The King and Her Queen

Chapter 12:  The Rose


Illuminated by dim lamplight, they picked their way around the rubble of the great hall.  Since the stones were no longer translucent, the great hall felt more like a great cave.  Rin's heart twisted with guilt as she passed by the crater in the middle of the hall.  She and Bedivere walked toward the east wing.  The recent events replayed over and over in her mind.  She could not believe that it happened. 

She wanted to be free of those memories, even for a moment.  Perhaps, a bit of meditation would help.  The rose garden would be best with its inlaid geometric patterns for rituals.  She would need Bedivere's cooperation first.

"Sir Bedivere..."

"What is it, Milady?"

"I would like to meditate for a few moments.  Today weighs heavily upon mine mind, and I would like to lift that burden before I sleep.  Canst thou wait for half an hour before taking me back to the east wing?"

Bedivere tapped the pommel of her sword thoughtfully.  Before they left, Merlyn told her to bring Rhynne back to the east wing when they returned.  However, Rhynne's request did not seem too extravagant, so she scrutinized Rhynne and tried to discern if she had any ulterior motives.  Finding none, she replied,  "Yea, but only if thou promise not to go anywhere else but the rose garden.  When the time comes, I will meet thee there."

Rin smiled gratefully.  "Mine thanks."

She made her way to the hallway which led to the rose garden.  Even in the hallway, the scent of roses floated in the air.  She inhaled the scent deeply and felt refreshed.  She grasped the handle of the stained glass door and opened it.

The sight that greeted her in the rose garden almost stopped her heart.  Arturia floated upright in mid-air in the middle of the triangle of inlaid pebbles.  She was wearing her familiar battle armor.  Her eyes were closed and her face was expressionless.  A golden scabbard glowed in front of her and produced streams of bright mana into her upturned palms.  The glyphs on her palms glowed bright red as the mana was absorbed.

Rin approached her cautiously and stepped into the triangle, calling out, "Arturia... Arturia... canst thou hear me?"

Arturia made no response.  For a few moments, Rin watched her intently.  Then her eyes shifted to the golden scabbard.  It was similar to the scabbard that she saw in King Arthur's portrait, so it was probably Avalon. 

Her gaze returned to Arturia.  She wondered what happened.  As she gazed at her, Arturia seemed to become translucent for an instant.  Rin's heart was seized with a terrible feeling that her condition was related to Shiro's disappearance.  She had lost Shiro, but maybe she can do something to help Arturia.  Careful not to disrupt the mana flow from Avalon, she reached out to hold Arturia's hand.

The garden melted away into an abandoned warehouse.  She was stepping on someone's neck.  Her stomach threatened to expel its contents when she recognized the man under her armored boot.

"Father!"  she cried out.  But her father did not seem to hear her.

She heard herself speak in Arturia's voice, "Your orders, Master?"

"Kill him." 

In the dim light, she saw Kiritsugu Emiya standing nearby.  However, his face bore none of the gentleness shown in his picture at Shiro's house.

A gloved hand pointed to a dismembered arm about five feet away.  "With all due respect, Master, the command seals have been nullified.  But if you insist, I will ask you to surrender a command seal." 

"Command seals can be placed anywhere on the body.  And Berserker needs a master."

Her fear rose within her and she felt like retching it out.  Unfortunately, she could not do anything except watch in silence as master and servant regarded each other.

A few moments later, she spoke, "May I propose an alternative, Master?"

"What?" asked Kiritsugu irritably.

"Separate his soul from his body temporarily.  When the war is over, return his soul to him.  That way, you will not waste a command seal."

Kiritsugu looked thoughtful.  Then he said gruffly, "I don't want to waste mana."

"Then I will lend you mine.  I recover faster than you and shall regain the mana back in a few hours."

Kiritsugu rubbed his chin.  "All right, if it'll make you happy."  He knelt on one knee next to her father.  His words dripped with derision.  "Hey, Toki-kun... any last words?  You can even tell me what you want from the Grail.  If it's easy, I'll get it for you."

"B--bastard!"  Her father's voice was raw, choking with spittle.  "You want what I want, and you know it!  I hope you lose!  Anyone else would be a better disciple for Master!"

Kiritsugu laughed.  "Someone else can be his disciple for all I care!" 

"What?"  exclaimed her father in a bewildered voice.

Kiritsugu voice dropped with disgust.  "I'm not like you, following another man's shadow.  Good-bye, Toki-kun." 

Kiritsugu plunged his hand into her father's chest.  Rin screamed in protest, wishing with all her might to stop him.  Suddenly, a sharp pain erupted from her side and she was sent flying through the air.

She landed heavily on the ground.  Fist-sized objects spilled over her face and chest.  She brushed them off in panic. 

"Stupid girl!  Can ye at least stop and think!?"  Merlyn's voice echoed in the garden and attacked her ears.

Rin's brain snapped to attention when she heard Merlyn's voice.  She propped herself up on her elbows and pushed aside the sack of potatoes on top of her.  She quickly assumed the seiza position and bowed deeply.  "Forgive me, Master..."

Merlyn rubbed her forehead with exasperation.  "Just... just dinna touch her again.  Ye could have been pulled into yer past."

Rin gaped with astonishment and horror.  "I... I thought I was seeing Arturia's memories as a servant..."

"Nay... she has been summoned as a servant.  I have managed to keep her physical form in this time by using Avalon."  She sighed and her sigh seemed so sad.  Merlyn beckoned her.  "Come, lass.  Leave her be.  We shall speak of this in the morn."
 
Rin obeyed and followed Merlyn.  Along the way, they met Bedivere who flushed with embarrassment when she saw Merlyn.  Merlyn simply threw her a disapproving glance, and she withered away under its might.  Bedivere managed to mumble, "Good night." and began to turn away.

"Arturia is in the rose garden."  said Merlyn curtly.  "Dinna touch her."

Bedivere's face went pale.  She swallowed and nodded in acknowledgement.  Then, with hurried strides, she strode past them towards the rose garden.

Merlyn led her back to her room in the east wing.  "Sleep well, lass.  I have a lot of questions fer ye tomorrow."  With that, Merlyn walked down the hall to her quarters.

Rin changed to her nightgown and flopped down on her bed.  How was she supposed to get any sleep after such a horrible day?


------------------------------


Because of Merlyn's enforced isolation, she had breakfast by herself in Airianne's study.  Bored, her eyes wandered about the room until they landed on the map.  She put her muffin down and hesitantly hovered her hand over the crystal.  Gathering her courage, she spoke.

"Arturia."

Arturia's image flickered in the rose garden.  She was still wearing her armor.  Memories from last night tore at her heart and she quickly dispelled the image.  She went back to her meal and finished it in silence.

About half an hour later, Merlyn and Bedivere came.  They sat down on the table where she was seated. 

Merlyn leaned back in her seat.  "Tell me what happened."

