Maiden of inverness, p.23

Maiden of Inverness, page 23

 

Maiden of Inverness
 


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  “A word, Revas,” Brodie called out.

  Pulling her along, Revas said, “ ’Twill wait, my friend.”

  “I fear not.”

  Revas stopped. She withdrew her hand and left them on the steps. Just as she opened the door, she heard Revas call her back. On the threshold, she stopped, stunned, for there—at a table near the hearth—sat an aging priest. Beside him stood a man who looked so much like her father, she cringed.

  “Welcome home, little Maiden.”

  CHAPTER

  13

  Revas raced up the steps and into the common room.

  Back rigid, hands clasped tightly, Meridene faced her brother, who gazed at her with unabashed affection. The priest stared from one sibling to the other.

  A cauldron simmered over the hearth fire. Empty benches and stools had been pushed beneath the tables in preparation for the evening meal. All appeared normal, save the tension that hung like a storm in the close air.

  Revas moved quickly to her side, but she was unaware of his presence.

  “I thought never to see you again.” Her voice was devoid of warmth or scorn.

  William’s bulky shoulders sagged and his lips thinned. Even in disappointment, he bore a striking resemblance to their father. Did that likeness hold Meridene back, or had she spoken truly when she said she had no love in her heart for her kinsmen?

  “And I you, dear sister. Though I prayed for a word from you. You are well?” His inquiring gaze slid to Revas.

  “Well enough, William,” she said.

  No cutting remark about Scotland. No praise for England. Looking down at her, Revas was reminded of the lass he’d met and wed that day so long ago. Yet time and circumstances had changed her; the brave girl had become a poised woman.

  Into the tense silence, Revas said, “Welcome, William and Father John. We’ve been a-fielding.” With a look, he implored William to have patience. “If you will excuse us, we must tidy ourselves.”

  He felt her awareness a moment before she glanced up at him, and Revas was unprepared to see her green eyes barren of emotion. An hour ago, they had shimmered with excitement and passion.

  He swallowed hard. “Shall we rid ourselves of the smell of horse and forest?”

  Please, her expression said.

  Compassion flooded him, and he cursed himself for thinking her brother’s presence would make her happy. Did the demons of her nightmares brave the light of day?

  He took her hand. It quivered like the wings of a frightened bird, and her palm was damp to the touch.

  As a lad, he’d been unable to protect her. As a man, he’d fared no better. He hadn’t thought beyond the physical harm she might suffer. To his dismay, he now knew that Meridene’s hurt lay deeper. It was a bitter admission to a man who prided himself on his ability to understand and lead the people of this land.

  He turned to escort her from the room.

  “Meridene,” William called out, as if hesitant to see her go. “I’ve brought you something.” He picked up a large sack that was tied with a rope and held it out to her. “ ’Tis a letter from my beloved and gifts from my children.”

  Her breathing grew shallow, and her hand began to shake in earnest. Revas took the package.

  A puzzled and waiting William tilted his head. “The other is yours, by right and title.”

  As silent as a stone, she allowed Revas to draw her from the room. Once in her chamber, she pulled her hand free and poured herself a drink of water. The goblet shook, even though she held it with both hands, and she breathed so deeply, her shoulders rose and fell.

  Thinking she needed a moment to order her thoughts, Revas walked to his favorite spot. Half-completed, the new tapestry depicted a massive tree, but what began as the trunk became the torso of a man wearing an empty sword belt. Rather than branches, two arms stretched out toward the tapestry’s edge and spread great shadows on the forest floor, where the sword of Chapling lay. Whose face would crown the work?

  Brilliantly imaginative in scope and exquisite to each pass of the shuttle, the piece, when finished, would inspire conversation. Unfinished, it engaged his curiosity.

  As did its creator.

  “Why has William come?”

  Tapestry forgotten, Revas approached her. “His arrival does not cheer you?”

  “Cheer me?” Color flooded her neck and face. “You expect me to rejoice at the sight of a Macgillivray?”

