"I now pronounce you Man and Wife," the priest said, suddenly smiling in a fatherly way down at the couple in front of him, the hours-long ceremony over. "You may kiss the bride." The Great Hall, which had been completely silent, erupted in loud, raucous cheers that echoed over and over against the tall ceiling and ringing off the windows.
Delilah saw only a flash of teeth as Rhys grinned and bent down, fastening his lips on hers. For a giddy moment, the world dropped out from beneath her feet, and she flung her arms around his neck. The fear and terror, and all the insecurities that she had been living with since her mother died seem to fall away into beneath her, the ground swallowing them up as she came back to Earth.
The echoing roars had died down slightly as the huge crowd moved outdoors to where huge, long, wooden tables had been set up, creaking under the pounds of food that had been heaped on top of them. The official congratulations would begin at the toast, when certain, special guests were given the honor of standing up and addressing the new couple directly. Then they would have to fend for themselves as the hordes of people came over to congratulate them.
"I want to show you something," Rhys said in a whisper, his breath rifling the tendrils of hair that hung down the sides of her face.
"Don't we have to go…" she trailed off, gesturing at the doorway where dozens of people were still trying to fight their way through.
"It'll be an hour before they all get settled down and have the drinks passed around. They won't begrudge us a bit of piece before we get started."
Delilah, who had protested only half-heartedly, allowed him to lead her along, their hands still joined, his fingers tight around hers as if he was afraid, if he let go, she might disappear as she did twice before. She didn't mind keeping in touch with him, either.
He led her up the huge entrance staircase, past guest rooms that were once again occupied like they had been that night one month ago. Rhys had seen to the soldiers almost secretly, undermining their positions until they either gave up and accepted Rhys as their ultimate leader, or abandoned the fort, in which case all the soldiers were given an order to kill them if they ever came across them out in the countryside. Delilah had thought it a bit harsh, but his men, stony-faced and grim, had agreed without hesitation, even the ones that had switched camps. All in all, with Phillip gone, it was a much more pleasant place, with no more tensions save the occasional fist fight or dispute that always came up when you had so many men cooped up in one place. Granted, the married ones were allowed their own small plot of land where many of them farmed or became blacksmiths or tanners, but there were enough young ones in the barracks to create the need to release pent-up energy every once in a while.
As to that end, Rhys had agreed to set up a competition twice a year, to give his soldiers something to keep in shape for. He was already planning the fist one, to be held at the Autumnal Solstice, just after harvest time.
Delilah nearly tripped on another set of stairs, this time steep and cramped, obviously leading to the servants' quarters.
"Rhys, where are we going?"
He flashed her a grin over his shoulder. "You'll see."
They emerged into a deserted corridor, which he led her quickly down, only allowing her quick peeks into the rooms, which appeared as if they hadn't been moved in years.
"Most of the servants live near where they are needed most," Rhys explained, as though reading her mind. "The kitchens or the stables or on the floor just above ours to stay close enough to hear if you need anything. This top floor hasn't been touched in years. I don't remember a time when Brythwick needed servants enough to fill this space up."
He cut her off with a shake of her head, and she sighed, knowing that she would get the same answer he had given her earlier if she pursued the matter.
"Ah," he said finally, stopping in front of a small wooden door that had been recently polished, the softly gleaming wood standing out sharply against the slightly dusty walls around it. He turned to her, taking her other hand in his. "Close your eyes."
Smiling a little, she did as she was told, and, after a moment, she heard the door open with a soft swoosh. He led her forward, and under her slippered feet she could feel a thick rug, and the sun was shining warmly on her face. A slight breeze came in through some opened window, and she could just hear the murmur of voices from far below.
He stopped her, releasing her hands and going to stand behind her, placing his hands on her shoulders.
"Okay," he said, "you can open them."
She did, and what she saw nearly took her breath away.