Rin drew a deep breath and told Merlyn about how they found and lost Shiro.  Then they went to the monastery to find Brother Jacob.  Brother Jacob revealed that the archbishop and Shiro met the day before.  Shiro had spoken to the archbishop privately and spent the rest of the day with him.  The next day, the archbishop announced that he was leaving to see the archbishop of Lundein.  They set out very early in the morning.  Shiro came about an hour after the archbishop and his entourage left.  When he found out that they were gone, Shiro indicated that he was going to follow them.

After Brother Jacob finished, Bedivere asked to see the Grail.  They were escorted to a spartan room whose only extravagance was a marble altar.  He opened a small silver cabinet on the altar with gloved hands.  In it was a small tin goblet.

Bedivere bowed her head and extended her hands toward the goblet as if she was praying.  After five minutes, she lowered her hands and prostrated herself.  Brother Jacob closed the cabinet.  Bedivere thanked Brother Jacob and told them that they were leaving for a previous engagement.  They exchanged farewells and left the monastery.

"Well?"  asked Merlyn anxiously.  "Is it safe?"

Bedivere's face fell.  "Nay.  I could not sense the Holy aura."

Merlyn stood up and paced about while cursing loudly in Welsh.  Although she could not understand all of her words, Rin cringed at the words that she did understand.  Bedivere's face turned a shade of green which indicated that she understood all of it. 

Merlyn banged her a fist against the door of a wooden cabinet so forcefully that wood split in two.  She stared at broken door for a moment and waved her hand.  The wood knitted together to fix the split.

She sighed remorsefully.  "What's done is done.  All this time, I hath been one step behind."  She sat down on the armchair and buried her face in her hands. 

"A step behind?"  echoed Rin.  "Master, pray, elaborate."

Merlyn shook her head.  "Nay, tis no matter."  Her face grew serious.  "Right now, we must look to Arturia's condition.  To do so, I will need everything that ye know about the Wars."

Rin shuddered and recalled the unpleasant experience of Merlyn reading her mind.  She kept silent.

Merlyn noticed Rhynne's apprehension.  "I cannae do this without reading yer mind.  I understand that ye can speak to me about it, but I need to see it for mine self.  So, please... aid me by concentrating on the memories that art related to the Wars.  Twould be easier fer me since I dinna have to search through yer mind.  E'en with mine skill, mind reading tires me and uses a lot of mana."

Hesitantly, Rin replied, "As ye command, Master."  She closed her eyes and tried to recollect all her studies and experiences about the War and the Holy Grail.  Merlyn laid her hands on her head and she felt the surge of her mana.  This time, however, she was not sent reeling through an abyss.  Instead, she walked through her memories like a silent and calm observer.

It seemed like hours before she was finally released from the spell.  She leaned back into her seat and breathed a sigh of relief.  When she opened her eyes, she was surprised to see Merlyn leaning against Bedivere.  Bedivere helped her to an armchair.  Merlyn closed her eyes and appeared to fall asleep.  Rin glanced at her watch.  It was over two hours since they started.

Bedivere beckoned her and whispered, "Come... let her rest."

Rin followed Bedivere.  They walked out of the east wing.

"Whither goest thou?"  asked Rin. 

"The Library.  Merlyn suggested that thou search the books about a cure for Arturia's malady."

"I see.  I will do mine best."

"And I will pray that thou will find it." 

Bedivere's words echoed her own fears.  Silently, Rin prayed as well.


---------------------------


They met with Merlyn late in the afternoon in Airianne's study.  She paced up and down as she explained her theories.

"Tis obvious that Shiro's disappearance is related to Arturia's malady.  Shiro was her previous master, and served as her link within this time.  Furthermore, when he disappeared, Arturia's spirit was drawn to the master before him, which is his foster father, Kiritsugu."

"And thank the fates!  She was not drawn completely to him."  She looked sharply at Rin.  "The glyphs on her hands forged a weaker link... with ye.  I saw them glow brightly when she was disappearing.  Twas then that I used Avalon to strengthen that link and moved her to the rose garden to sustain her physical form in this time.  However, the other half of her spirit lies outside this time.  That is why ye were able to see yer own past." 

Rin bowed her head as memories of her father's funeral replayed in her mind.  When she was old enough to understand the police report, she thought that one of the knight class servants had killed her comatose father in the hospital.

"I dinna know if Arturia used Excalibur while Kiritsugu was her master.  To prevent inconsistencies with time, ye must yield Excalibur over to her."  When Rin did not respond at once, Merlyn stared at her.  A great sadness was written all over Rin's face.  Carefully, she probed Rin's mind and walked over to lay a hand on her shoulder.  "Mine apologies fer yer loss, lass."

"None needed Master.  I... I will overcome mine grief in time."

"Forgive her, lass.  I ask this as her friend, not yer master."

Rin was not sure how to answer.  If she forgave her, would she betray her father?  Her thoughts wandered to all those nights when she waited for his return and went to sleep dreaming of the day when he would open the gate and take her into his arms.  But that day never came, and now, she knew why.

Merlyn waited patiently for Rin to answer.  When she saw the pain on Rin's face, she realized that she had to convince her that it was not entirely Arturia's fault.  "Kiritsugu would have returned his soul after the war.  I am sure of that."

Merlyn's words shook her thoughts.  If his body remained intact, and if Kiritsugu returned his soul, her father would still be alive.  She bit her lip.  Even though Merlyn had made a good point, she could not ignore the fact that his body died and that Kiritsugu kept his soul or destroyed it.  But these last two facts did not involve Arturia.  At least, she could take some comfort in that.

Merlyn observed Rin's reactions.  She seemed to be weighing her last statement about Kiritsugu.  For now, she had to be satisfied that Rin would not lay all the blame on Arturia.  And now, she had to determine how much Rin cared for Arturia.

"There may be a way to make Arturia whole."  She paused and waited for Rin's reaction.

Rin's head jerked up and she half rose from her seat.  "There is?"

Merlyn was pleased with her initial reaction.  "Aye.  When a servant is defeated, his spirit returns to the Throne of Heroes.  Tis likely that the other half of Arturia's spirit will be found there."

Rin leaned forward.  "Do ye know where it is, Master?"

"The Throne is not in the physical realm.  Tis in a realm beyond time and space.  Ne'ertheless, methinks I know of a way to reach it.  Einzbern's history indicated that they hath attempted to force their will upon the Throne of Heroes.  But, if they were successful in doing so, then the Wars would not be.  Methinks that they hath managed to find a way to reach it, but not a way to master it.  Furthermore, methinks that the gateway to the Throne lies hidden within their ancestral lands."

"Tis in Germany!"  Rin said excitedly.  Rin was glad that she had gotten over her initial dislike for Illya and that she had asked her about her family's history.  To her amazement, Illya cheerfully replied to all her questions.  "I hath seen their castle from afar.  Tis good news, Master!  We can go there at once and search for it."

"Nay, lass.  I cannae go with ye.  I am needed here, in this place, in this TIME."  Merlyn emphasized her last word.

Her mouth fell open as Merlyn's words began to sink in.  Her voice trembled as she tried to confirm what Merlyn said.  "Ye mean... that I must return to the future?"

"Aye.  E'en if we go to the Saxon lands now, we will not find the gate.  The Wars started within a century of yer time.  Tis likely that the gate was constructed within that time as well."

