Maiden of Inverness, page 29
“Not we.” He sat down again, all cold stranger. “You will stay here.”
“When fish sprout feathers!”
“You will stay.”
It wasn’t like him to be unreasonable. He must still think her too afraid of her father to face him. “Seeing me take the sword from my father is all you’ve talked about since you brought me home.”
“Not all,” he murmured meaningfully. “You know well my favorite subject.”
She almost relished the roguish comment, even if it was spoken in her brother’s presence. But Revas could not cajole her into giving up the opportunity to face her father, not when he knew it was her destiny. “What farce do you play?”
“No farce, Meridene.” Honesty glimmered in his eyes. “Unless you wish to see me slay your father and stuff his head on a pike?”
Her knees went weak at the horror. “Give me back my letter.”
“Do not be angry. You’ve been away too long.” Leaning back, he enlisted William with a touch on his arm. “Faced with an army of women, Cutberth will laugh. Isn’t that so?”
“Very true, Meridene. Much has changed, and for the better.”
How could they scheme to shut her out? Side by side, they formed a convincing front, but she was not done. “Curse you, William, for agreeing with my noble husband.” She sent Revas her most withering stare. “I’m important to the Highlands. The people will support my claim. It’s the tradition.”
Revas rudely waved her off. “ ’Twas colored up. From you they want flower pennies and sweetness, which you admirably provide. We’re not so ceremonious in our time about the passing of the sword.”
“I’ll be the judge of which of the Maiden’s ceremonies I perform and when.”
He snatched up the tankard and drank again, as if to fortify himself. Slamming it down, he said, “I expected stubbornness from you, but it will not work this time. You will do as your husband bids.”
She planted her feet. “I’m going to Kilbarton Castle.”
“Very well, Meridene. Since you leave me no choice, I’ll tell you all of it.” He wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his tunic. “Your father swore that if you came for the sword according to tradition, he would slay every woman with you. Is that what you want?”
She did not fear her father now. “His kinsmen will not support him, and William will be with us.”
“William matters not to Cutberth.”
For confirmation, she looked to her brother.
“Revas speaks the truth, and I do not wish to die for a ceremony. Father’s hired mercenaries receive a boon for every man, woman, and child they slay. The price on your head and mine is a hefty purse in itself. Revas is the only one they are not to touch. Father has saved that pleasure for himself.”
“There you have it,” Revas said with finality. “None of us wants to perish to see you don a crown of rowans and speak a few words from that book.”
She could take no more of their cowardice. “Then drive the mercenaries from Scotland!”
William stepped closer. “How can we when they wear Macgillivray colors? Who’s to tell them from my brother Scots?”
“Worry not, Meridene.” Revas smiled but without warmth. “I’ll bring you the crown—but not with your father’s head attached.”
He was different—cold and ruthless—and she longed to know why. “You swore there would be no bloodshed. You said you wanted peace through treaties and progress.”
A broadsword through his heart would hurt less than the words Revas must say next. He must drive her away, and quickly.
He spoke the words he’d practiced. “I lied, Meridene. There will be bloodshed aplenty. The Macphersons have left the Community of the Realm, which you would have noticed had you looked at the hearth wall and the shields that dwindle as we speak. Even Munro has thrown in with Cutberth. ’Twill be war. Should I fall in battle, you will be provided for.”
She swayed, as if the words had been a blow. Then she rallied. “It’s my right to help you get those alliances back. Together we will unify the clans of Scotland.”
“And we shall,” he said much too amiably. “You will help by giving me a castle full of wee Macduffs to marry among the better families.”
Not if he lived three score years would Revas forget the agony she didn’t try to conceal. But he could not relent; she must leave Scotland. On reliable information from the priest, Revas knew that even now, her father marshaled an army to march on Auldcairn Castle.
“You will not barter my children like sheep.”
“Come, Meridene,” said her brother, crossing the room. “Revas is not the hero we thought.”
“Why, Revas?” she implored. “This isn’t like you.”
