Authors: May McGoldrick
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #highlander, #jan coffey, #may mcgoldrick, #henry viii, #trilogy, #braveheart, #tudors
For Cyrus and Samuel, our own Highland rogues
Drummond Castle, October 1502
His ice-blue eyes locked on the castle looming in the gathering dusk.
Silent as death, he and his company of killers climbed the ridge toward the open drawbridge. Andrew would get back what was his. He would have his revenge.
Fiona bounced across the wood floor at the sound of horses thundering across the drawbridge. Standing on her tiptoes, she stretched her five year old body, inching her dimpled chin up onto the stone ledge surrounding the small window in her effort to peer out into the dusky light at the approaching riders. From the unglazed slit in the castle wall, the misty autumn wind swept damply through her fire red hair. She could not see the riders, but she could hear their steel armor clanging as they rode into the castle’s inner yard.
Her Father was coming for her.
“May I please go down, Nanna?” she asked for the umpteenth time. “Please, Nanna?”
“You know what your mama said, child,” the old woman responded, smiling at the irrepressible excitement of the little girl. This was a big day for her. This was a big day for them all.
Fiona skipped from the window and picked up her little stool from beside the fireplace, carrying it quickly to the high window and scampering onto it. As she pressed her face into the opening, a gust of Scottish night air filled her with a thrill of anticipation.
But her mother had given strict orders that she was to remain in her room until she was called for.
He must be very important, the little girl thought excitedly, trying to pick him out from among the horsemen in the courtyard. In the flaring torchlight she could see the varied array of tartans on the company of men dismounting below.
Though Fiona could not even recall when exactly she had last seen her father, she tried hard to remember, as her eyes scanned the sea of men below, what he looked like. She had been very little the last time. But there were things about him that she could still recollect, vaguely. His deep and easy laugh. His soft red beard. The strange, belt-like chain that she could feel under his shirt. Her mother had told Fiona that her father always wore that, but she had never said why.
“Your papa is a busy man, Fiona,” her mother had said the times she’d asked for him. All her life Fiona had been hearing talk of fights with the filthy English who were trying to take Scottish lands. And all her life she’d been hearing her mother tell her how papa had to help. How it was his job to help keep their homes and their country safe.
But now he was coming to them--making a special visit--to take her and her mother and Nanna back to his own castle. To be with him.
For the past week Fiona had been shadowing Nanna as she went about her chores. The little girl had tried extra hard to be more of a help than a hindrance. After all, she had so many questions about the upcoming visit, and Nanna was the only one who would even talk to her about it.
Fiona wished she could remember more.
For as long as the little girl could recall, no one would ever talk to her about her father. There were moments when her mother would allow Fiona a glimpse of those times when he had been near. And it was during those talks that Fiona would hear about his humor, his courage, about the kind of man he was. But then her mother would never answer her other questions about him, so he remained an enigma.
Sometimes Fiona wondered if her father still loved her. She wondered if he missed her as much as she missed him. Sometimes she even dreamed of him. When she did, he was like an angel, floating far above—away from her—but watching over her. She could see him, his red hair and beard streaming around him as if blown by a gentle breeze.
And now everyone kept telling Fiona not to disturb her mother.
The little girl knew that her mother was not her usual self. She had been very quiet for the past few days and spent many hours alone in her room. Fiona heard her crying. Nanna said that her mother was just having a hard time believing that what she had wished for, for so long, was finally coming true. But Fiona knew it had to be something else.
During their time together Nanna had told her that, for reasons beyond their control, Fiona’s parents could not be married up until now, but that their love had finally triumphed.
At last, her father had told his people that Fiona was his daughter, and that he and her mother were going to be married. Fiona was not really sure what being married meant, but she knew it had to be something very special. After all, she was going to have a permanent father now. But even more importantly, she knew that it meant her mother would never have to be sad again. Nanna had told her that.
Fiona began to count the torches that were being lit in the courtyard. She knew her father would have warriors with him. Nanna had said Fiona’s father had many who attended him.
“Fiona, come here so I can braid that wild hair of yours,” Nanna scolded gently, smiling patiently at the excited child. The room was warm and comfortable, and the old woman felt at peace with the world.
The little girl reluctantly turned from her place at the window. Hopping off the stool, she ran across the room, flinging herself affectionately onto the woman’s lap. Nanna put her arm around the child, returning her warm embrace.
Nanna had raised the girl’s mother, just as she was now helping to raise Fiona. They were so different, mother and daughter, and yet so much the same. Margaret had always been the proper child, always reserved, always private. But Fiona was different. Nothing was held in. Nothing was hidden. One thing Nanna knew they had in common, though: they both had such incredible depths to their love.
Fiona squirmed in her lap, breaking into the woman’s reverie. Nanna picked up the brush and began to run it through the silky softness of the little girl’s hair.
“Nanna, is my hair really the same color as papa’s?” she asked, turning her bright eyes on the woman.
“Aye, child. That it is.”
“And my eyes, Nanna?”
“Nay, child. You have your mama’s hazel eyes. Your papa’s eyes are the color of a March morning. Yours change with your mood and with the color of the sky.”
“But I do look like him, don’t I, Nanna?” she asked hopefully. Her mother had always said that Fiona resembled her father.
“Aye, lass. You look like him. And you have his wit. And his restlessness, and his high spirits, as well. You are his very own child, Fiona.”
