Lady of Ross

A sequel to Rebel of Ross; medieval Scottish romance from Mary Lancaster.

Born to a great destiny and an eternal love…or so he once believed.

Malcolm MacHeth, one time Earl of Ross and pretender to the throne of Scotland, has languished in prison for half his life when his eldest son is betrayed and joins him in captivity.

Malcolm’s wife, Halla, who has ruled his old earldom alone all this time, turns the disaster into a daring plan to free both men.

But then Malcolm spoils everything; he doesn’t come home.

Hurt and insulted, with only the companionship of her faithful harpist, Muiredach, Halla leaves the safety of Ross to rescue Mairead, the brave young woman who has risked her life for the MacHeths and is now in trouble.

Malcolm, who taught himself to endure captivity, finds his new freedom even more of a challenge. But when fresh dangers threaten Halla, his family and his people, he can only ride to their aid; and in doing so, embraces a lesser destiny and a greater love.
 

Read an excerpt below

Chapter One

 

 

Halla, the Lady of Ross, dreamed of her husband.

No other dreams affected her this way, causing her to wake with restless anger and grief and dark physical arousal. Stupid, because she had stopped being angry with Malcolm MacHeth decades ago. What really distressed her now was that the dreams no longer came very often, and when they did, his face was blurred.

For more than twenty years, what should have been the best part of her life, she had lived without him. While he lay in the King of Scots’ prison, she had brought up his children and ruled his earldom of Ross. And she’d fought every way she could to have him released. She needed to remember him to go on.

Or at least, so she had always believed.

Throwing off the heavy blankets, she rose from the big bed she’d first slept in as a young girl and paced to the window, throwing the shutters wide to cool her face and body in the chill wind. Before her spread out the ridged farming lands and the endless wild moors and forests of Ross, all criss-crossed with misty rivers and streams and lochs. Malcolm had made the isolated hall at Brecka his main residence because it was so hard to find, and he was so frequently pursued by the king’s men. Behind it rose the steep hill from which

Gormflaith, Halla’s daughter, watched constantly for the return of the father she had never seen.

Halla leaned out, tilting her face into the damp wind, reaching for the serenity she had so painstakingly acquired. Malcolm MacHeth had never been a serene or tranquil man. But in spite of everything, she didn’t want to forget his face, even though she knew the decades would have altered it, as they had changed hers.

She was thirty-nine years old. Most women of her age and rank would have no greater concerns than households, children and grandchildren. Few had ever exercised the power she had here in Ross. She had already ruled much longer than Malcolm ever had, longer than his father. And she did it well, better than either of them.

Not for the first time, she acknowledged that it would be hard to give up such power when Malcolm MacHeth, Earl of Ross, finally came home. Or when Donald, their elder son, finally decided there was no longer any point in waiting and hoping, and took up all of the reins of rule himself. And when he married, his lady, whoever she might be, would take the rest of Halla’s place as was only right.

 

Halla dreaded that day, because she would have nothing to replace the huge responsibility she’d taken up so long ago. It was no longer possible for her to live like other women through her family alone. But she would adapt and change as necessary, because she loved her children fiercely. She’d taught them to fight for their father’s right to be King of Scots, just as Malcolm would have wished.

 

Without warning, she shivered. One of those violent, spine-tingling shivers that warned of a future when someone would walk over her cold, earthy grave. Halla dreaded that. She wanted to be pushed out into the sea and be consumed in flames with her longship.

But perhaps the danger was not hers. She shivered again, reaching up to slam the shutters. Her sons were with their uncle still, fighting and raiding. Or perhaps on their way home. Either way, she had no cause beyond the normal to fear for them.

And yet she did.

****

“It’s done,” Fergus, the lord of Galloway, told the young King of Scots, who was hawking in the Pentland Hills.

The king, a fair, handsome boy with a love of all things chivalric, rode with Fergus a little way apart from his courtiers, bestowing a genuine smile upon him. “Excellent! Where are the captured MacHeth sons?”

“Well,” Fergus confessed, “I only have Donald. Adam didn’t come, although with the bait of his brother, I could probably catch him too. On the other hand, I don’t want a war in Galloway if I can help it. Donald is probably enough for our purposes.”

The king was still smiling as he gazed into the sky. His hawk had caught a sparrow. He held out his gloved hand, and the hawk flew towards it. “Then perhaps it’s time I visited Roxburgh. You’d better bring your prisoner there to join his father.”

