Devil of the Highlands Chapter Six

Evelinde opened her eyes, smiled at the spot where her husband had slept, and stretched happily. She decided that she quite liked marriage. It was the most exciting and invigorating adventure she'd ever known. At least it was with Cullen. She was so pleased with herself, her husband, and her marriage, that Evelinde thought were Edda there right then, she might be tempted to throw her arms around the woman and give her a great big kiss on the cheek in thanks.

Well, perhaps that was going a bit far, but a letter to express her gratitude might be in order. A glowingly happy letter that would probably make the woman pull her hair out and throw a temper tantrum.

The last thought made Evelinde frown, and she decided no, she had better not. If Edda realized how happy she was, the woman really would be in a fury, and she'd take it out on the people at d'Aumesbery. Evelinde wrinkled her nose at the thought. She wouldn't see anyone pay for her happiness. She'd just have to forgo sharing her joy with her stepmother.

Ah, well … Shrugging philosophically, Evelinde rolled happily out of bed, then paused and moved her leg about as she realized it was hardly paining her now. She didn't know if it was the salve, or her husband's massage, or even just not being in the saddle, but it felt much better.

It was a wonderful day, Evelinde decided, and turned to move toward her chest, only to pause as she recalled she didn't have one. She had arrived with just the dress on her back. And she didn't even have that, Evelinde realized with dismay, because Biddy had taken it and her chemise below for cleaning.

Her smile slowly slipping away, Evelinde dropped onto the side of the bed. She didn't have a thing to wear she realized and sat there for several moments, at a loss as to what to do. It was not as if she had many options. She could hardly walk around Donnachaidh naked. She wasn't even terribly comfortable just sitting there on the side of the bed naked, Evelinde acknowledged, and reached for the top linen, drawing it around herself.

Then she just sat there feeling rather numb and unhappy… and trapped.

Grimacing, Evelinde stood and began to pace fitfully around the room, her gaze sliding with disinterest over the few items scattered about the large chamber. Other than the bed and the two small tables, there wasn't really very much to distract her, just three chests.

Her gaze landed on the largest one, and Evelinde contemplated it silently. It really wouldn't be well done of her to go snooping in her husband's chests, she knew, but there might be something in there she might wear; one of her husband's shirts, say. 'Twould be better than standing around wrapped in a linen.

Moving to the largest chest, she knelt to open it, eyes widening as she peered over the contents. It was filled with dresses. If this was her husband's chest, he had some odd customs, indeed, Evelinde thought, and smiled faintly as she recalled trying to explain that Cullen had ripped her gown while trying to get it off himself and Mildrede asking if he'd been wearing it. Her maid would be amused at the sight of all these gowns, she thought, and felt a pang for the woman who had been her lady's maid most of her life. She was going to miss Mildrede terribly.

Sighing, Evelinde reached for a gown lying on top. She lifted it out and stood to hold it up for inspection. It was a lovely dark blue gown with a fitted bodice and pale blue panels in the pleats of the skirt that would only show when walking.

Heart lifting at her discovery, Evelinde carried the dress to the bed and laid it out, then returned to the chest in search of a chemise.

She found one quickly and slipped it over her head while standing beside the chest, wrinkling her nose at the stale smell to the garment as it slid over her face. 'Twas obvious the shift had been packed away for some time. The clothes probably belonged to Cullen's first wife and had simply never been removed after her death.

The thought, made her pause as Evelinde fretted that he might resent her donning his dead wife's clothes. She almost took the chemise off, but the prospect of being trapped, naked, in the bedroom was not an attractive one and made anger rise within her. If the man had shown the good sense to ensure she had alternate clothing, she would not have to wear these, Evelinde told herself, shoulders straightening.

Satisfied that she should wear it, Evelinde glanced down at the chemise she wore. It was rather large on her. Cullen's first wife had obviously been much taller, not to mention more buxom, she thought, noting the roomy bodice and gaping neckline. 'Twas obvious she would have to take in the gowns if she planned to wear them, but for now it would have to do. She would start working on the gowns by the fire that night. However, at the moment she wished to see her new home.

Moving to the bed, Evelinde donned the gown, biting her lip when she found the bodice of the dress gaped as much as the chemise. It also pooled around her feet. She tried gathering the material of the gown at her back to see if that improved matters. Finding it did, Evelinde then glanced around for some way to pin it there, but she didn't see anything useful. Finally, she knelt back at the chest and dug through the contents. When that didn't turn up anything, she moved on to the two smaller chests. The first held her husband's clothes; plaids and white shirts. The last chest, however, held an odd assortment of items, some that made absolutely no sense.

