Devil of the Highlands Chapter Thirteen

"Thank you," Evelinde murmured, as Mildrede refilled her cup of honey mead. Her gaze then slid around the great hall. Cullen had left her sleeping that morning, and everyone had broken their fast ere she'd come below. Now there was just herself, Rory, and Gillie, though the two men were seated farther along the table, quietly talking to each other. They were guarding her as usual.

"You seem very distracted this morning," Mildrede commented as she settled herself at the table beside Evelinde. "In fact, you have been rather quiet since returning from Comyn's yesterday. Did something happen while you were there? Did it not go well?"

"Nay. I had a lovely time," Evelinde assured her, and it was true. However, she had been distracted since returning to Donnachaidh. Her mind had been worrying over the problem of how to approach Biddy on the subject of her sister, Jenny. Evelinde was sure it couldn't be coincidence that Jenny had died two weeks ere Darach and that Cullen's father and first wife had later died at the spot where the young woman had been laid to rest.

There must be some connection. She simply wasn't sure what it could be and wished to cause Biddy as little upset as possible while trying to find out.

"Well," Mildrede said, when Evelinde fell silent. "Unless you have ruined another gown you have not told me about, I have finished the mending. Would you like me to start on the solar today? You mentioned that you would like to clean it out and perhaps start using it again," Mildrede reminded her.

Evelinde nodded with a frown. She had considered doing that, but that was before she'd learned about Jenny killing herself in the room. The fact didn't bother her, but she didn't wish to upset Biddy.

"It could be a lovely room, a nice spot for you and Cullen to get away from the crowded great hall of a night. Perhaps enjoy a quiet meal together without having to retire to your room."

"Aye," Evelinde murmured, then sighed, and said, "However, I am not sure Biddy would be pleased; 'tis sure to bring back bad memories for her."

"Bad memories?"

Evelinde remained silent as her mind turned the situation over. An idea had occurred to her. Mildrede and Biddy had spent a lot of time talking of late. The two women often sat together by the fire after the sup, chatting about this and that while mending, or embroidering, or some other task. It wasn't unusual for a lady and her maid to be friends, though it was somewhat unusual for them to be friends with another's maid. On the other hand, the two women were around the same age, and Evelinde had thought nothing of it, but now asked, "Mildrede, has Biddy ever mentioned her sister to you?"

The maid peered at her blankly. "Her sister?"

"Jenny," Evelinde explained.

"Nay. I had no idea she had a sister."

Evelinde noted the hurt on the maid's face, and said quietly, "Jenny killed herself some years ago, Mildrede. No doubt 'tis painful for Biddy to discuss."

"Oh," Mildrede said, some of the hurt slipping away to be replaced with sympathy, and she asked, "Why would cleaning up and arranging the solar bring back bad memories?"

"Jenny hanged herself in the solar a couple of weeks before Biddy's husband, Darach, died," Evelinde murmured.

Mildrede's eyes widened incredulously, then a soft breath slid from her lips before she breathed, "Poor Lady Elizabeth. She has had grievous times."

"Aye," Evelinde agreed, and popped into her mouth the last bit of bread and cheese she'd chosen to break her fast. After chewing and swallowing, she murmured, "I suppose we could ask her if 'twould be all right. She may not wish to use the solar herself but might not mind our using it."

Mildrede hesitated briefly, but then nodded. "I am sure she would not mind."

Evelinde drank the last of her mead, nodded, and stood. The moment she did, Gillie and Rory got to their feet as well. Irritation flickered through her when they did, but she forced a smile and waved them back to their seats. "There is no need to trouble yourself, gentlemen. I am merely going above stairs to take a look at the solar to see what needs doing. You can see the landing and the solar door from here."

The two men hesitated, exchanged glances, then settled back into their seats, and Evelinde immediately turned and headed for the stairs, aware that Mildrede was on her heels.

The stairs and upper hall were much more pleasant to manage since the torches had been added. The hall was just a hall, long and empty, with doors coming off it, but at least they could see where they were going and not fear tripping over something they could not see.

Evelinde grimaced at the very idea. She'd had quite enough spills and falls of late and would happily avoid another for a while. If she could manage it, she thought as she led the way to the closed door of the solar.

Despite having looked into the room before, Evelinde still found herself a little surprised at the wave of stink that met them when she opened the door. A musty, moldy smell rolled out, making both women wrinkle their noses with disgust. She supposed that was why she'd done little more than stick her torch in to see the general size and shape of the room at the time before beating a hasty retreat. Now, she didn't have that luxury. If they were to use the room, they would have to clean and air it.

