Maiden of inverness, p.6

Maiden of Inverness, page 6


Maiden of Inverness

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Revas intended to devote himself to her. One day soon she’d throw flower pennies to the people of Elginshire and kisses to him. “Impossible, Meridene, for I will escort you to church.”

  “Church.” Like the mist off the moor, her confusion vanished. A brilliant smile followed. “Oh, I would so love to meet the priest.”

  That piqued Revas’s curiosity, but he’d gained ground. He would hold his position for now. At all events, the priest would support his cause; Father Thomas had been instrumental in the preparations. Scotland’s clergy wanted and worked for autonomy as fiercely as laymen did. When the pope excommunicated Robert Bruce, the clergy had rallied behind Scotland’s king.

  Amid a squealing of wheels and a rattling of chains, the castle gates opened. With Kenneth Brodie in the lead, a dozen mounted guards burst onto the road and cantered toward Revas. This special troop sported sons of chieftains from most of the ruling Highland clans. Leslie rode beside Forbes. Grant served with Murray. The absence of a Macgillivray represented Revas’s greatest disappointment and his most trying challenge.

  Meridene would change that. She would influence the lives of more Highlanders than any of her predecessors. Like London to the English, Elgin would become the open city of the Scots. She just didn’t know it yet.

  “Your army has arrived,” she said, leaning away from him.

  And your destiny beckons, he thought.

  The guard slowed. Brodie doffed his crested helmet and dropped his chin to his chest in a quick salute. His chain of office chinked with the movement. “Lady Meridene and sir.”

  Revas forbade his men to call him lord. He did not aspire to nobility; he wanted to lead. Their worship was better and rightfully bestowed on Meridene. Revas asked only for their respect and loyalty.

  “Do I know you, Sheriff?” she asked.

  Discomfited, Brodie replaced his helmet. “ ’Twas many years ago and you were—”

  “A prisoner,” she said. “As I am today.”

  Revas decided that her generosity ended with children bearing gifts. She had not acknowledged any of the men who rode with Brodie, and from their eager looks, they all wanted to strut their manly wares before her.

  When Brodie sent him an inquisitive glare, Revas shook his head. He would explain, but later and in private. “My lady wishes to visit the church straightaway.”

  “ ’Tis Wednesday,” Brodie said, guiding his stallion away from Leslie’s moody mare. “Father Thomas has gone to Nairn.”

  “When will he return?”

  She had spent years among the clergy. Still, she was overeager in her devotion. Revas hoped she did not harbor queer notions of the church. He knew men whose wives were unnaturally fond of prayer. Maclaren’s woman had an altar in every room, even the buttery. As a result, the nursery was empty. That wouldn’t happen in Auldcairn Castle.

  “On Friday,” Revas said.

  Satisfied, she sat straight. “Then you may take me to my apartments.”

  She said the last with emphasis on the separation the word implied. Her defiance was understandable. Revas was in no hurry. He had years to explore her mind and win her heart.

  Nodding to Brodie, he kicked the stallion into motion. The guard moved to flank them. When they picked up speed, Revas tightened his hold on Meridene. When they reached a gallop, she held on to him.

  The freshly mortared curtain wall that ringed the vast outer bailey played perch to a horde of moor hens and noisy gulls. The birds took flight when the sentries moved along the wall toward the narrow opening.

  In the inner bailey, sheep scattered and cattle bellowed. A horn blared as the horses thundered into the castle yard. The guardsmen on the wall sent up a familiar greeting. “A Macduff! A Macduff.”

  If Meridene heard that name once more today, she’d shriek like a madwoman. She felt crushed beneath the weight of so much adulation and loyalty. Could she truly be the only person who opposed Revas Macduff? No. Not in the Highlands, for there was always strife up here. Accord reigned now. But tomorrow or next week one clan would slight another. Male pride would bristle. Grown men would act like stiff-legged dogs circling with hackles raised. War would commence. Prosperity would cease. Mothers, wives, and daughters would grow sallow-faced and brokenhearted. Fathers, husbands, and brothers would justify their destruction with talk of might and right and the law of the clan. Daughters would be sacrificed to the enemy.

