Authors: Judith McNaught
toast to the duke of Claymore and his bride!"
Under normal circumstances, this call for a wedding toast would have caused the lavishly dressed ladies and gentlemen assembled in the great hall at Merrick castle to smile and cheer. Goblets of wine would have been raised and more toasts offered in celebration of a grand and noble wedding such as the one which was about to take place here in the south of Scotland.
But not today. Not at this wedding.
At this wedding, no one cheered and no one raised a goblet. At this wedding, everyone was watching everyone else, and everyone was tense. The bride's family was tense. The groom's family was tense. The guests and the servants and the hounds in the hall were tense. Even the first earl of Merrick, whose portrait hung above the fireplace, looked tense.
"A toast to the duke of Claymore and his bride," the groom's brother pronounced again, his voice like a thunderclap in the unnatural, tomblike silence of the crowded hall. "May they enjoy a long and fruitful life together."
Normally, that ancient toast brings about a predictable reaction: The groom always smiles proudly because he's convinced he's accomplished something quite wonderful. The bride smiles because she's been able to convince him of it. The guests smile because, amongst the nobility, a marriage connotes the linking of two important families and two large fortunesâ€”which in itself is cause for great celebration and abnormal gaiety.
But not today. Not on this fourteenth day of October, 1497.
Having made the toast, the groom's brother raised his goblet and smiled grimly at the groom. The groom's friends raised their goblets and smiled fixedly at the bride's family. The bride's family raised their goblets and smiled frigidly at each other. The groom, who alone seemed to be immune to the hostility in the hall, raised his goblet and smiled calmly at his bride, but the smile did not reach his eyes.
The bride did not bother to smile at anyone. She looked furious and mutinous.
In truth, Jennifer was so frantic she scarcely knew anyone was there. At the moment, every fiber of her being was concentrating on a last-minute, desperate appeal to God, Who out of lack of attention or lack of interest, had let her come to this sorry pass. "
," she cried silently, swallowing the lump of terror swelling in her throat, "
if You're going to do something to stop this marriage, You're going to have to do it quickly, or in five minutes 'twill be too late! Surely, I deserve something better than this forced marriage to a man who stole my virginity! I didn't just hand it over to him, You know
Realizing the folly of reprimanding the Almighty, she hastily switched to pleading: "
Haven't I always tried to serve You well
?" she whispered silently. "
Haven't I always obeyed You
NOT ALWAYS, JENNIFER
," God's voice thundered in her mind.
," Jennifer amended frantically. "
I attended mass every day, except when I was ill, which was seldom, and I said my prayers every morning and every evening
," she amended hastily Before her conscience could contradict her again, "
except when I fell asleep before I was finished. And I
to be all that the good sisters at the abbey wanted me to be. You know how hard I've tried! Lord
," she finished desperately, "
if you'll just help me escape from this, I'll never be willful or impulsive again
THAT I DO NOT BELIEVE, JENNIFER
," God boomed dubiously.
Nay, I swear it
," she earnestly replied, trying to strike a bargain. "
I'll do anything You want, I'll go straight back to the abbey and devote my life to prayer andâ€”"
"The marriage contracts have been duly signed. Bring in the priest," Lord Balfour commanded, and Jennifer's breath came in wild, panicked gasps, all thoughts of potential sacrifices fleeing from her mind. "
," she silently pleaded, "
why are You doing this to me? You aren't going to let this happen to me, are You
Silence fell over the great hall as the doors were flung open.
"YES, JENNIFER, I AM."
The crowd parted automatically to admit the priest, and Jennifer felt as if her life were ending. Her groom stepped into position beside her, and Jennifer jerked an inch away, her stomach churning with resentment and humiliation at having to endure his nearness. If only she had
how one heedless act could end in disaster and disgrace. If only she hadn't been so impulsive and reckless!
