Maiden of inverness, p.24

Maiden of Inverness, page 24

 

Maiden of Inverness
 


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  She flustered. “You never would!”

  In a trice, he thought, and let the desire flow over him. Praise Saint Columba, he’d been given a prize for wife. He forced himself to kiss her cheek, when he wanted to suckle her breasts.

  “Curse you, Revas Macduff, for leaving me with one of your dreadful quandaries. I adore the pink gown.”

  He left her there, her lovely features pert with challenge, his loins afire with lust, and went in search of William Macgillivray.

  * * *

  “I had hoped for so much more at my first meeting with her. What has happened to Meridene?”

  William stood near the mullioned windows in the south tower, his arm propped on the casement. Revas sat on a wooden bench near the brazier, his mind whirling with indecision.

  He chose the truthful path. “She has suffered mightily at the hands of her kinsmen.” Guilt forced him to add, “And mine, too, for she did not embrace her return to Scotland.”

  “You forced her?”

  “She’s my wife.”

  “But abduction—”

  “ ’Twould not have been necessary had the Macgillivrays not forsaken her thirteen years ago.”

  Squinting, William stared into the yard. “ ’Tis a wretched lot, having Cutberth Macgillivray for father.”

  “Especially for the only daughter.”

  Lips pursed, William shook his head. “She was a bright lass, sooner to walk and quicker to learn than any of us. Our little Maiden.”

  “She noted that you addressed her just so.”

  “And felt the butt of my father’s knuckles, did he hear of it.”

  The first Vesper bell sounded. Soon the din in the village would cease. Stalls would close as the faithful of Elginshire thronged to evening prayers. Civility made him say, “Will you attend church?”

  “Not this eve. I accompanied Father John from Inverness. He has heard my confession.”

  William’s misery was heart-deep, and Revas felt bound to ease it. “I believe you can revive her affection, if you go slowly.”

  “She said as much?”

  “Not in so many words, but I’m certain ’tis true.”

  “What else did she say of the past?”

  “She wondered why your mother never wore the Maiden’s belt.”

  “ ’Twas always in our father’s keeping. I took it on my last visit to Kilbarton.”

  Revas grew fearful. “What will he do when he finds it missing?”

  William scoffed. “ ’Twas hidden in his sanctuary and buried ’neath a layer of dust.”

  “Your mother never pined for want of the chain of office?”

  “Not that I ever heard of. Our mother is—” He stopped and sighed. When he spoke again, it was with an apology. “My father never honored the traditions of the Maiden. He’s fond of saying that had our mother not been a good breeder, he would have cast her off. Thank God she delivered all of her children safely.”

  Revas stared in confusion. “What of the miscarriage?”

  “Oh, nay,” he said with much emotion. “Not our mother.”

  A lie. Their mother had miscarried her first child; of that, Revas was certain. She had put it down in the Covenant.

  Pity they had not broached the subject years ago, when William attended the Highland games at Elginshire. Still, Revas intended to learn what he could about the workings of the Macgillivray family. “Your mother set down no words in the Covenant.” Not words. Only dates.

  “True. My father bragged of it. But how do you know that?”

  As always, Revas felt a part of the traditions. Years of studying the chronicles had made it so. “On the day we were wed, Meridene left the book with me for safekeeping.”

  William crossed the room and plopped down in the chair that faced Revas. “Ah. Father wondered how you knew so much about the customs. He calls you a cur pup who favors the ceremonies of women and says you are too cowardly to try to take the sword from him in battle.”

  By way of gossip, Revas had heard that insult and a dozen more. “ ’Tis a mistake for Cutberth to recall my greener days.”

  “He tries to goad you into war again.”

  In the fall of 1307, with Bruce’s army at his back, Cutberth had commanded Revas to surrender, else he’d put Nairn to the torch. Outnumbered and outsmarted, Revas had no choice but to retreat to Elgin. Two days later, word had come of Nairn’s fall. Upon hearing of Cutberth’s treachery, Bruce had distanced himself from Highland politics. Cutberth returned to his Highland throne, but the taunts continued.

