Authors: Lynsay Sands
Devil of the Highlands
That anxious cry made Evelinde pause in what she was saying to Cook and glance around. Her maid was rushing across the kitchens toward her, expression both angry and worried. It was a combination usually only engendered by Edda's actions. Wondering what her stepmother had got up to now, Evelinde quickly promised Cook they would finish their discussion of menus later, and went to meet her maid.
Mildrede caught her hands the moment they reached each other. Her mouth turned down grimly as she announced, "Your stepmother is calling for you."
Evelinde grimaced. Edda only sent for her when she was in one of her foul moods and wished to cheer herself by abusing her unfortunate stepdaughter. For one moment, Evelinde considered ignoring the summons and finding a task away from the keep for the rest of the day. However, that would only make the woman's mood—and the subsequent abuses—worse.
"I had best go see what she wants then," Evelinde said and squeezed Mildrede's hands reassuringly before moving past her.
"She's smiling," Mildrede warned, following on her heels.
Evelinde paused with her hand on the door to the great hall, trepidation running through her. A smiling Edda was not a good thing. It usually meant Evelinde was about to suffer. Not that the woman ever dared hit her, but there were worse things, tasks so unpleasant one would almost prefer a beating. Biting her lip with worry, she asked, "Do you know what has set her off this time?"
"Nay," Mildrede said apologetically. "She was railing at Mac for not pampering her mare properly when a messenger arrived from the king. She read the message, smiled, and called for you."
"Oh," Evelinde breathed faintly, but then forced her shoulders straight, raised her head, and pushed through the door. It was the only thing she could do … That and pray that someday, she would be free of her stepmother's control and abuses.
"Ah, Evelinde!" Edda was indeed smiling—a very wide, beaming smile that really didn't bode well.
"I was told you wished to speak with me?" Evelinde said quietly, aware of Mildrede hovering at her back.
The woman always offered her support during Edda's little attacks.
"Aye." Edda continued to flash a wide, toothy smile, although toothless would have been as good a description. The woman was missing half her teeth, and those remaining were brown and crooked. Edda rarely smiled, and certainly never widely enough to show off the state of her mouth. Her doing so now made Evelinde's anxiety increase tenfold.
"Since your father's death, seeing to your welfare has fallen to me, and I have been most concerned about your future and well-being, my dear," Edda began.
Evelinde managed not to sneer at the claim of concern. Her father, James d'Aumesbery, had been a good man and a faithful baron to their king. When Henry III had requested he marry the troublesome Edda and remove her from court, where she was making a nuisance of herself, her father had bowed to the task gracefully. Edda had not. She'd resented being tied to a man who held only a barony and had seemed to take an instant dislike to Evelinde on reaching d'Aumesbery.
It hadn't been so bad at first. With the presence of Evelinde's father and her brother, Alexander, Edda had at least behaved cordially to her. However, Alexander had ridden off to join the Crusades with Prince Edward three years earlier. While the prince had since returned and been crowned king on his father's death, Alexander was still in Tunis. Worse yet, no sooner had he left than their father died of a chest complaint.
James d'Aumesbery hadn't even been placed in the family crypt before Edda dropped any pretense at civility and let her true feelings show. These last three years had been a hell Evelinde feared she would never escape.
Her only hope was to await her brother's homecoming so that he might see her married and settled far away from the woman. Unfortunately, Alexander seemed in no rush to return.
"I have decided 'tis well past time you married," Edda announced, "and the king agrees with me."
"She means the king decided you should marry, and she was forced to agree," Mildrede muttered behind her, low enough that Edda couldn't hear. "You don't think she'd willingly give up tormenting you. It's her favorite pastime."
Evelinde barely heard her maid, she was too busy trying to absorb what Edda was saying. Part of her feared it was simply a cruel attempt on Edda's part to get her hopes up, then dash them.
"And so I chose a husband for you, and the king negotiated a marriage contract," Edda announced grandly. "I have just received a message that 'tis all done. You will be married."
Evelinde simply waited, knowing there was more. Edda would either explain it was all a jest, or name some perfectly horrid, smelly old lord that Evelinde would surely be miserable with.
"Your betrothed is on his way here from his home even as we speak. He is the laird of Donnachaidh," she announced triumphantly, pronouncing it Don-o-kay.
Evelinde gasped. This was worse than a smelly old lord, this was—" the Devil of Donnachaidh? "
Edda's expression was full of evil glee. "Aye, and I wish you all the unhappiness in the world."
"Bitch," Mildrede hissed furiously from behind Evelinde.
Ignoring her maid, Evelinde managed to force away the horror and dismay and keep her features expressionless. She would not add to Edda's pleasure by revealing how deep this blow had struck. The Devil of Donnachaidh? The woman didn't just hate her, she despised her if she was willing to hand her over to that infamous Scottish laird.
"Now be gone," Edda said, apparently having had her fun. "I do not wish to look on you anymore."
Evelinde nodded stiffly and turned, catching Mildrede by the arm to lead her out of the great hall and the keep itself.
"Cow!" Mildrede snapped, as soon as the keep doors closed behind them.
Evelinde merely urged her quickly across the bailey toward the stables.
"Vile, ugly, cruel creature," Mildrede continued. "She has a heart of stone and a face to match. The Devil must have been laughing the day the king forced your father to marry that she-devil."
Evelinde flashed Mac, the stable master, a grateful smile when she urged Mildrede into the stables and saw her mount saddled and ready next to the reddish brown roan he favored.
"I saw the smile on Edda's face when she received her message," the stable master explained. "I figured ye might need a ride when she was done with ye."
"Aye. Thank you, Mac." Evelinde urged Mildrede up to the mare.
"Your father must be rolling in his grave," the maid snarled, as Evelinde boosted her up onto the mount.
