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The Guardian’s Favor: Border Series Book Nine by Mecca, Cecelia (1)

Chapter 1

Highgate End, Scotland 1274

“Are you going to be ill?” Aidan asked his sister-in-law.

Gillian sat clutching a chamber pot as tenderly as if it were a newborn babe. Her fondness for that pot had been growing of late.

He rushed to her side, pulled her hair behind her back and waited. Aidan had come to the solar looking for his brother. Instead, he’d found Gillian, alone with her chamber pot, looking much as she had every day this past sennight.

“I don’t believe so.”

Aidan wasn’t quite sure he agreed, so he decided to stay put for now. Peering around Gillian’s shoulder to see her face, he said, “You don’t look good, lass.”

“Why thank you. ’Tis kind of you to say, brother.”

He should not taunt her, but Aidan could not resist. “The bairn is a wee lassie, no doubt. Another Lyndwood girl come to save the de Sowlis men.”

Even as he said it, he could see the color return to Gillian’s face. He allowed her hair to fall back against her gown and pulled up a wooden chair to sit beside her. Poor Gillian was often forced to sit, the babe growing bigger inside her every day, and Aidan did not wish to make her feel uncomfortable by towering over her.

“Your brother is convinced otherwise. He believes the babe is a boy.”

“His son would be lucky to have such a father.”

“Kind words from my brother? To what do I owe the pleasure?” Graeme de Sowlis, clan chief and Aidan’s only remaining family member, by blood, walked into the room and strode straight to his wife.

“I’d not have said them had I seen you standing there preening.”

Both men knew that statement was not true. Aidan revered his older brother.

“Were you ill?” Graeme knelt beside his wife.

“Nay.” She looked into the pot. “Not this time, thank the heavens.”

Graeme placed the chamber pot on the floor. When he laid his hand on her slightly rounded stomach, a familiar pang of fear tore through Aidan. This babe, whether it be a nephew or a niece, would not be harmed. If the border descended into chaos, an event some claimed had already happened, they would forsake their family home before they put Gillian and the wee one in danger.

Highgate End may have been the seat of Clan Scott for four generations, but it was nothing more than dirt and stone. If not for the people under their protection, he’d have begged Graeme to take Gillian away. In fact, he’d suggested it once, but his brother had refused to listen.

“You’ve heard about Douglas?” his brother asked.

“Aye. According to his messenger, the Lord Warden is only a half day’s ride from Highgate.”

Graeme merely nodded, still crouched beside Gillian.

The look on his face was enough to convince Aidan his brother shared his concerns.

Graeme had never hidden his emotions well, his only failing as clan chief. His brother’s strength and skill with the sword was unmatched, yet even the most undiscerning adversaries could read his every mood from afar. If he were angry, his foe knew immediately. Now, his worries were written across his face. Worry over the increasing number of raids, the possibility of the first outright battle at the border in years, and the impending arrival of the Lord Warden.

“What do you think he wants?” Graeme stood and began to pace the room.

With more sunlight than most chambers at Highgate Castle, courtesy of an outside wall and two windows whose shutters were currently thrown wide open to usher in the unusually warm April day, the solar had always been the brothers’ favored meeting place. Gillian could oft be found in here as well. She liked to imagine the darkness of the long winter was finally behind them, but Aidan feared just the opposite was true.

He shook his head. “I neither know nor want to know. A visit from the Lord Warden now can mean only one thing.”

Graeme stopped pacing long enough to stare at him, prompting Gillian to speak up.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

Aidan hated the worry in her voice, but surely she should be worried. They all should.

“He would not,” Graeme said. His tone did not match his words.

“Why else would he come here now?”

“Would not what? What do you imagine he wants from you?” Gillian asked.

Graeme attempted to explain. “At the council six month earlier, he broached the idea of involving the Earl of Theffield in our dispute with the English border lords.”

“The earl,” Aidan said, “has property in both England and Scotland.”

