Maiden of inverness, p.21

Maiden of Inverness, page 21

 

Maiden of Inverness
 


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  “I’ve sent to Inverness for a priest. Are you thirsty?” He offered her a tankard. “ ’Tisn’t your favorite, but you might like it.”

  The honey ale quenched more than her thirst; it answered a question. “You were here once before when I had the dream. You left a tankard of Randolph’s ale by the bed.”

  “Aye. On the night before I relieved Nairn.”

  She hadn’t conjured his smell or imagined his comfort; both had lingered. “How long have you been here tonight?”

  “Since high moonrise.”

  Hours. Yet the fire still blazed. “Have you slept?”

  “I’ve been thinking and occasionally reading the Covenant.”

  “You respect it more than I.”

  He shrugged and took a sip from the mug. “I’ve had years to enjoy it. It must seem odd to you, reading those accounts now that you are an adult and a wife.”

  More than he knew. “Yes.”

  “They were very important women, and their writings were helpful to a lad who knew more about skinning animals than leading men.”

  A butcher’s son. “How so?”

  “By studying their legacy, I found the courage to break with Edward the First.”

  She realized how little she knew about his rise to power. “It must have looked insurmountable to you at the time.”

  “Aye.”

  “You swore fealty to King Edward in the church before we spoke our vows.”

  “I had no choice. At three and ten I was too scared to do aught else. He also left an armed guard.”

  “Did you slay them?”

  “Nay.” He kicked off his slippers and wiggled his toes. “I took their wealth in tournaments.”

  “When did you learn to wield a sword?”

  “Soon after Edward took you away, Brodie began training me. He would have nothing less than excellence.”

  “When did the English soldiers leave Elginshire?”

  “The last was ransomed by his family five years after you left.”

  “You were eight and ten, and you bested the Plantagenet guard?”

  “I had Brodie and the assurances of the Forbes. Enough about me. Tell me every moment of your sojourn in England.”

  “Sojourn? I made my home there, and friends, too. And don’t change the subject. How did you make so many alliances?”

  “I hosted the Highland games and came to know the chieftains. The Macqueens were my first allies. Drummond had been taken by old Edward, and Randolph had just risen to chieftain of his clan. I bested him, and for a reward, I asked to foster Summerlad. We were boon companions from the start.”

  “What of the Macgillivrays?”

  “They attended the games twice. Thereafter only William came. To my disappointment, he also eventually stayed away.”

  “He sent me a message.”

  Revas’s reaction was slight, a quick movement of his shoulders, but she knew he was surprised. “When? How?”

  He must have spoken truthfully when he said he had not looked inside the package containing the bird nest. He had respected her privacy. How unScottish of him, she thought. “He put a note in the gift you brought.”

  “What was his message?”

  “That I was in danger.”

  CHAPTER

  12

  “You are in no danger, Meridene,” Revas said.

  For a week they had argued the point. “You must think me a simpleton.”

  They stood near the circle of rowans. Traffic had slowed in the yard. Sunlight glinted on the silken coronet that held her veil in place. Revas couldn’t stop picturing her beside him in bed, her mouth turned up in a smile of satisfaction, her voice husky with words of devotion.

  Buoyed by hope, he said, “I seek only your happiness.”

  “With armed guards flanking me everywhere I go?” She glared at Summerlad and Brodie, who had accompanied her and Serena on their errands. “Would you enjoy your life were you surrounded by soldiers?”

  Pointing out that he was a soldier would only anger her, and Revas was desperate to ease her mind.

  Across the yard, the stable doors swung open. A courier in Chapling livery guided his horse into the sunshine. Thank the saints she faced Revas and could not see the rider depart. The message Revas had just received from her father promised trouble, and if Meridene did not acquiesce on the matter of her guard, danger could result. But he knew better than to tell her that.

  “Well?” she demanded, her features rigid with determination. “Have you nothing to say?”

  “Only that the bachelor’s life had its merits.”

  She tried to look indignant and failed.

