging to life at her hearth-side. Her fever had broken not long before I arrived and she was stirring but weakly.”
I frowned. “So . . . lemme guess: Because she couldn’t save her husband, she fell back into disfavor with the county at large?”
“Then what’s the other part?”
Bleddyn was silent for a bit before answering. “There are some who say she could not save her husband . . . that her skills simply failed her when she needed them most, and that the Lord called him home. And there are others, still, who say that she would not save her husband.”
It took a moment for that to sink in. When it did, I glanced back at Bleddyn’s serious face. “And what do you think?”
Sighing again, Bleddyn met my eyes and smiled a little. “I believe that Eirian ap Robert’s wife tried her best to keep him by her side when the Lord called him home. And, falling ill, herself, would have followed Eirian hence, had I not been sent to collect him.”
I shook my head. “Why do people believe she let her husband die? Were they having problems? Fighting? What would make them think such a horrible thing about someone?” I demanded, angry on Gwenllian’s behalf. “After all she’s done for the people of this county!”
“People will often believe the worst with little or no provocation,” Bleddyn said, shrugging and holding me tighter as we left Trefriw proper behind. “Which is why I urge you to mind being seen with her. For she does not enjoy the reputation she once did, and though she is, I sense, a well-meaning woman, many do not see her that way, and would see anyone who associates with her as . . . tainted by her. They may cast a suspicious eye on that person, and scrutinize them both closely and harshly.”
“And the last thing I need, period, is close scrutiny,” I murmured, thinking of the way Bleddyn and I couldn’t keep our hands off each other—even in the middle of Trefriw, with the threat of prosecution and death hanging over us—and how lucky we’d been that no one had yet caught us.
No one except Gwenllian, of course. And I sensed that she wouldn’t be in a rush to spread the news all over the county.
No, she’d seemed neither surprised nor disgusted to come upon Bleddyn and me kissing, which was, for a woman of her times . . . odd.
There’s more to her than meets the eye, I thought, leaning back into Bleddyn’s arms, sighing when they tightened around me. I have to see her again—have to talk with her. I know she knows more than she’s said about where I’m really from, not to mention something about why I’m here, now. I could see it in her eyes. . . .
But then Bleddyn kissed my neck and I filed my thoughts on Gwenllian away for later consideration. “Are we really going back to the castle?” I wondered aloud, thoughts of my tiny room, and of Bleddyn and I on my narrow, pokey mattress dancing in my head.
“I wish nothing more than a private space with you, and time,” Bleddyn said solemnly. “But as we are already on the road which leads there, we may as well make the trip to Llanwrst. Though I suspect nothing will come of that.”
“Least of all me,” I half-groused, then laughed a little, marveling at how even just a smidgen of nookie turned me into an insatiable, come-hungry slut. “Llanwrst, it is. Then, after that, the castle?”
“Indeed, ****fy un annwyl.”
I smiled. I knew an endearment when I heard one. Even when it was in Welsh. “Welsh isn’t a romantic language at all, is it?”
“In truth, it is not, Karthik. It is not a derivative of Latin, though some common words are—what brings you such amusement, Karthik?”
“Nothing, Bleddyn,” I said, still chuckling. I turned my head and kissed him till he stopped frowning. “Nothing at all.”
Llanrwst was, of course, a bust, and in exactly the same way as Trefriw.
It wasn’t quite as quaint and pretty—no Fairy Falls for Bleddyn and I to make out at—but there were more people to talk to. More mothers trying to secure Bleddyn as their son-in-law. I knew I’d be teasing him mercilessly about it, later. Perhaps as we lay in bed together, I thought smugly as one mother’s face fell when Bleddyn declined her invitation.
By the time we returned to Gwydir Castle, the sun was westering. The courtyard was busy as people finished up their day’s work in a hurry, before they lost the light.
We rode up to the stables and Bleddyn dismounted, and helped me down, holding onto my waist longer than necessary. His eyes smiled into mine for long moments then he reluctantly let me go when the stable boy came to take Arwel and Queen.