“I’m afraid it is,” William said solemnly. “Ever has he been thus, until you came.”
Revas felt his heart sink, but he must play his part a moment longer. If she did not leave now, his alternative plan would crush her spirit.
“It was all a ruse, wasn’t it, Revas?”
Another moment, a few more coarse remarks, and she’d be on her way to safety. “ ’Tis Scottish politics, plain and simple. You were raised with it. Do not pretend otherwise.”
“But you aren’t like Father. You want peace.”
“And I’ll have it at the hands of this peacemaker.” He grasped the hilt of his broadsword. “And you’ll stay behind these walls.”
William grasped her arm. “He’s always like this before a battle.”
“A battle? I thought he was jesting. I thought—”
“That I’d give Cutberth your message, and he’d trip over his war boots in his haste to yield the sword to me?”
William shouted, “You promised you wouldn’t tell her—”
“You know the way of things, brother-in-law.” Revas lunged to his feet and turned his back on them. “She’ll get used to it.”
Meridene decided Revas was again suffering too much strong drink. Why else would he sway and his hands shake? He wore the same clothing as this morning, and he did not look ill from the haggis.
She would wait him out, hear his apology, and forgive him. They had disagreed before. They would argue again. But when he did not come to escort her to prayers the next morning, she went after him.
“He’s at the Halt,” said a preoccupied Brodie.
They stood inside the stable door, where the sheriff was inspecting a harness.
Revas’s favorite mount wasn’t in any of the stalls. He must not be suffering the effects of drink, and since she felt much better, she would take her search a little farther. “Then I’ll ride there. How do I find it?”
“You cannot go to the Halt, my lady. ’Tis his private place. He’s just put in the bed and—He wouldn’t want you there.”
Confused, Meridene searched Brodie’s face for some sign that he jested. But his weathered features were stoic as always. She must get to know him better; other than at meals, she’d shared few conversations with Revas’s mentor.
In the face of his obstinacy, a direct approach would be best. She called out to the stableman to saddle her horse, then turned back to Brodie. “If you will not tell me where the lodge is, someone else will.”
The harness snapped, and he tossed it aside. “Nay, they’ll all abide by his wishes.”
“Revas told you to keep the location a secret—even from me?”
“The few who know, aye. Even the carpenter was kept out of it.”
Sim had said Revas drove the wagonload of furniture himself. Why the secrecy? Ah, she remembered. “Sheriff Brodie,” she said patiently, “I promise to act surprised.”
He blew out his breath. “ ’Twill be a surprise sure enough, if you go there.”
* * *
Only William was willing to accompany her, but as they rode abreast across Lord’s Meadow, she saw regret and hesitance in her brother’s eyes.
Tucked into a bend in a river they aptly called the serpent, the lodge was smaller than her apartments. Rough-cu
A frowning William helped her dismount.
She took the tapestry from her pouch, having decided to give it to Revas now. “What’s wrong, William?” she asked. “You look like we’re going to a funeral mass.”
Distracted, he guided her up the steps and opened the door. “ ’Tis most likely the remains of that rancid haggis.”
A feminine giggle gave Meridene the first impression that something in the lodge was wrong. Naked to his waist and barefoot, Revas sat in one of the new chairs, the hated map spread before him on the low table.
The smell of newly cut wood permeated the air. A vase of freshly cut spring lilies caught her eye.
He looked up, surprised, then glared at William. “You knew better than to bring her here.”
Meridene couldn’t make her feet work. “I insisted.”
Revas glanced at the bed. “You did not knock.”
She expected stubbornness from her husband; his belligerence was something new.
“Revas,” trilled a voice from behind the bed curtains. “Send them away, and come back to bed. I promise to nibble your manhood again.”
Meridene jerked and stared, transfixed, at his bed. He had a woman in there, and she used lovers’ phrases that Meridene had spoken to him in confidence. He’d delivered the furniture himself so that no one else would know about this place and the sins that went on here.
Gathering courage, she moved closer. “How long has she been your leman?”
