Knight in Highland Armor

Knight in Highland Armor

Highland Dynasty Series—Book One

 

by

 

Amy Jarecki

 

~ Scottish Historical Romance ~

Rapture Books

Copyright © 2015, Amy Jarecki

Jarecki, Amy

Knight in Highland Armor

 

AISN:

First Release: January, 2015

 

Book Cover Design by: Kim Killion

 

All rights reserved. The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work, in whole or part, by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, is illegal and forbidden.

 

This is a work of fiction. Characters, settings, names, and occurrences are a product of the author’s imagination and bear no resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, places or settings, and/or occurrences. Any incidences of resemblance are purely coincidental.

 

To Maria McIntyre.

Chapter One

 

 

Dunstaffnage Castle, Firth of Lorn, Scotland, 29
th
August, 1455

The cries of the motherless baby shrieked through the passageway and filled his chamber. Seated at the round table beside an immense hearth, Colin cradled his head in his hands. He could do nothing to stop his newborn son’s cries. Yes, he, the feared Black Knight of Rome, had also been powerless to prevent Jonet’s death. He’d now lost two wives. The first to the sweat, and last night, his dearest Jonet’s lifeblood drained into the mattress while baby Duncan suckled at her breast.

The relentless high-pitched screams gnawed at Colin’s insides. He’d stood beside his wife while her face turned from rosy to blue. It happened so fast, the midwife had little time to react. Colin had barreled through the stone corridors, shouting orders. He’d sent for the physician, though by the time the black-robed man arrived, Jonet had passed.

Colin hated his weakness. His heart stuck in his throat. His eyes burned with unshed tears. Why did death follow him like a shadow? He’d seen more than his fill. A Knight of the Order of St. John, a Hospitaller, Colin had seen unimaginable brutality and death in his seven and twenty years. The war against the enemies of Christendom had earned him the reputation of Black Colin, a knight feared throughout the Holy Land and beyond.

He combed his fingers through his hair. A dark cloud of despair filled his insides. Jonet was his beloved. Beautiful, with luscious raven hair and a winsome smile, she embodied his ideal of femininity.

He bit his fist and forced back his urge to weep. He had not shed a tear since the age of seven. By God, he would not show weakness now, not even while sitting alone in his dimly lit chamber.

Colin’s gaze dropped to the missive lying open on the table. He steadied his hand, picked it up, and reread the critical request delivered this morn.

 

…Your brothers continue to fight in your absence. Since Constantinople fell to the Turks, the infidel Muslims have increased their efforts, raiding Rhodes and surrounding islands. Though I understand your duty to your family following the death of your father, the esteemed and venerated Lord of Argyll, we desperately need your leadership and your army forthwith.

I fear our stronghold at Rhodes and indeed our Order will fall if we cannot marshal our efforts and drive our enemies out of Christendom once and for all.

I respectfully appeal for your return to Rome for a third term, for once a Knight Hospitaller, you are bound to the Order for life.

Dutifully, your brother in Christ,

Jacques de Milly, Grand Master, The Order of St. John

 

Colin slapped the missive onto the table and shoved back his chair. The crying intensified. He stood and paced, clenching his fists. So many things demanded his attention. He’d executed not a one with a modicum of success. After the death of his father, his first priority was to see his nephew, the new Lord Argyll, established in his lofty role. Until order on that side of the family was restored, he’d overseen the obedience of the crofters who paid rents. Fortunately, with England embroiled in civil war, threats to the Campbell dynasty were minimal—merely feuding clans and marauding outlaws.

The crying stopped. Thank God. At last he could think clearly. Wallowing in his own self-pity would serve no one, and most certainly would not hasten his voyage back to Rome. His nephew had assumed his role of Lord Argyll with little resistance. At least that significant hurdle had been surmounted.

A light tap disturbed his misery.

Colin faced the heavy oak door. “Come in.”

Effie, the woman who’d nursed him as a babe, now in charge of Duncan’s care, entered and curtseyed. “The wet nurse has arrived, m’lord.”

“I assumed the same, given the sudden quiet.”

Sadness filled her eyes. “He’s a strong lad.”

