Maiden of inverness, p.17

Maiden of Inverness, page 17

 

Maiden of Inverness
 


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  She counted to twenty. Taking a deep breath, she swung a leg over the back.

  * * *

  Revas held up his hand and called for silence. Macpherson and five of the Forbes clansmen grew quiet.

  As a precaution, Brodie, Thomas, and the bulk of the soldiers had stayed behind to guard the keep. If eight trained and dedicated men couldn’t find one woman, Revas might as well surrender to the Macgillivrays.

  Summerlad cursed. “How could a wheelwright snatch the Maiden from beneath our noses?”

  “He’s clever,” spat Glennie Forbes.

  Fortunate better fitted the wheelwright’s circumstances. Unlike the guardsmen, Revas knew that Meridene had left willingly. Escaped, as she probably put it. Gone. Again.

  The burden of thirteen empty years returned. Even the relief he’d felt at finding her in England could not quell the new loss in his heart.

  Revas wanted to place the blame for her flight on the gift from William, but he could not. Unless the note tucked inside the bird nest had contained some other meaning than danger. Revas had inspected the package. He felt no guilt at lying to her. With her safety at stake, he trusted none of the Macgillivrays, least of all his scheming wife.

  Her decision to leave him had been made long before she opened her brother’s gift. At table last evening she’d been agreeable and intimately earnest because she knew she wouldn’t be there to face the consequences.

  Had she been thinking about the departure when she kissed him? No. She had wanted Revas. Hers had been the passions of a woman in need of her man.

  Last night her desires had been uncluttered by schemes and destiny. Meridene Macgillivray held an intimate affection for her husband. Although he would have chosen a different path for the quest for her affection, he must now bind her to him with the pleasure of physical love. Her heart would come later.

  First he had to find her.

  As they followed the westward tracks of the fast-moving wagon, Revas let go of his anger. Manly pride forgotten, he raged at the folly of what she’d done. Her recklessness could land her in the hands of the very evil she avoided.

  She knew better; she’d been Highland born and raised.

  Kilbarton Castle teemed with soldiers eager to throw down a gauntlet. Her father’s demesne attracted landless adventurers who lacked the tools to prosper on an estate, even did they win it.

  He hoped she had been lured by a stranger with false promises. The openness of Auldcairn Castle afforded ample opportunity for a villain to come and go. If Revas closed the gates and subjected the people to searches and interrogation, he ran the risk of spreading fear and encouraging isolation. Grim alternatives when his success had been built on free travel and the commerce it spawned.

  But if strangers were free to prey upon his people, he had a duty to identify the culprits and vanquish the worst of the lot. Discretion must be his tool, and diligence his method.

  Henceforth, soldiers would mingle in the village, and the gatemen would take notice of those entering and leaving Auldcairn. Pray the first arrival to be noted was Meridene Macgillivray.

  If she wanted to be free of Revas, why did she travel toward the family she despised? He did not know, but was certain the answer lay ahead.

  In the field near Alpin’s Moor, they lost the wagon tracks in stony soil. The men fanned out and searched. At the edge of the forest, they again found the trail.

  * * *

  An exhausted and bruised Meridene sat on a boulder amid a stand of concealing bracken. Relief at escaping her captor gave way to confusion over what to do next. When no plan came to mind, she opened the Covenant.

  I am the Maiden Mary, and I stand over the cairn of my last son. Now I must bargain with the villain who slew all of the lads of my womb, for he has demanded my little princess in exchange for the life of my beloved husband.

  The story brought an ache to Meridene’s heart and tears to her eyes, for it confirmed her worst fears about the warring practices of Scots. But as she continued to read Mary’s dramatic chronicle and several more, she felt her apprehension ease.

  Although Mary had not known it at the time, she had made a decision that benefited all Scots for generations to come. Her daughter and the next five Maidens had thrived. A result, according to the chronicles, not of a softening in Scottish temperament, but of the ongoing Crusades in the Holy Land. Side by side with Romans and Englishmen, Highland kings had defended the faith. Yet in their zeal and their absence, they had almost ended the legend. Were it not for the courage of Sorcha, a Maiden of one and twenty years, who traveled to the Holy Land to find her husband, Meridene’s great-grandmother would not have been conceived. The following spring, the sword of Chapling had fallen to a heathen’s scimitar. The widowed Sorcha had done her duty.

