Maiden of Inverness, page 16
Revas had to admit that her honesty was admirable, her logic undeniable.
They entered the common room, and he exchanged greetings with the guardsmen who gamed there. Eager for privacy, he motioned her through the hearth and to the empty table. “I’ll speak with Thomas.”
“You needn’t bother. I shan’t be here long enough for it to matter.”
And he was a Toledo blacksmith, laboring in the Spanish heat. She’d grow old here, sheltered in his arms and blessed by the devotion of their children. Addressing her dissatisfaction would sour her mood, and tonight he longed for sweet company.
When they were both served, he sprinkled a pinch of salt on his food. “Did the carpenter fashion your new loom?”
“Nay.” Over the rim of her cup, her eyes twinkled with devilish intent. “He’s too busy furnishing the end of your patience. Macduff’s Halt, indeed.”
Revas almost choked on a swallow of ale. He’d discouraged his people from discussing but two things with Meridene: Gibby and the hunting lodge. Both could prove sore subjects to his reluctant bride. Eventually he planned to show her the lodge himself. Introducing her to Gibby was another matter.
He’d wanted to be present when she heard his daughter’s name for the first time. When the moment came for them to meet, he’d planned to rest his hand on his Gibby’s shoulder and proudly present her to Meridene.
“I am encouraged to know,” she went on, shaking her head in rueful humor, “that you can summon tolerance when you choose.”
Lord, he loved bantering words with her. “Why?”
“For it gives me hope.”
Blithely said, the reply inspired him. “Hope, patience, and a loving wife,” he quoted. “Was it not our own Saint Columba who said that a fortunate man was possessed of all three?”
“Ha! I suspect it was said by Revas Macduff when cajolery failed him.”
“I yield the point, Meridene, and beg you, return to the safe topic of who crafted your new loom.”
With a fingertip she rubbed at the ring her tankard left on the oaken table. “I do not know his name, but he said he was a wheelwright by trade.”
“Ah, yes. The fellow from Aberdeen who has the speech of an Invernessman.”
She shrugged. “One Scot speaks the same as another to me.”
In this instance, he liked her indifference, for it wouldn’t do for her to take up with a stranger, not until Revas had questioned the man himself. “When did he deliver the loom?”
“Earlier today, during evening prayers.”
That explained why Sim hadn’t mentioned it when he met Revas at the door. He disapproved of strangers entering the castle, but the staff had been occupied with devotion when the man had brought the loom.
Other more pleasant subjects beckoned. “What gallant has captured young Ellen’s heart?” Revas asked.
“What chivalry did he perform?”
“She dropped her flower penny and he picked it up.”
“When did you give it to her?”
“Yesterday. She misplaced it twice before noon. As chance would have it, one of her gallants found the coin each time.”
For thirteen years, Revas had imagined conversing with Meridene on just such ordinary topics. He added another blessing to his already bountiful life. “You like her.”
Turning to the side, she laughed. “How could I not? She hasn’t an ill word to say against anyone, least of all you.” Her eyes caught his. “And do not say you are a lambkin.”
His heart pounded like a signal drum. With his forearm, he slid the trencher aside and leaned close to her. “Shall I prove it?”
“Only if your men stand as witness.”
“Do you truly wish an audience to our lovemaking?”
She shied; he’d been too bold. “You haven’t touched your food. Aren’t you hungry?”
“Aye.” For food, too, he thought, and turned his efforts to the hare, mince pie, and oat cakes.
She sipped honeyed milk, and her attention moved to the shields on the wall. “Did you see my father?”
Revas’s respect for her grew; she showed bravery in broaching the painful subject. “Only his mark of destruction.”
“Was anyone killed?”
Courage be damned; he wanted to talk about more pleasant things. “Nay. Only a few burned fingers and scorched beards. Nairn was fortunate. What did Ellen say when you gave her the flower penny?”
Again she locked her gaze with his. “Where is my father now?”
“He returned to Kilbarton Castle. Would you like to go riding tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow?” she said, as if her days were filled with urgent obligations.
“Have you other plans?”
“Of course not. I’m your captive.”
“Meridene.” Again he pushed his food away.
“My apologies, Revas. I would not have us quarrel tonight.”
His first impulse was to question her; his second was to enjoy the accord. “My thoughts exactly. Would you care to come to my chamber? William has sent you a gift by way of Ana. I thought you would prefer to receive it in privacy.”
“I did not open it. ’Tis yours.”
Meridene believed him. She was doubtful, however, about her brother’s sincerity. None of the Macgillivrays lamented the loss of an exiled kinswoman, else years ago they would have rescued her. She had long since made peace with her feelings toward the family that had abandoned her.
Now she must put a finish to her time with Revas Macduff, retrieve the Covenant, and flee. The wheelwright had agreed to take her to Aberdeen. They would leave before dawn. From Aberdeen, she’d find a ship to London and the safety of the court of Edward II.
With her father ravaging the land, it was only a matter of time until he turned his wrath on Elginshire. Meridene would not be the reason for a siege of Auldcairn Castle. The people here were innocent, and they had treated her kindly. She would not repay their generosity by putting them in danger.
