Maiden of inverness, p.13

Maiden of Inverness, page 13

 

Maiden of Inverness
 


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  When Revas and Meridene took their places, Randolph left the company of his adoring females and approached her.

  “My lady.” He bowed over her hand. “I am both happy and sad to make your acquaintance.”

  “Happy and sad? How can that be?”

  “I am happy that you have come home to us. Yet I am saddened if the change in residence displeases you.”

  Gallant words from another Highlander. Her perception of Scotsmen as war-hungry and despotic was proving faulty. For among the three of them, Randolph, Summerlad, and Revas possessed charm enough to spare.

  But Meridene saw through his twisting of words. “I shall remember your honesty.”

  He glanced at Revas. “Did I not face certain defeat at the sword arm of your husband, I would claim you for myself.”

  “Is that loyalty?” she countered.

  “Nay, ’twas flattery.”

  After the meal of suckling pig, barley pudding, and winter greens, which Father Thomas blessed with great ceremony, Revas invited Meridene to join him in a game of chess. Randolph and his admirers occupied the corner table. With the sheriff, the priest, and a dozen young noblemen looking on, Revas captured Meridene’s king in ten moves.

  Having nothing else to forfeit, she promised a second flower penny to him and surrendered her place at the table to Summerlad Macqueen. Serena took the spot beside her betrothed.

  “Sit with me.” Revas patted the empty space next to him on the bench. “You’ll be warmer here.”

  Had he said, “Sit here,” she could have declined gracefully. But by including himself in the accommodating request, she must either reject him in the presence of his friends or comply. Giving him high marks for strategy and silent praise for daring, she walked around the table. As she stepped over the bench, he offered his hand and helped her sit.

  Quietly he said, “Is Ellen sleepy, or on the verge of a swoon?”

  Meridene glanced at the corner where Randolph Macqueen was holding forth. Elbows on the table, their chins propped in their palms, both Ellen and Lisabeth looked exhausted. “They’ve had a busy day.”

  “Aye. Especially Ellen.”

  Serena murmured, “Adoring Summerlad’s brother is exhausting work.”

  “What about adoring me?” Summerlad said.

  Revas pointed a finger. “We’ll have no lovers’ talk here.”

  Meridene had found the perfect excuse to retire. “I’ll send the girls to bed.”

  Serena stood up. “Please, my lady, allow me to do it. If Ellen doesn’t turn down your bed and Lisabeth doesn’t set out your nightrail, they’ll fret for days, thinking they’ve disappointed you.”

  More ceremony, thought Meridene, and everyone at the table awaited her concession.

  Revas leaned very close and said, “I’d be willing to turn down your bed and undress you.”

  More seduction. “That’s lovers’ talk.”

  “Will you fall in love with me, Meridene?”

  Words failed her.

  With a parting smile to Summerlad, Serena roused the girls. Blinking off sleep, they trudged from the room.

  Glancing at the young men Revas fostered, Meridene saw understanding and approval in their expressions. Whatever their expectations of an evening with Revas and his bride, they were obviously satisfied.

  Their acceptance of her position was to be expected, but their comradeship surprised her. When first she’d spied this room, with its wall of Highland regalia, she had diminished its significance as ambitious decor. But as she scanned the room, she saw a Forbes man dicing amiably with a Highland Mackenzie. Near the hearth, a Grant lad strummed a harp while a Macgregor sang the words to a song about a shepherd’s daughter and a wolfish suitor. Was she witnessing honest Scottish camaraderie? Was Auldcairn Castle truly a Community of the Realm?

  The term still puzzled her. Everyone knew that Scotland would never enjoy peace, not unless the island cracked and England fell off the edge of the earth. That, or all of the clans united permanently.

  Again she looked up at the wall. Matching face to symbol, she paired the Mackenzie lad with the shield bearing the stag. The singing Macgregor belonged to the emblem with the lion’s head. Through marriage, Serena would bind the upland Macqueens to the midland Camerons.