  He felt alone, as if he stood before the gates of his enemy’s stronghold with only riderless horses at his back. “Your happiness is my foremost concern.”

  She put down the goblet, and with much effort, smoothed the wrinkles from her gown. “I thought my safety was.”

  William had written that she was in danger. “Do you fear him?”

  A glimmer of challenge shone in her eyes but was quickly gone. “I do not know him.”

  But she knew herself and governed her emotions too well. Her feelings were there, in her heart, locked up tight. There he would go. “He favors Cutberth in appearance.”

  Turning her head to the side, she folded her arms at her waist. “As I recall, yes. Our kinsmen are all fair of face and hair.”

  William was Revas’s age, only a few years younger than Cutberth had been when Meridene last saw her father. No wonder she trembled. The passage of years had not altered her image of the man who spoke to his daughter with his fist and thrust her into the hands of a foreign king.

  Her scars were old, long festering, and he must help to heal them. “Tell me how you feel, Meridene.”

  She sat on the arm of the chair and examined her fingernails. “Honestly, I do not know.”

  “Are you saddened? Angry?”

  “Rather I feel scattered.”

  Revas knelt beside her. “Should I have asked if you wanted to see him?”

  She tried to smile. “As if you would obey me.”

  Self-pity wouldn’t do, not if she was to meet and conquer the ghosts of her past. Reassuring her came easily. “Command me, then,” he said. “For I am your champion until the withering of the last thistle.”

  She sighed and touched his shoulder.

  “What,” he implored, “is in your heart?”

  Her eyes were full of sorrow, and her voice distant. “Past hurts and confusion. The urge to run.” She gazed out the window. “An absence of destination.”

  Like a petal floating on a slow-moving stream, she drifted away from him. Desperate to keep her, he clutched her wrist. “If you will run to me, I will listen. By my oath, I will stand beside you and offer up my life to please you.”

  Her chin quivered; she pressed her fingers there. “You will expect too much of me.”

  Of every man, woman, and child he knew, only his daughter spoke so frankly to him. Gibby trusted him. Was Meridene coming to believe in him as well? “Tell me what you wish to do.”

  Meridene almost scoffed at the question. What could she do? He had made no offer to send William away. He’d given no assurance that her father did not follow. Revas was destined to make her face a past that loomed like a great black void. A tragedy, for in the span of a day she’d soared to the heavens, only to plunge into the depths of despair. Uncertainty and the unknown awaited her.

  In his note, William had said she was in danger. From where? Whom?

  Fear squeezed her chest, and she longed to retreat to a quiet place where only harmless thoughts and happy days awaited.

  Revas held out the sack to her. “Will you accept William’s gifts?”

  Unaccustomed to hearing her brother’s name spoken casually, Meridene didn’t know what to feel about the only one of her siblings who’d bothered to befriend her. But William wasn’t an adventurous boy. In Meridene’s absence, he had acquired a beloved wife and children. No legacy had prevented him from following his heart. No traditions dictated his future.

  Bitterness cast a pall over the joy she’d felt earlier in the day. But she must move on, else she’d dwell, helpless, in a bog of s
orrow.

  Revas was doing his part to aid her, and she did trust him. His reasons for wanting her were plain; he hadn’t colored up his ambitions with love words or deceits. From the moment he’d faced her in the ship’s cabin, he had been forthright in his mission.

  That she’d come to love him felt natural of late. Even so, the future looked bleak. “Yes,” she said with all the confidence she could manage. “Let’s see what William has brought.”

  “I love surprises.” Revas’s agile fingers worked at the knot. So dear, he was, and so willing to run before her troubles.

  Anticipation gleamed in his eyes as he peered into the sack. “A letter for you.” He plucked it out and put it on her lap.

  William had mentioned a message from his beloved. Read it later, her heart pleaded. Learn what other tokens he’d brought, her courage said.

  “A gift of—” Revas held a small sack to his nose and sniffed. “The original and very rare scent of heather. From your niece.” The bundle joined the letter. “The wee lassie is named for you, the best of all the Macgillivrays.” He jiggled his fair eyebrows. “Since Hacon dragged your namesake into his cave.”

