"What you need, my lady, is a champion."
Lady Caterine Keith stiffened her shoulders against her companion's well-meant counsel and continued to stare through the arch-topped windows of her tower bedchamber. Far below, the North Sea tossed and churned, its slate-gray swells capped with foamy white, its roiling surface a perfect reflection of her own inner turmoil.
A heavy curtain of silence fell between the two women until the crackle of the hearth fire and the hollow whistling of the brisk autumn wind reached almost deafening proportions.
Rain-laden gusts lashed at Dunlaidir's thick stone walls, rattling the window shutters with such fervor Caterine wouldn't have been surprised to see them ripped away and hurled into the sea.
A niggling sense of foreboding crept up her spine, its portent unsettling. A cloying premonition as cold and relentless as the dark waves battering the cliffs upon which Dunlaidir Castle so proudly perched.
Still, she said naught.
Her companion's suggestion didn't merit comment.
Undaunted by Caterine's silence, Lady Rhona gushed on. "I can see him before me: a mighty warrior who swings a heavy sword, a belted knight of chivalric fame," she enthused, her young voice breathy with excitement.
Filled with flimsy fancies Caterine no longer believed in.
Mayhap had ne'er believed in.
Ne'er been allowed to believe in, much as her young heart had once sought to cling to such foolish dreams.
"My lady," Rhona implored, her tone striving to capture Caterine's ear. "Think of it! A battleworthy knight able to vanquish your foes with a mere glance. A brave man willing to hew them to bits should you but ask. A great champi-
"I do not want a champion." Caterine swung around to face her friend. "I desire naught but to be left alone."
"And I vow it is desire you need," the ever-romantic Rhona blurted, then clapped a hand over her lips as a pink tinge crept onto her cheeks.
Slipping behind Caterine, she yanked the shutters into place, soundly closing out the rain and wind but plunging the chamber into semi-darkness. "Of a mercy!" Rhona fretted, hurrying to light a brace of tallow candles. "I meant no disrespect. 'Tis only you've never kno-"
"I know fair well what you meant," Caterine stated before the younger woman could babble on and embarrass them both. Careful to keep her back straight, she sank onto the cushioned seat built into the window embrasure.
It mattered scarce little that the slanting rain had dampened the finely embroidered pillows. She had more serious issues to contend with than catching the ague.
"Your concern is appreciated but ill-placed." She leveled a sidelong glance at Rhona. "I know much of men. Think you having outlived two husbands has left me an innocent?"
"Of a certainty, nay, my lady." Rhona busied herself lighting the remaining two candles. "No one is more aware of your plight than I. Did I have aught but your best interests at heart, I would not urge you to send for a champion."
Caterine made an impatient gesture. "You speak of desire. I need a solution to my problems, to Dunlaidir's problems, not a man to warm my bed."
Leaning down, she scooped her tiny golden-brown dog, Leo, onto her lap. "I will not seek another man's attentions regardless for what purpose. Leo is the only male welcome in this chamber ...as you are full aware."
"Leo cannot protect you from a man as powerful as Sir Hugh. The man is a dastard craven capable of great and vile knavery. Your only recourse is to ask your sister to send help."
"Think you one Highland warrior will deter a Sassunach earl with a garrison of mounted knights at his disposal?" Caterine drew Leo closer, taking comfort in the soft warmth of his little body. "Even a mighty MacKenzie would be hard-pressed to deter de la Hogue from gaining hold of Dunlaidir through marriage to me."
Rhona tilted her dark head to the side. "Then you must render such a union impossible by wedding your champion."
Indignation flared in Caterine's breast. "I do not have a champion. Nor will I impose on Linnet's good graces by asking her to send one. And were I so inclined, which I am not, binding myself to such a man is no more palatable than marriage to Sir Hugh."
"How do you know if you haven't met the man your sister will send?"
Caterine gave her friend a hard look. "I will not suffer a third husband, champion or otherwise."
Rather than answer her, Rhona began pacing the chamber, tapping her chin with a forefinger as she went. Caterine braced herself for the absurd prattle soon to erupt from the younger woman's pursed lips.
After years of companionship, she knew her friend well. Fingertapping always preceded outbursts of foolishness. Nonsensical ramblings that made sense to none save Rhona herself.
"I have the answer!" Rhona cried then, clapping her hands together. A triumphant smile lit her pretty face. "Simply pretend to wed the man your sister sends."
Caterine's brows shot heavenward. "Pretend?"
"Aye." Her friend beamed at her, obviously waiting for Caterine to comprehend the brilliance of such a scheme. But Caterine comprehended naught.