Suddenly sullen, he stared at the beamed ceiling. Beside her, William shuffled nervously.
Wringing the tapestry in her hands, she counted to ten, then to twenty, but he did not answer. Like a hot wind, anger blasted through her. “Bid farewell to your legitimate heirs, Revas Macduff. I’m going back to England.”
Still staring overhead, he clucked his tongue. “You’ll come back to me.”
“When badgers fly!”
He looked at her then, and his eyes were cold with purpose. “Who will pay for your keep at the abbey? Surely not the husband of a runaway wife.”
Rage, hurt, and confusion battled within her. Rage won out. “Do not trouble yourself about me, Revas Macduff. I managed well enough for many years without you.”
“I’ll take you there,” William said. “We can be packed and gone in an hour’s time. Leave him to his wenching.”
A cajoling Revas started to rise. “Now, Meridene.”
She held up her arm to keep him in place. “Stay where you are, you wretched snake.”
“Look,” he wheedled. “ ’Tis a rocky patch we’ve arrived at, but now that you understand, ’twill be better.”
“Better? I’d rather face a pack of hungry wolves on the Great North Road than live here with you. You adulterer!”
“You cannot begrudge me one woman.”
Fearing she would cry, she implored William with a glance. He took her arm, and she wanted to wilt into his. “Come, sister.”
“Leave the Covenant,” Revas said. “But you may take the belt.”
Her control fled. Shaking William’s hold, she marched up to Revas and threw the tapestry in his face. In a blur of unshed tears, she stormed out the door.
Revas’s knees wouldn’t hold him. He collapsed into the chair and unfolded the cloth. Even after he heard them mount and knew she was gone, he couldn’t take his eyes from the cloth. The face that crowned the work was his own, and the branchlike arms played host to girls and boys, each wearing a different Highland plaid.
From behind the bed curtains, Gibby’s grandmother emerged. She had white hair, yet her face bore fewer wrinkles than other women her age. “Oh, Revas,” she cried. “ ’Tis sad work we’ve done this day. You’ve broken the lassie’s heart.”
And his own.
Oh, sweet charity, how would he rule without her? What had once loomed as a glorious future now yawned like captivity in a foreign land. How could he kneel in church and speak honestly to God with so much blackness in his soul? How could he be fair when nothing mattered?
For a day and a night, he pondered the question. Comfort came with the knowledge that she was well on her way to England by now. With Cutberth’s army marching across Lord’s Meadow, the battle would soon begin.
* * *
The landscape stretched before Meridene, but she noticed little of the Highland scenery. Her heart pounded like a drum, and with every mile they traveled, the beating grew stronger. The feeling was not new; she’d experienced it aboard the ship after Revas had taken her from the abbey. But she understood the source of her discomfort. The thrumming in her chest had been the Highlands calling her home. Now it wanted her back.
As if compelled, she looked over her shoulder. Once she had condemned Scotland, but that was before—before she’d come to know the people of Elginshire, before she’d met Serena and Summerlad, the adorable Ellen, the quiet Lisabeth, and dear, sweet Gibby.
Or Revas. Her stomach bobbed like a cork, and not from the ride, for her mount was the best mare in Revas’s stable.
Revas. Tears stung her eyes, but she willed them not to fall. A womanizer wasn’t deserving of her love and devotion. But why had he taken up with that woman? What feminine aspect did Meridene lack that would drive him to seek companionship elsewhere?
Did the name Macduff’s Halt have some base meaning? Yes, she thought. It was a halt to decency and a respite from his wedding vows. He was welcome to it, and she hoped the sin blackened his soul.
But a part of her could not condone that low opinion of him, because it did not fit. In the moments when her mind’s vision was unclouded by the reasons that drove her away from him, she wondered if she hadn’t imagined the lodge, the woman, and her unrepentant husband. That man was a stranger.
She had questioned Brodie, William, and the Forbesmen who served as her escort. With the twin towers of Auldcairn still within sight, she had interrogated them.
