My Highland Bride – Cecelia Mecca

“Do you love her?” The upper chamber of the gatehouse becomes completely quiet, and for good reason. It’s an impertinent question—beyond impertinent—but I can almost admire my new squire for his bravery. Then again, the boy came to us from a small village a sennight ago, knowing nothing about knighthood, so perhaps he does not realize he is being brave. “Did yer ma never teach you to shut yer mouth, boy?” scoffs Boyd, one of my guards. Ignoring the boy’s question, which I have found is the best approach, I say, “Boyd, the smith’s son spotted a riding party on his way back from the village. He thought they might be from the king.” My squire jumps from his seat. “I met the king once!” he says, as excited as I’ve ever seen him. “I remember it, aye. The King of Meria.” Boyd and the others snicker. “You met the king, did you?” The guardsmen clearly do not believe young Bradyn. To be fair, when he arrived at Breywood on the back of a cloth wagon, he hardly looked like a boy who’d once met a king. “Do you remember his colors?” I ask him. Bradyn nods eagerly.

“Aye, Lord Stokerton. Red and gold.” The men still aren’t impressed. Personally, I don’t much care if Bradyn is being truthful or remembering incorrectly. If indeed the king’s men are coming this way, I need to know immediately. A perfect job for an eager young squire. “Climb up to the watchtower. As soon as you see red and gold banners approaching the gate, run to the training yard as fast as those two legs will carry you to tell me. Aye?” “Aye, my lord.” Without waiting, he immediately does as he was bid, scrambling up the circular stone stairs.

“Why would the king’s men come here?” Boyd asks as the others break away and go about their duties. A good question. One I don’t have an answer to. Our men, led by the first commander, Lord Scott, set out for the king’s court to treat with him. Surely they have arrived by now, but would they have returned so quickly? And if so, why didn’t the smith’s son mention the two parties were traveling together? “Could they be returnin’ with Scott?” I move to the slit on the westernmost wall and peer out. Nothing but grass and trees. “He made no mention of the queen’s banners.” Boyd grunts. “Is she aware we may have guests?” “Nay, but I’m off to tell her now. She’s at the yard.

Make sure the boy sends word once he sees them.” This grunt, different from the last, tells me he’s displeased. My choice of squire has raised his ire, which is too damn bad. Does my new squire ask too many questions? Aye. Does he know anything about being a squire? Nay. But he jumped down from that wagon in the courtyard of Breywood Castle just after we had learned about the raid along the border that had seen his parents slaughtered. I hadn’t thought to saddle myself with a squire again so soon after my last one received his spurs. Indeed, I’d vowed to remain squire-less for the foreseeable future, but I made the mistake of meeting the boy’s eyes. Besides, turning a homeless and parentless farmer’s son into a knight is not the most difficult task I’ve ever undertaken. I take my leave and begin walking toward the training yard.

Though it would be faster to walk the allure, I need time to think on the implications of this royal visit from our longtime enemies. After I met with King Galfrid’s commander earlier this month, Cettina agreed to send a contingent to discuss terms with the king rather than mount an immediate counterattack. Though the queen had the support of the Curia, many outside her inner council thought she was being soft. They want war against Meria, always. Especially after learning Galfrid sent two hundred of his best knights against us. That those men sunk to the bottom of the ocean in a shipwreck before arriving at our shores, the king’s only son and heir one of them, matters little to the warmongers among us. But the more I think on it, the less I believe these men have any connection to Lord Scott. Our banners have not been spotted. Which means these representatives of the king come of their own accord. “Commander.

” Nodding in greeting to the smith’s apprentice, I hurry forward, anxious to speak with Cettina. Do you love her? I’ll need to give Bradyn a talking-to. The rumors about Cettina and me are persistent enough without any help. There is no need for my own squire to perpetuate them. I hear the clang of swords before I see men at the quintain. Bradyn rotates between training in the yard, on the horse Cettina provided him, and with the men. He has a long way to go—others younger than he already display enough skill to see real battle—but I have every confidence he will rise to the challenge. “Your shadow is missing,” a young knight teases as I walk toward her. “On guard duty,” I respond, making my way toward the queen. Her skill with the longsword grows more impressive each day.