Evelinde lifted out an arrow with alternating white and dark feathers in the fletch, grimacing when she noted that they were tinged with dried blood. Most of it had flaked off over time and lay in a powdery residue on the bottom of the chest. Even more of it fell away as she shifted it aside to peer through the other items. Evelinde was most relieved when she found a large broach among the rest of the items. It was similar to the one her husband used to fasten his plaid over his shoulder.

She let the chest lid drop closed, set the pin on it, then quickly regathered the material of the gown at her back and—with a bit of effort—managed to fasten the pin through it.

Satisfied, Evelinde glanced around, her thoughts on a brush to fix her hair, but of course, she didn't have one of those either. She knelt to Cullen's chest again and dug through the small knives and other contents in search of a brush, but could not find one.

Evelinde sat back on her haunches with exasperation, then closed the chest again. Truly, she was glad to be away from Edda, but—

But nothing, she told herself. Everything would be fine. She would take in his first wife's gowns, and find a brush, for surely he had one somewhere. The man had long hair and did not run around with it all knotted up, so he must have one. Everything would turn out, Evelinde assured herself. These were just little hiccups on the path to happiness, and truly she had little to complain about. These small problems were better than a cruel, coldhearted husband who beat her and was uncaring of her pleasure in their bed.

Buoyed up by these thoughts, Evelinde stood and ran her hands through her hair. Then, hoping it looked passable, she made her way to the door. It was time to explore.

When Evelinde stepped out of the chamber, it was to find herself in a very dim hall. This explained why her husband had had no difficulty making his way to his room in the dark when they arrived the night before. With no windows to allow sunlight in, it was nearly as dark now. He was obviously used to traversing the hall in poor light. Making a mental note to suggest lit torches be placed in the hall during the day, Evelinde made her way carefully to the top of the stairs.

Much to her relief, the light here was better thanks to arrow slits at intervals in the wall rising above the great hall. Evelinde had grabbed up the voluminous skirts of her gown to keep from tripping over them and started down the stairs when the keep doors opened and Fergus entered. The man didn't notice her on the stairs, but strode quickly across the great hall. His long legs ate up the distance as he approached the door she had guessed led to the kitchens when Cullen had carried her through last night. Once he passed through the door, the great hall was once again empty.

Evelinde started down the stairs then, finding it quite odd that the big room was abandoned. At d'Aumesbery the great hall had always seemed to have someone in it. When the people and servants were not crowded around the tables for a meal, there would be a servant cleaning, a group of knights enjoying an ale before returning to guard the wall, Edda seated by the fire… The list of possibilities was endless.

Stepping off the stairs, Evelinde hesitated, uncertain what to do. As lady here… She bit her lip, acknowledging she had no idea what her responsibilities would be. She'd known what to do at home but had no idea how things went at Donnachaidh.

Evelinde glanced toward the door she thought must lead to the kitchens, took a step toward it, and paused again. At home, one of her duties had been to confer with the cook about meals and what supplies were needed and such, but presumably, Donnachaidh had run along well enough ere she'd arrived. She had no idea who did such tasks and did not wish to step on anyone's toes.

Clucking her tongue impatiently, Evelinde shifted from one foot to the other, wishing she'd asked Biddy a thing or two while the woman had been helping her with her bath. She would next time, Evelinde promised herself, and she would also ask her husband what he expected of her when she had the chance. For the moment, she would just explore and get a feel for her new home.

Feeling better now that she had a plan, Evelinde caught up her skirt and crossed the great hall to the door Fergus had disappeared through. As expected, she found herself in the kitchens when she stepped inside. What she hadn't expected was to find it completely occupied by females. The kitchen at d'Aumesbery had both male and female workers. Aside from the rotund little male cook who ran the kitchens, there were several younger, strong male servants to do the heavy work, such as preparing boars for the spit and so on. However there wasn't a single male in evidence in Donnachaidh's kitchens. Even Fergus was gone. Obviously, there was another door leading out of the kitchens because he hadn't come back the way he'd entered.

Evelinde's gaze slid around the room, running over the women of varying ages until it landed on Biddy. Much to her surprise it appeared the woman who had acted as her lady's maid was really in charge of the kitchens. At least, she was the one waving a large knife and barking orders at the other women bustling about as she paused in carving up a chicken.

