Illicit Union_Sanctuary, page 21
“Why?” Gasped Allie.
Margaret gasped, “Do you not know the great secret which is no secret at all? The queen is Roman Catholic.”
“The queen a catholic? Nae, nae.” Gillie dismissed, “She is Anne of Denmark, a staunch protestant daughter of a Lutheran king of a Lutheran nation.”
With a wry smile, Margaret enlightened, “Who was persuaded to convert to Papism soon after she arrived in Scotland another protestant country.”
“What?” Chorused Gillie and Allie, but Lyall only smiled knowingly.
“Oh yes, the king indulges his wife with all affection. On a personal basis, he regards her conversion as a mere nuisance.” Margaret expanded, “Politics dictate, however, he allows little contact between the queen and Henry, or for that matter Elizabeth.”
“But Charles is . . . or was another matter?” Suggested Lyall.
“Yes indeed, I suppose it’s because he is or rather was the younger son. I was told, the king allowed more and more contact with Charles because they lost three children in but three years. When Sophie, their last baby died in but two days’ time, the king permitted Charles to join his mother quite frequently to assuage her grief.”
Allie intoned, “May God bless her and comfort her soul.”
Lyall, however, mused, “I wonder if he regrets it now? Prince Henry has passed on and now Charles is the heir.” He looked around at them defensively, “I mean, the whole idea of keeping Anne from the children was to contain her Papist beliefs. Do ye ken, Margaret, this Howard Percy might be a priest?”
“No, when I asked, everyone thought Howard Percy is probably one of the courtiers sent by the queen to covertly observe her son. For such spies are the normal course of life in the royal children’s households.”
Fearing she might be right about a speedy escape, Gillie urged, “So, let us return to how he threatens ye, Margaret.”
“The first time on the stairs, I deemed him a clumsy oaf who cared not he had knocked a lady off her feet.” The hand which wiped the loose hair from her face trembled, “But then there was the banquet. I felt quite ill with the baby within, and half mad with worry as to what to do since my husband was gone.”
Seeking verification, Gillie suggested, “Dead? Right?”
“Yes, decidedly dead.” Answered Margaret before taking up her accusation again, “So I had no appetite, but wishing to avoid hurt feelings, I gradually slipped the food from my plate to a cat begging at my feet.” She stared square into The McBain’s face, “The cat died within an hour, then I remembered I saw Howard Percy come out of the kitchens earlier.”
Lyall reasoned, “Maybe the cat was ill already. Worms will make them beg for food but convulse when they eat, even unto death.”
Margaret easily agreed, “True, so even then I never considered he might be an assassin, more of a jinx.”
Seeking to hurry the conversation along, Gillie reminded, “Ye said there were three attempts. What happened to change yer opinion of Howard Percy, Esquire?”
All three men huddled around Margaret listening intently as she brought her third accusation, “I was in London to attend – rather stealthily - my husband’s funeral. I waited, as appointed, by a busy street for a carriage which never came.”
“He pushed ye into traffic?” Supposed Allie.
“No, quite the opposite, someone grabbed me from behind and dragged me into the alley. I fought the brigand, for I supposed my attacker was a thief, and I could spare him none of my purse. However, he jabbed at my stomach with a dagger. This was no robber.”
“Oh Maggie,” Exclaimed, MacGillivray sinking down beside her chair, “Thank God someone came to yer rescue.”
“Oh no, no one did. You see he managed to cut my stomach, and suddenly I had such a rush of strength – it must have been God given. I knocked him off, and stomped his groin.”
Caressing and kissing her hand, Gillie whispered, “My God, precious lady.” For he had seen the mark of a shallow cut on her protruding stomach, but had thought it the result of some briar or innocent scrape.
“Good for ye, Margaret.” Congratulated Lyall.
“Yes, when scoundrel rolled to and fro in agony, his floppy hat and face scarf fell away. And there once again was the face of Howard Percy. Luck has its limits. I feared next time I would be unable to escape,” With a sharp nod, Margaret concluded, “So I boarded a ship to Inverness that self-same evening.”