Graeme’s scowl for the man was warranted. Cruel and selfish, the Earl of Theffield tended to elicit such sentiments. Thankfully, he hardly ever visited his northern estates, which were his in name only.

Gillian was rightly confused. “But what has that to do with us?”

“Our father knew the man as well as any Scotsman,” Graeme said. “Even though he had no alliance with him and rarely visited Sutworth.”

“Sutworth? Isn’t that the one that borders our land?”

“Aye.” Graeme resumed his pacing, but not before he shot a look at Aidan. Once again, he failed to hide his emotions. The pity in his eyes was as obvious as it was unwelcome.

“But I still don’t understand—”

“The Earl of Theffield is Lord Caxton’s overlord,” Graeme said. “As Caxton’s overlord, the Earl of Theffield has the authority to force Caxton to step down.”

Lord Caxton, the English Warden of the Middle March, was the reason the Scottish clans had stopped attending the monthly Day of Truce, a day of reckoning for all crimes committed on the border, arbitrated by two wardens, one from either side. Caxton had little interest in fairness, and his willingness to accept bribes and look the other way had allowed too many accused Englishmen to walk free. Until he was removed from his position, the Scottish border lords refused to uphold the tenets of the Treaty of York, which had given them thirty years of relative peace.

The Scottish border lords had tried, and failed, to have Caxton removed from power. Even the intercession of their king had done nothing. The English sovereign had insisted his beloved Lord Caxton would not be removed as warden.

To Gillian, the solution must have seemed inspired—Theffield had land in both Scotland and England, surely he could and would intercede. Her eyes lit up, the possibility of peace at hand, until she looked at him. And Graeme.

“Then why has no one spoken to him yet?”

Aidan did not want to be the one to eradicate Gillian’s last hope for peace, so he let his brother do it. “There is a reason Theffield was dismissed as a potential path to peace.”

“A good reason,” he added.

Gillian studied each of them in turn. “He is that bad then?”

Aidan could not answer. He couldn’t think of the man without his fingers itching to grab the dirk at his side and toss it into the closest target.

“Aye, lass,” Graeme said. “He is, and worse. Perhaps Douglas has other plans,” he added, his voice unconvincing. “Perhaps there is another reason for his visit.”

Gillian’s chin lifted. “You think he comes to ask you to treat with Theffield?”

Dread filled Aidan’s gut. He feared exactly that.

“He asked it once before,” Graeme said. “At the council meeting. But while our father knew the man, dealt with him when necessary, neither Aidan nor I have any love for him. But there is no other who would dare approach him. The earl and Douglas nearly killed each other once. The idea was dismissed at the meeting, when there was still hope . . .”

“There is still one thing I do not understand.”

He and his brother waited.

“Why do you look at Aidan,” she asked Graeme, “as if he lost his favorite dirk? What are you not telling me?”

Before either of them could answer, the color leached out of Gillian’s face. She leapt from her seat and grabbed the chamber pot next to her, leaving him thankful not to be forced to answer that particular question.

* * *

“Lady Clarissa! We did not expect you.”

She tried to smile at the maid she’d known since birth, but even the sight of Eda could not comfort her this day.

“I did not expect to be home so soon.” Her back straightened, and she asked, “Is my father in residence?”

Eda’s frown confirmed it. The thought that her father might be away from Theffield Castle had been her only solace on the journey back home.

“He is,” Eda said, her eyes conveying sorrow, and maybe regret. They were the same emotions she felt for the maid, a woman who had served Theffield faithfully and whose only rewards were the constant demands of a cruel and obstinate master.

“Shall I have your old chamber prepared?” Eda asked as she peered around Clarissa’s shoulder. “Are you here alone?”

She’d returned to Theffield without her husband. That simple answer would infuriate her father, the full truth even more so. And though Clarissa trusted Eda as much as she trusted anyone, she would not confide in her until privacy could be ensured.

