Maiden of inverness, p.15

Maiden of Inverness, page 15

 

Maiden of Inverness
 


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  As she walked through the village, the purse of marks and flower pennies slapping against her thigh, Meridene tried to remember similar excursions in Daviot, the city that stood hard by her father’s castle. But she’d been small at the time and unable to see past the armed escort that always surrounded the members of her family.

  In Elginshire, every day brought some new happening, some challenge to meet. Men did not cast furtive glances her way. Women did not gaze in sympathy at the lonely girl who longed to play with the others her age.

  The people of the village called out greetings and asked after her health. She spoke to old women and young, to children both bold and shy.

  The stubborn ass nudged the red-haired girl into the mud. Her brother gallantly helped her up and dried her tears. For his kindness, Meridene awarded him a flower penny.

  A burst of boyish pride squared his shoulders. “I’ll be the best man o’ the Highlands when I grow up.”

  As if she were looking at a jeweled crown rather than a wooden coin, his sister peered into his hand. So endearing was the girl’s awe, Meridene handed over another penny.

  Passing the laundry, she heard Serena informing the maids of the drawing on Saturday next to choose a new handmaiden.

  Meridene grappled with her conscience over the upcoming event, for she dreaded giving the impression that she intended to stay. But Revas knew of her determination to end the legend, and after reading the Covenant, he must agree that only misery visited the Maidens of Inverness.

  Resolved that the Highlands would carry on without her, Meridene continued her search for Sim. It ended at the carpenter’s shop, where the steward stood over a table and, with the craftsman, examined a drawing.

  She paused in the doorway.

  “Remember who the bed is for,” the steward said. “Revas cannot have his feet dangling off the end.”

  The carpenter nodded. A hail of wood shavings drifted from his hair and shoulders. “I’ll fashion it after the Maiden’s bed. He said ’twas fair perfect for him.”

  She grew uneasy at the thought of Revas in her bed, and that he had commissioned it to accommodate his larger frame. An ambitious move that was doomed to failure, for he’d never join her in it. Still it offended her to hear these men discussing her bed. In thirteen years at Scarborough Abbey, Sister Margaret had seldom mentioned Meridene’s personal effects, and only then to remind her to tidy her room.

  “No fanciness,” Sim was saying. “Remember, ’tis for a hunting lodge.”

  “Aye. Revas said he needed no canopy or carvings.”

  Meridene stepped into the shop.

  The carpenter straightened. “My lady. May I help you?”

  “I wish to discuss a loom.”

  He pulled a face and glanced at the drawing. “But there’s to be tables and benches and shutters for the Halt.”

  Same as all the people of Elginshire, he spoke English, but his words confused her. “The what?”

  Sim grew nervous. “The uh . . .”

  “Revas’s new hunting lodge,” said the carpenter. “He calls it Macduff’s Halt.”

  The job was obviously of such great import to him, she felt bound to say, “Macduff’s Halt. What an inventive name.” She hoped the property shared a border with the Holy Land.

  Sim rolled up the drawing and tucked it under his arm.

  The carpenter put away his tools. “ ’Tis where his patience ends.”

  Past her own limit of patience, Meridene admitted defeat. “Good sir, I merely wanted to discuss a loom for me and a bridal chest for Serena. Trouble yourself no more about my loom, but build the chest at your first opportunity and deliver it to Serena.”

  “You’re certain, my lady?” asked the carpenter.

  Meridene edged toward the open door. “Truly. Sim will tell you that I as yet have a tapestry in my loom. Oh, Sim, we’ll meet tomorrow morning to discuss the accounts. Will you ask Cook to serve the ham tonight—and the barley soup, if it has not spoiled?”

  Not waiting for a reply, she eased out the door and into the sunshine. Her discomfiture puzzled her, for she did not consider herself shy or retiring. The men were discussing work. They did not know she sought an annulment. The fault lay with her. She simply wasn’t accustomed to so many strangers and laypeople.

  From the pie house someone yelled, “My lady.”

