Arbella de Mowbray contemplated running away. The forest was conveniently to her left and still thick with leaves. Perhaps she could join a ring of outlaws hidden within the imposing foliage.
She shifted restlessly on her mare, arranging her skirts first one way and then another. The horse responded with an annoyed snort. If only she weren’t with a dozen guards and her father.
“Oh, hush, Bitsy,” she scoffed. The animal had no idea what was at stake here.
Anything would be better than permanently leaving England—and for Scotland! The land of heathens, barbarians… Oh, the horrors she’d heard went on there! The men ate their young. The warriors kept the bones of their victims tied to their beards. The horses were trained to sniff out an English lady and trample her to death. The women were witches. The children ran naked, even in the dead of winter. And the winters, how could she forget? No person of truly English blood could survive one.
She was glad that her maid Glenda had told her all she needed to know of Scotland. Although she could have done without the woman’s tears and fainting when Arbella asked her to join her on the journey. As a result, her old maid was not with her—in fact none of the female servants at Mowbray Manor would accompany her. She was alone, without help. Not that she needed help, but it would have been nice when she arrived in a foreign country to have someone with her from home. And while her father promised her husband would provide a maid, that maid would be Scots.
She would die before the new year—either from frostbite or at the hands of the dreaded Scots.
Now granted, her father said she would be marrying an English baron, but that mattered little. They would still reside in Scotland. And no doubt her baron husband would be just as brutal, if not more so, than the savages she’d heard tales of. Indeed, he would have to be if he kept them all tightly reined in. She knew little of her intended. Never met the man. Never heard any stories. He was a mystery. She discounted the things her father told her. He only honeyed the character of Marmaduke Stewart, hoping to sweeten the horror of her upcoming nuptials.
Arbella shivered, and rubbed her cloak-covered arms, contemplating the forest along the edge of the road. Late in the afternoon, the sun was hidden behind the trees making the road to Scotland chilly. A slight breeze blew, wrenching her hood from her head and pulling a few strands of hair from her tight chignon. Arbella tucked the hair back into the knot and pulled her hood over her ears. She hated the cold. Death might take her before the week was out. She’d no doubt shiver like mad in her new bed since the Scots abhorred warming their homes by fire. Another fact from Glenda. One thing was certain—she didn’t want to die anytime soon.
Several horse-lengths ahead, she spied an opening in the foliage. She swallowed hard, tightened her hands on the reins, the leather cutting through her gloves. She could make a break for it. A side-long glance to the right showed her guard wasn’t paying much attention to her. She rode on the outside left—no one blocking her path. Escape could be possible…
She sighed heavily. If she escaped, her father would be furious.
Leading their entourage was the great Baron de Mowbray. He’d probably chop down every tree in his path with his great sword, thundering his displeasure until even temperamental Bitsy cowed to her knees. The break in foliage passed, and with it, her chance for escape.
“Do you need to rest?”
Arbella looked up, startled. Her father rode beside her. When in heavens had he gotten there? If she had tried to escape, he could have just grabbed her reins and yanked her back.
His forehead wrinkled as he frowned, his bushy whitish blond brows nearly touching each other. “Why the long face?”
She couldn’t meet his eyes, instead stared at Bitsy’s sable mane. “’Tis nothing.”
“Oh, come now, Bella, I know when something is amiss.” His voice was calming, belying his massive size. She longed for the days of old when she could curl up in his lap. But those days were long passed.
At twenty years of age, she was nearing spinsterhood. She’d put marriage off for as long as possible, but now her father would no longer condone her denial. Considering King Edward demanded she marry, her father really had no choice, and neither did she. The king wanted all English maidens married and reproducing. There were no more offers forthcoming, since she’d denied them all. When Sir Marmaduke Stewart presented his proposal at the urging of the king, her father was eager to accept. He’d barely let her have enough time to pack up all of her belongings and say goodbye to her sister Aliah before the horses were saddled and they were on their way. She’d probably never see her sister again, which broke her heart. They’d been so close. There had been no chance to say farewell to her older brother Samuel. He was off serving the king’s commands in France.
