The sun had barely peeked above the horizon, and the castle courtyard was still in deep shadow as Kyle put one foot into the stirrup, grabbed the saddle horn, and pulled himself up on Hogart’s back. He straightened himself and drew a deep breath before clicking his tongue. The horse shook its head and started to clop-clop towards the gate.
A shadow detached itself from the wall and reached up to grasp the Hogart’s bridle.
“And where are you off to so early?” Dylan asked benignly.
“As if you’d have to ask,” the young man snapped back, glaring down at his father.
“To find your runaway girl.” The gray head shook back and forth once. “I need you here, son. Benedic can find her.”
“No, Father, she needs me there.” He made an abrupt gesture towards the mountains. Something in the green eyes of the older man flashed brightly, before they narrowed. Kyle blew out his breath again.
“Look, you let me go and find her and when I come back you’ll have your precious heir to Carrock, whether or not he has a bride at this point. Deal?” Dylan slowly let go of the bridle.
“Is that what you want?” he asked, almost in a whisper.
“No. I want Dido to be my wife whether or not I have to be the lord of this land. But I may not get that.” He looked back at the mountains and his voice cracked. “I at least have to try...” The gray head nodded once.
“I understand. Go, son. Go and find your woman.” The young man looked down at his father, brows rising and mouth dropping open just a bit. He blinked, then slowly began to smile. He let out a quick, “Ha!” and dug his heels into the horse’s flanks. Hogart reared with a bright whinny before pounding off through the gate to where she lived.
The light gently laid itself over her, outlining every facet of her face and body. She lay on her side, head pillowed on her arm. The stained skin dress had slid a ways up her legs as she breathed evenly. After a few moments she drew a deep breath and blinked, then closed her eyes again. She drew a breath and then sneezed, now finally coming awake. She sat up and stretched, looking around, a slightly puzzled look on her face, before running her hands through her long, loose hair. She let out a long yawn and glanced towards the fire pit. There were only a few embers left, barely glowing in the bright morning sun. Spits of birch in the ashes but there was no one else there. Dido blinked again, brow furrowing slightly, as if she were trying to remember something, but then shrugged and got up. She looked around and barely registered the slight mound where she and Lora had buried the remains of the bear that they weren’t going to eat or use. Then she turned and shuffled towards the leafy barrier to her private stream for a bath.
By late morning her head was a little clearer and she’d gotten through tidying up the cave and now was looking up at her tree, when she heard the stealthy approach. It was only a little sound, but she reacted instantly. She reached up to where she kept her weapons in the arbor, strung the bow and knocked an arrow, taking careful aim towards the woods where she’d head the sound. She drew the bow, the feathers now just touching her ear. Her eyes had taken on a steely cast. And then she saw him as he stepped from the trees into the sun.
“Kyle!” she whispered, dropped the bow and arrow and rushed towards him. He just saw her before she had her arms around his neck and her lips on his chin. He wrapped his own arms around her and gently kissed her mouth. Their greeting was wordless as they collapsed on the soft sod, kissing and caressing furiously.
After a few moments the passion had subsided.
“You came after me,” she whispered.
“I couldn’t help it, Huntress,” he replied happily. “I love you.”
“Then stay here with me.” She snuggled up next to him, one arm across his chest the other around his shoulder and neck, head resting on his shoulder.
“You know I can’t do that.” She looked up to find a softness in his green eyes. She squeezed him tightly before releasing him and straightening up.
“So you’ll go back to that prison.”
He nodded sadly.
“Why?” Her lips curved down in a pout.
“Because that’s were I belong, Dido. That’s were I must be.” He gently took one of her hands and she let him have it. “We Northkin were given a mandate to rule the lands justly. If the line were ever broken Carrock would lose its blessing and fall into disarray, as when my father was young. You know he was in exile...” He looked squarely into her eyes, brow furrowed, mouth firmly set. “I can’t let that happen again. The people need more peace than the few years we’ve had since the Hun-Halk were finally driven off. Father’s getting old...”
“He’s only in his fifties,” she interjected.
“Still, he needs me to be here for him and the family, and the land. Do you understand that.” Impulsively she took his hand and pressed it to her lips.
“If you stay now you could have anything you choose,” she whispered. He sighed and withdrew his hand.
“No, even if I did stay, I couldn’t do that.” Once more his countenance became serious. “Dido, as the heir to the throne I can only have one mate at a time. If I — if we were together now I could never take another woman while you are alive. We’d have to marry — and some day I’d need an heir, just like my father now has an heir. I don’t think you could handle my being there and your being here.”
“Who says I couldn’t?” There was now a slight edge to her voice.
“All right, maybe you could, but I couldn’t and neither could the people.” He shook his head. “I wish I could make you understand.” His hands opened and closed helplessly. “As the son of the lord of Carrock I have to be a good example to the people.”
“That’s just your father speaking.” He winced at the scorn.
“No, I’ve been thinking about that. I believe it, I really do.” He now looked her straight in the eyes. “If the leader is good he will have a strong influence on his people for good. If he is evil, his people will suffer and become corrupt. I can’t let that happen. I’m not my own — not like you are your own.”
“So what do you want?” Her voice was flat, unemotional, beautiful face now devoid of any emotion.
“I want you to come back with me,” he said in a near whisper
“And if I don’t?”
“Then I’ll go home and you can stay here in your forest.” His voice cracked as he said it. “Stay here to be a huntress.”
“So you’ll just let me go, like that?” she asked bitterly, her eyes now glinting dangerously.
“No, Dido, I wouldn’t. That’s why I’m here. Now.” A soft smile crossed his features. “Oh, Dido, I love your wildness so much! If only we could find a way...” He reached out and touched her cheek. She grasped his hand and kissed his palm, before leaning forward and giving him another kiss.
It was late afternoon as she walked him to the edge of the forest where he’d left Hogart to contentedly crop the fresh grass of a small meadow next to the road.
“So this is good-bye,” she said sadly, her back to the woods she loved, her face to the man she loved.
“It doesn’t have to be,” he replied softly. He looked back towards the east where the castle lay, then back at Dido. “Come with me, dearest. We can work something out.” He held out his right hand.
Dido looked at him and bit her lip, then she looked back at the woods. And the soft summer breeze leapt joyfully down from the tree-tops and embraced them both.