Read an Excerpt
His Bonnie Bride
By Hannah Howell
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Hannah Howell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA cool wind blew across the battlements, nipping at the skirts of the women gathered there to watch the men of Hagaleah ride off to battle. As they had so often in the past, they were riding to meet the Scots, most particularly the clans MacBroth and MacLagan, ancestral enemies of the Eldons of Hagaleah and the Fosters of Fulaton. The rising sun reflected off their armor as they rode away across the moors to do as their fathers had done and their fathers before them, on into the mists of time.
Lord Eldon's wife sighed, mostly in envy and anticipation of a long, boring wait for the men to return. She was his second wife, a young girl from a prominent Sussex family. Lady Mary Eldon was beautiful, spoiled and heedless. Having grown up in the verdant, peaceful south, she had little understanding of the constant state of warfare along the border or the danger of raids. In her mind the battle would be as a tournament, something glorious and exciting.
"I intend to watch that battle, Hilda. I see no reason for us to be marooned here."
Hilda stared at her mistress in amazement. "My lady, you cannot. Think of the danger."
"Nonsense. There is a well-covered knoll within sight of where the battle shall take place."
She turned and proceeded back into the keep, her small retinue at her heels frantically trying to talk her out of her rash plan yet not make her angry. Lady Eldon's anger was swiftly becoming legendary. She did not like opposition of any sort, as many of the keep's servants had discovered to their cost. None of those following the headstrong Lady Eldon wished to lose their privileged positions.
To their horror, the lady's cousin, soon to wed Lord Foster's heir, also thought the idea a good one. The unthinking young ladies were turning the venture into a picnic. Mary ordered food to be packed and even instructed the nursemaids to bring the children, six in all, including Lord Eldon's two by his first wife. The hope that the few men left behind would stop Lady Eldon vanished quickly as servants scurried to hitch up carts and open the gates. A sizable entourage was soon heading for the knoll overlooking the battlefield. Only the older servant women and Lord Eldon's eldest child, a daughter, remained somber. The other women, lady and servant alike, and children began to act as if on an outing to the fair.
Little Robin Foster, a plump boy of eight with blond curls, tugged at Storm's braid, thinking yet again that the color was an odd one, rather like marigolds in that it was a red that was near to orange. "Why must we stay here? Cannot we sit with the ladies, Storm?"
Storm looked at the boy from her height of two years' seniority, her amber eyes scornful. "No. 'Tis safer here. We can hide amongst the bushes if need be. This is a foolish move for my new mother to make. We should be tucked up in the castle, not frolicking within the grasp of the Scots."
"But the Scots will be fighting down below, sister," piped up Andrew, her six-year-old brother, his fiery red curls thrashing in the breeze. "I should like to see our father in battle."
"Aye, and we would be seen too. We with our hair as bright as any beacon. You can see well enough from here." She quieted all protests from her five underlings with one sweeping glare. "Now, listen all of you before the harsh sounds of battle drown out my words. If I say to move, ye move and go where I tell ye with no wailing. Think ye not that the Scots would like to catch their enemies' spawn?"
"You are frightening us," protested four-year-old Matilda Foster, her hand nervously twisting her blond braid.
"'Tis as well. Ye will move faster if need be. Here now, the armies prepare to face one another."
At first it was much like a pageant as the armies aligned themselves to face each other. The gleam of steel, the waving of pennants and the ringing of armor stirred the audience upon the hill. It all looked glorious, even awe-inspiring. A person could not help but be moved by the sight, but then the cries of "Foster! Foster!" "Eldon! Eldon!" "MacBroth! MacBroth!" and "A MacLagan! A MacLagan!" roared through the air, the battle was engaged and things changed with ominous speed.
The armor still rang as sword hit sword, but now there were screams as it was pierced. Steel soon lost its gleam as it was covered with blood and the mud churned up by so many men and horses. Formation was all but forgotten as man grappled with man, knights upon horses wedged their way into the battling mass of infantry and the wounded were, when possible, dragged, carried or assisted to the rear in the hope that they would live for another battle.
As the fighting spread, flowing outward to the sides, the knoll was no longer safe. It was placed more to the Scottish side of the field, the enemy edging ever nearer to the now silent onlookers. Even the more bloodthirsty of the women began to falter as the increasing heat of the day strengthened the scent of warfare, the light summer's breeze bringing along with it the smell of the fighting men's sweat and blood. The children made no complaint as Storm began to edge them toward the bushes.
Suddenly matters took a dangerous turn. A group of battling men reached the base of the knoll. Within moments, a band of Scottish knights were racing toward the knoll to assist their harried kinsmen. The Fosters and the Eldons were falling back under the bludgeoning force of the Scotsmen. The women of the castle, already in a high state of tension, panicked when a cry from one of the Scottish knights indicated that they had been spotted. Screaming, they fled to their carts. A few Scots gave chase, trampling the bright blankets and scattering all the festive eating arrangements. In the confusion, Storm hustled the children off, remembering a shearer's hut and deeming it a good place to hide, unwittingly shepherding her charges closer to the enemy.