“Are you…afraid?” Her father’s voice sounded tense.
She chanced a glance his way and could see the lines of strain around his mouth and eyes. Arbella thought she might know why. Her mother had died while birthing Aliah; Arbella was barely more than a babe herself. As such, she hadn’t a mother to raise her and consequently those talks of marriage, and womanly issues fell on her father’s shoulders. They’d yet to have one. It was times like these, she missed having a mother. Her father did his best though, and she couldn’t fault him. The man had been left with three little ones and no wife. Their father never remarried, preferring his memories of their mother. He was a good man.
She frowned, not really wanting to answer. “Well...” Marriage seemed easy enough. She’d have to run the household and have babies, maybe rub her husband’s shoulders after a long day. No, it wasn’t marriage itself that scared her. It was who she was going to marry. “I am not happy to be marrying Sir Marmaduke.”
Even his name made him sound pagan—despite his supposed English blood.
A gruff sigh escaped her father. “We’ve already had this discussion. You will marry the man, even if I have to force you down the aisle. You’re not getting any younger, and the king has ordered it. You’ve got to set an example for Aliah. Already she debates with me about marrying and it will not be long before His Majesty sends another suitor calling.”
Guilt sparked. She was supposed to set a good example for her sister. But truly, when it came to marrying a barbarian that was a hard thing to do. She would encourage her sister to keep arguing the point with their father if she could. But truth be told, she wouldn’t get the chance since she’d be in Scotland. The best example she could set would be to get married to the man her father delivered her to.
“He’s not a barbarian.”
The man had a canny knack of reading her thoughts. It was unnerving. “As you say.”
Her father growled under his breath. “Not as I say—he isn’t. The man is English. I wouldn’t want you to marry a Scotsman.”
“But you have no problem with me living in Scotland?”
“How? I would like to know.”
“King Edward is weeding the Scots out of Scotland. You and Sir Marmaduke are not the only English nobles to marry, live and regulate the Scots in Scotland. As the wife of the Steward of Stirling Castle, you’ll be well respected. It is a position I could not garner for you in England. Your children, English children, will replace the Scots.”
Arbella fought not to roll her eyes. She could care less about positions, titles. In fact, as much as she feared the Scots, in her opinion it was not the English’s place to weed them out of their own country. Without a doubt, she did not want to replace them. That sounded so cruel, harsh. But she couldn’t voice those concerns to her father. He wouldn’t understand, he would argue her point, and she didn’t have enough energy to debate the issue. She needed to save her strength for the journey to Stirling, and for her upcoming marriage.
“Do you understand?” he said, sounding somewhat exasperated.
“Aye, Father.” She hesitated a moment. “Have you ever met Sir Marmaduke?”
He took a moment too long to answer confirming her thoughts.
“You have not.”
“No. But I did send Gerald with my reply. He returned with news of the man.”
Arbella nodded, unable to speak. She was literally walking in blind.
He cleared his throat, and his horse shifted closer. “Do you know your marriage duties to your husband?”
She gasped, embarrassment heating her cheeks. This was the last thing she wanted to discuss with her father. Her disappointment was forgotten for a moment. “Aye, Glenda spoke to me about it.”
Her maid filled her in on all the ghastly details. The deed sounded messy, awkward and all-together unpleasant. But she was also aware it was the only way to beget an heir, which was her number one duty. An heir and a spare. Then she’d banish him from further visits. Glenda told her it would hurt and she’d bleed. The woman had only been married a short time before she was widowed, and she begged Baron de Mowbray for work instead of having to ever marry again.
Another break in the foliage became clear. Maybe she should run after all. She wasn’t sure she could go through with this.
“Uh, good, then. I’m glad she told you.” Her father coughed, the conversation obviously making him very uncomfortable. “Well, I had best return to the front. We shall ride until dusk and then stop to make camp.”
Arbella nodded, her eyes gazing longingly into the woods. Dusk would be in a few hours. If she waited until then to run, they would have a harder time finding her.
“Do not run, Arbella. I will only catch you.”
Her stomach flipped and she tightened her grip on Bitsy’s mane. “Father! I would never.”
