Grace B. Francis
Margaret wept over the dead girl’s grave. Her eyes were puffy from heartfelt tears. The mound of dirt at her feet was a forlorn place of rest for her dear and lifelong friend. She would mourn the loss of Ailsa Forbes for days, and she would miss the lovely young maiden forever.
Now Margaret was left alone in a strange land. She would have to carry on without Ailsa at her side. No other chaperone had been provided by her grandfather on the voyage across the sea, and the loneliness bit into her like a palpable physical sensation that left her stomach fluttering and her heart beating rapidly in her chest.
Scotland was an alien place, a wild land of myth and legend. The people spoke in an accent Margaret could barely understand and used words that were rude and lowborn. Rumors of war with England were in the air, and Margaret knew her fear was well founded.
This was the Scottish Lowlands in the year 1295, a time of danger and great peril for a lone girl on her own without benefit of a protector or even a chaperone.
Margaret gazed down at the pathetic wooden cross that marked the grave of her lost friend. The glare of the forenoon sun made the tiny markings on top hard to decipher. She read the words etched in chalk that proclaimed the Christian name of the soul whose body rested beneath and felt shame at the horrific lie she had told. For that name did not read Ailsa Forbes, and at this point, only God and his angels in heaven knew Ailsa had gone home to be with them. No, that name read Margaret Landshire Adney.
That was her name. Only after she’d told her wicked lie had Margaret’s name been sketched on the wood plank with great care and precision by the old man who tended the little cemetery for the village priest. He had even questioned her several times to make sure he got the name right.
To the world, Margaret Landshire Adney, the lady of noble English birth, was dead. Her Scottish handmaiden, Ailsa Forbes, had been like a sister to Margaret her whole life. The world thought she was still alive.
“Are you Ailsa Forbes?”
The deep baritone of the voice behind Margaret caused her to turn about in haste. It startled her because it had been spoken so solemnly a mere foot away. The serious timbre caused her to lose sight of her worries and forget her despondency over the death of her friend.
A man as tall as a young tree and appearing as strong as a mountain stood over her, her small frame held in his shadow. She felt a new bout of fear overtake her. This was surely him, the same man she had heard so much about over the past year. Now, in person, he presented an even grander and more forbidding image than her imagination had ever been able to conjure.
“You must be Bran Mackenzie.”
He’d already assumed Margaret was the young Scottish handmaiden. Margaret and Ailsa both wore the same simple gowns. The drab color and uncomplicated stitch easily announced them both as no better than peasants. This caused the ruse to work all the better.
This man was Ailsa’s intended husband. Margaret and Ailsa had spent hours all winter in front of the hearth in discussion over a man neither had ever met and passed away many cold nights while they fabricated dream-like fantasies about the prowess of Ailsa’s husband-to-be. All the while Margaret had lived vicariously through Ailsa’s promise of this man.
“You’re not what I expected,” Bran began and started to make a round of inspection, her body the focal point of his attention.
Margaret maintained silence in the face of her prevarication and, only with great difficulty, her composure. She allowed the Highland warrior to look his fill at her skinny, slightly malnourished form that occupied the peasant’s gown she wore. What he saw could not possibly give her away. Only the tremor in her voice that admitted her fear might raise doubts in his mind about the authenticity of the girl who stood before him and claimed to be his bride.
To attempt such a great lie to this huge hulk of a man was probably foolhardy and fraught with unknown hazard. He was clearly as fierce as he was easy on the eye, and Margaret’s knobby knees knocked together. But, thankfully, her fearful reaction to his scrutiny was hidden beneath the thick wool of her skirts.
“Maidens from the Forbes clan have red or yellow hair,” Bran commented as he took stock of her.
A wimple was tied around her head to hold Margaret’s raven-dark curls in place. Bran reached with sure fingers to untie the knot and set the locks free to tumble down her shoulders in a tangled swirl of thick black.
Margaret held her ground, her chin raised proudly in the air, and let the Scotsman have his way with her. Her eyes did not meet his, and she stared straight ahead, aware this was probably the haughtiness of a highborn woman yet unable to help her reaction. She was not used to having a man look at her like this, but he was, after all, her intended husband, and she about to become his property for life, so why would he not want to make a cautious evaluation of all he was about to possess?
