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South of Aberdeen, Highlands of Scotland
"He calls for ye."
Elen Burnard glanced up, meeting the dark-eyed gaze of her father's steward. Finley was only ten years older than she. They had grown up together, loved her father together. He understood how difficult it was for her to enter her father's bedchamber.
Elen's gaze shifted to the half-open door. "Is he..."
Finley reached out and gripped her shoulder, his awkward touch reassuring. "Aye. 'Tis the end, I fear."
She took a deep breath. Death was a part of life. She knew death, for it had come to her door often and at an early age. Her mother had died birthing her only sibling, Rosalyn, when Elen was five. Her nursemaid had died of the pox only three years later. Uncles, cousins, family friends, all dead at the hand of English soldiers. But the pain of those deaths, even her mother's, was not akin to this.
"Ye'd best go," Finley said gently, his Highland burr much heavier than her own.
She nodded, but still hesitated. She wasn't ready to say farewell.
"If ye need me, I wait at the door."
With that reassurance, Elen entered her father's bedchamber in the tower house, the chamber where she and her sister had been born, the chamber where her mother had died in pools of blood. But it was also the happy place where she'd bounced on her father's bed in the good years before the war for independence. Then Dunblane had fallen to the English, and her family had been forced to take refuge across the Grampian Mountains with her mother's relatives.
Elen entered the room and smiled. "Father."
The room was bright,sunlit by the massive tinted windows that faced the south, windows whose wide stone seats she had often perched on as a child. No dark shuttered room, candlelight, or burning herbs for her father's death. No barbaric physician who would poke and prod, bleed and leech the last stone of strength from him. She would not have it. Sir Murdoch Burnard, Laird of Dunblane, would die bathed in the warmth of the summer Highland sun with the scent of wildflowers in the air and his daughters at his side.
Murdoch opened his eyes and lifted his hand weakly from his side. "Elen, lass."
She pulled up the stool beside his great four-poster bed and took his cool hand between hers. It was a big hand, rough, but gentle. And so young. He was not yet fifty; his hands were too young, his body too young to die.
Elen lifted her father's hand to her cheek. He seemed small now, insignificant, framed by the heavy brocaded bedcurtains and quilted linens. He smelled of shaving soap and the polish of the broadsword he had lifted to the English, thus winning back his blessed Dunblane--and all of Scotland, in her eyes.
Now, a little more than a month after the triumphant battle at Bannockburn, he was dying of a thigh wound that had seemed a trifle at the time. But the wound had not healed. It had festered, as wounds sometimes did, without reason. And now her father was slipping away.
Her father licked his dry lips, his eyes half closed. They were mirror images of her own eyes--as green as the morning sea, he had always told her. "So much I need to tell ye, child of my heart," he whispered, not in his own voice, but that of a man dying before his time.
Elen wanted to assure him they could discuss such matters later, but both knew how near his time truly was. There would be no later.
She drew closer so he would not have to strain to speak. "Aye, I listen."
"First, your sister. The arrangements have been made. She is to marry her cousin come Michaelmas. She will be provided for. Happy, I pray."
Elen nodded. Sweet Rosalyn was all she was not--tiny, pretty, well versed in needlework and weaving. She would make a good wife and mate to young Robert.
"Aye, I will see her wed. The Highlands have nae seen a wedding such as the one I will give your youngest daughter."
Her father turned his head and lifted his eyelids, which seemed heavier than the lead in the casement windows. "Now ... Dunblane."
"Dunblane," Elen murmured.
"Ye must hold her," he croaked. "Hold her against the English bastards, for the fall of Stirling Castle at Bannockburn will not be the end."
"I can do that." She squeezed his hand. "You know I can."
Elen's upbringing had been more that of a son than a daughter. And though Murdoch had taken sore abuse from his in-laws for his decision, Elen had learned to ride, to draw a sword, and to command her father's men while her sister had been tutored in stitching and husbandry. Because Dunblane had no male heir of his loins, Elen had ridden the moors and mountains of the Highlands at her father's side. Now the line would pass to her ... if only she could hold the lands.
