Maiden of inverness, p.28

Maiden of Inverness, page 28

 

Maiden of Inverness
 


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  “They fare well?” Meridene asked. “The abbess and Clare?”

  “The kind sister enjoys good health, and for one so stubborn, Lady Clare thrives.”

  Grumbling, Revas said, “ ’Tis a trait of the English—teaching stubbornness to innocent lassies.”

  “Let us not dwell on the cruelties of men toward the fairer and more intelligent sex. With your permission, I shall take my leave of you.”

  In a swirl of dignity and royal livery, she marched out.

  “A most curious and beautiful woman,” Meridene said.

  “And a love story to rival any in the Covenant.”

  “Tell me.”

  “Only if you sit with me.”

  When she returned to her place on his lap, he held her in a loose embrace. “Elizabeth Gordon gave her heart to Randolph Macqueen, but the king holds her to a bargain she made to serve him.”

  “That is why Randolph is rude.”

  “Aye, he suffers bad humors.”

  “How long will our king make them wait?”

  Our king. With every word, she knitted herself closer to the people of her homeland. “Bruce needs her now. She is the only messenger he trusts.”

  A sigh bowed Meridene’s shoulders. “I’m glad we face no such obstacle.”

  She didn’t know it, but the risk taken by Elizabeth Gordon and Randolph Macqueen paled when compared to the responsibilities Meridene had promised to undertake. She was just too naive of Scottish politics to see it.

  “What were we discussing before these weighty matters commanded our attention?” he asked.

  Looking like a woman with knowledge she should not have, she smiled. “You were about to explain the particulars of how an inexperienced woman nibbles her husband’s manhood.”

  His ability to think drifted south and settled in his loins.

  “Have you nothing to say?”

  “ ’Tis unfair to bedevil your husband at this time.”

  “Oh, very well. Let’s discuss my new bed. Did you know that the tanner put goose down among the straw? It’s very soft and quiet.”

  “After your menses have passed, I will repay you for teasing me.”

  “Then I have another day’s grace to bedevil and tease you.”

  Not so long, for a patient man. But when Revas went to her room two nights hence, he found her sick unto death, the odor of poison on her lips.

  CHAPTER

  16

  Crowns and thrones forgotten, Revas knelt beside Meridene’s bed and prayed twice to every saint he knew to save the life of his beloved.

  The barley water she’d drunk last night had been poisoned. A frantic Montfichet had awakened Revas at dawn, wailing as he told of tossing the boiled grains to the chickens, as he always did. The carcasses of two score of them lay stacked in a pile awaiting the torch. Revas had ordered every grain of barley in Auldcairn Castle tossed onto the pyre.

  No intruder had stolen into the kitchen or the granary and tainted the stores. Entry was unnecessary. The eager-to-please Montfichet had unknowingly bought the poisoned barley from a stranger who approached him outside the brewer’s shop. The cook suspected nothing sinister; he often purchased foodstuffs from peddlers in the lane. He could not have known that the man had been sent by Cutberth Macgillivray.

  Would she live?

  Revas’s stomach roiled at the alternative, and he cursed himself for thinking he could protect her from the ruthless man who sired her.

  Against her black hair, her skin was snowy white. So still did she lie, he wet a finger and held it beneath her nose. The breath of air was faint, like the brush of a feather, but enough to tell him she clung to life.

  “Cling harder, beloved,” he whispered.

  Tears tightened his throat and burned his eyes, but Revas could not let them fall. Should she awaken and see him so distraught, she could lose hope.

  And hope was all they had, according to the healer. The poison had done its work and gone to her heart, which even now thrummed softer than the beat before.

  Old King Edward’s physician had saved her once, but on that occasion she’d had only a sip of Cutberth’s poison. According to Gibby and Lisabeth, Meridene had drunk a tankard full last night.

  “She is in God’s hands,” the healer had said.

  Would the last entry in the Covenant be the words of a bereft husband who had underestimated his enemy and watched his Maiden die? Would the tradition end with a woman named for the one who’d begun it all? Was this the closure of a great circle of time?