  What would Meridene Macgillivray do? She closed her eyes and held her breath, hoping a sense of loyalty would guide her. She felt a deep affection for Revas Macduff, but no great devotion to a land and a people who asked for more than she could give.

  With sad acceptance, she opened her eyes.

  The sun offered little warmth, and the sight of Revas riding through the forest chilled her even more. He had not noticed her; her plain woollen cloak blended with the dried brush.

  What would he say?

  When her hands began to tremble, she put away the Covenant, laid the sword across her lap, and followed the progress of the approaching men.

  They rode two abreast, with Revas and Summerlad in the lead and Macpherson and five of the Forbesmen behind. The gray warhorse thundered across the for-rest floor, clumps of sod flying beneath his hooves. Taller and broader of shoulder than the others, Revas stood out like an oak in a field of saplings. He rode with the ease of a man well suited to command. The shield of Clan Macduff rested against his knee, and his powerful legs hugged the withers of the mighty horse. Sunlight glinted on silver spurs and golden bracelets, and the wind ruffled Revas’s overlong hair.

  She had blundered in her attempt to escape him and the political pitfalls of the Highlands. Another option remained: seduction. By yielding her innocence, she forfeited the Maiden’s right to claim the sword of Chapling. But more, she avoided facing the father who cared more for his falcon mews than his daughter.

  How could she make it appear that Revas had compromised her and yet keep her innocence? She’d need a witness, but who?

  Ah, she knew just the one.

  She also knew the exact moment Revas spotted her. Although slight, his reaction was marked.

  What would he do?

  “Meridene,” he called out, as if they were old friends being reunited. Yet, like a hunter, his eyes scanned the perimeter.

  Without words, he conveyed orders to his men. With a look, Summerlad lifted the visor on his helmet and guided his horse around the bracken behind Meridene. Each man in his turn did the same until she was surrounded. Only then did Revas approach her.

  A wall of bracken separated them from the others.

  “How did you find me?” she asked.

  He gave her a look rife with waning indulgence. “What happened to your hand?”

  “A minor cut.”

  She didn’t like the knowing gleam in his eye, but even if he had threatened to beat her, she would have welcomed the sight of him just now. As much as she wanted to deny it, he looked like a prince in a land of monsters.

  “When did you depart the company of the wheelwright?”

  Even now she could not quell her relief. “An hour ago. He’s no tradesman.”

  “Nor is he a Dunbar, I’ll wager.”

  “How did you find me?”

  He held up a scrap of linen. “ ’Twas snagged on a thistle near the path of the wagon.”

  The hem of her gown had been shredded by the winter-dry underbrush. “Thank you for finding me.”

  “My men believe the wheelwright kidnapped you.”

  Although plainly put, the statement held a complex meaning. Revas knew she’d run away, but he would not s
ay it, for he was more concerned with the opinions of his men. A wayward bride would be an embarrassment.

  “If that is so,” he went on, “why did you flee him?”

  “Why ask me if you know the answer?”

  Quietly he said, “You thought he would take you to Aberdeen.”

  “Yes.”

  “Whereas he thought to take you to villains unknown.”

  Unknown. To her, but not to Revas Macduff. She asked, “Which villain?”

  “You will not like my answer.”

  “If you tell me who sent that man, I will know better next time.”

  He stared at the sun. “You know, no one else will bother to help you, Meridene. You’re too much trouble.”

  The burr in his voice rolled over her, reminding her of a childhood spent under the control of ambitious Scotsmen. “Then give me a horse, and I’ll be on my way.”

  “Give me the sword of Chapling, and I’ll empty the stables on your behalf.”

  “You are angry.”

  “Summerlad!” he yelled out. “Take three of the Forbes and introduce yourself to the wheelwright. He cannot be far ahead. Find out who sent him. Meridene will not choose the new handmaiden until you return to Auldcairn.”

