A Question Of Duty

Title: A Question of Duty
Time Period: January, 127 A.E.
Characters Appearing:

Summary: Edmund's wedding night does not end as intended.

A few nights a year, Dornie transforms into a brightly-lit candle that's visible for miles across the moor in everything except the wettest, gloomiest weather blown in by the winter, and even though it's raining, the loch's choppy black waters reflect the firelight licking at its eastern shore. Canvas tents keep dry the revelers who choose not to venture out into it and protect those seeking their shelter from the cold and the wind.

Among them are the man and the woman, now husband and wife, who the celebration is being held in honour of. One of them has been married before, but this is a detail that means very little in their world; what matters now is who Aislinn belongs to here, not who she was before, and she is fortunate to be able to say that he is for the most part gentle, and kind, and not unpleasant to look at, or at least that is what she's been telling the people who have asked her how it feels to be given away to the brother of the man who burned your village and killed your family.

Apart from the colour of her clothes, which are white, and the fact that they have been painstakingly cleaned, there is not much to differentiate her from the other women in terms of status. A heavy cloak with wolf's fur trim covers her shoulders, and before the ceremony one of the Rowntree's maids spent several hours weaving flowers into her hair — the kind that grow beneath the snow in the mountains this time of year, and maybe that makes her special because it is not an easy trip. Her small hands form a clasp in her lap and she looks straight ahead. She might be listening to the music, even if it is difficult to hear over the sound of rippling canvas and the rain beating down on it outside.

Aislinn will come to know that Edmund has a lot of family, and maybe that will reinforce the expectations of this matrimony — Edmund certainly is doing no such thing. Not one for these sorts of celebrations, particularly when he's in the middle of it, he's been a hushed and stoic presence. Well, not completely, with small shy, teased out quirks at the corners of his mouth in fleeting moments when someone makes a joke at him, or comment on how lovely Aislinn looks tonight.

He's been assured— by his mother— that he looks very handsome, but Edmund will feel foolish in anything that isn't simple pragmatism. The wolf skin draped from a shoulder is no match for his kelpie coat, which people complain smells like the sea and his stable on a wet day and has no place at a wedding, feels frivolous and itches his neck with its coarse fur. A waistcoat buttoned over soft cotton feels too light and stiff, and the shoes obtained for him to wear pinch his toes, but at least these minor bits of discomfort could be drowned out by a few helpings of liquor. When he moves towards her, though, his hands are empty, fidgeting with the fastening of his cloak.

They haven't spent much of the ceremony talking, aside from the vows.

The smell of ale and drippings of fat crackling over the fire overpowers the ozone in the air and the heavier, earthier aroma created by damp soil and the sheen of rainwater on rock. Vegetables roasted until their skin peels and their flesh bursts carry the taste of the charcoals they were cooked on. Steamed oysters and haddock swim in pots filled with still-simmering milk. People eat with their hands, heavy spoons and blunted knives used to cut meat and cheese. The bread they twist apart between their fingers and soak in the juices running off suckling pig and geese rubbed with garlic.

Aislinn has never had this much food in front of her, but she also hasn't eaten more than a few bites in a failed attempt to settle her stomach. Someone's dog, a slender, pale thing with a liver-coloured nose and eyes like pits in the dark, lays curled in the corner of the tent with its muzzle resting on its front paws. When Edmund approaches, its ears prick up, though it does not raise its head.

His wife doesn't seem particularly inclined to lift herself up either, or at least not yet. Her eyes are shy; she tips them downward.

If Edmund hasn't spent a good deal of time with Aislinn, he might be flustered that she is looking away and portions of her meal still remain on her plate. Or rather, if Edmund wasn't Edmund, because 'flustered' is not a thing he often gets — resigned and observant, this time, as he takes note of these things and weighs them up impassively. Though they are not watched, glances prick at them here and there.

He settles on the communal bench beside her, straddling as if it were one of the walls in the stable. There are scrapes on his chin still healing from his last attempt at shaving off the sandpaper-coarseness of facial hair that grows there. "'s a bit much, innit?" he says, after a second, looking towards the pale canine instead of at her without really seeing it at all. "Any excuse for a— thing. Is it not good?"

