Maiden of Inverness, page 20
“Much has changed now.”
“Yes, and I’ll wager the treasury of flower pennies that you never even meant to kiss me.”
“Then you’ll lose, Meridene.”
As if to prove it, he kissed her, and her fingers curled until the edges of the shells bit into her palm. Knowing she’d yield again, she said, “I should hide these.”
“You don’t want your handmaidens to know?”
The need for privacy came naturally to one raised in a convent. She shouldn’t feel sad for wanting to keep secret their intimacy, but she did. “Do you?”
He shrugged. “When you conceive, they will know.”
When, not if. Too stunned to answer, she ducked her head and busied her hands with putting away the gown. He had beguiled her, for she’d forgotten the one tie that would irrevocably bind her to him: a child.
Logic urged her not to worry, but a greater danger dawned. Their marriage was sealed. No annulment would be forthcoming. Her plan to have them caught in a compromising position had gone awry; she’d lost more than he. “We consummated our vows.”
He grinned. “Aye, and quite satisfactorily. Your namesake would have been pleased.”
Blaming him was unfair, but she couldn’t help doing it. “You took advantage of me.”
He gave her a dubious frown. “ ’Tis dishonorable of you to cry foul now, Meridene. You fairly begged me to love you.”
Anger ripped through her at his notion of honor and love. That her scheme of seduction had gone awry only added to her ire.
She slammed the lid of the trunk. “I never begged.” But she had, shamelessly, wantonly.
“I suppose ’tis better said that you made a convincing request, and I hadn’t the will to resist.”
Both of them had paid a high price: he a sword, she a safe future devoid of Scottish intrigues. Why did he have to be so understanding and engaging? “You have an obliging conscience.”
He tucked the Covenant under his arm. “And a ravenous appetite. Shall we fill our bellies, then later indulge ourselves again? What say you to breaching passion’s gate a third time?”
And run the risk of conceiving a child? No. She’d achieved her goal, though she hadn’t fully counted the consequences. Now she must sort through her options. Denying the desire that lingered even now promised a new dilemma. “I’m rather tired.”
He lifted her chin and looked into her eyes. “Did I hurt you?”
Only if rapture could be considered an injury, she wanted to say. Instead, she spoke a heartfelt truth. “No. You made a lie of the fearful tales of the marriage bed. For that I thank you.”
He took great pleasure in her answer, for his eyes shone with joy, and as he led her from the room, Meridene made a remarkable discovery. For the second time in her life, she felt completely at ease in the company of a Highlander. On the first occasion he’d been a boy anticipating his own demise at the hand of a foreign king. On the second, the Highlander was a man who’d given up achieving through ceremony the unity of Scotland to claim the hand of a desired wife. She’d spent years honing her hatred for Scotland and her people. In less than a fortnight, Revas Macduff had dulled the edge of her enmity.
She paused in the torchlit hallway. “Do I look different?”
With the same hand that had touched her so intimately, he caressed her cheek. “Only to me, Meridene.”
He kept his voice low. “You bear the glow of a woman well loved, but you are frightened of what you feel, and you hesitate to trust me.”
Honesty compelled her to say, “Scottish people have seldom concerned themselves with what is best for me.”
“Not the Scots you know today. Certainly not I. You are my foremost concern, and I swear on the soul of my father that we will thrive in peace here.”
* * *
All of that changed the next morning when he returned from confession. Standing in the common room with the steward, Meridene watched Revas barge into the castle and scale the stairs three at a time. No sooner had the doors closed than Sheriff Brodie burst inside and raced after him.
A quarrel ensued, but she could not make out Revas’s angry words or Brodie’s equally forceful replies. Amid a clamoring of shield, sword, and spurs, a mail-clad Revas barreled down the stairs. Ignoring her and Sim, he gave the doors a mighty kick, then stormed into the yard.
Meridene closed the ledger. “I would say he is vexed, Sim.”
The steward whistled. “Pity the man who gained his wrath.”
Brodie started down the stairs. “Then say a prayer for our cleric.”
Sim gasped. “Oh, no. They’ve never crossed swords in anger.”
Brodie made a fist. “ ’Twill be a fight for certain this time.”
“How Scottish of them,” Meridene mused. “Why do they quarrel?”
“I suspect the cleric took offense at Revas’s confession.”
She studied their worried faces, but found no end to her puzzlement. “What black sin could Revas have committed, and when? The day is young, and he’s just broken his fast.”
The sheriff stared at his boots. “I do not know the particulars.”
He lied; his withdrawal told her so. But she was more concerned with the danger to her husband. She snatched up her veil and headed for the door.
“You shouldn’t watch, my lady. When bad humors are upon them, they are bloody wicked fighters.”
Meridene ignored Brodie; curiosity had her in its throes.
A crowd had begun to gather in the tiltyard. Flanked by Summerlad and Glennie Forbes, Revas stood near the quintain, his sword and shield at his feet. Rage hardened his features, and his arms were stiff with restrained fury. Small wonder he led so many Highland clans; battle-ready and determined, he looked as if he could conquer all of Christendom.
