Excerpt: Once Upon a Plaid

Once upon a plaid

“The boar’s head in hand bear I
Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.”

—From “The Boar’s Head Carol”

“However many pretty leaves and sweet-smelling spices ye put on the sorry thing, ’tis still just the head of a deid pig, aye?”
—An observation from Nab, fool to the Earl of Glengarry.

 Chapter 1

“Christmastide is no time for such a Friday-face, Kat.”

Katherine quickly turned up the corners of her mouth. The frozen smile she forced into place felt almost natural. Heaven knew, she’d had enough practice, but her sister-in-law, Margaret, had caught her in an unguarded moment and that would never do. She flashed her teeth, praying no one in her father’s hall would know the difference between this mask she donned and a genuine expression of pleasure.

“I’m just a wee bit tired.” She forced down a gulp of her small beer and moved her food around her trencher without eating it. If Katherine had a single bite of songbird pie, she feared she’d retch. She picked out a sliver of meat and held it beneath the table for Angus. Her little terrier nibbled daintily, then licked the drippings from her fingers.

Angus cringed each time the deerhounds by the fire cracked the bones flung to them by the earl’s men-at-arms or fell to snapping and snarling among themselves over some choice tidbit. He didn’t dare stray far from Katherine’s side.

“After the work we did this day, I’m surprised ye’re not all in as well, Margie,” Katherine said.

The women had plenty to show for their labors. The great hall sparkled in the light of dozens of dear beeswax candles. The large end of the Yule log was crammed into the massive fireplace, roaring away cheerfully. Since it was long and thick enough to burn for the required twelve days of Christmas, most of the log stuck out into the hall between the trestle tables. Earlier in the day, before snow had begun falling in earnest, Katherine and Margaret had gathered armloads of greenery and festooned the hall with fragrant wreaths and garlands. The kissing bough, fashioned of ivy, fir, and mistletoe, had taken hours to construct and hang just so.

Not that I’ll have occasion to use it. An aching lump of loneliness swelled in Katherine’s chest.

“Right glad I am that ye decided to come celebrate Christmas with us.” Margaret finished the last of her pie with a satisfied sigh. “Thanks to ye, good-sister, I did more supervising than working. But if ye must know, women near their time don’t get tired, we get hungry.” She eyed Katherine’s trencher. “If ye’re not going to eat that . . .”

Kat shoved her food in front of her sister-in-law. After all, Margie was eating for two. Possibly three, given the way the fine fabric of her leine bulged.

Katherine forced herself to smile a bit wider so no one would suspect she died a little each time she looked at Margaret’s round belly. She raised her beer again.

It was comforting to hide behind the flagon. No one could know this Christmastide held not a drop of joy for her. Not even William, who ought to have known, who by rights ought to feel the same, had any idea what was festering inside her.

Or if he did, he didn’t care.

Katherine was dragged from her dark musings when Ranulf MacNaught, the most bellicose of her father’s pledge-men and her first cousin, snatched the bagpipes from the boy who’d been attempting to play them in fits and starts all evening. MacNaught started a wheezing squeal of his own. Even though he was Lord Glengarry’s nephew, Ranulf was given far more attention than Katherine thought he deserved. A certain faction of her father’s retainers fawned on Ranulf with houndlike servility. Now Lord Glengarry’s men-at-arms upended their drinking horns and banged them in time with the droning melody on the dark, scarred wood of the long tables. The pounding rhythm echoed in Katherine’s chest.

Her nose twitched. The smells of too much rich food, damp wool, unwashed dogs, and unkempt men couldn’t be completely obscured by evergreens and spice balls. The bright hall seemed suddenly very close, as if the stone walls were inching toward her.  

“Odds bodkins, ’tis Christmas, Lady Katherine,” murmured a soft voice behind her. “Why are ye sad?”

When she turned toward the sound, she found Nab, her father’s fool, fingering the drooping ends of his ridiculous cap. His carrot-red hair shot out from under the cap in snarls and stringy braids. His multihued motley costume was stained with bits of the feast. Since Nab was usually the fastidious sort, except for his hair, which resisted all efforts to subdue it, Katherine guessed that food had been tossed at him, as if he were one of the deerhounds.

Apart from his odd appearance, she’d never understood why Lord Glengarry chose Nab to serve as his resident entertainer. Most court fools were sly and cruel in their comedy.

Nab was shy and quiet and hadn’t a mean bone in his slight body. But he had a habit of saying the most unusual things at the wrong time, which her father found hilarious. Nab’s gaze darted about, looking anywhere but at her. In truth, he rarely looked anyone directly in the eye. Even so, she knew his attention was fixed upon her, waiting for a response.

“Ye’re mistaken, Nab. I’m not sad. I’m tired.”

“Nay, tired is when ye yawn. Sad is when ye pretend to smile.” He frowned down at the turned-up tips of his own shoes. “I’m thinkin’ ye are the one who’s mistaken. When I’m confused, I go to sleep and it all becomes clear in my dreams. Ye should find yer bed then. That way, ye willna still be sad tomorrow.”

Margaret chuckled. “The fool’s right in an odd sort of way. Find your bed, lass. Ye’ve worked yourself into a frazzle since ye came home to help me. Things will only get more boisterous here in the hall this night.”

As if to prove her right, Ranulf laid aside the pipes and bellowed, “If we’re to get this Yuletide under way, we must crown a Laird of Misrule.”

Katherine’s father rose from his place on the dais, leaned his heavy knuckles on the table, and skewered MacNaught with a gimlet eye. His grey brows lowered in a frown, though everyone chuckled, sensing that their laird didn’t mean it. Each Yuletide, this sham deposing of their true leader was but the signal that the revels were to begin in earnest.

“Are ye saying ye dinna like the way I do things around here, MacNaught?” Lord Glengarry boomed.