  “Aye, Revas.” Summerlad lowered his visor and in turn pointed to three other men. Sawing reins, he wheeled his warhorse around and galloped into the forest.

  Leather creaked as Revas dismounted. “Where did you get the sword, Meridene?”

  She gave him the weapon. “The wheelwright has an arsenal in his wagon.”

  “Macpherson! Take Glennie and Douglas and follow Summerlad.”

  “But—”

  “Go. Lady Meridene has cut her hand. I believe I can escort one frail woman as far as my own holdings.”

  “Aye, Revas.” Macpherson and the remaining men hurried into the forest.

  “Come, Meridene.”

  Revas could have held out his hand. Obviously even that small gesture was beyond him. Graceful acceptance was her most rational choice, so she picked up her belongings and stepped off the boulder.

  Withdrawal shielded his emotions as surely as chain mail armored his body. Splendid. She didn’t care a knotted thread how he felt. Call her frail, would he?

  Lifting her chin, she moved closer. As if it were kindling, he snapped the sword over his knee and flung the pieces aside.

  “A warning to your enemies?” she asked.

  “Nay.” He lifted her into the saddle, then mounted himself.

  “Then why the show of animal strength?”

  “I was merely marking my territory.”

  Odd as it was, she wanted to laugh. “I’m not afraid of you.”

  He kicked the horse into motion. “But you are afraid of yourself and what you feel for me. ’Tis why you ran away.”

  “You know so much.”

  “I know that you want me.”

  “You want a sword.”

  “I did not seek the sword of the Highlands, but I must have it. I’m baffled by why I want you.”

  “Then enjoy your quandary alone, for you’ll get no help from me.”

  “How can you ignore the harmony you see? Do you not wish it to prevail? Think of Sim, of Brodie, of Lisabeth. With peace in the land, the lass will have a husband to give her children. Her father will cherish her babes. Her brothers will not seek their destiny on a field of battle.”

  His eloquent speech touched her deeply. “Yes, I wish them that happiness and more.”

  “ ’Tis enough for now.” He hugged her.

  “Enough what?”

  “Enough trouble from you,” he grumbled.

  She looked up at the sky. “But the day is young.”

  CHAPTER

  10

  A spyglass pressed to his eye, Revas stood in the guard tower and scanned the horizon for a glimpse of Summerlad and the others. They should have returned by now; he’d been watching and waiting for hours.

  Just when he’d decided to mount yet another rescue, the riders popped into view. Pennons fluttering above their heads, they were a powerful gathering of Scottish youth and valor. Expert horsemen all, they rode their steeds in perfect vanguard formation. As they approached the break in the curtain wall, Summerlad raised his arm. The others fell back into columns.

  Revas raced down the steps and arrived at the gate as the first of the horses thundered into the yard.

  Stable lads converged on the lathered animals; squires attended the toilworn riders.

  Revas searched each man for signs of injury. He found none, but Summerlad’s trunk hose and leather battle jerkin were stained with blood.

  “Are you injured?” he asked.

  His mouth tightened, but his countenance spoke of victory. “Nay, Revas.”

  “What delayed you?”

  “The wheelwright admitted to having accomplices awaiting him at Elder’s Bow.”

  Macpherson said, “We ventured ahead to spy them.”

  “We found a nest of Cutberth’s mercenaries,” Summerlad hissed.

  Meridene’s father so close to Elginshire? Revas didn’t believe the action signaled war; Cutberth enjoyed leading an army himself. He’d sent the wheelwright to abduct Meridene, and the mercenaries for escort. In her desire to escape, she had aided her father’s cause. “How many mercenaries?”

  Summerlad removed his helmet and shook his head. “A score and some.”

  Revas looked pointedly at the bloodstains. “You led your men against a force three times as great?”

  Again Macpherson stepped forward. “Nay. We wanted to engage them, but Summerlad bade us return before they saw us. He earned his bands on the wheelwright.”

