The Highlander’s Virtuous Lady (Preview)
“Joan! Will you come down from there?”
Margaret Fraser peered up through the young foliage of the broad beech tree, shielding her eyes against the shifting glare of the dappled spring sunlight. High above the river bank, Joan climbed up through the branches, snapping twigs and rustling leaves as she progressed.
“Joan!” Margaret repeated sharply. “Come down at once!”
Joan kept on climbing.
“I’m nearly there,” she called down. “I can see the nest. I’ve almost reached it.”
Margaret let out a heavy sigh of resignation. She was annoyed. Her sister was incorrigible. Her only consolation was that there was no one around to witness Joan’s most unladylike behavior.
Margaret shook her head and returned her attention to the daisy chain she was linking in her lap. It was almost complete and would make a pretty circlet for her head. The delicate white petals and bright yellow eyes of the flowers would perfectly complement the pale, silvery blondeness of her hair and the fairness of her brow.
She had gathered the flowers from the swards that punctuated the forest path that ran beside the River Tweed from their home at Neidpath Castle. All the way from the castle to their chosen haunt, her sister had capered and swished at the undergrowth with a branch she had cut from a sapling near the postern gate with a dirk that Margaret was sure their parents did not know she had. They had settled in their favorite spot, on a mossy bank beside the river’s edge, where the current caught in a languorous pool beneath the overhanging trees before hurrying off over its shallow, stony bed past Neidpath towards Peebles and into the wild, lawless Marchlands beyond.
“No treasure today,” Joan called. “Just eggs.”
A pair of magpie eggs broke on the turf beside where Margaret was sitting with the skirts of her mustard gown and vermillion surcoat gathered beneath her tucked legs.
“Joan!” Margaret protested, drawing her sumptuous woolen garments away from the sticky splatter and checking them for stains.
“Filthy, ill-omened birds,” Joan remarked, by way of excuse. “Father says we should smash the eggs in any nests we find.”
“I think he means ‘we’ in the general sense of ‘mankind’. I cannot imagine that he means it as a fitting pursuit for ladies. Though,” Margaret added archly, “given how he indulges you, I should not be too surprised to find he was giving you direct instruction by it.”
Joan had begun her descent, which was much more sure-footed and rapid than her going up had been.
“Pish!” she jeered. “You sound like you swallowed the psalter. I’m not a lady yet; I’m still but a lass. Where is the harm in a lass climbing a tree?”
“And sparring with the pages on the practice field and scrambling up the crags?” Margaret replied ruefully. “You are sixteen now, Joan. How do you expect to find a mate if you so persist in being ‘a wee lassie’ so late and lang? You are beyond such things in years. You are of an age when you should be comporting yourself more sedately.”
Joan slipped and swore before she regained her footing.
“It is not a mate I shall be marrying for,” she told her sister. “I shall be marrying the man who can match me on the crags and at the gallop.”
“Then you shall be marrying a filthy reiver,” Margaret retorted, “for no knight will have you.”
“Well, providing that yon reiver is hung like a stallion, I shall not complain.” Joan laughed.
Margaret gasped and pressed her hand to her breast. But she also blushed deeply and swallowed at the fluttering those words had set alight in her stomach.
She gazed out across the river to still her feelings. The water’s surface glittered in the strong spring sunshine, and the Tweed chuckled as it gamboled between the stones of its rocky bed. She closed her eyes and inhaled the sultry fragrance of the blossom on the trees.
Downstream, she could just make out the top of the red sandstone tower that was Neidpath Caste, which from its high crag commanded the river near where it emerged upstream from a steep wooded gorge. Thick forest tumbled down the Castle Braes, from the high Jedderfield Laws that loomed up behind the castle, to a half-moon meadow that fringed a broad curve of the river and which the Frasers used as their practice field.
On the far side of the river from where Margaret sat, lay the Boat Pool, overlooked by a promontory of rock that jutted about twenty feet above the river from the South Park Woods where Sir Simon and his household hawked and hunted.
She loved this place, it was so quiet and peaceful and encapsulated within its horizons the entire wealth of the Fraser household.
Suddenly, there was a crash and a cry. Margaret looked up in alarm and saw Joan entangled in the branches. She jumped to her feet, the daisies falling from her lap and spilling across the grass.
Unlike Margaret, who always chose to dress primly and properly in a gown girdled loosely by a thin belt of leather and a surcoat belted tight beneath her bosom, Joan preferred the freedom of a simple yellow kirtle. Also, whereas her elder sister always wore pointed buckled shoes and stockings hooked to the legs of her short linen braies, Joan went barefoot, and – Margaret could not help but notice, as she gazed up at her sister’s naked arse – often without her undergarments too.
Joan’s skirt had been caught on a branch and had rumpled up over her hips. Joan herself was hissing and spitting like a wildcat.
“Christ wept!” she squealed, as her bare legs scrambled for purchase and she hauled herself up by her strong, sinewy arms. “That bastard magpie must hae cursed me. Evil, vengeful cratur!”
Margaret could not help but laugh, even though, dangling there with her sex on display, Joan had exceeded even the bounds of impropriety.
“Do you need help?” She giggled.
“Much help you could give me, feeble bitch.”
“I could run for the squires,” Margaret sputtered in amusement. “I’m sure they would be more than happy to grapple you down.”
“Don’t you dare!” Joan shouted.
