Rebellious Secrets – Elizabeth Rose

Maira Douglas swore to never eavesdrop again after what she’d just heard. Standing in the shadows of the great hall of Castle Rothbury, Maira listened to her father, Rowen of Whitehaven, talking to her guardian, Lord Walter Beaufort of Rothbury, Earl of Northumberland. Having heard her name mentioned at the wedding of her cousin, Willow, she wandered over to learn more. “Your daughter is twenty years of age now,” the earl told Rowen. “I have mentored her as well as your nieces for many years, as you know.” “Aye, Earl. And I am ever so grateful. However, remember, it was by the king’s dying wish that you do so,” Maira’s father reminded the man. “I’m sure King Edward never meant for the girls to stay with me this long!” Rowen took a swig of ale from his tankard and slowly nodded. “Fia and Willow are no longer under your guardianship, so I can only imagine you want to be relieved of your commitment where my daughter, Maira, and my niece, Morag, are concerned.” “It’s not that, Whitehaven,” grumbled the earl, not sounding at all convincing. “It’s just that I have been summoned to King Richard’s side and will be leaving on the morrow to campaign for him in France. I am not sure when I’ll return.” “Then I’ll take the girls with me, back to Whitehaven,” offered Rowen. “Nay.

Face it, Rowen. You need to betroth your daughter. No man is going to want a woman well in her prime to bear his heirs. Especially with the way that one acts like a man!” “Prime?” Maira whispered to herself. “I’m not that old! And I do not act like a man.” “Maira, I heard what the earl and yer faither said.” Her meddlesome cousin, Morag, appeared right behind her. The girl seemed to be everywhere and always had her nose in everyone’s business. “Ye ken he’s right. Ye need to marry like Fia and Willow.

Ye are next in line.” “I don’t want to marry. Ever.” Maira ran her hand over the hilt of her dagger hanging from her belt. Her skill with weapons was better than a lot of the new recruits for squires. She was proud of it. “I want to be a warrior, just like my father.” “Maira, come here,” her father called out, nodding toward her. She didn’t want to go to him, but had no choice. This wasn’t going to be a pleasant conversation.

“Aye, Father?” She faked a smile. “Are you enjoying Willow’s wedding celebration?” Rowen looked over to his two brothers, Rook and Reed who were arm wrestling each other with a crowd of people looking over their shoulders. The wedding celebration had lasted almost a sennight now. The two brothers had once again drunk too much and were trying to outdo each other in any way possible. “I’m sure I’m not enjoying the celebration as much as those two fools.” Rowen shook his head, scoffing at them. Out of the triplet brothers, Rowen had always been the voice of reason. Each of the men had a personality of their own. “Rook, Reed, stop causing a scene,” he called out. “No’ until I show the fool that Scots are stronger than Sassenachs,” Reed shouted back.

He was the redhead of the three and lived in Scotland, always talking, dressing and acting like a Scot since the boys had grown up in Scotland being raised by Ross Douglas. “Maira, I have something to tell you,” said Rowen, looking as nervous as Maira felt. “What is it, Father?” “Ye ken what it is,” said Morag, pushing her way into the conversation. “He’s betrothin’ ye, just like we heard him say.” “You were eavesdropping.” Rowen flashed Maira a disappointed look. “Mayhap I was, but now I wish I hadn’t. Father, I don’t want to be betrothed to anyone,” Maira told him, never afraid to stand up for what she believed. “The earl is leaving to campaign in France for Richard.” “Then can’t I come home with you?” asked Maira hopefully.

“I miss Mother and haven’t seen her in quite some time.” “And, mayhap, I can go home to Scotland,” added Morag excitedly. Rowen and the earl exchanged glances. Then Rowen cleared his throat and continued. “Maira, I’ve already made plans for you. The earl believes it would be beneficial for me to make an alliance with the High Sheriff of Durham.” “Alliance?” asked Maira. “You mean you want me to marry this man.” “Sir Gregory Arundell of Durham holds a high position, not to mention he is rich,” said the earl, Lord Beaufort, as if that would matter to her. “You would be wise to consider the marriage, Maira.