“Your prisoner, Your Grace,” Fergus said graciously. He wheeled his horse around and found the lady Mairead of Kingowan almost in front of him, gazing upwards at the soaring, hunting hawks.

Damn her, the woman moved like a snake, silent and inconvenient. But he knew how to deal with women, even dangerous ones. Especially when they were as comely as Mairead with her fair, flawless skin and fiery red hair mostly hidden beneath her almost decorous veil. Fergus, retreating from the royal presence as the rest of the court advanced, urged his horse even closer to the apparently distracted lady Mairead.

“Lady Mairead,” he murmured. “I was just thinking of you. Can we escape this dullness, do you think?”

Yes, there it was, the betraying blush and flutter that meant a little dalliance would not be unacceptable.

“Slip away into the wood as you pass,” she breathed with unmistakable promise.

He watched from the corner of his eye as she began to walk her horse casually in that direction. Fergus’s blood heated. She was, in fact, a fine-looking woman. Keeping her silent for a few days would be no hardship. He wondered if she did more for his old friend Malcolm mac Aed—or Malcolm MacHeth as he was more popularly known—than carry his messages from prison.

An image of Halla, Malcolm’s lady, swam before his eyes. For a prisoner, Malcolm really was a lucky bastard. To have a pretty, willing woman visiting him in captivity and a beautiful, wise, and loyal one to come home to. Eventually. Well, the Lady of Ross was beyond Fergus’s reach, but Mairead, clearly, was not.

Pretending his young hawk had dropped something over the trees—when in fact the stupid bird was probably halfway home to Galloway—Fergus rode off to investigate. Although he made a lot of noise clumping about, Mairead didn’t immediately appear. He had to search for her, find her tracks. And they led straight through to the other side of the wood, back in the direction of Edinburgh.

 

****

Mairead was nobody’s fool, except perhaps Malcolm MacHeth’s. Giving Fergus the slip provided her with the time she needed to ride back to Edinburgh, summon her discreet messenger and send him north to Ross.

That done, she cleansed and anointed her body, put on her best gown, and repaired to Fergus’s rooms in the city. She’d only just settled herself in his best chair and, making use of the expensive writing materials she found on the table, begun to write a dull letter to her husband, when the dark, wiry figure of Fergus came striding in, scowling, no doubt with irritation at being made a fool of. However, his expression when he caught sight of her was almost worth it.

“What-what—what the…” he spluttered.

“Where have you been?” Mairead demanded, throwing down her pen, which spattered ink over the vellum. Oh well, it would still do. “I’ve been waiting here for hours.”

“That’s funny. I was scouring the wood for hours.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Do I look like a woodsman’s daughter to you?”

His gaze swept over her person, betraying only too clearly what he’d like to do with it. “No,” he said hoarsely. “God, no.”

 

“I thought not,” she purred, standing up to let him embrace her exotically scented person before she pulled free and spun around to seize her cloak and the half-finished letter. “On the other hand, you are too late. My husband misses me. I’ve been summoned home.”

 

It spoke volumes for Fergus’s frustration that it was late in the evening before he even thought to enquire who had left Edinburgh that afternoon while he’d been raking through the woods. And by then, he hadn’t a hope of catching them.

****

To counteract the rumours that were already seeping in from Galloway, King Malcolm left Fergus in Edinburgh while he and the Earl of Strathearn travelled in private to Roxburgh.

King Malcolm had met the prisoner in Roxburgh castle once before, when he’d first become king and had gone through curiosity to see what sort of a monster he held that was so frightening even his grandfather King David hadn’t had the courage to kill him. Or so young King Malcolm had told himself. In reality, he’d been well aware there were other reasons no one would execute that other Malcolm, the son of Aed, reasons to do with tradition and honour as well as pragmatism.

The prisoner represented a royal kindred which had been wronged by the king’s own. They were cousins, distant but undeniable. Malcolm MacHeth could only be killed in battle, for those reasons. And because a martyr with heirs to his cause was a focus for the swirling discontent in the country, from slighted or greedy nobles to hungry bondsmen and serfs who’d suffered from raids or taxation.

