Maiden of inverness, p.3

Maiden of Inverness, page 3

 

Maiden of Inverness
 



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  His direct gaze pinned her. “Your life in England is over, Meridene.” The ship began to move. “We sail for Elginshire.”

  She dashed for the door. He caught her short of her goal. Held against him, she pummeled his chest and bit her lip to hold back tears. He smelled of wool freshened with dried heather, a scent that conjured sad memories of her childhood.

  She would not go back.

  “Stop fighting me, Meridene.”

  “I hate you and all of the others.”

  His hands were gentle on her back, as if he were comforting an ailing child. “You’ll find the people changed.”

  Surprised by the lull in her defenses, she stepped out of his embrace. “I care not if they have sprouted haloes and mastered the harp.”

  If determination had an essence, it thrived in the countenance of Revas Macduff. His eyes gleamed honesty, and his hands lay open in earnest entreaty. “They are good people, who believe that you will change their lives. I believe it, too.”

  She felt his will, tried to push it away, yet it clung to her defenses like lichen to damp rock. He held himself with the easy grace of one born to rule and bound to conquer.

  Still, her heart was a desert where Scotland was concerned. “Then disappointment awaits you.”

  “Because I’m a hapless butcher’s son who once groveled before an English king?”

  Those were her words, spoken in confidence to a woman she’d considered a friend. The extent of his intrusion into her life dawned on Meridene. “Ana is your spy.”

  Pride wreathed his handsome features, and he suddenly appeared too large for the small cabin. “Her father is my liege man.”

  The mighty Sutherlands had gone so far as to swear fealty to Revas Macduff? The notion defied logic and tradition. Clans often united for a common goal. But when the objective was met, they closed ranks around their individual chieftains. Swearing fealty constituted a permanent alliance, and were the Sutherlands to align themselves with anyone, they would bend a knee to her father, the king of the Highlands. Not Revas Macduff.

  The direction of her train of thought disconcerted her as much as the man. “I want no part in Scotland’s future.”

  “Resign yourself. We’re going home.”

  “You are going home.”

  A knock sounded at the door. He opened it, and Meridene watched in dismay as two subalterns carried in her loom, her writing materials, and her books. Revas spoke quietly to the men. Next they brought a finely made trunk into the cabin.

  When they left, Revas eyed her nightrail. “Your new wardrobe, my lady. I’m certain you’ll want to dress yourself in something fitting and warm. If you will recall, the Highlands are cool this time of year.”

  She became aware of her own state of undress. He was not bothered in the least that she wore a sleeping gown. Rather he appeared disinterested, for he spoke of honoring vows while he practiced abduction. That troubled her more. “You blackhearted, selfish monster.”

  He sighed, and his expression softened, giving her an unexpected glimpse of the vulnerable lad she remembered. “Shall I be cruel to you?” he entreated. “Must I lock you in and play the tyrant?”

  As a lad, he’d been the only Scottish male to look beyond the legend of the Maiden and see the frightened girl beneath. But the kind lad had become an ambitious and charming man.

  She balled her fists. “No doubt you’ve mastered that tyranny.”

  “What’s this? Pettiness from the Maiden of Inverness? It doesn’t suit you.” He gave her a rakish smile. “I’m actually a lambkin at heart.”

  She laughed at that, for he looked as formidable as the king he aspired to be. He’d get no crown from her; her father would wear it until the stars fell into the sea. “You have no heart. Why else would you keep me against my will?”

  He straddled the trunk and toyed with the brass latch. The comfortable pose belied his intentions. “Because you are my wife and duty-bound to serve the people of the Highlands.”

  Her anger turned to hostile rage. “Without so much as a by-your-leave, you expect me to march up to my father and, with all of Clan Macgillivray as witness, demand that he relinquish his throne to you and yield his ceremonial sword to me?”

  “Only if I can wield it.” He stiffened his arms, and his bulging muscles strained the seams of his jerkin. “I assure you that I have spent the last thirteen years preparing for that very event.”

  More than battle prowess was necessary to successfully rule the Highland clans. He’d need patience, fairness, and a plan for the future. She doubted he had any of those. What kidnapper could? “Your preparations are in vain.”