” “Father, nay,” she protested. “If I must remind you, the king granted me permission on his deathbed to agree or disagree to any betrothal.” “That’s right, he did,” agreed Morag. “Fia told me so.” “I am well aware of what King Edward said. I was there,” said Rowen with a stiff upper lip. “Maira, you will leave for Durham Castle on the morrow to meet Sir Gregory. After a month of living there, you will get to know him. Then, I’m sure you’ll see that he is a good choice for you.” “A month?” spat Maira.

“You might as well put me in the dungeon right now because, to me, that is a horrible punishment. Why can’t I just come home with you, Father?” “It’s for the best,” the earl told her. “Give yourself some time to know the man, like your father mentioned. I’m sure you will agree with us in the end.” “Do you like this High Sheriff, Father?” asked Maira. “I have never met the man,” Rowen admitted. “But I am taking the earl’s word for it, as I trust his judgment. He has never steered us wrong before.” “I never met him either,” said the earl. “But I asked the Bishop of Durham about the man and he had naught but good things to say.

I’ll take the holy man’s word for it.” “I don’t want to go,” Maira said, trying one last time to change her father’s mind. “I’ll be all alone and won’t know anyone there. Father, you can’t mean to put me in such a position. You don’t want me to be lonely, do you?” “Well, nay, I wouldn’t want that,” her father mumbled, looking at the ground. “She can take Morag along with her,” said the earl, making Maira want to muffle the man. Rowen’s head jerked up and he looked at the girls. “Aye, that’s a fine idea. Then you won’t feel lonely, Maira, since you’ll have your cousin along with you. I’ll tell Reed right away that his daughter will be going to Durham, too.

” Rowen glanced over his shoulder. “That is, if the fool ever stops with the arm wrestling.” “Beat ye!” cried out Reed, jumping up from the stool and slamming his empty tankard down on the table. He moved so fast that the bench toppled over, taking two men with it. Half the crowd cheered and the other half booed. “Now, someone bring me some more Mountain Magic because I’ve got some celebratin’ to do.” “My da is drinkin’ Mountain Magic?” asked Morag with a roll of her eyes. “That’s no’ guid. When he’s well in his cups, there is no talkin’ any sense into him.” Morag flipped her long, blond braid over her shoulder and crossed her arms in front of her, letting out a deep sigh.

“I guess I’m comin’ with ye, Maira. So we might as well make the best of it.” “Father, please don’t make me do this,” begged Maira, trying once again to change her father’s decision. “You know how miserable I’ll be. Besides, I’m not going to agree to the marriage so it’s just a waste of everyone’s time.” “I don’t know,” said her father, looking over to the earl as if he might change his mind. Maira was Rowen’s only daughter and often she could convince him to agree to what she wanted. The only trouble was that the earl held more influence over her father than she did. “It’s a smart move, Whitehaven, so don’t make a decision you’ll regret later,” warned the earl. “You know as well as I that you could use the alliance.

” Maira’s father looked back at her, keeping his jaw tight. He took one more swig of ale, smacking his lips together before he spoke. “Two weeks instead of a month, Maira,” he answered in finality. “But you are going to Durham Castle, like it or not. And I want you to leave behind your weapons and act like a lady while you’re there. No sense scaring off the man before he gets to know you. And that is exactly what will happen when he sees the way you act.” “Leave behind my weapons?” The thought was appalling to Maira. What was her father saying? He knew how much practicing with her sword and daggers meant to her. “I can’t do that.

You are the one who gave the weapons to me in the first place. How can you order me not to use them?” Rowen nodded and looked as if he felt bad about the deal. “All right, then. You can take them with you, but I want them locked away at all times, do you understand? You are not to be seen with your sword on your back or your daggers attached to your waist belt. No bow and arrows either.” “This isn’t fair!” she shouted, feeling like she was being sentenced for no reason at all. “Rowen, get over here,” called out Maira’s Uncle Rook. “Reed is cheating. We need you to be the judge.” “I wish Mother was here, because she would listen to me,” said Maira, feeling like crying.