"If God is kind," says Aislinn, "then you only see your children married once. Some parents settle for remembering. Others want everyone to." Her mouth tightens into a small smile. "It's good that people are eating well. A rare thing in winter." Either to appease him, or because her words have made her realize that she's allowing opportunity to pass her by, she picks up her knife and a piece of bread from her plate, which she slathers in a crumbly chunk of goat's cheese, but instead of eating it whole and licking the smears off her fingers, she tears it in two and offers Edmund the larger half.

Edmund only hesitates to take the piece because he's thinking of something else, a guarded kind of stillness coming down around his expression around married once because Aislinn was, he recalls. It's not the point she is making but it's the point she achieves, and he only notices that she's offering him food at the last possible second.

He takes it, naturally, and tears the thing with his teeth to disappear in a couple of ample bites. The people of Dornie are well fed enough to be relatively civil eaters who have no need to eat quickly, but Edmund missed this announcement. He'll be done before Aislinn has mastered her first bite, wiping his hands off of crumbs and keeping his sea-blue eyes turned down to them and refraining from pushing the conversation any further — he isn't the kind to speak for the sake of speaking and to do so is unnatural.

Aislinn takes her time with the bread. It goes down in three bites with nothing left of the cheese under her nails or on the blade of her knife. She rotates the utensil between her fingers rather than set it back down on the edge of her plate; her mind is elsewhere just as Edmund's mind was elsewhere, and the pair stews in silence for almost a full minute before metal clinks against porcelain.

She looks up at him, studying his face to confirm what she sees on his features is what she feels in his heart, and finds that it makes hers tighten in her chest. "Will you walk with me, Eamonn?"

Unsuspecting of everything in the world, Edmund agrees easy — a tip of his head and a glance around to see if they'd be leaving anything behind, maybe someone who might have tried to engage them in conversation or a glass of beer he might have been nursing, but none of these things are so. He stands first and offers her a hand up, heedless of breadcrumbs that had sprinkled on his thighs now dislodged and cast onto the beaten ground. It's raining outside, but then again, it's always raining outside.

Unlike in dancing, he allows her to lead, secretly grateful at the idea of maybe breaking away from the social scene.

She loops her arm through Edmund's and places her opposite hand at his elbow. There is no hope for the train of her dress — it will be caked in mud by the time they get wherever they are going whether she attempts to lift it off the ground or not, so she holds onto him as she leads him out of the tent and into the rain. No one stops them and no one notices immediately that they're gone except for the dog letting out a plaintive whine when Aislinn moves the flap aside and disappears. And like their guests, it does not follow.

Away from the tent and away from the warmth and trembling light of the fires, the sky above their heads opens up into an inky sea, starless and infinite. Clouds blot out the moon. Aislinn could be taking him almost anywhere, but she has to be very careful that they don't become lost or it will be daylight before either of them have any chance of figuring out wherever it is they end up.

"Your weanlings are looking very handsome," she says, following a squat stone wall covered in hoary lichen and dense green moss.

Wandering in this country is never a wise idea.

But Edmund trusts his own sense of geography and Aislinn's sense of the common kind that they won't go far enough for bad fortune to befall them, and so he is not on high alert. A lot of food and some beer will do that to a man, and he radiates heat where her arm wraps around his own, somewhat impervious to the icy fall of the light rain tapping his skull. "They're strong," he agrees. "'s good, they'll take the winter with none too much trouble." Short answer, short response, falling quiet again without following it in the normal rules of conversation like a question or comment back at her.

Instead, he looks off at the way the land has changed in the darkness, all the detail gone and reduced to a single silhouette that questions concepts of proximity and perspective.

It has an effect on time, too; Aislinn could not say how long she and Edmund walk parallel to the wall before they're crossing the bridge that spans the width of the river and his stables are coming into view. She gets the sense that the celebration they left behind must still have fires burning and liquor flowing, but the night feels heavier and the rain has begun to sting. Her mouth is numb, so it is just as well that they can be comfortable in each others' company without needing to speak. So are the tips of her ears and nose.

In the distance, Edmund's herd presses together for warmth and a flash of lightning without any booming thunder to give it voice illuminates their sleek, rain-soaked backs, and although it is impossible to count them in the instant the naked eye can separate their bodies from one another, they must all be accounted for. It would not do for his men to lose any of the horses on the day of his wedding — or ever.

This is a place she thinks he might like to be if he had to choose one that isn't where they've just come from.

And he relaxes, a little, capable of ignoring what he's wearing or where they've just been as he stands and looks out at the herd, a group that's grown out of a handful of underfed beasts and a couple of wild ones that needed to be penned.

