The border series, p.64

The Border Series, page 64

 

The Border Series
 



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  “You one crazy Muslim. This Ashanti princess forbids you to go.”

  Alarmed, Malcolm said, “You needn’t go, Saladin. Salvador and Alexander will protect them. And if it comes to a fight, the prince is an expert swordsman.”

  Dislodging Elanna’s hands from his shirt, Saladin wrapped an arm around her. “I do not go for that reason alone. This condescending, spoiled African princess will not marry me until she looks into the eyes of my father. I intend to find him.”

  Elanna hugged him. “I ask the gods to ride on your shoulders. You come back safe, plenty quick.”

  “I’ll do my best.” He extended his hand to Malcolm. “Keep her out of trouble until I return.”

  She huffed. Malcolm nodded and watched his longtime confidant salute the woman he loved, then climb into the carriage.

  Alpin laid her head on his shoulder. “Won’t the German soldiers be suspicious when they see my grandfather’s soldiers here?”

  Under normal circumstances the gathering would have been cause for alarm. But political woes were the farthest thing from Malcolm’s mind at the moment. “Not if we invite them to the wedding.”

  She leaned back, and their eyes met. “What if the king protests our marriage?”

  “Then we’ll leave this place in my father’s keeping and languish in Barbados until the king changes his mind.”

  Her arms circled his waist, and she sighed. “I love you, Malcolm Kerr.”

  As he held the woman he adored, he thought of the many roles she had played in his life and the parts she had yet to fill. A bright future unfolded before them, a time of peace and understanding, of companionship and enduring love.

  Copyright

  Diversion Books

  A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.

  443 Park Avenue South, Suite 1008

  New York, NY 10016

  www.DiversionBooks.com

  Copyright © 1994 by Arnette Lamb

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

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

  For more information, email [email protected]

  First Diversion Books edition May 2014

  ISBN: 978-1-62681-319-9

  To Lou Ann Williams,

  my good neighbor and constant helpmate

  Acknowledgments

  Special thanks to Alice Shields for her expertise, her encouragement, and her friendship.

  Thanks also to Pat Stech for her generosity, her honesty, and her eagle eye.

  And to the best of all editors, Caroline Tolley.

  Prologue

  Scarborough Abbey

  Summer 1301

  Death stalked Clare Macqueen.

  It dulled her honey brown eyes and turned her skin waxy white. Even her flowing golden hair had lost the luster of life. Usually tall and stately, she now seemed frail and childlike, swallowed up by the narrow bed.

  Shrouding the ache in her heart, Sister Margaret pressed a cool doth to the scratches on Clare’s cheek. “Are you in pain?”

  “I cannot feel my legs. Are they broken?”

  “Nay, child.” The half truth came easily, even to an abbess, for in two years, fate had dealt this injured girl enough misery to last a lifetime. “You haven’t skinned a knee.”

  A bittersweet smile curled Clare’s lips. “You patched up enough of those. Every time Johanna and I climbed the harvest oak. Where is she?”

  Sister Margaret’s chest grew tight. Strong, capable Johanna. What would she do when she saw her sister, Clare? She’d fall prey to temper, for Johanna had always been Clare’s champion. “She’s stabling the horses and getting your servants settled in the guest cottage.”

  Clare’s eyes drifted out of focus. “A wolf spooked my mount. I fell.”

  The horse had trampled her spine. Once the inevitable infection set in, sweet Clare would die. Praise God it would be a painless passing.

  Sister Margaret blinked back tears. “You couldn’t know a beast lurked in the shadows.”

  “I should have stayed in the cart, but I wanted to ride.”

  At ten and five, Clare was still more child than woman. Neither marriage nor motherhood had settled her restless spirit.

  “Where is my son?” Clare asked.

  “In the next room with Meridene. He’s taken a liking to goat’s milk.”

  “Meridene loves children. Her husband should fetch her. ’Tisn’t fair that she was wed as a child, then brought here and forgotten.”

  “True, but Meridene’s safe, just as you and Johanna are.” Questions plagued Sister Margaret. “What of your husband?”