Naught save her growing aggravation with Rhona's persistent beseeching.
Pushing to her feet, she carried Leo across the rush-strewn floor and set him upon his sheepskin bed near the hearth. "I fear you do not understand. I will not plead Linnet's aid nor will I enter into marriage again. Not even a false one," she said, meeting Rhona's exuberance with what she hoped sounded like firm resistance.
Firm and unbending.
Above all, unbending.
"But doing so is your best chance to rid yourself of Sir Hugh," Rhona wheedled. "Have you forgotten he vowed to obtain an order from his king forcing you to acquiesce lest you do not agree to the marriage by Michaelmas?" Rhona lifted her hands in supplication. "My lady, the feast of Michaelmas is long past."
"For truth?" Caterine plucked at an imagined speck of lint on her sleeve. "Since our stores have grown too meager to allow us to celebrate St. Michael's holy day, I hadn't noticed its passing. Nor do I care what Edward III declares I should do. Yet is this land held for young David of Scotland."
"Lady, please," Rhona entreated. "You have no other choice."
Stung to fury, Catherine clenched her hands to tight fists. Beyond the shuttered windows thunder sounded, the low rumblings echoing the churning bitterness deep inside her.
Rhona erred. She did have choices.
But, as so oft in her life, none appealed.
She'd e'er lived under a man's rule. Even now, newly widowed of an elderly but not unkind husband, a time when, at long last, she'd hoped to find some semblance of peace.
Peace and solitude.
Unbidden, Sir Hugh de la Hogue's thick-jowled face rose before her, his swinish eyes gleaming with satisfaction, the sound of his heavy breathing giving voice to his lecherous nature.
Caterine shuddered. The mere thought of the Sassunach's bejeweled fingers touching her made her skin crawl with distaste and sent bile rising thick in her throat.
"Lady, you've grown pale." Rhona's troubled voice shattered the loathsome image. "Shall I fetch the leech?"
"Nay, I am well," Catherine lied, flat-voiced.
Her dark eyes flooded with concern, Rhona rushed forward to grasp Caterine's hands. "Oh, lady, you must relent. The MacKenzie men are able and valiant. Your sister's husband is a fair man, he will send you the most stalwart warrior in his garrison."
Rhona released Caterine's hands and resumed her pacing. "Do you recall when he and your sister came for a visit some years ago? My faith, but the castle women were all aflutter did he but glance-"
"There is more to a man than the width of his shoulders and the charm of his smile," Caterine broke into her friend's prattle. "I will not deny my sister's husband is pleasing to the eye and possessed of a goodly character, but I warn you, Duncan MacKenzie is nowise a man by which to measure others. One such as he is a rare find. My sister is much blessed to have him."
For a scant moment, Rhona appeared duly chastised, but soon babbled on, her face aglow with renewed wonderment. "On my oath, more than his bonny looks impressed me. Ne'er will I forget how he unseated Dunlaidir's finest at the joust yet had the good grace to allow your late husband to best him."
Rhona aimed a keen-eyed stare at Caterine. "Aye, Laird MacKenzie is a just man. He will choose you a stout-armed warrior of great martial prowess, a man of honor to protect you."
A man of honor.
Caterine swallowed the sharp retort dancing dangerously near the tip of her tongue. She of all women had little reason to believe such a paragon existed. Though she'd seen many sides of the men who'd shared her life thus far, honor was one attribute most of them had sorely lacked.
Only her late husband had possessed a portion thereof.
A meager portion.
She folded her arms. "And you think this fabled and mighty Highlander, this man of honor, will lay aside his morals and agree to pose as my third husband?"
Rhona ceased her pacing and began tapping a finger against her lips. After a moment, the finger stilled and she smiled. "'Tis for honor's sake he will agree. What man of compassion, of worth, could refuse a gentlewoman in need?"
"Of a surety." The tapping began again. "Especially if you inform the lady Linnet of the near ruination facing Dunlaidir. Once the severity of our situation is known, no man who abides by the code of chivalry would refuse you."
Saints cherish her, but Caterine didn't think so either.
Then so be it she almost said but a loud clap of thunder silenced her before she could form the words, stealing them as surely as if a swift hand had snatched them from her lips.
The thunder cracked again, a tremendous and resounding series of booms powerful enough to shake the floorboards and jar the window shutters.
The storm's black fury was a portent, she knew.
A sign the saints disapproved of the sacrilege Rhona would see her commit.
Or worse, an indication they agreed and frowned on her refusal to heed her friend's suggestion.
