Maiden of inverness, p.8

Maiden of Inverness, page 8

 

Maiden of Inverness
 



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  Revas tossed the orange from one hand to the other. “Then perhaps his priestly uncle is being canonized.”

  Real humor twinkled in the sheriff’s eyes. “Not unless the church is ready to face a revolt by our priestly Thomas.”

  Revas plunged onward. “Has a pretty maid offered for the hand of our young Munro?”

  Brodie did laugh, but he shook his head, as if fighting it all the way. “Nay.”

  “Has our pretty maid presented young Munro with a son?”

  Yielding, the sheriff slapped his thigh. “You’re a devil, Revas Macduff. And although I’m like as not to regret saying it, ’tis good to have you home.” He surveyed the tray of fruit and cheese and hacked off a chunk of the latter. “Alas, your pretty maid doesn’t share your enthusiasm.”

  An understatement, thought Revas, and his mood turned melancholy. If missteps were victories in battle, his skill rivaled that of the Holy Roman Emperor, the greatest swordsman of the day. “Aye, my friend. She is hesitant.”

  “The sword of Chapling holds no interest for her?”

  Revas’s mood darkened. He surveyed his private chamber and paused at the sight of his empty bed. If he closed his eyes, he could see her there, languishing naked on the coverlet, her glorious black hair fanning the red velvet, her enchanting eyes beckoning him to celebrate their love.

  “Revas!”

  He jumped like a caught thief.

  “You’re smitten with her.”

  Battling a grin, he murmured, “She is appealing.”

  Brodie chuckled. “But will she demand the sword of Chapling from her father and bestow the Highland crown on you?”

  “If I’m remembered of it correctly,” Revas admitted, “she said the sword would crumble with rust before she touched it.”

  Brodie angled the blunt cheese knife toward the window until the light caught the blade and reflected a splash of sunshine on the ceiling. “Perhaps she’s peevish because she’s been away from us for so long?”

  Revas wished it were so. “She claims Scotland is a land of monsters.”

  “You exaggerate. Surely she favors you a wee bit.”

  Sinking low in his chair, Revas recalled her words. “Were I her only choice of mates, she pledged to go to her grave a virgin.”

  Brodie shrugged. “I suppose you told her you were saving yourself for the marriage bed?”

  Revas saw through Brodie’s ploy; he was now trying to make Revas smile. He did, and with ease. “She is bonny, isn’t she?”

  “Bonny enough for a butcher’s son who’ll one day wear the crown of the Highlands.”

  Feeling rash, Revas wiggled his eyebrows. “She has a temper, too.”

  Brodie grew serious. “She’s no longer a frightened and maligned child.”

  On this point, Revas was well versed. “There you are wrong. She’s scared to her soul, and make no mistake.”

  “She has the ill humors of the Macgillivrays,” Brodie grumbled.

  “She took nothing from Cutberth, but ’tis wrong to ignore the man who sired her.”

  “As if anyone could ignore that war-loving bastard.” Brodie put down the knife and crossed his arms over his chest. He’d removed his battered war bracelets, but still wore his chain of office. “What angers her most?”

  Regretting every word of the tale, Revas explained his abduction of Meridene.

  “Sweet Saint Columba, Revas! What made you act so boldly?”

  Revas felt like a green lad having his first go at the quintain. Deservedly so, for he had erred. But after wanting her for so many years, he’d lost his good judgment. Never had it crossed his mind that Meridene would reject him.

  “Well?” Brodie prompted.

  Revas resigned himself. “To my dismay, Ana did not color up her stories of Meridene’s hatred for all things Scottish. I had no choice but to take her by force.”

  In exasperation, Brodie rolled his eyes. “Very Scottish of you.”

  “I could not linger in merry old England.” Recklessly he added, “The food would’ve killed me.”

  Although his mouth puckered with humor, Brodie did not smile. “What will you do now?”

  “I’ll teach her to love us, one day at a time, and I have made progress,” Revas couldn’t help boasting. “She favors her new lodgings.”

  Brodie waved him off. “A blind Cornishman would favor that palace you built for her.”

  Revas felt a burst of pride at what he’d accomplished. The Maiden deserved luxury. As her husband, he was duty-bound to provide it. “I always knew she would come home to me, Brodie.”