“No, they might see you for what you really are and not the ‘soft boy’ they think you are.”
Joan swung her leg over a bough and tugged her kirtle free. Her face was as red as a damson fruit, and her eyes were dark with fury.
“I’ve a good mind to jump down and scratch your bonnie blue eyes out,” she spat, as much to cover her own embarrassment as out of any genuine malice towards her sister.
Margaret sat down on the bank again, a broad smile on her usually severe lips, and watched as two of her daisies spun lazily in the pool. Insects dabbed the water-surface while a deep glossy-blue damsel fly hovered among the rushes. On the sandy bed of the pool, three brown trout skulked in the shadows, holding themselves against the gentle current that lay outside the main stream.
Joan’s sharp warning hiss woke Margaret from her reverie. She looked up enquiringly.
“I hear movement over in the Park. Horses. Men.”
The women retreated further into the cover of the trees, and parting the branches, peered like curious kittens back across the river.
“There!” Joan whispered, pointing to the promontory above the Boat Pool.
Six men emerged from the trees and strode out onto the flat of the promontory: two knights, their squires, and a pair of pages, Margaret judged by their garb.
“Who are they?” Joan asked in a low voice, shading her eyes against the glare off the water.
“I have no idea,” Margaret murmured, her eyes fixed on the dark-haired knight, who was clearly the leader of the band.
The men were laughing and joking. Their surcoats were grimed with dust and leaves, and their boots were splattered with mud. It looked like they had traveled a long way and were clearly relieved to be taking some respite from their journey. They were in high spirits.
“The water looks cold,” the dark-haired knight said to his sandy-headed companion.
“Refreshing,” the second knight replied.
“Bracing,” the first countered.
The two squires grinned around the edge of their superiors’ intimacy.
“There is only one way to settle this, Sir Patrick,” the dark-haired knight suggested.
“And how is that, Sir Gilbert?” Patrick replied.
“We must toss in a page to gauge the temperature.”
The two knights spun around and laid hold of the slower of the two pages. They wrestled him easily to the ground. Gilbert gripped the poor lad by the shoulders, while Patrick had the ankles, and they carried him squirming and squealing to the lip of the promontory.
“One!” Gilbert shouted as they swung the lad forward.
“Two!” Patrick continued on the second swing.
“And… three!” they both bellowed, as the page flew through the air, his arms and legs waving wildly, his shrill scream filling the air, before he crashed into the pool with an enormous splash and surfaced with a plume of water spurting from his lips.
“Report, Wart?” Gilbert commanded.
“The water is… lovely, sire!” The boy spluttered. “But very wet!”
The knights and squires roared with laughter; the other page, judging he was safe now, edged back onto the promontory with a smirk on his face.
“Then hold forward, men!” Gilbert cried out and started to shed his boots and clothes.
“My goodness!” Margaret gasped. “They are undressing.”
Joan grinned, her eyes alight with excitement.
“So, they are,” she confirmed. “But do not worry, sister sweet; they will likely stop at their drawers – more is the pity!”
But they did not stop at their drawers. With a whoop, the men dropped and stepped out of their linen braies before running and leaping far out into the pool, sending long plumes of spray flying across the river towards the women.
“Oh dear!” Margaret breathed, holding her chest and shielding her eyes.
Butterflies, and lots of them, were beating frantically in her stomach. Her breath was coming in short, shallow draughts. She had dropped her hand, and her eyes were wide and gleaming in the shadow of the trees.
“Look!” Joan hissed in eager anticipation. “They are coming out to jump in again.”
Margaret dropped her horrified look to the sward immediately in front of her, placing her fingertips to her temples and making blinkers of her palms.
“I’d rather not… look.” She gulped, but she looked anyway.
Water streamed from Gilbert’s back and limbs as he hauled himself out of the pool and onto the bank. Without pausing, he sprang to his feet and scrambled up the bank and back out again onto the promontory rock.
The sight of the firm muscles of his finely shaped buttocks and thighs as he scrambled up the bank, and the merry dance of his penis and testicles as he padded out onto the table of the rock, flooded Margaret’s vision. She could not take her eyes off of the plump rounded tip of his flaccid cock as it nodded this way and that, like the heavy head of one of the fiery red asphodels her mother cultivated in the castle’s garden. She felt a warm tickle in her groin.
Patrick followed hot on Gilbert’s heels. His private parts were haloed by the same sandy hair that surmounted his close-cropped head. He was slimmer and less solid than Gilbert, but just as handsome as his dark-haired companion and just as impressive in his endowment.
Margaret heard Joan groan at her shoulder and looked around to find her staring slack-lipped and hungry-eyed at the two knights.
“Come!” Margaret whispered. “We should not be watching this.”
She placed a hand on her sister’s arm as if to draw her back into the trees, but Joan shook it off impatiently.
“They will spy us if we move,” she murmured huskily. “And, in any case, this is the best entertainment we have had at Neidpath for many a day.”
“Have you no shame?” Margaret scolded, but her voice sounded empty as her eyes were drawn once again to Gilbert as he clambered out of the pool for a second time.
Joan gave her sister a superior smile.
“Oh, come now,” she said. “You are enjoying this just as much as I am. Do not deny it!”
“I do deny it!” Margaret protested, though it did not sound convincing even to her own ears.