This isn't a thing that Edmund never does, either, but he can't remember the last time he did so with a woman next to him, curled warm at his side and having brought him here herself. It's a shock when he languidly recalls these simple facts, glancing down at her then, vaguely aware now that all that careful work gone into weaving flora through her hair is being drenched by the insidious, ongoing effects of the highland rain, and he is probably a lot more comfortable than she is.

"You're good with 'em," is what he thinks of to say, being the amazing romantic that he is.

"I've sort of a knack, yes," Aislinn admits. "They're a little bit like people, or people are a little bit like horses. Animals. We need and feel the same things when all's done. The only difference is the beasts are more straightforward about it."

She gives his arm a gentle squeeze, then, and exhales a breath of misting steam through her nose. Although she isn't complaining, the next one she draws in has a sharp, juddery quality to it, as though she's about to start shivering. There are no fires out here. "You have an honest heart," she says. "It's hard, but it's true, too. I woke up this morning and I told myself this is all that matters."

That sounds like a. Good thing to hear. Edmund wasn't really sure he should come to expect that tonight, or really, what any expectations were meant to be. A lot of marriages happened like business transactions, and as a man of his age in the family he is from, he should probably understand the inner-workings better than he does. But that is for his siblings, his peers, and he has enough pride not to ask anyone about anything. He listens, but more sees the sharp steam of her breath in the air.

A slightly numb-fingered hand undoes the clasps of his cloak, and it's off after a few impatient tugs forces it to be so. Wolf fur on wolf fur, Aislinn will feel weighed down by inevitably warmer when he swings the bulkier garment over her shoulders, crushing wet flowers beneath its collar.

Aislinn reaches up to grab a fistful of the cloak with a murmured thank you, making a clasp of her hand instead of feebly attempting to fasten the one attached. The material of her dress, thoroughly soaked with rain, plasters to her skin and if they weren't married, this might be more of an issue; what he can see through the fabric is nothing he won't see on a regular basis now that he and Aislinn will be sharing the same bed as well as the same name.

Her other hand peels hair off her face and picks it from the corner of her mouth. "Is there something that matters the most to you?"

"Just the one thing?"

…which is potentially misleading, implying that Edmund has a great deal many things that matter to him. His arms are locked around him against the chill, which isn't conducive to romanticism either, but the cloak that hugs her smells strongly of him and is a lot more practical in any event. "This place matters to me," he says, eventually, the words dragged out of him because he doesn't often contemplate much more than the moment, think beyond his privilege and current desires. But then, there's Dornie.

He wonders if he's meant to be saying her, but he wouldn't have pinned her as the type to lead him on that way.

And he'd be right. She isn't. Although she doesn't nod, they're standing close enough together that it would be impossible for her not to have heard him — Aislinn inhales, filling her nose and lungs with the fragrance of bracken and loamy heather. The air smells as wet as it tastes. "That's natural," she says. "It doesn't want to let you go, see. Some people— the ones who come from the earth and are born with a little wild still left in them— they've got roots just as the trees do, and the roots— the roots, Eamonn, they go very deep.

"You would choose land. You're as much a part as what grows on it." She makes a decision and steps toward the stables. It will be drier there, if not warmer. "The herd knows. It's why they listen so well."

Edmund lets her move first, before following. Long legs have him by her side reasonably readily, though she sees him first by way of white vapour on his next exhale, as thick as any of the way the equine creatures breathe. For him to say he understands her completely— in this one moment, but the same is true of in general— would be a lie, and Edmund tends not to lie much. But there is a trace beneath it, an underlying sentiment that speaks to him on a less wordy level, digs a furrow in his brow and sets his jaw.

And she speaks of his herd.

"How would you know a thing like that?"

He only asks, because she sounds so certain.

Aislinn lowers her eyes and her head at the same time. Her feet are vague shapes in the dark, and maybe she just means to watch her step. The ground underfoot can be slippery. Her dress, too, has a very long, very sodden train.

Beneath Edmund's cloak, her shoulders stiffen and her body language closes up, energy turned back inward instead of out. "How do you know when a foal is old enough to get on without its mother?" she asks. "How do you know your horse will bite if you put your hand too close to his face, and how do you stay on his back when he means to throw you off it?

"You feel things. Sometimes it's a knot inside of you. Other times it's in the air. I'm no different."