Something she would not, could not, do.
Caterine waited for the storm's rage to abate, then smoothed the folds of her woolen kirtle. Before she lost her resolve, her nerve, she drew back her shoulders and forced herself to speak the words she must.
"Lady Rhona, I respect your counsel and ken you are ever heedful of my welfare," she said, her voice surprisingly calm, "but I forbid you to breach this matter again. I will not send for a champion."
A fortnight later, on the other side of Scotland, deep in the western Highlands, a lone warrior knight fought an invisible foe. Naught but the repeated swish of his great sword arcing through the chill predawn air marred the quietude.
Even Loch Duich, hidden from view over the list wall, gave itself silent, its dark surface no doubt smooth as finely fired glass for not so much as a ripple, not the gentlest lapping of waves on the pebbled shore could be heard.
The hour was well before prime, the time of day Sir Marmaduke Strongbow favored for practicing his martial skills. Soon, Eilean Creag Castle would come alive, the empty bailey would fill with a bustle of activity and his overlord's squires would trickle into the lists to join him, each one eager for him to prod and teach them.
Help them hone their own sword arms.
But for the moment, he stood alone.
Free to challenge his secret enemies, daring enough to face down the most formidable of them all: his own self and the self-created demons he carried within.
He paused and drew a deep breath, then swiped the back of his arm over his damp forehead. The plague take his cares. The saints knew he had much to be grateful for. Soon his own castle would be completed. Indeed, were he not a man who enjoyed his comforts, he'd move into Balkenzie now, this very day.
But he'd waited long years to raise his banner over a stronghold of his own, a few more months would not cost him overmuch. Then all would be ready and he would take possession of his new home.
A castle he and his liege, Duncan MacKenzie, had designed with great care.
A strategically ideal fortalice to guard the southern reaches of MacKenzie land.
A home perfect in every way save one.
Unlike his liege and closest friend, Marmaduke lacked a fair lady wife to grace his side. His would be a castle filled with men.
Quelling the bitterness that oft mocked him when alone, Marmaduke adjusted his grip on the leather-wrapped hilt of his sword and lunged anew at his unseen foes. Faster and faster, his blade rent the morn as he spun and dipped, thrust and withdrew, skillfully slicing his doubts and regrets to ribbons, banishing them one by one.
Until the morrow when he'd challenge them anew.
"Sir ..." the soft voice behind him was little more than a whisper to his ears but a great roar to his warrior's instincts. Instantly lowering his sword, Marmaduke wheeled around to face the lady who'd addressed him.
"Fair lady, I am always pleased to see you, but you should know better than to approach a man's back when he wields a sword," he said, sheathing his steel. "Nor do I believe it is good for you to be out in the chill morning air."
"I am fit enough," Linnet MacKenzie countered, drawing her woolen cloak more securely about her before resting one hand upon her swollen middle. "I would speak with you alone, now before the others stir."
Sir Marmaduke peered intently at his liege lord's lady wife. Her lovely face appeared more pale than it should and lest the vision in his good eye was failing him, she bore faint purple shadows beneath her eyes.
Nor did he care for the rapid rise and fall of her chest. That she'd overtaxed herself in seeking him out was painfully obvious.
"Lady, you should be abed," he admonished, trying to sound firm but unable to be duly stern with her. "Does your husband know you are about?"
The two bright spots of pink that bloomed on her cheeks gave him his answer.
"I must speak with you," she said again and placed a cold hand on his forearm.
"Then let us adjourn into the chapel." Closing his fingers over her hand, Marmaduke led her toward Eilean Creag's small stone oratory. "It is closer than the great hall, and private." He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "I would know you warm before I hear what troubles you."
He'd scarce ushered her inside when the oratory's heavy wooden door burst open behind them. With a resounding crash, it slammed against the whitewashed wall.
"Saints, Maria, and Joseph!" Duncan MacKenzie fumed, ignoring the sanctity of the holy place. Ill-humor swirling round him like a dark cloak, he made straight for his wife. "Have you taken leave of your senses, woman? 'Tis in your bed you should be. The entire household is searching for you."
Bracing fisted hands on his hips, he tossed a dark glance at Marmaduke. "Why am I not surprised to find her with you?"
"Becalm yourself, my friend," Sir Marmaduke urged, his smooth baritone voice unruffled by the other man's bluster. "No harm has befallen her."
"Were she your lady, I vow you would want to know her safe, too, Strongbow." Duncan ran a hand through his disheveled hair.