The chamber housing Malcolm MacHeth was not uncomfortable. He had a tiny window, high up in the wall, that allowed in fresh air and light. He had a fireplace for warmth in winter, a bed to sleep in, a bench to sit on, and books to read. He was allowed to exercise in the big inner courtyard, to ride and practice jousting, archery, and swordplay. He had respectable clothes, books, writing materials, and an old harp to strum. He was even allowed an occasional female visitor, although none from his family who would have been instantly seized.

As soon as the guard opened his cell door, Malcolm rose from the bench on which he’d been reading. He would have been warned to expect the king. A beam of sunlight shone from the high window onto the bench, falling partially still on the tall, saturnine prisoner. The other half of his face remained in shadow, and the king wondered if that was deliberate, to hide his true thoughts or to confuse his visitors.

Malcolm MacHeth bowed to the king, but did not kneel. He had a certain stature, a presence that the young king envied because it wasn’t haughty or arrogant, just…confident. Which was odd in a man who’d been incarcerated since the age of twenty-two. But then, he’d been in arms against King David since the age of thirteen.

Although now over forty years old, no grey marred the dark head of Malcolm mac Aed, one-time Earl of Ross. There was no submission in his somehow insolent stance. And if there was weariness or even hopelessness in his heart—God knew there should have been after all this time—it was well hidden behind the steady, intelligent dark eyes. If the king hadn’t known better, he’d have imagined the prisoner was mocking him for coming here, for betraying there was something important in the wind.

Suddenly, the king felt uneasy. He should have left this to others, not turned up here like a child at a fair, avid to see the great attraction and the effect on him of the king’s mighty presence. It was Malcolm MacHeth’s presence that seemed likely to dominate this encounter if the king wasn’t very careful.

The King of Scots straightened to his full, slightly gangly height and looked straight into his enemy’s dark eyes. There was an edge of hardness there that he hadn’t noticed before, a spark of something very like danger that made the king glad, suddenly, that he hadn’t come alone. This was the man who’d turned the kingdom upside down, who’d fought and killed ruthlessly from a tender age to take Scotland’s crown. His crown.

Malcolm lifted his chin to give himself courage. “Good day to you, sir,” he said in English, grand and yet amiable. “I see that you are well.”

 

“As are you, sir, by appearance,” Malcolm MacHeth replied politely. “I’m honoured to receive you in my humble dwelling.”

 

“Actually, you are,” the king said, scowling, though he recovered his grand manner almost at once. “But what am I thinking? You must forgive my discourtesy. I have brought you another visitor.”

The prisoner’s eyebrows rose, but he did not move as the guard pushed Donald MacHeth into the room.

Unarmed but unbound and with few hurts apart from those healing after his fight with Fergus of Galloway’s men, Donald stood stock-still beside the king, his gaze fixed on his father. His Adam’s apple wobbled as he swallowed. Tall, dark, lean, with those liquid dark eyes, he was unmistakably a MacHeth. Malcolm’s eldest son and heir.

And his father didn’t know him.

For the first time, the king felt ashamed, almost guilty. But he’d gone too far to back down at this stage. “I see introductions are required. Malcolm, son of Aed, meet Donald, son of…yourself.”

Malcolm’s lips parted in shock. Although this was what the king had wanted to provoke in his unflappable prisoner, for some reason, the success didn’t make him happy.

Without permission, Donald took a stumbling step forward and fell to his knees—as he hadn’t before the king.

“Father,” Donald whispered, bowing his head. “Forgive me.”

Malcolm stared, unmoving. Then, as if he couldn’t help it, his hand reached down, touching the bowed head of the son he hadn’t laid eyes on in over twenty years. “Forgive you? For what?”

Donald’s voice was hoarse, difficult, almost as if he were being strangled. “Being taken, being here. That you are still here.”

 

“Well, I can’t blame you for either of the latter,” Malcolm said with a hint of the humour that must have been his saving grace through his long isolation from the world. “I don’t know why you’re here, but I can’t yet be sorry.” He grasped his son’s hair, tilting up his head. A smile flickered across his face. Donald’s breath caught.

The king couldn’t doubt the charged emotion between the two. He’d imagined somehow that there would be more anger, more gnashing of teeth than this silent, curiously helpless staring. He wondered what thoughts filled Donald’s head, as he finally beheld his legendary parent, and something almost like jealousy pulled at him. He could never have been king without the death of his own father, whom he missed suddenly with the force of an armoured punch in the chest.

“I see your mother in you,” Malcolm said softly to his son.