  At the comical image and the artless compliment it implied, Meridene felt her indifference waver and her composure falter. He was playing a part to please her, and in the doing, he revealed yet another delightful aspect to an altogether enchanting man.

  Not waiting for a comment, he again delved into the sack. “A string of pinfeathers,” he announced. “From William’s son to his favorite aunt. The plumage of the black cock brings the bearer good fortune, you know.”

  Impatience forced her to say, “Leave off, Revas. The boy doesn’t know me. I cannot be his favorite.”

  An expression of mock injury gave him a jolly air, and with great ceremony, he again thrust his arm into the sack. He twisted his wrist, feeling for the items within. Metal chinked. He ignored it and went on with his search.

  “Revas?”

  His hand stilled. He grew serious.

  “What have you found?”

  Slowly and with much hesitance, he produced a velvet pouch. Threadbare in places and repaired in many more, the cloth had once been very fine. He worked open the frayed drawstring, but his gaze stayed fixed on her. When he tipped the bag, a golden chain tumbled into her lap.

  The other is yours by right and title.

  Her first thought was to reject the symbol, but she must overcome the cowardice that made her quake. Willing her hands to still, she picked up the chain.

  Catherine’s written description had not overflattered the chain of office. Using the crude tools of his age, the goldsmith had done credit to his craft. Cloverleaf-sized links in the shape of cinquefoils were connected with small discs, each bearing a thistle, the ancient symbol of Clan Chapling. The belt symbolized the marriage of the Maiden to the king of the Highlands.

  “The Maiden’s belt?” Revas asked.

  Without doubt, it was, but Meridene had never before seen it. “Why didn’t my mother wear it? She styled herself the Maiden.”

  “Perhaps she was like Isobel and took up only some of the duties. Not every Maiden served with the dedication and authority of Meridene.”

  She spread her hands over the items in her lap. “I do not seek the legacy, Revas. And I am unprepared for so much responsibility.”

  He watched her closely. “ ’Tis your choice to make, and I must confess the pocked keys to Auldcairn Castle will surely corrupt your golden chain.”

  Charm came effortlessly to him; another of his admirable qualities. He also seemed vulnerable—odd, considering she was the one facing the demons. But not alone, not if she wished his help.

  Decisively he returned the items to the sack, taking great care with the feathers. “ ’Twill wait,” he said, as if her decision were none of his affair. “I’m certain you’d like to bathe.”

  She thought of their heated coupling amid the moss-covered stones. The last safe moment she might ever know, for her life was irrevocably changing. “Because of what we did at the ruins?”

  “Nay.” He kissed her nose. “Because you smell of the other stallion.”

  Before she could protest at his vulgarity, he rose. “I’ll send in your handmaidens and have Sim show Father John to Thomas’s quarters. Then I’ll settle William in the south tower.”

  “How long will he stay?”

  Plaintively he said, “Till Whitsunday, I would suppose, unless you wish it otherwise.”

  Whitsunday was a fortnight away. “Did you send for him, or does he come at my father’s bidding?”

  “He will break from Cutberth. He even wears the Macgillivray tartan, not the cloth of Chapling.”

  She hadn’t noticed William’s garments; she’d been unable to take her eyes from the face she remembered all too well. “He called me little Maiden.”

  “ ’Twas the first time?”

  “No, but why would he address me so, unless he thought I had returned to Scotland willingly?”

  He cleared his throat and glanced at the door. “I cannot speak for William Macgillivray.”

  He avoided the subject. Why? “You led the people of Elginshire to believe I’d returned cheerfully.”

  Looking like a man who didn’t know what to do with his free hand, he rubbed his thigh. “I am guilty of that.”

  “But not without remorse of late.”

  “Aye. I am, as you say, ambitious and overeager to grow old in peace among these people. I should like to see all of my children and all of their children christened in the chapel.”

  Simply said, the noble thought spoke loudly of his sense of duty. So seldom had she been a party to such unselfish stewardship, she felt honor-bound to endorse it. “The people of Elginshire are fortunate to have you.”