“Think we have time to get up to shenanigans before supper?” I asked him quietly. Bleddyn smiled outright, though apologetically.
“I’ll be expected to report to father my findings. He, Lord Owen, and the other men will have got back some time ago.”
“But since we didn’t find anything, reporting shouldn’t take long, should it?” I asked quietly, stepping dangerously close to him and, after a quick glance around, putting my hands on his mailed chest for a few moments. “If I wait in my room for you, will you come see me, if you’re able?”
Bleddyn’s dark eyes were smoldering. “I will. For I mean to make small work of my report and spend as little time with father as I may.”
Swell guy like that, I can’t imagine why, I thought, but managed to not say. Instead, I took Bleddyn’s hand briefly and squeezed it. “I’ll look forward to seeing you, then.”
Glancing around, himself, Bleddyn suddenly took me in his arms and kissed me, hard and quick, lingering to explore my mouth almost forcefully, before pulling back and whispering: “*****Yr wyf yn dymuno i osod di i lawr ac yn addoli dy gorff fel fy un gwir Dduw.”
Rendered breathless and weak-kneed, I blinked up at him, dazedly. “What does that mean?”
“It means . . . that I will move Heaven and Earth to see you between now and supper, fy un annwyl.”
And with that, Bleddyn was gone, marching off toward the castle, leaving me to stare after his rapidly receding form, while my knees relearned how not to deposit me ass-first in the mud.
I was still in a daze when I reached my room, pleasantly absent-minded.
Nonetheless I was surprised to see Lord Owen waiting at my door, like a man who’d been waiting hours and was prepared to wait hours more.
I wondered, with a twinge of dismay, if he wanted to hear the rest of, ahem, my story, now, and what Bleddyn would think if he came to see me and found me entertaining his lord’s son, however innocently.
“Lord Owen,” I said nervously, bowing awkwardly, and Owen smiled a little.
“Please, simply Owen will do quite nicely—at least in private. And you needn’t bow every time you see me.”
I straightened and smiled back. “I’m a stranger in a strange land. I don’t wish to seem . . . disrespectful.”
Lord Owen shook his head. “You are anything but, Master Karthik. Your ways are strange, but far from disrespectful. You are quite a pleasant guest. Certainly the most pleasant we’ve had in some time. And I must say, you tell an excellent story.”
I grinned, hoping Tolkien and Jackson weren’t spinning in their . . . wherever the unborn hang out to wait. “Aw, thanks, Owen.”
He blushed and looked down at his booted feet. “I speak only the truth . . . erm, I take it you and Bleddyn were unsuccessful at Trefriw and Llanrwst?”
My grin faltered, and I cleared my throat and tried to look innocent. “No traces of my friends were found and no one has seen them. At least around here.”
“That is, indeed, most odd. None of the men found anything either, though we scoured the Forest in all directions.” Owen sighed, his big blue eyes meeting mine squarely. “I am sorry we could not find your companions, Master Karthik.”
“Please, it’s just Karthik,” I said and smiled to show him I wasn’t upset. “And you’ve all been so kind to me—extended me genuine hospitality and gone out of your way to help me find my friends. There’s nothing to be sorry for.”
Owen wrung his hands and frowned. “It’s just that I wonder . . . what will you do, now? Will you attempt to travel back to your America alone, and hopefully be reunited with them there?”
Not likely, I thought, imagining what the odds were of me surviving a trip to America on a ship in 1626, and then my odds of surviving small pox, or lynching, or enslavement, or being accused of witchcraft. I didn’t like those odds one bit. “I . . . that is, they, my companions, have our traveling papers and money. Even if I wanted to go back, I wouldn’t be able to without them.”
“I see,” Owen said quietly, frowning harder still, his lips pursed. Then he looked up at me, his eyes narrowed in thought. “Are you a learned man? That is, have you any skill at figuring and sums, and perhaps some skill at reading and writing?”