  “Pray God, nay,” he whispered, and clutched her hand.

  Her skin was warm and her fingers supple, but lifeless.

  Silently he begged the Lord to save her. He offered up his service in every waking moment for the rest of his life in exchange for hers.

  Behind him, the door opened. William stepped inside.

  “Oh, why, Revas? Why did you bring her back to Scotland?”

  Rising, Revas went to him, and the pain and accusation in William’s eyes was almost his undoing. “I know not, and I’ll go to my grave seeking an answer that eases my mind. But if she lives, I swear on my soul, I’ll send her to safety. Edward was right, you know. And she, too. We are a land of monsters. Look what tragedies we make.”

  Softly, as if to convince himself, William said, “She has a strong will. Even as a child, she did not yield easily.”

  As a child she’d been a bride—his bride—and even as he watched her hang on to life, he knew her father was just as determined to destroy her.

  The years fell away, and Revas was once again a frightened lad facing the king of England. Edward’s rage at seeing her brought low and his conviction to save her from Scottish monsters had seemed heroic to Revas. Because he hadn’t loved her then—not with a man’s passion and a husband’s duty. He hadn’t come to this place in his life when he anticipated the simple pleasures of seeing her work at her loom, or watching her teach Gibby how to inventory the pantry stores. As a lad, he hadn’t felt the soul-deep sorrow and heart-wrenching pain of losing her.

  Life was a gift of God, or so the priest had counseled Revas. With a stronger conviction than he had ever known, Revas was certain that God had played no part in this treachery. Men had determined the course Meridene’s life would take. Now it was time for Revas to shoulder the blame and do his part.

  He caught William’s gaze. “She belongs in a sweet place with people who have a care for her, not with a self-important butcher’s son who has overreached himself, and a father whose soul is crusted with sin.”

  William dashed tears from his eyes. “You cannot blame yourself for Father’s treachery. She loved you well, Revas. If she lives, she will not leave you.”

  “She can love me as much from England.” He grasped handfuls of William’s tunic, and when they were nose to nose, he said, “You must help me convince her. Compel her, if that is the only way. She will go with you—back to Scarborough Abbey, if we do our work well.”

  “What work?”

  Revas told him of his plan.

  In resignation, William sighed. “I will do as you ask, if she lives.”

  * * *

  Meridene ached all over. Her stomach growled, and she felt like she’d eaten spiny rocks. A dry bitterness coated her mouth. What had happened? She felt leeched out, exhausted. This was no rancid food she suffered, and her hands and arms bore no marks or blotches from a plague. Yet she felt bludgeoned from the inside out—as if she’d been poisoned again.

  Her shoulders tightened. Yes, the sickness, the soreness, the aching exhaustion. The same leavings as that poisoned cup she’d drunk from so long ago.

  Her father had sent a generous wheelwright. When that failed, he sent a faceless intruder to set fire to her room. Now poison. Even the rank taste on her tongue was the same as before.

  Hatred coiled inside her. She reached for the tankard on the bedside table. Weariness and fear clouded her head, but after several swallows of the cold, sweet water, her though
ts cleared. She became aware of a strong presence beside her.

  Revas. In her bed. She thought it heavenly odd that she could sense his presence. Her sworn protector was nearby. He’d rail at her father and worry with guilt. But they would be more careful in the future, and once Revas wore the crown, Cutberth wouldn’t dare come after her again.

  Her fear ran like hounds after the hunt, and her exhaustion followed. “Curse you, Cutberth Macgillivray,” she swore out loud.

  Sitting up and holding the mug in both hands, she turned to watch Revas sleep. But he was awake and watching her.

  “ ’Twas the haggis,” he said. “Your handmaidens have been brought to bed, and half the Forbesmen are struck low.”

  “It was poison in the barley water.”

  “Nay. No one else drinks it, and many of us are sick. ’Tis not the first time, though. Two years ago, a brace of tainted moorhens sent us running to the privy and then to our cots.”

  He had it all wrong. “My father tried to poison me. He sent that Macleod after me, then he had someone set fire to my bed. Now he’s had someone poison the haggis.”

