The Highlander's Conquest -- Chapter One
Copyright 2012 © Eliza Knight
Northern England, 1297
A violent banging at the manor door startled Aliah from her studies and set Frosty, the family’s monstrous Irish wolfhound, to barking ferociously. Aliah jerked backward against the oak chair she sat in, hitting her head against the ancient wood and stifling a harsh word beneath her breath.
Her father, Baron de Mowbray, had left a small contingent of men to protect her while he escorted her older sister Arbella to her bridegroom in Scotland. These men would fight to keep her safe until their very last breaths.
But who was to say they hadn’t already taken that last shuddering inhale?
Aliah glanced around the room, filled with memories, but not with people. Today, her maid Glenda was her only companion. Well, Frosty as well—who in fact was a far superior protector than her maid. Swallowing her fear, she rubbed the ache from the back of her head and squared her shoulders. Strength. That was what she needed, even if the sound of someone knocking made her want to run to the opposite end of the manor and hide.
Her father should have returned a month ago. The only news she’d managed to garner was that a battle took place at Stirling Bridge in Scotland—the very place her sister was to marry.
Had the battle now come to her own door?
Aliah jumped as a strong fist once again slammed the door.
“Glenda, would you answer the door?” Aliah asked.
’Twas Saturday morning and most of the servants had gone to tend family or to enjoy themselves in whatever way they did, leaving Aliah quite alone—and at the mercy of whoever stood outside her door. Could they have dispensed of her father’s guards so quickly?
Glenda, afraid of her own shadow, started to shake her head, but Aliah gave her a stern look. The woman had been driving her mad since she was a babe and ever since Arbella left, Aliah had little patience for the older woman’s nonsense.
Aliah set down the book of Gaelic she’d been studying—she was determined to learn the language because she secretly believed the Scots would soon invade. Understanding their barbaric conversations was crucial. Aliah smoothed her gown and stood tall.
Glenda scurried toward the door, Frosty a foot ahead of her.
Aliah tried to find comfort in the fact that perhaps the guards had allowed whoever came knocking through the manor gates. She’d heard no clanging of metal or yells of pain. Aye, the only conclusion that made sense was, they were not enemies, but friends.
She could use a good friend. The comfort of someone she knew. Aliah frowned. She had few friends, and seldom was it that they dropped by.
So who had the audacity to practically beat down her door?
“Wait!” Aliah shouted just as Glenda touched the wooden plank barring the door.
She hurried to retrieve her bow and an arrow from beneath her chair. As swiftly as possible, she cocked an arrow and aimed it at the door. Taking a deep breath, she nodded for her maid to open it. If her father’s enemies dared to come after her, they were in for a big surprise, she wouldn’t surrender so easily.
An interminable amount of time seemed to pass before the door was fully open. Aliah stepped back, speechless. Standing before her was the most staggeringly handsome man she’d ever seen—and he was quite alone. Frosty growled for only a moment, quickly silenced by a motion the stranger made with his hand. What? How had he done that? Aliah struggled to keep her mouth from falling open at the man’s effortless command of the dog. The animal had favored her sister, but since Arbella had left, Frosty refused to leave Aliah’s side.
She felt a certain amount of betrayal at Frosty’s easy acceptance of this stranger. Who in the name of God was he? And why didn’t one of her father’s men escort him? She’d have to speak with them about that later.
The visitor wore an intriguing cap of deep burgundy, a dark feather jutting from the side, held on by some sort of medallion. A thick black wool cloak lay open to reveal a matching tunic, and leather studded armor. White hose outlined the shape of his legs in a way that drew her eyes from his intense dark green gaze. His boots were made of soft, expensive-looking leather, and the gilded belt at his waist held a gleaming, sharp sword that was hard to miss.
Aliah allowed her gaze to travel over the length and breadth of his solid form, before getting ahold of herself.
“Will you shoot me, my lady?” His voice was deep, raspy, and stroked along the ends of her nerves in a way that made her want to run away and kiss him at the same time.
Where had that thought come from? She’d never kissed a man. And she never would. She’d pledged her life and future to God. Shame crawled through her making her cheeks heat with embarrassment. Even her toes felt the blush of such a carnal thought.
