"I must say, it's quite the surprise to see you on the ground like that." Oisin said, helping Niamh disentangle the saddle from Saorail. "Are you all right? You look like you hit your head."
"I'm fine, honestly. You can stop asking." Niamh said, grimacing as the saddle finally fell free. It was much harder to undo the straps when the whole weight of the saddle was pulling down towards the ground.
"How did you fall? Was there a rock?" he asked.
"Must have been." Niamh replied. "Why are you here?" She asked, suddenly defensive.
"To see you." He said, hefting the saddle in his arms. "And your father, of course. I've also heard tell in the village that there's another magic animal staying here."
"Yes, a lynx. Her name is Krys." Niamh said, taking the saddle blanket and brushing dirt and grass from it. She replaced it on Saorail's back, then reached for the saddle. Oisin, however, stepped forward and swung it onto the mare's back, adjusting it slightly to be sure it was in place.
"I had the stable hands teach me more about horse care." He said, tightening the girth. He turned and beamed at her. "I can properly pick hooves now!"
Niamh couldn't help but smile at his exuberance. However, it left quickly. "Why are you here?" She asked again, slightly harsher this time.
"I know, but why now?" Why, when it's too late…? She stood in front of him, her arms crossed, searching his face once more. An odd, familiar feeling rose in her chest.
"Well, I had been busy dealing with affairs at home. I didn't even have time to write. I figured… well I thought it might be a pleasant surprise." He said, abashedly.
"Well, it is." Which is why you shouldn't have come.
She let out a deep breath, then swung herself into her saddle before anymore could be said. "We may as well go and tell my father that you're here."
"All right." He said, mounting his own horse. Suddenly, his demeanor changed, and he seemed nervous. "Afterwards… I need to speak with you." He forced his face to be stern, succeeding in looking ridiculous, like a child trying to look serious.
Niamh felt the odd feeling in her chest grow, as well as a strong sense of alarm. She glanced at him, noting how he refused to look directly at her, and how a slight blush had entered his face.
"All right." She said. What she planned to do would break his heart, but it wasn't her fault that he hadn't contacted her for two years.
He seemed to relax slightly at her words, and he nodded. The two trotted in silence up to mansion, their horses making low, growling nickers at each other.
They gave their horses to the stable boys, then silently entered the mansion. They made their way to the main sitting room, and Niamh felt the urge to push all memories of the two of them aside as they entered. Krys's legs still hung over the side of the couch –apparently, she preferred it over the bed- and Artiar sat at the opposite end of the room, reading papers from the pile of documents next to him.
Artiar looked up as the two entered. His ready smile faltered when he saw Oisin, and he gave Niamh a meaningful look. Niamh shook her head; she did not need the two to start "asserting dominance", as Cailli would have called it.
Oisin noticed Artiar, and bowed deeply. "My lord," he said hastily, "an honour to meet the son of our High Lord, truly." His voice was steady, though his face seemed flustered. "I had no indication of you being here."
"No, you wouldn't have." Artiar responded, not bothering to stand up to introduce himself. "I prefer to travel without fanfare. Besides, this way, I have more time to spend with my bride-to-be." He turned back to his papers.
Oisin turned to Niamh. She nodded, and tried to smile. "This is…" he cleared his throat, "this is amazing! Congratulations!" He began to dry wash his hands. He glared at them and forced them to clasp peacefully behind his back. "Truly wonderful! How long?"
"Only a few months." Niamh answered. She looked him straight in the eyes. "The wedding will be in two."
Oisin nodded, then turned to the window with the couch –and the lynx- in front of it. "This is the lynx?" he asked, walking over.
"Yes, this is Krys. She followed the hunters here." Niamh reached down and lightly tapped the cat on the head, waking her up.
"Is it dinner time?" she asked drowsily, barely opening one, green eye, "if it isn't, I want to sleep more."
"Krys, we have a guest." Niamh said, urging the cat.
Krys sat up, stretched, and yawned. She turned her head about to glance at Oisin. "Who're you?" she tiredly slurred.
"I am Oisin." Oisin gave another slight bow.
"Oisi-? Oh, Oisin!" Suddenly, all drowsiness left the cat. She hopped onto the floor and padded in front of Oisin, her head coming up to just past his waist. "You're him! Wow, from what I heard, I thought you'd look…" she looked up him up and down, taking in his red hair, brown eyes, standard stature, and plain common nobles clothes of blue and grey. "Different." She finally concluded.
"That's… flattering." Oisin said.
A maid entered the room. "Dinner is ready." She said.