“Look at you!” she said. “You are shivering like a mare who smells the stallion. And no doubt your coney is pulsing like the mare’s does too.” She gazed back across the water. “I know mine is.”
Margaret spun around and stared determinedly into the depths of the forest. Behind her, she could hear the shouts and splashes of the interlopers. Beside her, Joan’s breath came deep and heavy, with the occasional little catch and whimper. Margaret was a lady, she kept reminding herself, the future mistress of Oliver and Neidpath; she would behave like a lady, with as much dignity and decorum as she could muster and as the situation allowed. If her sister wanted to behave like a poxy whore, then let her.
At length, the men had now had enough of their capering in the water and lay down on the table of the promontory to dry in the sun. Margaret and Joan still dared not stir from their hiding place, lest the men hear them, especially now that the splash and clamor of their sport had subsided.
Margaret sat back down on a grassy hummock to await their departure. Joan stood on tiptoe and peered through the bushes.
While the squires and pages withdrew to the back of the rock to sort through and straighten the company’s hastily discarded clothes, the two knights lay flat on their backs and bathed in the sunshine.
They have fallen asleep, Margaret thought. We could be here for hours.
But suddenly, the sandy-haired one rose on his elbow and considered his companion with a look of perplexity on his brow.
“I meant to ask,” he said. “Where did you disappear to in the middle of the night? I stirred before cockcrow and had to rise to take a piss; your bed was empty.”
The dark-haired knight raised both his hands and made a frame of them in which to catch the sun.
“Yon serving wench, the buxom doxy with the bonnie brown hair,” he replied by way of explanation.
Patrick flopped back down on his back.
“Ah, you were wenching. I might have guessed. And was she worth rising for?”
Gilbert sniggered, placed his hand on the crook of his elbow, and made a lewd gesture with his fist and forearm.
“I had no difficulty ‘rising’ for her.” He laughed. “She was a winsome piece and no doubt. Breasts like firm autumn fruits fresh fallen from the tree and thighs as soft and creamy as milk still warm from the udder. The mere scent of her had my lance quivering.”
The page boys giggled and were cuffed by the squires for their trouble.
“And did she hang her favor on your lance?” Patrick grinned, continuing the conceit.
“Aye, that she did.” Gilbert sighed contentedly at the memory. “That she did, with soft kisses and skillful fingers, before taking me as her mount and riding me across the field of the hayloft to her tilt, where we jousted for three strokes of the lance.”
“And did your great helm not frighten the lass?” Patrick asked, raising his own tightly clenched fist in imitation of a swollen cock-head.
“Perhaps,” Gilbert replied, pursing his lips as if he could not make up his mind on the matter. “But she was very accommodating.”
At this, even the squires burst out laughing.
By this time, Margaret had her fingers in her ears, and her eyes clamped tightly shut.
“Well,” Patrick concluded, “let us hope you have not left the poor lassie with child. I doubt the innkeeper would thole a bairn being dragged around his hostelry on the ends of her apron strings.”
“Let us just say,” Gilbert said cryptically, “that my seed was sown not in her ferny cleuch but in the sweet glen between her paps.”
Joan snorted and clamped her hand over her mouth.
“And what of you, Sir Patrick of the Ball-Headed Club?” Gilbert continued. “Where have you been swinging your morning star recently?”
“Oh, here and there,” Patrick replied evasively.
“Here, there, and everywhere, so I have heard,” Gilbert observed. “Did you really fuck Lady Beaumont, Countess of Buchan, when we were guests of the Comyns?”
Patrick looked sheepishly at his fingernails.
“I had little choice,” he admitted. “Widow Alice took rather a shine to me and probably would have fed me to her wolfhounds, had I refused her.”
“But she is but a lass yet,” Gilbert pointed out. “A little plain; but, still, it cannot have been too onerous a duty.”
“She grunted like a pig.” Patrick blanched at the memory,
“A prettily formed pig, to be fair,” Gilbert added. “Shapely haunches and generous dugs.”
“Aye, but with a snout and whiskers to match.”
Gilbert laughed uproariously and slapped his naked thigh.
“But surely it would have been dark in her chamber, man?”
“I wouldn’t know.” Patrick skelped Gilbert’s shoulder. “I had my eyes tight shut and was holding myself fast to the saddle like grim death.”
Joan tugged Margaret’s hand away from her ear.
“Did you hear that, Margaret?” She hissed excitedly. “The Countess of Buchan took her pleasure of him, and she’s a lady like yourself – an aristocrat, even.”
“I do not want to hear.” Margaret hissed back. “We should not be listening. It is rude.”
Joan looked her sister up and down with disdain.
“Listen to yourself!” She sneered. “Do you honestly think you are better than the Lady Beaumont? She could be a queen.”
Margaret just shook her head and covered her ears again. Joan turned back to the conversation on the rock across the river.
“I hear Sir Simon has two daughters,” Gilbert was saying.
“Poor bastard!” Patrick exclaimed.
“What have you heard of them?”
Sir Patrick considered it.
“They are said to be pretty – beautiful, even. Very tall and fair. As alike as twins, only there is something like two years between them. And, of course, whoever wins the hand of the fair Margaret will inherit Sir Simon’s estates – since he has no heir of his own. And those would be tasty morsels.”
Gilbert pondered this, nodding thoughtfully.
