Maiden of inverness, p.18

Maiden of Inverness, page 18


Maiden of Inverness

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  For how long? Peace reigned now in Elginshire; the people had turned out in droves to witness the choosing of the handmaiden. A subject, she realized, that held greater appeal to her than Scottish politics. By ending her time as handmaiden, Serena would embark on a new life, a mate to Summerlad Macqueen. Serena had failed in her attempt to convince Randolph to hold the wedding on Whitsunday. The couple would wed at harvest’s end.

  Now Meridene must put into motion her plan to seduce Revas Macduff.

  “Serena,” she said, and waited for the girl to turn. “Will you come to my room later and accompany me to table?”

  Completely flattered, Serena smiled. “Oh, aye.”

  Setting a trap pricked Meridene’s conscience, but she had no other choice. If Serena stumbled upon Revas and Meridene in a compromising position, it would appear that Meridene had lost her innocence. Then no one would expect her to face her father and demand the sword.

  “How is your hand?” said Ellen, who had come to stand beside them.

  Meridene’s hand was sore, but her spirits were high. “It’s only a scratch.”

  When Revas, Father Thomas, and Summerlad joined the throng, Serena almost quivered with excitement. Revas approached her. Around her neck he placed a string of amber stones shaped like arrowheads.

  He said, “You have done good service, Serena the Handmaiden, and we thank you.”

  Tears pooled in Serena’s eyes when she touched the necklace. “Oh, Revas, you truly are the best man o’ the Highlands.”

  Oh, the sweetness of ceremony, Meridene lamented, watching Revas kiss Serena’s cheek, then move to stand beside his wife.

  But Scotsmen weren’t supposed to value their women. They surrounded them with armed guards, traded them for land, and to save their own hides, abandoned their daughters to the enemy.

  But not the Scots of Elginshire.

  These people admired Serena, just as they admired Summerlad for his prowess with a sword and his willingness to govern. The young girls gazed at Serena Cameron with loving envy, as if to say they would be as she when they left their youth behind. Husbands smiled fondly at wives, who did not demur as she expected, but nodded as if accepting a deserved word of praise.

  Summerlad stepped to the front of the crowd and held out his hand to Serena, palm down. In a gesture as old as the honor of the fighting man, she matched her palm to his, then raised her arm, signifying that she willingly bore the weight of his sword arm and accepted him for the soldier he was.

  That’s when Meridene noticed the golden bracelet on his wrist. Summerlad’s arms had been bare before. What life had he taken to achieve the symbols of manhood?

  The wheelwright.

  She waited for the old pain to steal her breath and sour her stomach. To her amazement, it did not come. Because of her, a man was dead. Not a man, but a villain bent on treachery. When, she wondered, had she learned to judge and condemn a man, then easily accept his death?

  The crowd exchanged murmurs of approval. Revas had yet to say a word to her.

  She looked up at him. “The wheelwright is dead.”

  “Aye, but ’twas his own doing. Summerlad twice gave him the chance to yield his sword. His name was Macleod.”

  What if Summerlad had lost? Revas would shoulder the blame and the loss of a kinsman. But the responsibility was not solely his. “Are you angry with me still?” she asked.

  He scanned the crowd, probably searching for a distraction. “ ’Tis possible.”

  He was a Highlander and accustomed to shedding the blood of his fellow Scots. If he hadn’t brought her here, the man named Macleod wouldn’t have fallen to Summerlad. Still, her actions had played a part. “I did thank you for coming after me. On our return I spoke at length of my gratitude.”

  “Welcome words from a wayward bride—” he glanced at her “—who looks very well cared for.”

  She had not asked for fine clothes and adoration; he’d given the garments freely and schooled these people to revere her. She wanted no such devotion. “You’re a man of pride and ornament, Revas Macduff.”

  “I’m a lam—” She put her hand to his lips. She knew what he would say.

  His eyes danced with challenge, and she sensed a power in him, an unbending determination. He had a right to his anger. She had no quarrel with that. What troubled her was her own need to seek his understanding and receive fair judgment.