He grunted his disbelief, then spurred his horse forward.
Arbella scrunched up her face and bit her tongue to keep from sticking it out.
“Thank ye, Magnus.”
Magnus looked sternly at his younger sister Lorna. Perched atop her horse as they traversed the road to Glasgow, her cheeks were rosy with pleasure in the morning sun. She no longer wore the plaid of her clan, just a simple gown of blue and a matching cloak.
“Dinna thank me,” he said through clenched teeth. “Ye already compromised yourself.”
Lorna was not impressed with his bluster, and only smiled, batting her lashes. “Ye will see one day, brother, that even though ye’re the Laird Sutherland, love will come up to catch ye in its grasp.”
“I dinna think so.” Love was a game for fools. A game his sister had played while that scoundrel Chief Montgomery came from the Lowlands to buy a few hundred pounds of prized Sutherland sheep’s wool. The man seduced his sister—which Magnus happened to unexpectedly witness. In a rage he’d tossed him off his land, inflicting a few bruises and cuts on the scoundrel’s body. The man was lucky to keep his life—but he hadn’t sold him the wool. He’d been determined not to let his prized wool grace the foul body of a rat.
Little did he realize at the time, Lorna and Montgomery had fallen in love, at least that was Lorna’s claim—he believed it was more like lust. She cried, raged, refused to eat. Montgomery sent missives begging for her hand. Magnus burned the letters. Then she’d provided him with the very reason he was escorting her to the Lowlands now. She was carrying a babe.
Magnus demanded marriage and Montgomery was more than pleased to accommodate. They were to meet at Glasgow castle, a stronghold of the Scottish Independence, occupied with William Wallace’s men. Evidently, Montgomery was a key player in Wallace’s war on the English. His war for freedom. Magnus admired Wallace for fighting for their freedom. He hadn’t seen such an impact as far north in the Highlands as Sutherland lands, but he knew the time was coming. When he returned home, they would have to put preparations in place.
Besides disliking the situation his only sister was in, he especially didn’t like the idea of leaving her in the midst of a war zone. He stalled his horse. Mayhap it would be best to turn back. She could bear the babe and he would not cast her out. He would make sure she and the child were provided for. Even arrange for her to marry one of their clansmen.
At least his youngest sibling Heather was safely ensconced at Dunrobin, their family stronghold. At just fifteen summers, she was not even contemplating the rougher male sex. Or so he wanted to believe. He’d left his brother Ronan to protect her while Blane, the second oldest Sutherland brother was off selling a hoard of sheep’s wool.
“We shall see.” His sister’s sing-song voice cut through his thoughts as she wrenched around in her saddle to see what kept him. “Magnus…” Her tone held a warning note. One he knew meant she was about to completely explode.
He nudged his warhorse forward. It was too late to turn back. And he did not want to deal with her tantrums. They were nearly upon Glasgow Castle. No doubt a scout had already returned word to Montgomery of their approach. With a dozen retainers in tow, they were hard to miss out in the open. If need be they could make themselves disappear. And with the English always afoot, that might be necessary.
An hour or so later, their horses’ footsteps echoed ominously over the wooden bridge covering the moat at the castle. Each clop shutting the possibility of taking his sister home further from his realm of power. It was just after noon and the sun blazed in the sky, glinting off the shields of the men standing atop the main gate tower.
Magnus raised his hand. “Laird Sutherland to see Montgomery.”
The gate doors opened allowing them entrance.
“I didna think ye’d keep your word,” Montgomery said as they entered the bailey. He was a large man, nearly as tall as Magnus but not as strong—he’d proven that once already. The man had long auburn hair he wore in a braid and a short beard on his square chin. Montgomery had the gall to give Magnus a wide grin before he turned to wink at Lorna.
His sister squealed, jumping down from her horse and running into her lover’s arms.
Magnus growled and turned away from their over-eager reunion. He would never allow himself to behave as though the world would crumble if a woman were not in it. Women were good for a few things: providing pleasure for a man, birthing babies and keeping house. Nothing more. His companionship was received from his men, his clan—he was their leader after all. He couldn’t be distracted by this disgusting display of affection. When he was in need of a woman to pleasure him, there were many willing to do so. Truth be told, he rarely took them up on their offers. He didn’t need the added issue of a bastard. There were enough bastards in Scotland.