“But, by all accounts, the sisters are tasty morsels by themselves,” Patrick continued. “Tall and fair, as I said, young and very beddable. The elder, Margaret, is considered a spirited mare, outwardly pure and virginal, but beneath her demure surface runs deep and treacherous waters, a maiden who knows her mind and will stop at nothing to win what she desires, which is to be in due course lady of her father’s estates. The younger, Joan, by contrast, is a bit of a wildcat, all teeth and claws, who can match any page in a mêlée on the training field and would, it is reckoned, make a fiercesome bedmate.”
Joan turned, beaming, towards her sister. She looked like the cat that had gotten the cream and made clawing movements in the air between them, baring her teeth in a silent hiss and spit. She was much amused and approved of Patrick’s metaphor. Margaret huffed, finding the whole situation tedious.
At length, the men arose and began to dress. The squires and pages had already garbed and assisted the knights, as was their duty.
“Has anyone seen my braies?” Patrick asked, casting around the rock in search of them.
The squires and pages adopted a hang-dog look; their masters’ clothes and equipment were their responsibility, and it would be their fault if anything had been mislaid. They set to searching in earnest, but to no avail. The braies were nowhere to be found.
Gilbert eyed the vassals sternly, but Patrick just shrugged.
“They are probably halfway to Berwick by now,” he said with a rueful laugh, indicating the flow of the river. “I’ll just have to go without them.”
“Then let’s hope you do not go arse-over-tit in some lady’s presence, or they shall have a fine view of your knighthood,” Gilbert said grimly, then added in a low voice so that the others would not hear: “You are far too lenient with your underlings, Patrick. They require a firm hand, else they will seek to take liberties.”
“Christ! It is but a pair of braies, man, hardly a thing of worth,” Patrick whispered back.
“Ah, but it is the principle of the thing,” Gilbert insisted. “They should know their place and be reminded of it in the breach. A twist of a page’s ear would mind them of your authority.”
“It would cast me as a petty tyrant, not a knight. Pettiness is hardly a chivalric virtue.”
“Neither is weakness and laxity. If you do not show them the natural order of things, they shall start to forget themselves.”
Patrick picked up his plumed cap and pulled it over his head.
“I will show them in things that matter,” he insisted shortly, “and not over a pair of shitty braies.”
And with that, he strode off down the slope towards where they had tethered their horses.
When the men had gone, Margaret and Joan scurried back along the path and up around the castle rock to enter Neidpath by the postern gate. Once inside the thick red sandstone walls, they hurried upstairs to their bedchamber in the solar and collapsed, flushed and perspiring, across their beds.
“What an adventure!” Joan gasped.
“What an ordeal,” Margaret contradicted. “I thought we would never get away. I don’t want to have to go through anything like that ever again.”
Joan pushed herself up on her elbows.
“Away!” she said. “It was a bonnie sight, two knights in all the glory of their fine manhood, entertaining us with their bawdy tales. And did you see the size of their shapely cocks? I thought the time flew by all too quickly. I could have gazed upon them all day.”
Margaret pushed herself up and scowled.
“You would, you shameless hussy. I don’t know which I found more humiliating: having to listen to such unseemly talk or watch you swoon over their every word and slobber over their nakedness.”
Joan threw herself back down on the bed and watched the scene unfold again on the chamber ceiling.
“Ah, but they were fine bodies, especially the sandy-haired one,” she crooned. “Not that your dark-haired one was lacking in any way,” she added quickly.
“He is not ‘my’ dark-haired one,” Margaret said haughtily. “I would not own such an ungallant as he. Bedding a serving wench, indeed!”
“Ach, Margaret,” Joan scolded. “Don’t lie to me. Your eyes were drinking in the sight of him like those of a parched man in a desert, all those well-hewn muscles and that gorgeous prick of his. You caught him in an unguarded moment, that is all. I’m sure he’d be as gallant as you need him to be when gallantry is called for. We caught a rare glimpse of men as they are when they are not in the company of women, as they really are when the masque is dropped, in all their metaphorical as well as all their physical nakedness. Did it not excite you? Christ knows, it excites me.”
Margaret rolled onto her side and drew up her knees.
“It is something I prefer not to see,” she said in a distant hollow voice.
Joan sat up quickly, a triumphant grin lighting her face.
“See!” she cried. “You are thinking about him now, aren’t you? The memory is making you tingle in your stomach and between your legs. Deny it if you can!”
Margaret rolled to the edge of her bed and sat up too, to face Joan across their chamber. Her features were twisted in anger, and her eyes shot a look of intense dislike at her sister.
“I cannot deny it,” she spat. “But I still do not like it. It brings disorder. It disturbs the proprieties on which the divine order depends. Unless we observe those proprieties in our intercourse with one another, we would be no better than beasts in the field. That is why we have codes of chivalry and womanly virtue.”
“Och, for pity’s sake, tread the measure more easily.” Joan scoffed. “Those things are all very well and necessary. But we must allow some respite to our ‘baser’ instincts, let them out to play awhile. Otherwise, we would shrivel up like nuns in a nunnery. Those knights this afternoon were just giving their virtue a holiday, as should you on occasion. Where was the harm?”
Margaret bit her bottom lip at this, and a look of mischievous complicity slowly dawned on her face.
“Well…” she began, “that Gilbert one was rather tasty.”
“‘A tasty morsel’!” Joan chimed in, echoing the sandy-haired knight’s description of them.
Joan stood and began spinning and flouncing around the room.