  “Impossible. No one save Montfichet touches the haggis. He always cleans the umbles himself. Even Sibeal takes no hand in the making of haggis.” Wry laughter made him groan. “Smart lass, that Sibeal. ’Twas your fault, though.”

  How could he be so sure? “It is not my fault, and put away your charm. It’s wasted now.”

  Wincing, he rubbed his stomach. “Last night you coaxed me into eating the haggis, Meridene. Not since I left my father’s house has the vile stuff passed my lips. Until you forced me.”

  Even in the aftermath of poison, he played the gallant. But she was not fooled. “If you will not color up the truth for Gibby, why do it for me? I tell you it was poison—in whatever food.”

  “ ’Twas the corrupted liver from an old hart.” Scooting to the head of the bed, he smoothed the covers over his lap. “Montfichet swears to it. You are cruel to make quibbling of my legitimate complaint.”

  She’d said those very words to him, and he did look ill—his eyes were red and his youthful features were lined with fatigue. If Montfichet was certain about the meat and others were ill, then bad haggis must be to blame.

  “I’m glad you understand,” he said. “And do not think for a moment that Sibeal has not exacted a price for her husband’s poor work.” Pausing, he ruffled his now shorter hair. “She has a bloody wicked tongue, that Sibeal.”

  “What did she say?”

  “I know not, but in reply, Conal said he no longer lamented not giving her a chastity belt, for he would sooner spend his coin on a muzzle to keep her quiet.”

  Meridene pictured the sapling-thin cook berating his rotund wife, and the image made her smile. “She’ll not wear a chastity belt.”

  Revas rolled his eyes. “Of course not. The weight of the thing would stagger her.”

  Their conversations always ran to the pleasant. It was true, and Meridene laughed, then groaned, for her ribs were sore from vomiting.

  Revas threw off the bedcovers. “I should summon Sibeal to help you. I’m certain you’ll want to bathe.”

  He seemed nervous, and he was fully dressed, while she wore a thin sleeping gown. He’d complimented the garment at length. Why didn’t he notice it now? Did his illness consume his thoughts?

  Hoping to make him feel better, she said, “Were you striving for a gentle way to tell me that I smell?”

  His eyes grew glassy, and he looked at her with sad longing. “Nay,” he said thickly, and crawled off the bed.

  “We could share a bath and see if my namesake was correct about begetting a male child.”

  Instead of a roguish grin and a naughty remark, he swallowed hard and looked at the hour candle. It was nine in the morning.

  “Brodie and the others await.”

  He hurried out the door, and she had the oddest thought that he wasn’t sick at all.

  * * *

  At midday she went to the kitchen. Montfichet was dutifully conscience-stricken, and Sibeal looked disgusted with her husband.

  “Damned Macgraw!” the cook spat. “He slew that hart a sennight ago, not two days as he swore when I bought it. Turks’ll plow this land before I spend good coin on another of his kills. There’s fresh barley from Aberhorn—acquired just this morn. Shall I make you a broth, my lady?”

  Standing at the worktable, Sibeal huffed and ground her knuckles into a mountain of bread dough.

  Conal wagged his finger at her. “And if you challenge me, woman, I’ll be visiting the blacksmith for that special head ornament I promised you.”

  His wife hefted the dough and threw it at him. By the time he’d peeled the sticky mass off his face and yelled in outrage, Sibeal had fled out the back way.

  Choking with suppressed laughter, Meridene fled to the steward’s pantry.

  Sim, too, had eaten the accursed haggis, but his tale of woe was overdone, for he tended to be a quiet fellow, or at least efficient with words.

  He sat at his desk, the ledgers piled high around him.

  “A wretched night I spent, my lady,” he went on, twisting the quill. “Too weak I was to do more than blink once for water and twice for help getting to the privy.”

  He almost recited the words, and his choice of them was odd, for she couldn’t imagine him mentioning the private workings of his body—not to her or to any other female—of that, Meridene was certain.

  “A wretched sickness, my lady, to all of us that caught it.”

