Authors: Bertrice Small
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
SCOTLAND, SUMMER 1494
"Ye‘ll nae hae my lands nor my lass," old Ewan MacArthur, laird of Lochearn, told his cousin Gavin. "My sister‘s grandson will inherit, and he‘s a better husband for my granddaughter, Ellen, than any of yer wild lads."
"Yer proposed heir is a MacNab," Gavin MacArthur said angrily. "Will ye gie MacArthur lands to a MacNab?"
"What the hell would ye know about my lands?" the laird demanded. "Ye live miles from here on Skye. This is but the first time in my life that I‘ve ever laid eyes on ye. Has yer vaunted master nae given ye lands?"
"I hae four sons," Gavin MacArthur said. "One will inherit my small holding. Another will hae my position as one of the lord‘s pipers, which will gie him a home. The third is a scholar, and hae gone to the Church. ‘Tis the youngest for whom I seek Lochearn. His name is Balgair, and he is a fair strong lad, cousin. He would do the MacArthurs proud. Tell me you will at least consider it."
"I hae made my choice," the laird replied stubbornly. "Donald MacNab will take my place, and he will wed wi‘ my sweet Ellen."
"Ye‘re a damned obdurate old man!" Gavin said.
"Now, my lords, dinna quarrel," Ellen MacArthur said from her place by the fire where she had been listening to the two men. She was a very pretty girl of sixteen with thick red-gold hair and lovely gray eyes with just the faintest hint of blue in them. "You are going to live forever, Grandsire." She smiled at Gavin MacArthur. "Please understand, my lord, that my grandfather made his decision several years ago. We are well acquainted with my cousin Donald MacNab.
And our people know him, and are content to have him follow in my grandfather‘s footsteps. We did not know the MacArthurs on the island of Skye were kin to the MacArthurs of Lochearn.
Until you rode into our keep today we knew ye not. Ye are a stranger to us."
"I may be a stranger, lady, but I am yer blood kin," Gavin said. "Ye canna deny blood. Yer grandfather‘s lands and chiefdom belong to the MacArthurs, nae to a MacNab. I hope when I am gone ye will convince him to face the truth of this. Should ye nae hae some small decision in the choosing of a husband?" He smiled back at her, but it was an icy smile that did not reach his dark, fathomless eyes. "Highland women are outspoken in all manner of matters. Certainly this is the most important decision ye‘ll ever make, lady. Will ye just accept the man placed before ye?
Would ye nae prefer a choice? My son is a man grown, and ‘tis said he is fair to look upon, and a lusty lover. Ye would make pretty bairns together for this family."
Ellen colored at his words, making the faint sprinkle of freckles upon her face stand out in bold relief. "I know my cousin Donald, and he is a gentle, kind man, my lord. We are very well suited to each other. I am content wi‘ my grandfather‘s decision."
"I am pleased to see ye are an obedient lass," Gavin MacArthur said.
"Why should it matter to ye that my granddaughter is obedient?" the old laird demanded. "She is naught to ye, nor will she be."
"We will see," Gavin MacArthur, said smiling toothily.
"Get out!" Ewan MacArthur roared. "Get out of my house."
"Grandsire, ‘tis night already, and the laws of hospitality demand that we treat our guest with courtesy. He will depart on the morrow. Now dinna distress yerself." She got up and moved to draw his woolen shawl about his hunched shoulders. Though it was midsummer, the evenings were chill near the western sea. "I will get ye both a nice goblet of ale, and then we will hae our supper at the board."
Gavin MacArthur left early the next morning, but not before once more telling Ellen to convince her grandfather to change his plans. "Ye‘re a good lass; I can see it. Ye‘ll make my Balgair a fine wife."
When he had gone, Ellen told her grandfather what his cousin had said to her.