“Nay, milord. Rest assured, we’d follow ye blithely to Hades, singing as we go all the rest of the year.” MacNaught scraped a quick bow. “But Christmastide needs a master of revels, a proper Abbot of Unreason, and my Lord Glengarry is the soul of reason and benevolent rule. What we need now is a decadent despot, a feeble-minded tyrant.” He scanned the room till his gaze fell on Nab. “What we need is a fool! Get him, lads.”

“No.” Katherine leaped to her feet, but she was too late. Some of the nearby men snatched up Nab, who hated to be touched at the best of times, and bounced him hand to hand over their heads across the hall. He made pitiful bleating noises, sounding like the mournful Glengarry sheep when shearing season was upon them.

“Put him down this instant,” Katherine demanded, but no one seemed to hear her, least of all her father, who was roaring with laughter along with the rest of them.

She stumbled after Nab, accidentally stepping on wee Angus in the process. The terrier yipped, alerting the deerhounds to his presence in the hall. The two largest bitches scrambled to their feet and lunged after him, as if he were a hare in the thicket. Angus skittered beneath the long trestle table with the deerhounds on his stubby tail, upending benches and knocking over diners who didn’t scatter out of their way quickly enough.

Between Nab being carried aloft and the hounds scuttling between men’s legs below, the great hall was a squirming mass of unwieldy limbs. Then to cap the pandemonium, the door burst open and a hoary breath of winter washed over the company.

And blew in William Douglas, Laird of Badenoch, with it.

He stomped his booted feet on the threshold, shaking free great chunks of white. Even though he’d drawn the end of his plaid over his head, his dark hair was dusted with snow. His brows were drawn together in a frown over his fine straight nose.  

Something tingled to life in Katherine’s chest at the sight of him, but she tamped it down. Hope hurt too much. She’d thought herself safe from him for Christmas since a howling storm had roared since midday, but he’d evidently ridden through the blizzard to come after her.

Devil take the man’s stubbornness.  

Angus, however, seemed relieved to see him. He made a beeline for William and, with a flying leap, launched himself into the man’s arms. The deerhounds surrounded them, snapping and growling.

“Ho there, wee beastie!” William grabbed the wriggling terrier and held him aloft to keep him from the deerhounds’ jaws while he set down his oilskin bag.

That bag boded ill. It seemed to be full, which meant he planned on staying at Glengarry Castle for a while.

When the terrier stilled, William tucked the little dog into his plaid. Angus snuggled into as small a ball as he could, safe in the folds of the tartan. He didn’t stir a hair when Will thundered at the deerhounds, “Back then, ye worm-eaten bitches!”

The hounds tucked their tails and scuttled away, casting backward glances at William. Angus peeped out from between William’s shirt and the swath of plaid draped over his shoulder, watching the bigger dogs slink back to the fire.

But Will had evidently already dismissed Lord Glengarry’s pack from his mind. As if he sensed her eyes on him, William lifted his dark head and turned to meet Katherine’s gaze. She was still halfway across the great hall, and yet, he seemed to know exactly where she was.

He always did.

How does he do that?

And if he could do that, why could he not also sense how very much she wished him gone?  

But at least he didn’t fight his way across the crowded space to her. Nab was still being tossed from one group of men to another, wailing as he sailed through the air. William strode toward the mob.

When Nab landed on a group of hands near him, William grabbed the fool and pulled him down to stand on his own two feet. “The fool’s not a sack of barley to be flung about. What’s this great stramash about then?”

Ranulf MacNaught’s lip curled, but he did no more than clench and unclench his fists at his sides.

Will was a braw fellow, standing half a head above most of the men in the hall. His shoulders were as broad as a stone dresser’s and his reputation for feats of arms bordered on legendary. Katherine didn’t blame Ranulf for being intimidated. Better men than he had cringed under the Black Douglas glare.

“We’re crowning our Abbot of Unreason,” Ranulf said. “Not that it’s any concern of yours.”

“Well, then if Nab’s to be your king for the next twelve days, ye ought to give him a bit more respect.” William turned to the fool. “As the Abbot of Unreason, d’ye ken ye can give any order and your subjects must obey?”

“In truth?” Nab’s gaze flitted around like a midge, refusing to light on any one person for longer than a blink.

“Aye, in truth.” William could be as hard as flint when he chose, but now the kindness in his tone made Katherine’s chest ache. It would be so much easier to do what she must if he were a terrible bully. “What say ye, Laird Nab?”

“I say . . . I say . . .” Nab held his hands out at arms’ length. “Everybody step back.”

MacNaught grumbled, but he and the rest of his cohorts did as they were bid.

“Ye can order them to stand on their heads if it pleases ye,” Will suggested.

Nab’s red brows drew together. “It might leave a terrible boot print if Ranulf were to try to stand on his own head.”

William laughed at Nab’s misunderstanding. “It might at that. Though as hard as Ranulf MacNaught’s head is, I’ve doubts on that score. But it doesna change the fact that ye’ve been chosen as laird till Twelfth Night. Ye can make your own rules.”

“Odds bodkins, I’m not a laird.” Nab sneaked a glance at Katherine’s father. Lord Glengarry shot his fool a toothy grin and gave him a nod of encouragement. Nab blushed to the tips of his oversized ears. “Leastwise, I dinna feel like a laird.”

“Perhaps we can remedy that.” Will knelt to rummage in his oilskin bag. He pulled out a long object wrapped in soft doeskin and handed it to Nab.

With care, the fool unwrapped the parcel to reveal a small scepter. It was no longer than a child’s bow, but the gilt-edged silver was engraved with mystical symbols, whose meanings were far older than living memory. The polished stone atop its length gleamed as if it were lit with fire from within.

He would have to bring that benighted thing, Katherine thought, as she folded her arms over her chest.

Nab handed it back to William.

“Nay, ’tis not for me.” The fool sidled a few steps away. “’Tis too fine.”

“Nothing’s too fine for the Laird of Misrule,” William said with a smile that nearly broke Katherine’s heart. She’d fallen in love with that smile.

