Spring, 1274 AD
Castle Lasing, North Cumbria, England
The arrow whizzed past his head and imbedded itself into the tree. Gavin Mereworth, the recently appointed Duke of Selkirk, ducked low, pulled his sword and scanned the surrounding area for whoever the archer was. He was aware a title brought consequences. However, Gavin had not considered someone would try to kill him just days after being titled.
Shuffling and the crunching of branches were followed by a woman’s curses and a soft groan. Whoever the female was, she seemed to be quite angry.
“Damn you, whoever you are. Come out so I can stab you properly.” Once again leaves crunched and, finally, a young woman rushed toward him through the foliage.
Wearing a tunic, which was pulled up and tied around her waist, with a strap to display men’s britches, the woman dressed quite strangely
Gavin stood to his full height with his sword at the ready.
For only a second did her gaze flicker to the sword before moving to his face and then she huffed and rolled her green eyes.
“Only a fool wanders about these woods during a boar hunt. Do you have a death wish?”
The sound of hounds and loud voices nearby made her frown in the direction. “Now because of you, I won’t find the wily beast.” As if for emphasis, she lifted her bow and shook it at him. “I thought you were a boar.”
Gavin regarded the woman. With her long, dark hair braided back, it made her large eyes, the color of fallen leaves, and petulant mouth easier to gaze upon. On her right cheek, a smearing of dirt tempted him to reach out and wipe it away. She was tall and slender. Even in her unique attire, there were no illusions of her not being female. She was astonishingly fetching.
“I am aware there is a boar hunt in progress,” he began, measuring his words. “However, it is supposed to be limited to the other side of the stream.”
Her gaze fell to the ground for an instant before snapping back up to his. “So you say.”
“I do say.” He lifted his chin just a bit and peered down his nose at her. “Now kindly go on your way. I am searching for my injured hound.”
Her change of countenance was immediate. Eyes rounded and her lips parted. “Injured? How?”
With an indignant huff, she motioned to his sword, palm up. “Did you cut the poor animal down? You seem enamored with your sword.”
Gavin’s lips thinned, he’d not realized that he had been holding the weapon up, still, and lowered it. With a droll look, he replied. “I heard a cry before he raced in this direction.”
“I’ll help you find him then.” She fastened her bow onto a strap on her quiver and waited for him to sheathe his sword.
“You almost killed me. How do I know you don’t plan to accost me once we are deeper into the woods?” Gavin walked in the direction he’d seen his hound go as she fell in step beside him.
A huff was her only reply.
Time passed slowly, each minute dragging by as they continued forward through the dense woods, not finding the dog. Gavin imagined the worst but managed to keep from showing despair in hopes they’d find his beloved companion.
“Shhh,” the woman held up her hand. “I hear something.”
Spotting the hound, Gavin rushed to where Lasitor lay under a thicket licking his right upper leg. The large dog let out a low whimper but at the same time wagged his tail upon spotting him.
“Come on, fellow. Let me pick you up. I’ll try not to hurt you.” Gavin coaxed the dog closer until he was finally able to wrap his arms around the animal to lift him.
It was a long walk back to where he’d tethered his horse and Gavin considered stopping to catch his breath and allow his aching arms to rest.
“Let me help.” The woman held her arms out as his breathing had become labored from the weight of the heavy dog. They’d almost made it back to where they’d met, which meant it would still be quite a ways before reaching his horse.
Pride, however, kept him from accepting her assistance. “I can manage.”
Lasitor eyed him as if knowing he stretched the truth. In all honesty, his arms burned from the dog’s weight and his back had begun protesting a while earlier.
“Give me the damn dog.” She stood before him arms outstretched. “If you drop him, he will get hurt worse.”
After a long breath, he spoke through clenched teeth. “Very well, but my horse is not too far off now.”
Once again, she rolled her eyes and it almost made him smile. Although it was obvious the dog was much too heavy, she managed well, allowing his arms time to recover.
“What is your name?” Gavin realized that, too worried about his dog, he’d not asked her as yet.
“Beatrice Preston,” she stated primly. “Who are you?”
He’d yet to accept that his father had died so recently and passed the title of duke to him. However, he’d not shirk his responsibilities and soon would assume control of the lands and people.
“Gavin Mereworth, the lord is my uncle.”
“Ah, so you’re a high born then?” Her gaze moved over him as if measuring his status. “My condolences on the current passing of your Duke.”
So she was not aware of whom exactly he was. The idea of not having to assume any kind of persona at the moment allowed a needed respite. “Thank you.”
“I hear there is a big feast planned by your relative, Lord Mereworth tomorrow. My father, brother and mother will be in attendance.”
“Why not you?” He hoped to see her again. Something about her, the independence and lack of demureness, two things he’d never considered good attributes in a woman, took his interest now.
“I have better things to do than sit around minding my manners while my father attempts to find me a husband amongst the idiots in attendance.”
His lips quivered. “I will be in attendance.”
“You can take the dog now. I must be on my way.” She unapologetically changed the subject.
Gavin took Lasitor, who whimpered at the jostling. Beatrice patted the dog’s head and made cooing sounds. “There, there, you’ll be well soon.”
Gavin had already made up his mind; before he returned to home, he’d see Beatrice again. Sooner rather than later would be preferable as he was not yet aware how long he’d remain there. “Since you almost killed me and then called me an idiot, I do believe you owe me a dance Lady Beatrice.”
Seeming to contemplate how to answer, pearly teeth sunk into her bottom lip. “It was a warning shot.”
“If I’d moved but a bit forward, your warning would have fallen on dead ears.”
“I didn’t call everyone an idiot. My brother will be there. Although it is not his choice really since he is a guardsman for the lord.”