Brodie dismissed Revas’s transgression with a mumbled “ ’Tis a wife’s place to obey her husband.”
Glennie Forbes had set his jaw and stared at the road ahead.
One of his kinsmen had declared, “A man has his needs.” But he’d spoken with little conviction.
On reflection, she wished she had talked with Summerlad. Why had he been so sullen when they last spoke in the common room? Why had Sibeal simply glared at her husband, rather than interrupt and correct him as was her way? And why had Sim been so evasive and guilty?
And that had been the order of the day: guilt. She’d been so aggrieved at Revas, she hadn’t stopped to say good-bye to any of her new friends. Lisabeth and Ellen deserved better from the Maiden of Inverness. Sim deserved a personal return of his father’s sporran. Would Gibby remember Meridene as the cold stepmother who came and went in a few fleeting cycles of the moon?
What of that bright-eyed lad who’d presented Meridene with that precious wooden bowl on the day of her arrival? What story would Revas spread in explanation of his wife’s hasty departure?
But it wasn’t Meridene’s fault. Revas had broken his vows. Revas planned to make war. Revas had sent his daughter away.
Like a wasting sickness, the word tormented her. Why, why, why? If Revas marched to Kilbarton Castle to face Cutberth, why send Gibby to a farm in the sleepy village of Aberhorn? She’d be safer behind the walls of Auldcairn.
Unless he planned to strike the battle elsewhere. A notion wiggled its way into the quandary, and Meridene guided her horse abreast of Brodie’s mount.
“Revas is planning a siege of Kilbarton Castle. That’s why he wanted me to leave, and the reason he sent Gibby away.”
Brodie’s hands grew slack on the reins, and the stallion sidestepped. “Nay, my lady. He’ll not make war without me and the Forbesmen at his back. ’Twould be folly, and Revas is seldom foolish.”
At this point, she didn’t know Revas at all. At least not the Revas she left behind.
Like a shower of sunshine after a raging storm, enlightenment rained over her. Revas had driven her away. He hadn’t meant those hurtful words. “Damn his noble heart!” she cursed out loud, and pulled her horse to a stop. “I’m going back.”
Brodie snatched her reins. “You cannot.”
She looked to William, who looked away. And she knew that her brother had helped deceive her. Only Glennie Forbes met her gaze. Rash and eager, he was too young for noble thoughts. That was why Revas always gave Summerlad command of the Forbesmen. The Macqueen lad had stayed to fight, and he hadn’t been able to look Meridene in the eye when last they met. Shame had caused him to twist his war bands rather than face Meridene and lie. Sim had shied from her. Conal had acted strangely bold. Sibeal had been angered by her husband’s odd behavior.
Worse than all of their actions was Revas’s treatment of Meridene. Oh, yes. He had thought to exclude her from the impending strife. Unfortunately for him, he had not considered that she, too, felt responsible for keeping the peace in the Highlands.
Her father had pledged to end the legend of the Maiden, and through his ill deeds, he had convinced Meridene, for a time, to do the same. But now she would preserve her heritage and honor the women who for centuries had sacrificed to keep peace in the Highlands.
“Glennie,” she said. “Will you help me teach Revas Macduff that his wife is not a delicate flower?”
“I . . . ah.” Completely ill at ease, he had to struggle to control his mount.
“Will you assist me in showing him that it’s wrong to belittle the office of the Maiden of Inverness?” she demanded.
Suddenly he was a ready warrior. He rose in the saddle. “Aye, my lady. Stand back, Brodie! Forbesmen,” he commanded, “to me!”
Surrounded by Glennie and his kinsmen, Brodie had no choice but to yield. “The sin falls upon your head, lad.”
Glennie’s chest swelled and his eyes narrowed with conviction. “ ’Twas wrong of Revas to drive her away. The Maiden belongs in Scotland.”
William guided his mount close to Meridene’s. “She must go back, Sheriff,” he said thickly. Turning to Meridene, he said, “She’s our only chance. Take heart, sister mine, and remember that you demand a crown from a monster who has ordered your death.”
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