"Bring one of the torches from the hall, please, Mildrede," Evelinde ordered, and moved a few cautious steps into the room, waving one hand before her as she went in an effort to brush away the cobwebs in her path. She recalled from her first look into the room that there were shutters on the windows. The sooner she had them open, the sooner she would not only be able to see what she was doing, but the fresh air should help dissipate some of the odor.

"Here we are."

Evelinde turned to her maid with relief as she reappeared in the doorway, torch in hand, sending shadows dancing across the room. Taking the torch from her, Evelinde held it out before her, waving it back and forth to sweep more cobwebs as she made her way to the nearest set of shutters. They were a bit shaky after seventeen years, but opening them sent light splashing into the room. However, it also allowed a breeze in to stir the dust and cobwebs, causing a cloud of the fine powders to rise and swirl in the room.

Mildrede was standing at a second set of shutters, opening those. Evelinde would have warned her not to, for it would only cause more of a stir, but before she could, the dust in the air got into her nose and mouth, and she found herself sneezing, then bending over under a coughing fit.

Evelinde turned to the window she'd opened and inhaled the fresh air until the need to cough had passed. She straightened and turned cautiously to face the room, her gaze sliding over the interior.

Truly, she almost wished she'd not opened the shutters. The room hadn't looked nearly as bad by torchlight as it did under the harsh glare of the sunlight pouring through the open shutters.

It was obvious the chamber had not been used during the seventeen years since Jenny had died. Every minute of that time showed in the room, in the dust layering every surface, the gossamer cobwebs billowing in the breeze, and the rushes that were half-rotted away and half-petrified with the passage of time. The room also had an unpleasant, musty odor that hit you like a wave on entering.

"There is a lot of work to be done," Mildrede murmured.

Something about the tone of her voice made Evelinde glance at the maid, and her eyebrows rose as she saw that her gaze was lifted toward the high ceiling, no doubt searching for where Jenny might have hanged herself. Evelinde had wondered that herself, but this was the first time she'd entered the room since learning of the young woman's death. Her own gaze slid over the room now with new eyes, but then, deciding she really didn't want to know and have that image in her mind, she turned her attention away from the ceiling and toward the rushes. They would have to go. Removing them would improve the smell in the room greatly. However, it would mean walking through countless cobwebs to do so did they not remove those first.

"I shall go fetch a besom and such," Mildrede decided.

Evelinde watched her go and turned her gaze over the room again. It was definitely going to be an effort to clean up, but worth it… she hoped.

Wrinkling her nose at the negative direction to her thoughts, Evelinde turned and peered out into the bailey below, enjoying the fresh air leaning out the window allowed her. Truly the smell in here was most unpleasant, and Evelinde suspected she would find that even more mice than was usual had taken up residence in the empty room. There would doubtless be a nest or two, and likely even corpses of the little rodents in among the rushes.

Evelinde was trying not to consider that unpleasant possibility when a small cough made her straighten and glance around.

"Aunt Biddy," Evelinde said, guilt pouring over her in a wave as she spotted the woman in the doorway.

"Yer going to use the solar," Cullen's aunt said quietly, her gaze seeming to fix on Evelinde to avoid looking at the room itself.

"I was going to talk to you first, but, aye," she admitted uncomfortably. "If 'twould not be of distress to you, I thought it might be pleasant."

"Of course ye should," Biddy muttered, her gaze dropping to the rushes, then down to her own skirt. " 'Tis a waste not to use it."

Evelinde hesitated, then admitted, "On the way back from Comyn yestereve, Cullen took me to the cliff where Lord Liam and little Maggie died."

Biddy's face froze briefly, but then she managed a neutral expression. "Oh?"

"Aye," Evelinde hesitated, then pushed ahead. "Cullen told me about Jenny. I am sorry, Aunt Biddy."

Biddy nodded but remained silent.

Evelinde blew out a short breath, and continued on determinedly, "He said she killed herself rather than marry the Campbell?"

Biddy remained silent, her fingers beginning to clench and unclench on the cloth of her skirt.

"I am sorry, I know this must distress you," Evelinde said quietly, finding the conversation rather difficult herself. She liked Biddy and didn't wish to pain her, but… "You do not think your sister's death had anything to do with your husband's death. Do you?"

Biddy suddenly slammed one hand into the doorframe beside her with enough violence to make Evelinde jump a little nervously and watch her wide-eyed.