  She dropped her hand.

  He gave her a look that said she’d made a wise choice in yielding. How could he speak so plainly to her with only an expression? How had she come to know and love him so well?

  He picked up the white keg and held it before her. “Meridene?”

  Gathering a thought proved impossible. She stared at the parti-colored swatches of cloth. The ceremony. Choose a handmaiden.

  Composing herself, she reached into the mass and pulled out the square of butter-soft leather. Scripted finely in red dye was the name of her next handmaiden.

  To the crowd she said, “I have chosen the girl named Gibby.”

  The crowd stood in shocked silence. Revas took the marker from her hand and examined it closely. Then he gave it to Macpherson. “Fetch the lass.”

  Brodie said, “I’ll accompany him.”

  Baffled, Meridene said, “Who is Gibby? And why do you look so bothered at the notion of her being selected as a handmaiden?”

  Revas felt as if he’d taken the butt end of a Yule log in his gut. Gibby, his daughter, had put forth her name. Not once had she mentioned an interest in the position. He had not discouraged her; the subject had simply never come up.

  Bless the saints, what would Meridene say?

  “Come.” Taking her arm, he pulled her through the throng and into the castle. In her apartment, he released her and moved to the new loom. Searching for words, he stared at the tapestry she’d only begun.

  Moments passed. The weaving drew his gaze, but Meridene was certain that his mind was fixed on something of great import. She recalled a similar instance when he had interrogated her.

  She could pry information just as well as he. “ ’Twould be best if I heard it from you, Revas.”

  He tensed. “Heard what?”

  Had he not been so somber, she would have chuckled. “Whatever it is you are trying to hide. As you are fond of saying, secrets are poorly kept in Elginshire.”

  He lifted his head and pinned her with his gaze. “Gibby is my daughter.”

  Had he proclaimed himself the king of France, Meridene could not have been more surprised. His daughter. A bastard. Twenty women. The sloth.

  Questions tumbled in her mind, and she broached the subject that had too often troubled her. “Have you a large family?”

  He gave her a remarkable look.

  She replied, “You think I am shocked?”

  “You weren’t as sheltered as that, Meridene. I pray you will understand.”

  Righteous anger stiffened her spine. “Make no mistake, Revas Macduff. I understand you well.”

  “Look.” He shifted his weight and held out his hands. “Gibby is not to blame for my . . .”

  She lifted a brow. “For your . . . ?”

  He set his jaw. “For my life before you came here.”

  He spoke as if she’d come of her own free will. The word “kidnapping” had conveniently fled his vocabulary. If keeping vows were the subject of the conversation, the word “wife” had deserted him long ago. “Had you planned to tell me about her?”

  “Of course. She’s not hidden away in a crofter’s hut or living under another’s name.”

  No. She lived with her mother—the woman he loved. “My father kept women, and it caused trouble in our household. I ask you not to bring her mother here until Leslie has returned with word of our annulment.”

  He hadn’t expected the request, and he searched for a reply. At length he said, “Mary died shortly after Gibby was born. The lassie is the joy of her grandparents’ lives.” Ruefully he added, “And mine, more oft
than not. I love her well, Meridene, as I will love all of our children.”

  Before she could disabuse her husband of the notion of legitimate progeny, Sim appeared in the door.

  “Gibby has arrived,” the steward said.

  “Then bring her,” Revas said.

  When Sim departed, Revas asked, “Will you treat her kindly, Meridene?”

  This vulnerability was new in Revas Macduff. What manner of woman did he think she’d become? Surely not one who’d punish a child for the father’s sins? She of all people understood the unfairness in that.

  “She’s a good lass, bright and thoughtful,” he went on.

  “Bright and thoughtful,” Meridene mused. “She must favor her mother.”

  He nodded, obviously relieved. “That she does. Wait here.”

  He stepped into the hall and stared toward the common room. Meridene knew the moment he spied his daughter, for his face glowed with pride and love.

  Meridene’s throat burned with envy; her father had never looked at her in that manner. Much as she wanted to deny it, she found another reason to love Revas Macduff.