Cettina’s insistence on learning to use it is just one of the many reasons we find ourselves the subject of flapping tongues. Seeing me, she steps away from her opponent, hands him her sword, and nods to the edge of the yard. I meet her there, where it’s slightly less noisy, and waste no time. “The king’s men have been spotted in the village. I assume they make their way here.” Cettina purses her lips together and looks me straight in the eye. “Is Lord Scott with them?” I shake my head. “Our banners were not spotted.” I glance down at her attire, similar to the other men in hose and a surcoat with no gown to be found. “I told Bradyn to fetch me as soon as they are spotted coming through the gates.

Perhaps you should prepare for them.” She lifts her chin in defiance. One thing I’ve learned from serving Cettina is that she rarely does as she’s willed. Not by me and not by her first commander, even though she trusts Lord Scott implicitly. None of the Curia can compel the queen completely to their cause. It is the reason I would give my life for her. Unlike her father, she will do what she believes is right no matter the consequences. One day, I fear, such willfulness will get her killed. In the meantime, she is our best chance for returning Edingham to our ideals. “I will meet them as such.

” As the first queen of Edingham, or this Isle, Cettina has no precedents to follow. And apparently receiving her enemy’s men in a tunic and hose will be an acceptable practice moving forward. “Afterwards, we must talk,” she adds. “Your Grace?” It annoys her when I use the title in private, and indeed, her eyes flash back at me. “I know you returned from Murwood End talking of peace with Meria, but it will never come to pass unless we gain Lord Moray’s support. Just yesterday my brother-in-law was seen speaking to MacKinnish.” My hands ball into fists. MacKinnish has little love for Cettina, and I even less for her bastard brother-in-law. I refrain from reminding Cettina that it was she who pardoned her excommunicated sister and brother-in-law and allowed them to return to the castle last year as one of her first acts as queen. I understand why she did it—her sister’s treatment was unjust—but there’s no denying Lord Whitley has been a pain in the arse ever since.

He’ll not rest until he’s fully undermined Cettina. “If we are to convince the Highlanders to stand down, we need Moray,” she continues. She’s not wrong. Gaining Lord Moray’s support for peace would placate the Highlanders and force those in Edingham who do not live in the mountains to follow, but unfortunately it will never happen. She knows this. “He hates my family nearly as much as he does yours. Moray will never enter the fray, Cettina.” Again, that look. “There is no man the Highlanders will listen to more.” “We’ve dismissed this idea before.

” “You and Scott have dismissed it, not I. Moray’s support becomes ever more important as my brother-in-law stirs the Lowlanders. I will not be forced into war.” “Are you asking my advice as your commander, or are you ordering me to treat with him as my queen?” I know the answer before she gives it. “That, my dear Stokerton, is an official order.” Goddammit. It will be a waste of valuable time we do not have. Born and raised in the Highlands, I know they’re much too stubborn to be convinced of anything against their will. “Very well.” I bow as Cettina takes her leave.

My family land borders Moray’s, so at least I’ll be able to pay a visit to my family. “Oh,” she calls back over her shoulder, “while you’re there, perhaps you should enter so you might champion your queen. It would do well to remind everyone why you were chosen for this position.” I watch her walk from the yard toward the keep, trying to make sense of her words. Enter? Champion? And then I remember. 2 Reyne Ledenhill, Edingham “Oh, Father, ’tis magnificent.” Though he doesn’t answer, my father proudly scans the rows and rows of tents as if he organized the event himself. He didn’t, of course. The Tournament of Loigh is commissioned by the Highland Council, with a new host chosen each year. There will be a sennight of eating and drinking and, for the participants, training, followed by a mock battle in which the two sides will compete to capture each other’s warriors until just one man remains as champion.

One uncaptured warrior who is not only honored at the tourney itself but for many years to come. My father’s look of ownership is because he has been champion more times than any other man. A fact he’s reminded us of many times. So often, in fact, that Mother forbids him to mention it again. As we continue to ride toward the colorful tents, which still do not rival the bright blue of the sky or the vivid green grass, I can feel Father studying me. He’s pleaded with me to attend for years, and for years I denied him. Until now. This day marks my first voyage from home since Fara died. My sister had always wished to attend the tournament, to see the Highland lords put forth their best men in a melee, but she was considered too young. So for years I stayed away, not wanting to experience what she could not.