Rin's knees buckled and she leaned on the table for support.  She knew that she would have to go back someday, and now, she had to.  It felt too soon.  She did not want to leave without knowing that Arturia was safe.  But she must go to free Arturia's spirit from the Throne of Heroes.

"Will ye go?"

Rin gathered her determination and stood straighter.  "Yea... I will."

"E'en if it means leaving Arturia behind?"

Tears welled up in her eyes and she blinked to keep them in.  In a choking voice, she replied.  "Yea."

"I am glad to hear it."  Merlyn put a hand on her shoulder.  "I will teach ye all I can to help ye succeed.  Bedivere will instruct ye to improve yer battle skills.  Once past the gate, the rules of magic may not apply.  Ye will need something else to rely on."  She took her hand away.  "Prepare yerself, mine apprentice.  Yer task is great, and failure is unacceptable."

Rin swallowed and tried to look confident.  "As we say in mine time, 'Bring it on.'"


--------------------------------


The days passed like the monotonic ticking of a clock.  She spent the mornings with Merlyn and the afternoons with Bedivere.  Then, one cloudy day, Merlyn came to her with a wide grin on her face and a bundle of scrolls under her arm. 

"Methinks that I hath found a way to further strengthen Arturia's physical form.  Tis a ritual that we can cast together."  Merlyn unfolded the scrolls on Rin's desk. 

Rin beamed with joy.  She eagerly listened as Merlyn translated a scroll.  To her relief, she discovered that she could read it on her own.  Rin cleared her throat.

"With all due respect, Master... I can read Welsh."

"Ye can?"  said Merlyn incredulously.  She handed the scroll to Rin.  "Read it to me then."

Rin did and watched with amusement as Merlyn's face betrayed her surprise.  When she was done, Merlyn laughed boisterously. 

"So ye can!  This makes it easier fer me.  I dinna have to translate those books in the library anymore.  I can just tell ye what ye need to read.  Did ye learn Welsh at the Academy?"

"Nay."  A pang of nostalgia poked Rin's heart.  "Arturia taught me."  Her thoughts wandered to all those times they practiced Welsh by the shores of that wonderful lake.  It seemed like a distant memory now.

"Oh... tis well then.  Study the scrolls.  I will be back in an hour to discuss it with ye."

She did and discussed the ritual with Merlyn when she returned.  They agreed to cast it the next day.  Rin was excited.  If the ritual was successful, Arturia would be able to maintain her physical form within the Aerie.  However, she would have to spend a few hours in the rose garden to refresh the spell daily. 

Before she went to sleep that night, she crept into Airianne's study and activated the map to view Arturia.  It made more sense now:  an incomplete servant for an incomplete master.  And what a pair they made!  Rin was glad that she went against her better judgement and Archer's to help them.  For if she did not, Shiro would surely be defeated, and with his defeat, Saber would disappear.  There was no way she could let that happen then, and no way she could let it happen now.  So when she went to sleep, she dreamt of Arturia opening her eyes and grabbing her to bring her into a tight embrace. 

The next day, they cast the ritual perfectly.  Rin watched with bated breath as Arturia's form began to solidify.  But her attention was interrupted by Merlyn's hand on her arm. 

"Bedivere will take ye back now.  Ye can watch her on the map."

"But... Master..."

"Go."  said Merlyn firmly.

Rin held back her disappointed tears as Bedivere escorted her to Airianne's study.  She rushed to the map and commanded it.  Arturia was leaning against Merlyn while Avalon and Excalibur floated nearby.  Then Merlyn carried her in her arms and laid her on the cot that was within the boundaries of the reinforcing triangle.  Avalon and Excalibur followed and hovered near Arturia.  Merlyn sat down at a nearby table to begin her vigil over Arturia in order to confirm that the spell would indeed maintain her form over time. 

She watched for about five minutes before she dispelled the image.  Although Arturia's physical form was restored, she needed to absorb more mana to sustain it.  She can check again after four hours.  Rin breathed a sigh of relief and returned to her desk to attack the mound of books that Merlyn wanted her to read.  She felt like she was in the academy again.  However, instead of aiming for a grade, she was aiming for Arturia's freedom.  Drawing on that for strength, she opened the first book and began to read.

Later that afternoon, Airianne came in with a tray of tea and muffins.  "Have a care and rest yer mind, Lady Rhynne."  She laid out the teapot and dishes on a nearby table.

"Mine thanks, Airianne."  replied Rin gratefully.  The scent of the muffins made her mouth water.

"Mama sends her best."  She placed a vase full of heather flowers on the table. 

"How lovely!  I shall thank her for the beautiful flowers when I see her."

Airianne looked at her inquiringly.  "Do ye know what this flower means?"

"Er... not really..."

"It means:  may yer wish come true."

"I see."  Her eyes misted over.  "That's really thoughtful of her.  And thank ye for the tea and for telling me about the flowers."

She smiled warmly.  "Ye're welcome.  Anyway, please enjoy yer tea." 

"I will." 

Airianne curtsied and left.  Rin quickly finished her tea and muffins.  Then she went to an adjoining room that gave her access to the library.  She placed her hand on a crystal ball.  "A book about the meaning of flowers."

A book appeared on the receiving mat on top of a nearby table.  She took it and went quietly to her room.  She opened the top drawer of her cabinet and carefully lifted the collection of pressed flowers which she made from the bouquet that Arturia gave her.  She leafed through the book and tried to identify each flower.

"Dandelion... Happiness.  Iris... Thy friendship means much to me.  Pansies... I think of thee.  White lily... Purity, Tis heavenly to be with thee.  White Violets... Take a chance with me."

The words blurred before her and a tear stained the page.  She went to the map and commanded it.  She saw an image of Arturia sitting on her cot and eating from a tray.  Rin's fingertips hovered near her head in attempt to caress her and her heart whispered, "I love you..."
 
She would have stood there for the rest of the day but she ended her vigil when she heard footsteps in the hallway.  With a regretful sigh, she dispelled the image and went back to studying.


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Arturia awoke to the sound of humming.  She looked around and saw Wybrenne seated at a table.  She was picking off the petals from a white rose and depositing them in a small basket.  Two other small baskets contained red and yellow petals.

"Good morning."  Arturia sat up and rubbed her eyes.

"Good morning."  replied Wybrenne.  She continued to hum a melody. 

Arturia got out of bed and stretched out.  Her limbs felt so stiff.  She had not felt this way since that long campaign against the Saxons.  Three days had passed since Merlyn cast the ritual to cure her from her fainting malady.  She felt that she should have recovered by now.  As she massaged her shoulders, she listened to Wybrenne's humming.  The melody seemed to tug at her heart.

"Pray, what is thy song, Lady Wybrenne?"

Wybrenne smiled and sang as an answer.

[Author's note:  Recommended background music: The Rose]


   Some say love tis a river
   that drowns the tender reed.
   Some say love tis a razor
   that leaves thy soul to bleed.

   Some say love tis a hunger
   an endless aching need.
   I say love tis a flower
   and thee, its only seed.

