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Authors: Sue-Ellen Welfonder

Until the Knight Comes

MacKenzie 4: Until the Knight Comes

Sue-Ellen Welfonder

 

The Legacy of the Bastard Stone

L
ong ago, in one of the darkest periods of
Scotland
’s history, but not so distant that time has blurred the memory, a great MacKenzie chieftain prided himself on his strong character and strict uprightness. An indomitable warrior, he was known to fame as Ranald the Redoubtable, his name commanding respect far beyond the
Highland
fastnesses of his own rugged Kintail.

A masterful man well able to maintain peace in this vast country of darkling hills and shadowed glens, he had but two disturbing weaknesses: a thread of greed that at times vied with the goodness of his heart and a distinct tendency to loftiness.

Susceptibilities that were to prove calamitous when a low-born by-blow of the clan lost his heart to the daughter of a neighboring chieftain. A mere cowherd, Cormac by name, the young man’s physical prowess and skill rivaled even the fittest of Ranald the Redoubtable’s sons, much to the puissant laird’s annoyance.

Cormac’s claim that the lass, a maid much-prized for her beauty and high spirits, wanted him with equal fervor only ensured that fate was to go against him. Indeed, when he approached his chieftain for help in amassing a suitable bride price, false hopes were given, empty promises cast to the fickle winds.

On a day of rain and strong winds, he was to journey to the farthest reaches of Kintail, the dark shores of Loch Hourn, to climb to the highest point of the sea cliffs where a certain outcropping of rock resembles a giant door.

If upon positioning himself atop this natural-made arch, he is able to balance on one foot, he will be deemed worthy to claim any chieftain’s daughter as his bride.

And to celebrate his daring and agility, he will be rewarded with double the bride price he’d desired.

Regrettably, as the
seannchies
so poignantly extol, just as Cormac completed his incredible feat and began the climb down, his foot caught on the edge of the door-like outcropping and he plunged to his death, never to know whether his liege-laird would have kept his word or no.

Only Ranald the Redoubtable knew, and over time his guilt overrode his greed and his pride, the true goodness of his heart triumphing to banish his darker side for the rest of his days.

In young Cormac’s honor, the rock formation was dubbed The Bastard Stone and in its shadow, a mighty stronghold was raised:
Cuidrach
Castle
, place of the forceful and determined.

And since these earliest times, Cuidrach stands as the proud inheritance reserved by Clan MacKenzie for the most valiant warriors amongst the clan’s by-blows. One such stalwart in each generation is raised from his low-born status and granted the style of Keeper of Cuidrach.

A tradition upheld all down the centuries until one such favored bastard turned so black-hearted that the villainy of his deeds left the clan little choice but to withdraw the privilege, the sad forfeiture leaving Cuidrach to stand untended for decades.

But now a new Keeper of Cuidrach has been named.

A braw young clansman of the same strong character and strict uprightness as his long-passed forebear, Ranald the Redoubtable.

And if along Kintail’s wild coastal headlands, the windswept hills could stir, they’d surely be restless, the wind eddying about the rocks perhaps whispering of an ancient wrong.chap

And pleading it be righted at last.

Chapter One

DRUMODYN CASTLE
SCOTLAND
, THE FAR NORTH AUTUMN 1344

H
ugh the Bastard.

The three words dealt Mariota Macnicol a smiting blow, each one lodging in her throat like searing lumps of hot-burning coal as she stood on the threshold of the tower bedchamber and stared at the man she loved more than life itself.

Certainly more than her own, for she’d willingly suffered the pains of scandal and ruin to be his lady, turning her back on her well-comforted existence to pave him the way to his dreams.

His lofty ambitions.

And now Hugh Alesone, Bastard of Drumodyn, was dead.

Or soon would be, for the twinkling blue eyes that had e’er besotted her were now full-glazed and bulging, the horror on his handsome face as he caught sight of her, an unmistakable recognition of his imminent end.

Aye, Mariota’s golden giant of a
Highland
lover was about to die naked in his bed.

Naked in the arms of an equally unclothed whore.

Shivering, Mariota stared, not trusting her eyes. Shock and disbelief crashed over her, stealing her breath until her anguish rose in a tide of fury, and the welling pain burst free.

“No-o-o,” she cried, agony ripping her soul. “By the living God!
Hugh
. . . .”

“’Tis m-my heart,” he gasped, his eyes widening.

Her own heart pounding furiously, Mariota bit down on her lip as he broke away from the sweat-dampened bawd straddling him and pressed both hands against his chest, its well-muscled planes, resplendent with a smattering of golden hairs, proving as drenched and heaving as his whore’s fleshy, over-generous breasts.

His penis glistened as well, highlighted almost obscenely by the glow of the night candle. Flaccid now, and surprisingly small for such a great stirk of a Highlandman, the dangling appendage was clearly wet from vigorous love play.

A truth underscored by the disarray of the bed coverings, the flagon of wine and two half-emptied goblets on a fireside table, and the trail of discarded clothing littering the rush-strewn floor.

That, and the reek of passion sated still hanging so heavily in the chill air.

“Saints have mercy!” Mariota clapped her hands to her face, the only movement she could manage for her legs felt leaden, her feet as roots of stone.

The other woman suffered no such loss of agility, scrambling off the bed so swiftly her ungainly efforts to extract herself would have been comical if her very presence didn’t feel like a vise around Mariota’s heart.