He scratched the two days of stubble peppering his face. “Aye, if his lungs are any indication, he’ll become a feared knight of Christendom.”

“Following in his father’s footsteps, no doubt.”

Colin forced a smile, though the ache in his heart made the effort near impossible.

Since the death of his ma, his old nursemaid had played the part of a mother figure, though his reliance on her advice had waned considerably after his marriage to Jonet and tours of duty for Rome. Effie stepped further into the room. “You look troubled, m’lord.”

Hot ire flared up the back of his neck. What did she expect, a man hewn of iron? He met her concerned gaze and inhaled. Of course, Effie meant well. “I’ve received a missive from Rome requesting another crusade.”

“No.” Effie clasped her hands to her chest. “Duncan needs you…”

“My son needs a mother,” Colin snapped. “A bairn has no place in a knight’s arms.”

Effie steepled her fingers to her lips. “Have you a woman in mind? And what about your castle? The curtain wall has only begun to take shape now that you’ve returned. Someone must manage the project and complete the keep.”

Colin fisted his hips. “I do not need you to inform me of my responsibilities.”

She bowed her head obsequiously. “Yes, m’lord.” Then, casting aside her deference, she eyed him like she did when he was a lad. “Merely thinking of your comfort, Colin.”

He threw up his hands. “The master mason can oversee.”

“In my opinion, that man has not proved his skill in managing the labor.”

“Did I ask your opinion?”

Effie didn’t bother to bow this time. “M’lord.” She held up her palms. “These hands washed your noble arse. I do believe that fact has given me the right to look after you in adulthood, especially since there is no other living elder to do so.”

Colin ground his teeth and rolled his gaze to the ornate relief on the ceiling.

Effie moved in and placed a hand on his forearm. She’d made the gesture countless times before, but it soothed him directly. He blinked and thought of his mother. He longed for the touch of another human being after a sleepless night wallowing in the sorrow of his plight. He shook his self-pitying thoughts from his head. “I will not shirk my responsibilities before I go. I shall pen a missive to the grand master explaining I will be detained. Then I’ll ask the king for assistance in finding a mother for Duncan.” He cupped Effie’s weathered face in his palm. “Does that meet with your approval, matron?”

“Yes, if you must go at all. My stars, Colin, you’ve already served in two crusades. Surely the Hospitallers can find a replacement.”

“Aye, but I have experience. A man who’s faced battle before is worth ten who have not.”

After Effie took her leave, he resumed his seat at the table. Penning the missive to Jacques de Milly was easy. The missive to the king, however, took a great deal more thought. Colin would prefer to find his own match, but this time, the woman would not be for him. Colin wanted nothing more to do with the fairer sex. Aside from his duty to procreate, he could not allow his heart to care for a woman as it had for Jonet
and
Mariot before her. Loving a woman carried great risk. They were frail creatures, and losing one brought more pain than losing a whole contingent of men on the battlefield.

He dipped his quill into the black ink.

 

Most honorable and revered King James II,

I desire to open this correspondence by expressing my gratitude with your grant of lands following my meager role in quelling the Douglas uprising. The generosity of Your Royal Highness extends beyond anything I could have expected or hoped for.

It is with a heavy heart that I must request assistance from your apostolic majesty. Word of my beloved Jonet’s death may have already reached Your Highness. Most unfortunately, my infant son has been left without a mother. As you are aware, the Order of St. John is in dire need of my services in the war for Christendom, though I cannot in good conscience return to Rome without a mother for my heir.

Therefore, I must prevail upon you and your most noble Queen to assist me in finding a suitable stepmother for my son. Having been abroad a great deal, together with my duties in support of Scotland, I am left with no prospects for marriage.

I remain your most humble servant in Christ,

Colin Campbell, Lord of Glenorchy

 

Resting the quill in the silver stand, he sanded the parchment to dry the ink and then reread the missive. Colin hoped his mention of the Douglas uprising wasn’t too presumptuous, though it would remind the king of the value of his services. He folded the missive and held a red wax wafer to the candle’s flame. After dripping a substantial glob, he sealed it with his ring—the crest of Glenorchy.