Now, at twenty and three, I am of an age that most would consider it odd that I have never been to a previous tournament. “I wish Mother could have joined us for my first tourney.” “You may soon wish to be home with her, comfortable in your own bed,” he calls as the men catch up behind us. More than a few of Father’s men will be participating this year, and a few of them are good enough to be crowned champion. I wish I’d have been brave enough to come before now. The fact is, since Fara died, I’ve been a coward. For nearly a year I refused to get close enough to the lake to even spy it from a distance. Even now, I will not go near its banks. And since the voyage always requires river crossings, two to get to Ledenhill, I’d never even considered it until this year. Five years since Fara’s death.

Ten years of cowering at Blackwell. It was time. “Do you see them, Reyne?” I look down at the valley of tents and squint, trying to make out whichever figures he’s noticed. “Nay, there.” He points past them, to the mountains. “The mountains?” “Aye.” He sits up straighter in his saddle. “The very mountains where Aidan, son of Onry, fled all those years ago.” I try hard not to audibly sigh as my father launches into his most preferred speech of all, the tale of how Edingham was formed. My father is a man who enjoys his stories, but there is none he likes better than that of the prince who avoided his father, the King of Meria, by hiding in the mountains.

This tournament, held each year at the very spot where the Treaty of Loigh was signed after our bloody war for independence from the Kingdom of Meria, is considered a way of honoring and preserving the Highlanders’ way of life. Apparently sending a few dozen men after each other from opposite sides of a field to maim and capture their opponents is an ideal way to honor such a memory. Men. God save us from their stubbornness, my mother is fond of saying. The sun is high by the time we descend into the valley. It is an unusually warm summer’s day, full of promise. Though I attempt to assist the others in setting up our camp along the edge of the field full of tents, my efforts are mostly ignored. I do not, in fact, have any knowledge of how to erect a tent, as I’ve never slept in one. Nor have I been this far from Blackwell Castle before. As I wonder how I should occupy myself, if not allowed to help, a hand goes around my waist.

Startled, I scream until a familiar voice speaks my name, and I realize the perpetrator is none other than my brother. “Warin!” I spin around and toss my arms around my older brother. He squeezes me back, then holds me at arm’s length. “What are you doing here?” he asks, both surprised and mayhap a bit proud. Though only four years my senior, Warin often plays the role of a second father to me. A role to which I am accustomed, and for which I am at times grateful, at times annoyed. Right now, I cannot help but beam in delight under his scrutiny. “Are you surprised?” His hands still grip my shoulders. “I could not be more surprised if the queen herself were standing before me.” Like our father, Warin has no great love for the queen.

For Edingham, aye. But after Father had a falling-out with Queen Cettina’s father, our family has remained as removed as possible from the politics of the capital. “Were you frightened?” “Aye,” I admit. “The first crossing was not so bad. But the second.” I close my eyes, thinking of how the water swirled around as we crossed. Visions of my beautiful sister bombarded me, so relentless my entire body was shaking by the time we reached the bank of the river. Father pulled me from my mount and held me in his arms as the others continued on their path. For a man considered one of the greatest Highland warriors who ever lived, he was surprisingly free with his affections. It was the reason my mother fell in love with him, or so she says.

Theirs was a love match, something few of their station could claim. “Shh,” Warin says, pulling me back to him. “Do not think on it. I’m proud of you, sister.” Love swells in my chest. He is so much like father in some ways, but he lacks the worst of Father’s bluster. He is more quiet and thoughtful. But he’s no less skillful as a warrior, and I suspect he’ll be this tourney’s champion. He deserves it. By the time my brother releases me, my hands have ceased their trembling.

“Why are you here?” I ask. “Father said you were still in Murwood End?” My brother had a notion the year before to travel all of Meria before settling into his role as Father’s successor, the next Lord Moray. We hadn’t expected to see him here. “I thought to surprise him. And I come with news from the North.” We look back toward the tents, Father now nowhere in sight. “Likely three mugs into his ale.” He points to a bright red tent. “Lord Beine.” “Ah, I hadn’t seen the crest before.

” A friend of father’s, the Highland lord is notoriously short-tempered. I’ve never seen evidence of it myself, but one story places his temper as the catalyst for a battle that saw nearly half of his men killed.

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