  “The women of Elginshire will support you when you claim the sword of Chapling.”

  Chapling. It was an old word meaning unity, and the man who wore the Highland crown also assumed the chieftainship of Clan Chapling.

  Baffled, Meridene rubbed her temples. “The women of Elginshire? What have they to do with the crown of the Highlands?”

  “They will accompany you to Inverness and stand behind you when you demand the sword from your father. ’Tis a pilgrimage they long to make.”

  Pilgrimage? The word sparked an old and complex memory, but the image was too vague to recall in its entirety. One aspect, however, stood out sharply, and as always, it involved one man: her father. “Oh, no, for I will never set foot on my father’s land. Not for you, not even for the promise of paradise.”

  “You dishonor the women who have sworn to share your quest.”

  The women. A band of strangers who expected her to demand the crown of the Highlands from her father, then bestow it on Revas Macduff. Not for a place at the right hand of God would she face the father who had tried to kill her rather than see her wed to a man not of his choosing. A monster. Scotland teemed with such beasts.

  As if he’d read her thoughts, Revas said, “Your father will not foul so much as the air you breathe. On that you have my word of honor.”

  His useless chivalry angered her more than his selfish assumptions. “The devil with Scottish honor.”

  Revas wanted to shake her and curse her for abandoning her birthright. Deep in his heart, he had harbored the hope that she would willingly come home to Scotland and seek her destiny. He’d underestimated the depth of her feelings and deluded himself about his own. He would do neither again.

  “Resign yourself, Meridene.”

  “Delude yourself, Revas.”

  He had imagined what it would be like to hear her speak his name, but his expectation had not included scorn, for the Maiden should be beyond petulance. He had thought to woo her—a prideful mistake on his part. “Given time, you’ll see the right of it.”

  “Given time, I will wreck your household.” She rose and moved so close that her gown brushed his knees. “I will turn maid against bootboy. I will insult the cook until she leaves in disgust. I will publicly accuse your steward of thievery.” Her pretty nostrils flared and even her hair quivered with the rage she could not control. “When I’m done, you’ll beg me to leave Scotland.”

  By the sacred stone, she was bold, and her formidable passion drew him like wind to sail. His servants would follow the Maiden of Inverness into the fires of hell. He’d spent years making it so. She couldn’t possibly disrupt his household. The notion was laughable.

  “Spare yourself the trouble, Revas. Take me back to the abbey now.”

  Excitement thrummed through him at the prospect of harnessing her passion. But first, he had to get her attention. “Very well.” She relaxed until he added, “I will return you to the abbey . . . when our first child is old enough to travel. I’ll even accompany you myself.”

  “You’re mad.” She pointed a slender, unadorned finger toward the door. “Get out.”

  She looked so formidable, so set in her ways. Since the moment she’d ripped off the hood and bed linens, Revas had been stunned by the changes in his bride. As a child, she’d been fairylike in her girlish beauty, but the years had transformed a
princess into a queen. Gone were her freckles and inquisitive stares, replaced by flawless skin and a forthright manner.

  She’d give him sons to slay the dragons of injustice. She’d give him a daughter to carry on the most romantic of Scottish legends. With luck, she’d give him years of companionship and help him shoulder the burdens of his office. He wanted all of those things, and he wanted them from her.

  “Stop gawking at me and get out.”

  It would take more than harsh words to deter him. “A husband is entitled to look at his wife.” For effect, he added, “And more.”

  She swallowed and licked her lips, her eyes glittering with alarm. “Will you ravish me?”

  That brought him up short. “You think I will force you?”

  She scanned the cabin, then gave him a look rife with irony. “Force seems to be your way.”

  He fought back a smile at her clever logic. Lord, he’d enjoy trading barbs with her and wooing her back into the Scottish fold. “Do not despair. I will ravish you well and often, once you take the sword of Chapling from your father and give it to me.”

  She relaxed and pitched her waist-length hair over her shoulder. “Your chivalry has a base purpose. You will not exercise your husbandly rights now, because the Maiden must be pure of body and spirit when she demands the sword from her father and passes it to her husband.”