Indeed, Colin’s role in the uprising had been anything but meager. That mattered not. He needed a wife, and he needed her posthaste. His letter clearly established the fact he wanted a mother for Duncan more than a woman with whom he would share a bed. Colin shuddered. He would have nothing to do with a wife. Not now. Not ever again.

Chapter Two

 

Dunalasdair Castle, Loch Rannoch, 16
th
September, 1455

Margaret was in her father’s solar recording figures in his book of accounts when the approach of hoof beats roused her from calculating a list of sums. Margaret rarely erred when it came to numbers, a point of fact long overlooked by her father, Lord Robertson, Chieftain and Baron of Struan—until the day she glanced over his shoulder, calculated the math in her head and recited the figures flawlessly.

Ever since, she’d been placed in charge of checking the factor’s figures. A necessary responsibility that ensured no one ever cheated her father.

By the racket clamoring from below, there were more than a few horses approaching. Margaret rested her quill in the ornate wooden holder and dashed to the window. A crisp breeze blew in off the deep blue waters of Loch Rannoch. Margaret preferred natural light, and would endure a mild chill to have it. Only in the dead of winter did she pull the thick furs over the castle windows.

Gazing to the courtyard below, Margaret’s heart skipped a beat. It wasn’t often the king’s men paid the stronghold of Dunalasdair a visit. No mistaking it, these men wore red tunics with the bright yellow lion rampant over their armor. Something important was afoot.

She craned her neck and leaned further out the narrow window. Mounted on large warhorses, the soldiers appeared incredibly virile. Unfortunate their helms completely covered their faces from her viewpoint. She’d like to glimpse a handsome new face.

Father marched down the courtyard steps and accepted a missive from the leader. Margaret prayed it contained good news.

Perhaps Father would invite the soldiers in for refreshment before they made their return journey. Mayhap they would even stay the night. Surely there would be music in the great hall, and with so many men, it would be necessary to dance with each one to ensure no guest was omitted from the festivities. Margaret clapped with excitement.

The one thing she enjoyed more than helping her father with the estate’s affairs was dancing. Would the king’s men prefer country or court dances? Most likely the slower court dances would be to their taste, though Margaret’s favorite was lively country dancing. She’d been to court not too long ago, where she learned the latest grand dances. They were very stately, of course—and somewhat seductive. She turned from the window and pictured an imaginary courtier—Lord Forbes, the man she’d met at court and with whom, she suspected, her father was secretly negotiating the terms of her betrothal. At two and twenty, the time for her to wed was nigh.

When the dashing and most imaginary Lord Forbes asked her to dance, she fanned herself. “Me? Why yes.” Craning her neck to meet his gaze, she feigned an appropriate giggle. “I’d love to.”

Margaret curtseyed and envisioned him leading her to the line of dancers. She performed the steps, swinging as if her partner had locked her elbow, her skirts swishing along his powerful calves, neatly wrapped with woolen hose. Margaret adored the new style of men’s doublets, so short, a fashionably dressed man’s hose provided much to be admired—right up to his well-muscled behind.

Margaret chuckled at her errant thoughts and continued her dance, spinning across the solar. Oh how mortified her mother would be to know she so admired the opposite sex. Of course, she had very little experience with them, aside from constant needling by her older brothers, and the occasional morning spent watching the guard spar in the courtyard.

Margaret’s brown locks swished against her back when she gaily skipped toward her imaginary Lord Forbes.

The solar door opened.

With a cringe, she stopped midstride. “Father.” The pitch of her voice shot up. “I didn’t expect…”

He held up a folded piece of parchment. “I’ve a missive from the king.”

Heat burned her cheeks. She didn’t care for her father to catch her in a pantomime daydream. “Aye. I saw his men. Are you required at court?”

He cleared his throat and looked not to Margaret, but at the missive in his hand. “Of sorts. Please retire to your chamber. I’ve sent for your mother. I must speak to her at once.”

Margaret stepped toward him. “Whatever is the matter?”

“Do as I say.” He pointed to the door. “We shall attend you shortly.”

