“What is it, my son?”

“Have you given us God’s hierarchy or the church’s?”

The bishop was appalled by the question. It smelled blasphemous to him. “They are the same, are they not?”

A great number of men who lived in the early centuries did believe that God’s views were always accurately interpreted by the church.

Some women knew better. This is a story about one of them.

CHAPTER 1

England, 1206

The news was going to destroy her.

Kelmet, her faithful steward and senior in charge since Baron Raulf Williamson’s hasty departure from England on the king’s personal business, was given the responsibility of telling his mistress the god-awful news. The servant didn’t put off the dreaded task, for he guessed Lady Johanna would wish to question the two messengers before they returned to London, if his mistress could speak to anyone after she’d heard about her beloved husband.

Aye, he needed to tell the gentle lady as soon as possible. Kelmet understood his duty well enough, and though he believed he was anxious to get it done, his feet still dragged as though mired in knee-deep mud as he made his way to the newly built chapel where Lady Johanna was in afternoon prayers.

Father Peter MacKechnie, a visiting cleric from the Maclaurin holding in the Highlands, was making his way up the steep incline from the lower bailey when Kelmet happened to spot him. The steward let out a quick sigh of relief before shouting a summons to the dour-faced priest.

“I’ve need of your services, MacKechnie,” Kelmet bellowed over the rising wind.

The priest nodded, then scowled. He still hadn’t forgiven the steward for his insulting behavior of two days past.

“Are you wanting me to hear your confession?” the priest shouted back, a hint of mockery in his thick brogue.

“Nay, Father.”

MacKechnie shook his head. “You’ve got yourself a black soul, Kelmet.”

The steward made no response to the barb but patiently waited until the dark-haired Scot had gained his side. He could see the amusement in the priest’s eyes and knew then he was jesting with him.

“There is another matter more important than my confession,” Kelmet began. “I’ve just received word . . .”

The priest wouldn’t let him finish his explanation. “Today’s Good Friday.” he interrupted. “Nothing could be more important than that. You won’t be getting communion from me come Easter morning unless you confess your sins today and beg God’s forgiveness. You might begin with the distasteful sin of rudeness, Kelmet. Aye, that would be a proper start.”

Kelmet held his patience. “I gave you my apology, Father, but I see that you still haven’t forgiven me.”

“ ’Tis the truth I haven’t.”

The steward frowned. “As I explained yesterday and the day before, I would not allow you entrance into the keep because I was given specific orders by Baron Raulf not to let anyone inside while he was away. I was told even to deny Lady Johanna’s brother, Nicholas, entry should he come calling. Father, try to understand. I’m the third steward here in less than one year’s time, and I try only to hold onto my position longer than all the others.”

MacKechnie snorted. He wasn’t quite through baiting the steward. “If Lady Johanna hadn’t intervened, I’d still be camped outside the walls, wouldn’t I now?”

Kelmet nodded. “Aye, you would,” he admitted. “Unless you gave up your vigil and returned home.”

“I won’t be going anywhere until I’ve spoken to Baron Raulf and set him straight about the havoc his vassal is causing on Maclaurin land. Plain murder of innocents is going on, Kelmet, but I’m praying your baron doesn’t have any idea what an evil, power-hungry man Marshall has turned out to be. I’ve heard it said Baron Raulf’s an honorable man. I hope that praise be true, for he must right this atrocity with all possible haste. Why, even now some of the Maclaurin soldiers are turning to the bastard MacBain for assistance. Once they’ve given him their pledge of loyalty and named him laird, all hell’s going to break free. MacBain will go to war against Marshall and every other Englishman preying on Maclaurin land. The Highland warrior is no stranger to fury or vengeance, and I’d wager my soul even Baron Raulf’s hide will be in jeopardy once MacBain sees for himself the rape of the Maclaurin land by the infidels your baron placed in charge.”

Kelmet, although not personally involved in the plight of the Scots, was still caught up in the story. There was also the fact that the priest was inadvertently aiding him in putting off his dreaded task. A few more minutes surely wouldn’t hurt, Kelmet thought to himself.

“Are you suggesting this MacBain warrior would come to England?”

