Maiden of inverness, p.27

Maiden of Inverness, page 27

 

Maiden of Inverness
 


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  His brief smile dented the solemn mood. “Your mother had lain with Cutberth before she gave the sword to him.”

  Disbelief turned to puzzlement. “How do you know that?”

  “How could you not know it?” He pointed to the book. “ ’Tis in the Covenant for all to see. Eleanor miscarried a fortnight after speaking her wedding vows.”

  Now was the time for truth. Meridene put down the shears and walked to the pedestal table where the Covenant rested. Where Revas had kept it for so many years. Once he cared more for her heritage than she, but no longer. “I have not read my mother’s chronicle.”

  “Perhaps not of late, but surely you remember her poor legacy.”

  Poor legacy. An apt description of Eleanor’s motherly devotion. This latest transgression didn’t surprise Meridene, for her mother had withdrawn from her children early in their lives. “As a child, I was not allowed to touch the book. My mother locked it away with the Maiden’s belt.” And just because she could, Meridene laid her hands on the book and caressed the ancient bindings.

  “But on the day we were wed, you gave it into my keeping. You were ill from the poison, but surely you remember.”

  She did, but the pain of that day had diminished, along with so many heartaches from her youth. “I gave it to you one day after my mother placed it in my hand. I could not let the English king see it. I was not alone on that journey here, save at night, and they did not provide me with a lamp.”

  If eyes could speak, his verily trilled a welcome. “You were so lovely, Meridene. I still remember the clean smell of your clothing and the softness of your skin. You were quite the bonniest sight I’d ever seen.”

  As she basked in his flattery, she remembered him saying those very words to her and more. The butcher’s son who feared for his own life, yet found the strength to reassure a frightened and abandoned girl. “You were the most gallant lad I’d ever met.”

  “You do not know what your mother put down in the book?”

  Meridene had picked up the book countless times, but couldn’t find the courage to read it. “No.”

  “Shall I tell you? Will you take the word of a butcher’s son?”

  Coming from him, the words might not be so hurtful. She relaxed and leaned on the high table. “Please. What did she write?”

  His expression turned sad. “No words. She only listed the dates of her children’s births and the miscarriages.”

  The knowledge should have saddened Meridene, but she was growing accustomed to her parents’ selfish ways. A mother who cursed her child wouldn’t bother with words of encouragement, even if she was the Maiden of Inverness and bound to ensure continuation of the legacy. Her own troubles must have caused her indifference, for Ailis, in her own hand, had taken the blame for giving Eleanor to Cutberth.

  “My mother suffered the loss of two babes.”

  “Aye, and the first was a fortnight after she gave the sword to Cutberth. The second child was lost ’twixt William’s birth and yours.”

  Indifference toward her mother turned to scorn. “She cheated! She was impure when she demanded the sword from her father.”

  “She was not the first. I have reasoned that other of your ancestors anticipated, for good reasons and true, their vows.”

  Bewildered and disappointed, Meridene wilted into a chair. “You have proof that they also deceived the Covenant?”

  “Only suspicions and birthing dates that occur too soon after wedding vows.”

  All of her forebears listed the dates they birthed the new Maiden, but only some listed when their sons were born. Although she knew Revas had ferreted out the details for ambitious reasons, she couldn’t help praising him for his interest in her birthright. “I don’t know what to say.”

  “You must not think less of them. Mary faced an invasion from the Norsemen. With her father in the Holy land, Sorcha anticipated her vows because she risked ending the tradition altogether. Your straits are not so dire by comparison. You face the loss of Highland unity. I cannot say you cheated, for I seduced you.”

  A familiar and comforting warmth infused her. “Cutberth seduced my mother.”

  “Do you know, ’tis the first time you’ve said his name without fear in your voice?” He leaned forward and extended his hand, palm up. “Forget your father. Think of today and of our future. I’m no monster, Meridene. I’m the husband who loves you.”

  Happiness flooded her, and she flung herself onto his lap. “I do love you, too.”

