Maiden of inverness, p.26

Maiden of Inverness, page 26

 

Maiden of Inverness
 


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  Through clenched teeth he said, “Then you are overeager in that!”

  She stepped back. “I thought you were too angry to cross words with me.”

  He threw up his arms and shouted, “By the saints, I am. But know this, Meridene Macgillivray, our marriage is not a banquet. You cannot pick and chose only the things that please you and leave the dregs to some other soul.”

  He spoke the truth, and she lacked the courage even to defend herself. “There’s no talking to you now, Revas.”

  “Nor will there be until your appetite changes.”

  * * *

  Revas stormed from the room, so enraged he did not see the pile of wet tapestries in the hall. After picking himself up off the floor, he continued. As he made his way to the barracks, he berated himself for breaking his vow to never argue with a woman, least of all a stubborn wife who took freely of the rewards her marriage offered, but shouldered none of the responsibility.

  The Maiden of Inverness.

  He paused near the quintain. He was being unfair to her. She was more than a title. William didn’t understand that, but Revas did. Cutberth’s villainy was not aimed at his daughter, for never had the king of the Highlands looked at Meridene as a product of his loins, his child to protect.

  Yet in spite of her father’s selfishness, Meridene had a kind heart, was generous to one and all—except those who never looked beyond the celebrated green eyes and distinctive raven hair. Beneath the traditions that bred her lay a hurt and frightened woman who had suffered greatly at the hands of those who were bound by the laws of God and humanity to cherish her.

  Even tormented by her father’s treachery, Meridene had thought first of Gibby.

  How could he have overlooked Meridene’s pain? Last night she had called Elginshire home. He felt hollow to his soul, for he must make Auldcairn Castle her prison, until she called for the sword.

  Would her need for revenge against Cutberth prevail where her love for Revas had not? Or did she truly love him? Beneath her indifference to Scottish politics lay an independent woman who had, since the age of eight, fended for herself in a foreign land. If Revas could convince her to seek the sword for personal reasons, rather than tradition, the outcome would be the same. He would wear the Highland crown. She would rule beside him, tempering might with the goodness of the Maiden of Inverness.

  His quest was fraught with pitfalls, for she was ever on the lookout for coercion from him. It was a painful revelation, for he loved Meridene Macgillivray more than duty, cherished her beyond all obligation to the Highland people. Were he afforded the luxury of following his heart, he would relinquish his claim to the throne and honor her wish to refuse the office of Maiden of Inverness. As simply the chieftain of Clan Macduff and his lady wife, they would govern Elginshire. They would prosper, until one of Cutberth’s assassins succeeded.

  At the thought of losing her, Revas felt his chest grow tight and his senses quicken. He became aware of noise in the yard. The goose girl drove her flock through the open gate to complete their morning trip to the pond in the outer bailey. The sun had fully risen; the village teemed with movement.

  He felt an indifference to the ordinary events, and it saddened him, for normally he took great pride in seeing the day unfold. But rather than watch the sun rise on his kingdom, he’d spent the early hours of dawn fighting a fire that could have destroyed his future. The quarrel was another unsettling matter. She must call for the sword. The alternative spelled doom, and quickly, for Highland unity.

  Angered anew, he hurried to the barracks and found Brodie addressing Glennie Forbes and a dozen of his clansmen.

  “You’re to detain and question every stranger. Find out who set fire to Lady Meridene’s room and bring the culprit to me.”

  One look at Revas and the sheriff ordered the men out. When they were alone, Brodie waited.

  Disgusted with the turn of events, Revas gazed at the row of cots but didn’t really see the furnishings. “We are victims of our free commerce. Assassins and kidnappers may come and go, same as tradesmen and travelers. We’ll never find the culprit.”

  “Nay, we will not. He’s surely halfway home to Kilbarton Castle by now.”

  “Damn Cutberth Macgillivray!”

  Brodie twisted his war bracelets. “Is she no closer to claiming the sword?”