  Praise be to God her role here was that of visiting spectator.

  The twin towers soared into the sky. The fishtail slits in the stone that usually housed eagle-eyed bowmen now served as vantage points for the curious. To her amazement, Meridene estimated two hundred people milled in the castle yard proper. She saw the very wall where, years before, severed heads of men had rested on pikes. Today, pennons of Macduff and dozens of other clans fluttered in the breeze. One flag caught her eye: Macqueen.

  Now she knew how Revas had found her; her best friend, Johanna, had revealed the information to her husband, Drummond Macqueen. He had passed along her whereabouts to Revas. The logical conclusion disheartened Meridene, and she longed to see her childhood friend again. Out of love for her nephew, the ever brave Johanna had assumed her sister’s identity and embarked on a fulfilling life. For that, Meridene envied her; her own future looked bleak.

  Between the two square towers of Auldcairn Castle stood a small, round structure with costly glass in the windows and a ring of rowans planted in the yard. Cartwright and cooper flanked the smithy, and an impressive barrack and armory butted the castle’s defense wall. In a patch of hard-packed earth, the quintain stood idle and deceptively harmless.

  Looking east, Meridene at last spotted the church, wedged between the carpenter and the weaving shed.

  Sanctuary awaited her there, and the knowledge calmed her.

  Following the bannerman, Revas guided the horse around the well and stopped at the doors of the keep. On the steps, the castle staff stood like soldiers at attention. The maids were neat and composed, the men tidy and serious. Had Revas taken to heart her threat to disrupt his staff? Could she carry it out? Yes, given cause.

  Holding her against his chest, he dismounted in one smooth movement. She felt like a feather pillow moved from here to there, so easily did he carry her. The louse.

  She hadn’t looked at him since their exchange about the church; she feared he’d see through her plan to seek out the priest and request an annulment. But even if he did suspect, she’d wager her best loom that he’d put aside his quarrel long enough to introduce her to the servants. He wanted her here. Showing support for her to the staff was the first duty of a husband to his wife.

  Wife. The word inspired a wealth of maidenly dreams. Not in months had she been beset with longing for a mate and a home of her own. Now she must rid herself of both.

  On Friday she’d go to the priest and set in motion her plan to break her ties with Revas Macduff. Now she would bide her time.

  He waited until she fluffed out her skirt; then he took her arm and escorted her to a man of about fifty. As befitting his age, he wore a long woollen robe tied with a leather thong at his waist.

  “Lady Meridene, may I present our steward, Sim Grant.”

  With great dignity, he bowed from the waist. “I yield to you the accounting, my lady, and my father’s pouch.” He held out a sporran. Made of an ancient badger pelt, it sported no golden tassels or brooches of silver. His sire had been a common man.

  When she did not take the precious offering, Sim grew insistent. “Should you find my accounting unfairly derived, you must keep my father’s purse.” He looked away, emotion choking off his speech.

  It was his prized possession, and this tidy stranger was giving it to her. “Why?”

  “To dispense justice, as the Maiden will.”

  The Maiden. Surely Revas Macduff or the burly sheriff meted out justice here. Unless this Sim referred to some tenet set down in the Covenant? Revas knew them all. The sloth. She couldn’t accuse the steward until she read th
e Covenant. She wanted no part of the traditions, and what did she care if Sim Grant cheated Revas Macduff? She hoped the man beggared him.

  She took the pouch and placed the wooden bowl inside. Then she handed Sim the flowers. “I’m certain you’ve performed your office fairly. Please put these in water.”

  Next came the cooks. “Sibeal and Conal Montfichet.”

  They were as different as night and day. Sibeal was twice her husband’s size, and fair to the point of sallow.

  “Montfichet?” Meridene said, curious about the name.

  A slight man, Conal had cropped his black hair unusually short; yet his beard was as thick as a sheep’s pelt. “Aye, my lady. From the East, we are.”

  “From Nairn,” Sibeal put in.

  “We came here when our city was burned in the fall of thirteen and seven.”

  His wife huddled inside her shawl. “ ’Twas in October.”

  “ ’Twas unimportant jabbering.”

  “Only because you did not think to say it.”