   Tis the heart afraid of breaking
   that never learns to dance.
   Tis the dream afraid of waking
   that never takes the chance.
   Tis the one who won't be taken
   who cannot seem to give,
   And the soul afraid of dying
   that never learns to live.

   When the night hast been too lonely
   and the road hast been too long,
   and thou thinkst that love is only
   for the lucky and the strong.
   Just remember in the winter
   far beneath the bitter snows
   lies the seed
   that with the sun's love
   in the spring
   becomes the rose.


Arturia's hand rose to wipe away a tear.  Then she clapped appreciatively.  Wybrenne bowed slightly at her applause.

"Didst Taliesin compose this song?"  asked Arturia.

"Nay.  Tis by mine own dear Merlyn.  She called it, 'The Rose'."  replied Wybrenne.  She snickered when she saw the disbelief on Arturia's face. 

"Is that so?"  Arturia could not believe that Merlyn even had a romantic bone in her body.  Wybrenne's wide grin told her that it was true.

"Tis so."  With a twinkle in her eye, she added, "She takes pains to hide it, since mine Merlyn is very shy when it comes to matters of the heart."

"Still... I find it hard to believe."

"Be not deceived by her gruff manner.  Tis her way of masking her nature.  Ah... I vividly remember the first time I saw her..."

Arturia sat on the bed.  "I would hear thy tale."  After three boring days in the rose garden, a good story was welcome relief from the monotony.

"Tis a long one.  Thy breakfast is behind thee.  Partake of thy meal whilst I tell mine tale."

Arturia hopped over the cot and grabbed the tray on a stool.  After placing it on her lap, she picked up a muffin and bit it.  Wybrenne smiled at her attentive audience and began her tale.

"One winter's night, a young bard appeared before the gates of Rosenharte.  She implored the gatekeeper."

   "Please, lady... A rose in exchange for shelter from the bitter cold."

"The gatekeeper consulted the Lily Alliance.  The falling snow indicated that a storm was brewing.  The Sisters gave their consent.  The bard seemed to be betwixt sixteen and twenty years of age.  She was dressed in a threadbare cloak, a patched tunic and peasant skirt.  Her gloves were ripped at the fingertips and mismatched leather sandals adorned her feet.  Slung on her shoulder was a leather knapsack which contained her harp.  Her silver hair hung like a mop on her head.  But what stood out of her unkempt and shabby appearance were her piercing golden eyes."

"The Lily Alliance, three elder students, welcomed her.  She introduced herself as Lyn, the Cloud Singer.  The sisters introduced themselves as Lady Lloydia, Lady Nymphae and Lady Majalis.  They invited her to dinner.  She sat at their table and ate under the scrutiny of all the students in the hall.  The students exchanged whispered speculation about the bard and as each speculation passed from ear to mouth, they grew into ridiculous conjectures."

Wybrenne laughed softly.  "Truly told, I hath seen her first.  She was walking along the road whilst I was on mine way back from the barn.  Out of curiosity, I followed her discreetly and listened to her conversation with the gatekeeper."

Arturia was amused by Wybrenne's choice of words.  She heard the same phrase when a court lady claimed a new knight as her champion by the right of being the first to see him.  She returned her attention to Wybrenne.

"A rose!  A clever tactic to gain the trust of the Sisters.  But... even if a rose were grown indoors, its growth would be stunted by winter.  The rose she held was full... like a summer's rose.  I knew then that there was something peculiar about this bard."

"After dinner, she offered to sing in return for the kindness that she was given.  She took out her harp and sang the song that thou hast just heard.  When she was done, the entire hall rose in applause and demanded more.  Lyn sang song after song until the clock struck nine.  Then Lady Lloydia announced that everyone must adjourn to bed."

"I had chosen to sit as close as possible to the Sisters.  When Lady Lloydia made her announcement, I sprang to mine feet and offered the hospitality of mine room.  I explained that mine roommate hath left to be married and so mine room hath a vacant bed.  Lady Lloydia weighed mine offer and gave her consent.  Normally, guests stayed in a stately furnished guest room.  But there wert only a few guest rooms, and a custodian would have to clean the room after the guest left.  If she stayed with me, she would not have to use the guest room.  I was certain that Lady Lloydia would agree."

Wybrenne chuckled.  "Ah... many went to their rooms cursing mine name.  But the night was far from over.  As I led Lyn to mine room, students approached us boldly to talk to her.  Some even touched her hands."  Wybrenne's face darkened.  "But Lyn did not protest enough to make them stop.  I was compelled to shoo them away.  We raced down the hall and into mine room."

"Against the surging tide of students, I locked the door behind me.  Since she was mine guest, I offered to hang her cloak.  She gave it to me and I hung her dry cloak on a wooden peg.  Seeing that she did not bring a change of clothes with her, I offered her a spare nightgown.  She stared at it like she had never seen one before."  Wybrenne blushed.  "Twas only after we were married that I understood why.  She either went to bed in a shirt and trewes or... without."

"What?!"  exclaimed Arturia.  The thought of Merlyn sleeping in the nude was... unthinkable.  She decided that it was and stopped her thoughts right there.

"Yea... without.  I didst not know this, so I insisted that she wear it, saying tis what proper maidens wore to bed.  Then I picked out mine gown and began to change in front of her.  To mine surprise, she turned her face to the wall, and refused to face me until I was suitably dressed.  From mine vantage, I could see her ears turning red." 

Wybrenne laughed again.  "Never have I met a maiden so shy!  Ah... she amused me so much during her stay.  She was so shy, that I had to step into the closet before she changed to that nightgown.  Even then, she was already under the covers when I stepped out."

"Before I went to bed, I sketched out the locations of the bath and the privy relative to our room.  I advised her that if she required its use, she must wait until two o'clock so that she would not be disturbed in the hall.  She smiled gratefully and bid me goodnight."

"Overnight, the storm came and buried Rosenharte under four feet of snow.  Since she would be staying for a while, the Sisters allowed her to attend classes if she wisheth to.  I lent her some clothes and accompanied her everywhere.  She asked a lot of questions about the classes and about the Sisters.  Her manner and speech were rough, but the questions she asked revealed an intelligent nature and a maturity beyond her years.  Soon I hath questions of mine own, for she obviously hath been schooled far beyond a bard's apprenticeship."

"I answered her questions, but I watched her carefully.  Why was she here?  What did she hope to find out?  Soon, I noticed that she kept asking the same questions about every student that we met.  She wanted to know each maiden's family history, her performance in school and her personality.  After two days, twas apparent to me that she was more interested in the students than the school.  Who was she looking for?"

"Since the matter involved mine sisters, I cornered her in mine room and asked her if she was a mage.  She did not reply at once, but the startled look in her eyes spoke volumes.  Finally, she waved her hand in the air and chanted, 'Silentium.'  She explained that she hath cast a spell to prevent anyone from listening to us.  Then she asked me how I knew.  I told her about the rose and about her condition when she arrived at the gate.  The nearest village was three miles away.  If she had walked from there, her cloak would be soaked with melted snow.  But it was not.  Her skin should have been pale from the frigid cold, but her cheeks were flushed as if she had ran a mile."