"I care for her as if she were my lady, as you know." Marmaduke placed his own hands on his hips. "Her well-being is of equal import to me. There is naught I would not do for her."
"My lords, please." Linnet leaned back against the recumbent stone effigy of a former MacKenzie warrior, one hand still resting upon her midsection. "I have told you naught will go wrong this time. I know it. My gift has shown me."
Duncan MacKenzie peered hard at her, his handsome features as set-faced as his stone-carved ancestor. After casting another dark look in Marmaduke's direction, he swung about and strode across the oratory.
Dropping to one knee, he busied himself lighting a small brazier in the corner near the altar. "Have you told him?" he asked his wife when he stood.
"Told me what?" Marmaduke quirked a brow.
"My lady would ask a favor of you." Duncan slanted a glance at Linnet. "A great favor."
Sir Marmaduke did not care for the way his friend spoke the last three words, nor the ghost of a half-smile suddenly twitching the corners of Duncan's mouth, but such reservations scarce mattered. He'd championed the lady Linnet since her arrival at Eilean Creag Castle five years ago, and she'd repaid his gallantry a thousandfold and then some.
In her presence, he could almost imagine himself rid of the scar that marred his once-handsome face and believe that, once more, his looks and not his well-practiced charm could turn female heads.
Indeed, he revered her greatly.
"No request Lady Linnet may ask of me is too great," Marmaduke vowed. Turning to her, he made her a slight bow. "How may I serve you, my lady?"
Rather than answer him, Linnet cast her gaze downward and began scuffing her toe against the stone flagging of the chapel floor.
Ignoring his friend's ill-concealed bemusement, Marmaduke lifted her chin, forcing her to look at him. "Name your desire and it is yours," he sought to encourage her.
She met his gaze but kept her silence. After a moment, she moistened her lips and said, "Now that I stand before you, I fear it is too much to ask."
Marmaduke shot a glance at Duncan then immediately wished he hadn't. His handsome friend now wore a bold smile.
A too bold smile.
Somewhere in Marmaduke's gut, a tiny shard of unease broke loose, a jagged-edged shard that jabbed his innards and grew more unpleasant by the moment.
The smile on Duncan MacKenzie's face grew as well and the gleam in the Highlander's eyes bode ill for Marmaduke.
He turned back to Linnet. "I cannot help you if you will not tell me what it is you wish me to do."
"I cannot," she whispered, shaking her head.
"And you?" He glanced at Duncan, alarmed to see that his friend's smile had now turned into a silly grin. "Will you divulge this great secret?"
"With pleasure," Duncan said, the mirth in his voice undeniable. "My lady wife's sister is in need of a champion."
Marmaduke lifted a brow. "I see naught amusing about a lady in need."
"Then you will go to her aid?" Linnet asked, the tremor of hope in her voice going straight to Marmaduke's heart.
Iron control hid the mounting tension swirling in Marmaduke's breast, the dull thudding of a heart filled with other plans than riding off to slay some unknown gentle-woman's dragons.
"Think you I am the man to champion her?" his valor asked before his heart could stay his tongue.
"We know of no one better suited," Duncan answered for his wife. "The lady Caterine is newly widowed and plagued by a persistent Sassunach earl who would press her to marry him. Her holding, Dunlaidir Castle in the east, is sorely failing. Without help she will lose both the peace she craves and the home she holds dear."
He laid his arm around Linnet's shoulders and drew her close. "Nor is it in our best interest in these troubled times to see as strategic a stronghold as Dunlaidir fall into English hands."
Marmaduke rubbed the back of his neck. "Why not send a contingent of able men to assist her? Many are the warriors you could choose from."
"Name one whose sword arm is mightier than yours." Duncan's fingers kneaded the woolen folds of his wife's cloak. "Who better than you, a Sassunach of noble blood, to challenge an English earl? You, with your martial skills and smooth tongue, are more suited to the task than a score of fighting Gaels."
Unconvinced, Marmaduke shook his head. "A full retinue would serve her better than a single man."
"Dunlaidir is possessed of a stout garrison. They only need direction. A firm hand and a clear-headed man to lead them. Nor can I spare more than a few men with Balkenzie nearing completion. Nay, Strongbow, the task falls to you." His smile gone, Duncan aimed a penetrating stare at Marmaduke. "Or would you deny my lady's sister of your skill?"
"You know I cannot. It is only-" Marmaduke broke off, near stumbling over his unusually thick tongue. He ran a finger under the neckline of his tunic. The chapel's somewhat stale, incense-laden air closed in on him with such pressure he almost gagged. "I'd planned to take occupancy of Balkenzie soon."
