A Noble Deception - Chapter 11
THAT NIGHT’S MEAL was Lachlan and Moira’s last at Glendalough, and it was nearly as great a feast as the one after their wedding had been. Though Lachlan promised they would no longer take meals at the castle, Moira could hardly object to this final one, for it was the last evening that Lord Albermarle would join them.
In the morning he was to depart for Kinross, and from there, he and his men would be travelling to Douglas Castle in South Lanarkshire to join Lord Douglas’s forces.
James Douglas was preparing for war against King James to avenge the murder of his brother and the theft of the lands that were his birthright. And now, enough of his allies had answered his call that the strike was imminent.
“What says yer fair Rosamund of all this, my Lord,” Lachlan inquired as they sat down to eat.
Lord Albermarle exhaled heavily. “She understands the need for it. But she frets—as any good wife and mother would, of course. My eldest two sons shall come wi’ me.”
“I suppose there is no changing yer mind? ‘Tis treason, this stand.”
“Aye, ‘tis. And if I live through it and we dinna win, I may lose my head. I ken that and have come to terms wi’ it. This isna a decision I’ve made lightly, lad. ‘Tis no’ only my own life I play this game wi’, ‘tis the lives of other men, too.”
“Then why, my Lord? The king has returned Lord Douglas’s lands to him. What is there to fight for?”
“Aye, old Fire Cheek didna get away wi’ those ridiculous confiscations for long, did he?” The earl’s shoulders shook with laughter. “Scotland’s nobles raised their objections loud and clear—and that were the king’s supporters and his enemies, mind. The fool had no choice but to back down.” The mirth died on his lips. “In the end, I find that to do nothing would be the greater risk. ‘Tis no’ all pride and revenge, lad. ‘Tis a principle. What kind of Scotland are we helping to build if we allow our monarch to murder good nobles and confiscate legally held lands at a whim? A king’s justice is his divine right. His temper and his fits are no’.”
Lachlan was moved by Lord Albermarle’s conviction. An acute mix of pride and sorrow tightened his throat. “Ye’re a fine leader, Edward Douglas,” he said roughly.
“As ye will be one day, my boy. If Glendalough isna mine to inherit as I had always thought it would be, I ken now it couldna have gone to a more deserving man.”
“I’m nay so sure about that. I dinna go wi’ ye to stand against the king, after all. D’ye think me a coward?”
“Nay, lad, and dinna think it for one minute. Ye’re no’ to join, whatever may come. Ye’ve an obligation to our John to keep Kildrummond out of the fray. ‘Tis the reason ye’ve been named his heir: the name of Ramsay isna a part of this conflict. Ye’ll no’ go shoving yer way into it unbidden, and risk losing John’s lands.”
The force with which the earl spoke drove home for Lachlan the fact that Kildrummond should have been his by right of lineage. Lord Albermarle had bowed out of his inheritance gracefully, and allowed Lord Kildrummond to name Lachlan his heir. He could have contested the decision. He’d had every right to. But he hadn’t.
The earl meant what he said: Lachlan had an obligation to remain out of the conflict.
“When does Douglas plan to make his move?” he inquired.
“In about a month. When the ground has thawed and the spring rains have ceased. ‘Tis no good fighting on a ground thick wi’ mud.”
“May then. Or thereabouts.”
“I pray that poor John leaves this world before then. I wouldna wish him alive to learn we’ve lost our campaign.”
The earl’s defeatist statement alarmed Lachlan. “D’ye think ye will? Lose, I mean?”
Lord Albermarle shook his great head, his thick mane of silver-streaked hair quivering. “Och, dinna pay me any mind, lad. Douglas has a great force behind him. There is no reason to think he willna be victorious. I’m only preparing myself for the worst, is all.”
For Moira, who’d been listening to the conversation quietly while aimlessly prodding the contents of her trencher, Lord Albermarle’s words fell heavy upon her heart.
A move against the Crown. Treason. She’d known the earl for most of her life. She could not bear to think of him being charged with such a grievous offense—to be sentenced and executed, should they lose.
She was quiet for most of the journey back to her home.
“Ye’re no’ cross wi’ me again, are ye?” Lachlan quipped.
“What? ... Oh, nay. I were just thinking.”
“Of Lord Albermarle. And how he’s joining Lord Douglas.”