"Spider," Biddy muttered for explanation, brushing off her hand.

Evelinde nodded and almost gave up questioning her, but then blurted, "I was just wondering if there might be a connection."

That caused the woman to raise her head. Eyes sharp and expression tight, she stared at her.

Evelinde bit her lip under that hard stare, and said apologetically, "It just seems odd that she is somehow connected to each death. She died here two weeks before your husband's death, then Cullen's father and first wife both died on the cliffs where she was laid to rest. Is it possible someone blamed Darach for her death because he would not offer her sanctuary from marrying the Campbell?" She asked.

"Sanctuary?" Biddy asked with surprise.

Evelinde frowned. "Aye. Is that not why she wished to speak with Darach when she returned? "

"Lass," Biddy began grimly, then paused abruptly her head jerking around toward the door as Tavis suddenly appeared behind her. The two peered at each other for a moment. Evelinde couldn't see Biddy's face, but Tavis's expression was neutral, and Biddy turned back. "Yer more than welcome to open up this room. 'Tis well past time 'twas done, but I'll no likely be using it much meself."

Biddy's gaze shifted to the corner where a wooden chandelier hung by a chain from the ceiling. It was very simple, two pieces of wood crossing each other with prickets at each end of each piece of wood so that four candles could be fixed on them. Evelinde peered at the chandelier, wondering if it was what Jenny had hanged herself from, then decided it most likely was. She could see no other choices within the room.

Her gaze dropped back to Biddy, only to find that the woman had slipped away while Evelinde was examining the chandelier, and Tavis had stepped back into the hall and was staring after her. A troubled expression on his face, he glanced back to Evelinde.

"Doona mind her," Tavis said as he stepped back into the doorway. "She was very fond of Jenny."

Evelinde nodded solemnly, finding herself torn between guilt at obviously upsetting the woman, and frustration that she hadn't learned anything from it.

"We came to tell ye that Cullen called Rory and Gillie away and set us to watch ye," he announced, when she remained silent, caught up in her thoughts.

"We?" Evelinde asked, glancing up curiously.

"Fergus and I," Tavis explained. "He came above stairs with me to find you, but I think he's hied himself off to the kitchens to find something to eat."

Evelinde smiled faintly, and said with amusement, " 'Tis not food that draws him to the kitchens all the time."

"Nay. But food is all he will get," Tavis said.

Evelinde tilted her head, eyeing him curiously. It seemed obvious he, too, suspected Fergus had feelings for Biddy.

"Are his feelings so hopeless then?" she asked curiously.

Tavis shrugged and moved forward, his gaze shifting curiously around the filthy room. "Me mother loved me father dearly. Forgave him all his sins, and has shown no interest in any other man since his death. In truth, she has shown little interest in anything but cooking. His death changed her."

"His death or her sister's?" Evelinde asked.

"His," he assured her solemnly. "Oh, she was broken-hearted when Jenny died. Wept and wept she did. My father spent a deal of the two weeks before his death just holding and comforting her. But after he died." Tavis shook his head. "She retreated into herself, started disappearing all the time, either to the cliffs to sit by Jenny's grave or into the kitchens and away from the rest of us. I think her heart was broken, and she just couldna bear to love anymore. Not even me," he added with a wry little smile that was both sad and charming.

Evelinde frowned, her heart twisting for the young boy Tavis would have been at the time. At the tender age of ten years old, he'd found himself orphaned by one parent and abandoned by the other. "Who looked after you? "

Tavis shrugged. "Uncle Liam did what he could for me. And the rest of the ladies around here offered comfort as they could."

The wicked grin on his face suggested that comfort wasn't always just hugs, and Evelinde frowned, wondering just how old the boy had been when he'd been initiated into manhood.

"Do you remember Jenny?" she asked abruptly, wishing to change the topic.

"Aye." Tavis smiled faintly. "She was great fun the first time she was here. Happy and gay, always laughing. Cullen and Tralin used to run off all the time. They thought they were too old to play with me, but not Jenny. She let me trail her about all the time." He frowned suddenly, then admitted, "Well, at first she did, then she took to sitting out on the cliff, looking out over yon valley below, and she started sending me away more often than not. I could follow her anywhere but the cliff."

"Why?" Evelinde asked curiously.

Tavis grimaced. "She said 'twas because it was dangerous and that she wished to be alone to think."

"But you didn't believe her?"

Tavis shook his head. "I followed one day. There is a door in the outer wall at the back of the castle. There is a trick to opening it, and I didna ken the way back then, but I could climb the tree and did…" A wicked smile came to his lips again. "She wasna alone, and they werena thinking."

