Maiden of Inverness, page 9
He strove for a reasonable tone. “Their words belong to all of the people of the Highlands.”
She tried to hide her feelings, but her hand shook as she traced the symbols on the bindings. With the tapered nail of her index finger, she lifted the front binding. Her eyes were alight with interest, and she sighed with what he knew was relieved longing. How could he use the book to his advantage? He did not know.
Noise from the castle yard drifted through the open window. The luggage cart had returned. While Meridene was preoccupied, Revas walked to the door. “Excuse me while I speak with young Munro.”
She drew the book to her breast. “I must go.”
He hadn’t expected to broach the subject of the matter so quickly. But he had no choice. “The Covenant must stay here, unless you’d like to discuss a trade.”
Her gaze sharpened. “What trade?”
He girded himself for another battle. Thank goodness she’d tossed the knife away. “The sword of Chapling for that book.”
Interest turned to disbelief. Then she threw back her head and laughed. “You wretched Scot.”
He hadn’t expected her to agree, but the insult stirred his ire. “I cannot allow you to take the book.”
“Pray tell why not? It’s mine.”
“Yours to cherish or to destroy?”
In her typical queenly fashion, she stiffened her graceful neck. “To do with as I please.”
She’d lose this battle, for Revas treasured the chronicle. Munro would wait. Revas would prevail.
He held out his arm to indicate the chairs by the hearth. “Then sit. We shall enjoy the Covenant together.”
“I hate you.”
“Ah, well, you’ve said that before.” She was also cradling the book as if it were precious to her. “Do you wish to peruse the Covenant or not?”
She glowered at him. “What I wish is to see your head on a pike at London Bridge.”
Revas couldn’t stop a shiver.
She smiled wickedly. “And your heart and liver pitched to hungry eels.”
Enough was enough. Determined to subjugate her, he took a powerful stance. “If you harm that book, I will beat you.” He wouldn’t, of course, but she needn’t know that. “I will lock you in the dungeon and visit my lust on you until you give me a daughter who will honor the women in that book.”
“I’ll see you dead first.”
“You’ll need help to bring me low.”
She took a moment to assess him, from his head to the toes of his boots. “You’ve made a success of low behavior on your own.”
Their argument was growing too heated. “Yield, Meridene, for I’m a fighting man, and you have no weapons against me.”
A calculating look glimmered in her eyes. “Since you have a penchant for superstition, I’ll call up the ghosts of my kinswomen and watch them nibble away at your precious manhood.”
The image of that lusty love play made Revas smile. “Summon them now.”
“I’m delighted. ’Tis a truly inventive punishment.” He held out his hand for the book.
She clutched it in a death grip. “You’re demented.”
“Nay, I’m inspired.” He strolled toward her. “And someday, my virgin wife, I’ll show you why the notion of having my manhood nibbled holds great appeal.”
Her heart pounding in fear of his intent, Meridene backed away.
“Well?” he challenged, anticipation dancing in his devil-dark eyes.
She would escape him. In the meantime, she had to read the Covenant. The servants knew more about her heritage than she did. At every turn she faced some ritual prescribed in that book—even the particulars of her bath were dictated by custom. Not that she was overly curious; she simply hated feeling outside of events, especially when they concerned her toilet. She would leave the book here, as he had insisted. It wouldn’t do to have him suspect she was interested in the legacy.
“Have you no more cutting words for me, Meridene?”
He looked so determined and powerful, she couldn’t resist saying, “I do have one wish, Revas. I hope that you die without issue and your bones rest in unconsecrated ground.”
With a rueful shake of his head, he sighed. “You’re a passionate woman.”
At his all too obvious ploy, her anger melted. She marched to a chair, plopped down, and opened the book. At the edge of her vision, she saw him leave. Fare thee well.
The lock slid into place.
She read the first sentence.
Her mind was suddenly fixed on the words of a woman who had lived centuries ago.
I stand naked before my husband. I do not quake in fear of the marriage bed, for I am Meridene, the first Maiden of Inverness.
After a meal eaten in silence, save a compliment for the cook, Meridene excused herself to the privacy of her apartments. Serena had spoken truthfully of her knowledge of looms, for the frame had been assembled properly and placed before the now-darkened windows. The girl had even hung a lamp overhead.
Meridene took refuge on the stool and stared at the half-completed tapestry. From the Covenant she had learned that her namesake had also been skilled in the weaver’s art, and the first cloth of Clan Chapling had been a gift to her husband.
The word and the man terrified Meridene. Unlike that first Meridene, she had no desire to rule. Too much was expected of her. She had no love in her heart for Scotland; her father’s cruelty and her mother’s indifference had purged that affection long ago. She felt used, alone, adrift in a sea of strangers with only a few pots of ink and a loom to call her own.
As she tied off a thread of precious lavender silk, Meridene couldn’t stop thinking about the words of the other Meridene, a brave woman who had changed the course of Scottish history.
To cleanse a man of his warring ways, join him naked in his bath. But not often, unless you wish to beget a son for the effort. If ever a lad is born to you with green eyes and black hair, he shall be named the Prince of Inverness.
