Muira finds herself among dark nights and darker secrets as her laird and master reveals to her a terrible truth about his father. She is torn between her old life and the new one he’s made for her even while plans are made for their wedding and coronation. Guests arrive and trouble brews on the horizon as personalities clash and alliances are made. Among such troubles is the solace she finds in the arms of her laird. His soothing touch promises her nightly delights, and his words promise her the world as she learns what it means to love a man who is more than a man.
I awoke the next morning to a stream of bright light that shot into my eyes. I cringed and rolled over. My arm stretched across the bed and met with only sheets. I forced opened my eyes and saw that I was alone in the bed. A quick cursory of the room told me my laird had even left the chambers.
I sat up and stretched. My body was sore, but a fresh warmth lay in my muscles that chased away the worst of the stiffness. A simple dress lay at the end of the bed, clean and fitted perfectly to my body. I donned my clothes and went down to breakfast in the hopes I would find my laird’s smiling face at the table.
My steps took me only as far as the opening to the entrance hall before I paused and leaned over the balcony. Chamberlain stood near the open doors with a boy of fourteen on hand to assist him. Together the two of them handled a large mess of dried meats, alcohol in various containers, and dozens of flowers.
The flowers were especially surprising as the first frost had killed many of them, but there they lay in tall, elegant piles against the base of the balcony like a painting.
I walked down the stairs and over to Chamberlain.
“Are these for our laird’s coronation?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “No. These are the end of the year taxes come early as thanks to our new laird.”
“Thanks? For last night’s deed?” I inquired.
Chamberlain bowed his head. “Aye. The news has reached the whole of the valley and-” He was interrupted when an old woman shuffled through the doors with a nervous young boy of eleven summers by her side.
They were not familiar to me, and so did not live in the village. The old woman’s shawl was embroidered with sheep’s wool of the kind raised at the far end of the valley. In her quivering hands was a wreath of flowers for the head, and the boy held a leather bag that jingled with coins. The old woman stopped before Chamberlain and me, and bowed her head. The boy followed her example.
“My laird Chamberlain,” she greeted the steward.
“Bean Lloyd,” he returned in kind. The young boy beside Chamberlain scribbled down the name on a sheet of paper in his hand. “It is a pleasure to see you again.”
She smiled. “Aye. I always come with but one purpose. The taxes.” She gestured to the young man. “This is my grandson, Michael. I am too old to manage the cart, but he is a fine young man now to help me on the long journey.”
“You are early this year,” Chamberlain commented.
Bean Lloyd bowed her head. “Aye, we are. The warriors of the Menzies clan were hard put to burn us out of our homes and sheep, but they fled when word came of the defeat of their army at the High Road.” She turned to me and her ancient eyes studied my face. “You must be our Lady Campbell. Long life to you.” She bowed her head to me.
I smiled and returned the compliment. “And to you as well, Bean Lloyd.”
Bean Lloyd held out the wreath to me. “This is a gift for our lady for her courage.”
I blinked at her. “My courage?”
She gave a nod. “Aye. We heard of your courage to accompany our laird, and how your innocence brought forth God’s will upon our enemies. The wreath is a small token of our appreciation.”
“I do not-” One pointed look from Chamberlain stopped my protests. I smiled and knelt on one knee before Bean Lloyd. “I would be honored to wear your wreath.”
Bean Lloyd leaned forward and placed the wreath of sweet-smelling flowers atop my head. Her young grandson handed the taxes to Chamberlain. The old woman stepped back, and I raised my head to find a small, bright smile on her lips.
“You truly are most kind, Lady Campbell,” Bean Lloyd complimented me.
I blushed. “Thank you.”
Bean Lloyd turned to her grandson and leaned on his arm. “Now let us go, Michael. We have a long road ahead of us.”
The pair disappeared through the front doors and out into the courtyard. I stood and touched the garlands atop my head.
“I do not know if I have earned such praise,” I murmured.
“They believe you have, and it is wise policy to allow the people to view you in a favorable light,” Chamberlain advised me.
“But what do they believe? What stories are being told?” I asked him.
Chamberlain’s eyes flickered to his young assistant. “Steven. Take account of who enters and how they pay the taxes.”
The young boy bowed his head. “Yes, steward.”
Chamberlain wrapped his arm around me and led me into the coronation hall. The hall was no longer its gloomy self, but a place of open windows and streaming sunlight. The bare floor was swept clean and banners were draped around the ceiling in preparation for the coronation.