With renewed vigor, the agony of her dilemma returned. She couldn’t live among these people, a crown of rowans on her head. They deserved a Maiden who believed in the Covenant, not some English-raised stranger whose dreams were plagued with Scottish monsters. Yet where else had she to go? How would she get there? Whom could she trust?
Having no answers, she pushed away the quandary and picked up her step. As she approached Revas, she called his name. He watched her, but his attention was inwardly focused.
“Excuse us,” she said to his young escorts.
When Summerlad and Glennie moved out of hearing distance, she put her hand on Revas’s arm. The chain mail felt warm and imposing beneath her fingers. “Why have you and the cleric come to odds?”
His smile was forced. “No reason that you should concern yourself with.”
“Why not? Because it involves swords and words between men?”
“Meridene.” He rested his arm on the quintain post. “I know what you are thinking.”
In the span of a night, he’d changed from a devoted lover to a dangerous soldier bent on salving his bruised pride. He looked so imposing, so set in his ways, she dropped her hand and said, “Tell me what I am thinking.”
“You think us animals for settling our differences in the tiltyard.”
He’d gotten it all wrong. She knew well the warring practices of Scots, but Revas Macduff was no animal; none of God’s other creatures cherished the females of their breed. Revas had made her shiver with longing and weaken with the promise of a happy future. She simply wanted to be a part of his life. A need, she decided, that had been born of their intimacy. Foolishness, for he excluded her at will. She did not fit in here. Never would.
Bother his ill manners; she could not give up without a fight. “What did Father Thomas do to earn your wrath?”
“He overstepped himself.”
“That shouldn’t surprise you.”
Grudgingly he said, “He’s a good priest.”
“For his fellow man perhaps. It’s only women he ill serves.”
That notion distracted him. He tilted his head to the side and stared into her eyes.
“He admonished me when he should have counseled me.”
“That’s no answer. What did you do?”
His anger vanished. “I made love to you.”
As always in personal matters, she felt inclined to reticence. But if the cleric knew, others would find out. She scanned the crowd to see if his soldiers were listening. They were not. “You told him about us? About last night?”
He stared at something behind her. “He is my confessor.”
“But you committed no sin.” She, on the other hand, had erred by giving him leverage to keep her in Scotland. But, Lord, the experience had enlightened and satisfied her and made her think for a little while that her dreams could come true.
“Nay, I have not sinned, except to a cleric who cares more for politics than souls.”
Aha! “I told you he was such a man. He condemned me for ignoring my vows.”
“He condemned me for consummating them.”
“Because I cannot now claim the sword of Chapling.”
“Exactly. He said you tempted me. Can you imagine such a thing?”
Hedging might be best, for she had planned a seduction of sorts. She hadn’t considered that she’d fall prey to her own wanton desire. “He’s a poor priest, and yes, the memory of what passed between you and me is quite vivid.”
As if trying to hold on to his anger, he folded his arms over his chest and grumbled, “He was always better with a sword than a Psalter.”
At least he realized the priest’s faults. “You can best him, can you not?”
“ ’Tis probable.”
She took note of the equivocation. The sheriff had said that, too. “Explain yourself.”
“Never have we battled in anger, and I committed a folly.”
On the field of errors, Revas Macduff was a rank amateur compared to her. She had fallen in love with a man who would force her to live among her demons. He asked the impossible of her. “Go on.”
“I boasted that I could defeat him with one arm tied at my back. He’ll hold me to it.”
In her heart she knew Revas Macduff would prevail. Still, she felt bound to aid him. He had rescued her. She could not claim the sword. Her purpose in Scotland had not been served. “If you allow him to make a widow of me, I will kill you myself.”
At the absurdity of her words, he laughed. “We haven’t had a moment alone. You retired early last night. Are you truly well?”
She understood what he meant, and his concern pleased her. “Aye.”
“You have no discomfort?”
“Only a guilty conscience.” She hadn’t counted on loving him so much.
“Now you cannot seek an annulment.”
She wasn’t sure she wanted one. A pity they weren’t ordinary people—wheat farmers with weather and pestilence as their most serious concern. A curse on swords and crowns and kingdoms. “No one else has to know, and it needn’t happen again.”
“I know what occurred.” His voice dropped and his gaze sharpened. “And I intend for us to be fruitful and multiply.”
Try as she would, she could not separate the man from his heritage. Neither could she do the same with her heart and her hatred for Highland ways. “If I give you sons, you will teach them to be soldiers.”
“I’ll teach them to cherish and govern and defend this land.”
“With a mace and siege engines and no care for their souls?”
“With fairness and strength and a care for their mother’s heart.”
Mother. She’d have children to nurse and love. Lads to send into battle. Innocent daughters to barter like sheep. “No.”
A son to be carried home in a litter, his body broken, his soul unshriven. “I hate this warring land.”
He clutched her upper arms. “Then help me bring peace to it,” he said through clenched teeth. “Tis within our grasp.”
