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Ceci Giltenan(7)

By:Highland Solution

How would she be able to bear giving her away tomorrow? Her throat felt tight while unwanted tears welled in her eyes. Forcing the tears back, Katherine whispered, “It is for the best, my pretty girl,” as if the horse had been the one about to cry. In an effort to regain control, Katherine walked a short distance into the clearing, pulled up a large handful of grass with which to rub Stormy down, and returned to the mare. She enjoyed grooming her pet and found the simple, mindless action calming. She had barely started when she heard Niall bellow, “Katherine, I said rest! Tomas, see to your lady’s horse.”

The abrupt order startled Katherine and she lost the last little bit of her remaining control. Tomas rushed to her and took over the task. She walked to the edge of the clearing, determined not to let anyone see her cry. She had learned years ago that tears not only gave her uncle power over her, but also delighted him. In an effort to deny him this pleasure, she had learned how to control her emotions. Sometimes she couldn’t hold the tears back altogether, but she could usually master them until she found a place to be alone. Keeping her back to the Highlanders, she took a few steps into the trees and sat down on the roots of a great oak, pulling her knees to her chest. In pain, exhausted, and with an aching heart, she buried her face in her knees and wept.

She cried out her pain and fear until her tears were spent. Then, once again in control, she sat there in the deepening gloom with her head resting on her knees, allowing the evening breeze to cool her cheeks and dry her tears. She took stock of the day. Aye, her king had all but forced her to marry a stranger. In fact, the rather large man she had married frightened her a bit, but, as she had boldly admitted to him earlier, she believed him to be a vast improvement over her uncle. Tomorrow she would lose her beloved Stormy, but Niall had assured her the gentle grey would be well cared for. She worried about those of her father’s people left under her uncle’s tyrannical rule, but she had managed to keep Tomas, the most vulnerable of them all, safe. All things considered, she told herself she had every reason to feel hopeful.

She knew she needed to rejoin the rest of them, but she hadn’t quite found the courage yet when Tomas slipped up beside her. “Are ye done crying?” he asked.

Horrorstruck, she said, “Do they all know I was crying?”

“Nay, just me, cuz I know ye.”

Relieved, she said “Aye. I’m done crying. You won’t tell them?” she asked, smiling at him conspiratorially.

“Nay, I won’t. I know ye don’t like people to see when ye cry. Since ye aren’t crying now though, why don’t ye come back? Moyna packed supper and she put in the nut bread ye love.”

Katherine laughed, “You can’t fool me, Tomas. You love that nut bread almost more than I do.”

Tomas grinned and took her hand as they walked back to the campsite. When Katherine noticed Niall watching her, she blushed, wondering if in the twilight he could see her red, swollen eyes.

~ * ~

Niall had been watching Katherine discreetly from the time they dismounted. Her pallid appearance when they stopped had him convinced she bordered on collapse, but she had defied his order to rest. He watched her walk into the edge of the forest. He could just see her sitting on the other side of a large oak, finally resting as he had ordered. He hoped her earlier obstinacy did not indicate things to come. He would not tolerate defiance.

When the men had settled their horses, they opened the package of food sent with them from Cotharach, while Niall continued to watch her. Although she sat upright, she didn’t move. Her stillness made him wonder if she had fallen asleep. He started to walk across the clearing to get her when Tomas hopped up in front of him saying, “I’ll get Lady Katherine, she loves nut bread.”

Niall nodded slightly, letting the lad go. When Tomas returned with her, Niall was struck again by her beauty. The priest had called her radiant when she appeared in the great hall just before their wedding, and he had silently agreed. He found her stunning. Seeing her now, holding the lad’s hand and laughing with him, once more took his breath away. He had overheard the priest’s words to her earlier and now they echoed in his mind, My dear, I am certain you will be a wonderful wife and mother. He frowned, chiding himself silently for being a fool. He knew very well what master manipulators women could be. Would he never learn? He only wanted this illusion to be true, so the sooner he drove out these romantic notions, the better.

His men spread the food Moyna sent on a low, flat rock, appearing to fully enjoy the change from the oatcakes and dried meat they usually ate while traveling. After selecting some food for herself and Tomas, Katherine moved to sit where Niall indicated, on a plaid spread on the ground. Tomas plopped down beside her, chattering about all the exciting things he had learned from Fingal. “Fingal says he and the other men are not just ordinary soldiers.”