Meridene thought of her own mother and the healthy sons she’d borne. Both William and Robert were fair and resembled their father. Try as she would, she could not imagine her aloof parents languishing naked in a pool of warm, scented water. A glance at the tub in the adjacent room made her wonder if Revas expected her to join him in a bath. She remembered the kiss they’d shared earlier in the day, and now, as then, an unwanted yearning stirred deep in her breast.
He had asked for a kiss of thanks for the luxurious lodgings he had provided. Fool that she was, Meridene had relented. He had taken the spark of her gratitude and fanned it into a fire of wanting.
He kept twenty women.
She wasn’t surprised. He wanted them for pleasure and companionship. He wanted her for ceremony.
Her spirits sank, for she had no weapons against his sensual expertise, except anger.
She jumped at the sound of his voice. It was as if she could summon him with a thought. Quickly she glanced at the door to be certain it was locked.
As if reading her mind, he said, “Open, Meridene, else I’ll use my key.”
Resigned, she went to the door and opened it.
Still dressed in the dark blue velvet he’d worn at table, Revas stood smiling down at her. Pinned at his shoulder was an ornate silver brooch bearing the lion of Macduff. Not a strand of his hair was out of place, and he looked at ease.
Her gaze flew to his hands. Empty. He hadn’t brought the Covenant. She hated herself for wanting to read more of the book.
“May I come in?”
He might have a key to the door, but she had the means to refuse his intentions. “The servants have left. It wouldn’t be proper.”
“Perhaps not in English propriety.” As if he owned all of the British Isles, he strolled into the room. “In Scotland we honor our women with our presence before marriage.”
The sloth laughed. “Oh, Meridene. You are a delight. Such vinegar after your favorite meal. I shudder to imagine your ill humor when the food is not to your liking.”
He shouldn’t act so friendly, not when he’d kidnapped and threatened to beat her. “I could fill my belly with pomegranates and still despise the sight of you.”
“Then I expect you’ll live your life much as poor Isobel did.”
“Aye. Meridene’s granddaughter and the third Maiden. She brought her tragedies upon herself, poor lass.”
Meridene had read only a few pages in the book. Her belongings had arrived shortly after Revas left her in his chamber. She had no knowledge of this Isobel. Would that woman’s chronicle prove as disturbing as her grandmother’s?
Bother the book and the ancient stories; Revas could take them with him to the grave. Meridene would see the priest on Friday. Revas was being agreeable tonight. Their angry exchanges exhausted her. She would persevere.
“What do you want?” she asked.
He walked around the room, touching first her clothes trunk, then the quills and ink on her writing desk. He paused at her loom, which was large by any weaver’s standard, but he dwarfed the wooden frame.
The casual pose belied the determination in his gaze. “What do I want? My needs are simple. I want the Maiden at my side, a friendly ruler at my back, and a long purse.”
So much for an evening passed in friendly camaraderie. “Rejoice, then,” she said. “For you have two of three: friends and money. A good showing in the best of times.”
“I’ll have them all.” As if he were strumming a harp, he raked his fingers across the still unwoven threads of the tapestry. “ ’Tis a beautiful scene.”
His wrists were bare of the war bracelets, and his hands moved with unexpected grace. The observation surprised her, and she chastised herself. Admiring even one aspect of her kidnapper was cause for alarm.
“The heather is especially well done,” he said.
“It was for Johanna—” At the verbal blunder, Meridene gasped and quickly said, “I meant to say, of course, that the tapestry is for Clare Macqueen.”
“Drummond’s wife.” Leaning close, Revas examined the details of the scene, which depicted a moorland in summer. Hares and squirrels frolicked in the field. Butterflies and a blazing sun would crown the work. “You must not hold either of them to blame.”
Meridene had been raised at the abbey with the twins, Clare and Johanna. With absolute surety, she said, “In this, I cannot accuse Clare Macqueen.” Clare was dead. Johanna had taken her place.
“Good. I expect them to visit after her babe is born.”
Sister Margaret had gone to assist in the birth, leaving the abbey defenseless. “Ana told you Sister Margaret was taking the guard.”
He sat on her padded stool, his long legs extended and crossed at the ankles. “The cushion still bears your warmth.”
His intimate words embarrassed her, but a cozy place to rest himself was all the warmth he’d get from her. “You were only able to kidnap me when you did because the guard was elsewhere.”
“Aye, the duke of Cumberland’s soldiers, not that we needed defending before you blackened Scarborough with your evil presence. Had you come when the knights were there, they would have prevailed.”
He gave her a bland, handsome stare. “The absence or presence of a few Englishmen-at-arms had little to do with my plans. Although the sport might have proved entertaining.”
She was certain of one thing about Revas Macduff: He did not lack confidence. “When did Drummond tell you where I was?”
“Before fetching you, I attended our first parliament. ’Twas held in Saint Andrews.”
She read between the vague words. He hadn’t made a special journey on her behalf. That bothered Meridene as much as his affable mood. “So you just extended your travels to include a jaunt to England to retrieve me.”
He shrugged. “I go there from time to time. They always have Spanish oranges. I have a liking for fresh fruit.”