He took one of Margaret’s dark, frail locks. Her hair looked so delicate clasped in his thick hands while he tested the texture with the tips of his fingers, rolling the thick wave about his palm to make a closer examination. He lifted her hair to his face and sniffed the fragrance. His tongue darted out to taste. His actions reminded Margaret of a man who wanted to confirm the reality of what he saw. The use of all of his five senses served him well as he took inventory, though Margaret had little doubt this brave man had taken the measure of many maidens in the past and the touch of the female flesh was not strange to him.
He dropped her hair. The wind gladly took it out of his fingers and madly whipped it about.
“Forbes clan women also have rosy complexions like the morning sky,” he stated.
He used the same sensuous fingers to trace a line down her cheek. No doubt he found her flesh pale, near the color of newly drawn milk, the way other people always told Margaret she appeared. She had a skin tone so light that even brief contact with the sun would turn her cheeks to red ugly blisters that were even more painful to bear than they were to look upon. Her pallor was pure and unblemished, and she’d received favorable reviews from some of her young suitors in the past, but her skin was nothing like the ruddy cheeks of the dead Scots girl whose grave they stood over. A stronger contrast between Margaret, whose ancestors haled from north England, and Ailsa Forbes, who traced her heritage back to the Highlands, could not be made than the hue of their skin.
“My lady and I were on a ten-day sea voyage before we made Berwick,” Margaret advised him. She felt she owed him some explanation for fear he would become distraught over her wayward appearance and might even turn his back and leave her stranded if his disappointment grew too large. “We did not often get to see the sun during the course of our voyage. The boat captain instead preferred to keep us below deck and out of way of the crew. He said, as females, our presence caused too many distractions for some of the ruffians who served his vessel.”
Bran paid her words no mind. It was just as well. They might have given her lie away. Instead, he lowered his fiery gaze.
He lifted her hands, and they felt as light as a child’s toy made of straw grasped inside his large and powerful palms, and the distinction of her small structure to his heavy mass was brought home. A new part of her body was now his to inspect, and Margaret had never felt so open or vulnerable. She felt as though she was a good or item up for sale at the market, being investigated by a prospective buyer who sought to debate her worth.
“You have soft hands for the maid of a lady.” Bran frowned. He plainly did not like what he saw, and disappointment was etched on his hard face, a stoic and dispassionate look hiding any deeper misgivings.
“My lady did not require me to work hard,” Margaret offered. “Mostly I sat in her rooms at her grandfather’s estate and talked with her to keep her company.”
“What did you talk to a noble English woman about?”
“You mostly,” Margaret admitted, and a blush suffused her face.
“Why would you discuss me with your lady?” This idea deepened the furrow on his brow, and his tone grew impatient and rough.
“She found you and your people in the Highlands fascinating.” Margaret’s heart started to beat fast. “I used to tell my lady stories about you for her entertainment.”
“How could you tell stories about me when you do not know me?” Bran asked, the disapproval and censure evident in his tone. “How could you fascinate a lady with tales of the Highlands when you have never been to the Highlands?”
“I was just spinning tales for my lady’s enjoyment,” Margaret protested.
Margaret felt faint. Yes, she did lie to him. But there was no way this big, bold warrior could know that.
He was belligerent and ornery and no doubt would have given the real Ailsa the same trouble if she had lived to confront him. Margaret felt angry about his inquisition and the disdain for the English and the highborn he seemed to wear on the sleeve of his tunic like a badge of honor.
“I did not lie to my lady,” she shot back at him. “We were just two girls having fun and attempting to pass long winter days in Norway.”
“You had a very curious relationship with your mistress.”
“She was a girl of my same age,” Margaret explained. “We were both eighteen and unmarried. We had grown up in the same house together, and she looked on me more as a friend than a servant.”
“The English are as weak as they are foolish,” he told her with scorn and gave a grunt of disgust and derision.
“My lady was only half English,” Margaret proclaimed. “Her mother was English, but her father was Norwegian and very fierce. Much like you Highlanders I would imagine.”
He scoffed. “Norwegians are dirty and pagan. Do not ever compare them to our people again or you shall feel the back of my hand.”
This man was cruel. He was nothing like she’d expected him to be when Ailsa sang his praises by the nighttime fire. He was too strong and determined to possess an ounce of sensitivity. Insensitive and brutish, he apparently cared nothing about her feelings as a human being and a young girl. Here was a man so hardened to life Margaret could scarcely see why he needed a bride at all, let alone one he had to make a fortnight’s journey to fetch. Perhaps, Margaret thought idly, none of the maidens in the Highlands cared to be claimed by this rogue warrior either.