Aliah had to gain some control of her wayward mind. Her life belonged to the church—penance for having caused her mother’s death. There was no room for kissing or men in her life. Not even for a thought.
“Apologies, sir, but one can never be too careful. I am Lady Aliah.” She kept her arrow pointed at his heart, taking note of how his tunic and leather studded armor strained over what appeared to be a very broad, taut chest.
“Sir Blane of Yorkshire.” He doffed his cap and bowed low, then returned upright, settling his cap back in place.
She tilted her head, studying the angles and lines of his face, taking in the pleasant smile of his wide, full lips. He didn’t appear to be someone she should be wary of, but as she’d learned over the years, looks could oft be deceiving. Aliah flicked her gaze toward her maid who wrung her hands and looked ready to bolt from the room.
Deciding that for the moment he did not have any designs to harm her, Aliah disarmed her arrow and lowered the bow. “Welcome to Mowbray Manor, Sir Blane. Have you any men with you?”
“Aye, I’ve left them by the stables. I assure you, we come on friendly terms.”
Aliah nodded, making her lips thin so as to keep them from trembling. Did he come with news of her father, of Arbella? She shivered. The news must not be good. If her father were able, he would announce his return himself. Her spirits lowered, replaced by a dull, cold pulse.
He smiled, disarming her, his lips curving in a rascally way that set her to shivering and then to quickly reciting a Hail Mary in her mind for penance.
“I come with a message, my lady. If I may?” He swept out his hand, asking permission to fully enter their great hall.
She nodded again, not sure she could trust her voice.
Glenda backed away, but Aliah quickly caught her gaze. “Fetch our guest some refreshment.” She motioned for Sir Blane to sit at the long trestle table. “There is no need to wait, please tell me what news you bring.”
Sir Blane pulled out her chair before taking his own seat, and she disliked how that chivalrous move made her feel warm and tingly inside.
“I come from Scotland, my lady.”
She felt the blood rush from her face, but quickly recovered. There could only be one thing he needed to relay and she was positive she was not ready to hear it. Just then, Glenda returned setting down a pitcher of watered wine and two glasses. She left again, coming back several moments later with a trencher of hard cheese, a few apples and day old brown bread. After setting down the food, Glenda made a hasty retreat from the room.
Aliah poured his wine and pushed the goblet towards him, then snatched an apple from the trencher. Slicing a piece, she bit into it, hoping the man would eat and forget that she’d asked to hear the news.
But alas, that was not to be. After a hearty bite of cheese and bread, Sir Blane’s green eyes met hers. “My lady, I come with a message from your father. He and your sister are well and wish you to accompany them in Scotland for a spell.”
“They are well?” Her voice sounded weak to her own ears and her heart pounded against her ribs.
“Aye, heartily so.”
Aliah released a shuddering breath. “And Arbella, is she married then?”
A strange expression briefly crossed his face before disappearing. “Aye.”
What did that expression mean? “Is she happy?”
“I believe so.”
But would the man say otherwise? ’Twas really none of his business whether or not her sister was happy, and if he were truly just the messenger then he wouldn’t know anyway.
“How can I know you speak the truth?”
As if the sting of Frosty’s earlier betrayal was not enough, the great wolfhound sidled up to Sir Blane and nuzzled him in the ribs. Absently, the man rubbed Frosty behind his ears.
“My lady, I come with direct orders from your sister. Arbella told me herself to tell you that it pained her not to have you at the wedding with her, and that she hoped you’d help her to settle into her new home.”
Aliah frowned. Was he telling her the truth? It made no sense. Hadn’t Arbella told her not to come before she left? So what changed her mind? Why would Arbella say such a thing? Aliah had agreed for her own personal reasons. Reasons no one knew about. If Blane were telling the truth, this would surely hinder her plans. There were only a few short months before spring and Aliah was due to present herself to Mother Superior, never to leave the convent again. Although her sister wasn’t aware of that, going to Scotland to be with her sure did put a glitch in her arrangements if it meant Aliah couldn’t return in time.
“Your father sent this.” Sir Blane reached into his pocket and pulled out a rolled scroll.
