His to Keep – Sherrinda Ketchersid

I an McGowan spurred his horse up the hill until he reached its crest. The cool spring wind pushing clouds in from the north cooled the sweat on his brow. Whitfield castle, his inheritance, stood before him. Gray stone jutted above the tree line, tall walls surrounding the keep within. The forest thinned to the west of the castle, and he spotted a large stream snaking its way on the eastern side. The sun sank low beyond the walls, signaling dusk was at hand. Phillip, his friend and comrade-in-arms, pulled up beside him. “’Tis on the small side.” “Aye, but ’tis mine.” No matter that it stood on English soil. Land was land, whether Scottish or English, and he would finally be lord of something. Having been neglected by his sire and family the whole of his life and begging for every bit of training and education, this small piece of England would give him the security—nay, the significance —he’d always hoped to obtain. If only it dinna come with a wife. Somewhere in the bowels of the wee castle, an English lass awaited his hand in marriage per edict of the king. Was she beautiful? Kind? Intelligent? Shy? While he’d considered taking a wife the past few years, he’d expected to choose his own.

Now he could only hope the king’s choice was at least fair of face. He urged his mount forward, eager to inspect his castle and meet his bride. “Let us go claim Whitfield.” They raced down the hill, skirting the forest as they galloped toward his new home. As they neared the castle gate, Ian slowed his horse to a stop. His heart sank at the sight before him. His wee castle needed much work. “’Tisn’t much to look at, is it? No wonder your brothers passed on this dung heap.” Phillip swiped at the sweaty blond hair clinging to his forehead. Ian took in the crumbing walls, no doubt assaulted by a catapult at some point in time.

Rock and mortar littered the ground, evidence of the damaged wall. The large, weathered wooden gate needed replacing. His sire and brothers must have known about Whitfield’s condition. A greedy lot, they wouldn’t have given it to him otherwise. Nonetheless, he wouldn’t let this opportunity slip from his grasp. He intended to prove himself through the claiming of Whitfield. “’Tisn’t what I envisioned, but I will make it into something grand.” Phillip’s brows rose in question. “One can hope.” Since learning of this inheritance, doubt assailed Ian like the relentless Highland wind.

The voices of his brothers…his father…plagued him, making him question his own mettle and worth. Nay, he refused to listen further. He tightened his grip on the reins, and his horse reared its head. “Perhaps the interior is in better condition than the outer walls.” “Who are you, and what business do you have at Whitfield?” Ian looked up to the guardsman, sword in hand, standing atop the barbican. “I am Ian McGowan, heir of Whitfield. I have come to claim my inheritance. Open the gate.” “Whitfield belongs to the Whitfield heir.” “It belongs to the name McGowan now.

” Had they not received word of the new ownership? The guard stepped away from view and muffled arguing ensued for a few moments. Ian glanced at Phillip, who shrugged a shoulder. “McGowan, you say?” A woman stepped forward, leaning over the battlement, her red, wavy hair flying about her like flames of fire whipped by the wind. “Are you Scottish?” “Aye.” “Scottish blood shall never rule Whitfield Castle.” She glared at Ian. Ian’s gaze traveled over the fiery lass who stood with hands on her hips, shoulders back. Her dark blue gown clung to her fine form. He had thought English women frail and ugly, but not this lass. She fair stole the breath from his lungs.

Dare he hope his intended was of the same bewitching stock? “Who are you to deny me entrance?” “I am Claire Beaumont, defender of Whitfield.” “Beaumont.” Now it was he repeating names. This was indeed his bride, ward of his distant cousin, John Whitfield. Ian pulled from his saddle pouch the missive from King William of Scotland. “I have papers from the king of Scotland giving my family control of Whitfield.” Maid Beaumont braced her hands on the stone battlement. “You can use those papers to wipe your backside. I’m not a subject of your Scottish crown.” Ian bit back a curse.

“But you are subject to your English crown, and King John of England has negotiated this arrangement. Did you not receive word regarding new ownership?” Surely she wouldn’t go against the king’s command. “Open the gate, and I will prove my words.” “I shall not open my gate to anyone of Scottish blood.” “What, pray tell, is your aversion to Scots? Our countries are at peace.” The woman narrowed her eyes. “’Twas the Scottish who murdered my parents, and I’ll not tolerate anyone of their ilk across the threshold of my home.” Ian blinked at this bit of news. He could understand her depth of feeling, but in the end, she must come to understand she had no choice in the matter. “’Tisn’t your home to begin with.

You are not a blood-relative of Whitfield. You have no right to refuse me entrance.” “The castle was left in my care by Whitfield’s married daughters who wanted nothing to do with the land. You can see with your own eyes it holds little value.” “I will not be deterred from my inheritance.” Ian’s horse shifted beneath him, and he gripped the reins tighter. “The doors shall always be barred to the likes of you.” Ian’s head began to pound at the fruitless conversation. She must see reason. “You would deny your king’s command?” “Is King John’s signature on those papers?” “Nay, but—” “Then be gone.