Loving the man had come later.

“Besides, this is a true scepter of power, mind ye,” Will went on. “’Tis old beyond reckoning and has been handed down in the Douglas family since the beginning, from father to son.”

“Is that so?” Ranulf MacNaught found his voice and a bit of his courage, but Kat noticed he hadn’t drawn any closer to William. “The scepter seems small for something ye’d have us believe is so great.”

“Just because something is small doesna mean it willna do the job,” Will said. “Is that not what ye’re counting on your women to believe, MacNaught?”

The hall rang with laughter at that. Ranulf’s face turned an unhealthy shade of purple, but William ignored his growing rage, turning back to Nab.

“Legend has it that the scepter came to the Douglas clan from the Fair Folk, and as ye know, many of the fey peoples are smaller than we. But it is a mistake to underestimate them.” William laid a hand on Nab’s shoulder and held out the scepter to him again. “Sometimes the small, the seemingly weak, are really the strongest of all.”

Nab reached out and haltingly took the scepter this time. Then he clutched it tight to his chest. “I’ll take good care of it till Twelfth Night, Lord Badenoch.”

“Call me William. Ye’re the laird now. And I know ye’ll have a care for the scepter, else I’d not have lent it to ye. Come, lads. Raise a glass to Laird Nab. Well may he reign, though it be not long!”

After the men drank to the Laird of Misrule’s health, Nab waved the scepter while he instructed his new subjects in the fine art of balancing on one foot while hopping in a circle. The half-drunken crowd followed suit to great hilarity.

William gave Katherine’s father a quick bow in nominal acknowledgment of his host, and then left the foolery behind to head across the room to her.

She wanted to pick up her skirts and flee, but she couldn’t stir a step. It was as if she were trapped in her recurring night phantom, the one where an ogre pounds down a mountainside toward her but she can’t move. Just as in her dream, her feet seemed rooted to the flagstone floor.

Will stopped before her, reached into his plaid, and pulled out Angus, offering the little dog to her as if he were a loaf of bread. Of course, this particular loaf squirmed and whined, his stubby legs churning the air as though he might swim through it to her if only William would turn him loose.

“This is yours, I believe.”

Katherine took the terrier from him. Angus melted into her, nuzzling her neck and pressing nosy doggie kisses against her skin. “Thank ye, Will.”

“I have somewhat else with me that’s yours as well.”

She knew better than to ask him what that might be. His dark eyes were speaking for him. Will could be silver-tongued when he wished to be, and she couldn’t bear to hear his protestations of love. Anything he said would ring false. She could endure much, but she drew the line at untruths.

“I suppose ye’ll be wanting to refresh yourself after your journey.” Normally, Margaret served as chatelaine since she was married to Katherine’s brother. It was her place to cater to the needs of guests, but since Margie was in the final days of her confinement, Katherine had taken over those duties when she arrived at Glengarry Castle two days ago. “I’ll show ye to your chamber.”

“So long as it’s also your chamber,” William said, shifting his oilskin pack on his shoulder. “Or has it slipped your mind that ye’re my wife?”

 

“O, yonder she’s comin’, over yon lea.
With many a fine tale unto thee,
An’ she’s gotten a baby on her knee
And another one comin’ home.”

—From “The Gaberlunzie Man”

“Dinna this song make ye wonder where she got those bairns? Sounds as if she picked ’em up along the hedgerows, does it not? O’ course, I hear tell that’s where quite a few of ’em get their start.”
—An observation from Nab, fool to the Earl of Glengarry

Chapter 2

 “Nay, what’s between you and me is topmost on my mind,” Kat said. “Though I rather think ye’ve not given it much thought of late. In fact, I’m surprised ye noticed I was gone.”

William kept his expression carefully neutral. She was right. It had been a day and a half before he realized she’d absented herself from Badenoch Castle. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Aye. Just in time for the goose and trimmings.” One of her russet brows cocked up.

William wished he could smooth down that brow, but she’d probably bat his hand away. She’d pushed him away for weeks. “D’ye really want to have this argument in your father’s hall before God and everybody?”

Katherine’s lips tightened into a thin line. She liberated a candle from one of the sconces and led the way out of the great hall. She didn’t say a word as she preceded him up the twisting spiral staircase that exclusively served the family portion of the castle. But her hips twitched with each step, warming Will more than the fire in the great hall ever would.

Yet if she turned around, my darling wife’s frown would freeze me quicker than the north wind.

William had to half stoop as he ascended behind her. Even then he nearly smacked his forehead on the lintel each time they passed through a corner of a room and reentered the private stairs.

The family chambers were stacked one upon another on succeeding levels of the tower, all joined to the same twisting staircase. They passed through Lord Glengarry’s spartan room first. After Katherine’s mother had died, the earl had removed all hint of feminine frippery from his chamber, content with only the most basic of necessities—a comfortable bed, a chest for his clothing, and a larger one for his weapons. His only extravagance was the private garderobe, where he could bathe in a copper hip bath on occasion and use the latrine built into the castle wall.

The next chamber up belonged to Donald, Lord Glengarry’s heir and Kat’s only brother. He obviously shared it with his wife, Margaret, because the walls were covered with tapestries and the space was crammed with furniture in the heavy new Tudor style. The pads on the kneeling bench of the prie-dieu in the corner were deeply indented, proof of Lady Margaret’s piety.

William was sure Donald spent little time on his knees.

Finally at the top of the tower, as befitted a daughter of the house, Katherine’s chamber was situated in the most secure place in the keep. It was the room she’d occupied all her life until she became his bride four years ago.

She set the candle down before her silvered glass mirror, where its light could be magnified and cast back into the space. Then she crossed over to the hearth and poked the banked fire into a flickering dance.

Katherine stooped and set down wee Angus, his short legs scrambling even before his feet met the fragrant rushes on the stone floor. The terrier made a running jump and planted himself firmly in the center of the string bed.

