Gallagher did not make an appearance for the rest of the morning, much to Maeve's relief. As Leonna led her through the keep, showing her the lay of the halls and whispering names in her ear every time she was expected to know a person, the pace of life in the castle began to settle into Maeve's bones. It was a stark contrast to the fast, rushing expectations of modern life and, she found, a welcome one. Not in many years had she been in a place where so many people knew each other and worked together in such harmony, exchanging greetings and jokes and songs as they went about their days. They were connected to each other in a much deeper way than the superficiality of a working relationship at her job, or the friendships she had with people she more often saw online than in her day-to-day life.
They needed each other here.
Leonna showed her the many beautiful rooms the castle held, from the cozy, firelit meeting room where the laird met neighboring clans to discuss business and allegiances, to the countless bedrooms that housed visitors who were ever coming and going, to the high tower that had been transformed into a library of rare books, and the large, warm space where the children were sent to play. They walked the walls that surrounded the courtyard, creeping into parapets and guard towers, hurrying past nooks where young men and women convened for secret trysts, and back into the castle to regain some warmth from the cold day.
There was a damp room in which laundry was washed and hung to dry in the winter, large tubs of steaming water filled with suds and women humming together as they worked in unison to conquer the ever-replenishing dirty laundry. There was room filled with barrels of pickled things, smelling strongly of vinegar, and a cellar boasting barrels of ale and bottles of wine, some of the latter having come from France and reserved only for the choicest of guests. There was the butcher's, where the workspace was ever stained with blood and the walls were hung with meat ready to be smoked or pickled or cooked.
And, of course, there was the great hall, where Maeve found herself admiring the rustic beauty of the grand room. The high ceilings with raw beams soaring over tapestries that told stories of this place's history, the massive candelabras casting light and shadow into nooks and corners,the long tables that someone had taken the time to scatter with pinecones and pretty branches from outside. At the head of the room was a raised dais upon which, she assumed, the laird of the castle and his mistress sat. Upon which she would be expected to sit. The thought dawned on her and she tugged at Leonna's elbow.
"The... fairies told you I would come here," she whispered, still feeling absolutely ridiculous for half-believing this woman's tale. "Did they tell you what I'm supposed to do?"
"Do?" Leonna raised an eyebrow. "Do about what, exactly?"
Maeve gestured to the head table, to the large seats adorned with lush pillows. "I am not the lady of this castle."
Twisting a strand of hair around her finger, Leonna smiled. "Are you not?"
"No!" Maeve exclaimed a bit too loudly, and several maids turned to look at her curiously. The table was being set for the midday meal, and sound carried very well in the large room. "No," she continued in a low voice. "I am not her. But Gallagher thinks I am, and so does every other person who has seen me. I gather all of this belief in faeries and changelings means if I were to tell my tale I'd be... I don't know, burned or something."
Leonna made a passive clicking sound with her tongue, and shrugged. "Ach, no, they'd not do such a thing to the laird's wife. Although it certainly wouldna make you many friends." She took Maeve's arm and sedately walked her across the floor, toward the double doors that led into the great hall. "But I wouldna tell anyone the truth, Maeve." She suddenly took Maeve's shoulders, her eyes worried. "The people here willna take kindly to what they believe is a fairy bewitching their laird, and if they were to know the full extent of it... well."
"Not exactly open minded, are they?" Maeve asked sarcastically. From the woman in the cell below to the guard outside, to the odd looks of some of the servants and clansmen, Maeve did not doubt these people were superstitious and somewhat afraid of things they could not explain.
Leonna let go of her and linked arms again, continuing her comfortable walk across the floor. "Well, between us, I've given out plenty a potion for love and jealousy that consisted widely of dried cow's dung and sweet grass." She giggled, but her mirth was short lived. "They believe what they want to believe, milady. And what they do not believe..." She left the implication hanging in the air. "And Gallagher... he will be sore from your words. It's lucky you didna mention the future to him, for I do not know what he would do with such information."
Glancing at her companion, Maeve pressed, "he's not... a violent man, is he?"