"Nae an English mon will tread upon this soil again, Father," she swore calmly, firmly. "Nae as long as I draw breath and sword."
He exhaled, as if the words gave him comfort. "And the North Woods," he whispered.
She leaned closer, his words difficult to hear. "The North Woods?"
"A map in my box," he murmured, his eyes now closed, his tone urgent. "I must have my box."
Elen climbed off the stool and crossed the flagstone floor of the chamber to retrieve the leather box that held her father's most precious possessions. This tooled-leather box was Dunblane.
"You must petition the Bruce our king to have it returned," he continued. "Rancoff has nae claim to it."
Elen returned to her father's bedside, the box cradled in her arms. She knew Rancoff and Dunblane had been fighting over the woodlands that bordered both properties for more than a century. Only the coming of the English had ceased the bickering. But now, with the land their own again, it was once again time to settle Scot disputes.
"Petition the Bruce," he repeated. "He will grant the lands." A smile flickered across his chapped lips. "For your comeliness if not my loyalty at Bannockburn."
Elen lowered her gaze to the wrinkled linen bedclothes as she settled on the stool again. Beautiful was not a word generally used to describe her. Words such as hardheaded, stubborn, and manly were more often spoken, though only in a whisper. No one dared speak them aloud for fear of risking the wrath of Dunblane.
"So what am I to do?" she asked, her tone teasing despite the lump that had lodged in her throat. "Don a gown of golden threads, let down my hair, and color my lips with red paste?"
He chuckled. "If 'twould aid the cause, I would have donned a gown myself."
Despite the tragedy of the moment, she could not help but laugh. Her father knew her so well. He knew how she felt about the trappings of a woman, how confined she sometimes felt being born one.
God's bones, she would miss him.
Dunblane began to cough, his body shuddering as he tried to catch his breath. Elen lowered the box to the bed and pressed a handkerchief to his lips. "Mayhap ye should rest now," she whispered. "We can finish this later."
"Nay," he choked. "Now."
It was an order, and though she was his daughter, he was still her laird.
Elen sat back on the stool, again taking his hand. "Here is your box, Father." She brushed his hand against the ancient tooled leather.
She hesitated, her gaze fixed upon the box. It was smooth beneath her fingertips and smelled of old leather and tobacco. She had never been permitted to lift the lid before.
"Elen," Murdoch beseeched, patting her hand. "Please, Daughter, there is nae much time. My strength..." His last words drifted in the warm, summer air that smelled of the roses her sister had brought up to adorn the chamber.
"Open it," he whispered.
Her hand trembling, Elen turned the key on the iron lock and lifted the lid. She held her breath. Inside lay the yellowed stag's horn of retention, physical proof of the gift of Dunblane given to her great-great-great-grandfather by King David a century and a half earlier.
"The horn," she whispered, the words catching in her throat.
Now that they were home and settling into Dunblane, the horn would be returned to its place above the fireplace in the great hall, where it had resided on and off for the last century.
"'Tis yours," he said, his voice surprisingly strong.
She lifted her lashes to meet his gaze.
"Because I have no son, no male heir, I grant this horn of retention to ye, my beloved, my daughter. I make ye, Lady..." He smiled. "Nay, Laird of Dunblane."
Tears welled in Elen's eyes. If her father had any concerns as to whether or not she could fill his boots, he gave no indication in word or facial expression. He believed in her.
"Be strong," he whispered, his voice again weak. Weaker, if possible. "Be strong." His eyes drifted shut. "And trust no one." He paused, now struggling to find the strength for each word. "Trust no one."
She held his hand tightly, seeming to feel his life's blood waning. "I love ye, Father," she whispered, pressing a kiss to the back of his hand.
"I love ye," he mouthed, too feeble for voice.
And in that bright, sunny room with the sound of birdsong on the windowsill, Sir Murdoch died, leaving the burden of Dunblane Castle upon his daughter's shoulders.