Maiden of Inverness, page 2
Her gaze searched Revas’s face, as if she sought reassurance. What could he say? That she should give up her birthright to wed a common lad?
“Lady Meridene,” wheedled the man called Thomas. “Think of the Highland people—of your brothers, Robert and William. They await you. Refresh yourself, so I can take you home.”
Hope glimmered in her eyes. “William. He loves me well.” She drank and coughed.
Voices sounded in the hall.
The man Thomas glanced toward the door. “Worry not, Lady Meridene. The English devils will suffer defeat. Your sire has sworn ’tis so.” Then he scurried from the room.
Staring into the mug, she said, “Will you betray Thomas and me?”
For as long as tales had been told, the romantic legend of the Maiden had been passed from generation to generation. It must continue; Revas would lay down his life to make it so. “On my honor, nay. Not even should they burn out my eyes.”
A pained expression pinched her face. She licked her lips, then set the tankard atop the table. “Where do you live?”
Pleasant conversation was the last thing he expected of her now. But then, she’d been trained in the gentle ways of nobility. Revas had been reared in poverty. “I live aback the butcher’s stall. But the king said he would give me this keep. If you stay, I will learn to protect you. I’ll become a soldier.”
“Have you a sword?”
“Nay, but my sire will give me his.”
“I’ve never met a butcher. Is your father a goodly man?”
Family pride swelled Revas’s chest. “As braw as the king, except—”
The door flew open. In marched the king, the priest, and the sheriff.
“Come,” said Edward of England. “The church is in readiness.”
In the time it took to skin a hare, documents were signed and properties transferred. With each activity, the Maiden grew weaker. Kneeling beside Revas in the chapel, she murmured the words, but her voice held little conviction, and she wavered so often, he had to put an arm around her waist to steady her. He accepted the stewardship of Auldcairn Castle, but his thoughts stayed with the girl beside him. Just as the priest made the sign of the cross, she wilted and fell into Revas’s arms.
Bracing himself, he held her. Her face blanched as white as death, and her black hair trailed to the floor. Her delicate, white hand lay faceup on the stones, lifeless.
“Maiden?” Revas entreated.
When she moaned, he looked imploringly at the king.
“What’s amiss?” Edward leaned close and sniffed her breath. “By the swans, she’s been poisoned.”
He scooped her into his arms and returned to the castle. In the lord’s chamber, he glared at Revas. “I’ll feed you to the hounds for this, Macduff.”
She reached for the king’s arm, her fingers pale against his colorful tunic. “Blame not Macduff. ’Twas my father’s man, Thomas.” Her gaze darted to the side door. “In there.”
Sheriff Brodie flung the door open, but stopped. The red-haired woman lay in a pool of blood, her throat slashed. “He’s gone, Your Majesty. I swear we did not know he was here.”
Although his face had reddened with anger, the king spoke softly. “Mark me well, Meridene of Inverness, I’ll house you in a place where these Scottish monsters will never find you.”
“Monsters.” Her voice broke, and she closed her eyes.
“Aye, lass,” said the king. “Every man with a drop of Scottish blood.”
Frantic, Revas shook her gently. “Rouse yourself, Lady Meridene.”
She gasped, clutched her stomach, and doubled over.
“Curse unto hell the men who make war on children.” Rigid with anger, the king yelled for his guards to fetch his surgeon.
“Fare you well, Revas Macduff.”
At the sound of his name, Revas looked down.
She looked forlorn and frail and close to death, and he was a lowly butcher’s son. He’d been given this keep and this important girl. But he was too young to defend either. Tears of confusion blurred his vision. He searched for words to comfort her. “You won’t die.”
“Nay. I had but a swallow. I’ll rally.”
She had been betrayed by her family. But now she belonged to Revas, and she would live. His spirits soared.
Lamely he promised, “All will be well, you’ll see.”
She looked toward the king, who was conversing with the priest and Sheriff Brodie. Reaching into her sash, she withdrew a book. “Here, you must hide this or return it to my mother.”
“What is it?”
“ ’Tis the Covenant of the Maiden. It must not fall into enemy hands.”
Larger than his hand and still warm from her skin, the book had wooden bindings illuminated with ancient symbols. Revas slipped it into his tunic. “I shall guard it and you with my life.”
A tear fell from her thick black eyelashes and trailed over her cheek. “Only the English king can keep me safe from Scottish monsters.”
His spirits plummeted. She belonged to Revas Macduff. The priest had said so. Papers had been signed. Her family had tried to kill her, and King Edward thought they would try again. Now he was taking her to a place of safety.
“I cannot protect you now, but I’ll learn a warrior’s skill. I’ll come for you, my lady,” he pledged. “When I’m older, I’ll come for you.”
“Oh, Revas, did you not hear the king’s threat? You’ll never find me. What happened today was not a real marriage. I only spoke the vows because a king commanded me.”
Determination beat like a harvest drum within Revas. The priest had said the words before God. The Maiden of Inverness belonged to Revas Macduff.
Suddenly he had a man’s duty and a husband’s vow to fulfill. “I swear on the soul of every Macduff who walked his land before me, I’ll come for you.”