"They mean to steal ye," Ewan MacArthur said. "I‘ll nae hae it! I canna protect ye here, lassie. I must send ye south to King Jamie for yer own protection. We canna waste time about it either. I hae nae doubt that once back on his damned island that cousin of mine will arrange to kidnap ye and take ye to Skye. He‘ll see ye wed to his son in order to force my hand to disinherit young Donald. I‘ll nae hae it! Tell Anice to pack yer things, for the pair of ye will go tomorrow. And ye‘ll nae come back until I sense I am close to death. But when ye do ye‘ll marry Donald MacNab, and I will rest easy knowing that ye‘re safe. Now run along, lassie, and tell Birk I wish to write a letter."
Ewan MacArthur watched as his granddaughter hurried from his hall. He did not want to lose his Ellen in his last years, but there was no other choice. In King James‘s custody she would be safe, and the king would follow the laird‘s wishes should Ewan die before she returned home to Lochearn. He knew the island branch of the family by reputation. They were wild people. He sighed. Sending Ellen away was not the happiest solution for him, but now it seemed the only solution if she was to be kept safe.
"But I dinna want to leave Lochearn," Ellen MacArthur‘s servant and companion wailed, and she began to cry.
"There is nae choice in the matter, Anice," Ellen told the weeping girl. "Grandsire is convinced that once his cousin returns to Skye he will mount a raiding party and come to steal me away. He doesn‘t want me to be kidnapped, and I dinna want to be stolen. We‘ll be safe at court. I ne‘er thought I would go to court."
"I dinna want to go to court." Anice sniffled. "Why must I go? Nae one will bridenap me, Ellen.
Do I have to go wi‘ ye?"
"I canna go wi‘out a serving woman, and ye‘re the one who serves me, Anice. Ever since I grew too big for my nursemaid, Peigi, ye hae been my servant and friend," Ellen said quietly.
"I‘ll go wi‘ ye, lassie. Ye need nae put up wi‘ the likes of her," Peigi, who had been helping the two younger women pack, said sharply. "She dinna know the meaning of loyalty or clan, as she hae none."
"Peigi, ‘tis cruel ye are!" Ellen scolded. "Ye know very well that Grandsire considers Anice a MacArthur."
"The old laird‘s heart is a good one," Peigi replied.
"It isn‘t my fault I was found on the hillside," Anice said, and her lower lip trembled. "It isn‘t my fault that me mam dinna want me."
"Born in shame, ye were, and that‘s for certain, else ye would nae hae ended up naked in the heather. Yer mam was probably little better than ye are, and God only knows the seed from which ye sprouted. Yer mam probably dinna know either. The wild beasts would hae made a meal of ye had the old laird not found ye himself and taken ye in, ye ungrateful lass. Ye would hae nothing wi‘out him. He gave ye a home, food, garments to cover yer nakedness, and a purpose in life. If ye let the lady Ellen go south alone, what would ye hae or do? Now cease yer caterwauling, and hurry wi‘ the packing. The lady must be safe away before the MacArthurs of Skye come calling."
"I thought ye wanted to go in my place," Anice said slyly.
"I‘m too old to travel," Peigi snapped.
Ellen hid a smile. Peigi had resented Anice from the moment her grandfather had assigned the young woman to serve her. Peigi did not trust Anice. But when she had protested, the old laird had told Peigi that Ellen needed a younger companion; and Ellen had promised her nursemaid that she would care for Ellen‘s bairns one day after she and Donald MacNab were wed. Now, however, it appeared that the wedding, which was to have taken place in another year, would be postponed further. Ellen sighed. She didn‘t want to leave Lochearn either, but her grandfather‘s instincts were still sharp, and there seemed to be no other solution at hand.
A rider was dispatched that same day to King James with instructions to ride as quickly as he could and find the king. He carried a letter from the laird of Lochearn explaining in full the situation that Ewan and his granddaughter faced. Ewan MacArthur begged the king to take charge of Ellen MacArthur‘s care, and keep her safe until he sent for her, which would not be until he sensed his death. She was a good and obedient girl, a virgin, the laird wrote. If the king would be so kind as to put Ellen MacArthur in the household of some respectable lady, the lass would earn her keep, as would the serving wench who traveled with her.
