By the Queen's Command
Scottish Highlands, 1565:
"How many did we lose?" asked Raibeart Carlyle to his head herdsman, Angus.
"Nigh on fifty head, m'lord," the old retainer responded, shaking his grizzled head. "'Twas done when we was all down for the St. Martinmas feast, ye ken. I had Alan an' Alastair, the twins o' Tommy Boyle, out on watch in the field along wi' ma three herd dogs."
"Did anything happen to the lads?" Rab queried, for he knew that reivers were generally not opposed to violence if caught on a raid.
"Somebody knocked the lads oot," Angus answered. The lads in question were thirteen, and nearly men by Highland standards. "They woke up with sore heads but nobbut else, milord."
"And your dogs?"
"Fine too, sir. Though Ginny was limpin' on her off fore, musta gotten stepped on."
Rab breathed a sigh of relief. As the eldest living son of the chieftain, Malcolm Carlyle, it fell to him to police the family lands and herds, as well as maintain law and order amongst his sometimes quarrelsome clansmen. The Carlyles were part of the rich Bruce clan, and owed fealty to the great Earl. He was glad that the reivers hadn't hurt the two lads on watch, which argued for them to be either the Frasers to the west or the MacNaughton's to the east, since both of those families bordered his own and often raided Carlyle cattle. But it was most likely the Frasers, since they had an ongoing feud with the Carlyles.
The young man, he was twenty-seven that spring, brushed a wayward lock of nut-brown hair from his eyes, his hair was getting long and tended to flop over into his face when the wind rustled the heather. He was lean and trim, though not as tall or as bulked up as some of his men. He was of medium height, devilishly quick with a short sword, which was in fact his preferred weapon, that and his bow and his brace of throwing knives. He could weild a claymore, all clansmen could, but he preferred the smaller more maneuverable weapons. Unlike many Scots, he was none too fond of fighting, though when his blood was up he could, as the saying went, lick his weight in wildcats.
As the second son of the powerful Carlyle branch of the Bruces, Rab had been sent away to school at the age of sixteen in Edinburgh. There he had been expected to read the law and come back with enough knowledge in his head so that his father, Malcolm no longer need rely on the cheating barristers to advise him on legal policy as well as crown law. Rab's elder brother, Jamie, was the heir and the warrior in the family. But Rab had wanted more than just to be a lawyer. He also had a fascination with medicine, specifically the treatment of a body through herbs and also surgery when necessary.
Unknown to his father, he had apprenticed to a well respected Moorish physician, Dr. Azhir. The good doctor had taught Rab all that he could of his profession, and the boy proved to be a diligent student. How he ever managed to juggle two types of study and not work himself into a stupor of exhaustion still remained a mystery to this day to his family. His mother, Ceridwen, maintained that God had set his hand upon the boy, and for once had put her foot down and maintained that Malcolm should not forbid Rab to study the healing arts. And whatever she had threatened the chief with worked, for he said not one word of protest.
Of course, Malcolm had not known what respected physician Rab had been studying under, since to most Scotsman and Englishmen, Moors were considered inferior, despite their superior knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. Rab was careful to keep that knowledge to himself, for what Malcolm did not know, he could not rail against.
Now the young Highlander looked at his aging herdsman and said, "Send the lads up to the keep when ye got the time, and I'll take a look at them. But I'll also send Dougal, Roddy, Duncan and t'other men to pay back the Fraser reivers tenfold." His dark eyes flashed angrily. Raiding cattle was one thing, it was expected among the clans, but harming the herdboys was quite another. "Ye ken it was the Frasers, aye?"
Angus, who was nearing fifty, nodded. "Aye, sir. 'Twas most likely. Ye know they've allus had it in for us ever since Jenny Carlyle refused to marry Gowan Fraser, the walleyed crazy lad, and left him at the altar to run away wi' Ian MacLeod. They no' have forgotten nor forgiven it, e'en after four generations."
Rab, who was familiar with the history of the feud, as were all the Carlyles, just nodded. "I'll be turnin' out the men and we'll get some o' our own back from those thieves." Then he turned away, his plaid mantle of blue, gold, and green billowing as he walked away and mounted Auriel, his pale gold and cream-maned mare. The name meant "Gold" in Latin, and she was worth her weight in gold, being a desert bred horse, one of the few that Azhir had brought with him to this country that thrived in the rather harsh climate.