Her decision made, she accompanied Revas to his chamber. Once in the room, he took her into his arms.
“You are different tonight, Meridene.”
Alarmed, she looked at the pedestal. A package rested atop the Covenant. “Is that from William?”
“Aye. What has happened?”
Tomorrow at this hour, she’d be well away from his compelling charms. Denying him a greeting could rouse his suspicion. “You surprised me. Welcome home, Revas.”
“Kiss me,” he said with gentle persuasion.
She wrapped her arms around his neck.
As if he needed no more encouragement, he lifted her and joined their lips in a kiss very much like the one they’d shared in the chapel. She felt a yearning in him, a manly call that found an answer in her woman’s heart, and with bittersweet understanding, she knew that he wanted and cared for her. Had circumstances been different, she would have returned his affection.
On that contrary thought, a greater intimacy beckoned, leeching her will to withhold her heart from the man who had pledged to honor her. But he was too skilled to resist, and she was kissing him farewell. As her senses spun and her own need grew, she thought of his kind gestures: the flower pennies, the lovely wardrobe, the handmaidens.
Gratitude spurred her to meet his passion and savor the last embrace they would share.
He noticed the change and grew adventurous, nibbling at her lips and whispering, “Open your mouth, love, and let me taste your sweetness.”
Love. Like a treasured gift at last bestowed, the word and the emotion it spawned went straight to her heart. Held securely in his arms, an escape on the horizon, Meridene grew brave. He’d have twenty women to console him. She would have her peacefully quiet and comfortable life. But feminine pride compelled her to leave him with a kiss he’d remember.
Pulling him closer, she threaded her hands through his hair and slipped her tongue into his mouth.
Then she was lifted, and the familiar furnishings wheeled in and out of view as he carried her to the bed. Bracing a knee on the mattress, he lowered her, following and settling his body over hers.
She felt his maleness against her thigh, hot and heavy with physical need. The urge to surrender thrummed inside her, melting her loins and deafening the voice of resistance.
He undulated against her in a slow, circular motion that matched perfectly the thrust and retreat of his tongue. She felt light, and her head whirled with glorious images of lovers entwined and hearts united in bliss.
Lifting his mouth from hers, he looked into her eyes. “Put a halt to our loving, Meridene, for I swear I haven’t the will to end it.”
The plea set her pulse to racing, and her heart cried out for more of his love words.
His expression softened and regret served an odd counterpoint to the desire that burned in his eyes. “Stop me, sweet lass. ’Tis too soon for us.”
Too soon. Not yet, Meridene. At the moment, we cannot fit you into our plans. Wait until we want you. All of her life she’d heard similar promises. In the case of Revas Macduff, he asked for a sword.
He wanted her, but only when the time was right. She felt hollow inside, ashamed, and unimportant to the depths of her soul. Yet the cause was none of her doing. Same as the affection of every Scot she had ever known, Revas Macduff’s feelings for her were based on reason, not love. His passions were not for Meridene Macgillivray, a woman who loved the smell of clover and the scent of the air at dawn. They were for the Maiden of Inverness, a person she could never be.
“I believe you are ravishing me.”
Groaning, he collapsed beside her, his fists knotted in the bed linens, his shoulders, arms, and back bulging with ropes of muscles. Her ache felt deep and exhausting; his was hard and angry.
When he’d mastered his emotions, he sat up and raked his hands through his hair. As he righted his clothing, she knew what he was thinking. Pardon, Meridene. I cannot love you until—She blocked out the hurtful thought.
Scottish people had always made her want, but never did they give. This was a people of pain and cruelty. In this land, something else would always be more important than her. Like one more fork of hay on an already backbreaking rick, another condition would weight her happiness.
But only if she allowed it.
Faking a yawn, she mustered a casual air and walked to the pedestal. “You must be exhausted.”
“Meridene . . .”
“I’d almost forgotten William’s gift.” She turned her back to him, and with shaking hands, unwrapped the package. Tied with a string from her brother’s bow and adorned with a faded green ribbon was a bird nest. Rather than speckled eggs, the nest held a tiny rolled parchment. A message from William. William, who had played a flute and sketched ships in the dirt. William, the brother who put thistles in her bed and filched sweet cakes from the kitchen.
She unrolled the parchment.
Welcome home, little Maiden, and heed my words. You are in danger.
How could William know? Did Revas? She must learn the answers, but her senses were raw from Revas’s halted seduction. Delving into Scottish politics would create an emotional storm too great for her to weather just now.
The bed linens rustled. She put the package back into its wrapping. Turning, she blinked in surprise at the misery on Revas’s face.
“ ’Tis good you did not kiss me downstairs,” he said. “I’d have much to answer for to Summerlad and the others.”
In any event, she would have kept her maidenhead, for Revas would not risk losing his chance to wear the crown of the Highlands. Not even to prove he loved her. As always in Scotland, sentiments of the heart fell prey to political ambitions. Harder to accept was the fact that she’d fallen in love with him.
The weight of the admission saddened her. She looked down and took refuge in the package that contained the bird nest, a keepsake of one special afternoon in the lives of a brother and sister. She’d had so few fond remembrances of her childhood.