"She laughed nervously and rewarded mine observations by revealing that she conjured the rose and had arrived near Rosenharte by flying there.  I then asked her why she was here.  She told me that she was trying to find a bride."

Arturia choked on her tea.  Wybrenne stopped and was relieved to see Arturia recover from her mishap. 

Arturia wiped her mouth with her napkin.  "Didst she want to get married?"

"Twas not for her.  Twas for a dear friend of hers.  I asked her who and when she seemed reluctant to tell, I fell upon her and tickled her."

Arturia's eyebrows shot up.  "Tickled?!  Merlyn let thee?"

Wybrenne nodded.  "I dared as much as I can.  When I saw signs that I had exceeded her limits, I withdrew.  Then I asked why she did not petition the Sisters to arrange a meeting with her friend.  If her friend is of noble lineage, then the Sisters will try to find suitable matches for him.  I explained that Rosenharte takes pride in finding a suitable bride in the name of happiness and love.  As a result, many noble families hath benefited from our Sisters' diligence.  She saith that her friend is very special and she must see Rosenharte firsthand."

"I told her that I hath attended Rosenharte since I was a young girl and hath grown up with many of the students here.  I offered to introduce her to students who might be a match for her friend if she would supply her friend's history.  She seemed reluctant to yield that information.  When I asked her about her friend's family, she only saith that he was from the noblest bloodlines in Britain.  With a set of desired qualities in mind, I introduced her to all students who were of an equal lineage.  There were not many.  When we discussed them later that night, twas apparent to me that she hath not found any to her liking.  I asked her again to tell me more about her friend.  She yielded little new information."

"Finally, I threw up mine hands and jested that her search was as difficult as finding a bride for the High King, who still remained unmarried after fifteen years of ascending the throne.  If I hath not been watching her carefully, I would have missed it:  the subtle shiver in her shoulders and the alarm in her eyes."

"Twas then that I knew for certain who her friend was.  Mine hand flew to mine mouth when I realized it.  She must have been watching me too, and implored me not to tell anyone.  In whispered tones, I asked her if she was counsel to the High King.  She cast Silentium again and told me that she was.  The puzzle began to take shape in mine mind.  Her name, her magic, her role as counsel..."

"The discovery wiped away mine discretion and I blurted out, 'Thou art Merlyn!'  As soon as I blurted out her true name, she shrank back.  And then her hands clenched and she stared at me, wearing the power of her true name like a mask." 

Wybrenne laughed.  "The conversation thereafter was rather amusing.  I can remember it clearly."  She recited their conversation, mimicking Merlyn's speech patterns when needed.
   "And so I am.  What of it?"
   "Thou... art not what I hath envisioned thee to be."
   "Did ye expect an old man with a large staff?  I can be that if ye want."
   "Nay.  I prefer thy true form.  Tis more beautiful and pleasing to
    mine eyes than any I could imagine."
   "..."

"A blush crept onto those pale cheeks.  Mine heart was delighted at the sight.  In that instant, she hath won mine heart.  Nay, she hath won mine heart on the night she offered that rose, but I did not realize it until that instant."

"But mine curiosity came with a price.  I hath lost her trust.  I tried to be sincere in mine offer to help her and offered to introduce her to students who were of lesser rank but possessed a mature temperament.  I argued that lineage may not be enough to assist the High King and that a maiden of virtue and wisdom might be more appropriate for His Majesty.  She considered mine words and agreed to meet the students."

Arturia interrupted her with a question.  "Lady Wybrenne, how long ago didst thou meet Merlyn?"

Wybrenne calculated the years.  "Methinks... about seventy-five years ago."

"Seventy-five... then... the High King at that time..."  Arturia's eyes grew wide as plates.  "She was looking for a bride for me?!"  she exclaimed.

Wybrenne laughed heartily when she saw Arturia's reaction.  It had taken Arturia long enough to realize it.  "Yea... she was."  She watched Arturia with amusement as she tried to contain her shock.  When she seemed to have recovered, she ventured, "Shall I continue?"

Arturia nodded.  "Yea... please do."

"We met more students the next day.  After we returned from dinner, we discussed them.  Once again, none matched her standards.  I threw mineself upon mine bed and implored her to tell me more about His Majesty so that I can find a new set of students to meet."

"And then she saith that perhaps she hath already found one.  She stared at me and the hairs on the back of mine head prickled at her implied choice.  I refused and stated that I was unsuitable for His Majesty.  She flattered me by saying that I was wise for unmasking her guile and that I was beautiful and charming.  Still, I refused until she gave up.  She sighed.  However, the sigh did not sound like a sigh of frustration, but rather, a sigh of relief.  Twas then that I began to entertain thoughts of a future of us together."

"But I also discovered something else:  that she would put aside her own needs to fulfill the needs of the High King.  I was not pleased with that discovery at all.  It meant that I must share her time with the duties of being counsel to the High King."  Wybrenne sighed.  "But if that is what it means to love her, then I must learn to accept it."

She saw the anguish written on Arturia's face.  "Fret not, Sir Arturia.  Even with her duties, know that Merlyn hath made me the happiest woman in Britain."

"Mine thanks.  Thy words hath soothed the sorrow in mine heart.  If I knew that Merlyn was married, I would have found a way to give her more time for herself."

Wybrenne shook her head.  "Nay... she had to keep me secret.  Merlyn hath many enemies... far more than she let thee know.  Thou may ask her about it later.  So... shall I continue?"  Arturia murmured her assent.

"Since she was so reluctant to share His Majesty's information with me, I asked her to describe the woman that His Majesty could love instead.  This time, twas she who threw up her hands.  Her reply drove a nail into mine heart."  She recited her words.
   "Alas!  How can I?  His Majesty will not love."
   "How can that be?  Everyone must love!"
   "Nay... not King Arthur.  Tis an emotion unneeded to rule.  If e'er
    it comes to him, he will squash it like a Saxon under his boot."
   "Then if tis true, I must tell thee plainly as thy friend.
    I will not allow any of mine sisters to enter in such a loveless
    union.  I will not assist thee anymore.  And if thou persist at
    a later time, I will prevent thee for as long as I am here."

"Merlyn sat down on her bed and buried her face in her hands.  She saith that she was at her wits end, and that Rosenharte hath been her last hope.  I forgot mine anger over her plan to find a bride, and sat by her side.  I put mine arm around her and we sat in silence whilst I tried to think of an alternative."
 
Wybrenne leveled her gaze at Arturia.  "As thou can see, I hath been an accomplice in this part of thy life.  We meant no harm, and only wisheth the best for thee.  If thou hath felt slighted by our schemes, then I greatly apologize."  She paused and observed Arturia carefully.  "What comes next may shock thee.  I will understand if thou will hate me for it.  But I must ask thee to forgive Merlyn's part in this.  Dost thou still want to know?"

"Yea... now more than e'er..."