We have nothing further to discuss.” The woman pushed away from the battlement and left, her red curls billowing behind. Ian fought the urge to draw his sword and beat his way through the crumbling walls. “That sweet-tempered woman is your intended?” “Aye, that she is.” She did not appear kind or shy. Intelligent, perhaps, but most definitely not of a pleasant nature. “Shall we return to Ramslea and gather men to help our cause?” “Nay.” While his former lord would have supplied him with men to gain Whitfield, Ian wouldn’t ask for aid. He was a knight and had shown himself capable as head guardsman at Ramslea. And he had Phillip, who had vowed to serve Ian until his dying breath after Ian had saved his life from the hands of an enemy.

With Phillip by his side, they would gain access to the castle in short order. “We shall find a way into Whitfield.” “With only the two of us?” Phillip frowned, his blond, bushy brows drawn together. “While I admire your confidence, I don’t see how we can scale the wall. It must be a score and ten feet in height, and it doesn’t look sound. We could fall to our deaths.” “Phillip, your fear of heights is going to kick you in the backside one day. Come, let’s survey the castle walls while we still have a little light.” They made their way around the structure, taking in the damage wrought on the outer wall as they wove through the fallen stones that littered the ground. Had he siege equipment, he could easily break through.

“Come,” called Phillip, moving ahead of him. Ian followed to a place where mortar had been scraped away and stones removed, leaving a foot-deep indention in the thick wall. “Someone started to dig here. Judging the size of the castle, the walls couldn’t be much thicker.” Ian touched the crumbling rock. “Aye, it shouldn’t take long to get through.” Dust and pebbles pelted them from above. The two men reined in their steeds and backed them away from the wall just as a stream of refuse hit the ground. The muck splattered high enough to reach their boots. A foul stench filled Ian’s nose.

He peered at the top of the wall as a familiar tumble of red hair and a large wooden bucket were drawn back from view. “Let this be a warning to you,” the woman called out. “Next time it will be burning oil, and you won’t be so fortunate.” “You must marry that she-devil?” Phillip grimaced. Ian sucked in a slow breath. “Aye. Indeed, I must. In order to gain Whitfield, I must marry Whitfield’s ward.” “But she’s not even related to Whitfield.” “If the tales are true, King William’s wife, Ermengarde de Beaumont, is a descendent of England’s King Henry I through an illegitimate line.

Claire Beaumont is a distant cousin of the Queen Ermengarde, the one who instigated the marriage negotiations.” He shook his head. ’Twas confusing. “This ploy is to further good relations between the two countries.” “’Tis sorry, I am, you must marry such a one as that. And you so good natured. How will you ever manage?” How, indeed? “One battle at a time. Let’s finish our survey and then hide in the woods while we form a plan.” Phillip shook his head. “I still don’t feel good about this.

” “Ye of little faith.” Ian nodded toward the castle. “No mighty warrior worth his spurs would remain to guard this decrepit hovel.” He forced a smile. “Aye, this castle will be taken with ease.” Phillip rolled his eyes. “You are —” “Optimistic. We shall overcome them.” Ian kicked the flanks of his horse and continued around the castle, leaving Phillip cursing under his breath. As they circled Whitfield, Ian marked only one garderobe jutting from the wall.

The waste shaft descended to about ten feet above the ground. If they couldn’t figure out another way, the shaft might be their only path into the castle. He guided his mount around the pile of filth beneath the garderobe and shuddered. ’Twouldn’t be a pleasant affair, to be sure. They came full circle at the gate, and Ian turned to Phillip and spoke loud enough for the guard following them on top of the battlement to hear. “I saw no way into the castle. Perhaps we should go for reinforcements as you suggested.” “Finally, some sense coming out of that mouth of yours.” “Let’s go.” Ian urged his horse to a gallop and headed back down the road from whence they came.

They rounded the bend which put them out of sight from the castle. Ian veered off the road and headed for the woods. “Wait!” Phillip called from behind. “Where do you go?” Ian pulled to a stop. “Did you notice the garderobe shaft?” “My nose did.” “Indeed.” Ian grunted. “You can plug your nostrils on the way up.” “Nay, you cannot be serious. There must be some other way into the castle.

” “Did you see any other way?” “There was that huge hole around the backside of the outer wall. We could dig through.” Ian shook his head. “Not with a guard walking the battlement. They’d hear us digging through the rock and mortar.” He didn’t add that Phillip’s grumbling would give them a greater chance of discovery. Ian wended his way through the tall trees, moving in the direction of the castle. “We’ll find a vantage point and watch under the cover of darkness to see if it is possible.” “I don’t feel good about this.” Ian laughed.

“Do you fear capture? Or perhaps just getting mucky?” “A little of both, but I trust you.” Phillip snorted. “I think.” They pressed on deeper into the woods. The heavy scent of moss wafted upward from the thick underbrush, and the canopy of leaves overhead darkened the atmosphere even more than the gathering clouds above. After a short while, the gray wall of the castle appeared through a break in the tree line. They dismounted and let their steeds graze nearby while they settled to wait for the cover of darkness. Night came quickly, and after they tethered their horses, they snuck closer to the castle. Ian crouched low to the ground and observed the pattens of the guards walking the battlement. After a short while, he came to his feet and began to take off his chain mail.