“Ah, yes.” He nodded slowly.
There was a moment of tense silence before she spoke again.
“Lachlan, ye’re a knight.”
“Last time I checked.”
“What ... what happens in a battle? Will Lord Albermarle fight, too, or will it only be his men?”
“Typically the lords dinna fight, no. If they do, they fight from atop their mounts and so are more protected than the men on the ground. Mind, though, the battles I’ve fought havena been anywhere near the size of this one—if it comes to that. Ye’d best prepare yerself, though. This isna a petty battle between clans. William Douglas’s murder is a deeply personal matter for all the Douglas lords. Albermarle may very well fight. I suppose it depends upon his nature.”
“That’s what I were afraid of,” Moira admitted. “It is most certainly in Lord Albermarle’s nature to take up a sword and avenge the death of his chief. He isna likely to sit back and watch other men carry out his justice for him.”
“Aye, I’ve got that impression of him,” Lachlan agreed. “I suppose the only thing to do is pray Douglas is victorious.”
By then they’d reached the door of Moira’s hut. The windows were dark; no homey turf fire flickered in the burlap covered window, no plume of smoke lifted up from the chimney into the brisk night air. From outside, the place had a feel of abandonment to it.
Handing him her mare’s reins, Moira darted inside and lit the fire. Returning, she helped him guide the horses into the crude stable which took up half the hut. It was tricky, for the dwelling had been built to accommodate only one horse and a handful of sheep. But neither mount seemed to mind the warmth of the other, nor of the Highland heifer they joined. The sheep bleated a half-hearted protest at having to share their pen, but soon gave up their complaint. It was too late and too cold outside to raise much of a fuss.
The animals secured for the night, Moira scanned the hut to make sure it was still tidy. Niall had kept the place well in her short absence. Her meagre collection of things were still tidy, her handful of surfaces—floor, table, pantry—were still clean. He’d been into the pantry, though: the space where she kept her bannock, between the salt pot and the rye flour, was empty. This didn’t surprise her. That boy could deplete Moray of its grain stocks within a sennight.
“Are ye in the habit of keeping mead?”
Moira glanced quizzically in Lachlan’s direction, and followed his gaze to the right of the hearth. There, tucked into a corner, was a small, wooden cask with MacCormack’s mark branded into the side of the wood grain.
“Oh, isna that sweet,” she exclaimed. “Master MacCormack must have brought it to welcome ye.”
“Ah, yes. He does make a good brew. I’ve never tasted anything quite like it.”
“There’s a reason the castle commissions most of his product nearly as fast as he can make it. We’ve one or two other brewers in the village, but their ale and mead is nowhere near as nice as his ... or, I should say theirs, for the whole MacCormack family is involved in the trade. Even wee Imogen does what she can.”
Dispensing with such formalities as etiquette, Moira fetched two cups. She poured a generous draft into each one, and handed a cup to Lachlan at the same time that she took a sip from her own.
The liquid was sweet and fragrant; it warmed her belly and took the edge off the chill night air. She must be careful not to drink too much, though. Lachlan was watching her from over the rim of his cup as he drank; the way his eyes scrutinized her made her belly a little too warm. She looked away, feeling rather guilty.
Stop it, ye daft lass. Ye dinna want to go imagining things that aren’t there, now.
“Well, I’m tired,” she announced abruptly, and drained her cup. Setting it on the edge of the pantry, she shuffled over to the single cot.
It looked narrower than she remembered.
“I’ll sit up a while, if ye dinna mind.” Settling himself onto the bench, Lachlan stretched his long legs out in front of him. The firelight flickered on his bare shins, and danced over his raven hair. The whole situation felt far more intimate than she imagined it would. It was unsettling.
“Suit yourself,” she replied nonchalantly, and set about stripping off her gown.
Since their first night together, Moira had overcome her modesty. Being modest, she’d discovered, was an inconvenience. Besides, the billowing linen of her shift covered her well enough. And thankfully she was too thin, too shapeless, to encourage a man to conjure in his mind what his eyes could not see.
Tossing her gown over the bedpost, she crawled under the layers of quilts and moved as close to the opposite side of the straw mattress as she could. She was so absurdly close to the wall that she could feel the cold air beyond graze her nose and cheeks.