“Aye,” she said simply, hoping her voice sounded more confident than she felt. “Lord Stanley bade me visit out of respect for my father. He would have accompanied me but was called to court just before I left.”

As expected, Eda did not question her or accuse her of any falsehoods. Instead, she set in motion the flurry of activity that would be expected upon the arrival of the earl’s daughter. Ushered into the hall, Clarissa soon found herself sitting at the head table in front of a goblet of wine and a plate of food, this despite the fact that the midday meal had long since ended. The servants had given her the kind of greeting one might expect from family, and she allowed herself a small smile. It felt good to forget, if only for a moment, this would be anything but a welcome homecoming.

Her father would question her story, of course. He would be disappointed that she’d dared venture beyond her husband’s castle walls without the man. But with any luck, he would have no recourse with her errant husband so far south, in London.

According to her, at least.

Clarissa glanced down at her hands, which she’d shoved beneath the table. Willing them to stop shaking, she thought of how much older she felt than when she’d left Theffield nearly two years ago. At twenty and three, she was by no means an old woman. But that did not stop her from feeling like one at times. She’d lived more than one lifetime, it seemed. One as a young, idealistic and hopeful girl who saw herself as the heroine of some great tale, pitted against her father, the villain. And then there was her second lifetime, the hell in which she currently lived. The father she’d hoped to defeat had been replaced with a husband who was equally as bad, or perhaps worse. His only redeeming quality was that he had agreed to set her aside, the blessing that had forced her back home.

“My lady, would you like more wine?”

Had she drunk the first goblet already? Indeed, and eaten her fill as well. Clarissa took a deep, steadying breath, asking the question she did not really want answered.

“Nay, thank you. But if you will,” she asked the servant, “do you know precisely when my father will return?”

Clarissa did not have to look up for her answer. As always, his presence made itself known by the reaction of those around her. She knew the signs well. Shoulders tensed. Eyes averted. All, including her, held their breath as the Earl of Theffield entered the hall.

It was not only his height and rigid countenance that made the earl an imposing figure. His cold hazel eyes, flat and emotionless, were the feature most noticed first.

“I cannot say I am glad to see you daughter,” he said, each step toward her more menacing than the last. “I’m told you are here without Lord Stanley?”

She watched him approach, waiting. If she spoke too soon, Clarissa would appear to be acting defensively. Too late, she risked incurring his ire for disrespecting the great Earl of Theffield.

She repeated the lie she’d told Eda. “Lord Stanley bade me come to visit, out of respect for you, Father. He would have accompanied me but was called to court just before I left.”

Years of dealing with her father had taught her not to offer more information than was necessary for fear it would be used against her.

“Why?” he demanded quietly.

Servants scattered, and she did not blame them for making themselves scarce. Clarissa only wished she could leave with them. She would never have returned if she’d had anywhere else to go.

“Why did he demand I come or why—”

“Do not”—his voice lowered—“question me.”

She lowered her eyes, hoping the gesture would soften his tone. How quickly she had forgotten his dislike of questions. Her father asked, she answered. That was the way it had always been.

“He believed you would wish to see me,” she lied. “And I know not his purpose for his journey to London.”

She continued to peer down at her hands, willing him to believe her. If he did not . . . if he sent her back . . .

“I do not want you here.”

Looking up, Clarissa nearly apologized for her presence. It would have been the smart thing to do, but she could not bring herself to do it. So much had transpired since her marriage, the young woman who’d left Theffield Castle at twenty and one was not the same one who sat here now.

“Of course,” she said instead, hoping her tone was appropriately deferential.

It worked. One final grunt, and he walked away.

“I trust you are not staying long,” he called back, eliciting looks of pity from those servants who’d been brave enough to remain in the hall. The same looks she’d been receiving her whole life. But their lot was surely worse than hers. They served her father, just as she did, although with no recourse but to do his bidding and accept his verbal abuse.

Do I really have any more recourse than they?

Nay.

But she did, at least, have a plan.

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