Evelinde's eyebrows rose. "Who was she with?"

"I doona ken," he admitted. "I couldna see very well. All I saw were a man's legs entwined with her on the ground. The branches of the tree I was in were in the way. I barely caught a glimpse before I leaned out too far and fell out of the tree." He smiled wryly, and admitted, "I didna want her to ken I'd been spying on her and be angry, so I took myself off back to the castle for my mother to tend me scrapes and bruises."

They were both silent for a moment, then Tavis said, "It wasna long after that she left. A couple of days, mayhap. Mother was out hunting rabbit to make some of her stew to give Cook some ease, and Aunt Jenny disappeared to the cliff, only to come running back sobbing fit to die. I thought she'd hurt herself, but she didna appear to have an injury. When I tried to ask her if she was all right, she yelled at me to leave her alone and pushed me out of her room. She came out a few minutes later with just a small sack with a few gowns in it and hurried down to the stables." He shrugged. "She rode off, just like that, without even a word to me mother, or anyone."

"By herself?" Evelinde asked with amazement.

"Nay, three men escorted her."

"Who?" she asked at once, thinking that Jenny's lover mayhap have been among the trio.

Tavis considered the question, but then shook his head. "I am no sure. I was standing on the keep stairs. 'Twas too far away to see more than that there were four in all riding out of the stables."

"Well someone must have arranged for her escort," Evelinde pointed out. "Your father, perhaps?"

Tavis considered the question, then shook his head. "I doona remember seeing him about. He had ridden out on his horse before Jenny went for her daily walk to the cliff."

Evelinde was frowning over this when Mildrede entered. The maid was lugging several items with her; a besom, a pail of water, rags, and other cleaning items, and Evelinde rushed forward to take the besom and a bundle of rags as Tavis took the pail from her to prevent everything from tumbling from her hold.

Tavis set the pail aside, then straightened and moved toward the door. "Well, I'd best go below and get out of yer way. We'll be in the great hall if ye need us."

He then slipped from the room before she could ask any more of him. She supposed he was afraid he'd be asked to help clean, something the men were more likely to do now, but only in exchange for pasties and she had none with her. She could have sent for some of the women to help, but the room was small enough the two of them could manage. Evelinde turned her attention to beating away the cobwebs overhead while Mildrede began sweeping the rushes toward the door.

As she'd feared some wee beasts had taken up residence. Both she and Mildrede were sent squealing a couple of times when the mice were disturbed and sent running. That brought Tavis and Fergus running each time, until Evelinde got the pair to help remove the rushes she had drawn together in one huge pile by the door. Both balked at the very suggestion, but after some promising to ask Biddy to bake a whole batch of pasties just for them, it was decided that one could help while the other continued to act as guard. It fell to Tavis to help Mildrede cart the rushes away while Fergus remained in the great hall and watched the solar door as they'd been doing. Evelinde, they insisted, was to continue about her work in the solar. Neither man thought it would be good to annoy Cullen by letting her leave the castle.

Supposing that was better than nothing, Evelinde watched Mildrede and Tavis gather as much of the old rushes as possible. As they left the room, she considered the dent they'd put in the pile and guessed it would take the pair at least two more trips back and forth to get it all out.

Turning back to the chandelier she'd lowered to clean, Evelinde continued digging away the candle wax that had accumulated over the years, her mind going over what she'd learned from Tavis.

She wasna alone, and they werena thinking.

It sounded like young Jenny had a lover. A foolish mistake when she'd known she was going to marry the Campbell, a man known for cruelty. The only thing Evelinde could think was that the girl had hoped her lover, whoever he was, would marry her and save her from the Campbell. It would have taken a powerful lord to be able to do that and withstand the retribution that would have followed from the Campbells. But the only powerful lord at Donnachaidh was Darach, and he was already married, in no position to marry and save her. As far as Evelinde knew there hadn't been any other powerful lord visiting at the time… Though, she thought suddenly, there had been the son of a powerful lord who had come to the keep back then and still did. Tralin.

Evelinde slowed in her work on the chandelier as she considered that. Cullen had said Tralin had thought Jenny the prettiest lass he'd ever seen. What if she had liked him in return? Jenny had obviously been meeting her lover at the cliff for privacy. Could it have been Tralin? Could she have hoped he would marry and save her from the Campbell?

Evelinde blinked and straightened as she realized there had been another powerful man… Cullen's father, Liam.