Rab threw a leg over the horse's back, the mare was trained to stand ground tied when he tossed the reins on the ground, and he rode with only a plaid blanket and sheepskin pad, with stirrups attached, almost like the ancient Romans. He preferred such a method, since it allowed him to feel the horse as he rode, and be aware of changes in the mare's gait and mood. He was a decent rider, as a boy he had preferred riding to almost any other activity, except reading and fishing the burns.
He clucked to Auriel and the mare shifted from a standstill into a smooth flowing trot, her dished head with the nostrils that drank the wind—as Azhir put it—held high. He cream tail flowed behind her like a banner. "C'mon, lass, let's tell Father what's afoot, and prepare the men."
He was more than certain that Malcolm would order a raiding party, and though Rab would not go with them, he was his father's strategist, and would plan the battle. Malcolm himself would lead his men, as was his right, keeping his heir to home for the nonce. The chief had no wish to risk his eldest on a brief sortie, and lose him as he had lost Jamie in battle eight years before.
Rab sighed thinking of his adored elder brother, the heir whom everyone had loved and admired, the big blond warrior with the glittering green eyes like the Highland hills. Jamie had been well respected and liked by all his kin, and was the apple of his father's eye. Rab, being four years younger, had always known Jamie was his papa's favorite, but that had ceased to sting years ago, because his mother, Ceri, lavished all of the attention and love Malcolm withheld from his "spare" upon her darkhaired bright second son. Sadly though, Ceri had died of a fever before Rab could come home from Edinburgh to see to her his last winter there, and since then, Rab had felt her loss keenly. He knew that among his immediate family, only he and his younger brother, Neal, mourned Ceri like they ought.
Carefree handsome Jamie mourned briefly then went on his way, but then again, he had always been Malcolm's favorite son. It was why, now that he too had joined their mother in heaven, Rab felt he was inadequate to take over the chieftainship, but by the law of the land, the eldest son would inherit his father's lands and title. But Rab knew Malcolm would have preferred his bonny Jamie lived rather than his dark intelligent lad.
Rab pulled up Auriel in the keep bailey, and as he was dismounting, Neal came in from one of the wiers with a string of fish. "Rab, ye're home early," he said upon seeing his brother, whom he worshipped.
"Aye, there's trouble afoot, I must tell Father," he said softly, and gave his brother a playful cuff about the head. "And what are ye doing fishing when ye have lessons wi' Donal Stuart today?"
Neal looked suddenly guilty. "Aww, Rab! I dinna want to sit in school today. 'Twas a verra bonny day out an' the fish were biting good." He showed his brother the string of blue perch he had caught proudly. "See? I got some big ones fer the table this evening. I couldna done that sitting there learning Latin."
Rab sighed, then said in a half-stern tone,"D'ye wanna be an uneducated lout then, Neal Carlyle? "
The boy, he was twelve, pouted slightly. "But Rab, Master Stuart put me t'sleep!"
The barrister shook a finger at the wayward scamp. "Ye're lucky Papa dinna hear you, else he'd be giving you a skelping fer disrespecting yer elders."
Neal paled. "Ye won't tell him, will ye?" He feared more than loved the chief, since Malcolm rarely had anything praiseworthy to say about his youngest, who like Rab took after his mother in looks but was bit more fiery in temperament.
"Nay, little brother." Rab assured him. He had no qualms protecting the boy from his papa's quick fists and leather strap. "But—ye're gonna do declensions for me tonight after supper. Or else I won't take you hawking wi' me tomorrow."
Neal made a face. He detested the Latin all well bred boys were supposed to learn, but he loved being with Rab, so he sighed. "Aye, you've got a deal." He spit in his palm and held out his hand to shake.
Rab followed suit and shook also. "An' remember—"
"No one breaks deals wi' Raibeart Carlyle," Neal recited the familiar litany.
"Aye, or else!" his brother mock-growled. "Now hie yerself t' the kitchen, lad and get those fish cleaned for the table." He gave his brother a gentle swat to hurry him along.
