Maiden of inverness, p.10

Maiden of Inverness, page 10

 

Maiden of Inverness
 


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  “I never wanted to take you by force, Meridene. But Ana said you had turned against me.”

  She hadn’t truly forsaken the lad Revas had been. To the contrary, his sweet concern had helped her through the hardest day of her life. But that was then.

  To change the subject, she said, “What do you do when not engaged in kidnapping?”

  His eyes shone with glee at her inquiry. Eager to set him straight, she said, “Take no softhearted meaning, Revas. It was merely an attempt to make conversation.”

  “None taken, Meridene.” He mocked her serious tone. “I trade wool, timber, and hides to Flanders in exchange for foodstuffs, iron, and salt.”

  She pointed to the noisy barracks. “You also command an army.”

  “When I must. At present I foster a number of Highland sons. By sponsoring them, I make alliances and avoid war,” he said civilly, ignoring her gibe.

  Dodging a blow, she thought, was the better description of his methods. But she was forced to admit that he had managed the Macqueen lad with the skill of a diplomat. Her brothers would have fought to exhaustion or injury—all in defense of bruised pride.

  “My father died before I united the clans.”

  Thirteen years ago, during their short time together, he had spoken often and fondly of his father. She shouldn’t feel sorry for him. In a sense, she’d lost both of her parents, all of her family and friends, yet she had survived. “What of the Macgillivrays? You have not brought them into your fold.”

  He wagged a finger at her and chuckled. “Careful, Meridene. One might think you harbor an interest in Scottish politics.”

  She bristled and pulled the cloak tighter around her. “I loathe Scottish politics.”

  “So do I,” he said meaningfully.

  “Ha!”

  “Truly. I’d rather watch armor rust.”

  “You a peaceful Scot? That’s a contrary notion.”

  He dropped an arm around her shoulder. When she tried to draw away, he pulled her to his side and whispered, “Spoken by one who is well versed on contrariness.”

  He’d all but named her a shrew, which was particularly odd, since he was holding her in an unbreakable embrace. “You’re to blame, Revas.”

  He gave her a gentle squeeze and let her go. “I know. Just do not teach Serena your ill humor. Summerlad likes her as she is.”

  That brought to mind a question, and for the first time Meridene could quote the Covenant, Maiden and verse. “According to the book, Serena is old to serve as a handmaiden.”

  “True,” he said. “But I could not follow every tenet, else I would have come for you years ago.”

  “How?” she challenged. “Without the loose tongue of Drummond Macqueen, you never would have found me.”

  “I paid men to look for you, but the old king hid you too well. Still, I would have found you.”

  To her profound surprise, the admission that he had looked for her warmed Meridene. Frightened by the feeling, she struck out with words. “So Ana wasn’t your only spy. She was simply the most treacherous.”

  “Did you know that in Elginshire lots are drawn for the honor of serving as handmaiden? I know, ’tis not in the book, but since you weren’t here to select them, we had to make do.”

  He could keep improvising until angels perched in the mews. She wanted no part of it. “What an inventive solution,” she said, meaning nothing of the sort.

  “On the occasion that Serena’s name was drawn, Ana Sutherland had been among the unfortunate.”

  “I sense that you think I should sympathize with her.”

  He paused at the corner of the barracks and scanned the castle wall. “The sum of it is, Serena will be leaving service. Since you are newly arrived and unfamiliar with the people, you will have to draw another girl’s name. Will you do so in good humor?”

  According to Serena, the first handmaidens in Elginshire had been chosen twelve years ago. Since then, some girls had married and been replaced. That baffled Meridene, for without hope that she would be found, Revas had carried on the tradition of the Maiden.

  Tradition be damned. “I have a better solution,” she said. “The next time you draw names, pick yourself another wife.”

  Evidently satisfied that marauders would not scale the castle wall, he started walking again. “Serena is to become a wife. She and Summerlad wish to marry. Her father and his brother have come to accord, and the betrothal is set.”

  That bit of information piqued Meridene’s curiosity, for Serena had said nothing on the subject. “Drummond Macqueen’s brother is marrying a weaver’s daughter? I’m surprised he would choose a girl of common birth.”

