Maiden of Inverness, page 1
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For my sister,
Carol Lamb Seacat,
in whose hands a Ping five iron becomes a deadly weapon
Special thanks to Alice Shields for her creative input and support, to Christina Dodd for her expertise, and to Pat Stech for her eye for detail.
Early fall, 1296
“Bring the butcher’s lad to me!”
The angry voice behind the closed door belonged to Edward Plantagenet, the first of that name to claim the throne of England, and the last, pray God, to covet the crown of Scotland.
Sweat beading his brow, his stomach churning, Revas Macduff locked his knees to keep from running. But to where? English knights lined the hallway and filled the common room below. Welshmen patrolled the castle battlements, deadly longbows at the ready.
“Fetch him, Brodie!”
A hand clasped Revas’s shoulder. “Go on, lad,” said Brodie, the sheriff of Elgin. “By the cross, he’s had his fill of killing our kinsmen this day.”
Revas hoped it was so, for he could not die. His father needed him. There was no one else to sharpen the butchering knives or care for the horse or fetch water from the well.
Turning, he looked up at Kenneth Brodie. Fatigue rimmed the sheriff’s eyes, and dirt streaked his kindly face. His hair still bore the imprint of a helmet. Without his chain of office, his tunic looked plain and his shoulders the breadth of an ordinary man.
Revas’s fear turned to impotent rage, for Kenneth Brodie was a fair man with little patience for those who broke the law, and less for those who ignored the poor. He’d been stripped of his power, but his life had been spared.
Revas’s own fate was uncertain. “Why has the English king summoned me?”
“I know not, Revas, but the steward heard him asking after the common lads of Elginshire. In with you, and address him as ‘Your Majesty.’ ” Leaning down, the sheriff whispered, “But remember, the king is but a man with loyalties and debts, same as you.”
The sheriff’s words echoed in Revas’s ears, but when the door opened, his courage shriveled.
Wearing chain mail, leather trews, and war boots with golden spurs, the king of England sat on a bench near a table strewn with rolls of parchment. Some folks said that he cast a long shadow over Scotland. Revas understood why.
Looking up, the king glared. Revas fought a shiver at the coldness in those blue eyes.
“Are you the butcher’s lad?”
Remembering to speak slowly so his voice wouldn’t break, Revas said, “His son, Your Majesty.”
With a gauntlet and a dirk, the king spread out a map roll and weighted the edges. One corner of the parchment curled around the fingers of the bloodstained battle glove, but the weight held.
“How old are you?”
“Three and ten, Your Majesty.”
“Brawny for your age, eh? Or do you lie?”
Revas did lie, on occasion. If his father miswielded his crutch and accidentally toppled the water bucket, Revas swore he’d left the pail in the way. He also lied when he came home with a bloodied lip, not from a fall, as he told his father, but from fighting with the chandler’s son, who claimed Revas’s father had cut off his own leg and sold it for a mutton shank. Yes, Revas lied, but only when necessary.
The king rose. “Answer me, lad.”
Intimidated by the English monarch’s towering form, Revas glanced at the rich furnishings; yet his interest strayed from luxurious tapestries and tallow candles to the man who had vanquished the mighty Highland clans.
Swallowing back a lump the size of a gull’s egg, he said, “Nay, Your Majesty. I’m a good lad and true; ask anyone.”
The king began to pace. Rushes crunched beneath his heavy foot gear. “Do you aspire to greatness, Revas Macduff?”
“I honor my father, Your Majesty.”
“ ’Tis said you are of common stock.”
“Common?” The word came out as a squeak. Revas cleared his throat. “I haven’t a title, or spurs, or golden bands of war, Your Majesty.”
“But you’ve enough Scots pride to fill what’s left of Wales.”
He made it sound like an insult. Revas could think of no polite reply.
“Know you why I summoned you here?”
“Nay, Your Majesty.”
“Do you read?”
What an odd question. A butcher’s son had no need of a clerk’s skill. It was a low prank the king played, robbing a lad of his dignity. Royalty ought to behave better. But what could Revas do besides girdle his pride and bide his time? King Edward of England would grow bored and move on to other sport. Father had said so. Revas was too smart to be lulled into a trap, even a royal one. “Nay, Your Majesty. I do not read.”
“Just so. Well, Revas Macduff, it suits me to give you a wife and see you wed this day.”
Revas jerked back, his mind a mass of confusion. Was the king daft? “A wife?”
“And this castle, too. Think you can govern here?”
The wrong answer could mean further humiliation. “But what of Sheriff Brodie?”