Neal went obediently, the string of perch bouncing up and down. He hated Latin, but Rab was a good teacher, and he learned better from his brother than his boring former friar teacher any day.
Then he handed Auriel's reins to Danny, his groom, and said, "Gi' her a good rubdown and some oats an' bran, aye, lad?"
"Course! I'll take good care o' her," the boy assured him, and led the mare away after Rab had stroked her satin nose.
Rab took the stairs to his papa's study two at a time, not very anxious to give his chief the ill news, but knowing Malcolm needed to know what had happened as soon as possible.
Mirabelle Fraser knelt in the wet straw beside her father Marcus's favorite mare as she struggled to give birth to her tenth foal, but the mare was having trouble this time, since the foal was not turned right, and Belle could see that despite the contractions, the baby was stuck.
"Shh, lass!" she crooned to the laboring mare, a deep liver chestnut called Silk. "Ye are havin' a bit o' trouble. Now lemme see what I can do t'help ye."
Belle was twenty that year, a slight woman with long chestnut hair with auburn highlights, the sort of shade her papa compared to a red doe. Though she was the youngest daughter of wealthy merchant Marcus Fraser, she was as yet unmarried. She was the youngest of four children, her brother Gavin having died in the same battle that had claimed Jamie Carlyle, fighting against the English in a border skirmish. Her older sisters, Mary, named for the queen, and Rosemary, had long since been married off and had husbands and households of their own. Mary had a fine lad, Duncan, who was two and Rose was pregnant with her first bairn. Belle had always been Marcus' fae child, always dreaming and reading, and though she had learned enough to run a household, she wanted more than what was common for a wellbred lady as far as schooling went.
She took extra lessons down in the village with their parish priest, Father MacNab, and learned Latin, French, and English besides her native Gaelic. If that were not odd enough, she also felt called to tend to animals, and used to follow auld Nick, her papa's beast keeper, around and ask him all sorts of questions. She had delivered her first lamb when she was nine, and then followed it by their sow farrowing and finally one of her papa's mares. She had seen cats and dogs get born every spring and summer, and when she didn't have her nose stuck in a book, she was mixing up salves and other medicines for all the animals the Frasers owned, including the cattle.
Belle's mother, Margaret, despaired of her youngest ever becoming a proper lady and considered sending her to a convent, but found that without Belle around, most every animal they owned might have up and died of grief, they were that fond of her fae child. So Belle remained, unmarried way past the time most girls of her class were wed, for Marcus could find no one willing to marry his bookish odd daughter with her ink-stained fingers smelling of horses, hounds, and hawks. She possessed a bright cheerful mein and was quite beautiful, but most suitors were scared off by her forthright manner and fearless way with animals.
Maggie feared her youngest would forever spend her life alone, and prayed daily for God to send her pesky daughter a husband who would be both firm and loving to her.
Meanwhile, Belle cherished her autonomy, and was determined to marry for love or not at all, though she never voiced this secret desire aloud, knowing better. She was profoundly grateful no man had asked her papa for her hand, and prayed that no one would just yet. She had too much to do caring for the livestock to be burdened with a husband and keeping his house and bearing his children. But mayhap someday . . .
The scent of crushed straw and the sweat of the laboring mare drifted to her nostrils as she scrubbed her hands up to the elbow in hot water and a cake of soap, then applied a layer of marigold salve to her hands and prepared to reach in and turn the foal about.
"Aye, lass, t'will be just a moment," she soothed, stroking the horse's flank. Luckily she had tied up the mare's flaxen tail before Silk had gone into labor. Taking a deep breath, she timed the contractions, and then waited until one had passed before she inserted a hand inside the birth canal.
She felt a tiny hoof, bent the wrong way, and she pushed it back towards the head, gritting her teeth when another contraction compressed her arm.
The mare whinnied and Belle hissed, "Wheesht, my bonny lass! I've almost . . . . got . . . it . . ." She pulled the hoof straight, resting it next to the head, then gently guided the foal out as the mare pushed.
"That's my lass . . .once more and . . .there we are!" Belle cried, victorious as the foal slid, wet and gleaming, a fiery chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail, onto the straw.
