Maiden of Inverness, page 5
How could people hold one female responsible for the acts of the powerful king of England? She had been a child when the king forced her to wed. She couldn’t pick up her life now—as if she’d simply been away on holiday for thirteen years. The politics of Scotland was a dangerous web of intrigue, spun by men. Legends like that of the Maiden were romantic tales, completely out of tune with the social climate of the day. Men ruled. And that, as Sister Margaret liked to say, was that.
On the heels of that thought, another doubt crept into Meridene’s mind. Had Sister Margaret known of Revas’s plan to kidnap Meridene? No, for the kind nun had been more like a mother than a spiritual advisor. She would not condone such villainy, even if a lawful husband had committed it.
Feeling better, Meridene gathered the brush and comb and other personal items Revas had provided. Just as she donned the beautiful new cloak, he came to fetch her.
* * *
Once on deck, she scanned the scenery. Patches of snow glistened in the shadows, and the hearty bushes near the waterline were still winter-naked. Dozens of fishing boats bobbed at their moorings in the shallow water; others were upended on the beach, their hulls in various stages of repair. Wattle-and-daub houses dotted the shore, and fishing nets were strung between the dwellings, effectively connecting the residents with the commerce of the village.
Ugly memories of another arrival years ago at this place intruded, but Meridene pushed them back; she must not let that dreadful occasion dull her spirit. She would stand up for herself. Someone here would help her.
Behind her, she heard Revas saying his farewells to Ana and her father. As soon as the cargo of iron and salt was unloaded, the ship would take the Sutherlands home to Drumcardle in the Western Highlands.
Eager to disembark and find the church, Meridene made her way down the gangplank. Moments later, Revas followed.
Watching him stroll toward her, she understood why twenty women wanted him. Not that she cared a sour apple. But she was honest enough to admit that he cut a fine figure, especially dressed as he was in a rust-colored tunic and tight-fitting hose. The tooled boots made his legs look inordinately long and perfectly suited his easy gait.
Arms swinging, the wind ruffling his golden hair, he surveyed his kingdom with the eyes of a man accustomed to rule. When his gaze rested on Meridene, she couldn’t stifle a burst of pride for the butcher’s son who’d risen to glory.
“Have I dirt on my face?” he asked.
Flippantly she said, “I hadn’t noticed. I was too busy thinking that you have deceit in your heart.”
His eyebrows flared wickedly. “To be sure, I am beset with wickedness, but it lies in my mind. One night soon I’ll share it with you.”
Night? He was speaking of ravishment. She wondered when he’d find the time, considering he kept so many women. “You needn’t bother. Ana told me.”
“Told you what?”
“All I need to know about you.”
He shrugged, but he was curious. “Shall we?”
A snaggletoothed lad wearing a squire’s tunic approached, leading a golden stallion and a piebald mare. Eyes agog, the boy stared at Meridene. His gaze never left her, even when he bowed from the waist.
Melancholy swept over her. Her mother had always drawn awe-filled glances and gestures of obeisance. Not in years had she thought of the woman who stood by and let an English king snatch her eight-year-old daughter from the nursery and thrust her into danger.
In parting, her mother had put the Covenant of the Maiden in Meridene’s hands. She had always known the book and the responsibility would fall to her; Meridene had been schooled for that very task. Since the day she’d learned to read and cipher, she had begged her mother to let her read the book. But that was forbidden until her wedding day. She had heard the tales of her forebears, but she had not been allowed to read the stories for herself.
“Pray God King Edward protects you, my child,” her mother had said. “You’ll find only heartache at the hands of Highlanders.”
Meridene closed her eyes against a pain that was as fresh as that day so long ago. Not only had her mother forsaken her, but by withholding the Covenant until the day the king took Meridene away, Eleanor had seen to it that Meridene learned little of her forebears. Privacy had been impossible, and when the king had stopped for the night, no one had bothered to give her a light to read by.
