The next few days were very busy for Mirium, with the usual flurry of packing up the deck and the costumes and Antem’s stage contraptions. In the rush, Tarineth’s headaches — which had kept him from finishing the Hre’lod role, he claimed, though Mirium suspected otherwise — seemed to only get worse, and there was much worrying about how to fill his parts once they moved on from Dawnmist. It was that thought that finally reminded Mirium of Keelath’s offer, the afternoon before they were due to leave.
At first, she was inclined to go on pretending she had forgotten. She felt a little unsettled thinking of him, like that feeling one had just before stepping out onto the stage for a new audience. The comparison wasn’t all bad though, as she knew what to do with such anxious feelings. So, in extrapolation, she knew what to do with Keelath.
The shadows were slanting across the road, black striping the coming sunset’s gold and gray-green, when she made her way to the Dawnmist grounds. No one received her at the gate, but it was half-open, as if welcoming her, and she pushed her way inside. She felt a little foolish: more so as she turned a bend in the path to see a small cottage, backed by wetlands, and wondered if she was in the right place. The place hardly seemed fitting for a landed baron, but then, someone in town mentioned the Sunwalkers had only recently been granted the land for their service in the Kingslayer War. The cottage door was shut tight, and the place no longer seemed so welcoming as it had at the gate.
Rough laughter drew her attention to the side of the path, and she saw Keelath and a shorter wuyon‘mar, who must’ve been his brother, coming up out of the swampy forest, carrying wooden practice swords and padded armor. They had been joking together, reminding Mirium sharply of her father when she had been a child. The thought caused her act of poise to drop, and she felt suddenly very vulnerable before them.
Keelath stopped short when he saw her, causing Tyrric, describing some story he seemed to think was hilarious and not watching where he was going, to plow into his back and almost send both of them tumbling into the ditch. With much shuffling and dustings of clothing, the brothers arranged themselves next to the path and looked down at her.
“We, ah, weren’t expecting you at this hour,” said Keelath.
“That’s alright,” said Mirium, struggling to find her composure. “I had forgotten about your offer until just this afternoon.”
“Offer?” said Tyrric, and his eyebrows went up as if he was about to make a ribald joke at Keelath’s expense.
Keelath stamped on Tyrric’s foot. “The offer is still good,” he assured Mirium gracefully, while his brother hopped and cursed.
“Oh, well, I was hoping…”
She really had nothing to say though — no handy script to read from — and she subsided into silence; they stared at one another.
Keelath seemed to have made up his mind for them both, though. He pulled his waster from his back and dropped it in Tyrric’s arms. “Will you be a good chap and take this to the house for me?”
“But–” said Tyrric.
Keelath added his padded helmet and gloves to the pile. “These too.”
“And my vest; it’s hardly proper to entertain in–”
Mirium couldn’t help it; she startled to giggle. Tyrric looked mortified, and Keelath grinned, with just a touch of sheepishness. Then Tyrric dropped the burden he was juggling in a cascade, and suddenly they were all laughing as he ran about, picking up practice swords and gloves.
“Well, go on!” said Tyrric in exasperation. “Shall I tell Dad we’ll have company for dinner?”
“Maybe,” said Keelath, looking at Mirium.
Mirium blushed. “Quite,” she said, suddenly soft-spoken again.
Tyrric took off, though wisely making two trips with his burdens. Keelath jabbed his arming sword into the ground for his brother’s return, then awkwardly offered an arm to Mirium.
Mirium awkwardly took it. “You know, I know it only polite among the high class, but I’ve never held someone’s arm like this for real before,” she stammered.
“Me neither,” said Keelath. “Unless you count my mother, I suppose.”
Mirium let out a nervous laugh and dropped his arm. “Maybe we shouldn’t pretend, then.”
“Maybe,” said Keelath. “I’m afraid I forgot to tell you, but it is quite a hike between us and the rinaan glade, and most of it is boggy.”
“So long as we don’t go sinking into it like Old Whitethorn,” murmured Mirium.
“Like who?” asked Keelath.
“Oh, uh, another story.” Then, since he looked so interested, she stammered on, “He sank into a swamp up to his neck, then, er, died. Or would have, but we usually tell the kids that a gryphon saved him in the end.”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that!” said Keelath hastily, so much so that Mirium wondered if he thought she thought she would drown in the bogs behind his house.
“We’ll be careful,” she reassured him.