A lame excuse, to be sure, but he'd so hoped to hoist his own banner before Samhain.
"I'd hoped to see the castle well-garrisoned and secure, secure for you, before the onset of winter," Marmaduke said, his words casting down the gauntlet of his hesitation.
"And so you shall." Duncan's flashing smile reappeared. "Upon your return."
Marmaduke opened his mouth to rebuke the notion but Duncan silenced him with a raised hand. "You shall be snugly ensconced within your own keep's walls by Yuletide at latest," his liege declared. "Then we shall all gather at Balkenzie's hearth and drink to my lady's health."
"And to our bairn's," Linnet added, the conviction in her voice and the look in her eyes doing more to dismantle Marmaduke's resistance than all her husband's bold words combined.
As if he sensed his friend's crumbling will, Duncan clamped a firm hand on Marmaduke's shoulder. "It will not take long for a strong-armed warrior such as yourself to have done with one odious Englishman?"
Taking his hand off Marmaduke's shoulder, Duncan gave him a playful jab in the ribs. "A fat and ill-fit one, if we choose to believe the tongue-waggers."
Marmaduke swallowed hard.
Something was amiss.
And whatever it was, it slithered up his back, cool and smooth as a snake, to curl deftly around his neck and squeeze ever tighter the longer he watched the merry twinkle dancing in his friend's eyes.
Marmaduke frowned. "There is something you are not telling me."
Linnet glanced away and Duncan stretched his arms over his head, loudly cracking his knuckles. His fool grin widened. "As ever, I can hide naught from you," he said, his deep voice almost jovial. "I've long suspected you're as blessed with the sight as my fair lady wife."
Lounging against the cold stone form of his long-dead forebear, Duncan finally tossed down his own gauntlet. "Lady Caterine wishes you to pose as her husband. Only if word spreads she has wed a third time, does she believe she can rid herself of her current woes."
Marmaduke stared at his friends, too stunned to speak. None would deny he revered them well. Saints, he would gladly give his life for either of them. But what they proposed went beyond all lunacy.
Impossible, he should pose as any lady's husband no matter how great her plight.
No matter who her sister.
Never had he heard anything more preposterous.
"You ask too much," he found his voice at last. "I will offer the lady full use of my sword arm, and I shall guard her with my life so long as she requires my aid, but I will not enter into a blasphemous relationship with any woman."
He bit back a harsher refusal on seeing the hope fade from Linnet's eyes. "By the Rood, Duncan," he swore as softly as he could, "you should know I am not a man who would pretend to speak holy vows."
"Then don't," Duncan said, triumph riding heavy on his words. "Make the lady your bride in truth."
Make the lady your bride in truth.
His friend's parting comment lingered long after Duncan and his lady took their leave. Like the repetitive chants of a monk's litany, the taunt echoed, increasing in intensity until the words seemed to fill not just his mind but the close confines of the oratory as well.
Make the lady your bride...
By the saints, did his liege mean to mock him? Duncan MacKenzie knew better than most of the loneliness that plagued Marmaduke in the darkest hours of the night, was well aware of Marmaduke's most secret desire: to have a fine and goodly consort of his own once more.
And a sister of the lady Linnet could be naught but a pure and kindly gentlewoman.
Was there indeed more behind his friends' insistence that only he can champion the ill-plighted young widow?
A tiny smile tugged at the corner of Marmaduke's mouth and a pleasant warmth the likes of which he hadn't felt in many years began to curl round his heart.
Make her your bride...
The words came as a song now.
A joyous one.
Hope beginning to burgeon deep within his soul, Sir Marmaduke went to the altar, sank to his knees, and bowed his head.
Sometime later, he knew not how long, a shaft of multi-colored light fell through the chapel's one stained glass window to cast a rosy-gold glow upon his folded hands. The beam of light illuminated his signet ring, turning it to molten gold and making the large ruby gleam as if set afire.
Then, no sooner had the colored light appeared, did it vanish, extinguished as if a cloud had passed before the rising sun.
But Marmaduke had seen it rest upon his ring.
A portent from above.
Once more, Marmaduke murmured a prayer. One of thanksgiving and hope. When at last he rose, his decision was made.
As soon as he could muster what few men Duncan could spare him, he would journey across Scotland to aid a damsel in need, a lady he would offer not only his warring skills and protection, but marriage.
A true one.
If by God's good graces, she would have him.
Copyright © 2003 by Sue-Ellen Welfonder
To learn more about the author, read Anu Varma's profile on page 56 of the February 2003 issue. Available on newsstands now.