Effie awoke to a morning full of hope and bright with promise. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and she had never been closer to finding her true love.
Her sister Elyne, on the other hand, was not having as lovely a morning. She banged about the solar with Winifred, her merlin falcon, perched on her arm. “I should take Fred to get some exercise,” grumbled Elyne, referring to her precious hooded falcon.
“Woud’na do ye any harm to get some fresh air,” chimed in Gwyn, their younger sister. “Ye’ve been grumbling about all morning.”
“I dinna grumble,” defended Elyne. “And should ye no’ be helping Isabelle or making yerself useful?”
“Fine. Send me down to the kitchens while ye both go meet yer husbands. ’Tis no’ fair David made betrothals for ye both and no’ for me.”
“Now look who is grumbling,” said Effie with a laugh. “Go on wi’ ye, Gwyn. Be a good lass and help Isabelle.”
Gwyn turned on her heel with her pert nose in the air and stomped off to find their sister-in-law.
Effie went to help her sister, who was struggling to tie her cloak one-handed so as not to disturb her falcon. “Are ye displeased wi’ the man David chose?”
“Nay!” shouted Elyne, a bit too loud to be believed.
Effie put her hands up and walked back in surrender.
Elyne’s shoulders slumped. “I apologize. Some exercise will do me good.”
“Go for yer ride, sister, and think on this. I plan to find a man of my own choosing. I plan to find a man I love, and who returns my affections. Ye can do the same.”
Elyne only shook her head and slumped away to the stables.
Effie wished her well and skipped down the tower stairs to the courtyard. It was a mass of people and excitement.
“What is all the to-do about?” she asked a ghillie hurrying by.
“The clans decided to hold a tournament for May Day!”
“A tournament!” Effie could hardly keep herself from squeaking in joy. She had only been to a tournament once before and was thrilled by the prospect. May Day was also the traditional time to celebrate the legend of Robin Hood with plays and even tournaments. If it was to be a tournament of Robin Hood, there would need to be a Maid Marian. Her excitement soared for a moment but plummeted back when she remembered she had other sisters who would no doubt take that prized role.
Still, the day was fine and the prospect for amusement high. She went further into the large, grassy courtyard and waved at her brother, David, who was directing the men to build the lists. He was too busy to notice, but another man, Malcolm Douglas, waved back instead.
She raised an eyebrow and turned away, as was proper. But then she turned back with a sly smile, which was not proper in the least. The courtyard was a chaotic scene as people rushed about setting up everything needed for a proper tournament. Despite the yelling and banging, everyone seemed in high spirits; the prospect of watching the young knights of the assembled clans demonstrate their skill and bravery as they bashed at each other with swords and lances was a happy thought to one and all.
Fortunately for the festivities, the courtyard was a large one and relatively flat, giving enough space not only for the contestants and onlookers, but also a variety of tradesmen who had spontaneously set up shop in tents along the thick castle walls. Effie let her nose guide her to roasted apples and savory meat pies. The aroma was heavenly.
She stood outside the tent, realizing too late she had not brought a single coin with her. Her shoulders slumped with disappointment.
“Two pies, good sir,” said a deep voice behind her.
Effie turned to find the muscular figure of Sir Malcolm Douglas. Her heart skipped a beat. He was bigger and even more handsome at close range.
He gave her a winning smile. “I dinna believe we have met. I am Sir Malcolm Douglas, the knight who will win this tournament. A pie, m’lady?”
Effie accepted the savory meat pie with pleasure. “Ye are mighty sure o’ yerself.”
“I speak naught but the truth. When it comes to a lance or a sword, there be none who can best me.”
“If there be a contest for braggarts, I am certain ye would emerge the victor,” teased Effie with a smile.
“Ah, ye wound me.” Malcolm clasped his chest. “But aye, I have no doubt I should win any contest ye care to put before me.”
“An interesting challenge, sir knight. I shall have to think of the contest.”
“For ye, anything!” Sir Malcolm swept her a bow and strode off into the crowd.