  Turning, she saw a squatty fellow with a pale beard as thick as lamb’s wool. Only slightly taller than she, he wore a long woollen tunic belted with a wide strip of leather that held a short axe and wedge.

  He doffed his cap. “I walked past the carpenter’s shop and heard you asking after a loom.”

  Compared to the carpenter’s halting speech, this man’s good diction was a welcome relief. “Yes. I am in need of one.”

  “I’m a wheelwright by trade, but I’ve built many fine looms for my kinswomen.”

  She should have known that a village as large as Elginshire would support more than one carpenter, but she’d lived in isolation for too long. “Where is your shop?”

  “Aberdeen’s my home. I work from my wagon.” He motioned her to the path beside the chandler’s shop. “I thought to leave Elginshire today, but for you, my lady, I’ll linger.”

  His accommodating manner didn’t surprise her; everyone in the village was eager to please. Well, almost everyone.

  From her basket, she withdrew the measuring strings she’d prepared earlier. “It’s to be as long as the white thread and as wide as the brown. How soon can you build it?”

  He took the coarsely spun cords in his callused right hand. His left palm was oddly smooth—a condition peculiar to wheelwrights, she decided.

  “Two days, do I find the proper wood.”

  At the current wage of a penny for a day’s labor, the price was more than fair. “It must be crafted of aged oak,” she warned, “with the edges smooth and the surface free of oil. Should you deliver as we have agreed, I will give you an extra coin.”

  “Thank you, my lady. Trust me to make you a loom you’ll be proud to pass on to the next Maiden.”

  Not likely, she thought, and bade him good-bye. She had yet to visit the mercer and select the thread. On her way there, she passed the church, but did not look inside the open doors. A corrupted priest interested her not at all.

  In the noisy weaver’s shop, an older woman greeted her. Meridene’s list of supplies was well received, until she mentioned the need for red thread.

  The weaver’s wife tapped her chin. “Gibby’ll have the red dye. She’s the best at leeching the color from rowan berries.”

  Meridene couldn’t remember hearing the name Gibby before, but she’d met so many new people, she doubted she’d ever remember them all. “Where can I find this Gibby?”

  The portly weaver stepped between them. “I’ll be after finding the lass. We’ll have your thread tomorrow.”

  His manner was anxious, but Meridene did not question it. Her most pressing errands done, she made her way back to the castle proper.

  The small round structure that housed her apartment was dwarfed by the twin towers of Auldcairn. Through the open windows of her solar, she saw Ellen bent over the loom and working vigorously on the tapestry for Drummond Macqueen’s wife. Serena sat on a pallet near the ring of budding rowans, but the girl did not tend the trees; her attention was fixed on the tiltyard and Summerlad Macqueen. A crowd had gathered to watch.

  Steel slammed against steel as the distinctive young warrior battled a formidable opponent. Who was the slender, taller man? Not Brodie, for the sheriff stood nearby in the company of a group of men who wore the colors of Clan Forbes.

  Curious and hesitant to leave the warm sunshine, Meridene changed direction and approached the tiltyard and joined the crowd.

  Young Summerlad acquitted himself admirably, but his more experienced opponent proved relentless. As the latter came on strong, Summerlad stumbled. A feminine scream sounded behind Meridene, and in the next instant, Serena raced into the yard.
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  As the girl knelt and fussed over her betrothed, Meridene waited for the victor to remove his helmet. When he did, she sucked in a breath.

  It was the cleric, Father Thomas. Extending a hand, he said, “Well done, Summerlad. Another year and you’ll have Revas on his back.”

  So the good priest was also a fighting man. She shouldn’t have been surprised; he was the least spiritual of any holy man she’d met.

  Spying her, he left the uninjured Summerlad to Serena’s tender mercies and approached. “Lady Meridene. You did not accompany Revas to confession this morning.”

  His friendly tone didn’t fool her. “Oh,” she said lightly. “I have the gist of it now. When you dress as a warrior you take up the office of priest. When you wear your robes, you do your duty to clan politics. Were you a Knight Templar by chance?”