  “I had thought so, but Cutberth has turned her against us. I had hoped she’d ask for the sword out of revenge—if for no other reason.”

  “ ’Tis wifely devotion you seek, my young friend.”

  “Young friend,” Revas mused. “You haven’t addressed me so in years.”

  He grasped Revas’s sword arm, and his cheerful tone belied his serious expression. “Not since you bested me with this demon.”

  That day seemed a lifetime ago. Back then, Revas had naively thought he’d find Meridene, bring her home, and begin their joyous reign over the Highlands. Now he must petition the king of Scotland for aid and advice, for he could not risk her life again. If he studied his motives closely, he had to admit that seeking help nicked his pride, but better he suffer a bruise to his dignity than lose Meridene.

  He shook off the ghastly thought and turned his attention to Brodie. “Bruce should have arrived at Moravia Keep for his tour of John Sutherland’s holdings. Send Macpherson with word of Cutberth’s attempts on Meridene’s life and have him await Bruce’s reply.”

  Brodie nodded. “The lad should take ship at Elgin’s End. With fair winds, he’ll be back in a week. We have a little time yet—before Whitsunday.”

  “Make it so, and put a sentry atop the south tower. Bid him watch hawklike over the windows in Meridene’s chamber. I want no other intruder finding his way into her rooms.”

  “Summerlad and I will share the duty, unless you will give up your nightly visits?”

  If his anger at her lingered, Revas would not seek entrance to her chamber. She cared for him, he was certain of that, but not enough to face her father. That truth wounded Revas deeply.

  “She needs comfort and protection,” he said, as much to himself as to his mentor. But when next they spoke of the troubles between them, she would broach the subject. Not Revas; he’d found that well dry too many times.

  “Ask the women of the village to seek her out more often. Have them anticipate the pilgrimage.”

  Brodie sighed. “ ’Twill surely help the poor lass. ’Tisn’t fair to twice suffer her father’s wrath. Pity his soul should he succeed, for his life will be forfeit to you.”

  “God forgive me,” Revas swore, “but I cherish the mere thought of hacking that bastard to pieces.” Distracted again, he headed for the door.

  Brodie followed. “Where are you going?”

  “To the cooper’s shed. A beast rages within me.”

  With the same hand that had taught Revas to wield a sword and helped him stack the stones on his father’s cairn, Brodie slapped him on the back. “ ’Tis your way, Revas, and an honorable one. Better you spend your anger chopping wood than splitting heads.”

  But even as the day waned, Revas could not forget her last bitter condemnation of Scotland and her continued insistence that he return her to England.

  Did she know the pain her cruel words dealt him? Did she care? When she did not come to table that night, Revas went to the south tower. His vantage point offered an unobstructed view of the windows in her chamber. Looking as forlorn as he felt, she sat at the loom amid a pool of golden lamplight, her hands working the shuttle back and forth.

  She stopped and, from a nearby table, picked up a book. He suspected it was the Covenant of the Maiden; a peek at her through the spyglass confirmed it. With the aid of the instrument, she appeared close enough to touch, but the image, much like the woman herself, was deceptive.

  She started to open the book, but paused. Taking a deep breath, she stared out the window. Then she again moved to examine the chronicles of her forebears.

  Still she hesitated.

  “Do it,
he whispered, urging her to delve into her legacy and find the strength to bring greatness back to the women of her line.

  The need to go to her, to persuade, to compel, rose like a tide within him. But he could not. He had done his best, and she had rebuked him.

  In dismay, he watched her put the book aside and blow out the candle, extinguishing the light of hope he’d held for so long in his heart.

  * * *

  On Monday he sent Gibby to ask Meridene to go a-fielding with them. Citing her duties to Sim, she declined.

  On Tuesday he sent Sim to her with an offer to spend the day in Lord’s Meadow. With Gibby’s lessons as excuse, she refused.

  On Wednesday he directed Serena to invite Meridene to view a horse race in the outer bailey. Explaining a meeting with William, she sent Revas an apology.