Closing her eyes, Jennifer shut out the hostile faces of the English and the murderous faces of her Scots kinsmen, and in her heart she faced the wrenching truth: Impulsiveness and recklessness, her two greatest faults, had brought her to this dire endâ€”the same two character flaws that had led her to commit all of her most disastrous follies. Those two flaws, combined with a desperate yearning to make her father love her, as he loved his stepsons, were responsible for the debacle she'd made of her life:
When she was fifteen, those were the things that had led her to try to avenge herself against her sly, spiteful stepbrother in what had seemed a right and honorable wayâ€”which was to secretly don Merrick armor and then ride against him, fairly, in the lists. That magnificent folly had gained her a sound thrashing from her father right there on the field of honorâ€”and only a tiny bit of satisfaction from having knocked her wicked stepbrother clean off his horse!
The year before, those same traits had caused her to behave in such a way that old Lord Balder withdrew his request for her hand, and in doing so destroyed her father's cherished dream of joining the two families. And those things, in turn, were what got her banished to the abbey at Belkirk, where, seven weeks ago, she'd become easy prey for the Black Wolf's marauding army.
And now, because of all that, she was forced to wed her enemy; a brutal English warrior whose armies had oppressed her country, a man who had captured her, held her prisoner, taken her virginity, and destroyed her reputation.
But it was too late for prayers and promises now. Her fate had been sealed from the moment, seven weeks ago, when she'd been dumped at the feet of the arrogant beast beside her, trussed up like a feastday partridge.
Jennifer swallowed. No, before thatâ€”she'd veered down this path to disaster earlier that same day when she'd refused to heed the warnings that the Black Wolf's armies were nearby.
she have believed it, Jennifer cried in her own defense. "
The Wolf is marching on us
!" had been a terrified call of doom issued almost weekly throughout the last five years. But on that day, seven weeks ago, it had been woefully true.
The crowd in the hall stirred restlessly, looking about for a sign of the priest, but Jennifer was lost in her memories of that dayâ€¦
At the time, it had seemed an unusually pretty day, the sky a cheerful blue, the air balmy. The sun had been shining down upon the abbey, bathing its Gothic spires and graceful arches in bright golden light, beaming benignly upon the sleepy little village of Belkirk, which boasted the abbey, two shops, thirty-four cottages, and a communal stone well in the center of it, where villagers gathered on Sunday afternoons, as they were doing then. On a distant hill, a shepherd looked after his flock, while in a clearing not far from the well, Jennifer had been playing hoodman-blind with the orphans whom the abbess had entrusted to her care.
And in that halcyon setting of laughter and relaxation, this travesty had begun. As if she could somehow change events by reliving them in her mind, Jennifer closed her eyes, and suddenly she was there again in the little clearing with the children, her head completely covered with the hoodman's hoodâ€¦
"Where are you, Tom MacGivern?" she called out, groping about with outstretched arms, pretending she couldn't locate the giggling nine-year-old boy, who her ears told her was only a foot away on her right. Grinning beneath the concealing hood, she assumed the pose of a classic "monster" by holding her arms high in front of her, her fingers spread like claws, and began to stomp about, calling in a deep, ominous voice, "You can't escape me, Tom MacGivern."
"Ha!" he shouted from her right. "You'll no' find me, hoodman!"
"Yes, I will!" Jenny threatened, then deliberately turned to her left, which caused gales of laughter to erupt from the children who were hiding behind trees and crouching beside bushes.
"I've got you!" Jenny shouted triumphantly a few minutes later as she swooped down upon a fleeing, giggling child, catching a small wrist in her hand. Breathless and laughing, Jenny yanked off her hood to see whom she'd captured, mindless of the red gold hair tumbling down over her shoulders and arms.
"You got Mary!" the children crowed delightedly. "Mary's the hoodman now!"
The little five-year-old girl looked up at Jenny, her hazel eyes wide and apprehensive, her thin body shivering with fear. "Please," she whispered, clinging to Jenny's leg, "Iâ€”I not want to wear th' hoodâ€”'Twill be dark inside it. Do I got to wear it?"
Smiling reassuringly, Jenny tenderly smoothed Mary's hair off her thin face. "Not if you don't want."
"I'm afeert of the dark," Mary confided unnecessarily, her narrow shoulders drooping with shame.
Sweeping her up into her arms, Jenny hugged her tightly. "Everybody is afraid of something," she said and teasingly added, "Why, I'm afraid ofâ€”
The dishonest admission made the little girl giggle. "Frogs!" she repeated, "I likes frogs! They don't sceer me 'tall."
