Kinfairlie, on the east coast of Scotland - April 1421
Alexander, newly made Laird of Kinfairlie, glowered at his sister.
There was no immediate effect. In fact, Madeline granted him a charming smile. She was a beautiful woman, dark of hair and blue of eye, her coloring and comeliness so striking that men oft stared at her in awe. She was fiercely clever and charming, as well. All of these traits, along with the score of men anxious to win her hand, only made Madeline’s refusal to wed more irksome.
“You need not look so annoyed, Alexander,” she said, her tone teasing. “My suggestion is wrought of good sense.”
“It is no good sense for a woman of three and twenty summers to remain unwed,” he grumbled. “I cannot imagine what Papa was thinking not to have seen you safely wed a decade ago.”
Madeline’s eyes flashed. “Papa was thinking that I loved James and that I would wed James in time.”
“James is dead,” Alexander retorted, speaking more harshly than was his wont. They had had this argument a dozen times and he tired of his sister’s stubborn refusal to accept the obvious truth. “And dead the better part of a year.”
A shadow touched Madeline’s features and she lifted her chin. “We have no certainty of that.”
“Every man was killed in that assault upon the English at Rougemont - that no man survived to tell the tale does not change the truth of it.” Alexander softened his tone when Madeline glanced away, blinking back her tears.
“We both would have preferred that James’ fate had been otherwise, but you must accept that he will not return.”
He was pleased to note how Madeline straightened and how the fire returned to her eyes. If she was spirited enough to argue with him, that could only be a good sign. “Though I appreciate a wound to the heart takes long to heal, you grow no younger, Madeline.”
Madeline arched a brow. “Nor do any of us, brother mine. Why do you not wed first?”
“Because it is not necessary.” Alexander glared at her, again to no avail. He knew that he sounded like a man fifty years older than he was, but he could not help himself -- Madeline’s refusal to be biddable was annoying. “I ask only that you wed, that you do so out of regard for your four younger sisters, that they too might wed.”
“I do not halt their nuptials.”
“They will not wed before you and you know it well. So Vivienne and Annelise and Isabella and Elizabeth have all informed me. I try only to do what is best for you, but you are all in league against me!” Alexander flung out his hands then rose to his feet, pacing the chamber in his frustration.
Madeline - curse her! - regarded him with dawning amusement. Trust her to be consoled by teasing him!
“It is no small burden to become laird of the keep,” she noted, the expression in her eyes knowing when he spun to face her. “No less to be burdened with the lot of us. You were much more merry a year ago, Alexander.”
“And no wonder that! This is hell!” he shouted, feeling better for it. “Not a one of you makes this newfound duty any easier for me to bear! I am not mad to demand that you wed! I am trying to assure your future, yet you all defy me at every step!”
Madeline tilted her head, her eyes beginning to sparkle and a smile lifting the corner of her lips. “Can you not imagine that it is a sweet kind of vengeance for all the pranks you have played upon us over the years? How delicious it is to foil you, Alexander, now that you are suddenly stern and proper! Think of all the frogs in my linens and snakes in my slippers for which I can now have vengeance.”
“I will not be foiled!” he roared and thudded his fist upon the table between them.
Madeline clucked her tongue, chiding him for his show of temper. “And I will not be wed,” she said, her soft tone belying the determination in her gaze. “Not so readily as that. At any rate, you have not the coin in the treasury to offer a dowry, so there is no need to discuss the matter before the tithes are collected in the autumn.”
Alexander spun to look out the window, hoping to hide his expression from his confident sister. There might have been a steel band drawn tight around his chest, for he knew a detail that Madeline did not. The tithes would be low this year, so the castellan had confided in him. There had been torrential rains this spring and what seed had not been washed away had rotted in the ground. He marvelled that he had never thought of such matters until this past year and marvelled again at how much he had yet to learn.
How had Papa managed all these concerns? How had he laughed and been so merry with such a weight upon his shoulders? Alexander felt nearly crushed beneath this unfamiliar burden of responsibility.
His gaze trailed over the sea that lapped beneath Kinfairlie’s towers and he mourned the loss of their parents anew. He knew that his siblings defied him as a way of defying the cruel truth of their parents’ sudden death, but he also knew that he could not feed all those currently resident in this keep in the winter to come. The castellan had told him so, and in no uncertain terms.
