Authors: Sandy Blair
In memory of John Alkire, a hero to his beautiful wife, his charming children and to the community of Hampton Falls.
“Where a cow is, a woman will be, and where a woman is will be temptation.”
~An old Scottish proverb
“Counsel can be given but not conduct.” ~ An old Scottish Proverb
Edinburgh Castle, Scotland
“His Majesty requests the pleasure of your company in the solar, my friend.”
Britt MacKinnon looked up from his breakfast of cold venison and porridge to find the king’s chief advisor, Lyle Ross, standing at his elbow. More likely their liege had said something to the effect of “
get that bastard’s sorry arse in here”,
but then Lyle was naught if not tactful.
Britt grunted and went back to eating his meal. Around a mouthful of oats, he asked, “Pray tell, what does Randy Sandy want now?”
Lyle, his tall, thin frame wrapped in fox fur and plaid from chin to shins, settled on the empty bench across from Britt, drew his
from his sleeve and stabbed a piece of prime venison on Britt’s trencher. “Now what would be the fun in my telling you that?”
“Ross, I’m not in the mood.” Not after spending the night sitting outside the royal solar keeping the likes of Widow MacMichael at bay. Thankfully, just her catching sight of him on the landing had been enough to send the silly cow, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment, scurrying in the opposite direction.
Lyle hailed a passing serving lass for a tankard of ale, then turned his attention back to Britt’s trencher. “He didn’t say, but be warned. He’s in a foul mood. Apparently he spent a cold and lonely night.”
“Damn right he did.” And Alexander would continue to do so until such time as His Majesty got Her Highness Yolande de Dreux, formerly of France and now Queen of Scotland, with child, if Britt had any say in the matter.
Lyle grinned, and Britt’s spoon stopped halfway to his mouth. “Please tell me you’ve received word from one of your lovely spies that our queen consort is with child.”
The pair had been married almost five months now. Certainly long enough for a man of only two score and four who’d fathered three bairns on his first wife—all of whom had sadly passed—to produce at least one with his skinny twenty-year-old bride.
His friend shook his head. “If only I could. Lady Campbell suspects—but cannot confirm—that the queen’s courses started before she left for Kinghorn. Her Highness is apparently keeping such information along with her French ladies-in-waiting close to that sparrow’s breast of hers, while doing her utmost to keep
ladies at arm’s length.”
“Damn.” His appetite ruined, Britt pushed his trencher toward Lyle. “I’m coming to loathe this place, my friend, and my role in it.”
Lyle’s ice blue gaze raked Edinburgh’s crowded hall. “Aren’t we all.”
“Unfortunately, nay.” If those lounging about felt as Britt did, then they’d be home tending to their own affairs instead of depleting the castle larder and gossiping about whether or not their king was man enough to beget an heir on his new queen. And then speculating on who among them would rise like cream should he fail.
As things stood now, should something happen to Alexander, his infant granddaughter, Princess Margaret of Norway, would inherit the throne, a child betrothed to young Prince Edward of England, son of that bastard Longshanks, Edward I.
Most about Scotland had approved the peacekeeping measure at the time. After all, they had young Alexander IV and David, should anything happen to their father. But now their princes were gone, which meant Longshanks could become regent until his son came of age and could assume the thrones of both England
A monumental disaster in the making, if ever there was one.
Lyle slapped his shoulder, pulling Britt out of his depressing reverie. “You need a rest, my friend. Have you thought to go home? Just for short while?”
“Does the bitch still breathe?”
“Then you know better than to even suggest it.”
He and Lyle, hailing from differing Highland Isle clans, had been seven and spoke only Gael and a smattering of French when they found themselves fostered to the same liege lord, the powerful Earl of Blair Atholl in the Scot-speaking Lowlands. Frightened out of their minds, they’d bonded quickly and had remained friends since. So Lyle knew Britt couldn’t trust himself
to kill Cassandra on sight.
Lyle heaved what sounded like an exasperated sigh. “You’re doubtless the most stubborn bastard alive, but that’s why I’ve faith you can keep our king on the straight and narrow ’til we’ve a pudding in the oven.”