“That bed will be a tight enough fit with just you and me, Kat,” Will said as he set down his oilskin sack. “I dinna think there’s room for the wee beastie as well.”

He was marginally ashamed of the fact that he envied the terrier. His wife lavished a goodly amount of affection on that little flea trap. William would be pleased with even a small portion of it.

“You presume a great deal if ye think ye’ll be allowed to join me in that bed.”

“Ye’re my wife, Katherine. Ye promised before God to obey me. If I want to sleep with ye, I damned well will.”

It was worse than a sore tooth that he had to force the issue. Before he’d married, William had been invited into plenty of feminine beds, though he hadn’t accepted any of the offers. He’d been betrothed to Katherine when they were both children and to tup another woman hadn’t seemed respectful, either to her or to the agreement their fathers had made. He was spoken for and he was determined to honor his marriage bed. Even though his young body had burned with curiosity about what passed between a man and a woman, William made sure he and his bride learned together.  

And the lessons they’d given each other were sweet indeed. She was warm and responsive, and beneath her gown, his wife was curved and soft. Will had thanked God and set out to explore his new kingdom with thoroughness. Katherine returned the favor.

At least, at first.

The invitations to other ladies’ beds hadn’t stopped after he’d given his vow to Katherine. He still turned away from those welcoming smiles but it was getting harder. After all, the one woman who ought to be most welcoming of all seemed to want nothing to do with him.

“If ye mean to bring God into this,” his wife was saying, “let me remind ye that the scriptures teach us that if the wife’s body belongs to her husband, the husband’s body likewise belongs to his wife.” Kat’s green eyes sparked dangerously. “So if I choose to see that your body sleeps elsewhere, husband, ’tis my God-given right.”

Suffering Lord. He never should have let Father Simon tutor her. She’d become far too good a theologian for him to cross verbal swords with. He decided to take a different tack.

“I dinna know what ye have to be angry about.” He fisted his hands at his waist.

“Then let me refresh your memory.” Her neat brows drew closer together over her pert nose. “Does Lady Ellen ring a bell?”

“Lady Ellen?”

“Aye, the nubile young thing ye’ve seen fit to add to our household.”

Nubile? William would have called the girl hopelessly skinny. He liked a woman with a bit of meat on her bones, all soft and curved. Like his Katherine. “Lady Ellen’s but a child.”

“She’s fifteen. Younger than she are mothers made.”

“That’s what her family fears. She’s to be betrothed to my cousin John, ye see. My uncle asked would we foster her until the wedding next May. Her family lives in the Lowlands and John will be worth less than nothing to his father if he’s running off to court her instead of tending to his father’s holding.”

“I see.” Her shoulders relaxed a bit, as if she were a coracle with the wind spilling from her sails.

“Besides, her family wanted us to vouchsafe her purity since they feared the girl was apt to run away with John unless she was closely watched.”

“Oh.” Katherine worried her lower lip.

“Dinna fret. I’ve set Duncan to sheep-dogging her.” Will was certain the girl was safe in Duncan’s care. Their grizzled, one-eyed retainer didn’t suffer fools gladly. Especially not young ones. “He’ll not let anything befall the lass. No matter how much she might wish it.”

“Why did ye not tell me these things?”

“Ye haven’t exactly been wanting to talk with me of late.” In fact, since Michaelmas she’d insisted on separate bedchambers, as if they were damned English nobility whose reputation for chilly marriages was well known even in the Highlands. “Do ye really think so ill of me that ye supposed I’d bring a mistress under the same roof as my wife?”

Her shoulders stiffened again. “So are ye telling me ye keep a light-o-love elsewhere?”

“God’s teeth, what do ye take me for, Kat?” he growled. “One woman in my life is trouble enough. What would I do with two? Ye’ve no right to be angry.” He stomped over to the only chair in the room and plopped down in it to tug off his boots. “I’m not the one who went haring off in the dead of winter without so much as a word. Did ye not think I’d be worried about ye?”

The left boot slipped off with ease, but try as he might, William couldn’t seem to get the correct angle on the right one. Katherine sighed and came over to help him. At least she didn’t neglect all her wifely duties.

“My brother’s wife is about to give him another child,” she said as she straddled his outstretched leg and gave the boot a yank. It wouldn’t budge. “Did ye not suppose she’d appreciate a kinswoman with her for her lying-in?”

“Aye.” But would it have hurt her to tell him her plans? “That’s why I came straight here once I realized ye weren’t out visiting sick crofters or delivering food baskets to every gaberlunzie begging by the side of the road again.”

Any beggar with a sad story to tell found an easy meal or a coin forthcoming from his Katherine. William thought her devotion to giving obsessive, especially since it meant she often neglected her other duties as his chatelaine to attend the poor.

“Seems ye think every scruffy mendicant who turns up at our gate is a chance for you to host an angel unaware.”

And of more importance than your husband, he thought with bitterness.

He put his stockinged foot on her backside and gave it a push to help remove the other boot. It finally eased over his heel and Kat stumbled forward. She’d have fallen headlong if he hadn’t caught her by the waist and pulled her back onto his lap.

“Ye make my charity sound silly,” Katherine said accusingly. She struggled to rise, but he held her fast.

“No, ’tis not silly.” If married life had taught him anything, it was that sometimes it was wise to hold back his true thoughts. “But there are those who take advantage of your good heart.”

She hung her head. “Ye only believe my heart’s good because ye dinna ken why I give alms.”

She stopped straining against his arms and was still for a moment. William drew in a deep lungful of her scent, a sweet breath of spices and evergreens, and then let all the tension in his body flow out along with his exhalation. It was restful to hold her like this, as if they had stepped outside of time while the rest of the world went on without them for a bit.

He lived for such moments—quiet, tender times when he could simply hold the woman he loved. Pity they were so few and far between.

“Sometimes,” she said in a small voice, “I imagine if only I could do enough for others, if only my deeds were balanced against my sins and found to outweigh them, then maybe my dearest wish would be granted.”

