Authors: Arnette Lamb
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Copyright © 1994 by Arnette Lamb
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First Diversion Books edition May 2014
￼To Lou Ann Williams,
my good neighbor and constant helpmate
Death stalked Clare Macqueen.
It dulled her honey brown eyes and turned her skin waxy white. Even her flowing golden hair had lost the luster of life. Usually tall and stately, she now seemed frail and childlike, swallowed up by the narrow bed.
Shrouding the ache in her heart, Sister Margaret pressed a cool doth to the scratches on Clare’s cheek. “Are you in pain?”
“I cannot feel my legs. Are they broken?”
“Nay, child.” The half truth came easily, even to an abbess, for in two years, fate had dealt this injured girl enough misery to last a lifetime. “You haven’t skinned a knee.”
A bittersweet smile curled Clare’s lips. “You patched up enough of those. Every time Johanna and I climbed the harvest oak. Where is she?”
Sister Margaret’s chest grew tight. Strong, capable Johanna. What would she do when she saw her sister, Clare? She’d fall prey to temper, for Johanna had always been Clare’s champion. “She’s stabling the horses and getting your servants settled in the guest cottage.”
Clare’s eyes drifted out of focus. “A wolf spooked my mount. I fell.”
The horse had trampled her spine. Once the inevitable infection set in, sweet Clare would die. Praise God it would be a painless passing.
Sister Margaret blinked back tears. “You couldn’t know a beast lurked in the shadows.”
“I should have stayed in the cart, but I wanted to ride.”
At ten and five, Clare was still more child than woman. Neither marriage nor motherhood had settled her restless spirit.
“Where is my son?” Clare asked.
“In the next room with Meridene. He’s taken a liking to goat’s milk.”
“Meridene loves children. Her husband should fetch her. ’Tisn’t fair that she was wed as a child, then brought here and forgotten.”
“True, but Meridene’s safe, just as you and Johanna are.” Questions plagued Sister Margaret. “What of your husband?”
Tears pooled in Clare’s eyes. “Taken by the king.”
Edward I. The mere thought of him brought fresh pain to a wound fifteen years in the healing. Sister Margaret clenched her teeth to stave off the ache. The walls of the infirmary faded, and she was once again a carefree Highland lass who’d caught the eye and inspired the passion of Alexander III, the king of Scotland.
your merciful soul abides in these girls.
His complexity of character had been passed on to his fair daughters: Clare, with her penchant for game and glee, and Johanna, inspired by her dedication to love and law.
Through a haze of seasoned misery, Sister Margaret stared down at one of her two children, who both favored a Scottish king long dead.
“Did you hear me, Sister Margaret? The king ordered Drummond taken to the Tower of London.”
Again and always Edward. Now that he’d vanquished Wales, the king had turned his armies and his wrath northward. The Hammer of the Scots, they called him. Clare’s husband, Drummond Macqueen, was only the latest victim.
Sister Margaret cringed when she recalled the cruelty of which Edward the Plantagenet was capable. Upon the death of their father, Alexander, the twin girls had been found by one of Edward’s many royal spies. Only by taking the veil and swearing secrecy had Margaret been allowed to accompany her daughters to this remote abbey in North Yorkshire.
Johanna and Clare knew nothing of their birthright, not even their family name. A pity, for their blood was as blue and their lineage as royal as any crowned at Westminster Abbey.
Thinking of that cruel deed, she feared for Clare’s three-month-old son. “Will the king come for your boy?”
“Nay.” Clare swallowed, fighting back tears. “Like everyone else, he thinks Prince Ned rather than Drummond Macqueen sired my child.”
“Is it true?”
Transfixed by the tapestry on the far wall, Clare spoke softly and with great regret. “’Tis true I was unfaithful, but Drummond had planted his seed the month before. In exchange for my favors, the prince promised me he would go to his father. He said the king would spare Drummond.” Her mouth pursed in disdain. “The pervert lied to me. My sin went for naught.”
“So you were allowed to keep your son.”
“Yes. The king gave me a writ granting us a demesne in Dumfries.” Lifting a weak hand, she pointed to her traveling bag. “’Tis in my pouch. Will you get it please?”
Sister Margaret retrieved the rolled parchment and read of the king’s meager bequest and his condemnation of Clare’s husband. “Why didn’t you go to this place?”
“I know no one in the Borders, and the king forbade me to take any of Drummond’s people. Not that they would’ve followed a known adulteress. Drummond denounced me publicly. I was ashamed, lonely, and afraid. I thought only of coming to you.”
“Bless the Virgin you did. All will be well. Rest now.”
Clare’s eyes drifted shut. Sister Margaret expelled a breath and began to pray for the soul of her daughter.
Sometime later, she heard voices in the next room. Taking the royal scroll, she tiptoed from the infirmary and found Johanna and Meridene huddled around the baby’s cradle.
Johanna looked up, her brown eyes clouded with concern. “How is she?”
Meridene gasped and scooped up the babe.
Making a fist, Johanna punched the air. “She had no business riding that trail at night. She knows better. What kind of a beast is her damned husband to have so little care of her?”
“Sorry, Sister Margaret.” Johanna folded her arms at her waist, jostling the ring of keys that dangled from a leather thong. “Lord Drummond should have traveled with her.”