"About time!" Krys dashed after the maid, nearly running into her. "Where is it? Will it be here? Where do we eat? What will we eat? I'm starving! Why do you humans wait so long to eat? Doesn't it make you-?"
"We will go to the dining hall, Krys." Niamh said, struggling to keep from laughing. Artiar stood up and set aside his papers, placing a book on them as a weight. The whole group then followed the maid to the dining hall. No one spoke, aside from Krys, who fired endless questions at the poor, nervous maid.
Behind the cat, the air was slowing drawing itself taut.
When at last they could sit, and excuse the maid, Krys made a running leap for the chair at the head of the table. She turned around several times, hardly able to contain her excitement.
Naimh and Artiar sat across from each other, and Oisin sat a seat away from Niamh's right. Cillian soon entered the room. He glanced at Oisin and raised a brow, looking pointedly at Niamh, then at Artiar, and back at Oisin. Finally, he cleared his throat and said, "Good of you to visit us, Oisin." He gestured at Krys, who was in his seat, and said, "We seem to have no lack in unexpected guests tonight."
"I wanted it to be more of a surprise, Lord Cillian." Oisin said. "I should have sent a message ahead, though. I realize that now."
Cillian waved a hand at him. "Never mind, you are welcome here any time." He paused, taking the other end seat opposite Krys's, then added, "Although, it would be preferable to have at least a days' notice beforehand."
Niamh laughed, "Let us hope Bevin cooked enough for all of us!"
With her words, servants streamed in and began to lay covered food on the table. Krys's ears pushed forward as though she intended to taste the food with them as well. She grabbed several sizzling pieces of spiced meats and piled her plate high, ignoring any and all vegetation on the table.
"Krys, you should try some-." Niamh pointed at a salad, but Krys was quick to answer.
"Nope! Not unless you want me to sick up." The cat glared at the greens, and it was left at that.
Dinner was livelier than any of them would have expected. They all spoke, mostly to Krys, who was the noisiest of them. Her eating was civil, and she chewed quietly. Her questions, however, could not be silenced.
"Why do you eat with such odd looking tools? Why do you have so many of each one? Why do you eat so much all at once? Oh, probably because you wait so long. Oh yeah, no one answered that for me, why do you wait so long? I like this one, what's it called? Can I have Bevin make it every day?"
Everyone at the table tried to answer her, but she never let anyone finish their sentences. They were amused to simply hear her speak. Niamh couldn't help but laugh at some of the more outrageous questions. She was glad for it; it took her mind off of more oppressive things.
Several times, Oisin would make a quip that would send her into nearly endless giggles. Even Artiar laughed at them. Krys was usually at a loss when it came to "human jokes", but there were several that even she could understand and laugh at.
Dinner seemed to pass almost too quickly. Krys complained when the leftover meat was taken away to be saved or fed to the hunting dogs as treats, but she otherwise complied to the "sorrowful" emptying of the table. Dessert was then brought in, and her interest was piqued slightly. Niamh made Krys agree to try a small slice of a berry pie.
"If I eat this and get sick, I am holding you personally responsible." The lynx said, staring straight into Niamh's eyes.
"Why are you so convinced that eating vegetables and fruit will make you sick? Wouldn't your being magic prevent that from happening?" Cillian asked.
Krys shrugged. "I never bothered to try it. I know some other cats eat grass to purposefully make themselves sick."
"Maybe that's just grass. There may be some plants you can eat." Niamh urged.
"… But what if there isn't?" Krys whined.
Niamh sighed exasperatedly. So much for the curious, I-want-to-know-everything nature. "How will you ever know if you don't try? You're a magic animal, so your stomach should be able to process the food. Cailli could."
"Your Heart-Friend was also an omnivore." Krys said, "I'm a carnivore. I eat meat, only meat!"
"She doesn't have to try it now if she doesn't want to." Oisin jumped in in.
Krys nodded at him. "Thank you!" she pushed the plate away with green magic, sliding it halfway across the table, pushing other desserts out of the way. "Besides, I'm full." She grimaced, then hopped down onto the floor. "I'm going outside. See you tomorrow?"
"I- well I guess." Niamh said, shrugging.
The lynx trotted from the room. Cillian waved at a servant and told him to follow the cat out and help her with doors, should she need it. The servant bowed and followed, training his expression to one of impassive politeness.
"They don't seem too comfortable around her." Oisin noted aloud.
"No," Niamh said, "I think, between Cailli's attacking people and Krys' being a large, predatory cat, it'll be a while before they can warm up to her at all."
"So, she just came to you?" Oisin asked.