“A fine dish!” she chattered excitedly. “Especially the Patrick one. Can you just imagine being crushed to that broad chest, to feel those powerful arms around you, with those long, strong fingers tickling your private parts?”
She closed her eyes and let out a long, loud sigh.
Margaret shifted her bottom on the mattress as if she were plagued by a sudden itch.
“If I could have yon Patrick to play with,” Joan went on, dreamily stroking a long tress of her silver-blonde hair, “I would tie him to these bedposts and tickle his balls until his cock was standing to attention. Then I’d let it stand sentinel while I explored the contours of his rocky crags from throat to toe, ignoring the stout fellow all the while and obliging it to wait for my pleasure until it was bursting with the want of me. Then, when I was good and ready, and he had melted my cruel heart with his pleas for mercy, I would climb atop of him and ride him hard until his flanks were slick with sweat and his eyes were rolling like a pony’s and his balls were tight, and his dowp was raw. And afterward, in public, I would sit with him at the table, ‘yea’-ing and ‘nay’-ing at my lord’s words, while all the time knowing the power I had over him.”
Margaret was staring at her, struck by awe that was tinged with a little fear.
“Jesus, Joan; you should be at Court.” She breathed out the words. “The factions could never withstand your oratory.”
Joan threw herself down on her bed again, her long blonde hair fanning out around her head, her long slim arms and legs spread like the points of a star.
Margaret stood and walked to the small leaded window that looked out over the Tweed. She was suddenly pensive.
“The way things stand, we are likely never to be able to put our virtues to the test. Father dithers endlessly over what would be the most advantageous match for the family. If he does not make up his mind soon, I imagine we will both end up withering away in Neidpath Castle like two spent wallflowers.” She sighed. “Neither of us is getting any younger. I am already eighteen, and you are sixteen. Some girls are married by the time they are twelve. All the desirable young knights of the realm will have been snapped up from under our noses, and we shall be left with only the poor old toothless ones.”
“If it comes to that,” Joan declared to the ceiling, “I’ll find a callow, well-hung stable boy with all his own teeth to fuck.”
Margaret spun round.
“Joan! That would be beyond the pale of propriety.”
“If it is good enough for Lady Beaumont, Countess of Buchan, cousin to a man who would be king…” Joan left the point hanging.
“Tush!” Margaret said dismissively. “You can hardly compare Sir Patrick to a stable boy.”
“Alice le Latimer in her station is as high above a knight as I am a stable boy in mine.”
“Well,” Margaret conceded, “not quite. But you may have a point.”
“And it’s not as if I’d be taking him across the mounting block in the castle’s courtyard. I would exercise some discretion, as does every virtuous lady who fucks her inferiors.”
Margaret covered her ears and grimaced.
“Joan! For pity’s sake, will you stop using such a coarse tongue in public?”
“But we are not ‘in public’,” Joan retorted, reasonably. “We are close in our own private chamber. That is the very point. One does not disturb the divine order in the closeness of one’s own private chamber. In your own private chamber, you can be free.”
She kicked her heels in the air, her kirtle cascading to her waist to reveal again her long, lithe legs, her bare backside, and the long pink slash of her sex.
“And, in any case,” she added, “it is all very well for you to speak of ‘a lady’s virtue’ when at least you will have need of it. There will be no fine marriage for me to play the lady in. As the younger daughter of a minor knight, I shall be lucky to marry a bonnet laird and count the cows as part of my household. There will be little need of ladyship there: just a fine pair of childbearing hips and a strong back for the work of mucking the byre.”
Margaret traced the lead that held the tiny panes in place in the window.
“That still does not excuse your lasciviousness and your lack of self-respect as a daughter of the house.” Margaret looked over at her sister and gave her a small sympathetic smile that belied the harshness of her words. “It may be a small consolation, but with father’s indecision, a bonnet laird could be my fate as well.”
Presently, it was time to prepare for that evening’s meal.
Their mother, Lady Maria Fraser, had informed them that their father would be entertaining guests at the table and they knew that he was wont to put on a show of hospitality on such occasions. In consequence of this, the sisters were especially careful in their preparations.
Both bathed from a pitcher and bowl. Then Margaret dressed in her finest celestine-blue gown and a surcoat of orange-tawny embroidered with silver fleurs-de-lys. She brushed out her hair, which reached almost to her waist, and plucked out a thin tress to plait into a narrow braid with which to circle her crown.
Joan had discarded her customary kirtle for a popinjay gown and surcoat of vert. Her unruly hair she drew back into a long flowing ponytail. She even condescended to wear stockings and shoes.
“You have remembered to put on your braies, haven’t you?” Margaret enquired archly.
Joan stuck out her tongue.
Suitably attired for the occasion, they descended to the hall.
The hall had been lavishly furnished to receive Sir Simon’s guests. Late afternoon sunlight poured through the high windows on the south-facing wall, filling the high-ceilinged room with a cheerful glow. Fresh rushes had been strewn on the flagstones and sprinkled with fresh herbs. A harpist stood in the musician’s gallery at the opposite end of the hall from the raised dais on which Sir Simon, Lady Maria, and his guests already sat at the table. He tuned his instrument while the rest of the household chattered excitedly at the benches arranged in lines in the body of the hall.
As soon as they entered, Margaret wished for the ground to open up and swallow her. At her father’s table sat the same two knights that she and her sister had earlier that afternoon watched cavort in all their naked splendor in the Boat Pool.