  He rushed to say, “Summerlad is here to carry your basket and pay court to Serena. Brodie is here to watch them.”

  “Ha!” She stepped so close, he could feel her resolve. “You will not cajole me into accepting my own personal army. Surely Brodie is enough.”

  Brodie had offered to escort her now, but her brother William had sent word that he was coming to visit. As soon as he arrived, he could squire her when other matters called Revas away. “Brodie will not carry your basket as Summerlad does. ’Tis beneath him.”

  Bless Brodie; he folded his arms and planted his feet.

  She glared at the war bracelets on the sheriff’s wrists. “Naming them porters will not change what they are and what you set them to do. I can carry my own basket.”

  Be reasonable, Revas told himself. She must agree to protection; events of the last hour confirmed it. Even now, the messenger plodded toward the main gates. “Of course, you can carry your own basket, but then Summerlad must forgo the pleasure of Serena’s company.”

  “He can court her in the common room or at the well.” She flung her arm in that direction.

  Knowing she would look there, Revas took her hand and held her attention. “His courting is better done with you looking on.”

  Serena joined the effort. “You cannot go out alone, Lady Meridene. ’Twouldn’t be proper.”

  “Not in the Highlands,” Meridene scoffed, her heated gaze fixed on Revas. “It’s the fashion of the ladies of Scotland to travel with an army.”

  He couldn’t help saying, “If this is an army, I’m a milkmaid.”

  She leveled him a look that made Serena cringe. “I will not allow you to make quibbling of my legitimate complaint. I am a prisoner, and I like it not.”

  Respect for her tempered his reply. “ ’Tis only for a while, Meridene. Will you abide it to please your husband?”

  She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, as if summoning patience. She would not engage in a personal discussion, not with an audience; of that, he was certain. He hoped she would relent and speak privately with him, but since comforting her through the last nightmare a week ago, he had been unable to get her alone. His key to her apartments had disappeared, and watching her elude him in public had become both entertaining and frustrating.

  Today he’d had enough, and he sensed she felt the same about their separation. She was just too proud to admit that she missed him.

  “Will you?”

  She opened her eyes. “Yes, if you will take me riding. Alone.”

  The contradiction in her request gave him pause. The challenge in her eyes inspired him to deviltry. “Only if we ride hotfoot to pass—”

  She slapped her hand over his mouth, cutting off his lover’s sally. He kissed her palm.

  She jerked her hand away and demanded, “Do you agree?”

  He should decline, considering the message in her father’s dispatch. But Revas Macduff hadn’t gained the respect and allegiance of the Highland chieftains by yielding to Cutberth Macgillivray. Outsmarting him had become a way of life.

  “Will you?” she insisted.

  The gates swung open. The messenger took his leave of Auldcairn Castle.

  Revas relaxed. “Aye. The lilies are blooming in Lord’s Meadow. Have Conal pack a basket, and we’ll stay the afternoon.” He hoped to languish in the field with
her and speak of ordinary things. “If you would care to go there?”

  That got her attention, but she was still wary; he could see it in her eyes. “The day will be gone before you can ready an army to escort us,” she said.

  Victory awaited. “ ’Twill be you and me, Summerlad and Serena.”

  “No one else?”

  “As you say, ’twould take too long to outfit a guard.” When her features smoothed out in disdain, he added, “And we do not need an escort.”

  Insistently she said, “We’re going outside the walls, just the four of us?”

  “And our mounts.”

  “Not the plodding mare that brought me here.”

  She had either forgotten that Revas had taken her up in the saddle with him or chose to ignore it. The latter was logical, for she was ever tentative, especially with others looking on.

  Teasing her came naturally. “A stallion?”

  Her gaze sharpened. Rising on tiptoes, she leaned close to him and whispered, “Only if he is fleet of foot and soft of mouth.”

  He was momentarily stunned by her bold innuendo. But he rallied, murmuring, “Your stallion has been known to ride throughout the night and never lose his wind or break his stride. If you have forgotten that his mouth is soft, he is ever willing to refresh your memory.”