  Summerlad had slain the man in a fair fight; of that, Revas was certain. He’d also prevented his men from waging a battle they were sure to lose. His leadership ability had been tried, and he had prevailed. “Dunbar died well?”

  “You spoke the truth. He’s no Dunbar,” Summerlad said. “His shield bears the bull of the Macleods, barred.”

  The black bar of illegitimacy. Such men were often more ruthless than foreign-born mercenaries. “A hired-out bastard.”

  “He would not yield his sword to me,” Summerlad said. “When I made the offer the second time, he swore to slice off my manhood and present it to Serena.”

  “Thereupon,” proclaimed Macpherson, “Summerlad did the slicing.”

  Revas looked for a change in his fosterling, a hardness and acceptance of the need to slay another man. To his relief, he saw a shadow haunting those blue Macqueen eyes. He motioned to Summerlad. “Come with me.”

  Oblivious to the people in the lane, Revas hurried to the church and ushered Summerlad inside. Father Thomas stood near the altar, and when he took a step toward them, Revas held up a hand to stop him. The cleric would take Summerlad’s sin to God; Revas had other counsel to offer.

  “Even a black soul deserves a prayer,” he said. “Never forget that, my friend.”

  Summerlad jammed the helmet under his arm. “Tell me, Revas. Would I feel differently had he kidnapped my own Serena?”

  He was hoping for a respite; good men always did. Revas offered the wisdom taught him years ago by Kenneth Brodie. “No matter the crime, a soul is lost. Is one soul of more importance than another? That is for God to decide. You must give it up to Him, Summerlad.”

  With stern insistence, he said, “I will never forget the man or the moment.”

  “Nay. Nor will you forget the sight of that first carrot-haired son your beloved Serena gives you.”

  The crease in his brow smoothed. “Or her smile when I declared my love.” He grew pensive. “Is that a woman’s place, then? To ease the ache that killing brings us?”

  “Aye. For that blessing and infinitely more are we gifted with God’s loveliest miracle.”

  “ ’Tis good then, for on my oath, I feel little joy at ending that man’s life, villain though he was.”

  The bond that had begun years ago between them grew str
onger. At two and twenty, his friend had indeed become a man. “You are wise beyond your years, Summerlad Macqueen.”

  “I thank you, Revas, for this and the many other wisdoms you’ve bestowed upon me.”

  Revas squeezed his arm. “With Father Thomas’s help, we’ll now make our peace with God. Then we shall see your Serena put away her handmaiden’s smock and don that costly gown you gave her.”

  * * *

  Meridene thought Serena looked like the goddess of all harvests. Beneath a surcoat of golden velvet, she wore a bliaud of orange that turned the color of her hair to fire. Anticipation glittered in her eyes.

  Nearby, Lisabeth and Ellen, dressed in their yellow smocks and wearing garlands in their hair, accepted greetings and shared gossip with the crowd. Near the well, the elderly villagers sat on stone benches and chatted among themselves.

  Serena sighed.

  “Your gown is beautiful,” Meridene said.

  The girl flushed. “ ’Tis Summerlad’s doing. When he saw the clothing Revas commissioned for you, he bought this.” She caressed the fabric of her sleeve.

  Meridene’s own gown was sinfully beautiful. Of soft white wool, adorned with butterfly shells from the sea and seeds from the orchard, the garment and its matching veil were fit for a queen. Or for the Maiden of Inverness.

  If only Revas would relent on the matter of her demanding the sword of Chapling, she’d gladly wear sackcloth and bare her feet. But ambition ruled her husband. He’d doubled the holdings given to him by the English king and cast his fortunes in Scottish politics.

  The people wanted him, believed in him, and that was their choice. They’d rallied for other men. The last Alexander to rule Scotland had captured their hearts. With Revas’s help, Robert Bruce might well do the same. If Meridene delivered the sword and the Macgillivrays, accord for all of the Highlands could follow. Her father must yield, else his kinsmen would abandon him. His land would fall to the crown, and he’d be left with only foreign soldiers and legal sons to lead. Even if Daviot and Kilbarton Castle flew the flag of Chapling, Revas would become the king of the Highlands.

 
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