Johanna possessed a maturity beyond her years and a logic to rival any Oxford scholar. Although younger than Meridene and only five minutes older than Clare, Johanna had always been the leader.
“Where is her husband?” she asked.
Sister Margaret waved the parchment. “Lord Drummond is taken by the king. He could not have seen to her welfare.” She relayed Clare’s tale of woe.
Her jaw taut with anger, Johanna held out her hand. “May I see what our generous sovereign has left her?”
Sister Margaret handed over the document and reached for the babe. Meridene kissed the boy’s brow and placed him in Sister Margaret’s arms. Her grandson was a handsome child with a grin as big as the Highlands. What would the future hold for him?
Johanna squared her shoulders and moved to the door. “I’ll sit with her.”
Sister Margaret visited Clare’s servants, Mr. and Mrs. Stapledon. Two years ago, when the king himself had taken Clare to the Highlands to wed the dashing Scottish chieftain, she had convinced the Stapledons to come with her to her new home. But Macqueen Castle was now ruled by Drummond’s younger brother.
Bertie Stapledon scratched his beard. “The king’ll execute Lord Drummond, do ye see. What’ll become of the babe then?”
A chill passed through Sister Margaret. “I do not know.”
According to the writ, Lord Drummond’s family was prohibited any congress with Clare or the child. Meridene would help Sister Margaret raise the wee Alasdair. Johanna was too busy overseeing the farmers and shepherds who occupied the abbey’s land.
By the next evening the deathbed vigil had begun. Practical, dependable Johanna paced the room, swearing under her breath. Meridene held the child, plying him with a wooden rattle and humming a lullaby. Sister Margaret prayed.
Clare’s complexion now glowed with the flush of fever, and her skin felt hot to the touch. In a voice drained of feeling, she called for her twin.
Johanna hurried to the bed and leaned close. Sister Margaret fought back tears at the sight of her daughters, both fair haired and as lovely as a summer day. Johanna had stayed at Clare’s side through the night. Their whispers and occasional laughter brought back memories of their youth.
“Tell them, Johanna,” Clare whispered.
“Later,” she said, stroking her sister’s brow.
“Tell us what?” Sister Margaret insisted.
When Johanna didn’t speak, Clare said, “When I—” She swallowed, then took several shallow breaths. “When I’m gone, you’re to say Johanna died. Mark my grave with her name.”
Meridene began to cry.
Sister Margaret crossed herself. “Nay.”
Clare’s fever-bright eyes pleaded. “You must agree, Sister Margaret. Let her take my son. Go to that land in the Borders. She could raise Alasdair. Help him seek his destiny.”
Quietly, Johanna said, “Who’s to know ’tis me rather than Clare?”
“Anyone who has ever spent five minutes with the two of you,” hissed Meridene. “You may favor each other in physical appearance, but in temperament you’re as different as moonrise and sunset.”
“Oh, please, Sister Margaret,” Johanna pleaded. “Clare abided by the king’s wishes. She never told anyone in Scotland that she had a sister. She never revealed that we chose the name ‘Benison’ for ourselves because it means ‘blessed.’ We have no blood kin, save little Alasdair. Do not deny me the chance to have a life outside the abbey.”
A refusal perched on Sister Margaret’s lips, but she paused, swayed by the plea in her daughter’s voice. Johanna was as capable as any man at running an estate. She was fair in her judgments and honest in her ways. No one knew her in Dumfries; the land lay in the Borders between England and Scotland, far from Scarborough Abbey and farther still from Castle Macqueen.
And she deserved a life of her own. One thing held Sister Margaret back. Years before Edward had branded both Clare and Johanna with a hot iron and declared them wards of the crown. The symbol, a blunted sword no bigger than a thumb, signified the conquests of Edward I. The only trouble was, Clare’s brand appeared right side up, Johanna’s upside down.
“What of the brand?” Sister Margaret asked.
Johanna’s hand flew to her shoulder. “Clare’s husband will be hanged,” she said. “Who’s to see the mark?”
“True,” said Sister Margaret. “But it could be dangerous. Should any who know Clare come to visit that place, you’ll be found out.”
A familiar confidence twinkled in Johanna’s eyes. “The Stapledons will go with me. They know all of the Macqueens. Should any of those Highlanders defy the king and come to Dumfries, Bertie can alert me.” She blotted her sister’s brow. In her typical authoritative voice, she added, “I’ll see that your son makes a fine man, Clare.”
Clare closed her eyes and smiled. “You will not. You’ll teach him to swear and skip Mass.”
Tears streamed down Johanna’s cheeks. Her composure faltered. “I’ll tell him an angel left him on my doorstep.”
“At least you won’t have to deal with his father,” Clare whispered.
A candle sputtered, the tiny flame struggling for survival, much the same as Clare clung desperately to life. The stone walls seemed to close in on Sister Margaret; how could she, in the space of a day, send one of her daughters to God and the other to an uncertain future? Desperate to keep one, she said, “Johanna, there is much you do not know about Clare and Lord Drummond.”
“Not so. She has told me all I need to know about the chieftain,” said Johanna. “I’ll raise Alasdair to believe his sire was a legend among men, although I know it for a lie.”
“Oh, Johanna, you have it crosswise,” said Clare, so near death she gasped for breath. “Drummond isn’t bad. He hates only me.” She closed her eyes and sighed. “And with good cause.”