  She kissed him with promise, commitment, heart and soul. But would she fulfill her destiny?

  Before he lost control of his passions, Revas drew back. Her dreamy gaze almost got the better of his conscience.

  “Do you think you will find contentment in England,” he began, “after living among people who have made a place in their hearts for you?”

  “I have friends in England. The fisherman’s wife.”

  “Then I shall give her husband leave to plow my waters.”

  “You govern the sea?”

  “Not exactly. Jamie Forbes’s father does.”

  “And he swears fealty to you.”

  “Aye, and provides Montfichet with fish aplenty. If the English fisherman and his wife choose to remain where they are, you may write to them as often as you please. I do think ’tis not too ambitious to say that one day soon we will have messengers traveling throughout Scotland.”

  Now he spoke of aiding progress. Was there no end to his honorable intentions? “These men will cross the land with no other purpose than carrying letters?”

  “Even the common man’s words. The king likes the idea.” His voice dropped. “Will you demand the sword?”

  Meridene’s life stretched before her, joyous and complete, and in the distance she saw a daughter with raven hair and green eyes and a father who would meet death to protect all of his children.

  Clare was dead. Johanna had found happiness with Drummond Macqueen. What truly awaited Meridene at Scarborough Abbey? Nothing, she had to admit. Her life was here.

  “Will you redeem the honor of the women of your line?”

  She thought of the first Eleanor, pregnant and chained to a dungeon wall. And the aging Margaret, who sacrificed herself to bear the next Maiden. She remembered her mother’s cold words. Our kind do not choose our mates. We are as prized bitches held out for the mightiest dog in the pack.

  Meridene looked at Revas. Beneath his pleasing form beat a heart that was true and constant. A better man, she would not find.

  “Yes, I will demand my father’s sword.”

  In relief, he closed his eyes, and a smile as big as Scotland spread across his face. “Praise God.”

  Giddy with relief herself, Meridene laughed. “You must also credit the women of the village. They have sung your praises morning, noon, and night.”

  “ ’Tis kind of them.”

  “Kind? It’s better said that they followed your orders.”

  As jovial as she’d ever seen him, he threw back his head and laughed. “They need no command from me to befriend you. They love you well, and you cannot dispute that. I see them dancing in the lane when you wear the crown of rowans.”

  The rowans. The vows. Her letter to the pope. “What will we do when Leslie returns with our annulment?”

  “We’ll . . . ah.” He squirmed, his eyes darting from the hearth, to the lamp, to the table. “ ’Tis a bridge better crossed when the time comes.”

  “You’re stammering. What’s wrong?”

  He looked like he’d swallowed a fish bone—that or the truth was stuck in his throat.

  “Tell me.”

  “I have it.” He snapped his fingers. “We’ll marry again. We’ll say our vows willingly—with the entire village looking on. Oh, what a celebration ’twill be.”

  “Revas?”

  “There’ll be dancing and merrymakers. And you can throw flower pennies to the bairns. Have you enough?”

  “Enough of your evasions. Has t
he annulment come?” The thought and the consequences propelled her off his lap.

  He drew her back down. “Nay. No annulment comes.”

  It was an odd way to phrase it—too final, too confident. “How can you be so certain?”

  “I am certain the annulment will be a long time coming.”

  If she had to drag the truth from him, so be it. “You did not send my letter, did you?”

  “I did,” he insisted. “With young Leslie.”

  His discomfort was so obvious, she wanted to laugh. But the situation wasn’t funny. “You sent the letter with Leslie—but what else?”

  “But I told him to first visit his French relations and await the birth of his cousin’s first child.”

  Reality and relief swept over Meridene. “And this birth will be a long time coming.”

  He shrugged, his expression as sheepish as a caught thief. “A decade or so, I should think. Although betrothed, his cousin is still a child and resides in the nursery.”

  Bold didn’t begin to describe this butcher’s son who’d captured both her heart and the loyalty of the Highlands. “I should hate you for tricking me.”

  “But you love me instead. Say it.”

  “Much as I’m certain it will forever plague me, yes, I do.”