  His mouth twitched at the words “common birth.” He probably thought she referred to him. Hooray for her.

  “Serena Cameron is not of common birth. Her father is the earl of Clyde. Her family weaves the finest cloth in Perwickshire. She’s an heiress.”

  Meridene’s own servants possessed more wealth than she. I am Meridene, the first Maiden of Inverness. Her own legacy was not one of coin, but of mettle and intelligence, leadership and honor.

  “What troubles you?”

  The devil with leading Scots and honoring clan wars.

  “Has Serena been unkind or rude?”

  If Serena Cameron had willingly become a handmaiden, then the legend of the Maiden was celebrated by the Camerons. But they were midland Scots and traditionally content to leave the Highlanders to their petty wars. Had Revas truly expanded his dream of peace to a shire so far to the south?

  “Has she behaved poorly?” Revas asked again. “Tell me and I will discipline her and write to her mother.”

  “Nay, Serena is overeager. Does her father swear fealty to you?”

  “Only to unify Scotland against England and any other nation that threatens our sovereignty. ’Tis a different sort of alliance. The chieftains now regularly exchange correspondence. Soon we hope to establish a system for delivering messages between all peoples of all cities.”

  “But your alliance is based on defense.”

  With a promise in his voice, he said, “We will unite against a common foe.”

  He did indeed rule the Highlands and more. The extent of his power grew with every conversation.

  They arrived at the chapel, and Meridene repeated her wish that the priest return early. Disappointment awaited her when Revas escorted her inside, for the church was empty.

  “Do you remember this place?” he whispered.

  Twin rows of wooden pews flanked the carpeted aisle. The altar and its ancient trappings gleamed in the torchlight. She and Revas had exchanged wedding vows before that very altar. The priest had been hesitant to marry them so young, especially when Meridene had been too ill to stand alone. But the will of King Edward I had prevailed. With a hand at her waist, Revas had helped her kneel, assisted her to her feet, and offered encouraging smiles throughout the ceremony.

  Would the priest take her side again? Riddled with uncertainty, she retrieved her rosary from her purse.

  “Wait,” Revas said. From a niche in the wall near the poor box, he withdrew a small pouch. “Here.”

  The pouch had been stitched by Ailis, Meridene’s grandmother, and it housed an ancient and mismatched rosary. Meridene remembered it well, for she had begged her mother to let her pray with it. She could not bring herself to touch it now, not in the house of God and not with deception in her heart.

  “You keep it, Revas,” she said. “For I tell you truly, I am smothered by so much ceremony.”

  Sadness filled his eyes. “ ’Twill be here when you change your mind.” He returned the purse to the niche.

  She anointed herself with holy water and genuflected. After Revas did the same, they started down the aisle.

  “Have you the same priest?” she asked.

  “Nay. Father Clarence was called to Rome.”

  He helped her kneel, then went about his prayers. She couldn’t help peeking up at him. Head bowed, his hands cl
asped, he looked like an archangel. His fair hair, damp from the evening air, gave the impression of a halo. He must have felt her gaze, for he smiled and turned slightly toward her.

  When he opened his eyes, she felt bathed in admiration, and her heart tripped in response. Her rosary slipped from her hands and landed, in an explosion of sound, on the stone floor. They both reached down at the same moment, and their shoulders touched. He retrieved her rosary, and taking one of her hands, he let the beads fall into her palm. He leaned closer, until his forehead rested against hers. His eyes drifted shut, and he tilted his head to the side and kissed her.

  His lips were soft and supple, as before, but this kiss contained a wealth of sensations that went beyond racing hearts and rushing breaths. It was as if he were trying to draw out her soul and commune with her very spirit, and like a bird too long in captivity, she stood on the threshold of her cage, but could not seek the freedom he offered.

  He pulled back, his eyes clouded with confusion. “I cannot keep my mind on prayer.” Then he gathered his composure. “I’ll await you outside.”

  So profound was her sense of loss that she almost called him back. But what could she say? That she had forgiven him for ripping her life apart? That she was happy to be in a land of monsters?