  The insult struck a blow, for sweat trickled over his cheek and clenched jaw. With his battle helmet, he waved toward the western sky. “In yonder cemetery rest the bones of good Elginshire men who gave their lives so that you could achieve your destiny.”

  “A destiny I scorn.”

  “Then you scorn God, Meridene Macgillivray, for He hath made you who and what you are. And He guides the sword of your husband.”

  Men hadn’t died for her. They’d perished by their own ambition and warring ways. “No. Revas led them to it.”

  His apologetic smile laid bare her indifference. “Revas Macduff is the finest man o’ the Highlands. He has done naught but keep the vows he spoke before God.”

  First Randolph Macqueen, and now an ordained priest. How many more men would disparage her for events beyond her control? “I was already legally pledged to another. I was forced to wed Revas Macduff.”

  “In the matter of husbands, few of your kind have been so blessed. I will pray for you.” He turned on a heel and walked away.

  Her kind. The words opened an old wound. Our kind, she recalled her mother saying, do not choose our mates. We are as prized bitches held out for the mightiest dog in the pack.

  As if the years had spun backward, Meridene saw clearly her mother’s toilworn face. The image so disturbed her that she blocked it out.

  Not until that evening when she retired did she try to bring back the memory of her mother. She failed, and with sad acceptance, for the truth of it was, she could not remember being anyone’s daughter. Not like Ellen, who had a satchel full of fond letters and keepsakes from her mother. Not like Lisabeth, whose parents lived nearby and cherished her well.

  Meridene had simply been the future Maiden of Inverness.

  When the nightmare awakened her hours later, she knew what she must do.

  CHAPTER

  9

  Two evenings later, Revas found her in her apartments, seated at a new and smaller loom. Facing away from him, she wore a pale linen surcoat over a bliaud of darker blue. Her long hair was gathered loosely at her nape and hastily bound with a length of red yarn that matched the thread attached to the shuttle.

  As always, he anticipated her reaction. As never before, he hoped for swift acceptance. Unless she soon demanded her father’s sword, five small clans, under pressure from the Macgillivrays, had threatened to withdraw from the Community of the Realm. Munro would as yet stand fast with Revas, but if Cutberth did not soon step down, dissension would spread. Signed treaties would become kindling.

  If he was honest with himself, Revas had to admit that he understood her reluctance. To prevail in the Highlands today, the victor must be stouthearted in his love for the land. She had few emotional ties to Scotland, and those were dark and ugly. Therein lay his task, and if she would but give him a chance, tonight he would build for her a fond memory.

  “You have a new loom.”

  She started and turned, then put away her shuttle. Her smile lifted his spirits. Her inspection of his person gave rise to more earthy feelings.

  “You are unharmed,” she said.

  “And very glad to be home. ’Twas an arduous two days.”

  “What of Nairn?”

  Revas rejoiced; she did care about her people. “Restored. Ana and John Sutherland have been safely ransomed according to custom. All is well in God’s good land of the Scots.”

  “Who kidnapped them?”

  A prevarication perched on the tip of his tongue, but he could not voice it. Kidnapping was a long-accepted practice in Scotland and often used to avert bloodshed. At an early age children learned the meaning of words such as ransom and forfeit. Coloring up the truth would not do. “Your father.”

  She blanched. “Is Ana hurt?”

  On the day Meridene had wed Revas, she had borne her father’s mark. Rumor said he visited cruelty on his wife and his kept women. Meridene probably thought Cutberth had beaten Ana.

  To quell her apprehension, Revas recalled the lighter moments in the negotiations. “Quite the opposite. Ana claims that during her capture your brother Robert developed an affection for her.”

  She looked beautifully baffled. “My brother? How did Ana reply?”

  “I believe she told him she would marry a poxed Cornishman before she’d give herself to him.”

  “But she hates the English.”

  His fingers itched to smooth away the frown that marred her forehead. “ ’Twas a point well made, don’t you think? The bishops of Nairn and Inverness, who conducted the negotiations, agreed that poor Robert was stricken low by her rejection of his admiration. William laughed until tears came to his eyes.”

