Authors: Bertrice Small
Tags: #Harems, #Fiction, #Romance, #Adult, #Historical, #General
To my dearest husband, George, who, having lived all these years with Cyra, Firousi, Zuleika, Sarina, and me, can tell you that having a harem isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
Prologue April, 1484
stood dark against the gray sky, its drawbridge down. Along the walls, men-at-arms paced slowly, always on guard. There was peace in the land, but yesterday’s friend could easily became today’s foe.
From within the castle courtyard came the sudden sound of hooves. A large black horse ridden by a man wearing a cape clattered across the drawbridge and onto the road. The rider, his cape fluttering wildly in the wind, pushed the animal into a gallop.
Behind him, Patrick Leslie, lord of Glenkirk, left a group of wailing women, his newborn son, and his dead wife, Agnes.
As he rode on, his mind slipped back to the weeks and months just past
He had waited eagerly for the birth of his heir. Agnes had had an easy confinement, managing to keep her sunny disposition even in the beginning when she had been so sick in the mornings. Patrick Leslie was twenty-four and, having been orphaned at ten, had grown up guided by an old uncle and the men-at-arms who inhabited his home. He had married late, and in a time when most men his age had sired several sons, he had sired none. Then his eye had lit upon the petite, golden-haired daughter of the Cummings clan. He had married her quickly, and with what some said was almost indecent haste.
The day they both awaited had finally come. Anxiously he had paced the anteroom outside his wife’s bedchamber, his cousin, Ian, keeping him company. There had come a loud and lusty wail; and a few moments later his wife’s lady-in-waiting appeared in the doorway, a small bundle in her arms.
“Your son, my lord. The lady Agnes wishes to know what ye would name him.”
Patrick grinned broadly and stared down at the tiny, wrinkled creature. “Adam. Tell her he is to be called Adam, for he is but the first.”
The lady-in-waiting curtsied and returned through the door with the infant Ian Leslie cocked his head.
“The first, cousin? What of little Janet?”
“Adam is my first son, my legitimate heir, you clod!”
Ian chuckled and ducked the friendly blow aimed at him.
“You’d best send a messenger to Agnes’s family, or Lady Cummings will be on your neck, and what’s worse, she’ll be moving in for a long stay unless you reassure her quickly.”
Patrick nodded. As they turned to leave the room, the door to Agnes’s bedroom opened, and a little maid flew out “The lady Agnes … the lady Agnes …”
Patrick grabbed her and shook her sharply. “In God’s name, girl, what is wrong?”
“Blood,” wailed the servant “blood! Oh, Holy Mother have mercy on her!” Sobbing, she rushed from the room,
Patrick Leslie crossed the room in two strides, but the open door to his wife’s bedchamber was barred by the midwife. “She is dying, my lord. There is nothing I can do.”
“What” he asked, “in God’s name has happened?”
“She is bleeding, and we canna stop it my lord. Ye hae best go in now. She dinna hae much time.” The midwife’s face registered her genuine distress. She liked the lord of Glenkirk and thought that his lady was a brave and bonnie lass.
Pushing past her, he strode quickly to his wife’s bedside. Agnes Leslie lay quietly on the large bed, her blond hair spread about her pillow. Her fair skin was drained of all its color, her closed eyelids translucent and blue-veined. He bent and kissed her brow.
“You have given me a magnificent son, madam.”
Her gray eyes opened, and she smiled weakly at him. “You must ask Mary MacKay to come and look after the bairn. She is not too old.”
“You’ll ask her yourself, sweetheart”
“Patrick, I am dying.”
He groaned and turned his head away.
Her fingers gently caressed his face. “My poor Patrick,” she whispered. “Never able to face that which displeases him.”
He turned back to her. “Love,” he pleaded, “you must not talk this way. You’ll get well. You must!”
“Patrick,” her voice was urgent now. “You’ll keep your promise to me?”
He looked at her blankly.
“When I told you I should give you a child, I asked that when it was born, you bring Janet to Glenkirk. You promised to legitimize her and let me raise her with our own child. She is your true daughter, Patrick. She is a Leslie.”
“How can I manage without you?” he pleaded.
“Swear to me, Patrick. Swear on the Holy Virgin’s name!”
“Patrick!” Her voice sank low. “This is my dying wish. Swear!”
“I swear it! I swear it on the Holy Virgin’s name. I’ll bring my daughter, Janet, to Glenkirk, legitimize her, and raise her with our son, Adam.”
“Thank you, Patrick. God will bless you for it,” said Agnes Leslie, and then she died.
The lord of Glenkirk was brought back to reality as his horse, out of habit slowed his gait and turned off the high road into a tree-lined lane. At the end of the lane stood a neat thatched cottage. At the sound of the horse’s hooves, a small apple-cheeked woman appeared in the doorway and called out.
“Patrick, ye dinna tell me ye were coming. How is Agnes?”
“Agnes is dead,” he said bitterly.
“A lad. Healthy and strong.” Dismounting, he followed her into the cottage.
