Maiden of inverness, p.30

Maiden of Inverness, page 30

 

Maiden of Inverness
 


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  Yanking the reins, she wheeled her mount and headed home.

  CHAPTER

  17

  At sunset the next day, they crested the hill overlooking Auldcairn Castle. Below, the outer bailey teemed with a well-provisioned army. A pennon bearing her father’s device told Meridene all she needed to know.

  She called out for Brodie and explained what she must do.

  “Oh, nay, my lady. ’Tis too dangerous. Should your father spy you—”

  “I know the way to the postern gate, Brodie. I’ve used it before. I’ll not fall prey to that monster again.”

  His eyes gleamed golden from the light of the setting sun. “Then take Glennie with you, or William.”

  Again, she knew only boldness would sway him. “Then I might as well bring a bannerman to announce my arrival.”

  “They’ll think you a camp follower and behave accordingly.”

  She’d act the veriest wanton to gain access to her home. “Then I’ll tell them I have the French pox!”

  He looked away, but his mouth twitched with humor.

  She grasped his forearm. “Worry not, Brodie. I’m the Maiden of Inverness. But give me your yellow sash to hide the color of my hair.”

  All grumbling dissent, he did as she asked. “Go safely, then, and quietly.” He handed her a sheathed dirk. “Use it swiftly and strike here.” He drew a line across his throat. “ ’Tis sharper than a razor.”

  She swallowed hard at the thought of taking another life, even in defense of her own. But she must ease the sheriffs mind. So she nodded and slipped the dirk inside her sleeve.

  “And you must avoid the pond,” he insisted, pointing to the spot where the goose girl and her flock should have been. “They’ll water their horses there. Move in a wide circle to the south, and approach the wall from the east, but do not leave the shelter of the forest until night is full upon us.”

  With a last embrace for her brother and a silent prayer for God to keep William safe, Meridene covered her hair with the scarf. Then she pulled up the hood of her cloak, circled wide, and moved into the woods to wait for nightfall.

  * * *

  “Take this.” Elizabeth Gordon, the herald of Robert Bruce, handed Revas a tankard. “ ’Tis the best brew o’ the Highlands.”

  They stood atop the newest of Auldcairn’s square towers. Tents and campfires dotted the outer bailey. The sheep and cattle now milled in the castle yard, and the village was filled with families from the small farms close by.

  Turning his face in to the night wind, Revas surveyed the enemy. “You say that because Randolph brewed it.”

  “Be it trouble or ale, Randolph is a master at brewing both.” Her voice dropped. “Tell me what you are thinking.”

  Success hinged on the support of his allies. He’d sent messengers to Sutherland, to Macqueen, and to Bruce. Elizabeth Gordon had not gone to Calais as she’d said, but to Elgin’s End, where she’d heard the news of Cutberth’s march on Auldcairn Castle. She’d returned immediately, and since her arrival, had ferried messages between Revas and Cutberth.

  “Revas?”

  In complete honesty, he said, “We’re outnumbered three to one. He hacks up my forest and builds siege engines before my eyes. The Davidsons hold the road to Elgin’s End. Through you, Cutberth bids me to surrender. Through you, I tell him to rot in hell. My people sit like crippled field mice awaiting the hawk.”

  “But how do you fare?”

  He knew what she meant, and even though he fought against it, he felt his guard drop. Meridene was gone, and he was an empty shell without her. “ ’Tis a miserable place for me, Elizabeth.”

  Tomorrow would bring a battle, and the fate of every man, woman, child, and beast within the walls of Auldcairn Castle now rested in God’s hands. But Revas had thought and spoken of nothing else since Cutberth’s arrival, and he was weary of the subject.

  He picked an intriguing topic. “Will you wed Randolph when your service to the king ends?”

  “Aye.” She gave him a wry smile and said her good-nights.

  Alone, Revas turned his attention back to the land. From the outer bailey came music from a harp and a flute and voices better suited to calling the swine. To the south of the merrymakers, the pond gleamed silver in the moonlight, and the warhorses of his enemies appeared as spiny black boulders. Past the pond and farther to the east, the archers camped in the shadow of the near-completed siege engines.

  Movement caught his eye. Just beyond the firelight of the bowmen’s camp, a whore strolled her territory. From Revas’s vantage point, the woman appeared no bigger than a beetle. One of the archers left the warmth of the fire and approached her, but she ignored him, probably intent on peddling her wares among soldiers with larger purses.

  Wenching and merrymaking were expected at battle’s eve, especially among the army that was sure to prevail.

  For the hundredth time, Revas cursed himself for not anticipating the siege. But he’d been preoccupied first with getting Meridene to accept her destiny, then later with having her throw it away.

  In that, at least, he had prevailed. But as he made one last sweep of his defenses, he couldn’t help wishing she were by his side. On that selfish thought, he returned to his quarters, but he could not get her out of his mind.

  Sleep came grudgingly, but when it found him, he slept like the dead, which was fitting. When he awoke, his first thought was of Meridene, as if she’d been with him through the night.