Upon receiving the missive from this unfamiliar Highland laird, the king turned to his aunt Margaret for advice. "What the devil am I supposed to do with a good and obedient virgin, Aunt?" he said. And then he grinned wickedly. When he had been a little younger, the king had been terrified of Margaret Stewart, but as a bachelor king, James had needed a respectable older woman to oversee the females at his court. He had called upon his late father‘s younger sister, now in her mid-thirties. And she had come from her house on Castle Hill in Edinburgh to give him her loyalty and her help.
Margaret Stewart barked a sharp laugh. "I‘d tell you to behave yourself, Jamie, but I know how difficult that might prove," she said. She was a very tall, bony woman with the long, straight Stewart nose, fine amber eyes, and auburn hair that was pulled into an untidy bun at the back of her head. When she walked, the princess thrust her chin forward as if to meet all of life‘s obstacles without fear. She had been convent educated, and was highly intelligent and very well-read. The king had come to both respect and adore her. They were oddly much alike.
"However, this laird of Lochearn has a difficult problem to solve," the princess continued. "But it will be solved one way or another. In the meantime I will take this little Highland flower into my household. She‘ll be uneducated, have no sense of fashion, and speak in a Highland cant, but we will keep her safe for her grandfather. When I have her civilized, Jamie, I will present her to you once so she may return to her Highlands able to say she met and spoke with the king. And you will not tamper with the lass, nephew."
The king grinned again. "I promise," he said to his esteemed relation.
"I mean it, Jamie. The girl‘s life is well planned, as it should be. She‘s promised to the laird‘s heir, Donald MacNab, the laird‘s letter said. He‘s her cousin, and the old man‘s inheritor.
Marrying this lass will permit the MacArthurs of Lochearn to accept a MacNab laird, and that is important. There is already enough trouble in the Highlands for you to contend with, and you don‘t need any more."
"Many a marriage is planned, but is not celebrated," the king said slyly to his aunt. "How is my cousin, Maggie?"
"Your father, in a well-meaning political gesture, tried to send me from Scotland into England to marry Queen Elizabeth Woodville‘s brother, Earl Rivers. I had no intention of being a sacrificial lamb upon the altar of futility. The English cannot be trusted, as we well know. I tried to convince your father otherwise," Margaret Stewart said, "but he would not listen."
"So you had an affair?" the king chuckled.
"I looked about the court—I still had the advantage of youth then, Jamie—and chose the man I decided I would enjoy giving my virginity to, and then I let him fuck me well for several months so that he got me with bairn. Oh, your father was so angry to have all his fine plans spoiled, but I told him I would not leave Scotland. It was not my fault he didn‘t listen." And now it was the princess who chuckled. "My daughter is frail but well."
"Ye‘re a wicked woman, Aunt," the king told her.
"Nonsense!" Margaret Stewart replied. "I‘ve had no man since Will Crichton, nor none before him. Until you asked me to come back to court, dear Jamie, I was most content living in my house on Castle Hill and reading my books. And your cousin is content in her convent. She will soon take her vows, and it‘s a good fate for a lass born on the wrong side of the blanket. God bless my brother for dowering her."
"Did you love him, Aunt?" the king asked her. "Lord Crichton."
"Love is a fool‘s game, Jamie. And you are already proving to be a great fool," she teased him.
"But, by God, the people love you, and your lords for the most part love you. You are Scotland‘s most perfect king, with your charm, your fecund mistress, and your healthy little bastards. But you should begin to consider taking a wife, Jamie."
James Stewart laughed aloud. "Aye," he admitted. "I am indeed a fool where love is concerned, Aunt. I can no longer casually bed a woman. I must care for her, for if I sheathe myself in her she is certain to give me bairns, for my seed is strong. A man should like the mother of his bairns."