  If he engaged Revas again, he would see a different soldier. “Your father wears a bloody crown.”

  William laughed, but the sound held no humor. “Who better than I knows the cruelty of which he is capable?”

  Revas’s throat grew thick. “Meridene knows. His treatment of her is beyond redemption. Never has he cared about her.”

  “How could he care for her when only God and she could alter his destiny? From the moment she understood the importance of her birthright, her fate with Father was sealed. He knew he must one day yield his power to her.”

  Revas reached for his dirk. “Do you defend him?”

  “Sweet Saint Ninian, nay, and sheathe your blade.” When Revas did, William continued. “Our father scarcely looked upon Meridene, and always with scorn. Poor mite.”

  Affection for that forlorn girl filled Revas with rage. “He’s a fool.”

  William shot to his feet. “Never take him for that, Revas. He is clever beyond pride, and if you value your life and hers, you will hurry my sister to Kilbarton to claim the sword.”

  “Easier said than done, William.”

  Sadness wreathed his features. “How fares her heart?”

  With great pride and satisfaction, Revas smiled. “ ’Tis mine, and her affections, too.”

  “Then why the delay in claiming her birthright? She spoke of little else as a lass.” He chuckled at the memory. “Bedeviled Mother so often for the Covenant, ’twas finally put away and forgotten.”

  Ah, so she had cherished the legacy at one time. “ ’Tis facing Cutberth that she fears. What is he about?”

  William rubbed his face, then shook his head, as if to clear it. “The king of the Highlands has petitioned the king of Scotland. If Meridene does not claim the sword by Whitsunday, father demands that Bruce bring his army northward and put an end for all time to your claim to Clan Chapling.”

  Unity would crumble. The Highlands would revert to a land of warring clans. “Robert tours the land in goodwill. He swore as much to me at parliament. But we shall see. Meridene does not know of your father’s ultimatum.”

  “Is that fair to her?”

  “She needs time, William. She’s been away from us more years than not.”

  “I ken your meaning.”

  “Good, and I’m to invite you to join us at table tonight.”

  Hope sprang to William’s eyes. “Her words or yours?”

  “Both, and a word of warning, my friend. Recall only the happy moments when you speak of her childhood.”

  He grinned. “Many of those times did she and I share.”

  Satisfied, Revas got to his feet. “I wonder what delicacy has Montfichet prepared.”

  “For the gift of my sister’s company, I will gladly dine on swill and leavings.”

  * * *

  Meridene pushed aside the leeks and toyed with the braised hare on her plate. Conversation at the crowded table settled to a dull din. Revas occupied the lord’s place at the head. Brodie sat at the far end with the best of the soldiers. Summerlad sat between Serena and Lisabeth. Ellen chatted with Glennie Forbes. With the new priest on her right, Gibby sat beside Revas and across from Meridene.

  Her attention strayed to the man on her left. William, the brother who’d cherished a bird’s nest and taught his sister to whistle.

  At the sentimental thought, her stomach floated.

  Revas took her arm. “I’ve made a dreadful error.”
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  Seated at the head of the table, he looked so serious, her discomfiture grew. “What have you done?”

  A roguish twinkle appeared in his eye. “I warned you against wearing the pink gown, but I misspoke. The green is more pleasing to my eye and other parts.”

  The tension left her, replaced by a flush of impatience. Behind her hand, she said, “Bother you and your other parts. You speak boldly to distract me.”

  As charming as a prince on coronation day, he grinned expansively. “How am I faring?”

  She shook her head. “Well enough, and you know it. I should slap you.”

  “Much better options await those bonny hands.”

  “Oh, yes,” she teased in a breathless whisper. “After we sup, I shall capture your king in twelve moves.”

  “Meridene,” said William. “Do you remember the berry tarts Cook used to make?”

  She latched on to the reprieve from Revas’s seductive conversation. A fond memory popped into her mind. “Aye, I remember the tarts.”

  “And the nutcake with trinkets inside on your birthday?”