He didn’t have the courage to ask what that wish might be. He already knew. Hearing her voice it would break something inside him.

Her head came to rest on his shoulder. “So ye see, Will, if I do acts of kindness only because I hope to gain, my heart isna all that good.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.” William slid a finger under her chin and tipped her face up to him. Her eyes were enormous with the light of the fire sparking in them. But the unspoken burden behind them was even bigger.

He bent and covered her mouth with his, wishing he could take her sorrow on himself. But if he couldn’t bear to hear her speak it, how could he lift it from her?

So instead he poured his love for her into his kiss.

She opened to him, answering his tongue with hers, and the world went wet and soft and welcoming.

This much is right between us.

In their thousand days or so of wedded life, Will had kissed this woman countless times and, contrary to his friends’ predictions, it was always new to him. How could it not be when he was never sure what was rolling around in Kat’s head while their mouths made love?

Perhaps it was all right not to know. Perhaps they were better together if only their bodies did the talking. He brushed her breast through her soft gown. She made a small noise, a soft coo like a nesting dove, into his mouth. That sound never failed to go straight to his groin, though it had been some months since he’d heard it.

William stood, with her still in his arms, and carried her to the bed. Angus scrambled up to hide under one of the pillows. Will decided he’d deal with that little furball later, after he laid his wife out and covered her sweet body with his.

But when he lay down atop her, she pressed both palms on his chest. “No, Will, I canna.”

“Och, love, dinna be cruel.” He planted a string of baby kisses along her jaw and neck. She seemed to melt under them. “Not to a man who rode through a blizzard to come to your bed.”

When he suckled her earlobe, she shivered and he figured he was halfway to heaven. But when he made to kiss her mouth again, she turned her face aside.

“’Tis no’ that I dinna want ye. I do. More than ye know.” Her voice broke. “My courses are upon me.”

Her words were a punch to his gut. William rolled off her and lay flat on his back beside her, staring up at the underside of the tower thatching.

Devil seize it.

She’d lost another one. By his reckoning, she’d been more than three months gone with child, but he couldn’t be sure since she’d not shared her hopes with him this time. Still, he could count. She ought to have known he was waiting for her to tell him, to reveal her secret so they could rejoice together.

Now all he could share with his wife was the bitter end of yet another failure. Another loss.

’Tis not your fault.

The words died on his tongue. He’d said them before. Many times. She never seemed to hear them. He’d give half his holding if someone would tell him what to do, what to say, to ease his Katherine’s pain.

He started to reach for her, to draw her into his arms, but she rolled onto her side facing away from him. She didn’t say anything, but in the dimness, her shoulders shook.

She wept without a sound. Even in her grief, she shut him out. Wee Angus crept out from under the pillow and nestled against the small of her back. She didn’t push him away.

God’s teeth, I canna even best a dog.

Will sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

“Where are you going?” she said softly.

“To get roaring drunk, my love. I may even pick a fight with that clotpole Ranulf MacNaught.” He stomped to the doorway and promptly banged his forehead on the low lintel. William swore softly under his breath. “I canna think of a better way to celebrate Christmas, can you?”

  

“Ding Dong! Merrily on high in heav’n the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! Verily the sky is riv’n with Angel singing.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!”

—Set to a sixteenth-century tune

“Is it wrong, ye think, that I want to dance over so somber a thing as our Lord’s birth? I dinna think ye could blame me when even the angels are cutting up such a great stramash.”
—An observation from Nab, fool to the Earl of Glengarry

 Chapter 3

 The chapel bells woke William, boring into his brain a little deeper with each rolling chime. He rolled over in the bed, searching with one hand for Katherine. When he didn’t find her, he forced his eyes open.

She’d been gone for some time. There wasn’t the least bit of warmth left on her pillow. Angus, however, wiggled his way out from under the coverlet and licked Will’s face.

“Looks like we’ve both been abandoned,” William said to the dog. “Trust our Kat to rise for Christ’s Mass. She’s pious enough; no doubt her prayers will count for all of us.”

Good thing. Will hadn’t had much to say to the Almighty for a while.

He threw back the bedclothes and, ignoring the ripple of gooseflesh across his bare skin, stalked across the chamber to the pitcher and ewer on the stand in the corner. The water had a thin crust of ice on it, but Will broke through and splashed his face in any case. The bracing cold swept the last of the cobwebs from his brain.

Last night, he’d tromped back down to the great hall and consumed far too much ale. Later, after the rest of the party was snoring under the tables, his father-in-law had brought out the good whisky, and between the two of them, they’d polished off the rest of the bottle.

He didn’t remember too much of what the laird and he had talked about. He seemed to recall that Lord Glengarry grumbled about the fact that Ranulf MacNaught was garnering more followers among the clan. The laird’s son, Donald, couldn’t be bothered to absent himself from court long enough to learn the names of his own men. Since Katherine’s father had suffered an apoplectic fit last winter, he’d lost flesh. No doubt he fretted about whether Donald was ready to lead the clan in case he should pass. Ranulf’s increased popularity was giving the laird reason to drink.

Not that Will’s father-in-law needed a reason.

William didn’t give much weight to Lord Glengarry’s complaints. His conversations with Katherine’s father were always sojourns on a roundabout trail that circled Lord Glengarry himself. William had troubles of his own. However, by the time the candles guttered in the late watches of the night, Will was beginning to feel more in charity with the whole world.

But that may have just been the whisky.

“I dinna know what’s amiss betwixt ye and my wee Katikins, and I’m not wantin’ to know. I’ll not say I understand my daughter at the best of times. Women are chancy creatures,” the old man had said, “but this one thing I ken about my Kat. She loves ye, lad. More than anything. On that ye could lay your hope of heaven.”

Will tugged his shirt over his head quickly in the cold chamber. Then he wrapped the belted plaid about his body. It would’ve been much easier if he’d had Katherine’s help pleating the length of cloth. But by the time he draped the excess fabric over one shoulder and secured it with a pewter pin, William was more or less decently covered and much warmer.