Margaret slid a sideways glance towards Joan, who was beaming from ear to ear and breathing hungrily, and Margaret suspected not in anticipation of the food. Margaret’s heart turned somersaults as they stepped up onto the dais, approached the table, and curtseyed their obedience to their father.
“Ah, my precious gems!” Sir Simon exclaimed at the sight of them, his eyes lighting up with unalloyed pleasure. “We were beginning to think you had been lost.” He shifted in his high-backed chair, which was carved with pointed steeples, intricate arches, and biblical scenes. “Let me introduce you to our guests, Sir Gilbert Hay of Lochorwart and Sir Patrick Fleming of Boghall.”
The men’s eyes glowed ardently as they appraised the daughters of their host.
Margaret and Joan inclined their heads demurely, in acknowledgment of their inferior station and in submission to the superior sex, though Joan, Margaret noted in alarm, was desperately trying to suppress a smirk.
The knights remained seated but leaned back to bathe leisurely in the radiance of the beauty that stood before them. They took in the tall, willowy grace of the elder sister and the equally tall litheness of the younger. They could have been twins, sharing the same silvery blonde hair, duck-egg blue eyes, long limbs, and fair complexion; only, the younger comported herself with a greater athleticism and with slightly lesser grace and vulnerability than her older sibling.
“Your beauty’s fame is not exaggerated,” Sir Gilbert remarked gallantly. “Its reputation precedes you and is greatly deserved.”
At that, Joan gave a throaty purr and a feline flash of her eyes, which evoked a look of puzzled amusement from Sir Patrick. Margaret kept her eyes demurely lowered, but she could not help but smile at Joan’s impudent allusion to the earlier conversation they had overheard.
“Nicely put,” Sir Simon said. “Now, my dears, please be seated. The castle is famished and clamors for the feast to begin.”
He clapped his hands, and the serving folk began to carry in the first steaming platters.
Sir Simon occupied the center chair, with his wife seated on his right and Sir Gilbert on his left. Margaret thus noted that Sir Gilbert was the senior of the two knights – since he had been favored with the place of honor on her father’s right hand. Margaret had been placed on Sir Gilbert’s other side. Sir Patrick sat next to Lady Maria, with Joan next to him. Joan looked almost elegant, Margaret reflected approvingly, tall and lithe in her green gown. But her brow was tanned and her hands, Margaret noticed, were marked with little nicks and grazes from their misuse on the training field, cliffs, and trees.
Wine was poured from large beaked flagons, and the first courses were served.
“You keep a fine table, Sire,” Sir Patrick observed in compliment.
“Aye,” Sir Gilbert concurred. “We have lately been traveling the length and breadth of the realm and have seldom enjoyed finer.”
Lady Maria dropped her eyes and smiled contentedly at the praise. Sir Simon shifted his hand to cover Lady Maria’s where it lay on the table and gave it a warm squeeze.
“Thank you, sirs. I am indeed blessed in having such a virtuous lady as my tablemate. Lady Maria keeps my household measured.”
Lady Maria’s smile bloomed more fully, and she colored with pleasure at her husband’s words.
“Our compliments to the lady of the house,” Sir Gilbert proposed, raising his wine goblet in salute.
“Hear, hear!” Sir Patrick followed suit.
Sir Simon’s expression became mischievous.
“Of course,” he said deviously, “not having been blessed with a son, this well-run household will pass in due course to the husband of my elder daughter, Margaret.” He dug Sir Gilbert softly in the ribs with his elbow. “My hope is that she will prove as virtuous a lady as her mother has, as I am sure she will, having benefited from the tutelage of such a paragon of household virtue as Lady Maria.”
Margaret felt her spirits soar. Never had her father so openly invited the attention of a potential suitor. He had virtually handed her to Sir Gilbert on a platter, like that on which a serving wench was at that very moment proffering him a roasted pigeon.
Sir Gilbert speared one of the pigeons with his knife and transferred it to his trencher. He turned his head and caught Margaret’s eye.
“The Lady Margaret’s husband will be a lucky man indeed,” he murmured before Margaret could avert her eyes to her lap.
The look and his words thrilled her. Her heart felt like it was in her throat so that she could not have spoken even had she felt at liberty to. It seemed that her father’s dithering was at long last over and that he had designs to marry Oliver and Neidpath to Lochorwart. The prospect sent shivers down her spine, as a sudden breeze sends ripples across the surface of a pool. Sir Gilbert was indeed a handsome catch. She could just imagine him bedding her in the master bedchamber upstairs. That thought warmed her and stirred a longing in her loins.
Sir Patrick turned to Joan.
“Are you too looking forward to being wed?”
She looked him straight in the eye, boldly, and, as it were, appraisingly. He felt suddenly uncomfortable beneath her scrutiny, as if she were taking his measure, considering his possibilities.
“I fear there will be no fairytale ending for me, sire,” she replied with ironic regret. “I am but the poor goods in all of this commerce. I just hope to avoid being palmed off cheaply onto a bonnet laird as his cowherd and breeding mare. I would rather have a good strong man, of whatever station, who could meet my measure and allow me the liberties I currently enjoy of my father at Neidpath.”
Lady Maria choked on a morsel of bread. Sir Simon threw a solicitous arm around her shoulders, while Sir Patrick proffered her a goblet. Joan looked quite pleased with the effect she had provoked.