  Tears pooled in Clare’s eyes. “Taken by the king.”

  Edward I. The mere thought of him brought fresh pain to a wound fifteen years in the healing. Sister Margaret clenched her teeth to stave off the ache. The walls of the infirmary faded, and she was once again a carefree Highland lass who’d caught the eye and inspired the passion of Alexander III, the king of Scotland.

  Oh, Alexander, she lamented, your merciful soul abides in these girls. His complexity of character had been passed on to his fair daughters: Clare, with her penchant for game and glee, and Johanna, inspired by her dedication to love and law.

  Through a haze of seasoned misery, Sister Margaret stared down at one of her two children, who both favored a Scottish king long dead.

  “Did you hear me, Sister Margaret? The king ordered Drummond taken to the Tower of London.”

  Again and always Edward. Now that he’d vanquished Wales, the king had turned his armies and his wrath northward. The Hammer of the Scots, they called him. Clare’s husband, Drummond Macqueen, was only the latest victim.

  Sister Margaret cringed when she recalled the cruelty of which Edward the Plantagenet was capable. Upon the death of their father, Alexander, the twin girls had been found by one of Edward’s many royal spies. Only by taking the veil and swearing secrecy had Margaret been allowed to accompany her daughters to this remote abbey in North Yorkshire.

  Johanna and Clare knew nothing of their birthright, not even their family name. A pity, for their blood was as blue and their lineage as royal as any crowned at Westminster Abbey.

  Thinking of that cruel deed, she feared for Clare’s three-month-old son. “Will the king come for your boy?”

  “Nay.” Clare swallowed, fighting back tears. “Like everyone else, he thinks Prince Ned rather than Drummond Macqueen sired my child.”

  “Is it true?”

  Transfixed by the tapestry on the far wall, Clare spoke softly and with great regret. “’Tis true I was unfaithful, but Drummond had planted his seed the month before. In exchange for my favors, the prince promised me he would go to his father. He said the king would spare Drummond.” Her mouth pursed in disdain. “The pervert lied to me. My sin went for naught.”

  “So you were allowed to keep your son.”

  “Yes. The king gave me a writ granting us a demesne in Dumfries.” Lifting a weak hand, she pointed to her traveling bag. “’Tis in my pouch. Will you get it please?”

  Sister Margaret retrieved the rolled parchment and read of the king’s meager bequest and his condemnation of Clare’s husband. “Why didn’t you go to this place?”

  “I know no one in the Borders, and the king forbade me to take any of Drummond’s people. Not that they would’ve followed a known adulteress. Drummond denounced me publicly. I was ashamed, lonely, and afraid. I thought only of coming to you.”

  “Bless the Virgin you did. All will be well. Rest now.”

  Clare’s eyes drifted shut. Sister Margaret expelled a breath and began to pray for the soul of her daughter.

  Sometime later, she heard voices in the next room. Taking the royal scroll, she tiptoed from the infirmary and found Johann
a and Meridene huddled around the baby’s cradle.

  Johanna looked up, her brown eyes clouded with concern. “How is she?”

  “Dying.”

  Meridene gasped and scooped up the babe.

  Making a fist, Johanna punched the air. “She had no business riding that trail at night. She knows better. What kind of a beast is her damned husband to have so little care of her?”

  “Johanna!”

  “Sorry, Sister Margaret.” Johanna folded her arms at her waist, jostling the ring of keys that dangled from a leather thong. “Lord Drummond should have traveled with her.”

  Johanna possessed a maturity beyond her years and a logic to rival any Oxford scholar. Although younger than Meridene and only five minutes older than Clare, Johanna had always been the leader.

  “Where is her husband?” she asked.

  Sister Margaret waved the parchment. “Lord Drummond is taken by the king. He could not have seen to her welfare.” She relayed Clare’s tale of woe.

  Her jaw taut with anger, Johanna held out her hand. “May I see what our generous sovereign has left her?”

  Sister Margaret handed over the document and reached for the babe. Meridene kissed the boy’s brow and placed him in Sister Margaret’s arms. Her grandson was a handsome child with a grin as big as the Highlands. What would the future hold for him?