  All? “Has everyone recovered?”

  “Aye. Revas fared the best. Off he’s gone, taking the new furniture to the Halt.”

  Surely not. Moving furniture was the last thing he’d do, knowing she’d just risen from the sickbed. She peered out the window. Glennie and Summerlad practiced with short swords, but Revas was not among the bystanders. “You must be mistaken, Sim.”

  “Nay.” His gaze flitted to her, then dashed back to the quill. “He was driving the carpenter’s wagon when he said he was on his way to the Halt. He’ll be home before Vespers, he said. But you’re not to wait.”

  Meridene didn’t wait. She wanted the old rosary. Henceforth, she would pray with the Maiden’s beads and give her own to Gibby. She found the rosary in the niche where Revas had kept it all these years.

  Her husband. Revas Macduff. At Vespers she thanked God for blessing her with so fine a man. The best man o’ the Highlands, the villagers said of him.

  Happiness propelled her from the church. Revas had gone to his lodge because he was planning a surprise for her there, some gallant gesture to melt her heart.

  She would pretend surprise just to please him.

  Then she would present him with a gift: the new tapestry. Tonight, in the company of their friends and the entire household, she would give it to him.

  Hoping to fetch it before he returned, she hurried into the castle. Only Summerlad sat in the common room.

  “Where’s Serena?” she asked.

  “She went with the soldiers to see Gibby home to Aberhorn.”

  But Sim had said the others were on the mend. “Why? Is Gibby still ill?”

  “Nay, the lass is fit, as is my Serena. Revas sent his lass home.”

  To be with her grandparents. Most likely they were worried about her. “Then Revas is back?”

  “Aye, we returned before Vespers.” As he spoke, he twirled one of his war bracelets. The casual gesture was out of place, for he valued the bands second only to Serena. They were not toys; he took his duties to heart.

  Now Meridene understood. He simply missed his sweetheart and awaited her return.

  At the cheerful prospect of seeing her own sweetheart, Meridene forgot the tapestry and almost ran up the steps. Revas must have wanted to bathe before seeing her, and that was why he had not sought her out upon his return.

  She found him in his chamber studying a map, not lounging in the bath. William sat beside him. Neither looked up when she approa
ched.

  “Are you planning to build a road?” she asked, remembering what he’d said about traveling messengers.

  Her brother started, but Revas barely spared her a glance. “ ’Tis Kilbarton Castle and the grounds. Surely you recognize it.”

  He sounded disinterested, cold. This morning he’d been evasive.

  Thinking he’d fallen ill again, she took a stand. “You should have stayed in bed another day.”

  “Oh, nay. I’m eager to see your father’s face when I demand the crown.”

  When he demanded it? Of all the odd comments and strange behavior she’d witnessed today, his was the most peculiar. “Do you think he’ll be surprised to see me?” She knew the answer, but had to ask.

  He took a long drink from a tankard. “I’ll not give him that satisfaction. Your declaration is enough. There’s paper, quill, and ink. Just put down your words, and I’ll take them to Cutberth.”

  She balked. The Revas she knew would not refuse her a moment of revenge. “What’s wrong with you?”

  His gaze caught hers. He swallowed hard. “Important matters.”

  “Yes, important matters that concern me. You said as much.”

  “I did, and sooner or later you must put down the words.” His attention dropped to her waist and the Maiden’s belt she’d donned for the first time. “ ’Tis prescribed in the Covenant.”

  Knowing he spoke the truth and certain she could change his mind, she went to the desk and penned the traditional demands. The scratching of the nib on the vellum was the only sound in the room, yet her heart thudded with pride. She was bothered, though, because Revas hadn’t commented on the fact that she wore the golden belt. He’d said the choice was hers, but in matters pertaining to the Maiden, he was ever the champion of tradition.

  After signing her name and sketching the cinquefoil of the Maiden, she sprinkled sand on the ink. When it dried, she handed it to Revas.

  He scanned the page, then rolled it up and put it in his chieftain’s pouch.

  “When will we go to Kilbarton?” she asked.

 
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