  She drew back, her cheeks pink with embarrassment. Then she shoved her basket toward Brodie. “Will you hold this please?”

  Caught off guard, he forgot his role and took the basket. “With pleasure, my lady.”

  Looking like the queen of the May, she smiled. “How pliant of you, Sheriff.” To Revas she said, “I’ll speak with Montfichet, then change my gown and meet you in the stables.”

  “I’ll await you there.”

  She marched off, Serena on her heels.

  When they were out of earshot, Brodie sighed. “Forgive my slip of the tongue, Revas. She’s too clever for me.”

  “I know the feeling well, but now we have other business. Both of you, come with me to the stables.” When Brodie and Summerlad fell into step, Revas lowered his voice. “Brodie, you’re to send Glennie and a dozen men into the forest near Lord’s Meadow. They’re to stay out of sight while we’re there. I want no surprises with Meridene and Serena along. We’ll return before nightfall.”

  Brodie said, “But what of your flank?”

  “Send a few men after us, but at a safe distance. If even one of them shows himself, they’ll all spend the next fortnight cleaning chain mail.”

  Brodie called out for Glennie Forbes and relayed the instructions.

  Summerlad looked confused. “Why does she refuse a guard?”

  A dozen reasons came to mind, and they all involved her hatred of Scotland. What had her childhood been like? With Cutberth Macgillivray for a father, Revas could only guess. When the time was right, he’d ask her. Now he had to keep her safe and make her happy, ofttimes contradictory quests.

  “According to the messenger, Clan Davidson has returned to Cutberth’s fold.”

  Not breaking stride, Brodie passed the basket to Summerlad. “How could they be so impatient? They know the Maiden has returned. The Bishop of Nairn swore that word of her arrival has spread over all of the Highlands. Her father even sent one of those hired dogs he calls mercenaries to kidnap her.”

  He’d forfeit the Halt to have been a spider beneath his throne on the day Cutberth learned that his princess had come home. But a better experience awaited Revas: the moment she donned the crown of rowans and demanded her birthright. “She has yet to call for the sword. Cutberth claims she’s an imposter or unwilling. In either case, the Davidsons have always been loyal to the old ways.”

  “Backward-thinking Highlanders,” said young Summerlad. “If a badger held the sword of Chapling ’tween his teeth, the Davidsons would fall to their knees before the beast’s lair.”

  The bittersweet humor of it made Revas smile. He could not send assurances that Meridene would seek the sword, and he could not sway her if he couldn’t get her alone. She was coming to like Elginshire. She knew the staff and most of the villagers by name, a result of her determination to avoid Revas.

  He’d been of two minds about her strategy. By mingling with the people, she witnessed their contentment and reaped the benefits of their friendship and loyalty.

  He’d grown up in Elginshire. With the support and encouragement of the people, he had taken up the cause of unity. Now that hard-won harmony was in jeopardy. But the people had done their part. This afternoon Revas would do his, once he got her alone, and he must, for time was running out.

  He waited until they’d passed a crowd at the pie house. “There’s more ill news,” he said. “Cutberth has sent messengers to every chieftain in the Highlands. If Meridene does not demand the sword, he claims the right of guardianship over her.”

  Brodie stopped and grasped Revas’s arm. “He would take his daughter back, even though your marriage is legal?”

  And consummated. Revas suppressed a surge of desire at the memory of the joy they’d shared in the marriage bed. He wanted more from Meridene, and he knew with certainty that passion and physical need would not earn him her trust and friendship. “Aye, and with an army at his back. Cutberth’s given her until Whitsunday to appear before him.”

  Brodie cursed out loud. The noise scattered a gaggle of geese.

  It was an impossibly short time, even to a determined man. “She’s not to know of her father’s ultimatum.” He looked from one man to the other. “Have I your word?”

  They both nodded.

  Summerlad said, “What if she saw the messenger?”