It's an acceptable answer, Edmund given no reason to question it. It's why he's a poor excuse for being an heir to politics, it's why he lets his siblings and parents do that instead, and it's why he himself is a reasonably honest character.

He follows like a trudging shadow, obedient and quiet, and when he does speak again, it's not because he's trying to contrive some way to fill the silence or make some kind of 'effort' or the usual reprimands. "And what matters most to you?" She, after all, doesn't have the land. Or a herd. He suspects she will say her son.

You do not ask a question with the expectation that it won't be turned back around at you; Aislinn's silence means she's searching her heart, not that she's surprised Edmund would ask, though if she's being as honest with him as he is with her — she is, a little. She creaks open the stable's doors with a diminutive hand splayed on wood, and moves inside out of the wind and the rain.

The air stiller inside the stable, and despite the drumming sound on the roof, it's quieter too, which is the way Aislinn prefers things. Less noise makes her feel like she has more room to think. "Duty," she says. That may mean to her son, but if it ended there then she would have said exactly what Edmund expects her to.

It could mean the same thing, but for all that the girl— well, woman— has a talent for pretty words, Edmund can't imagine that in this instance, she wouldn't simply say what was most direct. Unless it was some sort of effort not to— hurt his feelings—

That's about as far as Edmund gets in his attempt to dissect, nose wrankling briefly and snorting an inhale so that it doesn't run at the change of air quality. Scuffs his fine sleeve over it and moves to secure the stable doors against the harsher edge of chilly wind. "That's a thing that matters most to my family, I'll say," he says, as he fixes iron to seal before stepping back and absently wiping his hands off on his pants. His waistcoat, then, falls victim some to undoing, gladly unlatching buttons to let it flap open, his hands then treating shirt collar in the same way. Worse still, these items are wet. He is also watching her, or at least her movements.

"I suppose it does t'me as well."

Aislinn places her hands, dwarfed in size, on Edmund's and moves as if to manipulate his fingers with hers. Maybe it's the cold, or maybe it's nerves — trembling, she helps him with the buttons on his shirt, and does not stop at the collar, yet her eyes remain downturned, her focus on her task rather than his face.

She is unaccustomed to touching him, especially in such an intimate way. Keeping her gaze averted makes this easier; she dares not risk meeting his eyes and having them sap away her courage when she can't even will her hands to stop shaking. If she's afraid, then Edmund can at least rest assured that she isn't afraid of him. She hasn't been since she was brought to Dornie, and her body language now is different than it was the night they first met and she wasn't initially sure what to make of him.

The absence of space between their bodies speaks of trust.

Edmund isn't exactly a shy virgin. He's had a long and illustrious bachelor life, there are prostitutes and looser women and even not-so-loose women who were just nice. But he does stop breathing for a second when he feels her fingers start to pick at the buttons down his shirt, his own hands rendered useless and hovering. He does search for eye contact, but doesn't demand it.

Instead, he goes and takes two handfuls of heavy wolf fur cloak, letting the one he'd put on her shoulders simply shove off. The fastenings of her own are left along in favour of fingers finding and crumpling the flowers in her hair, drawing them out with idle interest and accidentally working their muted scent on his fingertips without actually bruising the petals.

Aislinn's hair is spun from gold on a bright day, but in the dark, weighed down by water, it looks more like the hay on the floor of the stable's stalls, fair-coloured but unremarkable except for its texture, which is glossy and sleek. She isn't a virgin either, but now feels like the wrong time to remind him that she's done this with another man before — and if she takes duty as seriously as she claims to, then she never will.

She frees the bottommost button and holds her hands against his abdomen, trapping them between the two of them, then leans further in until her nose and mouth are brushing his chest in a kiss. Her breath spreads heat through his skin.

His hands clutch harder in her hair, then, but they don't pull — in fact, it's barely felt, only sensed, no tension allowed to tug at straw-gold strands. A breath swells his torso in time with the spread of damp-feeling heat from her mouth, head ducking then until his face brushes the crown of her head. It smells mostly of rain, by now, and the flowers that were woven through it, and the perfume distilled from them. His fingers loosen, only to comb deeper into her hair and angle her head up.

This is where Edmund should kiss her, but he only will when she sees him — or at least, for the first few seconds before he does what is most appropriate, which is press his mouth to her's in a kiss less like the pageant put on under the tents mere hours ago.