  Bickering came easily to the pair. Meridene knew well that kind of friendship. She and Johanna Benison had spent hours goading each other and years learning to forgive. Johanna, the friend who was now wife to Drummond Macqueen, the beast who had revealed Meridene’s whereabouts to Revas Macduff.

  She gave her husband an appraising glance. “I’m surprised that Bruce would come into your domain and make havoc.”

  His eyes narrowed, as if he were wondering how to answer. At length he said, “At the time I did not answer to Robert Bruce.”

  Taken aback, she almost dropped the steward’s sporran. “You were a rebel chieftain?”

  “Aye. I made a request of Bruce. He refused and commanded me to do what I could not. When I refused, he put my lands to sword and flame. With your father, he vanquished Nairn.”

  That surprised her, for her father had seldom made alliances with lowland Scots. But since her move to England, Robert I had been crowned king of all Scots. “What did you request of Bruce?”

  Revas tossed his cape over his shoulder and hitched up his sword belt. “As he is our sovereign lord, and you were nowhere to be found, I asked him for the sword of Chapling. He refused—in anger.”

  Meridene tensed. Her suspicions were borne out. Revas didn’t want her; he wanted the sword, had tried to claim it before. Had he bothered to look for her prior to that time? Oh, blast it, she silently cursed. “What did Bruce ask of you?”

  Grinning, he slid a glance at Sheriff Brodie. “He commanded me to bend a knee to your father.”

  Huffs of disgust spread through the guardsmen. But Meridene took heart from the statement. If Robert Bruce was against Revas taking up the sword of Chapling, surely he would help her escape Scotland.

  “Bruce still ruminates on that frolic,” boasted one of the guardsmen. “Cutberth’ll see a bended knee.” He pointed to his own knee. “I’ll break his head on it.”

  The hoots of approval grew so loud that Revas raised a hand to quiet them. The outspoken man focused his undisguised attention on Meridene.

  A darkly handsome youth, the stranger carried himself with a pride unique to Highlanders. His cocky stance and ingrained self-assurance reminded her of her older brothers. But this man had spoken in contempt of her father. She couldn’t agree with him more.

  “Who are you?” she asked him, noticing that his wrists were bare while all of the other men wore golden bracelets of war.

  He swept an impressive bow. “Summerlad Macqueen.”

  “Drummond’s youngest brother,” Revas said by way of explanation. “And he’s very glad you’ve come.”

  “Lady Clare speaks well of you, my lady,” Summerlad said.

  That he called Drummond’s wife Clare was of great interest to Meridene, for it answered a question that had puzzled her since Drummond’s unexpected release from the Tower of London. Johanna, the woman who now lived with Drummond, had kept secret her true identity from the people of Elginshire.

  Surrounded by so much male power, Meridene felt small and helpless in a land of strangers. She turned away and pretended interest in the third tower.

  “Does it suit you?” Revas said.

  If he could generalize on important subjects, so could she. “ ’Tis a place any wife would favor.”

  “Since I have only the one wife, I assume you speak from the heart.”

  With so many witnesses, she carefully phrased her retort. “ ’Tis safe to say that you always know when I am speaking from the heart, my lord.”

  His eyes turned hard and sharp as flint, and he drew her near his horse and out of earshot of the others. With quick, angry motions, he unbuckled his money pouch. “Revas suits me well.”

  She tapped him on the shoulder. When he turned, she rose on tiptoes. “England suits me well.”

  As if she’d asked for a pinch of salt, he loudly said, “Oh, very well, Meridene.” Then the blackheart tossed the bag to Sim, pulled her into his arms, and kissed her!

  Before she could push him away, he grasped her tighter and whispered, “Be gentle, my brave one, and have a care. You’re poorly armed for this battle.”

  “Are you threatening me?” she said, her nose very close to his.

  “Nay. I’m promising. Should you snip at me again, with these men as witness, I’ll throw you over my shoulder and carry you away. I’ve done so before.” He gave her a blinding smile. “Then, my spritely Maiden, the battle will commence.”

  She had no business challenging him in front of his men; she knew better, but years had passed since she’d learned her lesson and fallen prey to that bit of Highland protocol. “A battle you think you will win someday.”