  In church they knelt side by side. To outward appearances, nothing was amiss. But when they exited the chapel, Meridene went her separate way.

  On Thursday he penned a note, wherein he threatened to commission a chastity belt. She replied with a threat of her own: Do it, Revas, and I shall tell the entire village that we have lain together.

  They would lie together again, he pledged to himself. She wasn’t truly angry with her husband. The politics of Scotland had spoiled her disposition.

  Revas could wait her out. She had nowhere to go, not unless an armed guard or a flock of women followed her.

  When she did seek him out a week hence, her first words shocked him.

  CHAPTER

  15

  “I’m here to barber your hair. You look like a shaggy hound.” Even as the words were out, Meridene wished them back, for she hadn’t intended to sound commanding and aloof.

  She set the Covenant atop the pedestal table, but did not move farther into his chamber.

  Sitting near the hearth, he carved a comb from a piece of smooth, dark wood. His bloodred jerkin contrasted handsomely with his fair hair and dark eyes. But he looked as tired and as lonely as she felt.

  Sparing her a glance, he said, “Do not expect me to lift a paw and beg as Jaken does for favors.”

  She gripped the shears tighter and moved to stand before him. She had come to make amends. She must begin again. “The coldness between us cannot continue. I should not have spoken so sharply, but do not expect me to grovel.”

  “You, grovel?” Holding the comb to the light, he examined it, then blew off a shaving and continued carving. “I’d sooner pray for riches and a face as handsome as young Summerlad’s.”

  “Modesty is unnecessary. You are handsome enough—especially so in that color.” When he lifted a brow, she added, “It’s pride you possess in overabundance.”

  In a tip of his head and a half smile, he honed aloofness. “And you do not?”

  “More, I would venture, but you are stubborn, and I am not. Our quarrel is adversely affecting everyone. Ellen hasn’t fallen in love once since we argued. The priest goes on and on about the sanctity of wifely devotion. Gibby is confused and blames herself.”

  “You did not come here to discuss my daughter, or my hair, or my pride, or your stubbornness.”

  The trickster. He’d twisted her words. “I have no intention of—”

  “Being stubborn? You? Nay.” He laughed mockingly.

  “We must settle this.”

  He looked pointedly at her hand. “Then why come to me with another purpose? Sibeal will shear me without motive.”

  The troll intended to make her mission as difficult as possible. She had been wrong to ignore his gestures of reconciliation, but she’d been plagued by confusion and fear. She wanted peace between them. Especially now. A jest might work. “What you said about Sibeal grooming you may be true, but she cannot call up her ancestors to nibble at your manhood.”

  That got his attention. His hands stilled, and his measuring gaze surveyed her from head to toe. “You would use your charms to make peace between us?”

  “Charms? It was meant as humorous conversation.”

  He tapped the comb on his thigh.

  “Oh, very well,” she said. “I meant it as an insult to your manliness.”

  “Then you erred in the attempt, for you do not grasp the meaning of the jest.”

  Everyone, even the mercer, swore Revas couldn’t hold a temper for long. Sadly, they were wrong, for he gave no hint that he would come easily to terms with her.

  She moved closer. “Please enlighten me.”

  “An ardent man suckles his woman’s breasts. If she is so inclined, she returns the favor by nibbling his manhood.”

  A vivid picture shamed her, and she blurted, “I did not conceive, and why must you use such rough talk?” Why had she revealed something as personal as the coming of her cycle?

  He put down the knife and comb. “Rough? Hardly. You broached the subject, and suckling your breasts is my second favorite pastime.”

  How dare he name her stubborn. The toad. “Then your first love is Scottish politics.”

  He gave her a roguish grin and a villainous laugh. “Again you err.”

  Her patience fled. “I am trying to make pleasant conversation.”

  “If this is pleasant conversation, you must be speaking French.” Softer he added, “Do you suffer with your menses?”

  Civilly put, the question dashed her embarrassment. “No. I am average in that respect.” She worked the shears. “Shall I trim your hair?”

  “Aye, but do not nibble my ears.” He handed her the half-finished comb. “And try this.”