Effie beamed after him, pleased her plan was working so well so fast. Here was the man for her.
“Miss Effie?” a ghillie spoke at her side.
“Lady Maclachlan has invited ye to sup with her.”
“Oh, aye.” Her elation plummeted. Effie followed the ghillie back into the castle with heavy feet. She could not very well avoid Connor’s mother, but she did wish she could escape the audience. She wanted to find true love, not be false to anyone.
Effie arrived at the Maclachlan solar to find this was not just an intimate gathering for herself and her supposed future mother-in-law. It appeared the better part of the Maclachlan clan was present, including her supposed intended, who stood straight and tall as a lance.
“My dear Euphemia.” Laird Maclachlan himself greeted her at the door. He had a well-trimmed silver beard to match his silver eyes. He was tall, like his son. “Ye do us great honor to break bread with us.”
Laird Maclachlan offered her his arm and walked her slowly to the table. He walked with a noticeable limp and Effie was at once conscious of the honor he had given her by walking her into the room.
“The honor is mine,” murmured Effie.
Lady Maclachlan gazed at her with tears in her eyes. “Effie, my sweet child. I have always wanted a daughter, and now the Lord has answered my prayers.” Lady Maclachlan embraced her firmly, then squeezed even tighter. Effie patted the woman on the back, desperately trying to draw breath. The embrace was apparently not going to end soon.
I’m sorry, mouthed Connor from behind his mother.
“There now, let the lass breathe,” said Laird Maclachlan, and much to Effie’s relief, Lady Maclachlan let her go.
Effie hoped to eat a little and run away, but Laird and Lady Maclachlan clearly had other ideas. First Effie was introduced to Connor’s five uncles and their wives, then she met his seven female cousins and his five male cousins and their respective spouses. Much to Effie’s embarrassment, everyone she met presented her with a gift for her wedding. Soon she had a bounty of gifts piled around her feet: silk cloth, feather pillows, embroidered linen, silver candlesticks, gold thread—their generosity knew no bounds.
“And I give to ye this.” Lady Maclachlan nodded to two ghillies who carried a large, engraved cedar chest to the middle of the room.
At Lady Maclachlan’s urging, Effie opened the chest and found a fortune in gowns. There were silk gowns and wool gowns and linen gowns. There were linen chemises and gauzy veils. The materials were fine and the needlework on the gowns was exquisite.
Effie shook her head, feeling smaller and smaller with each passing minute. “Nay, ’tis too much,” she whispered. She glanced at Connor, whose lips tightened into a thin line.
“I had many bairns whom the Lord called to heaven before me,” Lady Maclachlan spoke in a near whisper and the entire room silenced. “I made a wardrobe for each o’ my daughters and now ye shall wear them and turn my sorrow into joy, my suffering into rejoicing.”
“I…I dinna ken what to say.” Effie’s voice was weak, much like how she felt. How could she break this woman’s heart by not marrying her son?
“Ye dinna need to say a thing.” Lady Maclachlan’s voice was warm and she took Effie’s hands in her own. “I ken ye lost yer own sweet mother, as I have lost my daughters. I only hope in time ye may look upon me as yer own mother.”
Tears sprung to Effie’s eyes, though whether due to the kindness of Connor’s mother or her own guilt at her deception, she could not say. This earned Effie another hug from Connor’s mother, which was soon joined by the aunts and the female cousins, all of whom were speaking of happy futures and wiping tears of joy from their eyes. Effie had never felt so adored nor so low.
The meal was a long one. The nicer everyone was to Effie, the worse she felt. When the food was finally cleared from the table, Connor asked quietly to speak with her privately and she indicated the tower. Unfortunately, the comment was overheard and one of the uncles announced the young couple was seeking time alone.
The clan made happy humming noises until Effie thought she might expel her meal. She smiled weakly and curtsied her way to the door.
“I had no idea they were going to do that,” said Connor when they finally were alone on the tower.