His heart, however, still felt the chill of the empty room.

“She loves me, Angus,” he told the dog because he wanted to hear the words again.

He looked once more at the rumpled bedclothes. His memories of last night were a bit fuzzy, but it seemed to him that after he’d stumbled back up to her chamber, Kat had risen and helped him undress. The fact that his shirt and plaid had been neatly folded instead of tossed on the floor was proof positive Katherine had had a hand in it.

Then once they’d snuggled back under the covers for warmth, she hadn’t pushed him away when he’d spooned his body around hers. His last coherent memory of the previous night was burying his nose in her abundant hair and breathing her in.

If he hadn’t been so far gone with drink, perhaps he wouldn’t have sunk so quickly into slumber. Maybe he’d have roused to her and she to him, whether the custom of women was upon her or not, whether it was a sin for them to join then or not, and she’d have forgotten all about being so unhappy.

The chapel bell tolled again and he pulled back the heavy curtain to peer out the arrow notch that served as a window. The storm had blown itself out in the night, leaving a fresh layer of sparkling white on the world. Below in the bailey, Katherine and Lady Margaret were trudging from the chapel to the keep through the crisp snow.

If he hurried, he’d be able to join his wife as she broke her fast on Christmas morning.

“That’ll be a good start,” he told Angus. “A fresh start.”

The little dog whined and burrowed back under the covers.

William snorted. “I guess ye dinna much like my chances.”

Truth to tell, he didn’t either.

~

Her three young nephews ran past Katherine and their mother, shrieking like boggles and lobbing icy handfuls at each other. Margaret stumbled as she dodged one of the snowballs that went astray. She would have gone down if Katherine hadn’t grabbed her and kept her upright at the last moment.

“Dermid, ye wee heathen, look what ye nearly did to your mother. Lachlan and Monroe, dinna encourage him,” Katherine said crossly to her nephews. “Settle yourselves, all of ye.”

“Dinna scold, Auntie Kat. ’Tis Christmas morn, after all, and that’ll put any lad in high spirits,” Margaret said with far more charity than Kat was able to muster.

“A bearing woman should be coddled, not caught in the crossfire of a snowball fight.”

“No harm done.” Margie bent down to speak to her offspring, who had the good grace to look chagrined. Fidgeting and shuffling their feet, they lined up before their mother and aunt like a small flight of stairs, oldest to youngest. Even though Katherine had reprimanded them, Margie narrowly resisted the urge to kneel and gather them into her arms to kiss their snub-nosed, plump-cheeked faces. “Hurry off to the kitchen now and tell Cook I said ye could have fresh bannocks and jam with extra clotted cream.”

The boys whooped and shot toward the keep as if they’d been slung from a sling.                                                      

“Here, give me your arm, Margie,” Katherine said as she watched the boys with a small ache in her chest. “We canna have ye going tail over teakettle in the snow.”

“The drifts are deep enough t’would be a soft landing if I did.” Margaret chuckled. “What a handful those wee imps have become. And just wait till Lucas and wee Tam leave the nursery and join them. This castle will be overrun with small boys.”

“Five sons in eight years,” Katherine said. All of Margaret’s lads were thriving. In a time when illness and death struck the laird’s child as often as his cottar’s, it was a minor miracle to have so many living offspring. “Ye and my brother have been truly blessed. Donald must be so pleased.”

As they walked in step with each other, a shadow passed over Margaret’s face. “I expect he will be once the boys are older. They aren’t of much interest to him now, ye ken.”

“Oh?” Katherine wondered if all men felt that way about their children. If so, that explained why William had never expressed any grief over their losses. It didn’t excuse him, though. The wind swirled up a snow-sprite of white around them and Katherine steadied her sister-in-law while they trudged across the bailey.

“To Donald, they’re bairns yet, unable to hold either a conversation or a dirk like a man. Though last time he was home, your brother did spend a bit more time with Dermid.” Margaret’s face lit with pride. “He’s all of seven now and trying mightily to please his father by learning to speak French.”

“French?”

“Aye. Donald says if our sons hope to go to court, they must learn French. ’Tis the language of diplomacy, he says.”

Donald was twelve years Katherine’s senior, so she never really spent much time with her brother as she was growing up. If he ignored his sons so, she was beginning to think not knowing her brother well wasn’t much of a loss.

“And is that what you want?” Kat asked. “For your boys to be courtiers and diplomats?”

Margaret shrugged. “It doesna matter a flibbet what I want. Their father will decide for them when the time comes. Of course, Dermid is his heir, so he’ll be trained in running the estate and military strategy, but Donald will have plans for the others too. It’ll be the Church for one of them, I warrant. And I’m so afraid he’ll send at least one to sea.”

“If ye dinna want your sons to go to sea, ye should tell Donald how ye feel.”

“And have ye told your husband how you feel?”

“About what?”

“About whatever it is that brought you here without him,” Margie said. “Of course, I’m grateful for your company as my time nears, but I’ve a feeling seeing your newest nephew or niece safely into the world isna all that brought ye home.”

Katherine pressed her lips together for a moment. If Margaret knew what she was planning, she suspected her sister-in-law wouldn’t encourage her. “We aren’t talking about me now.”

“Pity. We should, so you can settle this thing, whatever it is. At least ye have your husband close by.” Margaret smiled sadly. “When would I have occasion to talk to Donald? Your brother is hardly ever home. Your father oversees the running of the estate, but Donald spends his time at court. ‘Looking to Glengarry’s future,’ he says.”

James V was seventeen now and finally out from under the thumbs of the men who’d ruled in his name. It made sense to cultivate the favor of the young king for the good of the earldom, but the birth of a child should count for something.

“Surely he’ll be here for your lying-in.”