Exhausted, Moira laid her head on her pillow and closed her eyes. But the sleep she’d been so eager to find all evening seemed lost to her with Lachlan in such close and intimate confines. She remained awake, cognizant of every sound he made. God’s bones, she could hear the rippling of his throat each time he swallowed his mead.
The mead in her own belly began working against her senses. She was not at all in her cups, but the warm comfort that seeped through her body was a little too relaxing. A little too ... delicious.
She did not want to be relaxed around Lachlan. They may be friends now, they may have gotten over their initial wariness of each other, but he was still an arrogant arse like all the other handsome men she knew.
Though perhaps ... not quite like all the others. Unlike them, when Lachlan talked to her, he wasn’t looking over her shoulder for a more interesting woman to entertain. When Lachlan talked to her, it was as if he was truly listening, as if he was truly committed to the conversation they were having at that moment.
It was a trait she noticed in him no matter who he was talking to: commitment. Now that she had occasion to think about it, such was not a common trait. One did not often come across a person—man or woman, it didn’t matter—that made one feel important when they spoke.
It was the mark of a good leader; Lachlan would make a good leader someday.
And therein lay the problem with the mead. For Moira could easily let herself be mistaken that this rare trait in Lachlan Ramsay, a trait which he showed to everyone, was a sign that he enjoyed her company. She could easily lose herself in the illusion that he wanted her companionship.
No handsome man ever really wanted her companionship. For the sake of her pride, Moira needed to remember that in that respect, Lachlan Ramsay was no different. He was not interested in her and he never would be.
And damnit, she was not interested in him, either.
Yet still, when he climbed into the bed beside her, she could feel his presence like an unseen force upon her skin. Like the tickle of a feather or the patter of rainwater.
“Night then, lass,” he whispered to her back.
She pretended to be asleep. With that unseen feather grazing up and down her spine, she did not trust herself to answer him.
THE MELLOW SCENT of clean hay, mingled with the slightly sharper aroma of animal netherparts, greeted Lachlan as he emerged from a deep and luxurious slumber. It was not entirely unpleasant, and he’d certainly awoken to more offensive smells in the past—unless a man knew what it was to sleep in a tent with thirty other men during the height of summer, that man could not claim to know what a bad smell truly was.
He did not move, did not make so much as a sound that he might chase away this unanticipated gift, this state of complete bliss in which he found himself.
Most mornings, when he awoke in a strange place, he did not immediately remember where he was. Given his profession, and the frequency with which he found himself sleeping in unfamiliar places, he’d become accustomed to identifying his surroundings straight away for any sign of imminent danger.
This morning was different. This morning Lachlan remembered exactly where he was and exactly why he was there. Instinctively he knew there was no danger; these were not surroundings that needed identifying.
The hut was warm. Curiously warm. The fire had died in the night, and from the harsh whistle of wind at the door and the rustling of the thatch on the roof he knew it was cold. But within the crude walls of Moira MacInnes’s little hut it was a kind of cozy which no castle, no stable, no finely furnished guest quarters could hold a candle to.
He’d never known contentment quite like this. Was it the close confines of two horses, several odd sheep and a cow that made the place so comfortable? Or was it the small, willowy lass in the bed next to him?
Whatever it was, he didn’t give a rat’s left ballock. He was content, and wished for nothing more than to simply enjoy the peace of this moment.
Gradually the fog which drenched his senses began to lift, and he realized that he and Moira were snuggled much closer than they had been when they went to bed last night. She still faced the wall, but had inched closer to him in her sleep. His body was tucked around hers, his knees drawn into the back of her legs, and his arm slung lazily over her waist.
Lachlan had awoken to many a lass in his bed over the years (he was oddly ashamed to admit it now). But never before had he found himself cuddled up to them so casually in the morning. That was on the occasions when he remained in the bed all night which—he was oddly even more ashamed to admit it now—he didn’t always.
If he had been more lucid, if he had been less comfortable and less at peace, it might occur to him to wonder: why Moira? What was it about this lass that contented him so?
As it happened, Lachlan was not entirely lucid. It did not occur to him to wonder about anything just then. Closing his eyes, he allowed the gentle rise and fall of Moira’s narrow ribs to lull him back to sleep.
Leave the wondering for another time.