With a little help from Mac, Evelinde swung herself up onto the horse behind the older woman as she continued her rant. "And your dear sainted mother must be frothing at the mouth, wishing she was still alive so she could tear the wench's hair out one mud brown strand at a time."
Evelinde put her heels to her mare to urge her into a canter, aware Mac had mounted and was following close behind.
"I should poison the nasty harpy's mead," Mildrede threatened, as they rode across the bailey at a sedate canter, heading for the gate and drawbridge. "Every single inhabitant of the keep would be grateful for it. She's the most unpleasant, grasping, coldhearted, mealy-wormed—Ack!"
Evelinde smiled faintly at her squawk. They'd reached the halfway point on the drawbridge, and she'd given Lady her head. The mare immediately tossed her mane with a whinny of joy and bolted into a dead run.
Evelinde didn't bother to look behind to check on Mac; she knew he would be keeping up. Besides, her hands were full with keeping her seat and holding on to the reins as Mildrede began clawing at her as if she thought she might slide out of the saddle.
Only when Mildrede's grip began to weaken did Evelinde draw gently on her mare's reins. Lady responded at once, used to this routine. Every time Edda did something cruel or mean, Mildrede lost her temper, and Evelinde took her for a ride to prevent her from saying or doing something that might see her punished.
Once Lady slowed to a sedate canter again, Mac urged his own horse up beside them and raised an eyebrow, but Evelinde just shook her head. She had no desire to explain Edda's "happy news." It would just upset Mildrede all over again, and she was distressed enough herself. Rather than waste her time soothing her maid, she wished time to herself to think over the situation.
"You can turn around now," Mildrede said. "I'm calm. I'll not say or do anything to the vile creature. 'Tis a waste anyway. I'm sure the Devil has something special in store for her when she finally dies. Though 'twould be nicer for all of us did she do so soon."
Evelinde managed a faint smile but didn't have the energy to respond. Instead, she drew her horse to a stop and glanced toward the stable master. "Will you see her home, Mac?"
"Ye'll no return then?" he asked with concern.
"Not right now. I should like a moment to myself first."
Mac hesitated, but then nodded and easily lifted Mildrede from Lady's back to place her on his own horse.
The man was not very tall and had a wiry build, but he was surprisingly strong.
"Don't go much farther else ye might run into trouble," he warned. "And don't stay out here too long, or I'll come looking."
Evelinde nodded, then watched them head back toward the castle at a much more sedate pace than they'd taken riding out. The way he kept bending his head to Mildrede told her the woman was probably explaining what had taken place and what was still to occur.
Marriage. To the Devil of Donnachaidh.
Evelinde swallowed back the fear that immediately clawed its way up her throat. She turned her horse away, heading for a nearby clearing she favored. The spot was small and alongside an area of the river with a small waterfall. The fall was no taller than she but delightful just the same.
Evelinde urged Lady to the water's edge so the mare could drink, then slid off her back, running an absent hand along her mount's neck as she peered into the water.
She had always found this spot soothing. It was where she brought all her troubles and cares. Usually, the tinkle of the water and the mist in the air from the falls washed away her worries, and Evelinde left feeling better. She wasn't sure it would succeed very well this time, though. She suspected it would take a lot of water to wash this worry away.
Grimacing, Evelinde moved to sit on a large boulder at the water's edge and removed her slippers. She then bent and reached between her feet to catch the hem at the back of her gown, brought it forward between her legs, and tucked it into the front of the loose belt she wore over her gown. That accomplished, she moved back to the river's edge and daintily dipped one toe into the water, smiling at the cool rush of liquid over her flesh.
Evelinde stayed like that for one moment before she stepped right in, a pleased sigh slipping from her lips as the water closed around her feet and halfway up to her knees.
Closing her eyes, she simply stood there, trying not to think about marrying the Devil of Donnachaidh.
Evelinde wanted a few moments of peace and calm; then she would consider her future.
Her few moments didn't last, for the hem of her skirt unraveled and dropped around her feet in the water.
Crying out, Evelinde tried to hop back out of the river but got her feet tangled in the wet hem of the skirt and stumbled sideways. She threw herself forward at the last moment, arms outstretched, hoping to break her fall.
However, her hand skimmed the side of a boulder before continuing on to the river bottom, then the boulder, rammed into her ribs and hip with a painful blow even as her head continued down, slamming the side of her jaw into another stone.
Evelinde gasped in pain and sucked in a mouthful of water as she was briefly submerged. She came back up at once, spitting water and coughing up what little bit had gone down her throat as she ignored the pain in her side and pushed herself to a sitting position in the water. Placing one hand to her ribs, Evelinde felt the tender spot, relieved to find that, while it ached, she didn't think she'd broken anything. Her hand then dropped to her sore hip as well, and she muttered a pained curse as exasperation overcame her.
Was not this perfect? Evelinde had never been the most graceful of women, but rarely did something as clumsy as this. It seemed luck had abandoned her this day.
Shaking her head, she dragged herself to her feet and staggered out of the river. Her mare, she noticed, had backed away and was now eyeing her balefully. Evelinde supposed she must have splashed the animal as she fell. She didn't bother apologizing but simply moved back to sit on the boulder, shivering.
The water had been nice on her toes, but her gown was now completely soaked and cold where it touched her skin, which was everywhere.
Grimacing, Evelinde tried to hold the skirt away from her legs but soon gave that up. She could hardly sit there holding the skirt away from her skin until it dried.
Muttering under her breath, she set to work on her laces, and struggled to get out of the gown. It was an almost impossible task. While the dress had slipped on easily enough when dry, it was a nightmare to remove when wet. Evelinde was flushed, breathless, and sweating by the time she got it off.