The shearling was in a poor state of repair, but it remained a niche in which to hide. Storm guessed at her error when the tents of the Scots became visible, but there was no turning back for she could hear the swift approach of armed horsemen. Pushing the children within the doorless hut, she sat before them and, putting a hand on her knife, was ready to protect the smaller ones should they be discovered.
Scotsmen were soon returning from the field, passing the hut all unknowing of the treasure it held. Storm began to think they would escape detection when suddenly a small knot of men paused before the hut so that one could sit and rest. She easily recognized the laird of the MacLagans, for he had a number of distinctive qualities, not the least of which was his silver hair and the scar that ran the length of his face in a jagged line from forehead to chin. When his blue eyes, darkened by pain, met and held hers she felt her heart had stopped. Her mind conjured up a multitude of fates.
"Weel, look what we have here, lads," Colin MacLagan drawled in a husky voice. "Look, Tavis."
The young man turned to follow Colin's gaze. His eyes, the blue of a summer morning's sky and so clear in his swarthy face, fixed upon the children. When the tiny girl with her brilliant hair pulled a knife from a pocket in her skirts a smile brightened his harsh features.
"Now, lass, what do ye intend doing with that?" Tavis asked, his eyes dancing.
"Stick ye like a pig if ye come any closer," Storm replied tersely, frowning fiercely when the other men seemed amused. "I mean it," she warned when Tavis stepped closer.
"There's no need o' doing that, lassie. We are nae going to harm ye," said the laird.
Storm's eyes narrowed, for that rather contradicted the stories she had been told. However, even covered in mire and blood as they were, none of the men struck her as the sort to cook and dine upon children. The five youngsters clutching and trying to hide behind her skirts were plainly not so sure. It struck none of them as strange to look to Storm for protection; she was not only the eldest, but had always been the strongest one. Storm carefully considered her next move.
Tavis edged nearer to his father, saying softly, "What fool do ye think let them near the battle?"
"God knows. With that hair, methinks we may have some Eldon spawn. Strange little lass."
"Aye. Cat's eyes and that hair. 'Tis a wonder. I have never seen the like before." He grinned at his father. "'Tis taking her awhile to decide whether or not to stick one of us." They laughed softly.
"I want your oath," Storm spoke up. "Your oath that ye and none of your men will harm us. Your word of honor." She watched them carefully.
"Ye have it, lass," the laird said gravely. "We will just be holdin' ye for ransom."
"Fair enough." She tucked her knife back into her skirts and then scowled at the other children. "Will ye leave go my skirts? All your trembling is near to shaking my teeth loose."
Two men helped the laird to stand, and Tavis looked at Storm, motioning her to join them.
Ushering the children ahead of her, Storm fell into step beside Tavis. When they reached the camp the surprise of the men there was plain to see. The Foster and Eldon men captured and being held for ransom became vocally upset, needing a few minutes of rough persuasion to quiet them. The children were kept near the laird and his sons, two more of whom had come to his side. They were barely settled before a tent when some men came up dragging an upset and untidy Hilda, who fell upon the children, hugging and kissing them as she wept copiously.
"Enough, Hilda." Storm escaped her clutches. "Ye will surely drown us. How are the other ladies?"
"They got away, lass. I could get none o' the lot to help me look for ye."
"What were ye doing so close to the battle?" Colin asked Storm as his armor was removed.
"My new mother thought to watch the spectacle." Contempt was heavy in her voice. "She and the Foster heir's bride-to-be and a number of servant women drove out to the knoll. 'Twas a picnic. Then, when your men drew near, the silly cows fled screeching. Seems only Hilda remembered we children."
"And whose children do we have? I wish to be exact in me ransom demands."
"Well, m'lord, ye have Storm Pipere Eldon," she said with a curtsy, "eldest child of Lord Eldon, and his heir, Andrew. These two are Fosters, the heir's two by his first marriage, Robin and Matilda. The brown-haired twins are my cousins, Hadden and Haig Verner. The lot are at Hagaleah for the Foster heir's wedding in a fortnight."
"B'God," breathed the laird, "the future of both families in one catch. That woman should be thrashed within an inch o' her life. 'Tis a fair ransom we will gain from this." He turned his attention to his messenger, who would ride to Hagaleah with the ransom demands.
"Hilda, we children are well, but our men held there may need your nurse's touch," Storm suggested and watched with a half smile as Hilda forced her way to the captive knights, full of the importance of her errand, before turning to scowl at the way Iain MacLagan was tending his sire's wound. "'Tis a right poor job ye are making of that," she told the young knight. "'Tis like to kill him, not cure him."
"Oh? Ye can do better?" Tavis drawled with a touch of sarcasm, but his eyes revealed his delight in the small girl. "By all means, make us privy to your knowledge."