Margaret bore down a look of intense disapproval on her sister.
“Your… impertinence… ill becomes you,” Lady Maria spluttered. She gulped down a large mouthful of wine. “I apologize on behalf of my daughter, Sir Patrick, though I would disown her as any pupil of mine.”
“There really is no need,” Sir Patrick placated. “She was just giving a truthful response to the question I put to her. Maybe the impertinence lay in my question rather than in her honest answer.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” Lady Maria replied. “She is much too forward in her words. She should not have expressed herself so… so… brazenly.”
Sir Simon chuckled as he rubbed his hand deep into the hollow between Lady Maria’s shoulder blades.
“If the fault lies anywhere, then it perhaps lies with me,” he said. “What Joan said is, of course, the truth, though she could maybe have expressed it a little nicer. Whoever marries Margaret will gain a fine lady to manage his household, while he who marries Joan will gain a fierce ally in all the travails of life, such is her nature. For the rest…” he added, waving a hand at each of them, like a shopkeeper indicating the quality of his wares, “well, you can see for yourself. They are both comely lasses.”
He smiled fondly at both of his daughters.
“In the absence of a son, I am afraid that I have indulged Joan a little,” he went on. “My good lady, Maria, might say that I have ‘spoilt’ her. From her earliest childhood, Joan always showed a propensity and aptitude for more boyish pursuits, which I have not discouraged…”
“Which you have positively encouraged,” Lady Maria corrected, shooting her husband an accusing look.
“Perhaps,” Sir Simon considered, pursing his lips. “She rides, she hunts…”
“She spars on the practice field with sword and staff, scrambles the corries in search of birds’ eggs, she consorts with page boys and others who lie beneath her station…” Lady Maria enumerated.
She runs barefoot and scuddie-arsed beneath her kirtle, Margaret silently added, and leers at knights as lasciviously as squires leer at scullery maids.
“The point is,” Sir Simon raised his voice to reassert his authority, “that we should perhaps not blame the girl for her nature, which I have shaped in my fondness for her, daft old bugger that I am. Condemn, if you will, but condemn me for my folly and not Joan for her innocence and sincerity.”
He then turned to Sir Gilbert and drew a line beneath the matter by asking:
“But what news do you bring, Sir Gilbert? What mischief is afoot in the wider world beyond our petty troubles here at Neidpath?”
Sir Gilbert leaned forward, and setting his goblet aside, placed his elbows on the table, making a steeple of his hands. This was a subject that warmed him.
“Exciting times, Sir Simon, exciting times. Great events have been taking place, and affairs are coming to a head.”
Around them, the din had grown louder as the beer and wine flowed down the throats of Sir Simon’s retainers. Shouts and laughter pealed out from the benches that lined the hall. Here and there, singing broke out in ragged clusters. Beneath it all ran a steady hubbub of chatter, while above the heads of the rabble, the dulcet trills and runs of the harp sounded largely unremarked.
Sir Gilbert, Sir Patrick, and Sir Simon drew themselves into a close huddle to make themselves heard to one another without having to be eavesdropped by the lave.
“As you will no doubt have heard,” Sir Gilbert went on, “in the last few weeks Robert the Bruce has been crowned King of Scots at Scone, as tradition demands, on the Stone of Destiny in the Earldom of Fife. The late king, John, let it be known that he would not be returning from exile to Scotland but would be contenting himself with the fruits of his estates in France. The other claimant, Comyn, of course, met his end at the Bruce’s hand at the Church of the Greyfriars in Dumfries in February. Sir Patrick’s father was with the Bruce when the deed was done – a nasty, brutal business, but a necessary one.”
Sir Patrick nodded emphatically, a grim look weighing down his features.
“With the kingdom thus united under the Bruce,” Sir Gilbert continued, “all that is left for peace to be restored is for King Robert to drive King Edward of England’s army of occupation from his realm. Then we shall be free again.”
Sir Simon pursed his lips and nodded.
“But has the Pope not excommunicated the Bruce for defiling the sanctuary of the Greyfriars with Comyn’s blood?”
It was Sir Patrick who answered.
“Aye, but letters are being prepared at Arbroath Abbey to petition the Pope to at least recognize the independence of the King of Scots from the overlordship of the King of England at least in principle if he will not yet absolve King Robert of his sin in person.”
“A subtle difference,” Sir Simon observed. “Will the petition succeed, do you think?”
“That will depend on the disposition of Christendom at the time it is received,” he pointed out. “King Edward is a power to be reckoned with, along with France and Spain. The Pope must maintain a balance between them, by playing the one against the other, so that none can rise to dominance and challenge the Church’s power. If the Pope thinks that Edward needs to be taken down a peg or two, he might be minded to recognize our king’s sovereignty. If not… well, he won’t much care.”
Sir Simon’s eyes were bright with excitement. He grabbed Sir Gilbert’s arm and drew him to him.
“Christ!” he exclaimed. “It is like we are pawns in a much larger game of chess.”
“That we all are,” Sir Patrick observed philosophically. “Ultimately, even our most petty domestic squabbles are part of and affected by God’s divine plan, so much of which is beyond any man’s ken. Such is the human condition. Every enterprise carries a risk.”
Sir Gilbert looked at him impatiently; such metaphysical speculations hardly advanced their mission in relation to the Frasers.