  The fortunate girl had found love in her betrothal. But if the past was a harbinger of the future, tragedy awaited. Highland women always lost their men, if not through war, then through duty, for they first answered the call of clansmen. Serena appeared untainted by Scottish politics now; Meridene had been ill used by the clans and estranged for too long to care.

  The serving maid approached the table, a small keg under her arm. With a wave of his hand, Revas declined.

  “Have you lost your taste for Macqueen’s best?” Summerlad asked.

  Earlier today, Revas had overindulged of the ale. He must have lost his fondness for it; he’d taken water with the meal.

  Sagelike, he spoke to Summerlad. “Heed me well, lad. If you ever down a pint of that brew and then have the poor judgment to engage in an argument with a woman, you deserve the tongue-lashing you’ll get.”

  The men laughed. The serving girl giggled. When Revas slid Meridene a smile, she fought a blush of embarrassment.

  Like Revas with his young charges, Sister Margaret had often sat at the table and given advice to Meridene, Johanna, and Clare. But her lessons involved stewardship of the land and governance of the people.

  “You bested Revas at words?” Summerlad asked of her.

  Not in years had Meridene sat amid a room of men who discussed her. But her father, Moray, and old King Edward had looked upon her as property. These people treated her as an equal participant.

  She felt beholden to respond in kind. “It was no real feat, Summerlad,” she said. “The brew encumbered his wits.”

  From his spot in the corner, Randolph slapped the table and declared, “Be it with ale or good mother’s milk, women always best men at words.”

  “Truly?” Summerlad asked, his face blank with uncertainty.

  Revas looked down at Meridene. “Always,” he said, but she knew he didn’t mean it. Too often he tricked her with words.

  “Then if you gentlemen will excuse me, I shall withdraw while I’m still victorious.” Standing, she held out her hand. “I should like to write the names of my handmaidens in the Covenant.”

  He must yield the key or make their conflict public. A quandary; his second favorite pastime, or so he had said. “Your namesake began that tradition with her handmaidens.”

  To her relief, he yielded the key. Meridene went to his chamber, and by the light of a brace of candles, she read the book until she found the reference to the flower pennies.

  I am Eleanor, the tenth Maiden of Inverness, and I stand chained to the wall in the dungeon of my husband’s enemy.

  Blinking back tears, Meridene read the true account of what had become a fairy tale. Poor Eleanor. She’d been with child at the time of her abduction. During her captivity, she made a promise to God. If she was freed and her babe delivered safely, she would relinquish the title of Maiden. True to her word, Eleanor had complied, and to Meridene’s dismay, one hundred years passed before another woman took up a quill and revived the legend of the Maiden.

  “My lady?” Serena stood in the doorway.

  Still caught up in the past and eager to get back to it, Meridene dashed away a tear. “Yes?”

  “You must be reading about poor Eleanor,” Serena said.

  Meridene closed the book. “I was indeed.”

  As if to hold in her own sorrow, Serena hugged herself. “How could she give up so much?”

  Because she’d been taken away from her home, same as Meridene. She’d been alone and frightened. “She had few choices.”

  “Women fare better today.”

  Some did, Meridene was forced to admit. Serena was content with her lot. One of a thousand questions niggled at Meridene. Learning the answers meant delving into the li
ves of these people. She risked forming affections that an annulment would break. She wanted no more memories of this place to haunt her; enough demons plagued her life.

  Yet tonight she couldn’t summon the will to resist. “How did you come to be a handmaiden?”

  Grasping the invitation, Serena took the chair opposite Meridene. “My father allowed me to put forth my name. Many other girls wanted to be chosen. But I was the lucky one.”

  “How old were you?”

  “Eleven.”

  The answer posed more questions. Serena was one and twenty. A decade ago, Revas had set in motion the events that had changed the future of the Macqueens and the Camerons. He’d been but ten and six at the time. Baffled by his youthful ambition and fearful of the consequences, Meridene felt the first real doubt in her convictions. What if he refused to let her go? What would her father do?

  Troubled anew, she retreated to the safe company of Serena, who more each day reminded her of Johanna Benison. The loss of that precious friendship sparked a need in Meridene that begged to be filled. “How many girls have expressed an interest in your position?”