After all, what woman wanted their suitor to threaten to hit them upon their first encounter? Maybe he was disappointed in her, but she was equally disenchanted by him.
“I’m sorry.” Margaret bowed her head and tried to hide the shame she felt at her ill-planned choice. She also wanted to conceal her anger because she did not want to feel the back of the bully’s hand. “I have never been to the Highlands before and don’t know the customs. But they say I am clever. If you teach me, I’m certain I can learn.”
“You’ve never done an honest day’s work in your life, have you?”
“There were other servants on our farm to do the work.”
Margaret thought she would cry. Why did he make this so hard for her? Did he do this on purpose or was he just too thickheaded to know he was torturing her? She felt he would never be convinced of her worth no matter how hard she protested or what arguments she brought to her defense. He seemed only to want to find fault in her while the mocking tone of his voice whispered she would never be good enough. If her future had not depended upon him, she would have gladly slapped his face and run screaming from his presence, never to set eyes on him again. As it was, she felt hopelessly at his mercy, and this made her feel worse still.
“My job in Norway was mostly to just sit with her ladyship and keep her company. I was her faithful companion and her friend,” Margaret tried to explain levelly. Somehow his mean-spirited aggressiveness made her lie easier to tell all of a sudden. This Highland warrior was an intimidator of women, and he didn’t deserve the truth.
“I was told you were a lady’s handmaiden and knew how to work hard.” He had the gall to talk as if he had been the one who’d been cheated. Again Margaret wondered if he would have said the same words had the real Ailsa stood before him today instead of her highborn imposter. “I was told you could keep my house nice and work hard in my clan.”
“Oh, but I can,” Margaret said with her head held high, not about to be cast aside so easily by the likes of him. Her noble blood set on fire, she would stand up to this lowborn soldier if the effort cost her life.
“I was told you were strong.”
“I am stronger than I look,” Margaret countered with pride.
“You will have to be strong to bear my children,” he said in a tone that suggested an auspicious warning.
“I shall bear you handsome sons,” Margaret promised without a hint of how revolted she really was by the notion.
“I don’t care what my sons look like. I just need them to be strong.”
“I can’t imagine your sons being anything less, sir,” Margaret said, confident the seed of this man would be as strong as a field ox and most likely as big.
The wind carried off the North Sea and cut into their words. The gust blew Margaret’s long hair about her head in a crazy tangle of curls that she had to swipe away with her hands, the momentary distraction probably saving her from hating the cold-hearted Highlander even more than she already did.
“In the village they told me I would find you at the cemetery,” he said. “But they did not tell me over whose grave you mourned.” He gave the mound of dirt a distrustful stare.
“My lady suffered severely from sea sickness as we made the crossing. We got her to shore, but still the illness lingered. Yesterday, in the morn, the good Lord saw fit to take her from me, and this is her final place of rest we stand before.”
“Why was your lady traveling with you?” he asked. “I understood you had been released from her service so you could become my bride.”
“My lady was happy to release me from her service when she found you asked for my hand,” Margaret explained. “However, my lady was also betrothed, and as fate would have it, it was at the same time as I. We traveled together to meet our grooms and start our new lives.”
“Where are your lady’s other people?” he asked and looked around the small cemetery at the scattered headstones and wooden crosses that kept silent vigil.
“Her intended has not yet arrived in Berwick. She traveled with no chaperone but me.” Though her opinion of Bran was not high, Margaret still felt she owed him some explanation not laced with utter lies. “I did love the girl buried in this grave,” she told him honestly. “I spent my whole life with her and loved her like the sister I never had. She was a good, God-fearing Christian girl, and if you had known her, you would have loved her too.”
“I’m not a man who loves,” he told her coldly.
“Perhaps you are not,” Margaret said, undeterred by his disinterest and stoicism, “but I would rather God had taken me than this girl. However, since He saw fit to take her from the earth, I choose to believe it is better that Margaret Landshire Adney is now dead.”
“Why would you speak this way about the lady you say you loved?”
“Because Margaret Landshire Adney had been sent to Berwick to marry an evil and despicable man, and she would have rather died than live a life with him.” There the truth was out at last. The die had been cast, and the rest of Margaret’s life was now inextricably welded to that of this Highlander.