The seal was plain wax. “My father’s seal is not on this missive.” Aliah handed it back, intent now on figuring out a way to escape. Who was this man and why was he trying to lure her away from her home? A sense of unease made her suspicious.
Sir Blane didn’t even bat an eye. “Ah, yes. Your father knows you well. As I told you, there was a battle. He lost his seal during the encounter and bid you forgive him for such.”
“Was he injured?”
The knight shook his head. “Not overly so. A few scrapes and bruises.”
“And Arbella—”She sucked in a breath and held it, regaining her composure. “Was she near the skirmish?”
Again that odd look crossed Sir Blane’s face. “No, she was perfectly protected.”
Aliah broke the seal and read the short, two-lined note stating her presence was requested in Scotland. It was signed by her father. His script appeared shaky, but that was not alarming as he’d just been in a battle. After rolling up the parchment, she set it aside and returned her attention to her guest.
Should she trust him? Could she trust him? Her father may have been forced to sign the missive. But why? What could Sir Blane possibly want with her? If the knight had her father and her sister, taking her wouldn’t further his cause. Aliah’s instincts were failing her. Saints preserve me!
He tore off a hunk of bread, bit into it and chewed as his eyes roved over the room. She took the opportunity to study his features. His skin was darkened from the sun, and a brush of stubble covered his cheeks and chin. Aliah fought the urge to reach out and brush her fingers over it to see how rough it was. She would be doing penance for a month if Mother Superior knew the thoughts going through her mind. Pledging herself to God meant she should not care about the texture of his face. It meant that the way he smiled should not make her melt.
Aliah watched in utter fascination as his throat bobbed after taking a swallow of wine. “’Tis a homey place you have here,” he murmured.
Aliah glanced away from him and stared at the walls covered in tapestries her mother, grandmother and several other generations of Mowbray women had woven. Some depicted battle scenes, victories, while others showed glorious moments in their family’s history, like a man being knighted, or the birth of an heir. A few even depicted warm moments that she missed the most—especially the one that embodied her mother, with Aliah, Arbella and their brother Samuel as small children, playing at her feet—a moment that had never come to pass. The latter was sewn by her aunt some years after Aliah’s mother’s death as a comfort to the family. But to Aliah it was a constant reminder of what she didn’t have. She still felt an empty void where the love of a mother should be.
“Aye, I suppose it is.” She glanced back at him. “Is your home not so?”
He shook his head, his eyes saddening. She wanted to ask why, what made his mood change, but didn’t. That would have been awkward coming from someone he barely knew. And she didn’t want to offer him the chance to get more personal, even if it were only on a basic level.
His face cleared and Sir Blane pushed back from the table. “I hate to rush you, my lady, but we must be going now. ’Tis a long journey to our destination and the weather will soon be turning surly.”
Glenda gasped. Aliah had not realized her maid had returned, and she threw a disgusted look in Glenda’s direction. She knew what Glenda was thinking—that if Aliah were to leave she would surely die of the cold—and Aliah was also aware that it was utter rubbish. Glenda had been filling the girls’ ears with rumors and terrors of the Scots since they were babes, and while Arbella had taken them to heart, Aliah knew better—but only by accident. She hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, but one evening after Glenda had consumed too much wine, Aliah heard her confess to another maid that her own mother had told her those things. And everyone knew that Glenda’s mother was mad.
Aliah had only ever met a Scot once —a woman in fact, who’d been married to a neighboring lord, and she’d been the epitome of grace and calm. If it weren’t for her Scottish burr, Aliah would have thought she was an English noblewoman. She’d begged to go with her father when he made the trek to congratulate them on their wedding and he’d acquiesced since Arbella and Samuel were both busy with their studies.
Ever since meeting the Scottish Woman, Aliah never paid much attention to Glenda’s rantings. And so, she didn’t mind the journey to Scotland for the cold, she minded it for another reason entirely.
“I shall need an escort.”
“Aye, indeed, my lady, I shall provide you escort.”
She shook her head. “No, that won’t do.”
He gazed at her quizzically. “Why not?”
“I’ll need a female companion.”
He pointed to her maid. “This one shall do.”
Aliah rolled eyes at the choking noise that Glenda made. “Glenda does not travel.”