  He could have sent her a message, rather than stealing her away in the dark of night. They could have exchanged letters. He might have asked her to return. But she wouldn’t have come, and he knew that. He hadn’t bothered with sweet words and the ritual of courting. He had not cared that she was frightened. He wanted a sword and a kingdom, and only she could provide him with both.

  Sadness overwhelmed her, and she bowed her head and prayed for an end to her misery. When the pain eased, she dried her tears and walked out of the church.

  Revas sat on the steps. He rose quickly, and from the smile on his face, she decided his mood had also lightened.

  Pretending that the deeply emotional experience had not occurred, she said, “Who is your priest?”

  “Father Thomas, the younger son of the duke of Ross.”

  That man’s holdings were vast by anyone’s standards. At the time Meridene left Scotland, His Grace had ruled even the Western Isles. “Is the duke of Ross an ally?”

  “A most staunch ally. Your handmaiden, Ellen, is his favorite granddaughter.”

  Meridene groaned inside, for if what he said was true, the extent of her husband’s influence knew no boundaries. “I suppose Lisabeth is also an heiress.”

  “Oh, nay. Lisabeth’s father is the miller, but she will be valued as a princess when her service is done. Same as the others before her, she will receive a dowry for her service.”

  Meridene had heard enough for one night. To her relief, Revas was also content to walk in silence. Until they passed the barracks.

  He stopped abruptly, listening, his eyes scanning the wall. When his gaze fell on the battlement near the main gate, he said a quiet curse. “Wait here.”

  Making little sound, he climbed the steps leading to the wall. Moving swiftly on the high walkway, he passed beneath the intermittent torches, ignoring the sentries as he went. When he reached the main gate, he disappeared into a darkened barbican.

  A feminine shriek rent the air.

  In the next instant, a cloaked figure burst from the enclosure and into the torchlight. It was Serena, her red hair gleaming like copper. Summerlad followed, his muted tartan unmistakable. Then came Revas. A very angry Revas.

  In single file, the three marched along the wall and down the steps. At the base, Revas stopped and addressed the couple. He spoke too softly for Meridene to understand the words, but the reprimand in his voice was clear.

  Serena looked so forlorn, Meridene approached them.

  “What’s amiss?” she said.

  Revas glowered at Summerlad. “I fear Serena needs a protector.”

  The young man’s features were frozen in indignation. “We are betrothed, Revas,” he said.

  “That does not give you the right to anticipate your vows.”

  Shocked, Meridene said, “You mean he would dishonor her?”

  “He’s too young and randy to see it as that,” Revas replied. “I’m certain he thinks to honor her with his lusty attentions.”

  He sounded so wise and so outraged—an oddity, considering he had reclaimed by force his own unwilling wife.

  “ ’Tis not all his fault, Revas,” Serena pleaded. “He did not carry me up those stairs. I went to him willingly, and I’m still a virgin. I swear on my wicked soul.”

  Revas rounded on Summerlad. “No thanks to you.”

  “I only kissed her,” came the grumbling reply.

  Serena began to cry. At the sight of her tears, Meridene drew the girl aside and clutched her hands. “Worry not. You’re to be married.”

  Between sobs, she said, “You must be completely disappointed in me. But Summerlad and I have waited forever.”

  “How long have you been betrothed?”

  “Five years. We’ve only held hands. But then you came back, and . . .”

  “And now you can be wed.”

  “Aye. Unless Revas tells Randolph.”

  She sounded fearful, and Meridene’s heart went out to her. “Who is Randolph?”

  Her breath shaking, Serena said, “He’s Summerlad’s older brother and chieftain of the Macqueens. He was against the betrothal because I’m a lowland Scot. But I love Summerlad, and my father likes the match. Revas did also.”

  “Shush,” Meridene said. “One kiss will not change his mind.”

  “Truly? Will you talk to him?”

  Under the circumstances, she had to agree. But when she turned to him, words died on her lips.

  Once a butcher’s barefoot son, Revas Macduff now stood, hands on his hips, his considerable wrath directed at an unrepentant lad of noble birth.