His sisters had to be wed, and at least the two eldest had to be wed this summer. They were all of an age to be married, ranging as they did from twenty-three summers to twelve, but Madeline was the sole obstacle to his scheme.
He pivoted to regard her, noting the concern that she quickly hid. She must guess what it cost him to so change his own nature, to abandon his recklessness in favor of responsibility; she must know that he assumed this task for the sake of all of them.
Yet still she defied him.
“You could at least feign compliance,” he suggested, anger thrumming beneath his words. “You could try to make my task lighter, Madeline, instead of encouraging our sisters to defy me.”
She leaned closer. “You could at least ask,” she retorted, the sapphire flash of her eyes showing that this would be no easy victory. “In truth, Alexander, you are so demanding these days that a saint would defy you, and do so simply for the pleasure of thwarting your schemes. You have become a different man since you were made laird, and one who is difficult to like.”
“I am making choices for the best of all of us,” he insisted, “and you only vex me.”
Madeline smiled with cursed confidence. “You are not vexed. You are irked, perhaps.”
“Annoyed,” contributed another feminine voice. Vivienne tipped her head around the corner, revealing that she had been listening to the entire exchange. Vivienne’s hair was of a russet hue and her eyes were a dark green.
Otherwise, she shared Madeline’s virtues and not a few of her faults, including the fact that she also must be wed before the harvest.
Alexander ground his teeth at the slender prospect of succeeding twice in this challenge.
Three shorter women peeked around the edge of the portal, their eyes bright with curiosity. Annelise was sixteen with auburn tresses and eyes as blue as cornflowers; Isabella was fourteen with eyes of vivid green, orange-red hair and freckles across her nose; Elizabeth was ebony-haired like himself and Madeline, her eyes an uncanny green. The sight of all those uncovered tresses - the mark of unmarried maidens - made Alexander’s innards clench.
They were no longer merely his sisters, his comrades, or even the victims of his jests - they and their futures were his responsibility.
“But you are certainly not vexed, Alexander,” Vivienne continued with a smile.
Madeline nodded agreement. “When Alexander is vexed in truth, he shouts. So know this, Annelise, Isabella and Elizabeth, you have not truly angered Alexander until he roars fit to lift the roof.” The five women giggled and that was enough.
“I am indeed vexed!” Alexander bellowed. The sole result of his outburst was that the three younger women nodded.
“Now he is vexed,” said Annelise.
“You can tell by the way he shouts,” Elizabeth agreed.
“Indeed,” said Madeline, that teasing smile curving her lips again. “But still he is a man of honor, upon that we can all rely.” She rose and gave a simmering Alexander a peck of a kiss upon each of his cheeks.
She smiled at him with a surety that made him long to throttle her, for she was right.
“Still he will not raise a hand against a woman.” Madeline patted his shoulder, as if he were no more threatening than a kitten. “I shall wed when I so choose, Alexander, and not one day before. Fear not - all will be resolved well enough in the end.”
With that, Madeline left the chamber, easily gathering their sisters about her. They chattered of kirtles and chemises and new shoes. Elizabeth demanded a story, and as Vivienne complied, their voices faded to naught.
Alexander sat down heavily and put his head in his hands. What was he going to do?
Meanwhile, some miles down the coast that faces the North Sea, a warrior met with a priest. The warrior was a stranger to all at Kinfairlie and at Ravensmuir, though his quest would soon bring him to those gates. He sought another Madeline, Madeline Arundel, a Madeline who should have been twice the age of the Madeline Lammergeier we have met at Kinfairlie. Alnwyck was the keep where priest and warrior met, and this was the day that a mystery would be solved for the warrior.
Rhys FitzHenry touched a fingertip to the name inscribed in the ledger. After many months of searching, he had finally found his cousin Madeline Arundel.
She had died in the winter of 1398, some twenty-three years before.
Rhys looked out the window of the chapel, blind to the windswept shore beyond these stone walls. It rained, a steady patter upon the roof that cast silver across the sea and coast. But in Rhys’ mind’s eye, he saw his cousin on a summer’s day, daisies woven into her raven hair, her hand clasped in the firm grip of Edward Arundel. They had been young, handsome, and vigorously happy.