“I see my brother in you,” Donald said. “I never expected that.”

“Where is your brother?”

“In Ross.” In response to Malcolm’s tug, he stumbled to his feet. His father held him by the shoulders in a grip that must have hurt. The man’s knuckles were white.

“And your sister? And your mother?”

“Also.”

As if forcing himself, Malcolm relaxed his grip without releasing it. Over Donald’s shoulder, he addressed the king. “Why have you brought my son here?”

The king smiled. “To take your place. I’m sending you home.”

No one moved. The silence rang in the king’s ears. Slowly, Malcolm MacHeth’s hands fell away from his son’s shoulders and back to his own sides. In his eyes, that spark of danger flared and burned.

“Why?” Malcolm asked, the very quietness of his voice a threat.

The king shrugged elaborately to cover his nervousness. “Everyone seems to want it. I’m told it’s unfair to keep you so long, that there’s no fight left in you after two decades. That if I let you go, your sons and your brother-in-law will stop attacking my people and my land.

On the other hand, I can’t have you raising rebellion again as soon as you flex your free muscles. One of your sons is still free to cause havoc. You must exert your fatherly authority and keep him in line.”

Malcolm MacHeth smiled. “Must I?”

“Yes,” the king retorted, resorting to an attitude of bluster. “Because I will have your other son here in your old chamber, hostage to your obedience and Adam MacHeth’s.”

Oddly it was Donald who turned on the king with scorn. “Clearly you have never met my brother Adam.”

“It makes no difference,” Malcolm MacHeth said abruptly, seating himself once more on the bench. His firm mouth was set in a harsh line. “I will not leave my son here.”

Donald blinked rapidly. “No,” he said hoarsely. “You must go. For everyone’s sake. For Ross.”

Malcolm shook his head. “I will not compel you to a youth wasted in prison. Mine is over, and I’m used to this…half-life.”

 

The king scowled with growing irritation. “By your leave, sir, it is not up to you! If necessary, I will simply have you thrown out of the gates!”

“Then I’ll sit there, outside the castle gates,” Malcolm MacHeth said stubbornly. “But I will not go home.”

This was not going at all the way the king or Fergus had planned. For the first time since he’d ascended the throne, the king found himself bereft of words. But help came from an unexpected quarter.

Donald threw himself onto the bench beside his father. “No, no, this is right,” he said excitedly. “This is the way it’s meant to be! Adam saw this, sir. That Fergus would bring about your release. Admittedly we didn’t expect it this way, but that doesn’t matter. The gates are open for you and you must go home for everyone’s sake.” His voice lowered and he murmured something beneath his breath.

 

The king, however, had excellent hearing, and to him it sounded like “It will be all right, I swear. Adam will come for me.”

Poor deluded idiot had lived too long in the wilds of Ross. Everyone knew Roxburgh Castle was impregnable. And if no one, not even the notorious Adam, had been able to rescue Malcolm MacHeth, why on earth would he be able to release the son?

 

Malcolm MacHeth himself seemed to be of a similar mind. He gazed at Donald a moment longer before he said, “No. Keep both of us if you have to, but I will not leave here without my son.”

Ungrateful bastard. The king knew an urge to run both of them through. Or just to walk away leaving the door open and hope they’d be gone by morning. Instead, he stalked out and slammed the door closed. He hoped the noise would give Malcolm MacHeth second thoughts.

“Now what in the name of all the fiends of hell do I do?” the king raged to Ferchar of Strathearn, who’d acted as his guardian during these years of his minority.

“Send to Malcolm’s wife,” the earl advised.

The king blinked at him. “And force her to choose between her husband and her son? She hasn’t laid eyes on the husband for over twenty years! Why would she choose him?”

The earl gave a wry smile. “Because absence makes the heart grow fonder? No, she is by all accounts a wise lady. And the husband has much more chance of negotiating the release of the son than the other way around. Or so she will imagine.”

****

“Who’s this?” Adam MacHeth asked without a great deal of interest, as a rather baffled and bedraggled man was hauled before him.

 

Adam was preparing to ride out with Henry, the Norman, to show him the land that had been set aside for him. In truth, it would pay little enough, especially in the early years, but it was a way of binding the Norman to him. The others gave their loyalty because of who he was. Henry, once his enemy, needed feudal allegiance, and Adam didn’t mind obliging.