"There, you seeâ€”" Jenny said as she lowered her to the ground. "You're very brave. Braver than I!"
"Lady Jenny is afeart of silly of frogs," Mary told the group of children as they ran forward.
"No she isnâ€”" young Tom began, quick to rise to the defense of the beautiful Lady Jenny who, despite her lofty rank, was always up to anythingâ€”including hitching up her skirts and wading in the pond to help him catch a fat bullfrogâ€”or climbing up a tree, quick as a cat, to rescue little Will who was afraid to come down.
Tom silenced at Jenny's pleading look and argued no more about her alleged fear of frogs. "I'll wear the hood," he volunteered, gazing adoringly at the seventeen-year-old girl who wore the somber gown of a novice nun, but who was not one, and who, moreover, certainly didn't
like one. Why, last Sunday during the priest's long sermon, Lady Jenny's head had nodded forward, and only Tom's loud, false coughing in the bench behind her had awakened her in time for her to escape detection by the sharp-eyed abbess.
" 'Tis Tom's turn to wear the hood," Jenny agreed promptly, handing Tom the hood. Smiling, she watched the children scamper off to their favorite hiding places, then she picked up the wimple and short woolen veil she'd taken off in order to be the hoodman. Intending to go over to the communal well where the villagers were eagerly questioning some clansmen passing through Belkirk on their way to their homes from the war against the English in Cornwall, she lifted the wimple, intending to put it on.
"Lady Jennifer!" One of the village men called suddenly, "Come quickâ€”there's news of the laird."
The veil and wimple forgotten in her hand, Jenny broke into a run, and the children, sensing the excitement, stopped their game and raced along at her heels.
"What news?" Jenny asked breathlessly, her gaze searching the stolid faces of the groups of clansmen. One of them stepped forward, respectfully removing his helm and cradling it in the crook of his arm. "Be you the daughter of the laird of Merrick?"
At the mention of the name Merrick, two of the men at the well suddenly stopped in the act of pulling up a bucket of water and exchanged startled, malevolent glances before they quickly ducked their heads again, keeping their faces in shadow. "Yes," Jenny said eagerly. "You have news of my father?"
"Aye, m'lady. He's comin' this way, not far behind us, wit a big band o' men."
"Thank God," Jenny breathed. "How goes the battle at Cornwall?" she asked after a moment, ready now to forget her personal concerns and devote her worry to the battle the Scots were waging at Cornwall in support of King James and Edward V's claim to the English throne.
His face answered Jenny's question even before he said, " 'Twas all but over when we left. In Cork and Taunton it looked like we might win, and the same was true in Cornwall, until the devil hisself came to take command 'o Henry's army."
"The devil?" Jenny repeated blankly.
Hatred contorted the man's face and he spat on the ground. "Aye, the devilâ€”the Black Wolf hisself, may he roast in hell from whence he was spawned."
Two of the peasant women crossed themselves as if to ward off evil at the mention of the Black Wolf, Scotland's most hated, and most feared, enemy, but the man's next words made them gape in fear: "The Wolf is comin' back to Scotland. Henry's sendin' him here with a fresh army to crush us for supportin' King Edward. 'Twill be murder and bloodshed like the last time he came, only worst, you mark me. The clans are making haste to come home and get ready for the battles. I'm thinkin' the Wolf will attack Merrick first, before any o' the rest of us, for 'twas your clan that took the most English lives at Cornwall."
So saying, he nodded politely, put on his helmet, then he swung up onto his horse.
The scraggly groups at the well departed soon afterward, heading down the road that led across the moors and wound upward into the hills.
Two of the men, however, did not continue beyond the bend in the road. Once out of sight of the villagers, they veered off to the right, sending their horses at a furtive gallop into the forest.
Had Jenny been watching, she might have caught a brief glimpse of them doubling back through the woods that ran beside the road right behind her. But at the time, she was occupied with the terrified pandemonium that had broken out among the
citizens of Belkirk, which happened to lie directly in the path between England and Merrick keep.