Margaret laughed, but there was little mirth in the sound. “Leave court at Christmas? I highly doubt it. Besides, Donald has no patience for a sickroom. He’ll come when the child is to be christened and I’ve been churched. Not before.”

Silence fell between them, interrupted only by the crunch of snow underfoot.

“To be honest, when your man swept into the keep last night,” Margaret said softly, “I hoped it was my Donald.”

Kat squeezed Margie’s arm tighter. “I wish it had been.”

“Never say that, Katherine. Ye dinna know how lucky ye are to have a man who’ll leave everything and follow after ye simply because he wants you.”

“He wants something, but I’m not sure ’tis me.”

“Give the man credit for being here. After this one’s born, Donald will come home long enough to get me with another bairn, which willna take much doing, I’m afeared. Last time, he barely had time to hang his plaid on the peg before I was breeding again.” Margaret sighed. “Then once he’s done his duty by me, he’ll be gone.”

Margaret conceived and carried babes so easily. Katherine seldom felt more useless and less womanly than when she was in her sister-in-law’s presence. It wasn’t Margie’s fault. She never said anything to demean Kat directly. Her swollen belly was indictment enough.

“At least you can give my brother children.”

Margaret must have heard the wistfulness in her tone for she stopped walking. “Oh, Katherine, I’m sorry. I didna think. I didna mean to complain. Truly, I did not. It’ll happen again for you. Have faith.”

It had happened. Many times. But Katherine’s body couldn’t seem to keep a child growing inside it. Of course, Margaret only knew about the stillborn boy Katherine had delivered about a year after she and William wed. For months afterward, that small ghost had hovered around Kat. Now he had a handful of unborn siblings.  

“Have faith,” Katherine repeated. “So ye think that’s what it takes?”

In the pause between the Gloria and the Credo that morning, Katherine had come to a decision. She knew what she must do. It was best for William, and the only way she could truly demonstrate her love for him. Now she needed the courage to do it. The remembered words of a Psalm hardened her resolve.

“‘Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the sons of one’s youth,’” Katherine quoted, trying to keep bitterness from bleeding into her tone. “‘Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.’ That’s how it goes, isn’t it?”

“Donald’s quiver is full enough.” Margaret patted her belly. “I’m praying this one’s a girl.”  

~

William burst into the bright sunlight, wishing mightily for typical overcast Scottish weather. The heavens seemed determined to remind him that he’d imbibed far too much whisky last night. He ignored the stab of pain behind his eyes and plowed toward Katherine and her sister-in-law.

“Happy Christmas, good-sister,” he said courteously to Margaret. It would pay him to keep in her good graces. Katherine was devoted to Margie and a man never knew when he’d need a feminine ally.

“Happy Christmas to you too, good-brother.” She smiled impishly at him and then tossed a wink to Kat. Will suspected Margaret knew more about the state of his marriage than he did. “If ye want me later, Katherine, I’ll be in my chamber with my feet up.”

“Good,” his wife said. “Ye need your rest.”

“Rest? Not likely with this one doing somersaults and squirming about.” She laid a protective hand on her belly. “The best I can hope is to keep my ankles from swelling.”

When Katherine would have followed her into the keep, William caught her elbow. “Walk with me, wife.”

“In the snow?”

“There was a time when we’d brave drifts deeper than this to have a moment alone.” He brought her hands to his lips and blew his warm breath on them. Her fingers were icy. She ought to have worn gloves. “Of course, we could always go to our chamber.”

“In the middle of the morning?”

“Not so long ago that wouldn’t have mattered either.” He tucked one of her hands into the crook of his elbow and started walking, measuring the length of his stride so she could stay even with him easily. He led her up the steps to the parapet that topped the curtain wall. The view was fine from there. The edge of the loch was rimed with ice. Further out, the deep open water sparkled like jet.

Will ran his thumb over the back of her hand. “I mind a time when folk said we were so uncommon close, it was impossible to slip a piece of parchment between us. We couldna keep our hands off each other.”

The way her cheeks pinkened had little to do with the chilly weather. Making his wife blush counted as a win. He cupped her cheek, reveling in the satiny softness of her skin. “I miss those times, love.”

She closed her eyes and leaned into his touch. “I do, too, Will. So much.”

He lowered his mouth to hers, intending to give her a soft, gentle kiss. But it had been so long since he’d had the comfort of her sweet body, the kiss turned dark and demanding between one breath and the next. Before he knew it, he had her pinned against the stone parapet, pressing his hardness against her. Need flared between them, white hot and relentless.

Sweet Lord! She arched into him and he feared he might spend on the spot.

If anyone had told him a man could be so bewitched by his own wife, he’d never have believed it.

“Oh, Kat, my bonnie Kat.” He started kissing down her neck. God help him, he was ready to lift her skirt and tup her right there within sight of the bailey. It would be quick. Lord, just a thrust or two would send him right over the edge. Then he’d lure her back up to their chamber, where he’d strip off her Christmas finery and—

Katherine wedged her arms between them and broke off their kiss.

“Stop it, Will. Anyone might see.”

“No one’s looking. Most of your father’s men are still asleep and the servants are busy with preparations for the Christmas feast.”

Katherine used to be the adventurous sort. He remembered the breathless coupling they managed in the shadow of the portcullis one night as watchmen prowled the curtain wall above. She’d had to cover her mouth to keep from crying out as she came that time.

Now she covered her face simply to keep from crying.

“What happened to us, Kat?”

Do ye love me no longer?The words hovered on his tongue, but he wouldn’t let himself voice them. A man shouldn’t need like that.

She sighed and dropped her hands. Tears trembled on her lashes, but she didn’t let them fall.

“I remember how it was, Will,” she said slowly, “but I think the proper question now is how it should be for us in the future.”

“What do you mean?”

She squared her shoulders, but didn’t meet his eyes. “After Epiphany, I mean to send a letter to Rome, asking for our marriage to be annulled. I’ve thought long and hard about it, ye see, and . . .”