A sudden splash of sunlight drew her attention to the door Fergus must have used to exit, and Evelinde watched curiously as a man, thin and somewhat gnarled by time, entered. He glanced toward Biddy, then almost seemed to tiptoe along that wall of the kitchen until he reached what appeared to be a tray of cooling pastries.

"Get away from those pasties, Scatchy, or ye'll be losing a finger," Biddy snapped without glancing up. "Fergus has already tried that, and I've no patience for ye men this morning."

Old and grizzled, Scatchy stared mournfully at the tray he stood beside and turned a scowl on Biddy. "Yer a cruel woman, me lady, making them and no letting us have any."

Evelinde gave a start at the title. Me lady? Her gaze swung back to Biddy, her eyes widening as she peered at her dress. All she'd noticed in her room was the apron, Evelinde hadn't taken heed of the gown beneath, which was far too rich to be a servant's. Who the devil was she and what was she doing acting as lady's maid and working in the kitchens? Evelinde wondered. Her husband had not mentioned any female family. But then he hadn't mentioned male family either, though she knew he had a cousin named Tavis, at least she thought Tavis was the cousin. One of the few comments Fergus had made to Cullen on the journey to Donnachaidh was that mayhap they shouldn't have left his cousin behind with the others because the man was likely to get waylaid by the first likely female and forget to return. Cullen had grunted and said that the other men would keep Tavis in line.

"Ye can have a pasty at the nooning along with everyone else," Biddy said unsympathetically. "Now be off with ye and go back to yer stables ere I mistake ye for one of me chickens."

She added an exclamation mark to the comment by slamming her knife down and slicing cleanly through a leg on the dead and plucked bird.

Shaking his head, the man made his way to the door, slowing to offer Evelinde a wide, toothless smile as he passed.

"Go on!" Biddy yelled, and glanced up to cast a glare at the man, which was replaced by surprise as she spotted Evelinde by the door.

"Lass!" Setting down her knife, the woman wiped her hands on the apron around her waist as she rushed to her side. "Yer up. Cullen thought ye'd sleep most of the afternoon away when he came back below."

Evelinde tried not to blush. "Nay. I slept through most of the journey here."

"Oh. Well, would ye like something to break yer fast?"

"If 'twould be no trouble," Evelinde said.

"No trouble at all," Biddy assured her. "Just take yerself on out and sit at the table, and I'll send a maid out with some mead and a pasty. Or would ye prefer some cheese and bread?"

"A pasty sounds lovely, but there's no need to send it out. I shall just eat it here. I have some questions to ask if it would not trouble you," she explained.

"Of course ye have questions. Come on over here then." Biddy led her back to where she'd been working when Evelinde had entered, pausing beside a bit of clean counter not far away, then glanced around, her gaze stopping on a young blond maid chopping vegetables. "Mary! Bring that stool over here fer the lass."

The girl stopped her chopping to pick up the stool and hurry over with it as Biddy then shouted for another servant to fetch a pasty and some mead for her.

"There ye are," Biddy said once she had Evelinde seated at the clean bit of counter with both food and drink. "Ye go ahead and ask what yer wanting to ken. I'll just keep working if ye doona mind."

"I do not mind," Evelinde assured her, then hesitated, unsure how to phrase her questions. Finally, she simply blurted, "Who are you?"

Biddy paused and raised surprised eyes to her, and said, "I introduced myself, lass. I'm Elizabeth Duncan, did ye forget? Did ye take a blow to the head in that fall from yer horse?" Frowning with concern, she set her knife down and moved toward Evelinde as if to examine her head.

"Nay, nay, I am fine," Evelinde assured her quickly, holding up her hands to ward her off. "I did not forget your name, 'tis just that Scatchy called you my lady, and I did not realize—I mean, when you helped me with my bath I thought you were a maid, and then I came in here and you are obviously in charge of the kitchens, but Scatchy called you my lady, and yet my husband did not mention having female relatives. Though, he did not mention male relatives either. In truth, he has said little to me at all except to give me orders," she added with irritation.

Then, seeing how Biddy was staring at her silent and eyes wide, ended apologetically, "Not that any of that matters except to explain that I fear I am not sure who you are."

Much to her amazement, Biddy—or Lady Biddy—appeared to be struggling not to laugh. For the life of her, Evelinde couldn't think what was so amusing. She herself was terribly embarrassed by her lack of knowledge and more than a little angry at her husband for leaving her in such an ignorant state.