Wybrenne drew a deep breath and continued.  "I told her if she could not find a bride who would marry out of love, then she must try to find one who would marry out of duty.  This lady would have to come from a family who values lineage and honor.  She must be a queen who could strengthen the High King's reputation in Britain and the lands beyond the sea, particularly, Rome.  The emperors of Rome hath ruled Britain in the past and the Pope hath dispensed his blessings from Rome.  So if more ties could be forged with Rome, then Rome will respect King Arthur's authority and trade could flourish between our lands."  When she heard Arturia gasp, she knew that Arturia realized the implications of her tale.

Arturia spoke softly.  "I see... I understand now... why Guinevere and I were married."

"Art thou angry?"

"Nay... there is no reason to."  Arturia closed her eyes and sighed.  When she looked up, her inquisitive eyes probed Wybrenne.  "That is another story.  However, I sense that thy tale doth not end here."

Wybrenne flushed.  A part of her hoped that Arturia would not ask her to continue, while another part of her argued that Arturia needed to hear the end of it and encouraged her to finish the tale.  She gathered her courage and drew a deep breath.  "Since I hath voiced mine objection over a Rosenharte bride, Merlyn hath no reason to stay.  However, she asked to stay one more day to see what Rosenharte students do in their free time during the weekend.  The next day, I showed her the rooms where various societies engaged in their activities:  knitting, singing, poetry, acting, cooking and so forth.  Twas late in the afternoon when she asked what I liked to do.  I showed her the barn where I cared for the cows and sheep."

Wybrenne laughed.  "I taught her how to milk Bessie.  Ah... that was so amusing!  Her grasp on the udder was not quite right and the udder squirted milk in her face.  She pouted so much when I laughed at her mishap!"

"Eventually, she did it properly and filled a bottle of milk.  I put it in the snow and handed her some special boots to wear.  When she examined them, I explained that I hath attached worn horseshoes underneath the boots.  When she asked why, I told her to come with me behind the barn.  I led her to the frozen pond behind it and stepped onto its icy surface.  She watched with amazement as I slid across the surface with ease.  I beckoned her to come and she fell to her knees on her first step.  I helped her up and showed her how I manage to stay upright.  Hand in hand, we slid across the pond until the bell tolled, calling everyone for dinner."

"When we returned to the dining hall, I boiled the milk and served it to her with honey.  When she tasted it, she said that it was best milk she hath ever had.  Ah!  She hath such a beautiful smile..."

"After dinner, we returned to mine room.  She asked me what I liked to do after dinner, so I showed her mine unfinished plays.  She read them and criticized them rather harshly.  I was infuriated at first, but when I noticed the crooked smile on her lips, I realized that she was doing it deliberately.  So I challenged her to pick a play and finish what I started.  She did and twisted the plot so much that the ending was so absurd!  I retaliated by continuing the play from her ending to something more proper.   However, she did not give in and continued mine ending to resolve into another bizarre one.  By the great bard!  She truly hath an unusual imagination!"

"We went to sleep by the time the clock struck twelve.  I told her that I sang in the choir at morning mass which was at eight o'clock.  She saith that she would leave before then.  I asked her to write to me when she could, and she promised that she would."

"The morning came, and we got out of bed to prepare.  When she was ready, she walked toward the door and stopped with her back toward me.  She told me that I was the kindest host that she hath ever stayed with.  She turned around and raised her hand to me.  She told me clasp it to receive the traditional courtly farewell.  I was not well versed in courtly manners, so I was eager to learn about it.  To mine great surprise, she pulled me to her and kissed me fully on mine lips."

"She released me and turned to leave.  I grabbed her arm and pulled her toward me.  I called her a liar and kissed her back."

Wybrenne was blushing fiercely at this point.  One glance at Arturia told her that she was expected to continue.  She swallowed and explained, "She lied about the courtly farewell.  I knew so because I saw her.  Even though her back was turned, I saw her face reflected on the mirror on the wall.  She licked her lips.  Twas obvious that she was just using the supposed courtly farewell as an excuse."

"Thou thinkst me bold.  Yea, I was.  But I could not let her leave without showing her what she meant to give up.  I pushed her onto mine bed and began to love her.  She seemed reluctant at first, but after she cast Silentium, I knew that mine efforts wert not wasted."

"She hath sang many songs for us.  But her song that morning was for mine ears alone.  And when she sang mine name to shame the choirs of angels, I knew that she was mine."  Wybrenne snickered.  "Needless to say, I did not make it to morning mass... nor any mass during that day."

By now, Arturia's face mirrored her own.  But her eyes were still anticipating for the rest of her tale.  "Twas with regret that she told me that she must leave tomorrow for certain.  I made her promise to visit me during the school festivals.  The next day, she thanked the Sisters for their hospitality and bid them farewell.  They were gracious enough to invite her to stay whenever her journeys take her to Rosenharte.  Then I accompanied her for as far as I dared to walk.  We hid behind some bushes and held each other.  Then she released me, and transformed into a marvelous eagle.  Before she flew away, I asked her to give me one of her feathers and she held out her wing to let me pluck one.  I still have it to this day."

Wybrenne reached under her shirt and took off an amulet around her neck.  The amulet was made of clear amber and trapped within it was a feather.  She held it up proudly for Arturia to see before wearing it again. 

"An amazing tale..."  The wonder in Arturia's voice was praise in her ears.  "I am grateful to thee for sharing thy tale.  And if I may implore thee again, may I hear Merlyn's song one more time?"

Wybrenne loved an appreciative audience.  "Of course."


---------------------------------


Later that night, Wybrenne joined them for the customary nightly entertainment.  Except for Rin, everyone else was there.  Wybrenne won the game and the board was placed before her to spin.  But her hand rose in refusal and she said, "Since I rarely join thee, may I request that thou sing for me tonight?"

Everyone agreed to do so, and sang for her.  When Arturia's turn came, she strummed her harp and began to sing 'The Rose'.  The look on Merlyn's face was priceless.  Merlyn raised her hand towards her as if she was about to cast a spell but Wybrenne pinched her forearm.  Arturia reigned in the impending laughter within her and tried to sing it in the style that Taliesin often used.

When she was done, she lingered not for the applause, but to enjoy the mortification painted on Merlyn's face.  She winked when she passed Merlyn who blushed some more.

After everyone had sang at least twice, Wybrenne indicated that she was sleepy.  As Merlyn wheeled her to the exit, Wybrenne turned her head and caught Arturia's eyes.  Her eyes asked an unspoken question.  "Didst thou see it?  Dost thou understand now?"

Arturia nodded gratefully.  After she memorized The Rose, she asked Wybrenne what it was like to be loved by Merlyn.

Wybrenne replied, "Exciting.  Everyday with her is like discovering something new about mineself, or herself, or about the world around us.  Tis like seeing everything with new eyes.  Even something so insignificant as a feather can begin to have meaning." 

And tonight, Wybrenne had indeed acquired more discoveries.  Her eyes did not leave Merlyn's face while she sang her song.  Arturia was certain that she was savoring Merlyn's every emotion and reaction throughout the song.  Every discovery became a treasure in her heart.