Chamberlain closed the doors behind us and turned to me. His lips were tightly pursed and he took a deep breath. I clasped my hands together and my heart thumped loudly in my chest.
“What is it? Is something the matter?” I asked him.
“The stories told of last night’s. . .event are numerous. Some are complimentary and bring gifts such as the wreath you wear, but others are not as flattering,” he admitted.
I felt the color drain from my face and my hands shook. “What do they say?”
He walked past me and paced the floor between where I stood and the coronation chair. “There are tales of witchcraft, sorcery, and even dealings with the devil.”
My eyes widened. “But those aren’t true! Tristan would never consort with such evil!”
He paused and gave a nod. “You and I both know that, my lady, but people fear change, and a change in leadership after so long and in such a sudden fashion is a great fear for them.”
“But we must tell them the truth!” I insisted.
Chamberlain closed his eyes and shook his head. “They will believe what they wish to believe. Talk will not vanquish those thoughts, but action may.”
“But what action would quell such ugly rumors?” I wondered.
“Our laird’s coronation will bring a closure to his father’s reign, and an example of kind governance,” he replied. “If they benefit from his kindness then the ugly rumors may calm.”
“Have you told our laird of these tales and your suggestion?” I asked him.
He stopped his pacing and shook his head. “No. Our laird is still away with the men to scavenge the field of our slain enemy and inspect what damage they have done to the farms. He does not yet know the troubles that brew on the horizon.”
I bit my lower lip and turned my eyes to the floor. “Laird protect us. . .” I whispered.
Chamberlain stepped up to me and looked into my eyes with his steady gaze. “My lady, I wish to ask a great favor of you.”
I blinked up at him. “What is it?”
“I wish to know what happened last night. You and I both know something was amiss in how our enemies were vanquished. I. . .I find myself in doubt that God was truly on our side,” he admitted.
My heart grew heavy. Here was a close ally who doubted the purity of our laird. I sighed and shook my head. “I cannot tell you what I myself do not know.”
Chamberlain stepped back and knelt on one knee before me. He clasped one of my hands in his own and bowed his head so his forehead touched the back of my hand. “Worry not about my loyalty, my lady. I have sworn myself to the Campbell family, and I would go against God’s wrath to keep my oath.”
The heavy weight was lifted from my heart, and I managed a smile. “I don’t believe you would go against God’s wrath in keeping such a noble oath.”
He arose and returned my smile. “That gives me comfort, my lady, and lends something to our laird’s words on the eve of the strange battle.”
I tilted my head to one side and furrowed my brow. “What words?”
“That you are indeed a child of innocence,” he explained. “Now if you will excuse me, I must attend to my duties and await the arrival of our laird. He is expected at any moment.”
Chamberlain bowed, and I curtsied in reply before he left me alone with my thoughts. I strolled the length of the room with my thoughts both frantic and soothing. One part of me insisted my laird was something other than a man, which I could not argue, and that he was dangerous. It was to the last part which the other half of my mind vehemently objected. It would not consider my laird a danger to any but his enemies, and I nor anyone I knew was his enemy.
I stopped my pacing when a shout came from the courtyard, and I rushed to the windows that looked out on the High Road towards where the battle had occurred. My laird led twenty men and as many mules towards the village. The backs of the mules were loaded with weapons and armor, and the men appeared tired and dirty, but there were bright smiles on their faces.
Many of the men from the village came out to greet them and admire the loot taken from our enemies. My laird rode on ahead, and soon I heard the clatter of his horse’s hooves as he trotted into the courtyard. I rushed from the coronation hall and to the entrance where I saw Chamberlain hold the reins of my laird as Tristan dismounted.
“five dozen swords, and nearly that many shields,” I heard my laird tell his steward.
“How many dead, my laird?” Chamberlain wondered.
“Enough to make the Menzies clan fear us,” my laird assured him. He spied me in the doorway and his face brightened. My laird walked over and bowed to me. “My lady, you are a sight for sore eyes after such bloodshed.”
“Were there no survivors?” I asked him.
My laird straightened and nodded. “We found their tracks as they fled back from whence they came, but we dared not follow. Their dead are buried and our people rebuild.”
A stable boy took charge of my laird’s horse and Chamberlain joined us. “Is the damage great, my laird?” he inquired.
“Not so great that they will not be ready by the first snow fall,” Tristan assured him. “And when the snow retreats we will be ready for them.”
Chamberlain raised an eyebrow. “My laird?” he wondered.
Tristan smiled and set his hand on Chamberlain’s back to guide him inside. “Come. I will speak to you of my plans at breakfast.”