There had never been any question whose child Margaret had borne. He had been here at Drummond Castle beside her when Fiona had taken her first breaths in this world. Nanna had seen the tears of joy washing his handsome face. And then, later on, Nanna had seen the tears of sorrow on that face when he had to go.
As the woman braided the little girl’s locks, she thought of how often she had done this same simple task for her mother as well. Margaret Drummond, eldest of three daughters of John, Lord Drummond, had grown up to be one of the most beautiful and sought-after maidens in all the realm. As a young lady of the court, Margaret had been pursued by princes and earls and lairds as well as by knights of every caliber. But she had turned her face from matches that had promised security and respectability. Instead, Margaret had accepted an impossible love. She had been swept away by a man beyond her reach. A man whose life and destiny were not his own to control. Nanna had watched her grow from childhood, and had always known her charge would never accept anything less than the union of two souls. For Margaret, impossible as it was, this love was forever.
Margaret had known the consequences of the relationship and had left the society at court when she had found herself with child. She had withdrawn to Drummond Castle, away from the prying eyes of the court gossips. She had secluded herself, even from much of her own family, content to raise her child alone, hoping all the while for his return.
And then he had followed her, to be with her during the pain of her labor, to share with her the tears and later the joy, to bask in a brief glow of happiness before the world had pulled him away—as it would again and again—but always with the departing promise that he’d come back as soon as he could.
But then one summer day he’d left, and he hadn’t returned. This time had been different. His world had kept him away. Two long years had come and gone before the news of this impending visit had reached Drummond Castle. The skirmishes, the politics...all had conspired to keep them apart until now.
Nanna knew that through these past two years, Margaret had clung to the certain knowledge that she was loved by the man who had fathered her child. Time had passed, though, and the Nanna often wondered if he had changed.
But now...now he was about to make Margaret’s dreams come true. Their dreams, Nanna thought. All of their dreams.
The sound of the door’s latch startled the old woman from her thoughts, and she sat bolt upright. The door opened and Margaret rushed into the room, pushing the heavy oak door closed behind her. Her eyes flickered across the room in search of her child. Finding her on Nanna’s lap, Margaret’s face visibly registered her relief. Fiona leaped up and ran into her mother’s arms.
“Mama, is it time?” the little girl asked hesitantly, sensing something was wrong.
“Oh, my poor baby,” her mother responded in anguish, hugging the child tightly to her. In an instant she turned her troubled eyes toward the older woman. “Nanna, we have no time. Take the back stairs down to the Great Hall. Find Sir Allan and have him come up here immediately. Then go out to the stables and have them ready three horses.”
“What’s wrong, m’lady?” the older woman asked, rushing to her mistress’s side. Margaret’s bright eyes flashed toward her daughter; loose tendrils of blonde hair fell around her perfect face, now filled with obvious distress. “What I have feared for the past few weeks has finally happened,” she answered quickly, struggling to fight back tears. Her face was flushed with her effort to restrain a thousand emotions. “You must take Fiona away from here. But first go and do as I have said. I will send her down with Allan. And please hurry.”
The older woman was torn between the desire to know more of her lady’s distress and the need to comply with the urgency of her command. But one look at the fear in Margaret’s eyes catapulted her into action, and she bustled quickly out the small door at the rear of the chamber.
As the door closed behind the retreating woman, Margaret’s hand went to the leather purse in the pocket of her dress. Wrapping her fingers around it, she could feel the dead coldness of Andrew’s broach, and, beside it, the ring, its heat burning her fingers through the leather. She had to hide them, and she had to hide them now. Her eyes swept around the room.
Oh, God, she thought. Oh, God! But where?
And then she remembered. With a sharp cry, she ran across the room to the fireplace. Counting several stones over from the opening, Margaret pulled one from the wall. Fiona just stood there in the middle of the room, confused, but knowing deep within her heart that something was wrong, terribly wrong. She could see the small dark space behind the wall and watched her mother yank a small leather purse from the pocket of her dress, jamming it into the hiding place. Quickly, Margaret shoved the stone back where it had been and whirled on her daughter.
“Fiona, my love,” she said, crossing the floor quickly. “Run and get your heavy cloak and the leather purse I gave you.”
“But Mama,” the girl protested. “What is wrong?”
“Go, child! Hurry!” the mother said quietly, trying to control the panic in her voice. “I will explain in a moment.”
Fiona ran to the pegs by the door and pulled down her winter cloak. As she turned back, she could see her mother writing furiously at the small study table. Tripping to the chest by her bed, Fiona took out the purse. By the time the little girl reached her side, she had folded her letter and tipped candle wax onto the paper, which she then sealed, using her ring.
“Give me the purse, Fiona,” Margaret said, reaching for the bag. She stuffed the letter in the purse and removed the ruby and emerald-encrusted cross that was hanging from the gold chain around her neck. Drawing Fiona to her, Margaret placed the chain around her neck and discreetly tucked it inside her dress.
“Mama!” Fiona looked wildly at her mother. For as long as she could remember, her mother had worn the cross close to her heart. “You said Papa gave you this.”
“Aye, my love,” Margaret answered, tears now coursing freely down her cheeks. “But I’ll not be needing it, and you shall.”
“But Mama! I don’t understand! Papa is coming!”
Margaret looked at the bewildered daughter. She was hardly more than a bairn. How would she survive this?
“Listen to me, child. We have only a moment.” Margaret looked around furtively. Time was running out, but where were Nanna and Allan? She continued. “An evil man has come into our home. Not your papa. Do you understand me? Your papa does not even know of the evils that surround him. He is innocent of this.”