Nay, she realized in the next moment and bent back to her work right away. Liam had not been powerful in his own right until after his brother's death, when he'd taken on the title and position of laird… and that left her considering Tralin again.

Jenny's leaving in tears could only mean that whoever her lover was, they'd had argued. Evelinde wondered briefly who he might have been, but there was something else troubling her. Tavis said Jenny had left without a word to her sister. If so, then who had arranged the three-man escort for her? Darach?

Evelinde chipped away another large piece of wax, wrinkling her nose as the acrid scent of smoke wafted to her. It was as if the scent was embedded in the wood itself, she thought with disgust, then frowned as she realized that the smell was not of burning tallow, but—

She glanced around sharply, eyes widening in dismay as she saw that the torch Mildrede had set in the holder by the door had somehow fallen on the rushes piled in front of the door, and they were aflame.

Evelinde snatched up one of the damp rags she'd been using to scrub off the window ledges and moved toward the fire with some vague intention of beating it out, but dry and ancient as the rushes were, it was spreading quickly, the flames shooting up and out with a hunger that was alarming. She would not be able to beat them down, and she could not go for help, the fire blocked the door. Evelinde was trapped.

Cullen's expression was grim as he rode into the bailey. The incident with the arrow in the tree had bothered him since he'd begun to suspect some of his wife's accidents might not have been accidents at all. Finally, today he'd ridden out to the woods to find the tree his wife had been climbing and climb it himself to get a look at the arrow. One look had been enough to tell him that the arrow had not been long in the tree. It hadn't rained since the incident, and the fletching was pristine. Also, the wound in the bark around the arrow was new, not old and healed. Someone was trying to kill his wife.

Cullen had tried to pull the arrow from the tree, but it had sunk in deep enough he'd had to give up. He'd then examined the shaft and fletching to see if there was anything unusual about it that might lead him to the person who had loosed it, but the fletching was of common goose feathers. Most used goose, and some, very rarely, used swan feathers when making arrows. Some used a combination to make them more distinctive, but this was very common fletching and could have belonged to any number of Donnachaidh people.

Disappointed that the arrow wouldn't tell him anything about the person who had shot it, Cullen had climbed back down the tree and headed straight back to the castle. He'd suspected someone was trying to kill his wife since Hamish had spoken up at the bull's paddock, but having it confirmed like this made him anxious for Evelinde. Seeing her and assuring himself that she was well was the only thing he could think of to help put him at ease.

Cullen was debating whether he shouldn't put four men on her rather than just the two as he slipped from his horse and entered the keep, but all his thoughts scattered when he spotted Fergus seated at the great hall trestle tables alone.

"Where is Tavis?" he asked, his gaze sliding toward the chairs by the fire in search of his wife. When he didn't see her there, he frowned, and added, "Where is me wife?"

"Tavis is helping Mildrede cart dirty rushes out to be disposed of," Fergus answered slowly. "And yer wife is in the solar."

"By herself? Yer supposed to be guarding her," Cullen snapped.

"Aye, but she said she did not want us standing about getting in her way, and we can see the solar door from here," Fergus pointed out. "No one could get past us down here to trouble her."

Cullen scowled at the words, his head swiveling toward the bit of landing visible from here and the only door one could see from below. The solar door. His heart leapt into his throat when he saw that it was ablaze.

"Evelinde!" The name tore from his throat in a roar of agony as he bounded up the steps two at a time. Cullen recognized the fear and pain in his own voice but hardly heeded it. His ears, his mind, his whole body was straining for some answering call from his wife to tell him she yet lived. However, it brought him little relief when he heard her answering call as he reached the landing. Her voice had come from the solar, and now he knew for certain that he had something to fear.

Cullen charged to the door, then came to an abrupt halt as he found himself confronted with a wall of flame. It was as if someone had built a giant bonfire right in the doorway. The flames were nearly as tall as he, and what he could see of the room was full of smoke.

"Water!" he roared, turning on Fergus as the man reached his side.

The soldier turned away at once to charge back down the stairs. Cullen glanced back to the room, his heart twisting as he saw a dark shape he thought was his wife, bent over and coughing by the window. She could die in there from the smoke ere Fergus managed to return with water.

Cullen ground his teeth together and backed away from the door a few steps.

"I'm coming, wife. Get out of the way," he roared.

Cullen heard her shout something in response, but was already running forward, charging the flames. He would not lose Evelinde. He could not lose her. He loved the silly, talkative, sweet woman.

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