A hint of knowledge glowed in his green eyes. “That is Glenda?” He nodded. “Makes sense now.”
“You’ve heard of her?”
“Oh, aye. Your sister speaks of her often.” His smile was catching and she found herself returning it.
“What did she say?”
“What manner of horrid things we—I mean the Scots—would do to her.”
What did he mean by we?
He picked up his glass of wine and chugged it. Perhaps the slip of his tongue was the wine, or lack of sleep. If he knew of Glenda from her sister—and she could only imagine what Arbella had said—she could trust him, couldn’t she?
“Where is it exactly that we shall travel to?” she asked.
“The Highlands, my lady.”
A chill caught her and she tried to downplay the gooseflesh rising on her arms. “And what is my family doing there? I thought their destination was Stirling?”
“’Tis where they are seeking shelter. Stirling is in a bit of unrest.” He waved his hand, dismissing the topic. “We must depart, my lady. Pack a satchel or two. That is all. We can send for more things if they are needed. But we must ride quickly and too much baggage will hold us back.”
Aliah sensed urgency in his tone, which made her wary. But all the same, this man knew her father and sister and said he would take her to them. She needed to see that they were safe, before she was cut off from the world by entering into the church where she would take a vow of silence for a year. She hesitated for a moment. He had to be telling the truth, didn’t he? She had her doubts but she didn’t have any other choice but to trust him. Her father and Arbella might need her help. How could she give herself over to the church if she gave into her fears and didn’t help her father and Arbella in their time of need? Reluctantly she stepped forward, tilted her chin and met his gaze.
“I will be ready within a half-hour. Would you care for a bath or some other comfort while you wait?”
He shook his head. “I thank you, my lady, for the generous offer, and while I would relish a bath, there is simply not enough time. I will see to my men and procure a mount for you.”
Aliah nodded for Glenda to follow as she made her way upstairs to her chamber. Once inside, her maid broke into a terrified litany, chewing her fingernails to the quick. “My lady, you cannot go with him. You don’t know who he is, and he could be a barbarian himself for all you know. He will cook you up for dinner. He could have done the same to your sister and your father—absorbed their souls—and that is the only way he knew you were here.”
Rolling her eyes heavenward, Aliah threw open her wardrobe and pulled out a leather satchel that her father had given her. “Glenda, stop your blubbering. You saw yourself he was English and he had a letter from my father.”
“Oh, I… Oh…” Glenda rushed around the room, doing nothing productive whatsoever. The woman opened the wardrobe wider, banging the door into Aliah’s shoulder before shutting it again. She rushed to poke at the non-existent fire, then turned to mess with the coverlet on Aliah’s bed. “You will at least pack your bow?”
“And my arrows,” Aliah said sarcastically. She pulled a couple gowns, shifts and hose from the wardrobe and tucked them into the satchel. “Help me change into a more suitable riding gown.”
Glenda clucked and tugged at Aliah’s gown until she shoved the maid’s hands away and finished the job herself. The woman was completely useless.
“Be cautious, my lady.”
“I assure you, Glenda, I will not let any man put my bones in his beard, nor shall I succumb to death from the cold.” She’d almost forgotten to get her cloak. She pulled out the black wool, fur-lined cloak, and then switched from slippers to her sturdy leather boots.
“Oh, I do hope that is the case, my lady. Arbella seems to have made it alive. Which leads me to believe you might also.”
“Your encouragement overwhelms me.” Aliah bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. “Fare thee well, Glenda.”
Tears brimmed in the older woman’s eyes. Despite her fear of the Scots and all the crazy notions she’d filled their heads with, Glenda meant well, and had been the only motherly figure Aliah had ever known. Dropping her satchel, she pulled her maid in for a hug, breathing in the scent of bread and rosemary that always seemed to cling to her. She would miss her.
“I shall return soon, Glenda.” She wished to tell her maid of her promise to the church and that she intended to grace the sanctuary’s threshold come the first day of spring, but word would get to her father who was certain not to agree. As much as she wanted to tell Glenda, she couldn’t take the chance.
Glenda nodded, wiping a tear with her sleeve. “I shall pray for your safety.”