But she wouldn’t cry because that would make her look weak. Maira was known as the strongest of all the girl cousins in her family and she liked that reputation. “Your mother has other things taking her concern right now,” Rowen told her. “Little Michael has been ill lately, and also acting up again. So I don’t want you sending missives about this to Whitehaven because you will only worry her. Now, go get packed. You and Morag will leave for Durham in the morning.” He turned and walked away with the earl, heading toward the crowd. The conversation was over and his decision was final. There was nothing more Maira could do.

“Morag, would you really come with me to Durham?” Maira asked her cousin. “It doesna seem as if I have a choice. But I dinna mind,” said Morag. “Since she’s married, Fia is takin’ all the attention with the new bairn so no one will even notice if I’m there or no’. I sometimes think that I’ve been forgotten.” “Then go get Fia and Willow and meet me in the secret garden,” Maira told her. The families were still there celebrating Willow’s wedding but they would be leaving soon. Maira turned and started across the great hall. “Do ye mean Imanie’s garden?” asked Morag, running after her. “Of course I mean Imanie’s garden.

Do you know another secret garden? Now, go. Tell them this is important and to come alone. I need to talk to them anon.” “All right,” said Morag, stopping in her tracks. Maira called over her shoulder. “And whatever you do, don’t bring Branton along.” The page that longed to be a squire was starting to be just as troublesome as Morag lately. He already knew too many of the girls’ secrets. Maira decided that even though she liked to spar with him, she should start to distance herself from him if possible. She made her way to the stable and mounted her horse, making her way to the secret garden.

Chosen by the late Queen Philippa, Maira, as well as her cousins, Willow and Fia, were members of a secret group of strong women called the Followers of the Secret Heart. Morag had meddled her way into the group as a member before their old mentor, Imanie, dropped dead from a bad heart. Maira wore her crown today since she and her cousins were allowed to wear the late queen’s jeweled crowns during important celebrations and gatherings. Maira’s headpiece was a thin gold band loaded down with sparkling rubies and yellow amber stones. Fia had the bulkiest crown, and Willow’s was a good size as well. But Maira liked hers because it was thinner and lighter and wouldn’t weigh her down if she had to protect herself and use her sword to fight. With her sword strapped to her back and her daggers at her side, Maira rode quickly through the woods to the edge of the earl’s land. The secret garden was found where his land and the king’s lands met. Within it was a little cottage made from wattle and daub where their mentor, Imanie, used to live. As soon as Maira approached the half-hidden gate, she swung her legs over the side of her steed and dismounted.

Quickly scanning her surroundings, she checked to make sure she hadn’t been followed. Since this garden was in the royal forest, no one dared to bother it. And for the most part, it was safe. Maira pushed open the gate and led her horse inside. On the far side of the enclosed space was Imanie’s cottage as well as a single covered stable that had, at one time, housed her horse. On the other side of the house was a shed that held gardening tools of all kinds. When she had first seen this garden, it had looked like the abode of a fairy. It seemed so magical and was well kept. It had beautiful blooming flowers and a variety of healthy vegetables. But since Imanie’s death, the girls had not tended to the grounds like they probably should have.

It was only recently that Willow and her husband’s sister, Hazel, had started caring for the garden again. She tied her horse to a tree and headed toward the house. The weeds were nearly as tall as her. It was like walking through the forest once again. Maira wasn’t as tall as Willow or Fia, but she made up for it in strength and determination. Each of the girls had a special skill and was mentored by Imanie to use their talents wisely. It was the purpose of this group to make important changes but also, in the process, to make men think those choices or happenings were because of them. After all, women were not respected nor were they allowed to have choices. Her father proved that by making her agree to live with a man who she had no intention of marrying. “I don’t want to go,” she said, kicking at a stone.

The whinny of a horse caught her attention and she stopped in her tracks. The sound didn’t come from the gate, so she knew it wasn’t her cousins. Nay, this noise came from inside the stable. In one motion, she drew the sword from her back and held it steady with two hands, letting the tip of the blade lead her way to the stable. “Who goes there?” she called out, ready to fight if need be. As she approached, a man stepped out into the clearing holding out a sword aimed toward her as well. He was tall and wore a cloak over a dark green tunic and brown breeches. His hood was up and his face remained hidden in shadow. “Put down the sword before you’re hurt,” directed the man in a low voice. “Who are you?” she asked curiously and cautiously.