  “You will make the finest of mothers.”

  Children. “I owe the Macgillivrays no progeny.”

  “The Macgillivrays, you say? What of the Douglases? Sorcha was of their kin. Ailis was a Macdonald. Mary, a Leslie. The Maiden has ties to many clans. Will you abandon all of those people, whose blood mixes with yours, just to spite one wretched Macgillivray?”

  He made a convincing argument, but she still had reservations. “If I bear you a child, it will be a Macgillivray.”

  “When you bear my children, they will be Macduffs. And handsome ones, too.”

  He was so confident, she couldn’t help but tease him. “Given names such as Hacon?”

  Sharply alert, he rubbed his chin. “I had not thought of that. Hacon.” He tested the sound. “Hacon, ’tis a—”

  “Dreadful choice of names.”

  “Oh, aye.” But the notion had him in its grasp, and he was favorably considering it.

  “Revas . . .” she warned.

  “Utterly unthinkable and unromantic, as Ellen will surely attest. What name would you choose?”

  With Hacon behind them, she grew generous. “Duncan or Kenneth.”

  He fairly oozed affection. “And for our wee Maiden?”

  Johanna was her favorite name, but wait. A child would change her life. “I do not think I would like a child immediately.”

  “On that point, your body and God’s will shall prevail.”

  “But I am not sure that I wish to have a child.”

  “Why not? We’ve much to recommend us. Your hot temper aside. But with a lambkin for a sire, good will prevail.”

  “How did you divert me from the subject of the annulment?”

  He kissed her cheek. “I believe ’tis because our conversations usually run to the pleasant.”

  It was true, but while they were speaking honestly, she had a few objections to make. “I will not abide your raiding.”

  “You fear for my safety?”

  His smug expression inspired her to deviltry. “No. I haven’t the coin to waste ransoming you.”

  He nodded, engrossed in the dilemma. “ ’Twould beggar us, most likely.”

  “You think highly of yourself.”

  “And value my future with you.”

  She remembered his threat to raid the abbey’s stables. “Enough to honestly acquire the mount I left in Scarborough?”

  “A Highlander buy a horse from an Englishman?” As if it were absurd, he laughed.

  “Englishmen say the same. They are much like you. They love their wives and their children. They say their prayers and mount their horses from the left side, same as you.”

  “They covet Scotland.”

  With a certainty she had never hoped to feel, Meridene said, “ ’Tis a place worthy of it.”

  A second later Revas grasped the importance of her words. She no longer hated Scotland, and of all the matters they’d settled tonight, this one resolution most warmed his heart. She loved him; she would seek her destiny, and at last she favored the land of her birth.

  His eyes misted with tears, and he hugged her tight. She worked her arms free and, cradling his face, drew him down for a kiss. The embrace ignited the embers of passion banked days ago, and as their desire burst into flame, Revas knew he must end it.

  “Revas!”

  Through a fog of physical longing he recognized the sound of Brodie’s voice.

  “The herald, Lady Elizabeth Gordon, seeks an audience.”

  “Who?” Meridene asked.

  His high spirits plummeted. “Our king’s herald.”

  “Oh, my.” She tried to rise.

  He held her. “Be still. You’re my wife, and she is only a messenger of the king.” Revas had assured King Robert that Meridene had returned of her own free will. The messenger would look closely for any sign of discord between Revas and his wife. A loving embrace fitted the occasion perfectly.

  “You know her well?”

  “As well as any man, save one.”

  “I don’t think I like the sound of that.”

  Revas liked very much the sound of her jealousy, but he didn’t reply; the second most celebrated woman in Scotland, and the most gossiped about at court, glided into the room.

  Wearing an ankle-length tunic of gold velvet, emblazoned with the scarlet lilies of the king of Scotland, she moved with purpose and grace. Overly tall and now thinner than he remembered, her gray eyes glowed with cold obligation.

  She doffed her feathered cap, and moisture dripped from the plumage. Her red hair was coiled tight at the crown of her head, drawing the eye to her slender neck and heart-shaped face. While she executed a formal bow, her gaze stayed fixed on Meridene.