  “You sound as if you like William.”

  Now, Revas thought, was the time to change her mind, for according to Ana, William was ready to break with his father. “Your brother is a goodly man. Did you know that years ago they tried to make him join the church? He refused, saying ’twas unfair to deprive the women of Scotland of so able a man as himself. The cattlemen and shepherds within his authority prosper.”

  She grew pensive, and Revas hoped she was thinking favorably about the one member of her family who still had a care for her.

  After a lengthy silence, she said, “How did you come to know William?”

  Those had been learning years, years when Revas had perfected his sword arm and celebrated his manhood. “ ’Twas on my first visit to Inverness. I was but five and ten.”

  “You and he are of an age,” she said, as if it were a revelation.

  More discoveries awaited her. “Aye, though at the time I was much greener than he. I’d never been farther from home than Elgin’s End.”

  “How did you—” She turned away and yawned. “Have you eaten?”

  She hadn’t meant to inquire after his appetite; of that, he was certain. Seldom was she solicitous of his needs. A change had come over her, but what had caused it? Whatever the source of her friendliness, he was too happy to question his good fortune.

  He preferred to think he’d made progress. “Nay, I’ve not supped. Summerlad said the hare at table tonight was particularly fine. Will you join me?”

  “I’ve eaten.”

  A bit of cajolery seemed appropriate. “Then sit with me, and tell me what has occurred while I was away.”

  She shrugged. “Nothing of any real import. The days have been frightfully boring.”

  “And your nights, were they filled with dreams of me?”

  “Of course. I dreamt that you discovered a fondness for ships and took to the sea.”

  If she didn’t care for him, she would not jest. “Truly?”

  She sighed. “In truth, nothing eventful occurred.”

  “With Ellen about? Come.” He held out his hand. “Partake of a tankard and tell me what lucky fellow currently holds her affections.”

  She extinguished the lamp and pulled the yarn from her hair. Their eyes met. “I have not changed my mind about annulling our marriage.”

  Not yet, but she had changed her mind about something, and he could hardly wait to discover what it was. “I am ever willing to hear your opinion, Meridene.”

  Draping
a veil of pink silk over her hair, she fumbled with the coronet that held it in place. “I simply think that if we . . . if you try to respect my position, the matter will be settled with the least disruption in the lives of all concerned.”

  It was just as he thought: She was beginning to like the people of Elginshire; they were not monsters, but concerns.

  Revas righted her lopsided veil. “Have you visited the village?”

  “Why do you ask?”

  She became excited at the casual question. Moments before she had shown only slight trepidation at the mention of her family, a subject proven to stir her ire.

  Intrigued, Revas said, “ ’Tis my duty to keep abreast of comings and goings, and I did ask you to chaperon young Summerlad.”

  “Father Thomas bested him at swords.”

  Revas guided her out the door and slowed his steps to accommodate her shorter strides. “The priest won with ease?”

  “Misfortune. Summerlad tripped.”

  As she walked, the veil fluttered around her, and the clean smell of heather teased his senses. “I’d not like to be a penitent on the morning after Thomas loses to the lad. Sinners and better swordsmen are the bane of his life.”

  “Which are you?”

  “Both.”

  Rather than chide him for vanity, as he expected, she looked determined and comfortable with her purpose. “We had words.”

  “Who prevailed?”

  “Neither of us. I refused to confess my sins to a priest who lacks compassion. He refused to grant me a voice of my own.”

  Alarmed, Revas said, “What of the danger to your immortal soul?”

  “Father Thomas has a predictable way of defining sins, especially when they disagree with his vision for Scotland. He forgets that I spent many years in the shelter of the church and enjoyed the counsel of a goodly nun and the absolution of a kindly priest. I face danger at the hands of your cleric, but only if I take up a sword against him. My soul is in God’s keeping. I have not sinned by seeking to undo the wrongs visited on an eight-year-old girl.”

 
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