The McBain relieved Gillie of her right hand as well. Lyall kissed her trembling hands and proclaimed, “Ye did right to come here to yer family. We’ll protect ye from this maggot pie.”
“Aye, we will indeed.” Added Allie, asking of Lyall, “Should I go down, and slit his throat before dinner?”
“No!” Interjected Margaret yanking her hands from Lyall’s grasp, “A member of the royal household would be missed. Few people realize Lady McBain is my sister. He may be here on some errand for the king utterly unrelated to me. ”
“True,” Said Lyall backing off.
“I’ve no desire to wreck my sister’s life. My own horrid life is bad enough.” She stood shooing the hovering man from her path, “So it’s best I be on my way, and you two.” She pointed at Lyall and Allie, “Go about finding out what errand or pretense thereof he claims. Pray God, you can send him on his way unaware I have ever been here.”
With a droll face, Lyall confessed, “Keeping secrets here in Black Bannoch is nae easy task, as Gillie can attest.” When Margaret swayed onto Gillie, Lyall hastily added, “But we’ll do our best. We have a strategy in place. When an unwelcome English agent is here, we keep them in the dark by controlling who admits they speak English, and Allie best be getting down there to get the word out to shun the man.”
“And we best be getting out of here, before she turns a corner or opens . . .” Immediately the accusation someone had stood on the balcony, the night Gillie surely did not, returned to haunt Gillie. “A door to the sneaky, vile, murderous . . . what was it ye called him, Lyall? A maggot? Yes, that suits a man who tries to murder a woman bearing a child whose father is dead and cannae protect his family.”
Pulling Margaret under his arm, Gillie made for the door, but Lyall called out, “Halt, first where are you taking her? We have to send for her when we have . . . disposed of this problem. AND MacGillivray, get yer hands off my sister-in-law.”
Guiltily Gillie stepped away from her, but The McBain continued, “And keep yer hands to yerself. She is nae yer wife, ye ken? Have respect for her person, her family, and her reputation.”
“Aye, Laird McBain.” Snapped Gillie.
Standing taller, The McBain demanded, “Swear to me on yer oath of honor, ye will nae defame nor bring disgrace upon Lady Margaret.”
“I do swear upon my honor to conduct myself with discretion and respect in regards to Lady Margaret. I will protect her from all harm even if I must lay down my own life. Before God I do attest to this truth.” He hustled her from the room before the laird added more specific conditions.
They were half way to the second floor when Allie came racing after them, “Hey, ye dunderhead, ye dinnae say where ye are taking her.”
“Why I’m taking her home. Everyone there must be worried sick about me.”
Galloping along with MacGillivray seemed like old times. Even bickering with him over side saddle versus pillion, felt so right and spirited. A battle Laird McBain settled by announcing Black Bannoch had not and had never had a pillion saddle. The idea of riding along on bench while a paltry trotted along outraged Margaret’s very soul. What if speed equaled survival? Not mere comfort or safety, but survival? Never, as long she lived, would Margaret forget the tip of the dagger raking across her stomach. She blessed Ferquhar for worrying so, and returned to enjoying a crisp, blustery winter day in the Highlands of Scotland.
What a welcome change from mourning. Even the bursts of rain felt welcoming as if it had held off to share this moment wit
“Hey hey, pull up.” Called MacGillivray spurring forward to ride beside her. “Here’s a good stop for us.”
“I can keep going.” Answered Margaret anticipating a charge up a steep incline, “Better to take a run at the hill.”
His arm wind-milled, “Nae, too visible. Up there we can be seen for miles.”
“Oh.” She reined in her mount.
“Aye, there’s cover here, and the horses are getting winded.”
“Of course.” She reined in all the more.
After an abrupt stop, he bounced to the ground, running to catch up with her slowing horse, “Whoa, whoa, whoa now, wheesht wheest.”
When she dropped into his arms for the dismount, she anticipated dodging a kiss already reproaching, “No, let me go, for I have need of the bushes.”
His irritated voice followed after her, “Ye should have said something before.”