Oranges. He dodged questions like a warrior avoiding an opponent’s blow. With every parry, she grew more frustrated. “Why have you come to my room tonight?”
He fished a rosary from his pouch. “To take you to chapel.”
Relief lightened her mood. “Church. I will pray that your teeth blacken and fall out.”
That winning gleam in his eyes portended trouble. Before he could make any more mischief in her life, she snatched up her purse and cloak and preceded him out the door.
Flaming torches of bog fir illuminated the castle yard. The pungent smell stirred an old memory in Meridene, but she was too conscious of the man beside her to explore the past.
He took her arm and guided her down the front steps. Breathing deeply through his nose, he exclaimed, “It smells of a Hogmanay fire.”
She didn’t want to talk to him, especially when he was so attuned to her thoughts. If she ignored him, she could forget the alarming fact that he was her husband. She wanted no part of belonging to Revas Macduff. No shared baths, no sons. No glorious wedding night as her namesake had enjoyed. Her destiny lay in the peaceful confines of Scarborough Abbey.
“You must have had special celebrations,” he said cordially, “since Hogmanay was also your birthday.”
He must have garnered that information from the book, then spread it like cheap gossip. Meridene had not told him when she was born. No stinging retort came to mind, and she hoped her silence maddened him.
He waved at Summerlad Macqueen, who stood just outside the glow of a lighted torch near the well, the handmaiden Serena at his side.
“Will you join us at the chapel?” Revas called out to them.
“We’ve just prayed.”
“We’ll pray later.”
Said in unison, the contradictory answers drew a gasp from Serena and a groan from Summerlad.
“ ’Tis true,” Summerlad rushed to say. “I’ve been to chapel. Serena came to tell me about Lady Meridene’s fine loom.”
Revas grew still. “I see.”
The embarrassed girl shrank inside her cloak, but Summerlad stepped fully into the light. He wore the sedate red and black tartan of Clan Macqueen. Tossing an end of the plaid cloth over his shoulder, he bowed to Meridene. “My lady.”
Meridene again looked up at Revas, whose stern expression had darkened. According to custom, his responsibility toward Summerlad went beyond battle prowess and horsemanship. Honor and loyalty stood at the forefront of a guardian’s duty.
“Bid Serena good night,” he said. “Then relieve Forbes on the wall.”
The youth wanted to object, for his eyes darted here and there in indecision.
“Unless you’d care to join us?” Revas added.
“Then my lady and I will leave you with your honorable intentions.”
With the slightest pressure on her arm, Revas steered Meridene toward the side yard.
“I favored the sweet cakes at Hogmanay.” He spoke in a friendly fashion, as if they were boon companions.
Hogmanay was a Scottish ritual. Meridene wondered if he had truly put the exchange with Summerlad aside or if he was hesitant to discuss it. Having a choice of subjects, she gladly took up the holiday. “I don’t remember the sweet cakes,” she replied.
“Sibeal Montfichet makes a fine batch. Look there!” He pointed overhead. In a trail of twinkling light, a star fell from the sky.
“Do you make a wish on a tumbling star . . .”
Without thinking, Meridene finished the rhyme. “The angels will favor you from afar.”
After a moment’s contemplation, he said, “I wished for a gesture of peace from your father.”
He spoke casually of a man Meridene despised. “You cannot voice your wish, else it
“Then our wishes are well met.” He looked her in the eye. “For I suspect you asked for a means to break your wedding vows.”
He was too close to the truth to suit Meridene. With an effort, she sought a reprieve in the surroundings.
Unlike the courtyard at Scarborough Abbey, the castle yard came alive with sounds. A prowling cat screeched, a dog bayed at the half-moon. From the outer bailey, cattle lowed. Closer, a babe wailed.
Ignoring her lack of participation in the conversation, Revas said, “I hated sweeping the stoop at Hogmanay.”
He spoke of superstition, of the age-old Scottish custom of sweeping the stoop at the turn of the New Year. The old luck and bad spirits were swept away from the dwelling. But women usually wielded the broom. “Where was your mother?”
“She left us for a fisherman out of Tain.”
He had told her that years ago, but like so much of their one day together, she had forgotten. She felt bound to say, “How old were you?”
“Two or three. I do not remember her, but I recall clearly the other lads teasing me for wielding that broom on Hogmanay.”
He had been different as a youth, and as much as she hated to admit it, she had liked that butcher’s barefoot son. But he had changed. He was now a warrior bent on using her to lead his unruly brethren. “You can seek retribution now. You are the chieftain of Clan Macduff.” She intentionally omitted the title he coveted most: king of the Highlands. Without her assistance, he would never sit on that throne.
“Seek revenge against lads playing pranks? Nay, I’ve better things to do.”
“Such as kidnapping.”
“You wound me, Meridene.”
He sounded so sincere. Looking up, she studied his face. Bathed in moonlight, his manly features appeared comely beyond the telling. Twenty women wanted him. Did he walk them to chapel? Did any of them now stand in darkened windows watching him escort his wife to prayers? Did the women pine for him?
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