  A moment later a delicate girl came into view. The top of her head barely reached his elbow. She had short-cropped, fair hair and a storm of freckles on her cheeks and her upturned nose. Meridene looked for resemblances between father and daughter and discovered several. Gibby’s fair brows arched with the same elegance as his; her tentative expression was reminiscent of the smile of a barefoot boy who once faced the king of England.

  Revas knelt beside his daughter.

  “Are you angry with me?” she asked in a voice as soft as thistledown.

  “Nay. I’m very proud of you, Gibby my own.”

  “Good, for I’ll try my best.”

  Thickly he said, “You always do.”

  A fortunate girl, Meridene thought, and pledged to show her the kindness she’d been denied.

  Standing, he put his hand on Gibby’s shoulder and drew her into the room. “Meridene, this is my daughter and your new handmaiden, Gwendolyn Mary Margaret.”

  The girl’s face puckered in disgust.

  Meridene smiled. “You prefer to be called Gibby.”

  “Aye, my lady.”

  “How did you come by your name?”

  As if she’d told the story countless times, she took a deep breath. “When I was a wee bairn, I was sickly. My nose was a runny mess, and I was forever sneezing. When I spoke, I talked like this.” She pinched her nose. “Gibby a drink of milk. Gibby a sweet cake. Gibby this, gibby that.” She clasped her hands. “That’s why they call me Gibby. Isn’t it true, Papa?”

  “As true as the sweetness of your soul.”

  She rolled her eyes. “He’s a lambkin, you know.”

  Meridene fought to keep her gaze on Gibby. She lost, and when she caught his eye, he gave her a knowing smile.

  She couldn’t resist saying, “All men are lambkins when they choose to be. But now I’m interested in you, Gibby. How old are you?”


  Meridene’s gaze flew back to his. He’d been only five and ten or thereabout when he sired this girl.

  His hand tightened protectively on Gibby’s shoulder. She looked up, confused. When he winked, she became flustered and turned her attention to the loom.

  Watching the loving exchange was like a caress to Meridene. Legitimate or no, this daughter was loved by Revas Macduff. Meridene said the first thing that came to mind. “The mercer spoke of you, Gibby. You made the red dye for my thread.”


  “ ’Tis well known,” Revas declared, “that she also makes the truest greens and blues in all of the Highlands.”

  Gibby ruffled with pride. “My grandmama showed me where to find the plants and how to mix the colors.”

  “Do you know the duties of a handmaiden?” Meridene asked.

  “Aye.” She swallowed hard. “I’m to make fast the windows against the night air, bank the fire, and tend the rowans.”

  Revas said, “Gibby can make even a stump grow. ’Tis said she can walk on rocky soil and a trail of posies will sprout up in her path.”

  “Papa!” She cringed in embarrassment, her arms stiff at her sides.

  Seriously he said, “You’ll have the chamber next to mine, Gibby.”

  She beamed. “What of Jaken? May I keep him with me?”

  “A dog? In here?” He sent Meridene a questioning look.

  Gibby rushed to say, “He has the king’s own manners, my Jaken does.”

  “Which king would that be?” Meridene asked.

  Gibby cocked her head. “A goodly one, I am certain.”

  Bright, he’d said of her, and Meridene agreed. “Yes, you may keep your dog. Where is it now?”

  “It’s a him, and I’ll fetch him.” She dashed out and returned with a black and white terrier no taller than Meriden’s calf. The dog’s back leg was crippled, withered, and curled up tight against his wiry body, but he trotted as well on three.

  “He’s the veriest gentleman. I swear.” Bending from the waist, she addressed the dog. “Swear fealty to the lady, Jaken.”

  The dog trotted to Meridene, sat before her, and held up a paw. She took it. His stubby tail thumped the stone floor, and his short ears stood at attention.

  Inspired, she patted the dog’s head. “I dub you the official keeper of the bones and chaser of the cats.”

  Father and daughter shared laughing glances. Meridene watched in envy.

  “To me,” Gibby called.

  The dog trotted back to his place at her heel.