"Eat yer sweet, lass," Biddy said finally, managing to keep a straight face. "I shall explain all while ye eat."

Heaving out a little sigh, Evelinde reached for her mead and took a sip as the woman began to speak.

"I am Cullen's aunt," Biddy announced as she returned to pick up her knife once more. "Tavis is my son, and Darach was my husband."

Evelinde's eyes widened incredulously as she recognized the name of the uncle Cullen was said to have killed. She bit her lip and watched silently as the woman set back to work cutting up the chicken for what appeared to be a stew. "But why are you working in the kitchens?"

Biddy grinned. "Ye make it sound like some form of punishment."

"Well…" Evelinde glanced around, reluctant to insult the woman by saying she thought it must be, but her expression must have spoken for her, because the woman laughed.

"I like to cook," she assured her with amusement. "I always have. I used to hang about, pestering our cook at MacFarlane when I was a child. Of course, my mother deplored the oddity and tried to steer me away from it, and did manage to until I had a home of my own, but once here, I returned to pestering the cook here in her kitchens. She taught me a thing or two just to make me let her be… and because she didn't have a choice since I was her lady," she added wryly. "And over the years I've done more and more in the kitchens."

"And your husband did not mind?" Evelinde asked curiously. Her own father would have been horrified to find her mother working in the kitchens.

"My husband did not care what I did so long as I was happy and not nagging after him," she said wryly.

"Oh," Evelinde murmured.

"And it turns out my pasties and some of my other dishes are so good, none of the men complain," Biddy added with a grin, then said more seriously, "I am not in the kitchens all the time. I merely help out on occasion, or take over for Cook when she needs to be away. Right now she is away for a couple of days visiting her daughter, so I get to play cook until her return."

"Oh," Evelinde said again, then cleared her throat, and said, "Well, thank you very much for helping me with my bath."

Biddy chuckled. "What else could I do? I'd sent the servants away. Besides, it gave me a chance to get to know you a little. I am just sorry I did not realize you had no idea who I was, else I would have explained. Now"—she waved her knife toward the pasty she'd had fetched for her, and ordered—"eat. Yer body needs sustenance to heal, and pasties are my specialty."

Evelinde managed a smile and picked up the pasty. She sighed as flavor exploded in her mouth with the first bite, even as the pastry seemed to melt away to nothing on her tongue. "Oh, this is lovely, my lady. So sweet and flaky."

Biddy flushed with pleasure at the compliment. " 'Tis my specialty. Everyone at Donnachaidh loves 'em. Especially Fergus. That man's in here at least ten times a day trying to steal one. They go quick, so I'll be sure to keep a couple extra aside fer ye each time I do."

"Aye, please do," Evelinde murmured, then took another bite, marveling at how good they were. She'd always thought the cook at d'Aumesbery was good, but he'd never made anything like this. In truth, she didn't think the man was big on sweets, though.

"Would ye like another?" Biddy asked, as Evelinde finished off the first.

"Yes, but I shall get it," Evelinde said quickly. Standing, she moved to where the tray of fresh pasties sat, took one and returned to her stool. Before taking a bite, she asked, "Are you castellan here then, my lady?"

"Biddy," she insisted, blue eyes twinkling. "Or Aunt Biddy if ye like."

"Thank you… Aunt Biddy," Evelinde said quietly, touched at such a generous offer of acceptance.

Biddy nodded her satisfaction, and said, "Aye. I was mistress here when my husband was laird, of course. When he died, and Liam—Cullen's father," she paused to explain, before continuing, "Liam's wife had died long ere that, and he had never remarried, so I remained castellan here for him. And then continued to when he died, and Cullen took over. At least, until he married, then little Maggie was mistress here."

"Were you sorry to step down?" Evelinde asked, worried she was about to displace the woman.

Biddy looked surprised by the question, then chuckled, shaking her head. "Truth to tell, I rather enjoyed being free of the burden during those two years. I got to spend more time in the kitchens. Though," she admitted with a grimace, "little Maggie hated when I did that. She thought it was beneath me." Biddy rolled her eyes, and said solemnly, "Trust me, lass, no task is beneath ye if ye enjoy it. There is real pleasure to be found in making a fine meal, especially if ye hunt it up yerself, clean it, and turn it into a tasty feast. 'Tis most satisfying," she assured her. "Much more satisfying than ordering servants about and dealing with tradespeople."