  Fondness glowed in his weathered face. “So you’ve said since the day old King Edward gave her to you.”

  Through a flood of sentimental visions, Revas thought about how she’d looked when he left her hours ago. “You should have seen her with her new handmaidens. I tell you, Brodie, she gives orders like a marcher lord on campaign. She was born to rule.”

  “Came from her grandmother, most likely. ’Tis for certain the Macgillivrays bequeathed her little, save a penchant for war.”

  A familiar weight pressed in on Revas, but he was becoming accustomed to the up-and-down changes in his moods. Now his fosterlings were in jeopardy. “If I do not stop Cutberth now, he’ll spread his poison to every clan in the Western Highlands, not just the Munros.”

  “Aye. You’ve worked too hard to gain the trust of those chieftains. Should you sit idle while Cutberth tries to regain the power, others will follow Munro’s lead. Fraser may send for his lad next. Then Macpherson could call his son home. Your dream of unity will die.”

  Years of negotiations would go for naught. The clans would disperse, and little wars would again plague the Highlands. But the damage wouldn’t stop there. Flanders and the Nordic states would cancel the trade agreements Revas had worked so hard to gain.

  Unless he took action. But he must move cautiously. “ ’Twill go worse when Cutberth learns that I’ve brought his daughter home.”

  With a callused hand, Brodie worried his chin. “He’s not heartless enough to send another assassin after her, is he?”

  That possibility angered Revas to his soul. Harm would not befall Meridene; he’d watch her like a hawk, accompany her on the smallest of errands. “Pray he does not; if so, the Bishop of Inverness will pass along Cutberth’s plans to our Father Thomas.”

  “Can the bishop be trusted?”

  “He’ll take the side of the Scottish church, as he did last year when the pope excommunicated King Robert. The Vatican will not like it, but ’tis a risk he’ll gladly take in the name of self-rule. All of our clergy will.”

  “As will Elginshire.” Brodie rose and walked to the pedestal table where the Covenant of the Maiden had rested for thirteen years. “What words of wisdom does the first Meridene offer on the subject?”

  Brodie, too, was fond of the tales put down in the book by Meridene’s namesake. “She was not so fortunate as we are. In her time, the clergy were untrustworthy and lecherous. When she wanted information, she sent a whore to loosen the priest’s tongue.”

  “Surely your Meridene cannot find fault with her namesake. There’s one Scot she’ll remember fondly.”

  “She wants nothing to do with the Covenant.”

  Brodie whistled. “What will you do?”

  “Change her mind.”

  Smiling crookedly, Brodie returned to his seat. “Pity her, then, for I’ve yet to see you target a lassie’s heart and come away wanting.”

  The compliment emboldened Revas. “She thinks I keep twenty women.”

  As serious as sin on Sunday, Brodie said, “Do you?”

  Revas leveled him a look reserved for the randy Summerlad Macqueen. Then he couldn’t help laughing.

  Brodie cleared his throat. “Who told her such a tale?”

  “ ’Twas Ana, and I doubt her stories stopped there. She was angry at my taking Meridene in the dead of night.”

  “Worry not, Revas. John Sutherland will control his d
aughter. But when will you tell Meridene about yours?”

  Revas had sired an illegitimate daughter, and the lass Gibby lived in comfort with her maternal grandparents in the nearby village of Aberhorn. Her mother, Mary, died of a fever shortly after weaning Gibby, and the girl was the very joy of her grandparents’ life.

  Would Meridene grow angry when she learned of his by-blow? Lord, he hoped not, for Gibby was a fine lass. “I haven’t decided when to tell her. ’Tis early yet, and she’ll not find fault with dear Gibby.”

  Brodie waved his hand in agreement. “Everyone loves the lass.”

  Revas noticed new blisters on the sheriff’s hand. Normally that palm was smooth. “Have you been wielding a sword with your left hand?”

  “Aye, that young lad from Tain fights offhanded. Now tell me. What news of the parliament at Saint Andrews?”

  The occasion had been a milestone in Scottish history, for it marked the first true Scottish parliament. “Nothing more surprising than the event itself. To Bruce’s relief, the members voted to decline the French king’s invitation to join him on Crusade.”