Despite the promise to each other, their hike was hot, buggy, muddy, and Mirium slipped and fell into a pool up to her neck at least once in the growing dark. Her doubts about the romance had returned by now, and she was thinking wistfully back to her small, warm, and most importantly dry wagon, but then Keelath picked her up with an ease Tarineth had never possessed and carried her up the last hill, with such confidence Mirium forgot to even snap at him. He set her gently at the top, motioning at her to remain low, and then he left her side, creeping to a break in the trees.
“I think I can see them,” he said softly. “Just there, that little bit of white. Do you see it?”
Mirium’s protests died in her throat, and she crept up beside him. She saw nothing. After a moment of trying to point it out, Keelath put an arm around her, his head pressed to hers, so he could guide her. Mirium’s nostrils filled with his scent, almost more distracting than the horse-like creature who suddenly trotted out into the clearing below them, its single antler and shaggy white mane faintly glowing in the twilight.
Mirium’s breath caught, and she had the sense she would never see something so special again, even if she lived for millennia. Keelath didn’t break away, though he did remove his arm about her shoulders; their heads still pressed together, forgotten in their awe. When Mirium finally took her eyes off the rinaan, she looked at him to find him watching her in cheery contentment.
She felt she should say something, and by the look in his eyes, he clearly thought he should as well.
After a moment, neither of them did, and both of them realized neither of them had to.
Instead, Keelath snuck a gentle kiss. Her heart rushed in her ears as she realized it wasn’t so bad as all the times Tarineth had kissed her, either swift and distracted, or hard and bruising to get a good reaction out of the audience. An intense hunger formed in her belly, and mentally she encouraged Keelath to put his arms around her, hold her like a real knight would do for his damsel in the tales.
Keelath didn’t however, breaking off and looking back out to the rinaan. Biting back a disappointment she couldn’t explain, even to herself, she joined him, watching as the creature lowered its head and began to graze. More of its herd, reassured, came out of the trees: blacks and browns and even a white and gold one with faint stripes on its legs. They each resembled the horse with its knight on her box, even though these were much more dainty, and of course the human’s horse hadn’t had an antler – or scales on its shoulders.
Mirium and Keelath kept low, barely breathing so as not to disturb the creatures. When Keelath’s hand brushed hers to settle in the grass, Mirium put her hand over it, and when her shoulder touched his, he didn’t pull away. They watched until dusk deepened into evening and the first moon came out, and the rinaani grazed their way to the other side of the glade.
“Oh, no,” said Keelath said suddenly. “We’re going to be late for dinner.”
“That’s alright,” said Mirium. “I’ve already eaten.”
“Father told me not to let you walk about after dark,” said Keelath. “It’s not proper for a lady.”
“Maybe a noble lady,” said Mirium softly, “but I am no noble.”
Keelath looked at her and was persuaded to relax. “I’m sorry for the fall in the pool, anyhow,” he said ruefully.
“Hush,” said Mirium. “I think it was a lovely… date.”
Keelath perked up. “A date. This was a date.”
“Yes… what did you think it was?”
Mirium laughed softly so as not to startle the rinaani. “I’d like to come here again, Keelath. See if maybe I can touch one.”
“They’re wild,” warned Keelath.
“So are we, from their perspective.”
Keelath squinted and looked back at the rinaani. Only the lead was visible now, the scales across its withers glimmering a soft blue in the moonlight. It gave a soft snort in their direction, and Keelath smiled.
“Then you shall. Well, we shall. If you are amenable to the idea, of course…” he stammered.
Mirium put a hand over his to distract and quiet him. A part of her hoped his nervy awkwardness was only fleeting. Another part of her was appreciative of the raw honesty. He certainly wasn’t what she had expected, she had to admit to herself.
“Call me Mirium,” she murmured. “The other is only a stage name.”
“Mirium,” breathed Keelath, and it sounded good on his tongue.
After another few moments, they rose to make the hike back down to the road. The hour was late, and Mirium took her leave without staying for dinner.
“We travel in the morning, and I still have things to pack,” she explained.
She could see Keelath’s shoulders fall in the twilight. “Will I see you again?”
“I promised, didn’t I?”
“Soon, I mean.”
Mirium paused. “The midspring holiday: First Green. We’ll be back by then.”
Keelath graciously took her hand and kissed it, and Mirium was glad the gloom hid her blush and silly grin at his old-fashioned chivalry. “Then I look forward to it, my beauty.”