Evelinde nodded solemnly. She looked down at the oversized gown she wore, then back to the woman, as Biddy hacked the second leg off the chicken and threw it in a pot. "Little Maggie?"

Biddy chuckled at the question. "Nay. The woman was huge; tall, round, and buxom. But she was smaller than her mother, big Maggie, by an inch or two so she was 'little Maggie.' "

"Oh." Evelinde tried to imagine a woman bigger than the one who had owned the dress she wore but found it difficult.

"I'm sure yer mother trained ye well to be castellan, but if ye need any help, lass, or have any questions, ye just have to ask. And I'll even stay out of the kitchens if yer family come to visit and ye'd be too embarrassed to have them know I putter about in here on occasion."

"Thank you," Evelinde murmured, "but that won't be necessary. Both my parents are dead. My mother died some years ago and my father two years past. There are only my brother and stepmother left."

"Oh, I'm sorry, lass," she said sincerely. "There's nothing harder than losing a loved one."

"Aye." Evelinde frowned as she saw the grief flicker briefly over the older woman's face, suspecting she'd made her think of her lost husband. She sought her mind for something to say to cheer them both, raising the pasty to her lips as she did. The sweet melting on her tongue made her add, "Besides, I see nothing wrong with you working in here if you like it. Especially if I get pasties out of it."

Biddy smiled, the grief swept away by pride and pleasure as she assured her, "Ye will, lass."

Evelinde glanced at the women working so industriously as she took another sip of mead, then asked, "Why are there no men in the kitchens? At d'Aumesbery we had men to help with the heavy work."

"Fergus helps out if he's in the kitchens," Betty said, then added, "And he's often in the kitchens. The man is thin as a whip, but is always grabbing something to eat."

Evelinde's eyebrows rose slightly at the wry affection on the woman's face.

"It would be a blessing to have a couple of men working in here permanent-like," Biddy continued. "Unfortunately, they are kept busy guarding the walls and training fer battle. It leaves just the women to tend to everything else."

"Are there so few men?" she asked with surprise.

"Nay. Well…" Biddy paused, then said, "There are fewer men than women here at Donnachaidh, that's certain. Too many good men have been lost in battles, but it's no as bad as it used to be. Liam worked hard to make alliances after Darach's death, and Cullen himself has continued those efforts. We hardly see battle at all anymore. And then many of the daughters who have married outsiders have brought them home to Donnachaidh with them, which has increased the number of males, too. 'Tis probably close to equal again."

Evelinde nodded slowly before she asked, "If the men are rarely needed for battle anymore, why do some of them not help out in the kitchens now? I realize they still must train, but surely one or two would not be missed, and it would make it easier to have men in here to do the heavy lifting and such."

Biddy paused in her cutting to glance at her with surprise, and finally said, "Well, aye, but… 'Tis the way it's always been."

Evelinde let the matter drop but tucked it away in her mind as something to discuss with Cullen. 'Tis the way it's always been was not a reason to keep doing something if there was a better way. She saw no reason why a couple of men could not be spared to help out with the heavy work in the kitchens.

"So, the men are all out guarding the wall or practicing in the bailey?" she asked, setting her empty mug on the counter.

Biddy snorted at the suggestion. "Nay. They are all out in the paddock celebrating yer wedding."

Evelinde raised her eyebrows in surprise, and asked, "Celebrating our wedding in the paddock?"

"Aye." Biddy grinned at her bewilderment. "They'll be drinking ale and baiting old Angus. He's a bull," she explained before Evelinde could ask. "A mean old bull with a nasty temper. Anytime there's something to celebrate, the men take a couple of barrels of ale down to the paddock and bait the poor bugger. Then they'll run across the paddock with him chasing them to prove their courage and speed. Some will even wrestle the mean beast."

"This is their idea of celebrating?" she asked with amazement.

Biddy laughed, and said, "They're men," as if that explained it.

Evelinde shook her head, and asked, "And what will the women do to celebrate?"

Biddy paused again, surprise once more on her face. "We've no time fer celebrating, lass. We've too much work to do around here to take the time."

Evelinde frowned. "So the men practice at swords or celebrate while the women do all the work?"

"Aye." Biddy nodded and turned back to hacking at her chicken. " 'Tis the way it's always been."

"I see," Evelinde murmured, "Will my husband be there celebrating as well?"

"No doubt," Biddy said. "He was carrying one of the barrels of ale when he left."