Leonna paused at the end of the tables. "Well... not toward those he loves, no. But I have seen him twisted wi' sorrow and anger before, Maeve. And those he believes are responsible didna fair too well under his questioning. If he were to believe you a changeling, as little as he believes in these things... I do not know what he would do, is all."
Maeve shook her head. "He told me himself, he doesn't believe in the Fae."
"Aye," Leonna patted one of Maeve's hands. "But a man in grief can be persuaded of many things." She tucked a stray hair behind Maeve's ear and smiled. "It's best you play the part, and feign your memories are lost is all. Gallagher willna let anything else happen to his beloved wife, if he believes you are such."
Maeve sighed with frustration. "But I am not his wife. I don't want to be his wife."
A clear laugh rang out from her companion. "Do you not, then?" Leonna leaned over and whispered conspiratorially, "I take it you dinna remember him shirtless."
"I told you, Leonna, I don't know him. You know as well as I do where I am from," Maeve insisted, digging her nails into her palm.
"Oh aye," Leonna drawled. "And I believe you. But still..." With a shove, she opened the great doors and led Maeve through a large foyer and out into the courtyard. Much to her trepidation, Gallagher was without and, despite the mist and gloom, grappling in hand-to-hand combat with another man.
They both struggled and slipped in the mud, and to Maeve it was impossible to discern which man had the upper hand. Leonna leaned casually against the wall and eyed Maeve with a mischievous grin. It was obvious the woman had anticipated this moment. Perhaps she had planned it.
With a bold grin, Leonna jutted her chin towards the men and said, "now tell me, Maeve, d'ye really not want that?"
Whether by the dampness of the day or the exertion of the fight, Gallagher and his opponent were both drenched. While the other man was still enrobed in several layers to protect himself from the elements, Gallagher had only trousers and a white tunic on, the latter open at the neck and plastered to his body, doing nothing to disguise the hard muscle beneath. He was straining to flip his competitor over, his foot finding a firm hold on the ground, the muscles in his long legs tensed and outlined in his tightly fitted trousers, jaw clenched, biceps bulging.
The other man was even bigger than Gallagher both in breadth and in height. And yet, Gallagher slowly gained the upper hand. Settling his shoulder into his adversary's chest, he suddenly gave a great yell and sprang into the man, effectively knocking him to the mud. Before Maeve could blink, he was at the man' throat with a dirk. She could not hear what was said, but the man slowly raised his hands in defeat, and Gallagher drew back.
For a brief moment, he did not notice the two women watching him, and Maeve studied him unabashedly. His dark hair dripped with water, curling around his face and brushing his shoulders. Under the glower of emerald eyes were lines indicating how little sleep he'd gotten, and his long, distinguished nose ended with nostrils that currently flared from the exertion. His full lips were pressed into a thin line, his not-quite-square jaw clenched. Standing there in the mist, he commanded attention; a tall, powerful, well-favored bear of a man who claimed what was his without question. A tingle of warmth slipped into Maeve's belly.
And when he looked up and met her gaze, she felt the shock of attraction run through her, as surprising as it was sudden. Heat rushed to her cheeks as he stared at her. He slowly began to walk toward her, and Maeve felt frozen in place. When Leonna slipped away, she did not notice. When Gallagher's opponent left the courtyard, she only barely registered the absence. Her attention was commanded by the man before her, who came up the stairs and stopped when he was eye-to-eye with her. She noted, briefly, that he had stopped two steps below her in order to be level with her gaze.
"I told you to stay out of my sight," he growled, low voice conjuring up images of a disgruntled bear in the winter.
Maeve stuttered, "Leonna wa... offered to help me find my way around the castle. I... didn't know she would bring me here. I didn't know you were..."
"Leonna knows well enough what it is she does." His gaze raked over her, taking in the newly-braided hair that the smaller woman had offered to tame, the pearl earrings that now dangled from her ears, and the deep green gown that skimmed her curves.
"She seems very knowledgable," Maeve demurred, taking small step back to escape the magnetism of his presence. Her mind was churning with the things Leonna had told her, the possibilities of telling the truth, the unknown consequences of lying.
Gallagher took another step upward, and she was forced to tilt her chin just a little to look at him. "Have you come to remind me of your infidelity? To torture me with more admonitions of what you do not remember?" He speared her with a look. "And to whom you do not belong?"