Margaret retorted, “I didn’t need to stop before you lifted me down from the saddle. Now leave me to my business.”
When she returned to the trail, he was testing the buckles and straps of her saddle, of course. Mumbling and grumbling about the defective cinch, of course. Coming up behind him, she taunted, “Has it healed since last your cursed it?”
Without a glance in her direction, Gillie snapped, “Nay, had I kent we might take to the road again so soon, I would have repaired it.”
Annoyed by his brusque tone, she pointed out. “There’s no time for repairs now. We must go, and keep going.”
“Lady, we must rest the horses a wee bit more.” He turned to his own saddle to double check buckles and ties. “And while we rest, I have a crow to pick with ye.”
He was being particularly sour, so Margaret braced herself to answer for whatever had bruised his feelings. A tentative smile twisted his lips, and he suggested, “Dinnae fash yerself, I am nae furious only greatly put out. Ye needed to tell me an assassin followed after ye.”
“Oh, but I thought, truly believed I had left the rogue behind in England.” She stepped forward, “The whole idea in leaving was to thwart his scheme.”
He refused her eye contact, “I understand ye feared I would nae take on the journey if an assassin dogged your steps.” Giving her a candid look at his pique, he said, “But ye should have realized some time along the way, that I would have taken ye on all the quicker regardless of the great set down ye gave me at Whitehall.”
Oh no, were they back to the topic of her rudeness in London months ago? Trying to keep him on her more recent gaffe, she expounded, “Actually, I hated to bring the subject up since I can’t be forthcoming about . . . my husband and much more.”
His long measuring stare preceded, “Aye, ye dinnae trust me: nae in London, nae in Inverness, and nae last night at Black Bannoch.”
He formed the boost with his hands silently waiting for her to present her foot. Instead, Margaret grabbed his lean face, “I trust you with my life, but I couldn’t spoil last night with talk of . . . all I want to forget.”
He nuzzled his cheek against her palm, she pressed closer to explain, “And I wanted to protect you. I wanted to keep you out of this nightmare which has swallowed my life.”
He kissed her palm reproving, “Never do that again. If I am to protect ye, I must ken what is going on? Understand, lady?”
“Yes, I do now. I am sorry, MacGillivray. Truly.”
“Ye see, life without ye, Maggie, would be a nightmare now I ken all I’ve been missing.” He kissed her lightly, “We are in this . . . life together.”
Roughly he shoved her away, “So walk about, or find a comfortable rock, and get ye some rest.”
She nervously looked up and down the road before surveying the thicket on either side, “We should go now . . .”
“Nae, the worthless maggot will nae be traveling anywhere today. Lyall came out to the stables in the first place to tell me Allie was pouring whiskey down that devil’s throat nonstop. I wager, he’ll nae be going anywhere in the morning either.”
“Yes, but what if he has help?”
A widening of his eyes yielded the point to her. “So up ye go.” He bent down again offering the boost up. “But dinnae be shy about stopping to admire the bushes. Tis nae good to wait . . . yer wee babby might drown."
The closer to home, the more Gillie’s disquiet grew. He could not understand why. Once he confronted Margaret about her reckless distrust, he expected to regain his equilibrium, but no. Her warning of possible accomplices should have added urgency to their pace, instead Gillie caught himself purposely dawdling. Obviously he was in no hurry to reach Guddick Burn.
He told himself he was never overjoyed to go home. Monotonous meals, sparse heat, and diverse complaints in need of remedies rendered home less than enjoyable. Oh and his overbearing uncle, he must not forget to throw daft Uncle Malcolm into the mix. Guddick Burn offered only the usual deprivations, but having to take Margaret there – with no special preparations – tied his stomach in knots.
Riding ahead to warn everyone, would leave Margaret alone on the road. Finding a messenger to send served no purpose unless they camped for a night or two or . . . Unless he was prepared to build a house and settle in until summer or beyond, stalling served little purpose. What could he do? What could anyone do? Cleaning up filth cost little, but he could no more afford repairs and supplies than when he set out for Inverness New Year’s Day – two weeks ago.