  Johanna squared her shoulders and moved to the door. “I’ll sit with her.”

  Sister Margaret visited Clare’s servants, Mr. and Mrs. Stapledon. Two years ago, when the king himself had taken Clare to the Highlands to wed the dashing Scottish chieftain, she had convinced the Stapledons to come with her to her new home. But Macqueen Castle was now ruled by Drummond’s younger brother.

  Bertie Stapledon scratched his beard. “The king’ll execute Lord Drummond, do ye see. What’ll become of the babe then?”

  A chill passed through Sister Margaret. “I do not know.”

  According to the writ, Lord Drummond’s family was prohibited any congress with Clare or the child. Meridene would help Sister Margaret raise the wee Alasdair. Johanna was too busy overseeing the farmers and shepherds who occupied the abbey’s land.

  By the next evening the deathbed vigil had begun. Practical, dependable Johanna paced the room, swearing under her breath. Meridene held the child, plying him with a wooden rattle and humming a lullaby. Sister Margaret prayed.

  Clare’s complexion now glowed with the flush of fever, and her skin felt hot to the touch. In a voice drained of feeling, she called for her twin.

  Johanna hurried to the bed and leaned close. Sister Margaret fought back tears at the sight of her daughters, both fair haired and as lovely as a summer day. Johanna had stayed at Clare’s side through the night. Their whispers and occasional laughter brought back memories of their youth.

  “Tell them, Johanna,” Clare whispered.

  “Later,” she said, stroking her sister’s brow.

  “Tell us what?” Sister Margaret insisted.

  When Johanna didn’t speak, Clare said, “When I—” She swallowed, then took several shallow breaths. “When I’m gone, you’re to say Johanna died. Mark my grave with her name.”

  Meridene began to cry.

  Sister Margaret crossed herself. “Nay.”

  Clare’s fever-bright eyes pleaded. “You must agree, Sister Margaret. Let her take my son. Go to that land in the Borders. She could raise Alasdair. Help him seek his destiny.”

  Quietly, Johanna said, “Who’s to know ’tis me rather than Clare?”

  “Anyone who has ever spent five minutes with the two of you,” hissed Meridene. “You may favor each other in physical appearance, but in temperament you’re as different as moonrise and sunset.”

  “Oh, please, Sister Margaret,” Johanna pleaded. “Clare abided by the king’s wishes. She never told anyone in Scotland that she had a sister. She never revealed that we chose the name ‘Benison’ for ourselves because it means ‘blessed.’ We have no blood kin, save little Alasdair. Do not deny me the chance to have a life outside the abbey.”

  A refusal perched on Sister Margaret’s lips, but she paused, swayed by the plea in her daughter’s voice. Johanna was as capable as any man at running an estate. She was fair in her judgments and honest in her ways. No one knew her in Dumfries; the land lay in the Borders between England and Scotland, far from Scarborough Abbey and farther still from Castle Macqueen.

  And she deserved a life of her own. One thing held Sister Margaret back. Years before Edward had branded both Clare and Johanna with a hot iron and declared them wards of the crown. The symbol, a blunted sword no bigger than a thumb, signified the conquests of Edward I. The only trouble was, Clare’s brand appeared right side up, Johanna’s upside down.

  “What of the brand?” Sister Margaret asked.

  Johanna’s hand flew to her shoulder. “Clare’s husband will be hanged,” she said. “Who’s to see the mark?”

  “True,” said Sister Margaret. “But it could be dangerous. Should any who know Clare come to visit that place, you’ll be found out.”

  A familiar confidence twinkled in Johanna’s eyes. “The Stapledons will go with me. They know all of the Macqueens. Should any of those Highlanders defy the king and come to Dumfries, Bertie can alert me.” She blotted her sister’s brow. In her typical authoritative voice, she added, “I’ll see that your son makes a fine man, Clare.”

  Clare closed her eyes and smiled. “You will not. You’ll teach him to swear and skip Mass.”

  Tears streamed down Johanna’s cheeks. Her composure faltered. “I’ll tell him an angel left him on my doorstep.”