“And what are you doing here?” She gripped the hilt of her sword tighter. Her eyes settled on a burlap bag flung over the man’s shoulder. Sticking out of the top of the bag she noticed what looked like the iron poker from the hearth from Imanie’s cottage. “I’m just passing through, so there’s no need for alarm,” he told her. “Now turn around and get on your horse and forget you ever saw me.” “Forget I ever saw you?” she asked, wondering if this man thought she was a fool. “Nay, I will do naught of the sort. You’re stealing!” she spat. “You are a thief, and I am not about to turn away and let you leave here with things that don’t belong to you.” “And what are you going to do about it?” he asked with a chuckle.

“Fight me with that mighty sword? I’m surprised you can even hold the bloody thing.” “Then you’ll be surprised by this as well.” Maira lunged forward, swiping her sword at the man. Startled, he stepped back quickly. The tip of his sword lowered in the process. From his sudden motion, the bag fell from his shoulder. Imanie’s possessions spilled out over the ground. “Your blade ripped my tunic,” the man said in shock. His hand fingered the cloth over his chest. “Put down your sword and get on your horse and ride away,” she repeated his warning back to him.

“Do it, or the next move I make will be my blade ripping through your flesh instead.” “Egads, what’s the matter with you, wench?” growled the man. “Don’t you know I could kill you right where you stand before you even have a chance to strike again?” “We’ll see about that!” She shot forward and her sword clashed with his. When he moved, the hood fell from his head, enabling her to see his handsome face. He had sunkissed golden skin. That told her he lived in the elements, or spent a goodly amount of time outdoors. And by the simple clothes he wore that blended in with the earth, she realized he must be a peasant. However, his fighting skills were as strong as those of a nobleman. Plus, he owned a sword. This made her very confused.

“I highly doubt a common thief could best me where my fighting skills are concerned,” she told him. “I have learned from the best.” She lunged forward and he parried. “I must admit, I’ve never seen the likes of this,” said the man. “Tell me, how does a wench know how to handle a weapon? Or for that matter, how does such a little thing like you even hold up a heavy sword at all?” His sudden interest in her felt good. She liked to be noticed for her strengths instead of scoffed at because of them. Especially from a man. “Not that I need to tell you anything, but my sword is lightweight and is made especially for a lady,” she bragged, continuing to spar with the man, “And I’m not a wench! I am Lady Maira Douglas,” she answered proudly. “My father is the legendary Rowen the Restless. I’m sure you’ve heard of him.

” “The pirate?” The man’s brows arched. “Ah, that is why you can fight like a cutthroat.” “My father is no longer a pirate, and I don’t fight like a cutthroat!” She didn’t like this man’s assumptions. It only angered her more than she already was. In one motion, she shot forward with her sword leading the way. But once again, the man agilely stepped aside. He was quick on his feet. Maira almost fell trying to stop abruptly. She spun around to see the stranger smiling as if he were amused. “If I’m not mistaken, your father is a bastard of the late King Edward,” he said.

“That’s right.” She raised her chin and looked at him down her nose. Whoever he was, he needed to respect her. “My father is a nobleman, so you’d better stop calling him a bastard,” she said through gritted teeth. “He is a lord and very respected by his people. He is not a common thief like you.” “Really?” His sword pushed hers to the side. “Then correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t your father as well as his brothers once referred to as the Demon Thief? They stole from their own father – the king! If that’s not thievery, I don’t know what is.” Maira flinched inwardly. She’d been hoping the man didn’t know about all that.

He must have heard it somewhere. It was hard to scare or impress him with her words when he already knew all about her family secrets. “What’s your point?” she asked the stranger. Her sword clashed with his once again. “Why do you fight like a man when you are naught but a woman?” he rallied. “I don’t like you using the word naught,” she spat. Her fury rose. “I am going to turn you in to the earl for theft. He’ll have you thrown in the dungeon.” He stepped back, pulling the tip of his blade away from her.

Then he chuckled. “This isn’t the earl’s land so he has no authority to do anything to me.” “Then I’ll tell my cousin, King Richard, since it’s his land. He’ll have your head for trespassing and stealing from a dead woman’s cottage.”


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