“How can yer family be so nice?” Effie accused. “Are they always like that?”
“They are a kind people,” Connor admitted. “And my mother has been planning my wedding day since I was in the cradle.”
“Och, yer mother. How can I disappoint her?” Effie leaned against the stone parapets. “I wish yer mother was less kind. I may have to marry ye after all,” she said gloomily.
“Let us see what we can do to avoid that tragedy,” said Connor dryly.
“I dinna mean to suggest marrying ye would be…” Effie paused, trying to find the right words.
“A fate of unspeakable horror?” suggested Connor in a helpful sort of tone.
“Nay, ye are jesting wi’ me. Ye are quite a goodly match. And even if ye were a troll, yer mother’s trunk full o’ gowns would turn the head of any young lass.”
“I shall be sure to mention it in conversation when I find a prospective bride.”
“Aye, do. Better yet, hang them on parade and take the lass with the largest dowry,” said Effie, continuing the jest.
“Ah, but I think my parents already did that.”
Effie turned away with a blush. The Campbells were a wealthy clan, and she herself was well-dowered, though it embarrassed her to think of it.
“I am sorry if I offended,” said Conner in a soft voice.
“Nay, what ye said is true. I understand I can add to the coffers of any young man. Yet I should so much wish to be prized for my inner character or even my outward appearance, rather than my price.”
Connor leaned an elbow on the stone parapets beside her. “And so ye shall.”
“I thought perhaps today…” Effie stared over the lush green valley below, dotted scenically with white, fluffy sheep. It was not quite shearing time and the sheep were heavy laden, and she knew from experience rather smelly, but at this distance they were like picturesque little clouds dotting the landscape.
“Ye met someone?” Connor’s voice was neutral. He also looked out over the valley.
“Aye.” Effie shrugged. “Mayhap. Yet how can I seek true love and break yer mother’s heart?”
“My mother will survive, make no mistake. She wants to see me happy. If I convince her I have found a lass that makes me happier, she will turn her love to a new bride.”
“And my dowry?” Effie was afraid to look at him.
“’Tis no concern.”
Effie exhaled a breath she had not known she was holding. “Truly? I should no’ like to hurt anyone.”
“Yer scruples do ye credit, but fear not. Now tell me, who is the man who has captured yer heart?”
Effie could not help but smile when she thought of him. “His name is Sir Malcolm Douglas. Do ye know o’ him?”
“Aye, but no’ well.” Connor folded his arms across his chest.
“He was quite attentive to me today. And what o’ ye? Have ye found another yer mother will adore?” Effie rejected a pang of regret that she would not be that lass. She could not ask for a more loving family.
“Nay, no’ yet. I shall have to look wi’ more diligence.”
“Aye, ye should. I canna verra well marry another if yer mother has no bride for her son.”
“Verra true,” conceded Connor, yet his attention was taken by something in the sky. “Do ye have falcon messengers?”
“Nay. My brother keeps falcons and hawks only for hunting. Perhaps another clan. Why do ye ask?”
“A falcon coming in wi’ a missive tied to its leg.”
“Where?” Effie scanned the skies. Connor pointed, and following his direction, Effie noted only a black dot in the sky. “How can ye see that?”
“I have been told my eyes are good.”
“If ye can see anything other than a black speck, ye have uncommonly good eyes.”
“The falcon does seem to be heading this way,” said Connor.
Effie could only agree and watched as the bird flew closer. “It’s Fred!”
“Winifred. My sister’s merlin falcon. Ye say it has something on its leg?” Effie held out her arm as the bird approached, hoping it would think her to be Elyne and come home. She was in luck. Fred swooped in and gracefully pulled up to land on Effie’s arm. The talons were sharp, but she was more interested in reading the missive that was attached.
Without having to be asked, Connor gently held the bird still and untied the little scroll of paper, handing it to her.
Effie read it quickly as the dreadful meaning gripped her. She grabbed Conner’s arm. “Och, nay! We must see David at once!”