All but spitting and snarling, the bawd flung the last of the bed coverlets from her naked body, knocking over the flagon of wine in her clumsiness, the blood-red libations splashing onto the floor rushes.

Watching her exodus, Mariota curled her hands into fists. The back of her neck throbbed, its tender skin blazing as her gaze lit on the spilled wine, some still-coherent part of her seeing a reflection of Hugh’s ignoble demise in the quickly spreading stain.

An irony the Bastard of Drumodyn would miss for he’d collapsed onto the bedsheets, lay staring at her from blank, unseeing eyes.

And just looking at them sent a bitter, piercing cold sluicing through her. “Dear sweet saints,” she gasped, more to herself than the woman still looming so naked beside the bed. “He’s dying. . . .”

But Hugh Alesone was already gone, having left to join his forebears, breathing his inglorious last without a further word spoken.

And with his departure, a great gusting wind rushed into the room, guttering candles and sweeping across a worktable strewn with parchments, the icy blast scattering his treasured writings to every corner of the room.

Love sonnets, the most of them, and composed for Mariota, but also painstakingly gathered accountings of the ancient line from which Hugh claimed descent—even if his bastardy had constrained him to subsist on little more than his own silvered words and broth of limpets and milk.

Good enough fare until Mariota’s munificence enabled the would-be bard to indulge his higher tastes and live as befitted one who believed to carry the blood of kings.

Scarce able to believe him dead, she swayed, almost reeled into the other woman. But she backed away as quickly, something about the woman’s moist red lips and the slant of her eyes, prickling Mariota’s nape.

“You!”
she cried, awareness slamming into her. “You are—”

“Elizabeth Paterson,” the whore supplied, her gray eyes cold and glittery as a winter dawn.

In numbed shock, Mariota recognized her with surety now. If not by name, then by reputation, for the woman was none other than the notorious alewife of Assynt.

Widowed and slightly older than Hugh, Elizabeth Paterson ran the Burning Bush, an establishment of less than noble repute where the high-spirited widow was rumored to offer wayfarers much more than victuals and simple lodgings.

The air around Mariota grew colder. “You are the alewife,” she said, the acknowledgment sounding faraway, her voice a stranger’s.

“And that surprises you?” Nowise inhibited, the bawd made no attempt to cover her spurious charms. “Did you not know Hugh had dark,
lusty
tastes? Needs he could only quench with someone like me?”

Mariota gritted her teeth, her world splitting open to become a yawning void filled with naught but Hugh’s naked, inert form and the triumphant little sneer playing about the alewife’s generous, love-swollen lips.

“Be gone from here.” Mariota flicked a hand at the crumpled clothes on the floor. “Dress, and take yourself from my sight.”

The bawd ignored that and lifted her chin. “A pity you returned sooner than expected, Lady Mariota,” she said, her throaty voice taunting. “You might have been left to your illusions had it been otherwise.”

Mariota stiffened, something inside her cracking, turning her to stone.

“I turned back before even nearing Dunach,” she admitted, the name of her home bitter on her tongue. “Praise God I did not plead my father’s beneficence yet again—”

The alewife sniffed. “I told Hugh he’d seen the last of Archibald Macnicol’s coin. Word of your puissant father’s spleen with you is widespread.”

Sliding a hand down her belly, the bawd let her fingers hover above the dark tangle of her nether hair. “See you, Mariota of Dunach, Hugh knew you might return early, but he did not want to forego our
amusements.

Mariota’s eyes began to sting, hot gall rising in her throat. Equally damning, she seemed unable to lift her gaze from the other woman’s abdomen.

Elizabeth Paterson’s decidedly swollen abdomen.

Her emotions churning, Mariota dug her hands into her skirts. “It would seem the two of you indulged often enough.”

The other shrugged. “That may be, but ’tis not Hugh’s child I carry. Not that he cared. Truth be told, he took great relish in hearing of my
encounters
at the alehouse.”

Mariota stared at her, wordless.

The alewife’s lips quirked. “If you would know the whole of it,” she said, reaching to trail her fingers across Mariota’s stomach, “he gloried in my swelling form, even likened my sweetness to a ripening plum. His get, or no.”

Recoiling from the woman’s touch as well as her words, it took Mariota a moment to notice the multi-colored bursts of light suddenly flashing about the alewife’s fingers, and yet another to recognize the bawd’s true purpose in putting her hand to Mariota’s waist.

“My dirk!” Mariota’s heart slammed against her ribs at the sight of her bejeweled lady’s dagger in the other’s hand.

She fumbled at her skirts, her cold fingers finding the blade’s empty sheath, the discovery sending chills down her spine.

“You’ve stolen my dirk!”

“Say you?” The alewife feigned astonishment. “Och, nay, my lady, ’tis not stealing it I am—only borrowing.”

“Borrowing?”

The alewife nodded, her mouth curving in a satisfied smile as she returned to the bed and, with the dirk’s blade, swept several of Hugh’s windblown parchments onto the floor.

Spearing one that yet clung to the edge of the mattress, she waved the thing at Mariota. “See you, lady, to your face he called you his minx but behind your back he named you a fool,” she said, her tone steeped in derision. “I was neither. Ours was an understanding of mutual fulfillment and I meant to use him as boldly as he used me.”

Her eyes flashing, she yanked the scroll off the dagger and tossed it at Hugh’s body, her mouth twisting in another mirthless smile when the parchment landed on his shriveled manhood.

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