  He acknowledged the compliment with a poignant smile. “What will you do?”

  After a bath and a little more time to reassure herself, she would face her brother. “Ask William to join us at table. Shall you and I go together?”

  The sack hit the floor. A broad smile perfectly transformed him into the lad she’d known long ago, a butcher’s son who’d promised to come for the Maiden of Inverness.

  He swept her into his arms and hugged her fiercely. “Always, my love.”

  His devotion disarmed her, and if she didn’t watch herself, she’d grovel at his feet and find herself nose-deep in Scottish intrigues, a crown of rowans on her head.

  “Wait!” he said, and held her at arm’s length. “What if Montfichet serves your English fare?”

  He looked so engrossed in the dilemma, she grasped the opportunity to lighten the mood. “Stuffed eggs and spring greens?”

  “Not,” he said with great effect, “the typical Scotsman’s fare.”

  An odd choice of words, for he was anything but typical. “Then I shall eat more than my share,” she said. “And William will have an adventurous meal. But what will you do if Montfichet serves haggis?” Revas hated haggis.

  He looked deeply into her eyes. “I shall persevere.” Softer he said, “The new tapestry is exceedingly fine.”

  Pride glowed inside her, and she almost flung her arms around his neck. But she’d been alone with her feelings for too many years, and decorum reigned. “Thank you.”

  “Do not forget,” he said sternly. “You were a clever lass when last you saw William. Shall I tell him of the siren you’ve become?”

  The ruins. The lovemaking beneath a canopy of larches. If Revas spoke of their—

  “ ’Twasn’t that, Meridene.” Hands on his hips, arms akimbo, he looked affronted to his soul.

  A smile brightened her spirits and embarrassment heated her cheeks. He’d done his best to banish her fear; she must return the favor, and with friendship. “You’re a devil and more, Revas Macduff.”

  “So Brodie often says, but I swear the sound of it is sweeter upon your lips.” He cupped her cheek. “Name me the grandest fool o’ the Highlands, but I think I should summon your handma
idens.”

  The courteous remark and loving gesture smacked of evasion, for Revas Macduff was ever the rogue. He was prepared to leave, but why? Unless—The truth dawned, and she didn’t know whether to accuse him of intrigue or compliment him for a gallant. “You wish to speak alone with William.”

  He licked his lips and stared at her lap. “I wish to ease your troubled mind and await your pleasure.”

  When he did not move, she knew he’d trapped himself with contradictions. To learn the truth, she must make him squirm in the lair. Boldness was her tool.

  She lifted her brows. “You would depart, rather than pour my bath?”

  Immediately alert, he looked deeply into her eyes. Bless his roguish heart; he was weighing his options. She lifted her brows.

  “ ’Tis unfair, Meridene, to pose a quandary now.”

  “You haven’t always been fair to me.”

  “Fairness often fails in matters of the heart.”

  A devil snatched her tongue. “ ’Twasn’t your heart I hoped to engage in the bath.”

  His mouth dropped open, and he blinked in surprise.

  A smile tickled her cheeks, but she held her composure.

  “Siren doesn’t suit you.” He pointed an index finger at her. “Vixen does.”

  She did smile then, and when his eyes narrowed, she thought the exchange singularly fine.

  His jaw worked, and his thoughts showed clearly in his keen gaze. Then his expression turned doleful. “Heed me well. Should I stay and visit upon you the lust that gnaws at my loins, ’twill make us inexcusably tardy. ’Tis poor manners, you must agree, in any man’s house.”

  She flamed with mortification, but pressed on. “Especially when the object of your lust is a wife who is known to be chaste?”

  “If you are chaste,” he said pointedly, “then I am a Cornishman.”

  She laughed and truthfully said, “And I’ve exhausted my lovers’ sallies.”

  He grasped her chin and lifted her face. Moving close, he murmured, “ ’Tis enough spice from you.”

  “Be gone, Revas.”

  “And should you wear that pink silk concoction to table tonight, I shall revive Hacon’s part.”

 
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