 

“He’s a messenger,” Cailean mac Gilleon said in English, pushing the frightened stranger forward. “From the king. He was met soon after he crossed into Ross and…escorted here.”

Adam blinked and gave the man some more of his distracted attention. “What can the king have to say to me?”

Cailean kicked the messenger who glared and said resentfully, “Nothing, unless you’re Sir William de Lanson.”

Lanson. So, Adam’s ruse was working. The king still didn’t know that his knight, Sir William de Lanson, was dead, and so for now, he would send no other army against the MacHeths. And yet, for some reason, the sound of his name stirred Adam to unease.

 

Cailean raised his fist to the messenger in an obviously threatening manner, but Adam, who’d just spotted his wife, Cairistiona, entering the hall with her arms full of wild roses, stayed him with one finger. There were many ways to elicit information, and they didn’t all involve blood. “For quickness, would the lady of Tirebeck do? Lanson’s wife?”

Cairistiona—or Christian in English—frowned slightly as she caught the words. Changing direction, she came towards them and deposited her flowers on the table.

“What is it?” she asked the messenger.

Adam’s heart warmed all over again. It seemed she knew what he wanted, picked up on a situation immediately and acted upon it, even when she disliked, as Adam knew she did, being reminded that Lanson had been so recently her husband. That he had died at the hand of the man who had then promptly married her himself.

“You are the Lady de Lanson?” the messenger asked, although he must have known her by the now-famous linen mask she wore over one side of her face.

“Obviously,” Cairistiona said haughtily. “I am Christian of Tirebeck. Tell me the king’s will.”

“Perhaps in privacy,” the messenger said, casting an uneasy glance around her clearly Gaelic entourage.

“I’m losing patience,” Cairistiona interrupted, while Henry usefully brought his Norman presence to the messenger’s attention by leaning on the table directly in front of him.

The messenger shrugged and took a deep breath. “His Grace greets Sir William and advises he should be ready as soon as the MacHeths march south.”

Deliberately, Adam didn’t look anywhere except at the messenger. “Is that it?”

The messenger nodded, his gaze flickering between Adam, Cairistiona, and Henry. “Find him refreshment and a place to sleep,” Adam said to Cailean, then switched to Gaelic. “And don’t let him leave.”

Judging by the messenger’s sudden resumption of struggling, he understood that too.

“If he gives you any trouble,” Adam advised, “kill him.”

The messenger stopped struggling, and Cailean hauled him away again.

“What,” Henry said thoughtfully, “should Sir William be ready to do? When the MacHeths march south?”

Adam shrugged with quick impatience. “Attack us where it matters. Take our halls and our womenfolk and kill as many men as are left behind to protect them. The more interesting question is why we should march south.”

“You do so quite a lot,” Cairistiona said dryly. “In fact, you have only just come back.”

“Exactly,” Adam said. “And yet the messenger didn’t say, ‘when the MacHeths next go south, or raid south.’ He said, ‘march south,’ as if this would be more than an opportunistic raid.”

He became aware only gradually of Cairistiona’s uneasy regard. This was difficult for her. She’d been brought up to regard the crowned king of Scots as the one true king, and her loyalty was too deep and true to be easily swayed. He couldn’t be sorry for that, although he could and did wish to have first hold on that loyalty. In time, perhaps.

She said, “Maybe now would be a good time to send the messenger back to the king, with an offer to negotiate peace.”

 

“Maybe,” he said to please her. Most of his mind was occupied with the reasons for the king’s first ever message to his isolated knight in Ross. Something was happening. He just didn’t yet know what. He could only wait. “Come,” he said abruptly to Henry. “If we wait any longer we won’t have time today.”

He took Cairistiona’s hand and kissed it, and was relieved to see her brow clear as her fingers clung for a moment to his lips. “Take care,” she said.

He didn’t think she was referring to a ride through his own country. Like him, she sensed something was happening, or about to happen. His fingertips seemed to tingle with it as he left the hall and mounted the grey horse already waiting for him.

 

“Send after me,” he said to Findlaech, “if any more messengers are found. Theirs or ours.”

REVIEWS:

"Beautiful story of trust and eternal love" 

"Very enjoyable read"

"tensions, angst, loyalty and devotion"

"...the author wove her story out of what few facts are available about these characters. It's a very good story...I felt for the h[eroine] for most of the book."

All content Copyright Mary Lancaster, 2017.

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