At the word treasure, Arturia's thoughts wandered to Rhynne and the only treasure that she had from her.  Ever since she destroyed the garland that she made for Rhynne, she had regretted her moment of weakness.  But she had learned her lesson.  From henceforth, she would be more careful and guard every treasure that she discovered.  And when she prepared to sleep, she held Rhynne's pillow close to her and guarded her treasure even in her dreams.


----------------------------------


Arturia loaded a laundry basket on the platform in the shaft.  She read the first step of the instructions and found the crank.  She rotated the crank and watched the basket rise into the shaft. 

Doing laundry seemed like a boring chore, but to Arturia, any chore became a welcome relief.  Ever since the day that she collapsed, she spent each morning at the rose garden.  Then she spent the afternoons searching for the entrance to the east wing or for hidden passages that may lead to it.  When she got tired, she would go to the sitting room to play the harp.  Unfortunately, playing did very little to ease the ache in her heart.  So after a week, she asked Airianne to give her chores to do.  At least, she could have something to do to help her forget.

As she cranked away, she seemed to hear a voice.  She strained her ears to locate the source of the voice.  It seemed to come from the ceiling.  The crank resisted further rotation, so she did the next step in the instructions and pulled a lever.  Then she cranked in the opposite direction to bring the platform back down.

She put the instructions aside and tried to locate the voice again.  She walked around until she was underneath a laundry shaft.  She closed her eyes to listen more carefully.  Her heart skipped a beat when she identified the voice as Rhynne's. 

If her guess was correct, the shaft would lead to her room.  She gathered empty baskets and stacked them high.  Then she climbed the stack and stuck her head in the shaft.  It was wide enough for one person to crawl in.  Arturia ran her hand along its smooth surface.  Since she would have to rely on the friction of her skin to keep herself from slipping, Arturia removed her shoes and skirt before crawling in. 

She pushed against the walls of the shaft to wedge herself within it.  Slowly, she crawled up with only Rhynne's voice as her guide.  Her efforts were rewarded when she realized that she was singing.  She could even hear music.  She crawled faster. 

Suddenly, her head hit something.  She recoiled slightly and reached out in the darkness.  Something was blocking her way, and it seemed to repel her hand.  Her heart sank.  It was probably a magic barrier. 

Rhynne's voice was much clearer now.  However, she seemed to be singing in a different language.  Judging by the way it was spoken, she guessed that it was Rhynne's native tongue.  She sighed.  At least, she could listen to her voice.  As she clung to the shaft, she heard her sing.
  
   "Let me be with you..."

Arturia's ears strained to understand the song.  She waited for a while and then she heard the phrase again.

   "Let me be with you..."

Could it be that the song was sung in two languages?  She closed her eyes and listened.

[Author's note:  recommended background music:  Let me be with you by Shela, from the Album Cherry Blossom]


   Ano hi onaji mirai o shinjita
   Futari wa itsushika
   Yureru tagai no kokoro tashikana
   Kizuna de musunda
   Meguru kisetsu no naka o narande arukitai

   Let me be with you
   Wakariau tabi
   Sunao ni nareta kimi to nara

   Let me be with you
   Haru no sasayaki
   Hoshi no kirameki
   Aiseru deshou
   Let me be with you

   Nagai nemurenu yoru wa nando mo
   KISU shite kureta, ne?
   Soushite watashi wa yagate honto no
   Shiawase wo shitta
   Ame ga niji e to kawari
   Soshite hana wo hagukumu you ni

   Let me be with you
   Kakegae no nai
   Taisetsu wa toki dakishimete

   Let me be with you
   Asa no tokimeki
   Yume no nukumori kanjiru mama
   Let me be with you

   Let me be with you

   Let me be with you
   Wakariau tabi
   Sunao ni nareta kimi to nara

   Let me be with you
   Asa no tokimeki
   Yume no nukumori kanjiru mama

   Let me be with you
   Aiseru deshou
   Let me be with you


Nostalgia flooded her heart as she listened to song.  The language seemed so strangely familiar that she felt that she should understand it.  But why was she feeling nostalgic?  She searched through her memories frantically for a clue but found none.

Eventually, the song ended and she heard silence.  She gathered her courage and called out.

"Rhynne?  Canst thou hear me?"

She called out once more and touched the barrier.  It probably did not let her voice through.  Her head bowed in defeat and she began to crawl down.  

"Arturia...?"  echoed Rhynne's voice from above. 

"Rhynne!"  Arturia yelled excitedly. 

She heard Rhynne say, "Illumina...".  A bright light appeared about twenty feet away from her.  The light descended.  Just beyond the light, she could see Rhynne's face.  Her mouth fell open and she disappeared from her view. 

"Wait!"  cried Arturia.  "Please!"

Then she heard Rhynne say, "Levitiam".  She saw Rhynne crawl into the shaft.  When she was close enough, Arturia realized that she was floating.

When she was within an arm's length, Rhynne reached out to her.  "Arturia..."  An invisible barrier stopped her hand as well.  Rhynne pressed her palm against it. 

Arturia pressed her hand where Rhynne had hers.  "I missed thee." 

Rin was so happy to hear those words.  "I missed thee as well."  Tears streamed from her eyes and she made no effort to wipe them away.  "I am sorry... truly sorry about thy sister."

Arturia did not respond at once.  After that awful battle, she spent each night debating a proper course of action.  But given her near demise, it appeared that her days were numbered.  Right now, she could no longer afford to debate.  No matter what action she took, her sister was gone.  But Rhynne was still here and she knew for certain how she wanted to spend her time.  Silently, she asked her sister for forgiveness.

"Mine heart still aches over her loss.  Even though we hath our differences, she was still mine sister.  I cannot hate her, despite all that she hath done.  And I can not hate thee either, for I love thee too much."

Rhynne cried openly and pressed her other hand against the barrier.  Tears sprang from her own eyes as well and she leaned forward to rest her head where Rhynne's head was.  When Rhynne had calmed down, she whispered hoarsely.  "I am glad... so glad to hear thy words..."

With Rhynne's hair over the left side of her face, she did not notice it before.  "Rhynne... what happened to thy eye?"

Her hand flew to cover the light brown patch over her eye.  "Tis a minor injury.  It will heal in time."

"Is Merlin healing thee?"

"Yea.  She hath found a potion to help it heal."

Arturia exhaled with relief.  "Thank God.  Twould be a shame to suffer an incurable injury to thy beautiful eye."  She felt something brush against her forearm.  She looked down to see Rhynne's sleeve against it.  Her heart began to beat with hope as she pulled the sleeve. 

Rin felt something pulling on her sleeve.  She turned her head towards it.  Her mouth fell open at the sight.  Quickly, she pulled her arm out of the other sleeve and guided the sleeve towards the barrier.  The sleeve passed through.  Her heart began to pound with the thrill of discovery.  She pulled the sleeve back and put her arm through it but not all the way through.  She pushed the sleeve towards the barrier again.  The sleeve passed through up to the point where her hand was.  Undaunted, she pulled the sleeve back and tied the end of the sleeve.  She pushed the sleeve again.  To her great delight, her hand passed through the barrier. 

"Methinks I hath found a way to pass the barrier."  declared Rin.   She noticed that Arturia was still holding on to her other sleeve.  She smiled at the sight of it.  "Please let go for a moment." 