"I think I shall go speak to him, but when I return I shall probably pester you with more questions, if 'tis all right? I was castellan at d'Aumesbery since my mother's death, but every castle is different, and I—"

"Yer stepmother didna take up the role as castellan when she married yer father?" Biddy interrupted with surprise.

Evelinde wrinkled her nose. "Edda preferred to be a lady of leisure."

"Ah." Biddy nodded in understanding. "Well, welcome to Donnachaidh, lass. We have no ladies of leisure here but are glad to have ye. I'd be more than happy to help ye settle in and figure out what is what. Ye come talk to me when ye're ready."

"Thank you." Evelinde squeezed the woman's shoulder in affectionate appreciation as she stood up, then turned to leave the kitchens.

Her gaze swept over the great hall as she crossed it. For a keep kept mostly by women, it was very plain, with little that would not be considered necessities. There were the tables arranged in a squared-off u shape in the center and two chairs by the fire, but both were square and without any sort of cushion. They didn't look particularly inviting. And that was it for the great hall. While there were rushes on the floor, there were no tapestries on the walls, or even any whitewashing, she noted with a frown, and had to wonder if Cullen's first wife had really preferred it this way, or if it had been more inviting while she'd lived but had since been emptied out.

The sight of the barren walls reminded Evelinde of the two tapestries she had left behind. Her father had purchased them for her mother during their marriage. The first depicted Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, and the second featured a unicorn and a lady. Both had hung in the great hall at d'Aumesbery until Edda's arrival. On learning they had been gifts to his previous wife, the woman insisted they be removed. She'd done away with anything having to do with the first Lady d'Aumesbery.

Evelinde's father hadn't argued. He'd simply ordered the tapestries rolled up and put away, telling Evelinde she could take them with her when she married and moved to her own home.

It was a shame she hadn't been able to bring them, Evelinde thought sadly. They would have looked lovely on the wall here and would have brightened the place. Then there were the cushions she and her mother had sewn of a night. Those would have made the chairs by the fire more inviting. And there were—

Evelinde cut off these thoughts, knowing it was useless to pine for things she could not have.

She could always make more, Evelinde told herself as she pushed through the keep doors and stepped out onto the stairs leading into the bailey. Of course, she couldn't make a tapestry herself. She had neither the skill nor the time for such an effort, let alone a loom on which to perform the task. Tapestry weavers were always male, and it could take two months for two men to weave just a square foot of a tapestry. That was why they were so dear to purchase and why it was such a shame her husband hadn't given her the chance to bring them, or anything else with her.

Scowling, Evelinde caught up the skirts of the voluminous blue gown she wore and started down the stairs, pushing these concerns aside to join the other little irritations she had against her new husband at the moment. They did seem to be building up in her mind. She already had a healthy list of things to hold against the man, and they'd barely been married more than three days.

Evelinde paused to peer around the bailey as she stepped off the stairs. It was nearly as empty as the great hall had been, with just a few women walking this way and that on some endeavor or other. Had she not spoken to Biddy, Evelinde would have wondered about that, but she had and knew exactly where to find the men. The paddock.

She recalled the direction in which Fergus had taken the horses the night before and—supposing the paddock must be near the stables—turned that way, sure she'd find it easily enough. All she need do was look for men and listen for their voices. It was her experience that men got loud and unruly when "celebrating," and she had no doubt she'd hear them long before she reached them.

Evelinde found herself glancing curiously inside the stables as she walked by. She saw row after row of stalls running its length. From the glimpse she got, it looked as well kept as Mac kept the d'Aumesbery stables.

Lady would have been well cared for here, she thought, then quickly pushed the thought away. She didn't wish to approach her husband angry, for it rarely achieved much except to cause bad feelings. It was always best to approach a matter calmly and while both parties were in a good mood.

To her mind, her husband should be in a good mood right now. She'd certainly felt pretty cheerful after consummating the marriage, at least until all these little problems had cropped up… like not having anything of her own here.

Cullen, of course, wouldn't have this issue, and was celebrating, so should still be cheerful, Evelinde decided. It seemed the perfect time to approach him on the subject of what he wished her to do as his wife. At least that was what she told herself. And it wasn't that it was untrue, but, really, the conversation could have waited until that evening after the sup. However, Evelinde found herself eager to see her new husband, and she was sure he would be happy to see her, too. No doubt he would smile, and open his arms, welcoming her to him, then he would kiss her until her toes curled and…

Evelinde brought her daydream to a halt as she heard a shout of laughter. As expected, she'd heard the men before spotting them. Stopping to look around, she found she'd reached a series of paddocks that ran up to the outer wall. The first enclosure was empty, and she moved closer to the wooden fence that surrounded it, leaning against a post as she peered across to a small stretch of grassy land where the men were gathered along the rails of the next paddock, watching some activity inside.