Britt snorted, not the least sure he could. Alexander, married for the first time at age ten and faithful, was now a widower in his prime. He was not only obsessed with the fair administration of the law, but a man obsessed with beautiful women. He had several lovers and was now prone to slipping past his guards and sneaking out of the castle at night to meet with one or another whenever an opportunity to tup presented itself. Which was why Britt, Captain of the King’s Guard, had assumed the night watch.
But more damning of their king, in Britt’s opinion, was Alexander’s squandering of royal juices. Even a dolt knew that if you wanted a grain harvest, you did not cast seed upon salted ground.
Britt came to his feet. “I suppose I’ve delayed the inevitable long enough. I’d best get up there.”
“Chin up, friend. It cannot be much longer.”
Feeling as if he carried the weight of the country’s future on his back, Britt mounted the winding wooden staircase leading to the third floor royal apartments.
Too soon for Britt’s comfort, he stood in his king’s solar, where a roaring fire was losing its battle against the frigid winds seeping in around the heavy tapestries that hung over the chamber’s shuttered apertures. He bowed. “Good morn’, sire.”
Alexander, dressed for hunting in a rich sable cloak, quilted jerkin and braies, looked up from the papers he was studying at his desk. As his gaze raked Britt, his hooked nose wrinkled in oblivious displeasure above thin lips and a trim red beard. “You look like shit, MacKinnon. Where have you been? Out whoring?”
Humph! Coal had bollocks calling the skillet black. Britt hadn’t had time to bed a woman in… Hell, he couldn’t remember when, thanks to his liege lord’s antics. “Nay, sire. Something I ate had me up all night.”
“Ah. ’Twas likely the oysters. Stay away from them. I need you healthy.”
“Aye, sire.” An easy pledge, since Britt never touched them.
“I need you to go to the border.”
Britt scowled. “The border, sire?”
Last he’d heard, the border lords were enjoying a truce of sorts. And had there been another English incursion into Scotch territory, surely he’d have learned of it before now.
His king flopped onto the tall, heavily draped canopied bed dominating the left hand corner of the room and stretched out, crossing his arms behind his head. Grinning at the red-and-green-decorated ceiling, he said, “Aye, I want you to go to Buddle and fetch Lady Armstrong back to court. Whatever family crisis took her away must surely be resolved by now.”
Christ’s blood on the cross.
Having thought himself well rid of Alexander’s favorite paramour a month past, Britt struggled to mask his anger. They’d never get their heir with that woman about.
Worse, the queen had thought herself well rid of her lady-in-waiting, as well. Yolande finding the vivacious Greer Armstrong back under foot would be tantamount to setting fire bombs off beneath Her Highness’s skirts.
“Sire, I really don’t think it wise—”
“MacKinnon, after ten years of service you should know by now that when I desire council, I ask for it.”
“Aye, sire, but—”
“If you value your head, MacKinnon…”
Britt did indeed value his head, was in fact quite fond of it. Teeth clenched, he bowed. “As you lust, Your Majesty.”
“I knew you’d see it my way. See that you take a gentle mount for her. I don’t want Lady Greer exhausted upon arrival.”
An hour later, having put the fear of death into the men who would guard Alexander in his absence, Britt stood in the shadow of Edinburgh’s curtain wall with his arms crossed as grooms raced about trying to ready his black, eighteen-hand destrier and the gray, doe-eyed palfrey he’d selected for Lady Greer. In no hurry to be off, he merely watched as two fair-headed grooms—brothers, by the look of them—struggled to secure his stallion’s massive saddle while his horse did his utmost to sniff the heart-shaped haunches of the pretty palfrey tied next to him. After the lads’ fifth failed attempt, Britt pushed off the wall to assist. Before he could take a step, his mount shook like a wet dog, and Britt’s prized saddle fell to the ground with a mighty thump, raising a cloud of choking dust.
Both lads gasped, their gazes shooting from the mound of expensive leather and silver lying facedown in the dirt, to Britt, then back to the saddle as if not believing their eyes. The elder lad stuttered, “I…I’m so sorry, my lord. I…I…”
Britt sighed. He had no one to blame but himself. “No need to worry, lads.”