  “Wash your hands and face and wait for us in the common room,” Revas said to the girl.

  “I know all that, Papa. I’m not a bairn.”

  “Wait.” Meridene went to the trunk and took out a yellow smock. “You should have this now.”

  Her eyes wide with excitement, Gibby hugged the garment to her chest. On its good back leg, the dog hopped in place.

  “When you’ve unpacked your belongings and donned your new dress,” Revas said, “we’ll all go to table together.”

  Eager for a moment alone, Meridene said, “I’ll join you both there.”

  When Gibby and the dog left, Revas closed the door. “And leave you to ruminate on my past frolics? Nay, Meridene. We’ll have this out now.”

  “Have what out?”

  “Whatever is on your mind—as pertains to my past.”

  “Your past? A mild word since you’ve spent the last thirteen years plowing women like a farmer with a new hoe.”

  He propped his hands on his hips. “Where did you hear such a vulgar thing?”

  Ana Sutherland had been the source, but girls always spoke boldly among themselves, and a blessing it was, for if men had their way, women would stay ignorant of intimacy until the marriage bed. “I’m not that sheltered, remember? You said as much yourself.”

  He had steady eyes, eyes that said, I’m at ease with the way you see me, and with what I see in you.

  “Gibby is my only child.”

  Meridene fumed. “How moderate of you.”

  “You left moderation behind with your swaddling clothes.”

  “But I stayed chaste.”

  “Shall I praise you for keeping one of your vows to me?”

  “Only when I praise you for keeping a flock of women.”

  “A flock? Who told you that?”

  “Ana. She said you had twenty women.”

  He looked so incredulous, she lost her train of thought.

  “Meridene. No man can have twenty women. ’Tis impossible foolishness.”

  “What was to stop you? Your wife was not here.”

  Plaintively he said, “My bed would break beneath the weight of twenty women.”

  Like butter left in the sun, her anger melted. “Why do you try so hard to make me like you and this ghastly land?”

  “I believe,” he said, staring at the tapestry, “that if Scotland cannot keep her finest sons and her fairest dau
ghters, she will fall the way of Wales, her culture crushed beneath an English hammer.”

  “I am not one of Scotland’s fairest people.”

  He glanced up, his eyes glittering with raw emotion. “Oh, aye, Meridene. You, of all her people, are.”

  More to convince herself than him, she said, “I am not your wife.”

  He feigned bewilderment. “Have I a wife?” he growled, and flung out an arm. “Pray send her in to wash my back and pour my ale.”

  “You want a servant.”

  His pride rightfully nicked, he stepped back. “True. But I’ll admit my mistake if you will explain what you know about being a wife.”

  “After you tell me who sent my kidnapper. He did not wear Macgillivray colors.”

  “ ’Tis what troubles you—the thought that he may have been one of your kinsmen. Worry not who sent him. He thought to sell a bonny lass to a sea captain in Tain.”

  She felt an odd sense of relief and vindication; Scotland teemed with kidnappers. Her father had no allegiance with Clan Macleod; by marriage they were aligned with Robert Bruce. Unless that Macleod had broken with his family.

  “Now,” Revas said with finality. “Define a good-wife.”

  “As it applies to me?”

  “Aye, and to the letter.”

  He wanted a battle with words. Obliging him came easy. For effect, she poured him a glass of ale and shoved it into his hand. “First, a goodwife must choose a good husband. Since I was spared that luxury, our discussion on the subject ends there. And here. And now.”

  “You learned such verbal trickery in the English church?” Shaking his head in wonder, he plopped down on the weaving stool. “That explains why their country’s on the verge of civil war.”

  “Scotland coined the word.”

  “With your help, the Highlands will know peace, Meridene.”

  She should defend herself. She couldn’t find the words. Serena would appear soon. Meridene must entice Revas into a compromising position. “What know you of good husbandry?”

  “Listen well. The happiness of a wife is the husband’s responsibility.” He put down the ale and walked toward her. “Does the wife prefer tender lamb? Then ’tis the husband’s quest to seek out the shepherd every spring.”

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