“I’m not suggesting,” the priest countered. “I’m stating fact. Your baron won’t have the slightest inkling he’s here either until he feels MacBain’s blade at his throat. It will be too late then, of course.”

The steward shook his head. “Baron Raulf’s soldiers would kill him before he even reached the drawbridge.”

“They’d never get the chance,” MacKechnie announced, his voice firm with conviction.

“You make this warrior sound invincible.”

“I’m thinking he could be. ’Tis the truth I’ve never met another like him. I won’t chill you with the tales I’ve heard about the MacBain. Suffice it to say you don’t want his wrath pouring down on this keep.”

“None of it matters now, Father,” Kelmet whispered, his tone weary.

“Oh, it matters all right,” the priest snapped. “I’m going to wait to see your baron for as long as need be. The matter is too grave for impatience to take hold.”

Father MacKechnie paused to gather his control. He knew the Maclaurin issue was of no concern to the steward, yet once he started to explain, the anger he’d been carefully guarding inside spilled out and he wasn’t able to keep the fury out of his voice. He forced himself to speak in a much calmer voice when he changed the topic.

“You’re still a sinner, Kelmet, with the soul of an old dog, but you’re an honest man trying to do your duty. God will remember that when you stand before Him on Judgment Day. If you’re not wanting me to hear your confession now, then what service do you require?”

“I need your assistance with Lady Johanna, Father. Word has just arrived from King John.”

“Yes?” MacKechnie prodded when the steward didn’t immediately continue his explanation.

“Baron Raulf is dead.”

“Good Lord above, you cannot mean it.”

“It’s true, Father.”

MacKechnie gave a harsh gasp, then hastily made the sign of the cross. He bowed his head, pressed his hands together, and whispered a prayer for the baron’s soul.

The wind sent the hem of the priest’s black cassock slapping against his legs, but MacKechnie was too intent on his prayers to pay any attention. Kelmet turned his gaze to the sky. The clouds were black, swollen, and being nudged overhead by an insistent, howling wind. The sound of the storm’s advance was eerie, ominous . . . fitting.

The priest finished his prayer, made another sign of the cross, and then turned his attention to the steward again. “Why didn’t you tell me right away? Why did you let me go on and on? You should have interrupted me. Praise God, what will happen to the Maclaurins now?”

Kelmet shook his head. “I don’t have any answers for you. Father, regarding the baron’s holding in the Highlands.”

“You should have told me right off,” the priest said again, still staggered by the black news.

“A few more minutes makes no difference,” Kelmet replied. “And perhaps I was putting off this task by keeping you in conversation. It is my duty to inform Lady Johanna, you see, and I would greatly appreciate your help. She’s so young, so innocent of treachery. Her heart is going to be broken.”

MacKechnie nodded. “I’ve known your mistress for only two short days, but I’ve already seen she has a gentle nature and a pure heart. I’m not certain I can be of much help though. Your mistress seems to be very frightened of me.”

“She fears most priests, Father. She has sound reason.”

“And what would that reason be?”

“Her confessor is Bishop Hallwick.”

Father MacKechnie frowned. “You needn’t say another word,” he muttered with disgust. “Hallwick’s wicked reputation is well known, even in the Highlands. No wonder the lass is fearful. It’s a wonder she came to my aid and insisted you let me in, Kelmet. That took courage, I’m realizing now. The poor lass,” he added with a sigh. “She doesn’t deserve the pain of losing her beloved husband at such a tender age. How long has she been married to the baron?”

“She’s been his wife for over three years. Lady Johanna was little more than a child when she was wed. Father, please come with me to the chapel.”

“Certainly.”

The two men walked side by side. Kelmet’s voice was halting when he next spoke. “I know I won’t have the proper words. I’m not certain . . . how to say . . .”

“Be direct,” the priest advised. “She’ll appreciate that. Don’t make her guess by giving her hints. Perhaps it would do us well to fetch a woman to help comfort your mistress. Lady Johanna will surely need another woman’s compassion as well as our own.”