Will knew she was still talking because her lips moved, but he couldn’t understand the words coming from her mouth. Once in a while he caught a few snippets—something about asking the bishop to hand deliver the request and wondering if a generous donation to the local abbey might speed the proceedings—but the rest of her words made no sense to his brain.

“Ye have no grounds for annulment,” he finally said to stop her.

“I’ll find one.”

William didn’t see how. They weren’t closely related. Sometimes annulments were granted when a couple discovered they were cousins within a few degrees. But that couldn’t be the case with them since no one in the Douglas clan had ever taken a Glengarry bride before.

The age of consent was another possible reason to rule a marriage invalid. They’d been betrothed as children, but they were both of age at their wedding. Sometimes birth records were spotty, and could be falsified, but no one who’d attended their ceremony would have mistaken Katherine and Will for children under the ages of twelve and fourteen.

“Ye canna claim we’ve never consummated,” William said. “No one would believe it.”

“People will believe anything if ye repeat it often enough.”

“Not in this case,” he said softly. “We had the one.”

“Stephan. His name is Stephan. Why can ye not—” Her voice cracked, but she pressed on. “Even now, ye canna say his name.”

Will turned away and leaned on the parapet. Something in his chest went suddenly as cold and icebound as the loch. They hadn’t been allowed to name the child officially since he never drew breath, but Kat insisted on calling him after her father.

The boy had been buried without ceremony in a bit of unconsecrated ground near the woods around Badenoch. They weren’t even supposed to mark the grave, but William knew to a finger width exactly where the child lay. Father Simon told them the baby’s soul was in limbo, but he assured them it would be released to heaven if only they prayed hard enough.

Will hadn’t said a word to the Almighty since. Any deity who wouldn’t take his stillborn son straight to heaven wasn’t one with whom he cared to converse.

“Some things dinna bear speaking of,” he said. She’d only work herself into more of an upset. “Besides, talking willna change a thing.”

“Good. I’m glad ye see it too.”

He suspected the subject had been changed while he was unaware of it. “See what?”

“Our marriage will never be what it once was.” Katherine’s chin trembled, but her eyes were dry now. “So I release you.”

“I dinna wish to be released. We can go back to the way we were, as if none of it ever happened.” He reached for her again, but she stepped back, out of the circle of his arms. The stricken look on her face told him he’d said exactly the wrong thing.

“But it did happen. Stephan happened. We canna go back. ’Twill never be the same. Trust me, Will, ’tis better this way. Ye’ll be free to take a bride who can give ye the son and heir ye deserve and ye can pass that . . .” She paused, drawing her lips into a tight line. “ . . . that scepter ye’re so proud of on to the next generation of Douglas males. In time, ye’ll thank me.” Then she fled from him, down the steps and across the bailey.

Feeling as dead as his son, William watched her go. Only his hitching puffs of breath in the frosty air convinced him that his heart was still beating.

“Lady Katherine is right,” a small voice said once she was gone. “’Twill never be the same, William. Nothing ever is.”

His head jerked at the sound, and he saw a gargoylelike face peeping at him from between the stone crenellations a little way down the wall.

It was Nab. The small fellow had been scrunched down in a hollow embrasure a few feet away from them, invisible to anyone on the narrow walkway. Now he was leaning inward toward the bailey, the floppy ends of his hat dangling. He still looked the fool, but he was clutching the scepter Will had given him tight to his chest.  

“But why would ye want it to be?” Nab asked.

William didn’t understand the fool at the best of times, and now he had little patience for his cryptic question. “Be what?” he asked gruffly.

“The same,” Nab said. “Yer marriage willna be the same. That’s not so bad when ye think about it.”

“Aye, it is.” Having Katherine want to leave him was the worst that could happen. Will leaned on the stone crenellations and stared down at the frigid loch.

“But since Lady Katherine is so sad and doesna seem to like ye much, the same isna all that good, is it?”

In a strange way, Nab was making sense.

“It canna be the same,” the fool repeated. “So that leaves only two choices. It can be better.”

The words struck Will with the force of a crossbow bolt.

“Or worse,” Nab continued. “Odds bodkins, it could always be worse. It usually is.”

He could make things better. As laird of his own estate, William was a problem solver by nature. He resolved disputes between his crofters all the time. Just because he was a party to this dispute, it didn’t mean he couldn’t hammer out a solution that would please both him and Katherine. He ground his fist into his other palm. He could fix this. He could—

“I know!” Nab’s mouth curved into an awkward grin and he waggled the scepter over his head. “Since I’m Laird of Misrule, I could order Lady Katherine to be happy and love ye. She has to obey me. It’s a Christmastide tradition.”

“Power has gone to your head, my friend.” Will started to pat Nab on the shoulder, but when the smaller fellow shied from his touch, he stopped short. “I’m obliged to ye, Laird Nab, but no man can give a woman that order and expect to see it obeyed. Besides, your rule only extends till Twelfth Night and I intend for Kat and me to last far longer than that.”

Will paced along the parapet, the wind stinging his eyes. “I can start afresh, do things differently this time.” He smacked his thigh with an open palm. “I could woo her.”

Nab raised a quizzical brow.

“I didna have to the first time. We were promised to each other so young, ye see. I never had to court Katherine.” He was both excited and daunted by the prospect. “I’ll win her heart.”

“I’ll help.”

“Thank ye, Nab, but I—”

“Lasses like poems, or so I’ve heard. I know lots of poems. Do ye want to hear a poem, William?”

“Not now, Nab, I’m thinking.” His mind churned furiously. There was so much to do, so many things he ought to have done before. He headed for the steps leading down to the bailey. “I have to go. Wish me luck.”

“Luck,” Nab repeated, waving the scepter, the stone atop it sparkling in the sunlight. “What d’ye need luck for?”

“I’m off to make my wife want to wed me all over again,” he called over his shoulder.

Nab sighed. “Ye’ll need more than luck. Ye’ll need a poem, William. Maybe two.”

 


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