North Yorkshire, England
Thirteen years later
The whispered command pulled Meridene from a sound sleep. A man’s callused hand covered her mouth. His thumb and index finger pressed at her nostrils, almost blocking off the air.
For a groggy moment, she thought of her father. His harsh words, his bruising fist, his indifference to a child who craved his love.
Drawing on that memory, she fought back her fear and squinted to see the face of the man hovering over her. He appeared a huge shadow surrounded by gloom. Frantic, she bit down. He grunted and withdrew his hand.
“Be silent,” he hissed. “Or you’ll endanger the others.”
She filled her lungs to scream. But for whom? For Ana, the Scottish heiress of nine and ten, who occupied the next chamber? No, not Ana. Could she call for the old caretaker who needed a crutch to walk from the garden to the granary? No, not him. Sister Margaret had left yesterday for Fairhope Tower in the Debatable Lands and taken the guardsmen with her. There was no one to challenge this intruder except Meridene, and she would fight.
“Stand away, you wretched cur.”
Flailing her arms, she struck out at the darkness and felt a moment’s gratification when she landed a solid blow.
He cursed and pinned her arms at her sides, then rolled her, trapping her in the bed linens. A soft woollen cloth was slipped over her head and secured around her neck. Lifting her off the mattress, he swung her into the air and over his shoulder.
Trussed up like a doomed goose, her head spinning, she was jostled and jolted with every step he took. But to where? Where was he taking her, and why?
She twisted, trying to free her arms. When that failed, she kicked and squirmed. He did not care. His grip was strong, but not bruisingly so. If he planned to ravish her, he intended to do it elsewhere and at his leisure.
But why her? She was of no value. The legend of the Maiden was a forgotten custom—even Meridene knew little of her birthright.
Comelier girls resided at the
Then the truth dawned, and Meridene didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. This brigand had mistaken her for one of the moneyed heiresses who called Scarborough Abbey home. She had to explain that he had erred. Then she’d laugh in his face.
Sweat dampened her skin, and she gulped for air. Knowing she’d suffocate if she continued to fight, Meridene grew still and listened. She heard only the muffled sound of his breathing.
Heartbeats later she heard the familiar creaking of the postern gate. Then she was lifted again, onto the back of a snorting, prancing horse. A hand pressed her down. The animal lunged into motion.
As soon as the churl reached his destination, she would inform him of his blunder. Whatever profit he expected for his villainy would go unpaid, for no one would ransom Meridene Macgillivray. The notion was laughable. The people of Scotland had forsaken her.
Her benefactor, Edward I of England, was dead. His son and heir, Edward II, either did not know of her existence or did not care, for he hadn’t continued her support. Now she earned her keep by the prick of a needle and the stroke of a quill.
She longed to prick this ruffian from gullet to navel, and if he did not return her immediately, she would.
An eternity later, she smelled the sea. The horse stopped. Again she was hoisted into the air and carried. Bootheels sounded on planking. Gulls screamed into the night.
After a shorter walk down a stairway, she was lowered onto something soft. Pray God it wasn’t a mattress. Pray God he did not try to ravish her before she could explain.
The gentle rocking motion confirmed their location: a ship. Heart pounding, she rolled free of the blankets and ripped the cloth from her head.
He’d brought her to a small cabin.
Her abductor stood with his back to her. No wonder he had carried her with such ease; he stood as tall and as broad as a century oak. He wore a long black robe and boots that were tooled with ancient Scottish symbols. As a child, Meridene had learned to draw those same designs.
The past rose in her mind—images of a young man, a barefoot lad who had carried himself like a prince and made promises to match.
An utterly unthinkable sensation swept over her.
Turning up the lantern flame, he faced her. “Meridene.”
She gasped in surprise. Those deep brown eyes, flaring brows, and arrestingly handsome features could belong to only one man: her husband, Revas Macduff.
Her head grew light, and she hugged herself to stave off a shudder.
He swept off the robe, and his striking red, blue, and green tartan plaid told her something else, equally unthinkable: The butcher’s son had declared himself king of the Highlands, and he’d come for his queen.
Wishing it weren’t so, and determined to play no part in Scottish politics, she easily summoned indifference. “You’ve sworn to unite the clans. You challenge my father for the Highland crown.”
Lamplight sparkled on his fair hair, turning the strands the hues of sunlight. “Aye. Most of the clans have forsaken him. He has beggared his people to buy a mercenary army.”
Scottish meant deceit, treachery, and a landscape littered with corpses. Scottish meant terrified young maidens could be beaten and abandoned, then poisoned by their father’s servant. Only the Sheltering English abbey had offered Meridene safety and a respite from the memories of her blighted Scottish heritage. The abbey had offered food and warmth and surcease from the starvation and cold that was the lot of Scottish women and children whose men cared only for their own selfish purposes.
Her stomach turned sour. “How entirely Scottish of my father.”
“ ’Tis unfair for you to scorn us all for his crimes.”
The burr in his commanding voice reinforced sad memories of Scottish monsters who had ruled her childhood. Guards outside every door. Armed soldiers escorting her even to chapel.