  “Are you truly the Maiden of Inverness?” she asked.

  Her face reddened with embarrassment at being caught on Revas’s lap, Meridene jumped to her feet. “Aye. I am Meridene, wife to Revas Macduff. King Edward the First brought me to Scarborough Abbey, where I lived for a very long time.”

  If his chest swelled any more, Revas knew he’d burst the seams on his jerkin. His wife. A promise given, a prayer answered.

  As solemn as her office dictated, Elizabeth Gordon said, “Welcome home, my lady. You are glad to be among us again?”

  Revas held his breath until he heard Meridene say, “I am content.”

  Elizabeth nodded. Her expression turned grim. “A moment of your time, Lord Revas.”

  “I prefer the simpler address. I am a butcher’s son.”

  A smile pinched her lips. “As you wish, Revas.”

  She was a born Scot from a noble family older than most, yet she served as a herald. But Elizabeth Gordon was Randolph Macqueen’s puzzle. Revas had other business with her. “What word from King Robert?”

  She threaded her long fingers together. Her gloves were soft leather dyed the same golden color as her clothing. Her voice was pure music. “While our sovereign lord understands your plight, he reminds you that Cutberth Macgillivray wears the Highland crown.”

  “Cutberth hires foreign mercenaries to raid any clan that resists him. That is no way to rule his fellow Highlanders.”

  “The king of Scotland does not bestow the crown of the Highlands.”

  Revas looked at Meridene.

  She must declare herself now, and to the king’s herald. There’d be no going back. She must look her father in the eye and force him to yield all that he held dear. She must accept the sovereignty of the Highlands with dignity and purity of heart. Then she must pass it to Revas Macduff.

  “I will ask my father for the sword.”

  The weight of uncertainty left Revas. Thirteen years of struggling and hoping were over. He wanted to touch Meridene, but Eli
zabeth Gordon would notice his relief. The king must believe that all was well in Revas’s marriage to the Maiden of Inverness.

  Catching the herald’s gaze, he lifted his brows in challenge.

  Her nod was subtle, almost missed. “Then allow me, in the name of King Robert, to pay homage to you.” Lady Elizabeth went down on one knee and bowed her head. “May your reign be long and prosperous, Maiden Meridene, and your daughter a gift to those who come after us.”

  Too overcome to say more, Meridene murmured, “God make it so.”

  With fluid grace, Elizabeth rose. “When will you demand the sword?”

  “She has not yet set the date.”

  “In June at Summer’s Eve,” Meridene said.

  The herald stiffened. “But she must go before Whit—”

  “Nay,” he interrupted, determined to keep the herald from revealing Cutberth’s Whitsunday ultimatum. “Meridene will accept her destiny when she decides. Not before.”

  Catching his meaning, the herald nodded and donned her cap. “Now I regret that I must journey in all haste to—I must go.”

  “To where?” Revas asked.

  As if grasping a name from air, she said, “To Calais.”

  She lied; Revas knew it. “I’m to name France as your destination, even should the king inquire?”

  Turning away, she stared at the floor. “Our sovereign lord will find me.”

  “But Randolph Macqueen will not. You are so sure?”

  “Lady Meridene,” she said by way of dismissing Revas and changing the uncomfortable subject. “Lest I forget, I also bring you a message from Lady Clare. She says Englishmen are lambkins compared to Scots, and she implores you to be wary of the devious ways of Highlanders.”

  Revas’s eyes grew large.

  Meridene fairly cooed with pleasure. “A wise observation on her part. Do you agree?”

  Her gray eyes were wells of sorrow. “In my experience, nay.” As quickly, she recovered her composure. “Lady Clare also says Scotsmen are boors and bids you ignore them.”

  Revas laughed, but much too gaily. “She did not include Drummond Macqueen in her condemnation.”

  “Most definitely and colorfully did she include her husband. Drummond will not let her lift so much as a quill to sum the accounts. Sister Margaret goes between them.”

 
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