Reluctantly, Arturia let go.  She watched as Rhynne pulled her hood over her head, and pulled her arms out of her sleeves.  She brought her knees to her chest and chanted, "Aenderungs".

The robe wrapped itself around her and completely covered her.  Then Rhynne moved towards the barrier.  When the top of her robe passed through, Arturia crawled back to make room.  Soon, the entire robe had passed through.  From within the robe, she heard Rhynne's muffled chant. 

"Aenderungs."

Rhynne's robe unfolded and returned to its original form.  She pulled her hood back and grinned widely.  "That actually wo---"

Arturia's lips sprang forward to capture Rhynne's.  She kissed her like a starved lion feasting on its hard won prey.  She devoured its tenderness... its sweetness... its warmth. 

A few moments later, she felt Rhynne's hands slip under her arms and wrap around her.  Rhynne whispered into her mouth.

"Touch me..."

Her heart roared with exultation.  Her hands left the surface of the shaft to comply with Rhynne's command.  Instead of slipping down, her body floated.  Her feet left the surface as well.  Together, they floated down the shaft.

Her hands slipped under Rhynne's robe.  They wandered about until they located the buttons of her shirt.  One by one, the buttons opened a path to her target.  Her hands eagerly entered the breach and swarmed underneath her shirt.  Rhynne gasped against her lips. 

Encouraged by Rhynne's response, her hands cupped the mounds of her soft flesh and teased their apex.  Rhynne's hands clenched over the folds of her tunic.  Arturia smiled mischievously.  She continued to kiss and caress Rhynne until they floated into the laundry room.

Arturia kicked the baskets away and landed on her feet.  Then she raised her arms to receive Rhynne.  Rhynne floated down into her arms.  They stared at each other for a few moments before moving in unison to exchange fiery kisses.  Arturia felt like she was still floating.  Her right foot scraped the ground to confirm that it was only her heart floating with bliss.

Rhynne's hands wove through her hair and her scalp tingled at the sensation.  Her hand pushed against the back of her head slightly, and she took that as a sign to part Rhynne's lips.  Her tongue entered Rhynne's mouth and probed her carefully.  Rhynne's tongue pushed against hers and she let Rhynne do as she wished.  Then Rhynne's tongue entered her mouth. 

She let Rhynne play with her... tease her...  It was such sweet torture to let her do so since she wanted to taste Rhynne, to feel her and to take as much of her as she could.  But deep in her heart, she also wanted to know if Rhynne desired her just as much.  She was not disappointed.  She drew her closer to her body to urge her to continue.  Then Rhynne commanded her once more. 

"Put me down... I want thee to touch me..."

Slowly, Arturia lowered her until she could stand on her own.  Rhynne wrapped her arms around her and whispered in her ear, tickling it with her warm breath.

"There is a place unseen by the map."

"Where?"  asked Arturia excitedly.

"Where we hang our laundry."

Arturia's face fell.  "Merlyn saith that I can not venture outside the Aerie."

"Tis within the Aerie's defenses, but not part of the map's enchantment."

"Is that so?"

"Verily."

Arturia closed her eyes and thanked God.  She went to a nearby basket of clean laundry and took out a blanket.  She offered her hand to Rhynne.  "Shall we go?"

Rhynne smiled and took her hand.  Together, they went to the deck where laundry was hung to dry.  Arturia laid the blanket near the wall to minimize the effect of an occasional gust of mountain wind.  Then she took Rhynne into her arms and lowered her onto the blanket.  They exchanged enough kisses to subdue the chill of the mountain air. 

Like moths drawn to a flame, her hands dove into Rhynne's shirt and luxuriated in warmth of her heaving bosom.  The tips of her fingers played with her nipples and Rhynne gasped rapidly in response.  Arturia was pleased to honor her lady's commands. 

Her lips decided not to be outdone by her hands.  They traveled down Rhynne's neck and usurped the exalted position held by her hands.  Rhynne let out a small scream as her mouth sucked her stiff nipple. 

Suddenly, the door to the deck swung open.  "Sir Arturia!  Art y--" 

Arturia jerked away and landed on her behind.  Rhynne turned away from Airianne and pulled her robe over her front.

Arturia and Airianne stared at each other for a few seconds.  Then Airianne recovered from her shock.

"M--- mine apologies."  Airianne turned to go back in.

Arturia sprang forward with all the speed that she could master.  She caught the edge of the door before Airianne closed it and grabbed her arm.

"Wait!"  she cried.

She pulled Airianne back onto the deck and trapped her in her arms.  Airianne struggled a little before she dropped her resistance.

The silence hung about them like a sword over their heads.  Finally, Rin stood up and walked to them.  

"Let her go, Arturia.  Tis mine fault.  Merlyn hath forbidden me to leave the east wing."

"Mine apologies for mine rough manner, Lady Airianne."  said Arturia as she released her.

"Ye surprised me... both of ye."

Rin and Arturia blushed fiercely.  Rin cleared her throat.  "Please forget what ye have seen.  And... please... though I am loath to ask this of ye, please refrain from telling Master that I hath left mine room.  I will not ask ye to lie.  If ye must tell her, then please do so."

Airianne sighed.  "I will try.  But know that Mother can read mine mind within the Aerie."

Arturia and Rin gasped in unison.  It would only be a matter of time before Merlyn found out.  They exchanged glances.  The resolution on Arturia's serious face made Rin believe that Arturia would risk anything to be by her side.  She took some comfort in that.  She returned her gaze to Airianne.

"Pray, withhold it for as long as ye can.  We would be ever grateful."

Airianne reached out and held Rin's hand with her right and Arturia's with her left.  "Mine heart goes out to ye both.  I wish ye all the best.  But I cannae tarry long.  E'ery second with ye is another second of memory that Mother can find.  That is why I wanted to leave."

Arturia's face paled with remorse.  "Tis mine fault!  I should have let thee go!"

"Be at ease.  I will do what I can."  Airianne let go of their hands and quickly went back in.

"I must go back.  Master might visit me."  Rin adjusted her robe.

"Will I see thee again?" 

"Mayhap."  Rin cupped Arturia's cheek in her hand.  "But we must be careful, lest Merlyn take away our only means of being together."  She hugged Arturia.  "When the time is right, I will give thee a sign."

Arturia hugged her tightly.  "Though it pains me to wait for it, I pray that it will be soon.  Oh Rhynne... I love thee so much..."

"I love thee more than I can say..."  replied Rin.

They kissed a few more times before going in.  Arturia watched sadly as Rhynne ascended the shaft to return to her room.  When she could not see her anymore, she sat down against the wall and closed her eyes to savor the short but delicious feast that she just enjoyed.





Chapter 13 Omake

Airianne:  Thanks for doing the laundry again.
Arturia:  You're welcome.
Airianne:  You seem to be drinking a lot of tea lately.
Bedivere:  Loooove letter!  Love-love leeee-----mmmmpppphhhh!!!
Arturia:  Excuse us... we have to... uh... brush the horses... *drags Bedivere away*
Airianne:  ......


Chapter 13
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