“So, I await your presence tomorrow. I will inform my uncle to expect you.”
Her shoulders fell and she eyed him for a moment before giving him a slow nod. Without another word, she turned and disappeared into the woods.
“I am sure you will shoulder the responsibilities that come with becoming a duke and bearing the title well young Gavin.” His uncle’s half-closed eyes regarded him as he spoke. “However, there is much you should be prepared for. Precautions need to be taken. More guards.”
Gavin and his brother, Sinclair, the head of his guard, along with their other uncle and cousin surrounded a large table in the great room. Any guard who’d been in the room had been dispatched. Only trusted men remained guarding the doorway to allow the group privacy.
“I understand, Uncle. However, I do not believe it is necessary for you to send anyone back with me. I left the castle and people in the hands of the man father trusted the most. Torquil counseled him well for many years and will do the same for me. I have more than enough guardsmen.”
As irritating as it all was, he’d known upon accepting his uncle’s invitation, there would be testing and manipulation. If anyone resented the lands not being his, it was his uncle, Lord John Mereworth, who’d never been content to be second born. However, his bitterness had lightened upon being given a lordship of his own.
His other uncle, Alasdair, third born and without title, lived there on the family lands. With enough coin to never have to worry, he spent every living moment to instigate and annoy. Alasdair leaned forward and pointed at Gavin. “De Wolfe will test you. Mark my word on this.”
Gavin had already reached out to Scott De Wolf and arranged for a meeting as his father’s trusted friend had advised him. Torquil, although just a bit older than Gavin, was quite knowledgeable in family affairs. “I have it handled. Now, can we discuss the state of affairs with the Tarlington’s?”
Upon mentioning his uncle’s weak point, the lack of peace between him and the Tarlington’s, a knight bent on destroying his uncle, John’s nostrils flared. “Of course.”
The discussion continued until the sun began to fall. Gavin was anxious to check on Lasitor. However, at this point, any indication on his part of caring for an animal would be seen as a weakness. Seeming to understand the direction of his thoughts as he continuously looked to the door, Sinclair leaned to his ear. “I will go see about the hound.”
To the room, his brother announced his need to relieve himself and left.
That night, they would eat at the same table while keeping the conversation superficial and light.
William Tarlington, their sworn enemy, was wily and had, no doubt, bought an ear or two in their clan. Gavin was sure of it since they’d done the same.
Sometime later, they’d exhausted all on the subject of Tarlington. His uncle studied him as Gavin lifted a glass of whisky to his lips. “You are aware that as the new leader of your father’s people, you must ensure the continuance of our lineage. I have fathered a babe here and there.” He waved his hand as if children were inconsequential. “However, all are lasses.”
His uncle, Alasdair, didn’t comment on the fact he’d yet to produce any children. Gavin had his suspicions as to why, but kept them to himself.
“I will do so when the time is right. At this moment, my priority is to settle the people and see about preparations for the winter season. Marriage and fathering will come.”
Alasdair pursed his lips and pinned him with wide eyes. “And if you were to die in the not so distant future? Who would carry your title?”
The title would end with him. Everyone knew it. If he were to be honest, he cared little about the damned title and would gladly give it and everything else up in exchange for his father to still be alive.
“Sinclair could petition for it.”
“Unfortunately, my brother is correct. However, there is a chance it would not be passed to your brother.” The lord studied him. “If you’d like, I can suggest a lass from within my lordship. We have plenty with families of good standing.”
Unlike Gavin, who didn’t reply, Alasdair leaned over his crossed legs and tapped his lips with a finger. “Do reveal your thoughts Brother on who you presume would be a good match for our nephew. I am very interested.”
“It matters not,” Gavin interjected. “I have no plans to marry in the foreseeable future. There is more pressing matters to attend to.”
“Beatrice Preston would be my choice.” His uncle paused for effect. “Her family, specifically her father and brother, would be a remarkable asset to me...us.”
At the mention of the fiery lass he’d met earlier, Gavin couldn’t help but be intrigued as to why his uncle considered her a suitable candidate for a wife. “I don’t believe I know this family.”
Alasdair nodded. “The family arrived just two years past. The brother was recruited to the guard for his brawn and abilities with the sword. The family, although wealthy, have claimed no alliance to a specific lord since arriving.
“You remind me of something, Brother,” John said while he rubbed his chin. “Preston has yet to swear his fealty. The son, Oscar, a member of our guard, of course has, but not the patriarch.”
Gavin was glad for the diversion from any marriage. However, it piqued his interest to learn something about Beatrice’s family.
“I find it hard to believe you have allowed a head of a family not to do so, Uncle.”
John looked to the doorway. “Tomorrow is soon enough to see to this matter, I suppose. They will be here for the feasting.”
Both of his uncles, although younger than his father, had not aged well. The penchant for drinking too much ale and whisky every evening would be Gavin’s guess. How unfair it was that his father, the most virile of the three, had fallen first. His death came after a slight injury suffered during sword practice had festered. The wound sent him into a deathlike sleep from which his strong, virile father never woke.
Alasdair uncrossed his too-thin legs and blew out a breath. “I am not looking forward to the celebration. Not so soon after losing our brother. I find it in bad taste.”
Every head turned to him with incredulous expressions. Alasdair loved any occasion for feasting and drinking. Undaunted, his uncle continued. “To think. We are in mourning. We should have put the visitors off for at least a fortnight.”
“It’s too late and you know it.” John stood, signaling the end to their talk. “I must prepare for last meal.” His shrewd gaze slid to Gavin. “The topic of your marriage remains unfinished. We shall speak of it at length before you depart.”