“Do ye want to tell me about it, Patrick?”
“I don’t understand it Mary. Everything was fine. Then the midwife told me she was bleeding and they could not stop it It was over so quickly.”
“Och, my poor boy! I am so sorry.”
“Before she died, she asked two things of me. One was that you return to Glenkirk and look after the bairn. Will you, Mary?”
“Yes, Patrick. I was your nurse, and I’ll be nurse to your son. What was her other dying wish?”
“That I legitimize Janet and raise her with our son at Glenkirk. She asked it when she first knew she was with child. It was her last request of me, and I swore on the Virgin’s name I would.”
“God bless her and rest her sweet soul,” whispered Mary MacKay. “Many a wife would have held my lass against you, even though it happened before ye were wed. Agnes Cummings was a good woman.”
“But if ye wed again, Patrick, how would another wife feel about Janet?”
“I have killed two women with the bearing of my bairns, Mary. First your own daughter, Meg, who was just sixteen. Now Agnes, and she but seventeen. I’ll never wed again.”
“Bad luck, my lad. Plain bad luck, but the porridge is burned now. If one day ye decide to make another pot, I suppose we can cope then. Tell me, what will ye call the babe?”
“ ‘Tis a good name.”
For a moment they sat in silence before the hearth fire, and then he asked, “Where is Janet? I want to take her back to Glenkirk tonight”
“In the shed looking at the new lambs.” She went to the door and called, “Janet your father is here.”
A little girl of four, her unruly, reddish-gold hair flying, ran to the cottage.
“Father, you never said you were coming! What have you brought me?”
“She is surely your daughter, Patrick Leslie,” sighed Mary.
“A pocketful of kisses and a bag of hugs, you greedy minx,” he laughed, snatching her up. She giggled and snuggled into his arms. “Janet how would you like to go back to Glenkirk with me tonight?”
“To live, father?”
“As long as you want, my little sweetheart”
“Can grandmother come, too?”
“Yes, Janet Your grandmother is going to come and take care of your new brother, Adam.”
“And may I call the lady Agnes mother?”
Mary MacKay turned white.
“Lady Agnes is dead, Janet,” said Patrick Leslie. “She has gone to Heaven like your own sweet mother.”
Janet sighed. “Then you have only grandmother, Adam, and me, father?”
The child shifted in her father’s arms and thought for a moment Finally she looked up at him with her strangely adult green-gold eyes and said, “Then I’ll go to Glenkirk with you, father.”
Patrick turned to Mary MacKay. “Get her cloak. I’ll send a cart for you and your things tomorrow.”
Mary bundled the child into a woolen cloak and took her outside where her father, already mounted on his horse, waited. Handing the child up, she said, “Dinna grieve, Patrick. Ye must think of the children now.”
“I know, Mary, I know.” And, wheeling his horse around, he rode back through the fast-darkening day toward Glenkirk Castle, his small daughter seated before him on his saddle.
The Ambassador's Daughter
on his shirt, James IV, king of Scotland and the Mes, leaned back in his chair and surveyed the scene before him. On his left sat Patrick Leslie, lord of Glenkirk, who at the moment was engaged in conversation with James’s lovely mistress.
James’s eyes swept the room. A minstrel sang a sad song of the Borders, and the unusually warm March day made the hall reek of the long, unaired winter. The king noted from beneath hooded eyelids that many eyes were darting back and forth between himself and Patrick Leslie. Good, he thought Let the scheming bastards wonder! Dear God! Why are there so few I can trust? But he already knew the answer to that question.
On his right sat the Hepburn of Hailes, newly created earl of Bothwell, who, James saw, had an ardent admirer in the person of a young red-headed girl who was sneaking a look at Bothwell from beneath her lashes.
“They say you seek to wed with a Gordon, my lord.”
“At court only two days, Mistress Leslie, and already up on the gossip?” the earl replied, looking down at his little admirer.
“Choose Lady Mary, my lord. She is bonnie and sweet of temper.”
“And Lady Jane?” said Bothwell.
“She has cat’s eyes and the Devil’s own temper—so I am told,” she added demurely.
Lady Jane Gordon, who was sitting on the other side of the earl, glowered at the child. “Since when does my cousin Jamie allow young brats at his table?” she demanded.
“I am not a brat my lady.”
Lady Jane Gordon rose from her seat “I have half a mind to box your impudent ears,” she snapped.
The little girl stood, legs apart, facing her beautiful antagonist “‘Stand Fast’ is my family’s motto. Yours is something about ‘cunning,’ isn’t it Lady Jane?”
The room became deathly quiet as Lady Jane Gordon, hands raised, advanced on Janet Leslie. But Janet didn’t wait for the regal hands of Lady Jane to smack her. Instead, fists flying, nails raking, Janet flew at her.
Caught off guard, Lady Jane Gordon screamed in surprise and tried to protect herself. Laughing, the earl of Bothwell stood up and, prying the child loose, swung her up in his arms.