So strong was his conviction, she felt her hatred waver. But other men were ambitious too. “My father enjoys wearing the sword of Chapling and the crown.”
“I know. He strutted about the parliament like a cock in a hen yard. ’Tis an empty kingdom he rules.”
“While your kingdom is full of righteous-thinking Scots.”
He waved an arm. “See you any discord?”
Resolution blanketed her. “Only a man ready to slay a priest.”
Rebuffed, he snatched up his gauntlets. “I will not slay him.” Again he glanced past her. “Gibby is coming. Will you keep her beside you?”
“She cannot watch. What if you’re injured?”
“She’s a Highland lassie and accustomed to displays of Scottish valor.”
“If taking up a sword to decide a matter of faith is heroism, I’m the queen o’ the May.”
“Nay. You’re the grand princess of the Highland folk, and I am your champion.”
“Mine? You said the cleric found fault with you. Has he also belittled me?”
“I’ll not be the excuse for bloodshed.”
“I must defend your honor.”
Realization dawned, and with it came welcome relief from the guilt she felt for loving him. She threw up her hands. “Your valor is misplaced. I suspect he defamed not me, but the Maiden of Inverness. What precisely did he say?”
“He said you sinned as Eve, that you seduced me.”
“I told him you were innocent.”
“You discussed me as if I were a fractious horse that pitched you into the bracken? I’m mortified, Revas. How could you?”
His mouth broadened in a fake smile. “Gibby,” he said, drawing his daughter between them. “You’re to stay with Meridene.”
“Gibby,” Meridene said, nudging the girl toward him. “You’re to stay with your father.” Then she headed for the church.
Male pride be damned. She wasn’t some serf’s daughter trapped in the justice of the ruling class. She was the Maiden of Inverness.
She almost stumbled at that hated thought. No ceremony. She was a daughter of nobility—nothing more. She would be heard.
She found Father Thomas dressed in battle gear and kneeling at the altar. So sacrilegious was the air in the chapel, she did not genuflect, but waited.
The door opened behind her. Revas stepped inside. The priest rose and came toward them. Flanked by a well-intentioned husband and an angry priest, Meridene lost her patience. “I condemn both of you for poor Christians. Kill yourselves if you will, but not because of me.”
Father Thomas radiated condescension. “We do not fight to the death.”
“I see. Only until one of you is maimed.”
“First blood,” said Revas, obviously eager to shed it.
“Why not settle your squabble with bows and arrows and a stout oak for target?” she asked.
Father Thomas slapped his gauntlets against his open palm. “Why not settle it yourself and praise God in the doing by demanding the sword of Chapling? Cutberth cannot know you’ve lost your innocence.”
Like a spent candlewick sputtering in a pool of wax, her patience waned. “You speak of me as if I were some vessel, necessary to quench your thirst, but bothersome otherwise. How many other women have you served in so shoddy a fashion?”
All imperial and goodly servant of God, he glared down at her. “You have a duty.”
She turned to Revas. “You ask why I hate this land of monsters? Look at yourselves and you will see my demons come to life. You’re no different than my father or any other Scotsman who covets power. Bend a knee to each other if you will, but leave me out of your rituals!”
Too distraught to continue, she left them there and locked herself in her room. Darkness found her bent over her loom, her heart aching with regrets and her soul heavy with sadness. As she readied herself for bed, she thought of her room at Scarborough Abbey. She thought of the fishwife who made creamy mullet stew. She thought of Sister Margaret and longed
She awakened screaming, and she found herself held securely in Revas’s arms.
“Shush, Meridene.” He rocked her gently. “ ’Tis over. No one will hurt you now.”
She felt chilled, damp, and hollow. “How did you come to be here?”
“You cried out.”
A deep shame settled over her. “Did the others hear?”
“Only Serena, and she is unfailingly loyal to you.”
“I’m sorry I disturbed you.”
“Had you come to table tonight, I would have said that very thing to you.”
“ ’Twas true, what you said in the chapel about Thomas and me. We value our pride more than those we have sworn to protect. For that I am deeply sorry.”
“It’s all those oaths you swear. You rob yourself of volition.”
He gave her a gentle squeeze. “You put it nicely, Meridene. We are selfish creatures who remember warring and forget the things we truly love.”
He couldn’t love her, not when she feared unto death making a home here. “Are you hurt? Who prevailed?”
“Nay, I haven’t a scratch. I bested him at arrows.”
They’d taken her advice. The knowledge lightened her weary spirits. “Pity the penitents on the morrow.”
A concerned frown creased his brow. “Father Thomas has gone. He felt the need for a pilgrimage to renew his vows. He gave me a message for you.”
“I’m not certain I wish to hear it, Revas.”
“ ’Twill cheer you.”
“Tell me then.”
“He said you were correct about the role of the church. He also said there is no greater concern for a priest than the well-being of God’s children, especially eight-year-old girls with no one to protect them.”
As Meridene had been. But she’d left that lonely child behind. “It does cheer me, but who will say mass?”
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