Through the open flaps of the larger tents, she glimpsed gorgeous tapestries and snowy linen spread across tables where knights, and even entire families, were having dinner on silver plate and drinking from jeweled goblets. Some families were seated upon plump silk cushions; others had chairs as fine as those in the great hall at Claymore.

Time and again, greetings were called out to one or the other of Royce's knights from friends, but, although her escort never stopped, it still took the better part of an hour to wend their way across the valley floor and up to the western slope. Just as in life, the Scots did not mingle with the hated English, for while the valley was the domain of the English, the northern hill belonged to the Scots. Moreover, the western rise was the province of the French. Because her kinsmen were one of the last to reach Claymore, their tents were pitched to the rear of the northern slope, well above the others. Or perhaps, Jenny thought idly, her father preferred the spot because it put him somewhat closer to the level of the lofty rise where Claymore castle stood.

She looked about her at the "enemy camps," existing for the time being in peace. Centuries of built-up animosity were temporarily set aside as all parties observed the ancient tradition that guaranteed any knight safe passage and peaceful dwelling while attending a tourney. As if he read her thoughts, Stefan said beside her, " 'Tis probably the first time in decades that so many people from our three countries have occupied the same territory without fighting over it."

Advertisement

"I was thinking much the same thing," Jenny admitted, startled by his remark. Although he invariably treated her with courtesy, Jenny sensed in Stefan a growing disapproval of her ever since her estrangement with his brother. He thought her unreasonable, she supposed. Perhaps—if he didn't remind her so painfully of Royce each time she looked at him—she might have tried harder to establish the same affectionate relationship she had with Godfrey, Eustace, and Lionel. Those three trod cautiously in the wide gulf between Royce and herself, but it was obvious from their behavior they at least understood her side of the conflict. It was also obvious that they believed the breech between Royce and she was tragic, but not irreparable. It did not occur to Jenny that Royce's brother, far more than his friends, might be much more aware of how acutely Royce felt the estrangement and how deeply he regretted his actions.

The reason for Stefan's warmer attitude today was no mystery to Jenny: her father had sent her word of their arrival yesterday, and Brenna had included a message of her own in it—a message which Jenny had passed along, unread, to Stefan.

Jenny had sent a messenger back to her father, telling him that she would come to him today. She wanted to try to explain, and to apologize for, her overemotional and unjust reaction to his attempt to send her to a cloister. Most of all, she was here to ask his forgiveness for the part she had inadvertently played in William's death. It had been she who had asked Royce to have William stay. And it had undoubtedly been her outburst about the cloister that had upset William and angered Royce.

She did not expect her father, or the rest of her clan, to forgive her, but she needed to try to explain. In fact, she rather expected to be treated like a pariah, but as she drew up before the Merrick tents, she could see at once that this was not going to be the case. Her father came to the doorway of his tent, and before Stefan Westmoreland could dismount and help her alight, Lord Merrick was reaching up for Jennifer's waist himself. Others of her clan emerged from their tents, and suddenly Jenny was being enfolded in hugs and having her hand patted by Garrick Carmichael and Hollis Fergusson. Even Malcolm put his arm about her shoulders.

"Jenny," Brenna burst out when she could finally reach her sister. "I've missed you so," she added, hugging Jenny fiercely.

"And I've missed you," Jenny said, her voice hoarse with emotion over the kindness of her reception.

-- Advertisement --

"Come inside, my dear," her father insisted, and to Jenny's shock it was he who apologized for misunderstanding her desire to go to a cloister rather than dwell with her husband. Which should have made her feel better, but, instead it made her feel more guilty.

"This was William's," her father said, handing her William's ornamental dagger. "I know he loved you better than he loved any of us, Jennifer, and he would want you to have it. He would want you to wear it tomorrow in his honor at the tournament."

"Yes—" Jenny said, her eyes blurred with tears, "I will."

Then he told her how they'd had to lay William to rest in an ordinary grave in unhallowed ground; he told her of the prayers they'd said for the courageous future lord of Merrick who had been slain before his prime. By the time he was finished, Jenny felt as if William had died all over again—so fresh was it in her mind.

When it was time to leave, her father gestured to a trunk in the corner of his tent. "Those are your mother's things, my dear," he told her as Becky's father and Malcolm carried the trunk outside. "I knew ye would want to have them, especially since you must dwell with the killer of your brother. They will be a comfort for you, and a reminder that you are and will always be the countess of Rockbourn. I have taken the liberty," he added, when it was time for Jenny to leave, "of having your own banner, the Rockbourn banner, flown beside ours on our pavilion at the tournament tomorrow. I thought you would want it there, above you, while you watch us fight your beloved William's butcher."

Jenny was so dazed with pain and guilt she could scarcely speak, and when they walked out of her father's tent in the waning afternoon light, she discovered that everyone she had not seen when she'd arrived was waiting now to greet her. It was if the entire village surrounding Merrick had come, along with every male relation she possessed. "We miss ye, lassie," the armorer said.

"We'll make you proud tomorrow," said a distant cousin who'd never even liked her before. "Just the way you make us proud by bein' a Scot."

"King James," her father announced to her in a carrying voice that could be heard by all, "has bade me send you his personal regards and an exhortation that you never forget the moors and mountains of your homeland."

"Forget?" Jenny answered in a choked whisper. "How could I do that?"

Her father hugged her long and tenderly, a gesture so out of character for him that Jenny almost broke down and begged not to have to return to Claymore. "I trust," he added as he guided her to her horse, "that your Aunt Elinor is taking excellent care of everyone?"

-- Advertisement --