“He will advise you, until you are old enough to hold this keep for me. What say you?”
Revas blurted, “Cutberth Macgillivray is the king of the Highlands. He will rally the clans of Chapling. They will storm these castle walls.”
The king made a fist and pounded the table so hard, the weights bounced off the map, and it snapped ba
A fearful Revas took two steps toward the hall door.
“Stay.” As quickly as it had come, the king’s anger fled. “And meet your bride.”
He left a gawking Revas and went to a side door. Opening it, the king said, “Come, lass.”
A ladies’ maid with carrot-colored hair tucked beneath a coif marched into the room. She was bonny in her own way. She was also old enough to have given birth to Revas. He couldn’t wed her. Surely it would be a sin.
She curtsied, then looked back into the doorway. A moment later, a young girl stepped forward.
Dumbstruck, Revas watched Meridene Macgillivray, the grand princess of the Highland folk, move toward him. Kings and queens and their get came and went, but since the sixth century, when Saint Columba brought Christianity to the Scots, her clan, in every generation, had bred a raven-haired, green-eyed daughter. The Maiden of Inverness.
Revered and cherished by the Scots, she, and only she, could crown her husband king of the Highlands.
But she was only eight years old. And she was a princess. Revas couldn’t marry her. Astounded, he glanced at the king.
“Comely, isn’t she?” He winked. “Or should I say she’s a bonny lass?”
Revas thought the term had been coined expressly for Meridene Macgillivray. She wore a bloodred surcoat over a bliaud of white fabric so sheer that he could see her skinny arms beneath. A border of five-petal flowers, the device of the Maiden, ringed the garment at her wrists and neck. Tied at her waist was a tartan sash, the bright red, blue, and green plaid worn only by the royal family of the Highlands. Her husband would one day don that special tartan.
According to the old wives, the Maiden sported a halo that shimmered with heavenly light. Not today. Meridene Macgillivray looked as if she would vomit her supper. Agony dazed her bright green eyes, and her fair complexion paled with illness. A bruise discolored the side of her face. Had the brutish king beaten her?
She raised a small hand to the discoloration on her cheek; then she blinked in fatigue.
Revas knew that if she didn’t sit down soon, she’d fall in a heap. No, he corrected, when this lass swooned she’d wilt gracefully, like a feather drifting to the floor.
He had to help her. He moved forward and, with practiced ease, pretended to step on something sharp. Yelping, he hobbled to cradle a foot.
“Have you no shoes, lad?” said the king.
“Nay, Your Majesty.” Still watching her closely and willing her to understand his ploy, Revas said, “I mean, yes, I have shoes, but only for church.”
“Not an audience with your king,” came the rueful murmur.
When she swayed, Revas said, “May we sit, Your Majesty?”
With a pained smile, the king waved toward a bench. “We’ll all sit.”
The king took the only chair. Revas helped her to the bench, then sat beside her.
“Thank you,” came her soft whisper. “I fear I’ll disgrace myself.”
“Nay. I’ll help you.”
“You’re very kind.”
She smelled of new linen washed in costly soap. She was just a girl, and some brute had beaten her. Revas wished he were older and skilled with a broadsword. He’d drag the bully into the yard and whack him to pieces.
“Have you nothing to say to me, Macduff?” asked the king.
Revas couldn’t resist looking at her again. Her black-as-night hair trailed down her back and pooled on the bench. Upon her marriage, she would wear a coronet of rowan leaves. Upon her wedding day, the lass of the Macgillivrays would demand her father’s sword. With the ceremonial weapon, she would dub her husband king of the Highlands.
“Do words escape you?” said the king of England.
“Nay, Your Majesty.” He caught the king’s gaze. “But the Maiden is betrothed to the earl of Moray’s heir, and her father wants an alliance with them.”
Sighing, Edward Plantagenet scratched his gray beard. “That match ill serves my plans for the future of Scotland. Marriage between the two of you pleases me greatly.”
“Nay!” wailed the red-haired serving woman.
At the king’s command, she blanched, then fumbled with the latch before dashing from the room.
“Wretched, ignorant Scots,” he murmured.
“But I cannot be king of the Highlands,” Revas confessed. “I’m but a butcher’s son.”
“Precisely.” The king leered, as if proud of himself. “You will wed this lass posthaste.”
Hadn’t he noticed the Maiden’s distress? “She’s hurt, Your Majesty.”
“Of course she’s hurt,” he bellowed, loud enough for the bishop in Nairn to hear. “Her wretched father beat her rather than see her wed to you. What say you, Revas Macduff, to that bit of deviltry?”