  She spoke of the Maiden as someone else. He’d change that, too. For now, he was grateful that she had at last broached the subject of her duty. “Do not forget that you must also be pure of heart.”

  Her gaze sharpened. “How do you know so much about the traditions required of the Maiden?”

  He had committed to memory every tenet of the Covenent of the Maiden. Should he tell her that he had taken seriously her long-ago plea that he protect the sacred book? Perhaps later. For now, he would mince words. “ ’Tis a trait any man would desire in his wife.”

  She drew back, leaving the air scented with the very English and detestable smell of honeysuckle. “You’ll get nothing from me.”

  “Aye, I will. You’ll give me the sword of Chapling.” And he’d bathe her in heather.

  She studied him, from the mussed strands of his hair to the symbols of rank that adorned his wrists and war boots. A knowing grin gave her a siren’s appeal. “Were you my only choice of mates, Revas Macduff, I would willingly go to my grave an innocent.”

  He’d been too bold, but he knew no other way, and he could not retreat now. “I am your choice of husbands until you go to your grave.”

  “Pity your mother did not go to her grave virtuous.”

  Laughter threatened to burst from him. “Alas, my maiden bride,” he said, “I expect we’ll manage well enough. Your cutting wit promises to enlighten the loneliest of my nights.”

  “Be careful, my daring husband, lest you bleed to death in your sleep.”

  Inwardly he winced at the verbal blow. “ ’Twill be enjoyable, seeing you yield to the lure of the Highlands.”

  “I’d sooner drag a dung cart through a bog.” Chin high, shoulders squared, she moved around him and opened the door. “Now get out.”

  Past achieving a graceful exit, Revas stepped into the companionway. She could not escape him now. “Rest well, Maiden.”

  “Maiden?” She snatched up his cloak and threw it at him. “I’m no virgin.”

  Struck dumb, Revas watched as she slammed the door and threw the bolt.

  Not a virgin. A denial roared inside him, and his fingers crushed the fabric of his cloak. She had to be innocent. She’d been bred into a code of feminine honor as old as Saint Columba. For centuries the women of her clan had shaped the destiny of the Highlands. Like her mother, some of the Maidens had failed in their marriages and chosen poor husbands. Like her namesake, other Maidens had prospered. It was all written in the Covenant. She knew the rules, the risks, and the rewards. So did he. And when the book was passed to their daughter, Revas would see Meridene add her page to the chronicle and, with God’s help, name her husband a truehearted king of the Highlands.

  It had to be.

  He had devoted his life to righting the wrongs of her father, Cutberth Macgillivray, and winning a kingdom to lay at her feet. Was the daughter as treacherous as the sire?

  The unfairness drained Revas as no battle had, for the success of his life’s work rested, not on his ability to lead and thrive, but on one woman’s virtue.

  “Do you believe her?”

  Turning, Revas saw John Sutherland rise from the bottom rung of the companionway steps, a lantern in his hand, a sheen of sea spray in his graying hair.

  Hope forced Revas to say, “Nay. She’s a maiden to her soul.”

  “Maidenhead or no, ’tis a blessing she’s already wed to you, for I know a dozen Sutherland chieftains who’d trade their father’s best sporran for a chance to tame her heart.” He pushed to his feet. “By the stone, Revas, she is comely.”

  Revas had expected other men to covet his wife for her beauty, but not for her spirit. The fact that she was the Maiden of Inverness was enough to inspire a man to possess her. But she belonged to Revas Macduff. “She has a fire in her.”

  Sutherland laughed so hard, he almost dropped the lantern. “You’ve a gift of understatement even our sovereign, Robert Bruce, would envy. She’s a bonfire of defiance.”

  Revas had no intention of putting out her fire; the Highlanders needed her spirit. Especially now when autonomy from England had become an attainable goal.

  Meridene needed the people, too; she just didn’t know it yet. He had a plan to change her mind and win her heart. She’d left him no choice but to kidnap her; his informant, Ana, had told him Meridene would not come willingly.

  “How fares Ana?”