  “At least you won’t have to deal with his father,” Clare whispered.

  A candle sputtered, the tiny flame struggling for survival, much the same as Clare clung desperately to life. The stone walls seemed to close in on Sister Margaret; how could she, in the space of a day, send one of her daughters to God and the other to an uncertain future? Desperate to keep one, she said, “Johanna, there is much you do not know about Clare and Lord Drummond.”

  “Not so. She has told me all I need to know about the chieftain,” said Johanna. “I’ll raise Alasdair to believe his sire was a legend among men, although I know it for a lie.”

  “Oh, Johanna, you have it crosswise,” said Clare, so near death she gasped for breath. “Drummond isn’t bad. He hates only me.” She closed her eyes and sighed. “And with good cause.”

  Chapter 1

  Seven Years Later

  Fairhope Tower

  The door to the buttery slammed open. “A stranger’s just come, my lady,” said Amauri, the porter, as breathless as if he had run all the way from Carlisle. “He claims he’s your husband.”

  Johanna turned around so quickly the wide cuff of her surcoat tipped over a crock of honey. Fighting back panic, she righted the jar before the sticky contents spilled onto the workbench. Were it not for the fear in the servant’s eyes, she would have accused him of teasing her. “He said nothing else?”

  Amauri’s mouth pinched with disapproval. “Only that he was Drummond Macqueen was all.”

  Drummond Macqueen was dead, hanged years ago by King Edward I. Although she’d received no formal notice of Drummond’s execution, she hadn’t expected condolences from the Crown; the ruthlessness of Edward I toward his enemies was legendary. The arrival of this imposter did seem oddly timed, since the old king had been laid to rest himself last year. The new king, his son, Edward II, had recently been crowned.

  Surely the man played some jest or hoped to profit by posing as her husband. He’d soon learn that the widow Macqueen was no easy mark for tricksters.

  “You mustn’t worry, Amauri. Show him to the hall. Have Evelyn serve him the everyday ale, but she’s not to chat with him. And you’re not to carry his luggage.”

  “Aye, Lady Clare.” He bowed and turned.

  Johanna had answered to that name for so long it sounded natural. She did not regret losing her own identity; in taking
Clare’s name she kept her sister’s memory alive. But more, seven years after the fact, Johanna knew she was fulfilling her own destiny.

  The porter stopped. “What shall I do with his elephant?”

  “His what?”

  “His elephant.” The servant put his hands on either side of his head and wagged his fingers. “Massive beast with huge ears, a snout as big as last year’s Yule log, and beady eyes.”

  Johanna glowered at him. “I know what an elephant looks like. I’ve seen the drawings in Alasdair’s books.”

  Embarrassment turned the servant’s complexion pink. He fumbled with the laces on his jerkin. “Sorry, my lady. I meant no offense. Everyone knows you’re as bright as the king’s own chamberlain.”

  At any other time she would have scoffed at his praise, but considering the meeting ahead, she needed every scrap of confidence she could muster. “And you’re a prince among porters, Amauri. Where is the creature now?”

  “Chained to a post in the outer bailey and drawing a crowd. The workmen from Saddler’s Dale dropped their plows in the field and swarmed the creature. The cobbler’s wife swooned.”

  Johanna imagined the excitement the beast would cause. She also wondered where the visitor had acquired the odd animal. She had heard of only one elephant in the land, and it was housed in the Royal Menagerie.

  Alarm pricked her senses. The Royal Menagerie occupied a part of the Tower of London. Drummond had been taken there for execution. But what, her common sense demanded, would a man posing as a Highland chieftain be doing with an elephant?

  Trying to still her racing heart, she dismissed the porter. “Fret not about the beast unless it causes trouble. Its owner won’t be here long.” Then she carefully rolled down the sleeves of her bliaud and stepped into the afternoon sunshine.

  In the castle yard the wheelwright haggled with the blacksmith over the price of nails; the randy potboy bartered with a comely goosegirl over a more personal and earthy commodity. From the laundry shed came the fresh scent of lavender soap. An infant wailed. A horse whinnied. A small herd of sheep fled before a yapping dog.

 
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