“I don’t know who I would ask,” Kelmet admitted. “Just the day before Baron Raulf left, he replaced the entire household staff yet again. My lady barely knows the servants’ names. There have been so many of them. My mistress keeps to herself these days,” he added. “She’s very kind, Father, but distant from her staff, and she has learned to hold her own council. ’Tis the truth she has no confidantes we could bring along with us now.”

“How long has Baron Raulf been away?”

“Near to six months now.”

“Yet in all that while, Lady Johanna hasn’t come to depend upon anyone?”

“Nay, Father. She confides in no one, not even her steward,” Kelmet said, referring to himself. “The baron told us he would only be away for a week or two, and we’ve been living with the expectation of his arrival home each and every day.”

“How did he die?”

“He lost his footing and fell from a cliff.” The steward shook his head. “I’m certain there’s more to the explanation than I’ve been told, for Baron Raulf wasn’t an awkward man. Perhaps the king will tell Lady Johanna more.”

“A freak accident then,” the priest decided. “God’s will be done,” he added almost as an afterthought.

“It might have been the devil’s work,” Kelmet muttered.

MacKechnie didn’t remark on that possibility. “Lady Johanna will surely marry again,” he announced with a nod. “She’ll inherit a sizable amount, won’t she?”

“She’ll gain a third of her husband’s holdings. I’ve heard they’re vast,” Kelmet explained.

“Might one of those holdings be the Maclaurin land your King John stole away from Scotland’s king and gave to Baron Raulf?”

“Perhaps,” Kelmet allowed.

MacKechnie filed that information away for future use. “With your lady’s golden-colored hair and handsome blue eyes, I would imagine every unattached baron in England will want to marry her. She’s very beautiful, and though it’s probably sinful of me to admit. I’ll tell you I was quite affected by the sight of her. Her appearance could easily bewitch a man, even without the estate she’ll have to offer. ”

They reached the narrow steps leading up to the chapel doors when the priest finished his remarks.

“She is beautiful,” the steward agreed. “I’ve seen grown men openly gawk at her. Barons will certainly want her,” he added, “but not in marriage.”

“What nonsense is this?”

“She’s barren,” Kelmet said.

The priest’s eyes widened. “Dear God,” he whispered. He lowered his head, made the sign of the cross, and said a prayer for the dear lady’s burden.

Lady Johanna was also in prayer. She stood behind the altar and said a prayer for guidance. She was determined to do the right thing. She held a parchment scroll in her hands, and when she finished her plea to God, she wrapped the scroll in linen cloths she had already spread on top of the marble surface.

She once again considered destroying the damning evidence against her king. Then she shook her head. Someday, someone might find the scroll, and if only one man learned the truth about the evil king who once ruled England, then perhaps a thread of justice might be served.

Johanna placed the scroll between the two marble slabs below the altar top. She made certain it was hidden from view and protected from damage. Then she said another quick prayer, genuflected, and walked down the aisle. She opened the door to go outside.

The conversation between Father MacKechnie and Kelmet immediately stopped.

The sight of Lady Johanna still affected the priest, and he acknowledged the truth without feeling a qualm of guilt. MacKechnie didn’t consider himself caught by the sin of lust because he noticed the shimmer in her hair or stared a bit longer than necessary at her lovely face. In his mind, Johanna was simply one of God’s creatures, a magnificent example, to be sure, of the Lord’s ability to create perfection.

She was Saxon through and through with her high cheekbones and fair coloring. She was a little shorter in stature than others, for she was of only medium height, but she appeared taller to the priest because of the queenly way she held herself.

Aye, her appearance pleased the priest, and he was certain she pleased her God as well, as she truly possessed a kind and gentle heart.

MacKechnie was a compassionate man. He ached over the cruel blow the dear lady had already been given. A barren woman served no purpose in this kingdom. Her very reason for existing had been snatched away. The burden she carried, knowing of her own inferiority, was surely the reason he’d never seen her smile.

And now they were about to give her another cruel blow. “Might we have a word with you, m’lady?” Kelmet asked.

The steward’s tone of voice must have alerted her that something was amiss. A guarded look came into her eyes, and her hands became fists at her sides. She nodded and slowly turned to go back inside.



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