“Put me down,” shrieked Janet beating at his chest with her hands.
“Hold, lassie, the battle is over, and you’ve won. Hush now,” murmured the earl, setting her down.
Janet looked up at him with her green eyes.
“Give us a smile now, lass.”
The corners of the little girl’s mouth curled up, and she said, “You smell of heather and the moors, my lord.”
Bothwell grinned delightedly, and the king snapped, “Will someone send that flirtatious minx to her bed before she starts a feud between the Leslies and my Gordon cousins?”
Patrick Leslie rose and walked over to claim his wayward daughter.
Janet’s face darkened. “I’ll not go,” she shouted, “unless Bothwell takes me!”
The hall erupted with the loud guffaws of the men mingled with the embarrassed titters of the women, all of whom knew too well the earl’s reputation with the ladies.
“God’s nightgown,” roared James. “How old is that wench of yours, Leslie?”
“God help us all when she’s fourteen! Shell turn this court upside down. Very well, my lady Janet Lord Both-well will escort you to your apartments. Leslie, you come with me.” James faced the hall. “The rest of you, get out and go back to your schemes and intrigues! The feast is over.”
The king moved swiftly to his own quarters with Glenkirk following. Settling himself in a chair, he looked up at the Highland chief standing before him.
“So, my lord of Glenkirk, it takes a royal summons to get you to court,” said James Stuart.
“Aye, Your Majesty.”
“Yet you were one of the few Highland chiefs who supported me against my late father. Why is that?”
“I felt Your Majesty had the right on his side. In his day your father was a great king, but he grew old and foolish, and Scotland needed a young man to rule her. So I supported Your Majesty. I have kept from court because my estates need me and, as Your Majesty well knows, I am not a man of intrigue. Intrigue is necessary to survival here in Edinburgh.”
“Perhaps not a man of intrigue, Patrick Leslie, but certainly one of great diplomacy. That is why I have summoned you.” The lord of Glenkirk looked puzzled, but James continued. “I am the first king of the Scots to send ambassadors to represent me in other countries. I want you to serve as my ambassador to the duchy of San Lorenzo.”
“Your Majesty will forgive my ignorance,” said Patrick, “but where
James Stuart laughed. “I didn’t know of it myself until several months ago. It’s a tiny country on the Mediterranean, but it is vital to our merchant trade with Venice and the East Our dear cousin Henry of England has been trying to get a toehold there for several years, but his emissaries are as dour and as pinchpenny as Henry himself. They annoy the duke, who is a man of culture and generosity. He sent a delegation to me this Christmas past I sent them back with many fine gifts and the promise that I should send an ambassador come spring.”
“But Your Majesty,” protested Patrick, “I am no court gallant! I am a simple Highland chief. I know only of my lands and my people. Surely there is someone more suited than I.”
“Nay, my lord. I want you. For all your talk, I know you to be an educated man, a man with a silver tongue, they say. The duke of San Lorenzo is a man of elegant tastes. Those wily fools my cousin of England has sent to him have angered him to the point of turning to me simply to annoy Henry. Scotland is a poor country, Patrick. With a haven of safety in the Mediterranean where our ships can stop to replenish their water and supplies, we can trade with the Levant, and England will pay dearly for what we can bring back! I have asked nothing of you before, my lord, but I ask this. Do not make me command it I value your friendship and loyalty too much.”
“But who will look after my estates and my people?”
“We shall send your cousin, Ian. He is honest and loyal. Also, he has angered too many husbands and fathers here at court with his winning ways. We will choose him a good wife and send him to Glenkirk as steward over your estates.”
“How long must I stay in San Lorenzo, sire?”
“I shall ask you to remain only three years, Patrick. Then I shall send someone else, and you may return. Take your household and family with you.” James rose and stood by the window. “You have two children?”
“Aye, Your Majesty. My son, Adam, who is six, and Janet my daughter.”
“Ah,” smiled the king. “The little redheaded wench who bested Lady Jane Gordon tonight What a vixen! Is she bethrothed?”
“She is only ten, sire.”
“Many a lass has been wed that young. The duke of San Lorenzo has an heir, a boy of fourteen. We should not be displeased if he is taken with your girl. However, that is not a command. He could turn out to be a snaggle-toothed dolt and I should not like to see one of our Scots lasses wasted on a fool.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” said Patrick wryly.
“You will be ready to leave within the month. Sir Andrew Wood will arrange for your passage and that of your family and servants—and, Patrick, because I wish to do the duke honor, I am creating you earl of Glenkirk.”
The interview was at an end. Patrick Leslie bowed low and backed out of the room. His head was whirling. Earl of Glenkirk! Ambassador to the duchy of San Lorenzo! A possible marriage for his daughter with one of the oldest—albeit smallest—royal houses in Europe! He should be elated, yet he wasn’t He felt sad, as if he had lost something very dear to him Cursing his mystical Celtic heritage, he shrugged and hurried off to tell his family the news.