  The cook hadn’t gone to any trouble. The cake, baked with an assortment of toys, was actually a Hogmanay tradition, and her birthday happened to fall on the holiday of New Year’s. She shuddered to think of the fare had she been born on Hay Stack Night. “You broke a tooth on the little drum.”

  “You almost swallowed the tiny sword.”

  To the table at large, William said, “Once, our brother, Robert, filched a keg of October ale from the stores. We hid in the dungeon and drank ourselves sick.” He rolled his eyes in embarrassment. “ ’Twas Hogmanay, and our parents were in Inverness. Had Meridene not found us first, we’d still call that dungeon home.”

  Remembering, Meridene smiled. “The smell of their retching drew me down there.”

  “How old were you?” Revas asked.

  “Five, I think.”

  “Wrong,” said William. “You were four and still small enough to hide under our beds and spy on us.”

  “Yet she braved a dungeon to save you,” said Revas.

  William nodded, affection glowing in his eyes. “Aye, she was ever the stalwart lass.”

  Revas stared at a point over Meridene’s shoulder. She turned, but saw no one behind her. “What is it?”

  Then Revas was grinning.

  “What?” she insisted.

  He shook his head, but some jest had him in its throes.

  “A game of chess, Revas?” asked William.

  Expansively he said, “Only if my lady watches me win.”

  Revas’s good humor grew as he captured William’s king for the second time.

  William slapped the table, then pushed to his feet. “Losing twice is enough.”

  Revas touched Meridene’s arm. “Will you play? I’ve a mind to win a flower penny.”

  “Revas gave you flower pennies?” William looked from one to the other.

  He’d brought to life a favorite tale of true chivalry, but not without a price she must pay. “He is ever generous in matters concerning the Maiden.”

  Admiration softened William features. “Do you remember the old penny Grandmama Ailis had?”

  “Yes.”

  “Now our children will have their own.” In a gesture of goodwill, he clasped Revas’s shoulder. “They’ll pass them on to our grandchildren.”

  When it came to legacies, Meridene had experienced the dregs. Even in her own family, she had fared the poorest, except her mother. “If the children are not killed in battle or bartered.”

  He sent her a look he’d learned from their father. “I value my children.”

  Years of loneliness came rushing back. “A lesson you learned after the family gave me away.”

  Revas cleared his throat. “Sleep well, William.”

  Meridene glowered at him, then at her brother. “You’re being sent off to bed.”

  “Meridene . . .”

  The admonition in Revas’s voice sounded so paternal, she thought of her own sire. “I should like to have seen father’s face when he learned of my return.”

  William studied the shields on the wall. Everyone in the room, from Brodie to Serena, stared expectantly at Revas. Only Gibby and the other handmaidens were unaware of the anticipation.

  “Well?” Meridene insisted. “What did he say?”

  The stillness was broken by Revas, who raised his arms and stretched. “I’ll wager Cutberth feared you would turn the flower pennies back to gold and make me the richest man in Christendom.”

  Relieved laughter settled like a blanket over the others in the room. With quiet insistence, Meridene addressed William. “You have not answered me.”

  His eyes found hers. “I was not there when the news reached him.”

  But he knew, and he’d keep the information to himself. He was welcome to it, for she didn’t care a soiled slipper what her father thought of her return. She simply wanted to anticipate what he would do. How frightened should she be?

  “In any case,” Revas went on, “ ’tis late to broach the subject of Highland politics. I intended to ask William if he remembers how to thatch a roof. Macduff’s Halt awaits.”

  Meridene wasn’t fooled. She stood. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll practice turning wood to gold.”

  “While you fill my treasury,” Revas said, “tell your handmaidens the tale of Hacon. A lass should be prepared for the likes of him.”

  CHAPTER

  14

  At his cleverly worded threat, Meridene retired. Standing near the loom, she watched as Gibby banked the fire and made sure the windows were closed tight. Ellen laid out Meridene’s sleeping gown and turned down the bed. Lisabeth helped her undress, then brushed and plaited her hair.