He eased them aside, scooped up the heavy saddle, gave it a good shake, then tossed it onto his destrier’s broad back.
“I’ll fetch a cloth,” the youngest murmured as he swept tears off his dirty cheeks. “Won’t be but a wink, I promise.”
As the lads dashed toward the storeroom, Britt shouted, “Take your time.” They could take all day for all he cared.
He had no choice but to fetch Lady Greer Armstrong, but he did have a choice in how they’d return, and he’d decided on taking a very long road, traveling northwest toward Glasgow, then north over the Western Grampians. With any luck at all, it would rain like hell, and they’d have to slog through knee-deep mud, which could add another week, mayhap even two, to their travel. Surely by then Randy Sandy would have grown weary of waiting and, anxious to sink his cock into something warm and wet, would have visited his wife. And gotten her with child.
Britt glanced around and, not seeing either of the grooms, plucked his stallion’s bridle from a nearby hook.
Mayhap the king’s pretty paramour would enjoy a visit to the Isle of Mull. He hadn’t been there in ages. ’Twas a lovely place dotted with isolated fishing villages, a deserted abbey, windswept murrains and lovely stone hieroglyphs. And cliffs.
“He will make of you a tool, and of me a liar.
” ~ Old Scottish Proverb
Genny Armstrong wanted to throttle her twin as she held a bucket beneath Greer’s chin. While Greer retched and struggled to keep her waist-length hair out of the way, Genny wondered, not for the first time, how her beautiful and talented sister could have allowed herself to be bedded by a married man—much less the king.
That Greer was now obviously with child only made matters all the worse.
Greer finally stopped retching and reached for the cloth Genny held out to her. “’Tis over.”
“No more eggs for you. Leastwise not until after the babe comes.”
Greer looked up with huge blue eyes so like Genny’s own. “How long can I expect this hellish sickness to last, Gen? I cannot take much more.”
Genny wrapped an arm about her sister’s thickening waist and helped her to her feet. “Since you’ve not had your courses since Hogmanay, it should pass soon. If you’re one of the less fortunate, the illness will last until the babe comes.”
The king’s babe. God help them.
Her sister placed a protective hand over her belly as Genny guided her into their cottage. “I shan’t let them take him from me. I won’t.”
“No one knows about the bairn save you and me, not even the king.” And thank God not the queen, for if she did, Greer’s life wouldn’t be worth a farthing.
And to ensure Her Highness did not learn of the impending birth, Genny had dismissed their few servants with a pence and a bag of flour—all she could spare—saying she regretted their having to leave. And she had. Her workload had trebled without her shepherd, gillie and maid.
In the kitchen, she settled Greer on a stool before the hearth, then washed her hands and resumed kneading the dough she’d left resting on the table when her sister had bolted out the back door.
From behind her, Greer said, “We’re in love, you know.”
Genny’s hands stilled. Love?
Their handsome, impoverished knight of a father had pledged his undying
to their mother prior to them marrying. Too late, her mother realized he was naught but a charming sot intent on his own destruction. ’Twas only their mother’s blood relationship to the Earl of Kerr that made their father trackman of this wee village, that they even had a roof over their heads. Worse, their father’s penchant for drink had left their mother with the task of collecting the taxes and tithes—which did naught to endear any of them to their neighbors.
was to blame for Greer going to court in the first place. Had their mother not
them so much, wanted brilliant matches for them, she never would have written to her childhood friend, Queen Margaret, God rest her soul, asking that they be considered for ladies-in-waiting. A year later, she received a missive from the queen congratulating their mother on having a daughter and requesting her presence at court, although her court was at capacity. Their mother had been crushed. She’d written that she had two daughters, but since there was barely room for one, she decided Greer, being the eldest and most accomplished, should go. Genny, for her part, hadn’t been the least disappointed. Having no patience for pomp or frippery and no talent for song or dance, she was actually most grateful the queen had misunderstood her mother’s missive. Grateful, that was, until Greer came home in her current state.