Margaret bowed her head and offered a clipped curtsey. “Very well.”

She hurried up the winding stairwell and down the passageway to her chamber. Once inside, she raced to the window. The soldiers below were accepting food from Cook. She slinked away, her shoulders drooped. Obviously they wouldn’t be staying.

What had father meant by
of sorts
? Were they going to court or not? Where would the king be this time? Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood, Stirling Palace, Linlithgow?

A stone dropped to the pit of Margaret’s stomach. Was Scotland at war? Surely Da hadn’t been called into service. At seven and fifty, Lord Struan had already carried the torch for Scotland, and on numerous occasions.

Margaret paced, her mind rife with concern. The king must know Da was too old to wield a sword. A turn on the battlefield would kill him for certain. Surely her brothers would be able to stand in his place…but then perhaps the king needed Lord Struan as a dignitary. Perhaps Da was required abroad as an ambassador.

By the time Margaret heard the rap on her door, she’d convinced herself Father would be Scotland’s Ambassador to France, and she’d find her husband in the wonderfully scandalous and delightfully stylish French court.

She grinned broadly when her parents entered. They maintained their serious countenances, though Margaret refused to see it as a bad sign when they did not return her smile. Her parents often refrained from displaying their emotion—a tactic she’d practiced on her brothers without much success.

“The news from the king concerned
you
, Margaret.” Da was unusually somber.

Surprised King James would pay her two thoughts, Margaret’s breath caught. “Me?”

Mother’s wimple billowed as she stepped in and took Margaret’s hand. “We must set to work at once.”

Margaret gaped at her father over Ma’s shoulder. “My presence at court has been requested?”

Da cleared his throat. “The king has asked for your hand in marriage.”


My
hand?” Tears stung her eyes. “Is our queen dead?”

Father held up his palms and shook them. “No, no. The king has requested you marry one of the noblemen.”

“A nobleman?” She glanced between her parents. “’Tis not Lord Forbes, is it?”

“No, my dear.” Ma frowned at Da. That couldn’t be a good sign. “Oh, just out with it, Robert.”

“Very well.” Father cleared his throat. “You shall wed Colin Campbell, Lord of Glenorchy, and venerated Knight of the Order of St. John.”

Margaret stared at her father. She forgot to blink, and her mouth must also have been hanging open, because her tongue went dry. “You mean to say I am betrothed to
Black Colin
? The Black Colin of Rome? Famed Black Colin who crushed the Douglases?”

Da tugged on his beard like he did when attempting to come up with a suitable reply. “Aye, but you’re forgetting he fights the enemies of Christendom. Without men like he, our God would not reign supreme.”

Margaret doubted the news of the Douglas demise had yet to reach any part of Scotland. “Without men like he, we’d be sleeping soundly at night.”

Da held up a finger. “Lord Douglas threatened the king.”

Margaret crossed her arms. “Lord Douglas was murdered by the king, and you know it.”

“Stop.” Mother stepped in and grasped Margaret’s shoulders. “We cannot renege on a royal order. You
will
travel to Stirling Palace and marry Lord Campbell. He’s recently lost his wife and needs a mother for his infant son. You shall swallow your pride and perform your duty for Scotland
and
Christendom.”

“I shall become a stepmother?” Of course, Margaret wanted to marry, but no young woman in her right mind wanted to marry a complete stranger who’d already—and recently—fathered a child.

Da painted on one of his feigned smiles. “I’ve met Campbell. He’s not as bad as his reputation might suggest.”

Margaret was in no way convinced.
Black Colin?
Would he beat her and keep her locked in a tower with iron branks holding her tongue?

Mother gestured toward Margaret’s collection of trunks. “I’ve already sent for Master Tailor. There’s scarcely enough time. We leave in a sennight.”

Margaret watched her parents take their leave. Questions swarmed in her head.
Black Colin? Is he grey with age? Why on earth would the king choose me out of all the eligible women in Scotland? Does he despise me? But then, the king would see this as an honor. The king has been most kind to the Lord of Glenorchy
.

Margaret dropped onto the bed, completely numb. Her life was about to end.

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