  Too confused to sleep, she sent Gibby to fetch the Covenant from Revas’s room. When the girl returned, she excused all three. Lighting the lamp, she climbed into bed and broke the seal on the letter from William’s wife.

  To Meridene, the Maiden of Inverness:

  Praise God you have come home, my lady. I entreat you, in the name of your ancestors who lie buried here among us, to take our cause close to your heart, that you may make haste and assume the duties to which you were born. Forsake us no more.

  Forsake them? Bitter laughter welled up inside Meridene, and she tossed the letter aside. Where were their concerns when a Scottish child cried herself to sleep on a narrow cot with only cold abbey walls to hear? She knew her English friends missed her even now, and the people of Elginshire had prepared for her return.

  Take the Macgillivrays’ cause close to her heart? What of her causes? Bother her family. She owed them nothing. Their needs were none of her affair.

  She opened the Covenant to the page written by her grandmother.

  I am the Maiden Ailis, daughter of Sorcha, and I fear I have given my own daughter to a monster. Cutberth Macgillivray came honorably to ask for my Eleanor’s hand. With my eternal soul as ransom, I swear I did not know of his cruelty and his obsession to end the legend of the Maiden. Should I tell my husband, he will storm Kilbarton Castle and demand the return of our lass. But Cutberth enjoys his prime, and his skill with a sword is legend. I will not trade the life of my beloved. I am the most wretched of mothers and the poorest of Maidens.

  Sorrow choked Meridene, for she remembered her grandmother as a contented and kind woman who told tales of villains turning golden coins into flower pennies, and she had exhorted Meridene to honor the traditions of the Maiden.

  Her last words to Meridene took on new meaning. It was years ago, on the occasion of Meridene’s journey south to celebrate her betrothal to Moray’s heir. She’d been a child in awe of an ancient wooden coin.

  “Your time will come, Meridene,” Ailis had said. “My Eleanor has named you for the first and the best of us. I pray you have been given to a man who will honor us all and save the Highlands from the wrath of Edward Plantagenet.”

  Meridene thought of Revas. Were Ailis alive today
, she would have rejoiced at Meridene’s husband. Their marriage was particularly ironic, for it had come at the command of the very English king Ailis feared.

  Grandmama had been correct in her judgment when she named Cutberth Macgillivray a monster.

  Now Meridene had but to turn the page and read her mother’s words. Did Eleanor bemoan her life and curse her husband? Did she lament the loss of her daughter?

  For a dozen reasons, Meridene stilled her hand. She felt pity for her mother. Eleanor deserved better than Cutberth; every woman ought to have a husband to cherish and honor her, to protect and nurture all of the children of her womb, not just the boys.

  A flick of her wrist would reveal her mother’s reflections on her reign. Would her words to Meridene be kind and at last loving? Would she express regret at her indifference to the tenets?

  The door opened. She looked up to see Revas step into her room. Like a youth fearing detection, he eased the door shut. But when he turned, he bore the look of a man determined to claim his woman.

  Still miffed at his despotic behavior, she gave him a bland stare and closed the book. “What do you want, Revas? Or should I name you Hacon?”

  That look of tried patience was too familiar to mistake. For effect, he slid the bolt into the jamb. “If you would but try,” he murmured, “I’m certain you can reason out why I am here.”

  “I reason better on English soil.”

  He blew out his breath and approached her. “Shall we make a quarrel of it, Meridene?”

  His boldness should not have surprised her, but it did. “I’d sooner argue with a braying ass.”

  The mattress crackled beneath his weight. “Shall I scour the village and find you one?”

  She scooted to the head of the bed. “Only if Leeds is the village you scour.”

  The beast laughed and snatched the Covenant from her hands. “You cannot wound me with your ready tongue—not when William has sharpened it. You are not truly angry with me.”

  “You aided him when he would not answer me.”

  In exasperation, he stared at the tapestry over the bed. “I thought to keep peace in my own castle. You could have taken your argument elsewhere. Why should Brodie and the others witness you and William squabbling like children?”

 
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