His uncle Dafydd had called Madeline a tribute bride, a woman exchanged in matrimony to seal a treaty between new allies, but no one would have believed that Madeline wed Edward out of duty alone. There were stars in her eyes and laughter in her voice: even those two old warriors responsible for the nuptials, Dafydd and Owain Glyn Dwr himself, had smiled at her merriment. Rhys had only been a boy, but he remembered the jubilation of that day well.
Madeline had lived a mere year after that. It was impossible to believe, though no surprise that no one had known, given the chaos that had claimed Wales in those years. Rhys’s heart clenched in recollection of the couple’s laughter as they left to rejoin the knight’s family in Northumberland.
One year they had savored together. It seemed far too little for the happiness they had found.
“God bless her soul,” the priest murmured and Rhys echoed the blessing.
He was disappointed, he realized, though logically he should not have been. Though he remembered Madeline only vaguely, though she alone could have thwarted his ambitions, he wished his search might have ended differently.
It would not have been all bad to have found some kin left breathing in these sorry times. The rebellion in Wales against the English crown had plucked the ripest fruit from their family tree, and there were precious few of the multitudes of Rhys’ childhood left living.
With Madeline deceased, he would possess Caerwyn himself. Rhys closed his eyes for a moment, the vigor of his desire weakening his knees. He had grown up at Caerwyn, he had learned to wield a blade there, he had joined the ranks to defend her walls when he had been yet a youth. He loved that keep more than life itself, he had dreamed of possessing her, he had despaired that such fortune could ever come to him.
But against all odds, Caerwyn would be his.
Rhys gave Madeline’s name a last caress of farewell, then noted a word he had not seen before.
“In childbirth?” he asked of the priest, fear stirring within him. “Madeline died in childbirth?”
The priest nodded. “I am sorry, my son, but it is not uncommon for women to be lost this way. It was said that her husband, Edward, was devoted to her, and I have no doubt that he procured the services of the best midwife...”
“But what happened to the child?” Rhys dreaded that his search was but partly completed. The child would be a direct descendant of Dafydd. The child could inherit Caerwyn in Rhys’ stead.
He must know the whereabouts of the child!
The priest smiled. “You have uncommon charity for a mere cousin, my son. How kind of you to have a care for your kinswoman’s child.”
Rhys spoke through gritted teeth. “What happened to the child?”
“Perhaps it died as well.” The priest shrugged. “Perhaps the father raised it alone, or wed again.”
“I must know the truth of it!” Rhys shouted and the priest flinched at his vigor. He was immediately contrite. “I am sorry, Father, but the matter is of utmost importance to me.” Rhys swallowed. “This child would be the last living soul of my kin.”
“Of course, of course. Your devotion is most admirable, my son.” The priest ran a fingertip down the ledger and frowned. “No other death is recorded here in that year. I cannot imagine that the babe would have died unshriven if the priest recorded the mother’s demise. There is no mention of a christening, but my predecessor was not always complete in his records. No child was returned to Lady Madeline’s kin?”
“Nay.” Rhys was certain of it.
“How curious. Perhaps it remained here, with the father...” The priest mused as he unfurled the scroll, and Rhys barely restrained himself from snatching the vellum from the old priest’s hands.
“Ah!” The priest granted Rhys a smile. “There is a note here in 1403 that might be of interest. Lady Catherine of Kinfairlie attended the funeral mass for the knight Edward Arundel, who died in battle with Henry Percy.” The priest glanced up. “It is writ that the old Earl of Northumberland wept a thousand tears for the untimely demise of his son and heir, Henry Hotspur.”
“So it is told in the tales I know, as well.”
“But the account states that this Lady Catherine then took the babe of Edward to be her ward, the child’s blood parents both being deceased.” He nodded. “One would assume that the two ladies had been friends, for Lady Catherine to take on Lady Madeline’s young child.” He removed his spectacles and considered Rhys. “Perhaps your kin can be found at Kinfairlie, my son.”
“Perhaps so.” Rhys donned his gloves, knowing his quest was not yet complete. “Where lies this Kinfairlie, Father?”
©2005, 2011 Claire Delacroix, Inc.