She shivered, but not from the cold, for a brazier radiated heat throughout the close cabin. She could not remember the last time she had thought of her father, and the nightmares had ceased years ago. “My father can buy a legion of tartars for all it matters to me.”
Her husband moved to the fire and warmed his hands. The only time she’d seen Revas Macduff, he’d been gangly and unkempt. Charmingly chivalrous, he had braved the wrath of Edward I to spare her dignity.
“You must not fear your father. He will not hurt you again.”
Had war and the promise of power vanquished the thoughtful lad she had been forced to wed so many years ago? Probably so, and for that misdeed she felt a fresh surge of anger. As surely as the church trained up priests, Scotland turned innocent lads into fighting men. It was only one of the many reasons she despised her homeland. She might have pitied Revas his circumstances, were she not so distraught by her own.
With effort, she controlled her fear. “How did you find me?”
“A message from a concerned friend.”
She’d been estranged from Scotland for so long that Meridene had been certain they’d forgotten her and the tradition that bound her to the people. Some villain had revealed her whereabouts. “Friend? I suspect ’twas a fellow kidnapper.”
“Would you have come willingly?”
The absurdity made her smile. “Of course, but not until I had grown fins and scales and acquired a taste for seawater.”
Caught off guard, he stared in shock, his lips slightly parted, his eyes alight with confusion. “ ’Tis no small matter, Meridene.”
“Not to you, perhaps.”
“I vowed I would come for you.” He crossed his arms over his chest, revealing a pair of gold bands at his wrists.
She hadn’t for a moment believed his promise, but considering his powerful size and commanding presence, he had taken the boyish pledge to heart. “When did you acquire the war bracelets?”
His jaw tightened and he stared at her chin. “I was but five and ten.”
Two years after he’d wed her, Revas Macduff had become a blooded soldier. Yet beneath the manly exterior, she could see the lad who’d sworn to suffer the perils of hell rather than betray her.
Damn him for spoiling the sweet memory. Damn him for thinking a marriage between children was real. Damn her for falling prey to him. Scotsmen had been the bane of her youth; they would not pollute her future. Especially not Revas Macduff.
“You sound apologetic for killing your first man.”
Tugging on the sleeves of his jerkin, he covered the bands of manhood. “I confess that I would rather build than destroy, a view common to many Highlanders today.”
Highlanders. Meridene’s stomach roiled. They were all brutish men who had beaten her and cast her out. The tragic turn of events saddened her, but her heart and mind had long since abandoned her homeland. As an orphan in England, she’d tried to forget her brutish people and the father who’d sent a man to poison her.
“What are you?” she challenged. “A reluctant Highland warrior turned gentle farmer? Do not expect me to believe that.”
He winced at her angry tone, then adjusted his sword belt. “Did you think I would forswear my vows to you?”
In declaring himself a contender to the Highland throne and returning Meridene to Scotland, he had outsmarted the other Highland chieftains and the now dead English king who had spirited her to safety in England. Against all odds Revas Macduff had risen to glory.
He was doomed to bask in it alone.
“I gave you little thought, Revas. Yours was a youth’s promise made to the Maiden of Inverness, who was suffering the effects of poison. I release you from your vow.”
“But I do not wish to be released from my vow.”
Go gently, she told herself—be reasonable and try to make him understand. “While I’m certain you believe your cause is just, I will not go back to Scotland.”
As if he were questioning her refusal to take honey with bread, he casually
She gritted her teeth and tried to look away. She could not. “I feel nothing but hatred for the Highlands.”
“What of your duty?”
Years of estrangement from a people who wanted her for nothing more than ceremony strengthened her will. One handsome and enterprising Scotsman would not bend it. “Duty? I was forsaken.”
“Never, Meridene, have you been forsaken by me.”
Had he turned zealot? That possibility frightened her. He was at ease in her company—comfortable, even after taking her against her will. He was easy to look upon—his face well made, his body strong, and his brown eyes alive with character.
She wanted none of it. “You should not have bothered. My life is in England. I thrive there.”
He nodded in sad commiseration, and his overlong hair raked his shoulders. “Ana said you believed ’twas so.”
Startled at his familiarity toward the girl, Meridene grew fearful for her friend. Ana had only been at the abbey for a few months. A quiet, shy girl, she followed Meridene like a cat after the fish cart. Ana was innocent. “What have you done with her?”
“Her kinsman is settling her in another cabin.”
“Her kinsman? You cannot know Ana or any of her clan. They are Sutherlands.”
He grew pensive and stared at her bare feet for so long, Meridene thought he would not reply. He seemed unaccustomed to explaining himself, another trait common among Scottish chieftains.
At length he said, “A man makes friends.”
A sense of unrealness swept over her. If he shared a camaraderie with the Sutherlands, whose land lay far to the north, Revas had done more than challenge her father. He had alienated the Macgillivrays from the other Highland clans. A powerful move. “A Macduff does not usually befriend a Sutherland. They have been enemies for hundreds of years.”
Confidence poured from him. “This Macduff does.”
He could make alliances until Gabriel again blew his horn, but Revas Macduff would never wear the Highland crown, not without her, and therein lay her strength. “I care not if the pope calls you companion. I will not go with you.”
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