She was in a small room whose roof came to a point above her head, the ceilings sloping gently. There were three huge windows that gave her a view of the lands around the keep for miles. The carpet under her feet was finely woven sheep's wool, the color of sun-bleached wheat, and there, in the center of it all, was a fantastically carved easel, a heavy canvas nailed to a board resting on top. In front of it was a small, straight-backed chair, and at its feet a woven basket filled to the brim with jars of paints and wooden handled, horse-hair paintbrushes. Her eyes filled with tears as she turned to look at him, her hand covering her mouth.
"Well say something," he said in a lightly teasing tone, even though he could tell from the look on her face that she enjoyed the surprise even more than he expected.
She shook her head silently, swallowing twice before she could speak again.
"I don't know what to say, Rhys. It's absolutely wonderful. I had all but forgotten I'd asked you to get this for me." She took a step towards him and kissed his lips lightly, letting herself fall into his arms when they wrapped around her.
He pulled away gently. "Our guests are waiting," he said softly.
She sighed. "I know."
Taking her hand, he led her from the room and down the stairs to her new future.
Delilah woke up with a start, the image branded so strongly on the back of her eyelids that for a moment, she didn't realize that her eyes were actually open, and the sunny, active scene in front of her was super-imposed onto a background of flickering light that barely illuminated the royal blue draping above her.
As though her body was acting on its own accord, she got quietly out of bed, Rhys's hand, which had been resting on her stomach, falling to the sheets. She grabbed the thin robe from the floor and slipped it on, exiting the room without a sound. The scene was still in front of her, but her feet carried her past the doors where numerous sleeping guests lay, up towards the servants' stairs and through the door at the end of the hallway. The light of a full moon illuminated the room in shades of silver, and she walked over to a small chest of drawers that she hadn't noticed on her first visit here, but instinctively knew that it contained what she'd need.
Sure enough, there was a thick, wool towel, a shallow bowl of water, three long, tapered candles, their holders, and flint.
Deftly lighting them, she spaced them around the chair, turning it so that the moonlight was at her back, spilling onto the white expanse in front of her. Mechanically laying out the jars of colors, she opened each in turn, their smells mingling with the soft scents of night and a coming rain. Selecting a paint brush and setting a smooth, polished piece of wood on her lap to mix colors if needed, she closed her eyes.
The image came readily to her mind. There was the little boy dressed in rags, his legs covered in mud nearly up to his knees. There was the little donkey, his ribs starting to show through a ragged coat that spoke of a hard winter and lean times. There, the merchant; the blacksmith through his haze of smoke and steam; the plump woman buying fruits and grains that weren't grown in the small town.
She opened her eyes, but the image remained, every detail sharp, extending to the very edge of the canvas. Twirling the brush between her fingers, she dipped it in a jar and began to paint.
The gray light of dawn was filtering through the half-drawn draperies when Rhys woke to an empty bed. Years of work in the fields of battle had taught him to rise at dawn, no matter when he had gotten into bed the previous night.
His heart thumped wildly in his chest as he looked at the place where Delilah should be lying, but wasn't. Scrambling out of bed, he grabbed his trousers that had been left carelessly on the floor last night when he had brought Delilah to bed.
He flung open his door and stepped out into the hallway, but stopped. He could hear the sounds of the kitchen below just coming to life with the need to feed the guests still here from last night's wedding. He looked carefully from side to side, his eyes landing on the open door in a discreet niche in the hallway. The servants' stairs.
His muscles relaxed and he walked towards it, smiling indulgently. She must have been anxious to try out her new paints after waiting so long, even though she had had other things on her mind in the meantime.
He walked silently up the stairs, wincing every time a board creaked under his feet, not wanting to disturb her if she was absorbed in her painting. The door at the end of the hall was cracked, and all he had to do was push it open a few inches more so he could slide in and lean against the doorjamb.
He couldn't help but smile at her. She was turned so that he could see her profile, bent over the canvas intently, splashes of paint on her arms, her legs, and even her face, as if she had brushed the clinging tendrils of hair away from it while her fingers were still coated with it. Her hair hung in loose waves down her back, and her robe hung precariously off one shoulder.