  He’d known this day would come, but he hadn’t expected her to be involved. Challenging Cutberth and taking the sword of Chapling had always been in Revas’s future. Except that now his heart ached with a pain that made trifling of the misery of slaying another man in battle.

  He rose, and with Summerlad’s help, donned his chain mail, his bracelets, and his war boots. When he reached for his broadsword, he found only a small scroll in the scabbard.

  A better sword awaits you.

  Inside a perfectly sketched cinquefoil was the letter M.

  Sim burst into the room. As if setting up a cheer, the steward said, “Lady Meridene goes to take the sword!”

  * * *

  Serena, Lisabeth, and Ellen led a throng of females. They poured through the gates and into the inner bailey. Mothers carried their infant daughters; grandmothers led toddlers by the hand. Arm in arm, girls of every age and complexion skipped happily toward the break in the curtain wall. It was as if they were hurrying to a fair, rather than to a camped army awaiting a battle.

  Horses shied and dogs barked. Thunder rumbled in the northern sky. Armor rattled as knights shifted uncomfortably from foot to booted foot.

  Then Revas saw her. From his post at the gatehouse, he saw her throw off her cloak and shake her glorious black hair. Upon it she wore a crown of rowans, and she’d donned the most elaborate dress in her wardrobe. The gown was bloodred and trimmed with gold, as described in the Covenant and worn by the first Maiden of Inverness.

  Revas’s heart leaped into his throat, and he flew down the steps and raced to catch her. Where were her guards, and how the devil had she managed to get inside Auldcairn Castle and put that note in his scabbard?

  Summerlad came up beside him. Over the trill of feminine voices, the lad yelled, “Where’s Brodie?”

  Revas shrugged and tried to pry his way through the moving throng of women. But he was jostled and tripped and had to struggle to keep his balance. It was as if they intentionally blocked his way.

  * * *

  A cold chill slithered up Meridene’s spine, and she walked on legs as stiff as sticks. When the march began, she’d searched out the pennons flying above her father’s tent and set her feet in that direction. But with each step, her courage faltered.

  She’d feared him all her life, and he above all others wanted her dead. Without her consuming love for Revas, not even her duties as the Maiden could force her wooden legs to propel her toward the man who’d made her life miserable.

  The rowan le
aves prickled her scalp, and the sea of soldiers nicked at her resolve. But then she heard the voices of the women behind her, and the joyous sound pushed her forward. She could not forestall her destiny.

  The tent flap was thrown back, and with a sinking heart, she watched her father emerge. A figure towering above even that of her memory as a small child, he wore full Toledo armor and carried his helmet in the crook of his arm. The Highland crown, a heavy circle of gold bearing the thistles of Scotland, ringed his head. His hair was just above shoulder length, as she remembered, but age had dulled the blond color to pale brown.

  A few more steps brought her close enough to read the expression of hatred on his face, yet even that bitterness could not thwart her resolve. Once and for all, she would dethrone this unworthy king who’d ruled her with the same wrath and vengeance that he governed her people. They deserved better, and she’d give it to them in the form of Revas Macduff. Her husband, a wise and loving man, who would bring peace and unity to the Highlands.

  But somewhere inside, a little girl still cringed and begged her father not to send her away. Meridene stood tall. She was no longer that frightened child. Her parents had brought her into the world knowing this day would come to pass.

  Just then her mother stepped from the tent, and Meridene felt new rage fuel her determination. Once so beautiful as to inspire bards, Eleanor now looked haggard. As always, she concealed her black hair beneath a coif, same as she obscured the tenets of the Covenant, same as she closeted the symbols of the Maiden’s might.

  Compared to the images Meridene had conjured of her namesake, of Sorcha, and of Mary, this Eleanor made a poor showing for the women of their line. Seeing her mother thusly, Meridene cursed her father and made a solemn vow that her own daughter would carry the legend with dignity and pride into the future.

  Revas would make it so, for he would love and cherish their daughter as he did Gibby. Was he watching now? Meridene wondered, and fought the urge to turn and scan the noisy crowd behind her.

  But she could not afford the distraction the sight of him would bring; she had a mission to complete.

  There would be no war here today, save a battle between daughter and sire. With that thought in mind, Meridene picked up her step and walked toward as cruel a man as ever breathed good Scottish air.

  To her surprise, as she passed the soldiers wearing Macgillivray colors, one by one, the men stepped back, removed their helms, and bowed their heads. She glanced at her father.

  Surprise, then something like awe, crossed his features. He’d sired her, beaten her, and tried to take her life many times. What could now make his eyes startle with fear, as if he’d met his own ghost?

  His knees shook, and for a moment she thought he might kneel before her. But a more personal hate, one exclusively for a daughter who could destroy the dream of death he harbored, filled his eyes. Meridene realized his fleeting moment of weakness had been for the legend of the Maiden, for the office she must uphold—not for the woman who’d once been a small child under his control.

  He, too, was stunned by the display of respect she commanded.

  There would be no slaughter of women and children here today, only a celebration of the passing of the sword of Chapling. A queen taking her throne. A wife sustaining her husband.