“We’ll be on our way now,” he said gruffly, not bothering to dismount.
Lorna turned around, a scowl on her face. “Ye would not stay to see me married?”
“Come, Sutherland. The priest is ready and a feast prepared. I would have ye here to give us your blessing, then ye can be on your way. But I warn ye, word is that the English are marching on Stirling. Wallace and his men have already deployed.”
“Och, I dinna care a fig about the English.” But he would take Montgomery’s words to heart. He had to cross Stirling bridge in order to leave the dreaded Lowlands. “We will stay for the wedding, but not the feast. We must return to the Highlands.” The Lowlands made his skin crawl. Nothing felt right here.
“I’ll have my cook pack your men a feast to go then.”
Magnus grunted his approval.
A few grooms appeared at their sides. Magnus and his dozen retainers dismounted allowing the grooms to take the horses to the stables to be brushed down, fed and watered.
“Ye can divest yourselves of your weapons before entering the chapel,” Montgomery said, eyeing Magnus with suspicion. It wasn’t a suggestion.
Magnus slowly grinned. “Ye think we came prepared to battle ye?”
“The thought did cross my mind. After all, I did—”
Magnus held up his hand. “Dinna say it. I already know what ye did to my sister. I was there if ye recall, and I gave ye more than a bloody lip too. All that matters is ye intend to marry her and honor her. That ye’ll take care of the babe ye created.” He fingered the dirk at his side and his small targe shield. “We are always prepared for an ambush, especially with the Sassenachs crawling all over the land.”
The damned English were everywhere. Magnus and his entourage had to travel mostly through the night to avoid them after an attack west of Stirling. They’d just descended from the Mounths, it was around this same time of day and a chill rain fell from the intimidating sky. Stopping to rest the horses and dine on oatcakes and apples, he’d heard the sounds of horses and the clinking of metal. Three dozen English knights entered their camp. The knights took one look at the fully armed Highlanders and decided they wanted blood. It hadn’t been difficult for the Sutherland warriors to take out the English knights—one Highlander for every three Sassenachs. He ordered his men to hide the bodies in the bushes. He’d taken the good English horses and let the rest go free. After that, Magnus had made sure they’d found a spot to lay low for the rest of the day. They’d traveled through the night, rested during the day, and then traveled through the next night and morning before reaching Glasgow. The English hadn’t caught up with him yet. But he was sure they would eventually. A dozen knights didn’t go missing without someone noticing.
Magnus signaled his men and they slowly unhooked their leather scabbards which held their claymores on their backs. He untied the leather straps on each arm which secreted away their sghian dubhs—killing knives—dark in name and dark in purpose. He’d snuck in many a kill with his sghian dubh without his enemy being the wiser.
They tossed their weapons in a pile on the courtyard ground. Swords, axes, maces, dirks, and battered targes.
“Impressive,” Montgomery quipped.
“We are always thorough,” Magnus said with an arrogant chuckle.
“Indeed. I will keep that in mind.” Montgomery stepped forward and offered Magnus his arm.
Magnus stared at the extended appendage for the span of several breaths. He didn’t want to give the man his blessing. He wanted to bludgeon him for taking the innocence of his baby sister but she stood beside her intended, a smile of enchantment on her face. She was happy. Wasn’t that all he really wanted? He wanted her to be happy—and safe. He glanced briefly at the high fortified walls, the men who stood on top, fully armed and alert. The large man in front of him, strong and intelligent. He reached out and grasped Montgomery’s forearm, shaking it in a show of respect and allegiance.
Lorna beamed at him, and Magnus’s heart tugged. He would be leaving her in good care. He knew he would.
“Let us go to the chapel,” he said gruffly.As he watched his sister joined in holy matrimony to a man he would never have chosen, Magnus vowed to never let a trivial emotion like love intervene with his life. Marriage should be for alliances between clans. Nothing more.
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