After the short journey to Elginshire, Meridene had pledged her troth and yielded the book to Revas for safekeeping. She hadn’t read the chronicles of her grandmothers. She’d been cheated of their experiences and deprived of their good counsel.
“Are you well?” Revas asked. “Would you prefer to ride in a cart?”
His solicitous tone burned like salt on a fresh wound. Meridene stared at the horses and grumbled, “I don’t suppose I have to ask which mount is mine.”
His brown eyes twinkled with glee. “Can you control the stallion?”
She sensed that he wasn’t talking about the horse, but himself. Eager to snuff out his masculine fire, she withdrew her dagger. “With this, I can make him a gelding.”
Although tightly leashed, his resolve shone through. “He might have something to say about that.”
“Yes. I expect him to cry . . . Ouch.”
Interest narrowed his eyes. “My compliments, my lady, and I wonder why you did not choose the red gown.”
He referred to the most striking and costly gown in the trunk—a dress of red velvet trimmed in gold. Under different circumstances she would have cherished the garment.
“The color better suits your mood,” he added.
“Mourning perfectly suits my mood.”
Into the battle of wills, the young squire asked, “Is she truly the Maiden?”
Revas gave her a pointed glance, then cuffed the lad’s head. “In the flesh.”
The boy handed over the reins and raced off shouting, “ ’Tis the Maiden. ’Tis the Maiden come home with our laird.”
“A Macduff! A Macduff!” someone shouted.
Others in the small seaside village picked up the chant. Voices young and old, hoarse and lyrical, called out for their laird, their future king. In answer to their time-honored salute, Revas waved his arms.
He looked happy to be home, and the contrast between her feelings and his made Meridene want to scream.
Over the din, he said, “We suffered a harsh winter.”
“You will suffer a harsher spring.”
Pulling a face, he feigned fright. “At your dainty hands?”
“Mock me if it suits you. ’Twill go the worse for you.”
He sighed in fake resolve. “Then perhaps I should surrender to you now.”
The notion that so powerful a man would yield made her smile. She sheathed her dirk and kept her opinion to herself.
Grasping her waist, he lifted her onto the mare, but did not release her. “Perhaps I should grovel at your feet, Meridene, and beg you to share . . . uh . . . spare my wretched life.”
Her humor vanished. His grip was too strong, his authority too intimidating, and he played with words like a child with a new top. “Perhaps you should hold your tongue.”
Softly he said, “I’d rather hold you.”
“You are holding me.”
His grin was wolfish, and the look in his eye turned keen with awareness. “When I take you into my arms, you will know the meaning of the word. Until then, I will content myself with introducing you to your home and your subjects, my lady.”
Seated on the mare, Meridene had to look down on him. She liked the vantage point, for it gave her a sense of power over so formidable a man. “I, on the other hand, shall content myself with enjoying your downfall.”
He winked, then mounted the prancing stallion and led the way to the road.
Meridene fumed. Like a beast nearing the safety of his lair, he grew confident. Let him wallow in it for now. Soon enough she would disabuse him of his despotic assumptions. She would seek refuge in t
With the bannerman in the lead carrying a pennon emblazoned with the rampant lion of Macduff, they retraced the path she had traveled so many years ago.
A well-worn road cut through a forest of bare hardwoods, and an occasional larch and wayward cedar gave the land its color. Up ahead, the road forked, and another dark memory beckoned. Her mind’s eye traveled back in time. The golden lion on the fluttering pennon became a broom pod on a field of red and white. The man beside her became a Plantagenet warrior king, and she was once again a fearful child.
Following the dictates of the past, she guided the mare to the right arm of the fork.
“Not the old road,” she heard someone say.
Old road. Old memory. Her mind retreated further back. She stood in the common room of Kilbarton Castle, her father’s estate. She had pleaded with him, begged him not to let the king of England take her away. Her father slapped her so hard, she tumbled to the floor. Her cheek throbbed. He cursed her, shamed her for her birthright and the power she would one day wield. Towering over her, he wished her dead.