  “Did Macgillivray take his seat there?”

  “Aye. Cutberth strutted about like a ripe bull put to a pasture of seasoned cows.”

  “Did he wear the sword of Chapling?”

  Revas knotted his fists. “Aye. He took pleasure in taunting me with it.”

  “You crossed words?”

  The subject of Meridene’s father troubled Revas to his soul. “Let’s speak of cheery occasions.”

  Brodie nodded in sad commiseration. “What has the king planned?”

  “Our sovereign is so pleased to have a sitting parliament, he’s decided to make a pilgrimage through Scotland this summer. A sweep of his kingdom, he proclaimed it. I’ve invited him for Midsummer’s Eve.”

  “He warned you about compelling Lady Meridene. Does he think she came willingly to Scotland?”

  The lie troubled Revas, but he’d stretched the truth before, and he would do it again, if the fate of Highland unity hung in the balance. “Aye.”

  Brodie chuckled, but his laughter was wrought with pain. “I’ll take over the training of those ruffians you enjoy fostering. You’ll be busy with matters of the heart.”

  Revas eagerly awaited the challenge. “My thanks.”

  “ ’Twill be entertaining, Revas, to see you try to woo an unwilling lass.”

  “She’ll come around.”

  Someone pounded on the door. “Revas Macduff!”

  Meridene’s voice. Excitement buoyed his spirits again. “Did I not say ’twas so, Brodie? She seeks me out already.”

  “Aye, you did. But she sounds angry.”

  The door flew open. An outraged Meridene stood on the threshold. Her hair was still wet from the bath and trailed to her waist. She’d donned Serena’s smock and bliaud.

  An hour ago she had melted in Revas’s arms and kissed him with the immature passion of a woman on the brink of falling in love.

  Now she glared at the sheriff. “I must speak privately with Revas. Immediately.”

  Revas stood. “Brodie, see what’s keeping Munro and the luggage cart.”

  She breezed into the room, ignoring the sheriff’s exit.

  “Why are you wearing Serena’s clothing?” Revas asked.

  If wrath were a mantle, she was cloaked in it from head to toe. “She took mine to the laundry. Did you order her to take my clothes away?”

  “Nay. It never crossed my mind.”

  She slammed her hands on her hips and began pacing the carpeted floor. “You must have been too busy reading my property and spreading tales from here to there. How dare you tell Ellen that my grandmother bathed with my grandfather.”

  She referred to one of Revas’s favorite entries in the Covenant. He had shared the story with all who would listen. “You didn’t tell me not to read the book. You said I was to keep it from enemy hands.”

  Halting, she whirled and pointed a finger at his chest. “You are the enemy! You told these people that you would find me.”

  Her feet were bare, and her toes were beautiful. “I did find you.”

  “You’ve been telling them that for over ten years!”

  Hoping to quell her irritation, he gave her a lopsided grin. “I’m a stalwart lambkin.”

  She clenched her teeth and marched up to him. The fragrant smell of heather filled his nose. “Hear this, Revas Macduff. I would stab you with my dirk had Ellen not taken it to the cutler.”

  The tension in the air between them grew as thick as Montfichet’s porridge. “ ’Tis my good fortune, then, that you’ve been disarmed.”

  Through gritted teeth, she said, “Do not mock me.”

  He held out his hands, palms up, in surrender. “My apologies, Meridene, for whatever wrongs I’ve done you.”

  “Now he begs my pardon,” she said to the ceiling. “You’ve had these people saying prayers for me every Sabbath. They don’t even know me.”

  He thought it best to tell her all of it. “They also honor you twice on Hogmanay in observance of your birthday. They abide by the Covenant.”

  Bracing her hands on the table, she leaned toward him. Her eyes glowed with contempt, and her sweet breath fanned his face. “You have a twisted mind.”

  Serena’s yellow smock fitted Meridene too tightly, and the fabric strained across her breasts, which were heaving with the force of her anger. He wanted to kiss her fury away.

  As if burned, she moved back. “You’re leering at me. Stop it!”

  A lame denial came to mind. Too late he saw her spy the tray of food and the knife. In a flash, she snatched up the dull blade.