  Another soldier grasped her father’s arm and captured his attention. Seeing them standing so close and watching their conversation, she knew with certainty the younger man was Robert, the older brother who was a shadow on the edge of her memory. He was unimportant now, an observer of a great moment.

  Her brother stepped back. Meridene stopped and solemnly faced Cutberth Macgillivray. Her gaze never wavered.

  In a clear and commanding voice, she said the words she had written. “As Meridene to Hacon, and then through the ages to Eleanor who gave to you, I declare before God that I am the Maiden of this time. I have spoken my wedding vows to Revas Macduff, and he to me. I take up the tenets of the Covenant, and by the authority begun with my namesake and upheld by the women of my line, I command you to yield the sword of Chapling and the crown and swear fealty to Revas Macduff, the new king of the Highlands.”

  A sneer curled her father’s lip, but behind it, she saw the respect he didn’t want to hold for the office he’d belittled in anticipation of this day.

  Then he scanned his army and found them in submission. Resigned, he swept off the crown and pitched it to Meridene. She caught it, and watched him draw the sword of Chapling. His armor rattled as he took a step toward her. His eyes promised death, though he held the sword lightly.

  Eleanor intercepted him and grasped the blade with a bare hand. “I gave the sword to you, husband mine, and now I take it back.”

  Meridene realized that her mother also anticipated her husband’s intent and had finally found the courage to defy him.

  If he moved, the blade would slice her hand to pieces.

  A stunned Meridene saw her father yield, for the first time, to his wife. With her free hand, Eleanor grasped the hilt of the weapon and faced Meridene. She held the sword with a reverence she’d not shown for the other traditions of the office she’d been born to uphold. Like a waning moon, regret shimmered in her eyes.

  Her face wet with tears, Eleanor held the sword in two leveled hands. “Rule long and well, Meridene, and if you can find it in your heart, please try to forgive us.”

  At the combined weight of the weapon and the sentiment in her mother’s words, Meridene swayed. An arm circled her waist and held her steady. Revas. As always, her husband gave her strength and support.

  Together they watched Cutberth escort Eleanor from the battlefield. No longer a king, he was now a soldier without an army. The little girl inside Meridene suddenly pitied them, but her forgiveness was better served elsewhere.

  Looking up, she faced the new king of the Highlands, and she smiled. “I believe this sword is yours.”

  When he moved to take it, she said, “But you have much to answer for.”

  “That I do, Meridene, my beloved.”

  As he knelt before her, she remembered thinking once that a crown should adorn his glorious hair. She made it so, and when he gazed up at her, a circlet of golden thistles above his brow, she thought him the most handsome and able man in Christendom.

  “I don’t suppose,” he said solemnly, “that you would see my actions as those of a weak man struck dumb by love?”

  The crowd had begun to murmur. Over the din, she said, “Only if I were blind would I see your dreadful scheme that way.”

  He nodded, but there was mischief in his eyes. “Then could you perhaps view my sin as a wee blunder by a man struck dumb by love?”

  Moving the sword aside, she bent over him and whispered, “Who was that woman in your bed?”

  Embarrassment reddened his complexion. “ ’Twas Gibby’s grandmother.”

  Meridene believed him and was so relieved, she had to lean on the sword. Oh, what a knave he was. But he was her knave.

  “If you will forgive me, Meridene Macgillivray, I will spend the rest of my days making you happy. I love you more than this crown you have lovingly bestowed, better than any sword you could give me, more still than the next breath I take.”

  “And I love you, Revas Macduff.”

  She stepped back and shifted the sword so it lay across both her palms. With pride and love in her heart, she took up her duties as queen of the Highlands.

  “Hark, people of Elginshire,” she spoke into the respectful silence. “I, Meridene of this time, bestow the stewardship of our land and the governance of our people upon Revas Macduff, and I hereby name him our sovereign and lord of my heart.”

  A cheer went up. Caps and helms soared into the bright blue sky. When he’d taken the weapon from her, Meridene made her obeisance to him.

  “Arise, my love.” He lifted her and pulled her into arms that were strong and sure, arms that would shelter her in the days and nights to come.

  Held securely in the w
armth of his embrace, Meridene cast off the ghosts of the past and stood proudly beside the man who would rule this land with warmth and kindness, the man who had given her the love and courage to face her destiny.

  EPILOGUE

  I am the Maiden Meridene, the second of that name to wear the crown of rowans and the first to give birth to a prince of Inverness. We have named our lad Kenneth Alexander.

  I am Revas Macduff, king of the Highlands and the bedeviled husband to the most stubborn of women, the Maiden Meridene. Archbishop Thomas has christened our wee prince Hacon of Inverness.

  Books by Arnette Lamb

  Highland Rogue

  The Betrothal

  Border Lord

  Border Bride

  Chieftain

  Maiden of Inverness

  Published by POCKET BOOKS

  We hope you enjoyed reading this Pocket Books eBook.

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  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  An Original Publication of POCKET BOOKS

  POCKET BOOKS, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.

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  Copyright © 1995 by Arnette Lamb

  All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

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