  “Let’s see.” Rising, Serena walked out of the circle of candlelight and returned with a small whitewashed keg. She placed it on the floor before Meridene and pulled off the top.

  Inside were swatches of cloth in every fabric and color: green silks and heavy damasks, soft wools and even a square of butter-soft leather. Some had purposefully frayed edges; others were painstakingly hemmed with blindman stitches; still others were finished with elaborate borders.

  Serena rummaged through the barrel and came up with a square of plaid fabric. “Here. This is Summerlad’s sister’s piece. See? Her name is embroidered in the center.”

  In looping script, the word “Lili” stood out sharply against the boxlike plaid.

  Stunned, Meridene stared at the overflowing barrel.

  “Revas picks from one of these. Well,” Serena demurred, “he used to do the picking. He said you would choose the one to take my place.”

  “You’d like me to pick Lili Macqueen?”

  Serena took the small cloth and held it closer to the light. “Her needlework is passable, but she’s five and ten. A younger lass will stay with you longer.”

  Stay. The word gave Meridene a chill, and though her heart had ceased pounding like thunder, she could not suppress her anticipation.

  “When will you draw the name?” Serena asked.

  Revas had not mentioned an exact date, and making the decision herself gave Meridene’s independent nature a much-needed boost. “On Saturday after Vespers. You may spread the word.”

  Serena held the cloth of the Macqueens to her breast. “Summerlad wants us to wed on Whitsunday.”

  May was just weeks away. “So soon?”

  “ ’Tis an eternity. Randolph says we must wait until the Macqueens harvest their fields.”

  “What will you do?”

  Her eyes twinkled. “I’ll offer him a tankard of his own ale and broach the argument. He says men always lose to women. And Revas got a tongue-lashing from you.”

  “Good luck.”

  Her course set, Serena dropped the cloth into the barrel and returned it to the corner. On her way to the door, she paused.

  “Was there something else?” Meridene asked.

  “Nay. Revas asked me to look in on you.”

  Probably to see if she’d made kindling of the Covenant. “You may tell him that I am fine.”

  Now tentative, Serena stared at her feet. “Did you truly write my name in the book?”

  Meridene hadn’t yet; she’d been too engrossed in the tragedy of poor Eleanor. “I will on the morrow.”

  “Oh, thank you.” She curtsied and dashed from the room.

  Meridene opened the book and turned the page.

  I am the Maiden Catherine and newly acquainted with the office. The year is 1174, and our beloved king, William the Lion, has been captured by Henry II of England and forced to acknowledge him as overlord of Scotland.

  While renovating her husband’s castle, the bride Catherine had found the Covenant sealed in a space behind a niche in the solar wall. With the ancient book, she discovered a fine golden belt. To preserve them for future generations, she copied the chronicles to heavy vellum and polished the chain of office.

  For almost two decades, the Maiden Catherine acquitted herself with honor, and in 1189, the year she passed the Covenant to her daughter, Scotland had recovered her independence.

  Meridene sighed. The lives of her ancestors were fraught with war, kidnappings, and hard-won ransom.

  “You look unhappy.”

  She gasped in alarm. Revas stood in the doorway.

  “How long have you been watching me?”

  Moving into the room, he stopped before her. “Not long enough.”

  Her hands curled around the book. “I thought you would be with one of your women.”

  His brows rose, and with sheer determination, he said, “I am with my woman.”

  Flustered, she sprang to her feet and returned the Covenant to the pedestal. Her feelings for Revas were twisted with her hatred for a family who had yanked her from the nursery, given her to an enemy king, poisoned her, then abandoned her.

  War, kidnapping, and ransom.

  “I’ll just say good night.” She tried to move around him.

  He caught her arm. “I’ve often wondered how I could make a place for you here—where we live the simple, country life. Now I—”

  “Wait.” Freeing herself, she held up a hand. “Our marriage will be annulled. Thank you for the flower pennies. Good night.”