Clearing her throat, Maeve slowly shook her head. "N-no. I..." Taking deep breath, she remembered Leonna's warning of a man in grief, and decided on a compromise. "I came to make peace."
Gallagher took the last step, towering over her now. "What, exactly, would 'peace' be?"
Maeve licked her lips, and thickly-lashed green eyes dropped to the movement. "I... offer you a chance to help me remember... who I am." She backed up a little, feeling the warmth settle in her stomach again. Her back hit the door behind her.
Dark eyebrow raised, Gallagher closed the space between them and muttered, "and in return..?"
"Uh..." She bit her lower lip, distracted by the way he looked at her as though she were a meal he longed to devour. "You... will help me uncover how I... came back."
Eyes never leaving her mouth, he nodded. "And what, exactly, might I do in order to prompt your memory?"
"What- whatever you think would help," the words came out in a squeak. He was so close she could smell the sweat and rain on his skin, and feel the drips coming from his wet hair. In just a breadth more, his lips would be on hers, and despite her mind's lack of memory she could feel her body responding as if it knew exactly who he was.
"I'm still angry with you, woman," his words were low and charged with emotion. "Tell me why I should accept this proposition. What changed your mind?"
Lamely, Maeve lifted a shoulder. "I... I need to find the truth." She could barely will her voice above a whisper. "I need help. I need... I need you." It was not a lie. Gallagher was the most powerful man in the castle. He was the laird, and his clan would follow his rule no matter what they thought in private. Without his protection, she would be an open target to speculation and rumor and possibly an angry mob.
His chest bumped hers and a strong arm slid around her waist. Just slightly, the corner of his mouth twitched upward. "You have me," he said, and his voice was triumphant. A droplet from his hair fell and slid down her cheek.
Knees wavering, Maeve quickly slid away and put her hand on the castle door. "Perhaps you can tell me some of your - of our- greatest memories over luncheon? I believe it is just being served in the great hall." As if to punctuate her words, a bell rang, summoning anyone who heard to come in for their meal.
Gallagher's eyes narrowed just slightly, and his smile grew wider, producing a dimple in his left cheek. "Aye, a good idea, that." He followed her through the door, and took her hand in his. The shot of warmth that ran through her veins at his touch was alarming. "Although," he leaned closer to whisper in her ear, tickling the skin on her cheek with his breath, "I had been about to remind you of our fondest memories of all."
Heart racing, Maeve tried to compose her thoughts, casting a bright smile at the men, women, and children who had gathered around the tables, their faces lit up with the cheer a good meal can bring. The slight friction between Gallagher's palm and her own sent tingles up Maeve's arm and into her heart, and she understood now why Leonna had smiled so knowingly. She barely knew this man, and yet in two minutes flat he had turned her from indifferent to curious to thrilled with no more than a look and a few words.
And there, in the back of her mind, she could feel the hard press of a memory struggling to break free. She sat beside Gallagher on the dais and wondered what, exactly, the future held for her here. Would she find her way back home, or would she live her days as the wife of a man who knew far more about her than she did about him? If he found out the truth, would he help her, or take to the beliefs of his people and return her to the cell where she had first appeared? And why, as she looked around the room and took in the constant hum of voices and laughter and family, did this feel so familiar?
Wine was poured, and she took the goblet quickly. A large hand stayed her wrist. Maeve looked at the hand, and then its owner, doing her best not to look like a petulant child as Gallagher raised an eyebrow and gazed between her and the goblet.
"Not too much, eh?" He said it lightly, but she knew. He did not want a repeat of the last three days.
Maeve shook her head. "I'll do my best," she returned. "But don't expect too much of me just yet."
A slow, crooked smile quirked his lips upward. "Well," he said, raising his own goblet, "'tis only fun if we're both drunken fools." And he took a long draw from his cup.
Maeve did the same, and, for the first time, felt completely at ease beside this large man who looked at her with eyes that knew her more than she knew herself. "To drunken fools," she said.
He set down his goblet and took her hand, raising it to his lips. "Drunken fools," he repeated, and touched a kiss to her fingers.