Cringing in childish fear, she begged her mother to intervene.
Her pleas fell on deaf ears.
Revas Macduff. Not a barefoot butcher’s son, but a skilled warrior, who had returned her to a land of nightmares and cruel memories.
“What’s wrong, Meridene?”
He guided his stallion abreast of her slower mount. She heaved a shaky breath and blinked back tears.
“You’re afraid,” he said, wonderment lacing his words.
Through a veil of sadness, she said, “Leave me be.”
He scooped her up and sat her before him on the stallion. Too distracted to fight, she stared at the barren forest and felt just as lifeless.
Men had taken her future and stolen her chance to have a husband of her choosing and children of her own. With greed and power as their tools, Scotsmen had sentenced her to exile. Yet she had embraced the safety of England—only to have it yanked away at the hands of yet another Scot. This Scot. The Highlander, Revas Macduff.
“What are you thinking, Meridene?”
His soothing tone drew her from the painful reverie, and she felt enveloped in a cocoon of warmth. When had she laid her head on his shoulder? She couldn’t recall. When had she slipped an arm around his waist? She didn’t know.
The quilted velvet of his tunic cushioned her cheek, and his hands caressed her back and her shoulders.
“Please tell me what burdens you so.”
Spoken in a whisper, the entreaty went straight to her heart. Her tears began to fall, and she burrowed closer, seeking warmth and a wealth of unattainable goals.
“You undo me with your sorrow, dear Meridene.”
Dear Meridene. Would that it were true. Girlish dreams of a loving husband and beautiful children faded. The years ahead unfolded, and her life became a bottomless well of clan loyalties, clan feuds, and clan ceremonies. Guards following her everywhere. A child who always observed, rather than participated.
A searing pain squeezed her chest.
Gathering her composure, she sniffled. “You’re despotic.”
He patted her back and guided the horse away from their escort. “Aye.”
“You’re thoughtless, same as all Highlanders.”
His lips touched her temple, then her cheek. She shifted on his lap. His powerful thighs tensed.
“I am the same as these Highlanders,” he murmured.
“That’s no defense.”
“Nay, no defense at all.”
“Why are you being so agreeable?”
He gave her a brief, fierce hug, then leaned back until their eyes met. His gaze was warm, and one side of his mouth curled in a self-effacing grin. “Because I forgot that you were a terrified child when last you visited my home.” With a gauntleted hand, he brushed away her tears. “ ’Tis natural for you to recall that time and quake in fear.”
Her better judgment sounded a warning. He was a Scot, and worse, a Highlander. He shouldn’t be so nice, not unless he had a purpose. That he’d read her so easily troubled Meridene more than his winsome smile.
Miffed at her girlish reaction, she drew back. “I did not quake.”
His gaze never left hers. “Nay, you did not. You yielded sweetly, and for that I am grateful.”
Yield? Her defenses rose. “I’ll be a toothless crone before I yield to you, Revas Macduff.”
His grin broadened. “Perish that first thought. You’re far too bonny to ever turn cronish.”
Pretty words rolled off his tongue like stones in a landslide. Twenty women wanted him. Twenty women were welcome to him. Did he desire them all as well? “Save your roguish words.”
All agreeable and confident male, he nodded. “ ’Tis a bargain made, then. You keep an open mind, and I’ll resist the urge to flatter you.”
He didn’t know it, but she wouldn’t be here long enough to make a pact with him. Sanctuary of the church awaited her. “Ha! Spoken like a true Highlander. I’ll make no bargain with you.”
His smile turned bittersweet. “You already have. Thirteen years ago, you gave yourself into my keeping.”
He was a sloth to bring that up. “ ’Twas the king of England who did the giving. I had no choice.”