Small pearly teeth covered her bottom lip. Her flat chest quivered with sobs she struggled to control. Yet she held her chin high and her back stiff. The Maiden of Inverness. Here. Seated so close to Revas Macduff, he could feel her warmth.
Awe filled him, and years of loyalty to the ruling Macgillivrays colored his opinion. “But her father’s the king of the Highlands.”
The English king shot to his feet. The Maiden rose, too, but her footing was unsteady. Revas jumped up and took her arm.
“Cutberth Macgillivray is the king of nothing.” Plantagenet’s blue eyes widened, and making a fist, the king laid it across his own chest. “I rule here now, and if the dead you see are not proof enough, by Saint George, I’ll strike the battle again.”
The elders believed that England could lay claim to Scotland until the sea swallowed the land, but they’d never govern the Highlands. Revas thought of the blood-soaked battlefield, an hour’s ride away. Closer, evidence of England’s might was everywhere to see—bodies of clansmen had been piled high and even now awaited the torch; severed heads of a dozen clan chiefs stood on pikes at the city gates.
Revas shuddered at the waste of human life and Scottish dignity. Did the Maiden feel it too? So closed was her expression, he could not tell. Where were her clansmen?
“Where is her father?” he asked.
“In retreat,” growled the king. “Where all good cowards go. Now. I return to England today, but I command you to take this lass to wife and hold this castle for me.”
The notion of Revas Macduff wedding the legendary Maiden of Inverness was wild beyond belief. Governing Auldcairn Castle didn’t bear considering. He said the first thought that came to mind. “But she’s as weak as a lamb.”
Chuckling, Edward Plantagenet said, “And you’re as pure as she is, I’ll wager. Are there no willing wenches in Elginshire? Or are you too green yet to mount one and give her your all?”
The blow to his manhood was more than Revas could bear. He puffed out his chest. “I could’ve had the carter’s daughter.”
A girlish gasp of embarrassment followed his artless admission.
The king scoffed. “Perhaps I should have chosen the carter’s son to wed this girl. He would have done as well.”
“Revas,” she whispered. “You must not let him goad you into rebellion.”
The king laughed and reached for a goblet of ale. “Mayhap there’s a banked fire in you, butcher’s son.” He held up the cup in a mock salute; then he marched from the room. The door closed behind him, but his booming voice rang clear. “Summon a priest. The Maiden of Inverness will wed the butcher’s son.”
Laughter erupted in the hall.
Overwrought, Revas took her hand. It felt cold and small and soft. “I beg your forgiveness, Maiden.”
“ ’Twasn’t your fault, Revas.”
Although weak, her voice sounded like a spring breeze stirring the rowan trees. She looked up at him, her green ga
She eyed his worn tunic and mended hose. “We’re pawns, you know.”
“In wedding me to you, the English king ends the legend of the Maiden of Inverness. A butcher’s son cannot rule the Highlands.”
She seemed so mature. And defeated. He had to brighten her spirits. “But your mother could have another daughter.”
Tears pooled in her eyes. “She’ll have no more children. I fear she regrets giving birth to me.”
Revas felt his heart break. “Oh, nay. You’re too bonny. Surely she worships you. Everyone else in the Highlands does.”
A sad smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “You’re so innocent, Revas Macduff.”
He did feel like a child. Odd, for he was five years her senior, and a lad, too. He grasped a manly subject. “Your father eluded the English king.”
“Eluded?” She shook her head. “ ’Tis true that he retreated to the safety of the Black Isle.”
“Then how did you fall prey to the king?”
Her chin quivered. “My father and mother gave me to him.”
Revas could think of no fitting reply to the heartless act, so he asked about her home, her friends, and her favorite pastimes. She spoke freely until the side door opened, and a smallish man entered. He wore a short black surcoat, but he did not carry himself like a servant. In his hand he held a tankard.
In the blink of an eye, she assumed a queenly air. “Thomas, what do you here? If the English king sees you—”
“Shush!” The man came forward, his glinty eyes casting furtive glances from Revas to the door. “I’ve brought you a reviving drink, Lady Meridene.”
“Why did Moira not bring it?”
He shoved the mug into her hand. “She’s at other duties. Important duties. Here. ’Tis your favorite, barley water. Drink.”
The Maiden hesitated. Revas knew he should say something, but what?
Nudging her arm, the man said, “Moira’s readying your escape. You’ll need your strength for the journey home. You do wish to go home, do you not, my lady? Your mother sore misses you and awaits your return.”
Other author's books:
- The Border Series (Omnibus Edition)Chieftain
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