  Shaking his head, Sutherland blew out an exhausted breath. “She saw you carry your wife aboard and recalled your promise to treat Lady Meridene kindly.”

  Revas battled back guilt. The cog pitched and he braced his arm on the bulkhead until the ship crested a wave. “She’s not to fret, John. Meridene is unharmed, and what I did ’twas for the best.”

  “Aye, you’ve an obligation to the people and a duty to your wife.”

  Revas was beginning to think that winning a kingdom might prove easier than swaying his wife. “Would that she were a wee bit biddable.”

  Sutherland nodded in sage agreement. “What of your promise to Bruce?”

  Robert Bruce, the king of Scotland, knew and approved of Revas’s plan to bring Meridene home, as long as she was willing, and Revas had assured him she was. If not, Bruce expected Revas to take the throne of the Highlands by force from Cutberth Macgillivray.

  The grim alternative depressed Revas. By reverting to the old ways and declaring war on his dissenters, he could only hope to rule the Highlands by force. The solution was unthinkable, for in returning to the warlike past, he risked losing the peaceful future.

  Frustrated with his choices, he headed up the companionway stairs. “Is Randolph’s ship still in sight?”

  Sutherland followed, holding the lantern high to light their way. “Aye, a dozen ships’ lengths off the starboard bow.”

  Randolph was the younger brother of Drummond Macqueen, a former chieftain who’d recently received a pardon from English captivity. Drummond’s wife had been raised with Meridene at Scarborough Abbey. At Christmas last, Drummond had sent his brother, Randolph, with a message for Revas. In the note, he revealed where Revas could find Meridene and explained that she wanted nothing to do with her husband or Scotland.

  Then Revas had sent Ana Sutherland to Scarborough Abbey to verify the story.

  At the top of the stairs, Revas threw open the hatch. The night wind whistled across the deck, and he drew on his cloak to ward off the chill.

  “Shall I hail Randolph’s ship?” Sutherland asked.

  Revas spotted the vessel, riding the waves hard by. “Aye. He’s to take a message to Bruce.”

  “A message? But the king expects to see the Maide
n. He said as much when we left the parliament at Saint Andrews.”

  Never had Revas lied to his sovereign. Through Robert Bruce, Scotland would break the bonds of English dominion. The Maiden was an integral part of that plan.

  Skirting the truth was his best choice. “Have Randolph tell him that the voyage has visited ill humors on my wife.”

  Sutherland clucked his tongue. “ ’Tis partly true.”

  And wholly unfortunate for Revas Macduff. “Send my regrets and invite the king to Auldcairn Castle for Midsummer’s Eve.”

  “Two months? ’Tis wise, Revas, for ’twill give you time to tame her.”

  “Worry not, friend, for she’ll better accept her circumstances on the morrow.”

  But she didn’t.

  CHAPTER

  2

  When Meridene emerged from the companionway, she gave Revas a cold stare, then sought solitude near the bow. He deserved her anger. He intended to combat it with kindness and reason. But now he was momentarily content to simply admire her.

  She’d donned the warmest of the cloaks he’d provided, an ankle-length garment of miniver, fashioned with the tanned hides turned inside out. The hides had been worked to suppleness, then dyed a pale leaf green and further embellished with a border of interlocking cinquefoils, the device of the Maiden. The color complemented her forest-hued eyes, and the soft fur accentuated the delicacy of her skin.

  She’d braided her glorious black hair and coiled it at the nape of her neck. When a gust of wind whipped around her, she drew up the hood of the cloak and continued to stare at the horizon. Standing just so, she looked like a queen ready to bless a fleet, rather than a wife eager to desert her vows.

  Since pledging his troth to her, he’d dedicated every waking hour to unifying Scotland. In contrast, she’d made a vocation of loathing it. Even in her dreams, she cursed her homeland, and when the visions grew too horrid, she cried out in her sleep for help.

  Last night she’d awakened him with her screams, but a bolted door had prevented him from comforting her. Soon he’d lie beside her, and when those dark dreams visited her, he’d hold her in his arms and face the demons with her. In their waking hours, he’d bind her to the Highlands again and teach her to love the people who awaited her return.

 
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