Using only his legs, he guided the stallion back onto the road. “Then I give you one now. You may act the shrew and shame yourself before these people, or you can honor your forebears.”
They had reached the crest of a hill. “People?” she said. “What people?”
She turned, and the sight before her robbed her of breath.
Hundreds of people lined the road leading to Auldcairn Castle. Farmers doffed their caps and jabbed the sky with hoes and rakes. Women waved their kerchiefs and dabbed at teary eyes. Children hopped and squealed and scrambled for the best view. Carts had been moved to the rough edge of the lane, and cattle and sheep had been left to their grazing.
Pride filled Revas. In sad contrast, the Scotswoman sitting sideways before him on the horse held herself as still as a post. The show of elation was for her, and she cared not a whit. Disappointment dragged at him, for he had hoped this rousing welcome would begin to thaw her cold heart.
The hood of the cloak shielded her face, which was turned toward the throng. Pray she did not punish them unjustly; her quarrel was with a king and a butcher’s son.
A girl of about six dashed onto the road, a bundle of pink frost lilies in her hand. Revas slowed the horse and leaned to the side, hoping Meridene would take the flowers.
Praise Saint Columba, she did, saying, “My thanks to you.”
The girl beamed and raced back to her family.
A lad came forward next and presented Meridene with a palm-size bowl. Carved into the rim were cinquefoils, the device of the Maiden.
“You honor me, sir,” she said to the boy.
“Aye,” he chirped, rocking on his heels and twisting his mended tunic. “Every Sabbath and twice on Hogmanay.”
“Well . . .” She searched for words. “You are a goodly lad.”
He bowed, then dashed to his father’s side.
Honoring the Maiden of Inverness was a practice as old as the celebration of Harvest Eve. Why did she not remember and address the lad’s devotion?
Holding the blossoms to her nose, she whispered, “I hate you for this, Revas Macduff.”
The need to protect his people overwhelmed him. “Is there no room in your heart for love freely given?”
“Freely? You are wrong. Their adoration comes at a price.”
How could she barter over so precious a commodity? “What price?”
“The loss of my home, my peaceful life. My friends.”
“These people are innocent in their praise. You w
Fathers lifted their sons for a better view. Mothers helped their babes wave. It was the same welcome her namesake had received hundreds of years ago upon arrival at her husband’s home. Did Meridene not see the significance? The details were precisely recorded in the Covenant—the flowers, the bowl, and the other gifts to come.
She said nothing, save quiet curses for him, until the twin square towers of Auldcairn Castle loomed in the southern sky.
“I remember only one structure. When did you build— I withdraw the question. I have nothing to say to you.”
“Aye, you do. You’re curious, and I’m eager to oblige your inquisitive nature.”
Pushing back the hood of the cloak, she glared up at him. “Then tell me which cave you call home.”
Pollen dusted her nose, and he wondered what she’d do if he kissed the pretty smudge away. Amused at both the answer and her retort, he adjusted his hold on the reins so that his arms surrounded her fully. “I built the second tower to celebrate the death of Edward the First. There’s a third tower, but ’tis not so tall. You cannot see it from here.”
“What poor soul does it honor?”
He tried to contain his laughter, but he failed. “You.”
Her head came up, slamming into his chin. A promise of retaliation glittered in her eyes. “I want no dwelling here.”
Of course she did; the book of the Maiden prescribed it. Why did she deny a major stipulation? “It must be.”
“Because you say so?”
“Nay. ’Tis written in the Convenant. You cannot accuse me of depriving you of your due.”
“The Covenant,” she replied, as if the word were unfamiliar. “You read the book.”
Thinking she referred to his common beginnings, he took great pleasure in saying, “ ’Tis true I once was illiterate, but at ten and four I mastered the skill. Do you doubt my ability?”
She looked surprised, as if she’d taken bitters when she wanted sweets. “Nay, I believe you’ve had years to study the Covenant. The accommodations will better allow me to absent myself from you.”
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