“’Tis time.” “We are entering in without mail? Unprotected?” Phillip shook his head. “Aye. ’Tis noisy, plus cumbersome while scaling the shaft. Our skill will keep us safe should the need arise.” Phillip didn’t respond, but he removed his mail. Once free of their armor, Ian grabbed a rope he had taken from his saddle earlier, crept closer to the edge of the trees, and waited until the guard walked along the battlement and out of view. Ian ran to the bottom of the garderobe with Phillip close behind. Phillip crouched low under the chute, and Ian stepped onto his shoulders, his hands on the wall for balance. Phillip grunted as he came to stand, lifting Ian high enough to reach into the chute.

Ian’s nostrils burned from the stench, and he looked upward, seeing nothing but darkness. At least the room above wasn’t in use. He grabbed hold of a stone’s edge, and his fingers sank into soft warmth. By the saints! His stomach rolled, and he swallowed the bile making its way up his throat. He’d be covered in filth by the time he emerged. Using his upper-body strength, he pulled himself far enough up the shaft to gain a foothold. Once his full body was inside, he worked himself upward until he anchored his footing against a protruding stone. He wrapped one end of the rope around his hand several times, then dropped the other end to Phillip. ’Twas no small feat to bear Phillip’s full weight. His comrade was almost as big as Ian himself.

Sweat rolled down his face, and he blinked against its sting in his eyes. Phillip pulled himself into the shaft and gagged. “Shh.” Should Phillip retch while a guard passed overhead, they’d be discovered. He should have insisted Phillip plug his nose with cloth before climbing into the malodorous space. Whispered cursing reached Ian’s ears. Ian gathered the rope from Phillip and draped it over his shoulders before continuing his climb. He quickly learned to test his hold onto the stone casing, as caked feces crumbled in his hands, dusting his body. He didn’t know what was worse—dung squished between his fingers or flakes clinging to his sweaty face. He gritted his teeth and pushed upward with his legs.

The darkness overhead lightened as he neared the opening. Almost there. He climbed another couple of feet and touched the smooth board covering the opening. Running his hand along the board, he found the hole that had been cut in the middle. He grasped the edge and pushed up, lifting the board from its mount. Faint light from the cloudy night sky filtered through the windows on either side, allowing Ian to gain his bearings. The wooden door straight ahead was closed. He pushed half-way out of the shaft and placed the board on the ground, careful to not make a sound. The door burst open and light blinded Ian. His foot slipped, sending him downward.

His fingers barely grasped the top of the hole and stopped his fall. Muffled cursing sounded from below, and he squinted against the light of a blazing torch. “You crawled into my castle reeking like the refuse that you are.” The red-haired beauty stood in the doorway, flanked by two guards. “You left me little choice, lass.” Ian began to crawl out of the chute. “Stay where you are!” She waved the torch. Ian flinched and stilled his movements. “I only want to show you proof from my king.” “As we discussed earlier, I am not subject to your king.

” “Even if the plan was designed by your relative? Queen Ermengarde de Beaumont of Scotland?” Maid Beaumont’s brows drew together as she scrutinized Ian. “Albeit, she is a distant relative, but she is mentioned in King William’s letter. May I show it to you?” “I should force you back down the dung hole.” Her front teeth sank into her full bottom lip, as she slowly shook her head. “But I would see the missive if only to satisfy my curiosity.” Ian bit back a triumphal grin as he climbed out of the shaft. No need to raise her ire. “Clean the Scot of his filth, and then escort him to the great hall,” said Maid Beaumont to her guards. Then she turned and walked down the passageway, her soft steps fading away. “I could use aid here!” Ian turned to the plea for help.

Phillip’s hand grasped at the edge of the shaft, his slimy fingers slipping off the worn stone edge. Ian clutched his friend’s forearm, hauling him upward until he climbed out. “Saints, Ian. This has to be your worst plan yet.” Phillip held out his filthy fingers. Ian looked at his own hands and grimaced. He wiped his hands on a pile of moss in the corner of the garderobe and tossed a handful to Phillip. “This should help.” “’Twill not rid me of the foul stench in my nose.” “Soon to be remedied, my friend.

” Ian tossed the used moss into the shaft and then dusted himself off and shook out his hair. “Hand over your swords.” The tallest guard in the hallway waved his blade at them. “There is no need. We come in peace and only want to speak with Maid Beaumont.” While his words were true, Ian dinna want to go in unarmed. “Drop your swords or back down the dung hole you go.” Ian unbelted his scabbard and laid it on the floor. Phillip did the same. After their weapons were collected, Ian and Phillip were taken to a room downstairs with a couple of tubs on the floor filled with dirty water.

A guard pushed Ian forward. “Clean yourself.” Ian took in the dark water, wondering at the unidentified blobs floating on the surface scum. “Could you not spare us some clean water?”

.

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