Her hands move from his lower stomach to Edmund's wrists and squeeze hard and tight, though she's mindful of her nails and the amount of pressure they put on his skin as she's clinging to him, not meaning to hurt. It feels good to be held again, to be kissed again, and Aislinn welcomes him with her mouth, but no amount of time spent mourning her losses or preparing to accept her new lot readies her for the wave of guilt and grief that washes over her next.

She responds by pushing back against it and pulling in a deep, hitching breath, and hopes that Edmund won't be able to separate her tears from the rainwater still running down her cheeks and chin unless he touches them, which may be why she tries to keep his hands where they are, tangled in her hair. Either way, she does not stop, and she does not vocalize anything except quiet murmurs of encouragement.

He isn't yet aware, of the tempest of emotion going on behind the curtains. He is aware of some simple things.

Like how he doesn't feel quite so chilled, but still so enough that getting either of them in the warmth of the stable boy bunks seems like the better course of action. Like imagining what her mouth would feel like. Like the feeling of her smaller hands clasped tight around his wrists, reminding him of the way girls in his past might have held onto his arm to ensure he didn't do anything they'd rather he not, but this is belied by the soft sounds she's making against his mouth, and like how he's thinking of none of these things awful deeply.

He starts walking her back and back, a hand pushing against her's to clasp at the base of her throat, the other slipping his shirt off his shoulder and getting tangled in the process, but that's a short term problem, easily remedied. Soon, though, he'll open his eyes.

Aislinn's shoulders and back connect with the ladder leading up to the lofts, and Edmund can reverse her no farther. Of course he'll open his eyes — most men like to look, or so she's been told — and when he does she'll be working to loosen his belt. Her breaths come quick and shallow with a thin, reedy quality like desire where like is the operative word. She wants to be kissed and she wants to be held, but she also wants to be kissed and held without weeping, and so what Aislinn wants more than anything else is for the night to be over.

The belt slips from its loops, some tugging and jerking required, and Aislinn drops it to the floor. The boom produced by the buckle on wood is louder than she anticipated, but it takes more than that to startle her when she's the one who let it drop. Just the same, her throat contracts against his hand, swallowing back another sharper, more strangled sound.

He has a mind to keep her here, against the ladder, taking private— if not exactly secret— thrill from an encounter that feels truer than he used to expect from these things when his family threatened it at him. Her cloak comes loose, finally, left to land in a heap at their feet, and his mouth is seeking her's again by the time he feels that flutter in her throat.

And Edmund stops, shallow breathing caught as he lifts his head again to look down at her.

Offense is so sudden and immediate, like a punching knife, that it catches him off guard and he barely knows why he feels it, thoughts slower to catch up. He isn't, after all, one of the rapists in Duncan's little band of militia. He hadn't wanted to marry Aislinn if it were to have too strong an undertone of unwill, and that she have no more resistance than he had to the idea. Duty, aye, but—

Edmund doesn't move, cautious of offense turning into infamous anger. This would be a bad time.

Oh, says the expression on Aislinn's face. Oh no.

She chokes again, blinking away tears, and inhales deeply through her nose — not her mouth, because her hand is coming up to cover it and stifle any other involuntary noises her body might try to make and betray her. Although she doesn't feel Edmund's emotions with the same intensity that he does, her gift ensures that she's as aware of them as she is of his body and its physical proximity to hers.

She could try to explain if she knew how to put the experience into words.

And she doesn't.

His hand is still at her throat, but slowly removes, then, in order to place the heel of his palm where tears streak greasy and warm amongst chillier rain, the tips of his fingers seeking into her hair. Edmund's expression has lost some of its tension, becoming more peaceful, although it's Aislinn's talent that she knows what the truth of it is, a blacker emotion sweeping cold and bitter behind it.

He could as well no longer be in the stable, out in the cold and headed back for the castle. It's where his mind is and his body is set to follow, a brief interlude where his hand moves from her face to reach down her body enough to collect back his belt, and he's away. The rustle and click of belt buckle, too distracted to think about collecting up his own cloak where it's piled on the ground and stepping over it.

Aislinn lets him go, holding onto her dignity long enough instead for the stable doors to shut behind him. Then she's sinking down to the ground and encircling her knees in her arms, legs hugged tight against her chest with her face buried between her thighs.

Whether or not it was her wish, she sleeps alone tonight.