Shocked, Gillie recounted the number of days he had been absent, and downgraded his vision of the homecoming awaiting. He prayed the few cattle he had purchased had arrived unscathed, and McAlphin had somehow found his way home. Great God, he hadn’t given McAlphin and his broken ribs a second thought since he rode out of Inverness. His uncle’s take on leaving an injured man behind – not to mention McAlphin’s wife’s - added to the reprimand waiting ahead.
Only one recourse occurred to Gillie: he must prepare an English lady to meet Clan McGillivray and take in Guddick Burn, his ramshackle homeland, or the remains of it. Nonetheless he stalled until he was greeted by MacGillivray sentries and about to emerge into the clearing where the village festered before drawing his reins and dismounting.
As before, Margaret’s feet no more touched the ground than she - for the fifth time today - rushed to find cover. He waited patiently, for visions of her home, Ammavale, as well as Whitehall Palace whittled away his courage.
When she emerged from the thicket, Margaret blushed saying, “I was just about to ask if we could stop. I – uh – hated to go . . . with those men, your men, standing by. Anyway, I thank you for yer consideration.”
He replied, “Tis nothing.” For it was. No thought of her convenience had prompted this halt.
She walked about stretching to and fro, “I guess this is a good place to tarry, now that we have guards to our rear.”
“Aye, those were MacGillivray look outs. They’ll delay any who foolishly follow us and sound a racket so we will ken to run.” Forging onward, he admitted, “Tis why I thought to dally here. We need to have a talk.”
Her face fell, her eyes closed, and her hand massaged her temple, “Oh please, I cannot tell more than I have - for your own sake as well as for the baby’s. I realize I was wrong to not – at some point – reveal . . .”
“Nae, darling, tis my turn to be forthcoming.” Try as he might, Gillie could not bear to watch her expression as he confessed, “My home is nae great fortress like Black Bannoch. We have nae a castle or the means to have great banquets or luxuries such as ye are accustomed.”
In tones so soothing, she replied, “I never thought you did.”
“Good, but I dinnae believe ye are prepared
Excitement lifted her tone, “Over the rise? Are we so close now?”
“Aye, take a deep breath and ye can smell the garbage and latrines from here.”
“Both necessary when people live together. Remember London on a summer’s day? No matter how hot, some days you must close the windows to keep out the stench from the Thames.”
He dared look into her face to see sincerity radiating. “Aye, I marvel people would carry that foul water into their homes, nae even to scrub the floors.”
“Oh no, then the floors would reek.”
Her gentle smile encouraged Gillie to go on, “Guddick Burn is but a collection of wee tawdry crofts and rickety out buildings. My home – the seat of The MacGillivray of the MacGillivrays – is merely the largest dung heap amongst others.”
“Surely you exaggerate.” Accused Margaret with eyes so concerned.
“A bit, but I’d rather ye be pleasantly surprised than horribly disappointed.”
“Fine, so now I am prepared for the worst. Let’s get going so I can at last rest.”
“Nae, there’s more.”
“Aye, there’s my Uncle Malcolm.”
“Pray tell me, sir, does he have fangs and running sores?”
Gillie had to laugh, “Fangs? The old man has hardly a tooth to call his own. As for sores, he’ll be plenty sore at me.”
“For being late in returning?”
“Aye, and more.” What better time to disclose the full truth, “Ye see, I am The MacGillivray and Uncle Malcolm is my tanist. Which is to say the one who rules in my place when I am gone or unable to meet my duties as laird.”
“So he’s been in charge all this time?”
“Aye, since my grandfather died when I was a mere lad.”
She suggested, “He takes over reinstating his old ways?”
Gillie ruefully confirmed, “His old ways have never left. Malcolm has never surrendered the reins of power – as if The MacGillivray is all that powerful. Malcolm still considers himself in charge of the clan.” He quickly added, “And I let it be, for I’ve nae heart to beat the old man down. I just try to work around him. My lads do as Malcolm bids when it makes sense and come running to me if Malcolm has gone off half-cocked.”