  She wasn’t like other women; she was self-reliant, and she’d been wronged. Flattery was a mistake. Cajolery proved a worse error. Revas wisely backed away. “You have a knife in your hand, Meridene. Please, put it down.”

  Ignoring his polite request, she began pacing again. “How could you give these people false hopes year after year?”

  The garments were too short and her ankles too distracting. Was she naked beneath the borrowed clothes?

  “I could have been dead.”

  Revas tried to shelve his unseemly thoughts, but he couldn’t, for the simple fact that she was here, in his life at last. And he wanted her with a yearning that burned in his gut and lower.

  “How could you?” Her knuckles gleamed white from clutching the knife.

  He took a deep, calming breath. “They needed hope, Meridene.”

  Her shoulders slumped. She walked to the hearth and stared into the flames. “How considerate of you.”

  He hadn’t intended to say it that way, but he had always believed he’d find her. Wretched as Edward I had been, he did not hang the daughters of his enemies. He gave them into the keeping of the church.

  As he observed Meridene now, garbed in a too small smock, her hair a concealing black blanket, she looked small and childlike. A deception, his manly heart argued, for she was a woman to her soul.

  “I will not stay.” She shook the knife at him. “I’ll take the veil first.”

  No, she wouldn’t, but she was too angry for him to broach that argument just now. “ ’Tis a drastic move.”

  She threw her arms in the air and sent the knife sailing across the room. Droplets of water rained from her hair and landed, hissing, upon the hearth. The knife fell harmlessly on the floor. “Drastic? Kidnapping me was not? By God, Revas, I’ll go to King Edward.”

  If Edward II knew that Revas had taken her against her will, he could use her abduction as an excuse to continue his father’s war on Scotland. Alone, Revas could not hope to prevail. The combined armies of Revas and Robert Bruce were too great for the English, but Bruce would not commit his forces until Revas possessed the sword of Chapling. Cutberth Macgillivray would not yield it; only Meridene could take the sword from him.

  “I cannot allow you to bring King Edward into our marriage.”

  “You have a queer notion of ma
rriage. I’m your prisoner.”

  “Only if you force me to play the tyrant. Come, Meridene, let us not fight all of our battles today. Montfichet has prepared pheasant and barley cakes. You cannot deny ’tis your favorite.”

  “Ana told you that. What else did the gossiping fool tell you?”

  She had given him an opening to lighten the mood. Revas grasped it. “She also told me about the time you donned that chastity belt.”

  Color blossomed on her cheeks. “She was not there at the time.”

  “Nay, but I fear the tale has grown with the telling. I cannot imagine you marching to the smithy and having good Kentish iron forged into a spoon.”

  She smiled. “A trivet was commissioned of it.”

  “Montfichet once said he couldn’t acquire a chastity belt for Sibeal because they’d have to mine half of England to get enough iron.”

  “I doubt she likes being so large.”

  Revas rejoiced, for she had exhausted her anger.

  Distracted, she said, “Where is the Covenant?”

  He glanced beyond her to the pedestal table in the corner. A lamp illuminated the ancient book. “I thought you wanted nothing to do with the legend.”

  She followed his line of vision. “That’s still true.” Making a lie of the declaration, she padded across the room and touched the book. “But it’s my property.”

  “It belongs to the Maiden. Are you she?”

  She looked up, her eyes a lush green in the lamplight. “The Maiden is no more.”

  “Then reacquainting yourself with the contents of the book shouldn’t interest you.” He suspected it did, and very much. He took heart, for he’d found an even spot of ground in the rutted road their lives had taken. Casually he said, “ ’Tis only rules and tenets for the survival of Highland unity.”

  All righteous and wronged woman, she lifted her chin. “It was written by my mother and her ancestors. By right, their words are mine.”

  In truth, her mother hadn’t added a word to the legacy of the Maiden. Not all of the women had taken up a quill. Had they, no one volume could have contained the words.

  Revas had laughed and cried while reading the chronicles of a few of those brave and entertaining women. Not even if he lived five lifetimes, with a dozen wives in each, could he learn more about the workings of the female mind and the craving of their hearts than he had in that tome. He would not give up their precious legacy, not to one who impugned their honor.

 
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