Niamh nodded, and Artiar spoke up, "She said she heard a lot about Niamh and her fox friend. She must have thought she could come along and start smooching food, as well."
"Well, so long as she does not try to imperialize the property, she is a welcome guest." Cillian said, standing. He pushed in his chair and left the room.
The three left behind sat in silence for several minutes, picking over the remnants of the desserts. Niamh glanced at Oisin, who was too absorbed in his food –and, likely, his thoughts- to look up. She looked at Artiar, who was also watching Oisin. She caught his attention, then said, "If I could have a moment alone to talk to Oisin?" loudly. Oisin looked up, surprised, and Artiar sat up straighter, raising a brow at Niamh.
"We have something that we need to discuss, preferably alone." Artiar didn't move, and his face became slightly more stern.
"See it as a test of our trust." Niamh said. "Do you trust me?"
"I will let you have a moment alone to speak with each other," Artiar answered slowly, "so long as you have Jenni or someone else with you, as well."
Niamh nodded. She wouldn't mind having Jenni with them, though it would have been better to have no one. Then again, even Oisin might have protested at that, given his adversity to bad political implications and reputation.
A servant was sent to summon Jenni. In the meantime, Artiar got up and stood behind his chair, his arms crossed. He didn't look directly at anyone; simply glancing about the room until Jenni arrived. All the other servants and Artiar left the room, closing the doors behind them. Jenni took a seat in the corner and set down her cross-stich bag and began working.
Oisin studied Niamh, his brow furrowed.
Niamh studied him back.
"It is nice to see you." She said.
"You're engaged." He said. He tried to smile, though it faltered.
Niamh sighed. "I'm… No, I won't be sorry."
A hurt look spread over Oisin's face, but he replaced it quickly with a passive expression.
"You were gone, completely gone, for two years. No letters, nothing." She sighed heavily. "I am engaged, yes. I am happy, too. I love Artiar. I still love you too, though not… not quite the same way as I did before." She found tears welling up in her eyes, and she blinked them back. She did not need to cry right now. Later.
Oisin studied the carpet, a dark expression slowly creeping onto his face. Suddenly, he smiled. "I understand." He looked at her, his smile weakening. "I understand." He said again. He stood, bowed, and left the room.
Niamh slumped in her chair, suddenly exhausted. Her mind felt numb, and the angry tears that had tried to come before now surfaced, refusing to be held back. Arms were suddenly wrapped around her, and she jumped. Jenni held her tighter, stroking her hair the way Niamh's mother used to.
"You were strong for long enough." She whispered.
Niamh nodded, and hugged Jenni back.
Oisin followed the servant to a room that had been prepared for him. The small trunk that he had sent one of his own servants with was already in the room. He bade the servant thanks, then closed the door, turning towards the room. It was simple, yet ornate, as it had been the last time he had stayed here.
He thrust his hand into his belt pouch and pulled out a small ring. It wasn't horribly expensive, and had an amber stone set into it. He had thought it would suit Niamh perfectly, for her eyes and for the fox.
He glared at it, as though all of the blame could be shifted to the small, twinkling stone. It seemed to laugh at it him in the candle light.
He threw it –hard- against the wall of the room. It tinkled as it bounced off the stone wall and under the carved dresser. He flung himself onto the bed, gripping the pillows with claw-like fingers. Tears brimmed, but he refused to let them fall. However, after several minutes of grappling with his emotions, his throat and chest tightened, squeazing the tears from him anyways.
Krys trotted about the forest, Quill flitting about behind her. She sniffed at the ground every now and then. The fox had left many animals behind; animals that had trusted her and felt safe around her. Even now, they nested and roosted near the fox's old den. Krys followed the scents for a while. Not to hunt, she was much too full, but simply out of curiosity.
Soon, she came upon the fox's den. The items had fallen into disarray from animals coming in and taken what they needed when they needed them. In front of the den grew a lush bush, covered in purple flowers. A Never-Sleeps.
The lynx approached the bush. She had seen many like it before. All different in how they looked, smelled, and felt, but all the same in their existence. Krys sat in front of the flowers, head bowed. The bush itself supported various forms of life; insects and small animals crawled and scurried around inside it, finding shelter and nourishment in it's branches. Quill landed on the top most flower, making it bend under her slight weight. Krys stared at the bird, and Quill stared back. Finally, the Lynx stood up and shook herself. "Farewell, Fox," she said quietly, "I hope I can care for your Heart-Friend as you have." she turned from the bush and walked away silently, deep in respectful thought.
A slight brush of wind passed through the bush, and the leaves seemed to chime as they rubbed together, and the flowers seemed to shimmer as they moved. Then all was still once more.