  To cut off a reply, she left the room and hurried to her own. After locking her door, she took a drink of water and sat on the bed.

  Just when her heart stopped racing, the lock clicked. Revas threw open the door and marched inside. Covering the distance between them in three long strides, he towered over her.

  “You are mistaken and rude to interrupt a man to accuse him of a blunder he has yet to commit.”

  “I knew what you would say.”

  “Enlighten me.”

  He wanted another intimate discussion. She didn’t want to know him well enough to share her opinions. “No.”

  “Accuse me or acquit me.”

  He looked tired and overwrought and eager for a confrontation. Knowing he’d win, she again capitulated. “I knew you would try to cajole me into liking this ghastly land of warriors and petty kings.”

  “Wrong. I had intended to say that I have stopped wondering how I could make a place for you here, because I decided ’twas best if you did that for yourself.”

  How could he hand her her independence, then take it back? “You are generous to a fault.”

  “I also came to tell you that Leslie has departed with your letter to the pope.” He handed her a leather purse. “And I wanted to give you money of your own.”

  Coins chinked in the bag. “Thank you.”

  “Rest well, Meridene.” He strolled from the room, but did not lock the door.

  Too discomfited to sleep, she went to her loom, but the tapestry was almost finished and the repetitious work bored her. She needed the challenge of starting a new piece. But on what theme, and would she be here long enough to finish it?

  After breaking the thread twice and stabbing her finger, she gave up the effort and went to her desk. With quill and ink she began to sketch.

  The effort relaxed her, and before she’d finished the design, she yawned. Satisfied that she’d committed enough of her idea to paper, Meridene went to bed. As she closed her eyes, she thought of the Maiden Eleanor, chained to a dungeon wall in the castle of her enemy.

  * * *

  “Revas!”

  Dragging himself from sleep, Revas opened his eyes. Serena stood over him, a lighted candle in her hand, her long red hair in disarray.

  Alarmed, he sat up. “What’s amiss, lass? Has Summerlad—”

  “ ’Tis Lady M
eridene. She’s screaming in her sleep. I tried to rouse her, but she would not awaken.”

  Revas almost sprang from the bed, but remembered he was naked beneath the covers. “Fetch a cup of Macqueen’s ale and bring it to her room. I’ll meet you there.”

  “Aye. In a trice.”

  “Tell no one about this, Serena. We cannot have everyone whispering about her troubled sleep. She’s been cloistered in England, you know.”

  “Wretched monsters. I hate them all.” Cupping her hand around the candle flame, Serena hurried from the room.

  Revas bounded from the bed and drew on his breeches and slippers. As he snatched a cloak from the wall peg, he thought of Meridene’s fitful dreams on the ship. He hadn’t been able to comfort her then. Now he could.

  Making little sound, he hurried down the hall, past Brodie’s room and down the steps. He eased open the squat door leading to her apartment. The drapings were open and the glow of the brazier shed faint light on the bed and its occupant.

  She thrashed and moaned and cried, “Nay, nay. I want to stay with you. Do not let them take me, Mother.” She thrust out her arm, her fingers grasping for the hand that was not there. “Mother!” she wailed.

  The sound of her cries went straight to Revas’s heart. He raked back the covers and climbed into bed. Dodging her flailing arms, he wrapped her in his own. “Shush, Meridene,” he whispered, struggling to hold her still. “Shush, sweet lass. All will be well.”

  “Please don’t make me go with the king.” She clung to him, her fingers clutching in a death grip. “I’ll be good. I promise I’ll be good. I swear I’ll never touch your sword again, Papa.”

  She jerked as if struck. Her pleas turned to sobs and her hands relaxed as if she were defeated. “Oh, Papa,” she moaned.

  Damn Cutberth Macgillivray. What decent parents could ignore the entreaty of their own child? They’d left her with a legacy of fear. Ripping apart an innocent girl’s life had not been villainy enough; they had also spoiled a woman’s dreams.

  Her skin felt damp and her braid had begun to unravel. Holding her tighter, he scooted to the head of the bed and rocked her. “Meridene?”

 
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