She quickly tore at the membrane so the foal could breathe, then she wiped him dry with some sacking. "Oh! Silk, ye've got a bonny wee lad! Papa's gonna be so proud! He was hoping for a stud colt this year!"
The foal lifted its tiny head and made a strange whicker.
Belle stepped away then, refraining from stroking the fuzzy coat like she wanted, instead allowing Silk and her new son to sniff each other, the mare to lick the newborn and deliver the afterbirth while the foal waggled large ears and attempted to get to his feet.
Belle rose, brushing straw from her skirt, which was her everyday blue muslin one with the white apron over it, she usually wore when tending to her animals. She stepped outside the stall, leaning on the door and watching the foal and the mare get to know each other.
It was quite late at night, and she knew that if not for her insistence, the head groom, Tom, would have been there delivering the foal instead of herself. But Belle knew that Marcus would have a seizure if anything went wrong with his favorite mare, and so she had made sure to have Neddie wake her up when Silk went into labor.
Despite having assisted and witnessed foals being born before, as well as pigs, sheep, and goats, the miracle she had just witnessed never failed to awe her. It was as if she was the only living human in the world, and felt an almost sacred trust between herself and the horses. It was beautiful and humbling at the same time.
Silk licked her son thoroughly and then began to nudge him to his hooves.
Belle giggled as the foal tried to get up, and ended up with his little front legs splayed out to either side.
He snorted in anger and his whisk broom of a tail went back and forth.
"Ye've got fire in ye, lad. If I had the naming of ye, I'd call ye Bonfire," she declared.
After another titanic struggle, the colt got his feet under him and stood, wavering slightly.
His mother nudged him and he took two step forward and nuzzled her side.
When Belle saw him start to nurse, she crept inside and took out the afterbirth in a pail, then washed up and gave the weary mare some bran mash and water before locking the stall door and leaving the barn for her warm bed.
It was almost four in the morning, and the sun was barely peeking its head about the horizon. Yet it was going to be a beautiful morning.
As she mounted the back stairs of her house to her room, she was glad that her maid Fiona had left her a full pitcher of water to get in a quick wash before she took off her dress and pulled on her nightshirt and fell into an exhausted slumber.
While out on the heather covered meadows, a very different skirmish was taking place.
The last thing Rab Carlyle expected from his clansmen at the conclusion of the raid on the Fraser cattle was to have a half-dead royal messenger carried to his door. The messenger, a young man in his late teens, had managed to get himself shot by accident when he jumped his horse over the burn separating the two families land in an effort to shave some time off of his journey. He had ended up in the middle of the two warring groups of men and a chance shot by Geordie Fraser's pistol had taken him down.
Rab was just about to take a sip of tea while perusing Neal's Latin declensions in front of the fire in the keep's hall when the doors burst open and he heard his cousin Aiden yell, "Rab! We need ye t' help this laddie b'fore he bleeds t'death!"
The young physician was on his feet and his eyes widened as they carried the limp body of the messenger into the hall. "Who is he? I dinna recognize—"an instant later he gasped upon seeing the royal badge of the Stewart monarchy on the boy's jacket. "Jesu, put him on the table, quick!"
While his men did so, Rab called for basins of hot water from the kitchen, clean cloths, whiskey, and his special salve of honey and marigold. The servants hustled, for the young master rarely raised his voice, but when he did the situation was dire.
Rab grabbed his medical kit from his valet, Murray, and then began washing his hands with the soap and water the servant Elspeth brought him. His cousin Aiden stared. "What be ye doin' that for?"
"Cleanliness is next to Godliness, cousin," he replied shortly. "And surely we need the Lord with us tonight." Actually, his master had observed that less patients died of fevers and the black rot or needed limbs amputated if the wounds were dressed and cleaned and the doctor's hands were also.
Once Rab was sure his hands were clean, he went over and pressed a clean cloth against the wound, trying to stem the bleeding. The bullet hole was high in left shoulder, but there was no exit wound. Which meant he had to halt the bleeding quickly and probe the wound for the bullet.
As he exchanged one blood soaked cloth for another, he snapped, "Who bloody shot the royal messenger?"