The canvas was facing the east window, as though she had specifically arranged it that way so she could use the morning light. He looked down and saw three candles, all burnt to the ground, on the opposite side, as if she had been here since the moon had fallen in the west.
His brows slightly creased in what might have been a frown, he walked around in a wide arc, staying out of her direct line of vision, until he was situated behind her at an angle that kept him from blocking the sunlight, but allowed him a full view of the painting.
His jaw dropped, and the frown disappeared at the lifelike scene in front of him. It looked as though she had frozen an instant in time, capturing everything from the dappled shadows on the ground to the intense look of concentration on the boy thief's face. It was utterly magnificent.
With a last, sweeping stroke of her arm, the brush clattered to the floor, splattering paint across her legs. Sighing, she put the board that had been sitting on her lap on the ground, and not one inch of the polished surface could be seen through the blobs of paint that were mixed and swirled on its surface. She stood up and stretched, noticing Rhys as she turned around, her arms above her head.
She jumped backwards with a squeak, nearly knocking into the newly finished painting.
"Rhys!" she exclaimed, but her voice was breathy from being up all night and the scare he had just given her. "What are you doing here?"
He didn't take his eyes off the painting when he answered her. "I was afraid I'd lost you again when you weren't in bed. I saw that the door to the staircase was open and just came up…" he trailed off, tearing his eyes from the painting to lock onto hers.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I just…I couldn't get it out of my head, so I had to put it down. It was important."
He walked over to her, taking her hands in his and rubbing the knuckles, which were sure to be sore.
"What's it called?" he asked quietly.
"'The Scene That Started It All,'" she replied without hesitation.
He gave her a questioning look, and she smiled wryly at him. "Let's just say that, had I never seen this, I never would have ended up here."
Rhys shook his head. "I don't understand."
She smiled and leaned against him for a kiss, which he gladly gave.
"That's okay, you don't really need to." She turned to the painting. "So you like it?"
He wrapped his hands around her waist and rested his chin on top of her head. "It's absolutely gorgeous." She sighed and leaned against him.
He waited a moment before voicing what was bothering him. "Are you ever going to tell me?" he asked.
She knew what he was talking about, even thought the question was vague. Turning in his arms, she looked up at him. The pain was written plainly on her face, and he suddenly wished that he could take it back; that he could make it all just disappear.
"It was just the start of a new chapter in my life, Rhys. That's all it means. A new life with you. I just want to start over." She whispered the last sentence, not quite meeting his eyes. Tilting her chin up, he was mortified to see tears in her eyes.
"You can. With me. I'm sorry, Delilah."
She sighed. "It's okay." She pressed her forehead against his bare chest. "I love you, Rhys."
He planted a kiss on the top of her head. "I love you, too, Lily."
They hung it in their room above the fireplace, and served as a reminder to Lords to come that they were responsible for all of the small towns under their protection. Although not meant to do such a thing, it helped insure that the painting survived the years, through war and famine and upheavals. Legends and myths about the mysterious artist came and went, but none came close to the truth of what actually happened. But it survived to do what it was meant, and Delilah and Rhys lived, of course, happily ever after.
Wow, I can't believe it. Another story I actually finished. Thanks to all of you who reviewed, and I hoped this ending brings some kind of closure. Please please tell me if there are any questions left unanswered, and I will try to go back and fix that. I know that always bugs me if I don't have all my questions answered.
Oh, I have no idea how old English wedding ceremonies are actually conducted, like the wording and such. I know, generally, there's latin involved somewhere, as there usually is with the church, but as I don't know any and wouldn't know where to begin…*shrug* oh well.
Tor: yes, I know she seems strangely comfortable. I think I was so desperate at that point to get another chapter out that I kind of forgot to resolve that in a more complete way. I'm sorry. I think it's going to stay as it is for now, but I may get around to going into more detail on that eventually.
I love you guys!