  Revas looked at the main entrance. In accordance with his new and unpopular policy of recording comings and goings, the gate was now closed. Could she have seen the rider? He hoped not, for if she had, he would be forced to tell her part of the truth. But her back had been to the gate, and the man had exited before she walked to the castle moments ago.

  To satisfy Summerlad, he said, “I doubt she saw the fellow. She was too concerned with bedeviling me.”

  Brodie said, “What will Bruce do?”

  The king of Scotland wanted an alliance with the king of the Highlands. He preferred to parlay with Revas, but Bruce would wait only so long. By showing indecision on the matter of Highland leadership, he looked weak. His patience had its limit. “That depends on how many clans Cutberth can rally before Meridene demands the sword.”

  Summerlad’s face had darkened with anger. “Counting the Davidsons, he’s already won back six. The Macqueens and our liege men stand with you.”

  Drummond and Randolph had been Revas’s first allies, Summerlad his first fosterling. “We all stand for the Highlands,” Revas said. “If Cutberth comes for Meridene, we will prevail.” Rather than receive the crown in the traditional way, Revas would take the sword in battle, reducing the king of the Highlands to a warrior’s title.

  He despaired, for he wanted to rule according to custom. He wanted Meridene to present him with her father’s sword. With good reason, she hadn’t the will or the confidence to face her sire. “Summerlad, I’d like private time with Meridene today.”

  “I understand, Revas.”

  Revas wanted to woo his wife. He almost chuckled at the innocent thought, for he must keep a tight rein on his desire. Should his passions run amok, he pledged to seek a diversion in the safe topic of Gibby and her new duties as handmaiden. “Meridene has been away a very long time.”

  The lad sneered. “With the heathen English. They’ve ruined her for us.”

  “They only influenced her. She fears her father.” As soon as the words were out, Revas regretted speaking them, for he knew how dearly she regarded her privacy. Henceforth, he would respect it.

  “Are we to arm ourselves?” Summerlad asked.

  “Only with dirk and short sword. We’re porters, remember?”

  Summerlad laughed. “You’re the salt to her spice, Revas.”

  Lord make it so, he prayed,
for he longed for harmony between them. “You’re to leave your war bands and your husbandly ambitions here.”

  Now cocky, Summerlad replied, “What of yours?”

  His instinct was to expound, but loyalty stopped him. Meridene would consider their discussion an intrusion of her privacy. Revas had another reason for avoiding the subject; only Brodie and Father Thomas knew of the consummation. “My vows were said years ago.”

  “And you’re too noble to seduce her before she fulfills her duty as the Maiden and claims the sword.”

  Revas should have felt guilty, but he did not, for he was beholden to a greater cause. “True.”

  Summerlad shook his head in youthful awe. “She must have been a bonny wee lassie.”

  “Oh, aye,” said Brodie. “All green eyes and hair as dark as moonset. Never was a prettier Maiden born to the legend.”

  Revas remembered a gentle and clever lass with skin smoother than anything a common lad had ever touched. At the time she knew more about Scottish politics than he. Now he’d taken her part, and she his. Pray that changed, too.

  “You were smitten with her from the start,” Brodie taunted. “You should have seen him, Summerlad.” Brodie elbowed Revas in the ribs. “Soon after King Edward took her away, our butcher’s son became a swordsman, and a devil with mace and spear. And the lance—all of his targets were the bloody Englishmen who held his bride.”

  Too guilty to protest, Revas said, “Let’s hope they taught her to ride. Now go and hurry the Forbes.”

  * * *

  Meridene guided the spirited stallion toward Revas, who stood with his own mount near an ancient stone structure just inside a stand of towering larches. Dressed in well-worn trunk hose and a quilted leather tunic, he looked like a gentle man, rather than a warrior eager to command all of the Highlands.

  He had kept his word. On the far side of the broad meadow, Summerlad and Serena watched a storm of yellow butterflies frolic in the lilies.

  Birdsong filled the air, and squirrels foraged noisily in the trees.

  Meridene was alone with her husband.

  Grasping her waist, he set her on the ground. “You enjoyed the ride?”

 
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