"T'wasn't one o' us, milord!" cried Duncan. "It was one o' the Frasers. They're the only family hereabouts rich enough t'own a pistol."
Firearms were fairly new to Scotland and only the wealthy possessed enough money to purchase them from overseas.
Rab bit his lip. If he couldn't get the bleeding stopped . . .he pushed down harder and slowly the blood quit pouring from the wound. Sluggish, it oozed now.
Luckily the messenger was unconscious, and didn't feel it when Rab used a probe to locate the bullet, and extract it with deft movements. Rab thanked God, all the angels and his mentor, Azhir, for showing him how to extract arrowheads and bullets on dead animals.
Once the bullet was out, he washed the wound with whiskey, to the dismay of some of his fellow Carlyles, then he smoothed on some salve and began to bandage the wound, knowing not to sew up a puncture wound, as most likely it would fester.
"Someone get me a clean shirt an' put it on him. Then we bring him by the fire an' let him sleep. If we're lucky, he won't develop a fever." Rab said grimly. He didn't want to contemplate what would happen if the messenger died.
He took the messenger's bag and brought it to his father's study, locking it in the trunk there.
Then he mixed up a batch of his sage tea and put it in a pitcher on the table. He gave instructions to Elspeth to give the messenger a cup if he woke and was feverish. "Though if God is willing, ye'll no' need it."
Exhausted to the bone, Rab went upstairs to his room, gently moving aside his cat, Raine, who was napping on his pillow. He barely had time to remove his trews, shirt, and cloak before he tumbled into bed, drawing the blanket about himself and closing his eyes.
The injured messenger did develop a fever the next day, but thanks to Rab's tea and giving the lad liquids and broth, managed to prevent the fever from carrying him off. It was a good thing too, for there was no telling what Mary would have done if her royal messenger had been slain on crown business. It turned out that the messenger had been returning to court with a message for the queen from the Earl of Moray.
The lad's name was Andrew, and he was a very distant Stewart cousin. He stayed recuperating for almost a week, sending the message onward with another messenger that Malcolm located, and then as soon as he was well, he quit Carlyle keep for the royal residence.
Despite the fact that the Carlyles had saved his life, Rab was sure they wouldn't get away with what had gone on. They had broken the queen's peace, after all.
They were on tenterhooks for the next fortnight . . .until suddenly another royal herald appeared in the bailey requesting to speak with Malcolm.
The chieftain ushered him up to the study, and shut the door. Neal tried to listen at the keyhole, but Rab caught him and shooed him away.
"Get, lad! Papa catches you spyin' and even I can't save yer sneaky arse!" his brother growled.
"Aww, but I wanna know!" his little brother gazed up at him through his thatch of curly dark hair, like their mama's.
Rab put his hands on his hips and gave Neal the Glower of Doom.
The boy flinched and backed down, for that look was like a dragon breathing fire and Rab had always gotten his small brother to mind when he gave him that Look.
"Aye, I'm goin'," the boy sighed and hurried away.
Rab waited patiently outside the door, knowing that sooner or later Malcolm would call him.
Ten minutes later the messenger exited, going down to the hall to get a bite to eat and drink before going back to deliver Malcolm's reply to the queen.
Uneasy now, the heir to the Carlyle lands waited for Malcolm's summons.
"Rab! Ye lazy layabout, get in here!"
"Aye, Papa," sighed his son and came into the study.
He found his father behind his large oaken desk, resting his hands atop the leather ledgers that he interacted more with than he did Neal. Malcolm was a small man like his son, but had none of Rab's open countenance. He was a man who was handsome yet sly, and liked a game of chance and drink too much. The only reason the keep ran as well as it did was because of the network of servants Ceri had in place before she died, and which Rab took pains to reward for their service. "You want to see me, m'laird?"
Malcolm's mouth twisted as he beheld his heir, and waved around a parchment with the royal seal on it. "Aye. Ye'll have seen good Queen Mary's messenger here. Well, this was what he brought. A royal command for us. Apparently, the queen was quite wroth with the fact that her royal kinsman and messenger was almost killed. In fact we're lucky we aren't all facing the axe now for breakin' the peace an' harmin' her herald."