This, then, was one.
“I should reacquaint myself with the handmaiden ceremony.” She picked up the Covenant. “The drawing is tomorrow.”
“We should talk, Meridene. Greater concerns dictate the intimacies of our lives.”
The truth came easy. “I’m embarrassed, Revas, not ashamed of what we almost did.”
“Good. Until the morrow, Meridene.”
* * *
After a fitful night Revas sought out the wheelwright, but found him gone. He gave the man little thought until an hour later, when a distraught Ellen burst into the armory.
“Revas! Lady Meridene’s bed has not been slept in. And she’s nowhere to be found!”
* * *
Concealed beneath a mountain of stifling, smelly blankets, Meridene tried to brace herself against the wagon’s bumpy ride. Her benefactor, the wheelwright who bore the common name of Robert Dunbar, had not slowed the team since helping her inside hours before.
The postern gate behind the chapel had offered the only unobserved escape from Auldcairn Castle. Wearing a dark cloak and carrying a sack of personal items and her bag of coins, Meridene had exited the castle proper through the buttery. Like a thief in the night, she had kept to the shadows and slipped through the back gate.
Crossing the inner bailey had proven uneventful, but a pair of lovers strolling in the moonlight forced her to crouch near the newly mortared outer wall. Their tryst went on and on, and not until later, when Meridene pulled the rough blankets over her head and felt the wagon move, did her heart cease its pounding.
Now, desperate for a glimpse of the outside world, she lifted her head and peered over the back of the wagon. The rising sun almost blinded her.
They should be traveling east, not west.
She felt the first shiver of alarm.
Carefully she craned her neck and spied the driver. Hunched over the reins, he was engrossed in guiding the team through the boulder-strewn field. He had been insistent that they avoid roads and travel quickly. That made sense, for she expected Revas to give chase.
Revas. Her heart flip-flopped at the thought of him. Rather than ignore the pain, she faced the longing, and just when the agony made her stomach float, she shoved it away. She’d dealt with loneliness before. But saints guard her soul, a woman’s pain made trivial the hurts dealt to an exiled and lonely child.
Pray Revas did not find her, and surely he would not, considering the direction the wagon traveled.
Perhaps the driver was merely circumventing a town or an impassable stream. A forest lay just ahead, and if he did not change direction soon, she would question him.
Hoping to find a more comfortable position, she scooted to the front of the wagon, but stopped when her hip struck something hard and sharp. Lifting the blanket higher, she spied amid the cushioning hay a veritable arsenal of broadsword, dirk, mace, and a deadly short sword.
A second shiver stole her breath.
Why would a wheelwright have need of so much Spanish steel?
She found the answer beneath the board on which the driver sat. Reaching blindly into a bulky sack, she discovered a battle shield. Without benefit of light, she relied solely on feel. Even as she traced the shape of the heraldic device emblazoned on the shield, she could not picture the design.
Why did he conceal his family crest, unless his mission was sinister? She couldn’t be sure, but instinct told her she had erred in trusting this man who traveled west to reach east.
Like a lackwit, she had fallen prey to yet another Scotsman. Out of a skirmish and into a battle, she lamented.
Then an imag
Terrified to her toes, she ducked under the blankets again and tried to think what to do. She must flee and soon, but how?
When he called her again, she moaned, as if he’d awakened her. They would enter the forest soon. Once there, she’d make good an escape.
“Are you hurt, my lady?”
Yawning, she lifted her head and gave him what she hoped was a sleepy smile. “Have we reached Aberdeen?”
She saw through his confident grin.
“Never as yet,” he said. “ ’Twill take the better part of the day to flee Macduff’s land.”
The speech of an Invernessman. Was it true? She did not know, could not remember the manner in which her kinsmen spoke. But something about the way he said “Macduff” gave her pause.
“Is aught amiss, lady?”
Not unless lackwitted counted for anything, she morosely thought.
Desperate for courage, she tried to sound aloof. “Wake me an hour before we arrive, so that I may tidy myself.”
When he turned back to the team, she felt for the hilt of one of the swords. Unfortunately, she found a blade first. Wincing, she curled her fingers against her palm. They came away sticky with blood.
A perversely humorous notion crossed her mind: She would not soon pick up a shuttle or thread a needle.
As the wagon rumbled on, she made her plans. She would toss the short sword out first, then carry her sack of belongings. The search to retrieve the weapon would waste valuable escape time, but she knew better than to take a blind leap with a deadly blade in her hands. Especially since the sword was already stained with her blood. More, she must have a weapon.
When all was ready, she lifted the blankets and breathed the blessedly sweet smell of the forest. Slowly, cautiously, she tunneled beneath the blankets to the rear of the wagon. Wedged into the corner, she braved a peek at her escort. His back to her, he flipped the reins and urged the draft horses to greater speed.
The forest moved past in a blur of naked hardwoods and an occasional splash of verdant pine. Before her courage fled, Meridene grasped the handle of the sword and pitched it out. Quick as a frightened hare, she again ducked beneath the blanket.
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