"I will if I can, despite your cynicism, sir." She ignored the chuckles of the men and looked around for what she required, spotted it and ordered Andrew to go fetch it.
"I won't," her brother said stubbornly. "I do not see why I should get dirty."
Storm looked at this sign of rebellion in the ranks with contempt and half raised her fist. "Ye will or your stub of a nose will be peeping out of the curls on the back of your head."
Andrew went but tried to salve his pride with a lot of grumbling concerning his sister's many faults. Storm busied herself getting a bowl and clean water and tearing her petticoats into clean strips. She washed her hands, washed the wound and cleansed the needle she would use. When Andrew returned she made her poultice, neatly stitched the laird's wound after dousing it with whiskey, treated it and expertly bound it, even to tying a sling for the laird's arm.
The MacLagans watched with amused admiration. Not only was the child not made squeamish by the ugly wound, but she had a definite skill. As she worked she talked to the dark, scarred Scottish laird just as a nurse to a child, much to the amusement of him and the other men.
Tavis, having recently reached the manly age of nineteen, was fascinated. Storm Eldon was an elfin child, small and slender. Her small, long-fingered hands held a grace far beyond her years. The thick hair speedily escaped the restraint of her braids and looked startling against a skin of alabaster hue. Her face was heart-shaped, and the wide, slanted, amber eyes, set beneath tilted brown brows and heavily lashed, seemed to fill it, leaving little room for the delicately shaped nose and full mouth. He could not even begin to catalogue the many facets of her character.
"How old are you, child?" he asked as she washed her hands.
"I turned ten a month past." She handed Iain the remainder of her homemade salve, instructing, "You keep the wound clean, change the dressing thrice each day, and dab a bit more of this on it until it begins to close. In about a week or ten days ye can cut the stitches. I hope Papa did not get hurt, for he likes me to tend to him. The others fuss over him too much."
"There was no sign that he had been," Sholto MacLagan, the youngest of Colin's three sons, said.
They were brought some food, for it was thought that it would take some time for the Eldons and the Fosters to gather the ransom. The six children sat quietly eating, unaware that the MacLagans discussed them. Hilda glanced toward them every now and then, but the captive men needed her attention more.
"Do ye think the lass has poisoned ye?" Sholto jested when he saw the laird touch his bandage.
"Nay. I was just thinking it a job well done. Never seen such neat stitches. The lass has the touch. I have seen me a muckle lot of wee lasses in my years, but none the like of her."
"Aye," Tavis agreed. "I was thinking much the same. Hard to believe she is an English lass."
Colin grinned. "Aye. Too much spirit in her. Stick ye like a pig indeed." He laughed but stopped suddenly, his eyes on the children. "Oh ho. Trouble in the ranks."
Robin Foster was suffering from bruised pride. It was a sore point to recall how he had cowered behind Storm's skirts when faced with the enemy. Now it rubbed to have her holding sway over all of them, a position he felt should be his. When she told him to take his sister's plate it was one thing too many. He leapt to his feet, tossed his plate to the ground and glared at Storm.
"No, I will not. I do not have to take orders from you. 'Tis an insult."
Storm slowly rose to her feet, hearing the insult to her behind his words. "How so, young Robin?"
"I am destined to be an English peer and I will not take orders from a half-Irish bastard."
"I am no bastard and well ye know it. My father married my mother ere I was born."
"Minutes before," Robin sneered. "We have all heard the tale. Well, Robin Foster takes no orders from the spawn of some Irish whore," he yelled, his words echoing in a suddenly quiet camp.
His words were barely spoken when Storm's fist sent him sprawling to the ground. She flung herself upon him and began the fight in earnest then, her skirts not hampering her in brawling as well as any lad. They were equally matched. The men moved in closer to watch, thus stopping Hilda from putting an end to it. Matilda watched silently, but Storm's brother and cousins were highly vocal in urging her on to victory. Even the captives took sides.
"Irish blood, eh?" Colin mused as he watched the children fighting. "That explains it. I wonder where and how his lordship found himself an Irish lass?"
"She has him now. This will sore wound his pride," Tavis said, laughing.
Storm had Robin pinned to the ground. "Do ye yield?" she asked with one fist raised near his face.
For an instant Robin hesitated, but his body had already suffered too much from those punishing little fists. "Aye, aye. I yield. I yield."
"Now take back those words ye said about my mother."
"Taken. Will ye get off?" he wailed, sure that his nose was broken as well as a few other things.
Tavis lifted the little girl off her defeated foe and Hilda rushed over to help Robin, moaning, "Lass, lass, it ain't right for ye to be tussling about like a stablehand."
"He called my mother a ... one of those," she cried, defending her lapse from gentility.
"And bad it was for him to do so, there's no denying, but it wasn't right for ye to answer the insult with yer fists. That ain't the way of a lady."
Excerpted from His Bonnie Bride by Hannah Howell Copyright © 2012 by Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.