  “If I see you within sword’s length of Serena before your vows are said, I will come after you. Do you understand?”

  Summerlad’s blue eyes widened in alarm. “I’m no match for you. You’ll force me to yield.”

  Revas flung an arm toward Serena. “What did you ask of her?” he spat. “I will not let her fall to your winsome ways. She is a fair flower of Scotland. You will tend her, for she has given you leave to rule her life.”

  “I will husband her well.”

  “By God, Summerlad, you have stooped low. ’Tis a blessing Randolph is not here to witness your fall from grace.”

  Completely shamed, the young Macqueen stared at his boots.

  Revas sighed and in a lighter tone said, “ ’Tis for certain you love her well, lad. Everyone knows ’tis true. What will you do now?”

  So quietly his words sounded like a prayer, Summerlad said, “I beg your pardon, and henceforth, I will honor her. On that you have my word as a Macqueen.”

  Revas slapped the lad on the back. “Well said, and we’ll seal that bargain with a tankard of the brewer’s best. Go along. I’ll join you there shortly.”

  Summerlad headed for the tavern. Revas approached Meridene and Serena. Smiling fondly at the girl, he brushed her hair from her face. “How fare you, lassie mine?”

  “Oh, Revas.” She flew into his arms, and he held her, rocking from side to side, his big hand cradling her head on his shoulder.

  “Fret not, sweeting,” he murmured. “What has occurred here will stay with us.”

  Meridene was reminded of another heartsick girl he had comforted long ago. He’d been rail-thin and his voice had warbled with youth. His honest concern had seasoned with age.

  “I’m so ashamed,” Serena cried. “And I do so want to be a goodwife.”

  His gaze fell on Meridene. She saw tenderness there and something else. As if speaking to her, he said, “There’s more to being a goodwife than meaningful kisses in the dark of night.”

  CHAPTER

  6

  Two evenings later, Meridene sat at her desk and pressed her seal on a letter to Sister Margaret. Afte
r telling the nun of Revas’s abduction, Meridene assured her she was well. In closing she had asked for assistance in fleeing both her husband and the dangers of Scottish intrigue.

  She hadn’t seen Revas since Wednesday night. According to Sheriff Brodie, her husband had gone a-hunting.

  She hoped he fell off his horse and landed in a bush of nettles. The wretch had secured his chamber door, and none of the castle keys would spring the lock.

  I cannot allow you to take the book.

  Splendid. Deciphering the Covenant of the Maiden would wait. Understanding Revas Macduff would challenge the brightest Oxford mind. One moment he acted the caring gallant by rescuing Serena from Summerlad. The next, he left without a word to his wife.

  His absence thrilled her beyond measure. Her anger stemmed not from a wayward husband, but from a cowardly priest. Even now, her hands clenched and her eyes narrowed at the memory of her meeting earlier today with Father Thomas.

  Overly tall and thin, with brown hair perfectly tonsured and a beard so neatly trimmed, a servant had surely done it, Father Thomas had towered over her. If his place in the clergy weren’t influential enough, he had the powerful duke of Ross behind him. Revas had chosen well and wisely in picking this man for his priest.

  After denying her request to petition the pope for an annulment, the goodly Father Thomas had ordered her to confess her wifely lapse to Revas Macduff.

  She had flatly refused to obey him. “No kind priest would make such a demand of a woman concerning her husband.”

  “Tell him, Lady Meridene, else I will.”

  “In your capacity as a messenger of God? I think not. You base your decisions on the needs of Scotland.”

  His gaze slid to a statue of the Madonna. “God has chosen Scotsmen to serve. He meant for us to honor our kinsmen, else he would have summoned only Romans to tend his Christian flocks.”

  Meridene had chuckled at his attempt to use religious justification for pure deviltry.

  “My lady!” The girl Ellen skipped into the room and twirled in a circle. Meridene gladly put aside the disheartening memory of the pious Father Thomas.

  “They’ve returned, Lady Meridene,” Ellen chirped. “And you’ll never guess who’s standing in our very own stables at this very exact moment.”

 
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