In the following excerpt, it's still 1306 and Robert the Bruce, self-proclaimed King of Scots, has sailed from Rathlin Island in the Irish Sea up the western coast of Scotland. In order to stand against the English, he needs money, men and ships. Christiana of the Isles has all those things, but there's something she wants, as well, and the task proves to be more difficult for Robert than merely asking for a favor.
It's been frequently reported that Robert was not entirely faithful during his second marriage to Elizabeth Bruce, from whom he was physically separated for many years. We often hear him spoken of in very glowing and noble terms, but like most everyone - especially those with ambition or who wielded power - he, too, had his flaws.
*****I looked up to see a squat, gray castle hunched above a low cliff on an islet ahead: Castle Tirrim.
The tide being low, we beached the galley on the shingle-littered shore opposite the castle and trudged across a muddy bridge of land to the base of the cliff encircling the islet. Sleet had faded to a spitting mist. Arms wrapped about himself, Torquil led us to a breach in the cliff wall. Stiff with cold, we ascended after him, taking care not to slip on the moss-slickened stones. When Torquil scrambled over the top, he dropped to his knees, small stones crunching with the impact.
Before him stood a noblewoman in a hooded cloak, gloved palms open in welcome, and at her shoulder a glowering lord, his feet braced wide and one hand resting on the hilt of his sword.
Bending at the waist, the lady spread her arms wide, so that her cloak of crimson parted to reveal a green gown embroidered with golden knotwork. As she straightened, a rope of loosely plaited red hair swung from her shoulder, the end of it hanging to the inviting curve of her hip. Tall and imposing in presence, I was one of few men above whom she did not tower. She tilted her head and smiled pleasantly at me, ignoring Torquil and the dozen men huddled close and shivering at the lip of the cliff.
“A thousand welcomes to Tirrim, my lord king,” Lady Christiana greeted. “I have watched for you from my window for weeks now.”
“You couldn’t have known I was coming, my lady.” I took her hand, cold-wet with rain, and kissed her fingers just below the glittering facets of her emerald ring. “I sent no word. I dared not. Scotland is as thick with my enemies as there are pines in the forest. I must keep my comings and goings a secret, as much as I can.”
She laid her other hand over mine. “There are some things a woman knows, even without being told.” With a gentle tug she drew me close, her lips grazing my cheek with a kiss, her breath cupping my ear like a puff of steam as she whispered my name, “Robert.”
With every breath she drew, her bosom swelled against my chest. Fine droplets of rain on my face warmed, like a perspiration that has sprung to the brow with gentle exertion.
“Has it been ten years, truly? Not a day gone, judging by your beauty, I vow.” I bestowed a brief kiss in return. “And you’ve still not found another husband? How can that be?”
When Christiana had barely been of marriageable age, her father, Alan Macruarie, had betrothed her to Duncan of Mar. Perpetually drunk and quarrelsome, she could hardly tolerate him and leapt at any distraction. I had been one of them. It did not matter to her that it was her wedding I had come to attend. But barely in my first full beard then, I was mad for Duncan’s sister, Isabella.
“I’ll not have just any.” She poked a finger at my chest playfully. “You don’t know how despondent I was when I heard you had married again. Did you not think of me? Cruel of you, it was. My heart has yet to mend.”
The black-bearded lord cleared his throat. As I cast a glance at him, he raised his jaw. Finally, he dipped his head in acknowledgment.
“Reginald Crawford of Kyle . . . my lord.” His hand drifted downward from his sword, indicating he would unsheathe it in a breath if given cause.
Christiana snaked a hand beneath my cloak and up my arm to cling seductively to me. “Come, my lord. Let me show you to a warm bed. But first, a fire, a full meal and a flagon of wine to bring you back to life, aye?”
As she led us over the rock-strewn path to the gate, her hip swayed against mine. I had come duly armed with my honor, but already it was proving a challenge. It would have been easier to leave altogether, than to stay and deny such an enchantress.
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