“Um, yes. I mean, I’m pretty good at everything up to and including calculus.” I shrugged. “And I can read—in English, anyway. And I suppose Welsh, too, since it’s the same alphabet. I just have no idea what it is I’m reading or saying.”
“Hmm.” Owen was frowning at his feet again. Then, a second later he was beaming up at me. These mood changes were really quite impressive, if a little dizzying. “I must speak with father about a certain matter, Mast—Karthik. But I will see you at supper. Oh! You’re most cordially invited to supper in father’s private dining room, tonight. You and Bleddyn, of course, for he wishes to hear all about the search.”
“Uh—okay,” I said to Owen, who was already halfway down the narrow corridor that lead back to the main hall. As he turned the corner, he saluted me, and kept going, clearly a man on a mission, but with a: “See you shortly!” called back at me.
After puzzling over this—the second hot guy to take off on me in twenty minutes—I shrugged, and let myself into the room, my mind already on other, Bleddyn-related matters.
I must’ve fallen asleep again, because when I woke, it was to a tender kiss on the corner of my mouth, followed by several more of which I sleepily, but heartily partook.
“You made it,” I breathed on Bleddyn’s lips, then yawned as he sat on the bed and smiled down at me.
“That, I did,” he whispered, reaching out to brush my hair off my forehead. “But you are weary. Perhaps the time before supper would be best spent in rest.”
“Nuh-uh, no way, Mister Sweet-talking Welshman. You promised me shenanigans, and it’s shenanigans I demand,” I said, sitting up and stretching. Bleddyn’s eyes traveled the length of my torso, yearningly, despite my shirted state. In fact, the only thing I’d taken off before laying down had been my boots.
When I was done stretching, I put my arms around Bleddyn’s neck and pulled him close. He came obligingly, kissing me again, his arms sliding around my waist.
“How’d the reporting to dear, ol’ dad go?” I panted when he let me up for air. Bleddyn’s mouth made a moue on mine, then he answered.
“As well as can be expected. It was . . . brief, at least,” he said, and would say no more. Not that I was exactly badgering him for deets when what I really wanted was for him to be riding my ass like I was wearing a saddle.
“Mmm, well, how much time do we have until supper?” I asked, and at this, Bleddyn smiled and bore me down to the bed, pinning my hands to the mattress on either side of us.
“Time enough,” he promised, and kissed me gently, before freeing my hands to pull off his shirt. He tossed it at the garderobe, and I ran my hands up his strong arms and over his broad shoulders, then down his ridiculously defined chest, to the waistband of his trousers. Everywhere my palms passed, muscles jumped and twitched.
I pushed his trousers down his narrow hips, careful not to snag the fabric on the slight curving of his cock, and looked up into his eyes. They seemed to burn into mine, and I knew that no one had ever wanted me quite like this or nearly as much.
“Time is never enough,” I said, softly, suddenly melancholy for no reason I could put my finger on. But I shivered when Bleddyn’s brushed his thumb across my lips, and tried to smile. I doubt it passed muster, but Bleddyn smiled back, and then we were scrambling to get my clothes—though I supposed I should’ve thought of them as William’s—off. When we were both naked, our bodies crashed together like two opposing waves, our hands seeking to be everywhere at once as we traded kisses and endearments back and forth between us like a glass of wine. One that, for all our sipping, could never possibly go empty. . . .
Never say never, a quiet and watchful part of me whispered from the back of my mind, even as Bleddyn pushed his way inside me, and I cried out before literally biting my pillow. After that, the voice was silent, leaving me to enjoy Bleddyn’s body on and in my own.
And I, for my part, submerged myself wholly in the pleasure and rightness of having Bleddyn in me and anchoring me, letting concepts such as tomorrow and what next? drift as far from me as each powerful thrust could drive them.
*Cousin, wait! Do not leave me. . . !
**Art thou all to rights, my heart?
***Dost thou not understand what I say?
****My cherished one
*****I wish to lay thee down and worship thy body as my one true God.