“Aye, well… the divine plan maun tak care o’ itself, as any husbandman will tell you; we hae oor ain cattle tae tend… What we want to know, Sir Simon – the reason for our visit – is whether you are with us and for King Robert?”
‘Tending his own cattle’ was precisely what Sir Simon had been up to since the dreadful tragedies befell his country. With the death of the seven-year-old Maid of Norway, the third of King Alexander’s granddaughters, and his nearest heir, several parties had advanced legitimate claims to the throne and been at daggers drawn since. Scotland had been teetering on the edge of civil war, and it was all Sir Simon could do to keep his family out of the fray. He knew that, if he threw in his lot with a losing side, his lands and titles would be forfeit and his family left destitute. Hence his endless vacillation over to whom he should marry his daughters. Marriage would create an affinity with the families he married them into; he was loath to make Oliver and Neidpath hostage to another family’s political fortunes.
Sir Patrick gleaned the misgiving that still lingered in Sir Simon’s heart.
“Your reluctance is understandable and carries no disgrace,” he reassured him. “It has been common practice over the past few years for we lesser nobles especially to be continually switching our allegiance from party to party, faction to faction, just to ensure our survival. Even the three main claimants to the throne, the Balliols, the Bruces, and the Comyns, have at one time or another submitted and sworn fealty to King Edward, to avoid forfeiture and even execution, and to ensure that they live to fight another day.”
“But,” Sir Gilbert once more took up the thread, “with the kingdom now united under the Bruce, all that is left for peace to be restored is for King Robert to drive the English from our realm. With peace restored and uncertainty removed, the lie of the land will then be much plainer, and the kingdom can prosper.”
“And hence our mission,” Sir Patrick explained.
Gilbert looked over his shoulder to make sure he was not being overheard. He did not seem overly concerned that Margaret was sitting hard by his side, privy to every word. She was but a woman, after all; she would not be understanding much of what was being spoken.
“We are on a mission from King Robert, who seeks to enlist the arm of the Frasers in the upcoming campaign against Edward’s presumption. We have been journeying around the realm to rally support for his great cause of freedom. King Robert would raise a great army to defeat the English in the open field, to make a decisive victory that would send Edward homeward once and for all.”
“So, what say you, Fraser?” Sir Patrick urged. “Will you join the king’s great cause?”
Sir Simon was beginning to feel dizzy as his head turned back and forth, from one knight to the other. He was stirred by their passion, but his thoughts were confused. He’d had too much wine, and the noise of the hall was beating in his brains like the wings of a startled covey of quail bursting from the forest.
“I need to think more on what you have said,” he insisted, closing his eyes and raising his hands to forestall any protest. “In any case, we are boring the ladies with all this talk of politics, which they must find tedious.” He waved the whole subject aside with an impatient flutter of his hand. “We will talk further on the matter when we withdraw to my cabinet.”
“As you will, sire,” Sir Gilbert conceded.
The remainder of the meal passed in idle, inconsequential chatter. Sir Gilbert charmed Lady Maria and was gallant and attentive to Margaret’s needs. Margaret bloomed in his presence and behaved with impeccable decorum, observing all the niceties of courtly manners.
Sir Patrick and Joan, meanwhile, had their heads together like a pair of childish conspirators, giggling and whispering together. Margaret frowned at Joan’s unseemly familiarity. Joan had even placed her hand on Sir Patrick’s thigh and showed no sign of removing it.
Sir Simon sat in the midst of his domain, a ‘wee bit fou’ and smiling benignly at all he surveyed: his lovely wife, his two beautiful daughters and their handsome suitors, his hall bedecked with rich tapestries and laid with tables groaning with food, the flushed faces of his retainers contorted in grotesques of joy and laughter…
He was the steward of all this, he mused with deep satisfaction; it was to him that Oliver and Neidpath owed its security and protection. He was a canny man, he reminded himself proudly. He would risk none of this on any foolish venture. He would listen to what King Robert had to say through his two envoys, then he would make his calculations. Then, and only then, would he cast his dice.
He only gradually became aware that he was being addressed and that his wife, Lady Maria, was digging him in the ribs with a sharp elbow.
“Sir Simon,” Sir Patrick was crying above the noise that had taken over the hall. “Joan has been telling me that tomorrow is market day in the burgh. I propose that Sir Gilbert and I convoy Joan and Lady Margaret into Peebles to see the sights and perhaps enjoy a little of the sport. What say you, Sir Simon? Do we have your consent?”
Sir Simon could see no objection, and swaying in his seat, waved his hand regally to indicate the fact.
Margaret flushed. Throughout the afternoon and evening, she had been conducting a courtly dance of words with Sir Gilbert, in which she had been able to display her wit and virtue to best effect. She had been enjoying his attention immensely and was warm to the idea of spending another morning in his company.
The diversion agreed, Lady Maria rose and announced that the ladies would withdraw to her boudoir. Following her lead, Sir Simon invited the knights to join him for further discussion of business in his cabinet. Together, they climbed the stairs to the solar.
As they parted at the head of the stairs, Joan turned to Sir Patrick.
“Tell me, sire,” she enquired, in a loud voice and with a mischievous grin, “did your braies eventually fetch up in Berwick?”
Both Sir Patrick’s and Sir Gilbert’s jaws dropped open. But they could find no words in their gaping mouths with which to reply.
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