Her gaze slid over the mass of bodies, searching for her husband as another roar of laughter went up. Curious, she turned her attention to the paddock itself, eyes widening with horror when she realized the men had either finished with baiting "poor old Angus" or forgone that fun altogether and moved on to riding bareback on a mad horse. Truly, the horse seemed crazed. It was bucking, twisting, and leaping about, doing everything in its power to unseat the man presently clinging to its back.

Evelinde had just decided the man on the beast's back must be as mad as the horse itself when the horse turned, and she realized the madman was her husband.

For one moment, Evelinde simply stood there clutching at the fence post, mouth agape with horror. Visions began dancing in her head of her husband flying off the beast and being trampled to death. The thought of being made a widow so soon after discovering the joys of marriage almost made her swoon. And then her husband did go flying through the air, tossed from the beast's back like so much rubbish.

A shriek of horror slipping from her lips, Evelinde immediately began to climb the fence. She was determined to get to her husband as quickly as she could. Her skirt had other ideas, however, and kept catching on the wood. Evelinde just tugged at it impatiently, nearly tumbling on her head as she threw herself into the paddock. She heard a rip, then she was free, tumbling to her belly on the ground.

Grunting at the impact, Evelinde pushed herself to her feet, grabbing at the overlarge skirt and holding it gathered in her hand as she charged across the paddock.

Despite the noise they were making, several of the men apparently heard her shriek her husband's name and turned to watch her rush across the paddock. The horror on their faces made her heart squeeze tight. Evelinde had not seen her husband land, but obviously it had not gone well, she realized, as the men began to shout at her.

Hoping he was not so badly injured he would not mend, Evelinde began trying to recall all Mildrede had taught her about healing as she ran. He probably had a broken bone or two… or more. Those would need setting. His head was her foremost concern, however, and she sent up a silent prayer that he'd protected his head as he fell. The man was just healing from his last fall from the horse. What was he thinking, getting on that mad beast? She would ask him that, Evelinde thought, just as soon as she judged him healthy enough she could give him hell without feeling bad about it.

The men's shouts had grown almost frantic, and they were gesturing and waving a bit wildly. Evelinde tried not to let her imagination tell her Cullen was injured beyond repair.

He couldn't be, she told herself. Surely, God would not be so cruel?


Startled to recognize Cullen's voice, she pushed her worries away and looked more closely at the crowd on the other side of the fence. Her heart leapt with relief when she spotted Cullen pushing his way through the men who were now pressed up against the fence.

"Dammit woman, move!" Cullen roared, beginning to climb the fence to get to her.

Evelinde took in the fury on his face and suddenly wasn't at all certain she wished to see her husband after all. She had no idea what she'd done to cause his fury, but she was definitely sure she didn't want to see him until he'd had a chance to calm down.

It was as she whirled to head back the way she'd come that Evelinde spotted the bull. If her heart had leapt and her blood pounded when she'd seen Cullen thrown from the horse, it was nothing compared to her body's response when she saw mad Angus thundering down the paddock toward her.

Evelinde had never been a particularly physical person. It wasn't expected of a lady. She enjoyed riding and wading in the river, and that was about the extent of her physical activity as a rule, but being chased by a snorting bull was a wondrous motivator. Evelinde caught up her skirts and burst into a run toward her husband. She ran so fast her feet hardly seemed to touch the ground. In fact, she wouldn't have been surprised if someone told her they'd seen an angel swoop down from the skies and carry her those last thirty feet to the fence. Evelinde moved so fast she actually reached the fence before Cullen had finished climbing it.

Her climbing the fence, however, was another matter entirely. She could not climb and hold her skirt up at the same time. Evelinde could hear the pounding hooves behind her and actually feel the hot breath of Angus's angry snorts on her back. She would never climb the fence before he was on her. She was going to be gored, and he would then toss her through the air and stamp all over her where she landed, Evelinde thought dismally even as her hand closed on the rail… and then Cullen reached down from the top of the fence, snatched her by the back of the dress, and hauled her out of the paddock.

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