  “Winsome?” He spoke in a melodious tone, one intended to convey intimacy. “You flatter me well.”

  Meridene fumed. “Not I, and stop twisting my words. Never would I find you appealing.”

  “I’m certain ’twas what you said.”

  “And I’m certain ’twas one of the twenty women you keep who said it.”

  The guardsmen grumbled among themselves; she had spoken too loudly.

  “A score of women?” Revas drew back and stared, his dark eyes wide with alarm. “Who told you that?”

  “Never you mind.” A glance over her shoulder proved wise, for the men were inching closer. “I’d like to go inside now.”

  “Your happiness is my quest.”

  To a stranger, the pledge sounded sincere, but she knew him for a blackheart.

  He turned to the sheriff. “See that the gate is greased. It sounds like a rusted siege engine. And have a man ride hotfoot to the ship. He’s to speed the luggage cart along.”

  “Aye.” The sheriff marched off, shouting orders. The guardsmen followed like goslings after a goose.

  Revas dismissed the servants. “Come, Meridene.”

  Although cordially said, his words conveyed an order. Despotic was too kind a description for him. Her mind harkened back to the subject of Robert Bruce. Was he friend or foe? Determined to learn the answer, she followed Revas into the keep.

  A walk-through hearth separated common room from dining hall. Above the stone cavern and carved in the smooth rock were the words “Community of the Realm,” an ancient and long-unanswered cry for Scottish unity.

  The motto was newly carved, for even as a girl, she would have remembered seeing the daring statement openly displayed. She looked at Revas, so comfortable in his role as benevolent lord, so constant in his bid to keep her. She wished him well in his certain disappointment. Still, she couldn’t quell a sense of happiness at what he, a butcher’s son, had accomplished here in a mere thirteen years.

  The rounded walls were studded with heraldic battle shields. The symbolic Gordon buck stood beside the eagle of Clan Munro. Macpherson’s regal cat shared a space next to the mighty sword of Clan Gunn. And reigning over them all was the rampant lion of Macduff.

  “Did you ever think to see such a gathering of Highland goodwill?” he said.

No, and I do not expect it to thrive.”

  His smile faded and his eyes grew distant. Her remark had hurt him, and she almost begged his pardon. But encouraging false hopes was surely the poorer service.

  “Do you care for ale or herbal wine?” he asked. “Sibeal Montfichet brews a popular drink from weeds and stems and berries.”

  Should she excuse herself? The sight of so much Highland armor hanging about ought to have frightened her. It did the opposite. For the first time since leaving England, Meridene felt safe, and that awful pounding in her chest had ceased.

  Knowing she would soon return to Scarborough, she chose to keep Revas’s company for a time. “I prefer barley water, but if you have none, the wine will do.”

  “See that Montfichet keeps a ready supply of barley water for my lady.”

  “Aye,” said Sim. “I’ll send the kitchen lad to the granary straightaway.”

  Revas nodded to the steward, who pivoted sharply and marched off, his shoes making little sound on the flagged floor.

  “Tell me what happened between you and Robert Bruce.”

  “We made peace. He’s anxious to meet you.”

  Would the crowned king of all Scotland condone Revas’s villainy? Probably so, if they were allies. The knowledge was a setback, but Meridene had other options. “Then by all means, summon your sovereign lord.”

  “ ’Tis done. He comes at Midsummer’s Eve.”

  Meridene rejoiced. Robert Bruce would go wanting if he sought an audience with Meridene Macgillivray. June would find her knee-deep in good English clover.

  “Delightful,” she said, for lack of anything else.

  “I know what you’re thinking, Meridene. The answer is yes, he favors your return to the fold.”

  The need to correct him fell prey to the notion of savoring a victory later. “Splendid.”

  He took a chest from a high shelf on the wall. From the box he withdrew a chatelaine’s belt. “For you.”

  Finely worked interlocking chains of gold and silver formed the symbol of feminine authority. Even her mother’s had not been so fine. “I’ll not don it.”

  “Aye, you will.”

  If he suspected she planned to escape, he could try to prevent it. So she relented, took the chain, and fastened it around her waist. “It has the feel of a chastity belt.”

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