  Into the wood, he’d carved a cinquefoil. She realized the comb was to be a gift for her—a peace offering. He’d always been thoughtful and generous where her personal needs were concerned.

  Inspired, she walked around behind him and drew the comb through his hair. Thick and wavy near his scalp, the uneven strands turned frayed and singed. In a hail of cinders, he’d beat out the fire and saved her life.

  She wanted to throw her arms around him and tell him that no one had ever put her welfare before his own. Few women enjoyed so much husbandly devotion.

  “Is something amiss with the comb?”

  “No.” Her voice was thick with emotion, and she cleared her throat. “It’s a very fine comb.”

  He shrugged, and she wished she could see his face. As she clipped the singed ends of his hair, she prayed he would soon speak to her in the friendly banter she missed.

  To encourage him, she said, “Shall I close-crop it, like the Normandy men prefer?”

  “Do and I shall toss you into the pond with the geese and the toads.”

  She leaned close and whispered, “Ellen said I should leave braids at your temples.” He trembled, and she continued. “They are the mark of a man of great import.”

  He swallowed loudly. “What do you think?”

  “That I cannot nibble your ear with your hair covering it.”

  He cocked his head to the side and raked his hair out of the way, effectively presenting his ear. “I’m here to please.”

  Words she should have spoken earlier came rushing out. “I should have said that I am grateful to you for putting out the fire, and I’m sorry you burned your hair.”

  Dropping his hand, he turned, and his look was steady, as if he knew she had more to say.

  “I was stubborn and afraid.”

  “Others may not have been offended and worse, but to me, you were unreasonably stubborn.”

  He meant that she should have considered his feelings. He was correct. “Yes.”

  “And I was blinded by anger because I failed to protect you.”

  A man as powerful and honorable as he would suffer. To give him ease, she said, “Worry not, for I am so safe, only Elginshire midges brave my presence.”

  When he gave her a slight nod, she broached an important matter. “William said you sent word to King Robert of what my father has done.”

  Staring at her lips, he licked his own. “You have resolved your differences with your brother?”

&n
bsp; With William looking on, she had finished the new tapestry. Together they had explored the years of estrangement. He was no longer the cheerful young lad, but neither was he cold and deliberate like her father and her other kinsmen. “I confess I do like him.”

  His gaze slid to hers. “You gave him a flower penny?”

  Were they hers to give, she’d bestow the stars upon Revas Macduff. But so guarded were his feelings, she read no emotion, no need, in his eyes.

  “I gave William two flower pennies. They are for his children. What do you think the king will do?”

  Blinking, he glanced away. “I think he will do nothing. You are sleeping well? No unpleasant dreams?”

  “Would you have come to me, had I awakened in fear?”

  Like a compass needle swinging true, his attention came back to her. “In a trice. ’Tis a husband’s duty to comfort his wife.”

  They could have been discussing the ceiling beams, so amiable was their exchange, so uncommitted their words. He showed no feelings, except for that tiny glimmer in his eye, which she intended to explore. A moderate topic would be best. “Gibby is learning to weave.”

  “So she said.”

  A tent of apprehension dropped over them. Meridene’s heart began to pound. “You went a-fielding with her on Monday.”

  Silence was his reply.

  He had invited her, but she’d been too stubborn and prideful to accept. “I should have gone with you,” she admitted. “I regret that I did not.”

  His gaze sharpened. “I should like you to give me the sword of Chapling. I regret that you have not.”

  Bluntly said, the statement went to the heart of his purpose. Disappointment awaited him, and for that she was truly sorry. To fortify herself, she took a deep breath. “There is no claim to make against my father’s throne. I am a virgin no more.”

  He grew eager. “You have considered demanding the sword? It has crossed your mind?”

  She had done little else since their quarrel, save think of her future and the man she loved and had alienated. By facing her father, she could seek the reward of revenge. After so much suffering at his hands, she wanted retribution. “Yes, but it matters not, for I have lain with you.”

 
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