"But Papa, we didn't! That was the Frasers."
"It dinna matter. The queen doesna care who actually did it," Malcolm snapped. "She wrote here she was tired o' hearin' about her loyal subjects quarrelin' amongst themselves like bairns. So—she says that in order to end the feud—ye must marry."
Rab felt his heart plummet to his shoes. "Marry?" he repeated, dumbstruck.
"Aye an' not just any lass, mind. She wants ye to marry the Fraser's youngest unwed daughter—Mirabelle." Malcolm said bluntly.
"What?" stammered Rab. "But . . .I've heard the girl is . . .not right in the head! Papa, they say she talks to animals."
"Then ye have something in common, for I hear ye talk to that scurvy cat o' yorn!" Malcolm sneered.
Rab blushed. "There must be a mistake, I can't marry a Fraser! We'd kill each other."
Malcolm shoved the missive over the desk. "Read it yerself then, ye looby! 'Tis right there in black and white. In order to keep the peace, I command that a marriage bring an end to this senseless quarrel, and you, Malcolm Carlyle, shall marry your son Raibeart to Marcus Fraser's daughter Mirabelle."
Rab stared down at the parchment, wishing his eyes were playing tricks on him. But they weren't. He was expected to marry the daughter of his enemy. He knew quite well he couldn't disobey a royal decree. Mirabelle, he thought inanely. Her name means a beautiful miracle. But it'll take a miracle for us to survive this marriage.
"Papa, there must be something . . .some loophole . . ." he began desperately.
"There's no' one!" Malcolm growled.
"There has to be one, I'm a lawyer," Rab argued. "I'll find one."
"Ye won't! Ye wanna get us proscribed, ye idiot! Ye'll marry the lass an' hopefully ye can get a brat on her quick. Shouldn't be too hard they say she's a beauty, even if she is odd as a March hare. Besides, all cats are the same in the dark!"
Rab rolled his eyes. His father's crudeness always grated on his nerves. Today was no exception.
"Only if yer a tomcat," he muttered, like his father was. But unlike Malcolm, Rab was more selective when it came to women. And always had been.
As his mind whirled about, trying to process this new information, in the Fraser home, Marcus had just told Belle about the missive as well.
Her jaw dropped. "Marry? A Carlyle! They're known to consort with demons and drink blood! An you want me to marry him!"
"Aye, 'tis a royal command. We've no choice." Marcus frowned.
Belle glared at him stonily. "I'm no' a mare t' be put to a stallion."
"We have no choice!" her papa reiterated. "So best get used t'the idea, Belle. Ye're days o' dispensing cures for beasties and reading are done. Because now ye're gonna be a lady and run the house."
"Papa, I don't know the first thing about running an estate like his."
"Then learn! Gods bones, must I spell everything out for you?"
Belle paled. Then she rallied with, "Papa, this is—impossible! I won't marry for anything other than love. You promised that I could choose. No one decides my fate but me!"
"The queen decides!" Marcus bellowed, his white whiskers standing out. "An' ye'll obey, my stubborn lassie. Or else we'll all be outlaws with prices on our heads!"
She bit her lip. How could she bind herself to her hated enemy? A man she had heard practiced the forbidden black arts of surgery, and was lame from running away from a battle? How could she marry a sorcerer and a coward? But how could she refuse a royal command?
"When . . .when must this wedding take place?"
"In a fortnight," replied her father, relieved his stubborn daughter wasn't going to argue with him any longer. "Go talk to your mama, Belle," he said, a trifle gentler than before. "She'll tell ye what ye need to know."
"All right," she acquiesced, her blue eyes, like the loch in summer, downcast. But as she left her father's receiving chamber her mind was busily spinning a way out of the trap that had closed about her.
No wedding could take place if the bride were not there to speak her vows. And if she were clever enough, she would be far away in a fortnight, somewhere no one would ever find her.
A/N: Lest there be some confusion about the fact that the men aren't mentioned wearing plaids or kilts, please be aware that kilts didn't come into style until the very end of the century. I have studied this and it has been confirmed by various sources. Hope you all liked this new offering, written for my FB page Rumbellers for the creative Beautiful project. More to come soon . . .!