CONTINUATION OF CHAPTER 1 ....
Chloe broke out into a wide smile, and ignoring the protests of Nicola and her retainers, she prodded her horse into a canter down the road toward the gate. When she arrived, the guards not far behind her, and Nicola bouncing her way painfully down the hill, her smile faded. Guards circled the top of the battlements. The drawbridge was up, the portcullis down, and gate door closed tightly. They expected trouble.
Just as she’d thought. Someone would most definitely be coming to take back the castle. But when was the question.
Before she could open her mouth to order the men to open the way for her, they did so. Calls to her escort were tossed over the walls, and the men she traveled with answered back. As the gates opened, the sounds and smells of the city assaulted her senses. Loud clanking, banging, shouting. Smells of cooking, rubbish, and animals. It all mixed together, and she longed for the French chateau of Queen Isabeau with its pretty smells, and enchanting music.
They rode into town, up the rode past merchants, peasants, clergy and guild workers toward the keep stairs. South Hearth had seemed such a grand place when she was young. Now it only seemed a fort of sorts, not a home.
“My child!” A tall woman atop the steps to the keep came rushing forth.
Chloe recognized her mother immediately. “Maman!” She sped up her horse until she reached the bottom of the keep stairs and then ignoring the hands offered by the guards, leapt to the ground and into her mother’s arms.
It’d been two years since she’d last seen her mother. The Lady Fergusson, had stayed with her for her first few years in service to the French queen, her mother’s cousin, before returning to her husband in Scotland .
Chloe breathed in her mother’s scent, and tried to blink away the sting of tears in her eyes.
“Come, inside. You must be in need of a bath and something to eat.”
Chloe nodded. As they reached the tops of the steps, Nicola finally drew up to the courtyard, a harried looking knight beside her. The maid had probably given the man a good tongue lashing, only because Chloe herself wasn’t there to receive the punishment.
“It is so good to be home.”
“Oui, I am glad you finally arrived. We were beginning to worry. Your father and I expected you over a week ago.”
She threaded her arm through her mother’s as they made their way up the spiral staircase to the upper chambers. “There was a storm, and the sea was not safe. We had to wait nearly two weeks before boarding the ship.”
“Ah, I see. At least you have arrived safely. If you hadn’t come by tomorrow a search party was going to be sent out.”
Chloe gasped. “Did you not get my missive?”
“Missive?” They stopped walking and her mother turned toward her, her brows drawn together in concern.
“Oui, Maman. I sent a message to warn of our delay.”
“I received no such warning.”
A chill ran up Chloe’s spine. Had her missive been intercepted? Chloe shook her head. As bad as it was, she dearly prayed the messenger had simply pocketed her coin and spent his time leisurely perusing some bawdy French coastal tavern. She’d seen plenty of the wanton women lining the docks, lifting their skirts to show not so pretty calves.
“I shall ask your father about the missive. No matter, let us not dwell on it.”
Her mother led her to her old chamber, the furnishings surprisingly the same. Those who’d occupied South Hearth after them had not bothered to change it. Her dark polished oak wardrobe was still against the wall. She walked in and ran her hand up the post of the large bed, then sat on the chest of carved oak with roses at the end. The tapestries were even the same. She gazed with nostalgic wonder at the bright blues, golds, reds and greens woven into a picturesque scene of a knight saving a damsel outside a fairy tale castle. She’d spent hours staring at the scene, picturing what her own husband would be like.
“After you’ve had a chance to rest, please come to the great hall. Your father would like a word with you about your future.”
Chloe turned a quizzical look on her mother, who had the foresight to look guilty. “My future?” Her mother’s countenance could only mean their plans would not be seen well in her own eyes.
“Please, maman, can you not explain?” she pleaded with her mother. She’d only just returned home. Could her mother not just tell her?
“The great hall, ma cherie.”
Chloe hurried through her ablutions, feeling refreshed from her journey and donned the rich blue and gold brocade gown Nicola picked out for her. She rolled her eyes to heaven with frustration at how slow the maid took to plait her hair before donning the matching blue and gold headdress. Her gold braided girdle fitted over her hips, the ends of the tied cord coming halfway down her thigh. She tucked her dirk in place, put on her slippers, and batted Nicola’s hands away.
Although her mother had advised her to rest, this Chloe could not adhere to. Her life was at stake. She rushed to the great hall, where the servants were busy setting out goblets, wine jugs and platters of delicious meats, vegetables in delectable sauces, almonds, figs, and large loafs of bread with steam still rising from their crusty shells.
Her mother stood beside her father who sat in his great chair at the center of the trestle table, her hand on his shoulder.
“Papa,” Chloe said, dipping into a low curtsey.
“How is it that you were only in France for five years, yet you came back with a French accent?” Despite his rebuke, her father smiled, although it was rough around the edges.
“If it pleases, I will try to refrain.”
“You are a dutiful daughter, are you not?”
“Oui—I mean, yes, Papa.”
The baron had changed little in the five years since she’d been gone. He was still strong, fit, and the way he looked at her, still wished she’d fallen instead of her brother Jon. For all his anger at the turn of events though, beneath his hard exterior, she thought she saw a spark in his eyes. Pride perhaps. Pride for her. At least, she could hope that’s what it was.
“Sit down,” he ordered, his hand sweeping out to indicate the chair beside him. Her mother took her cue, and sat on his other side.
“I am pleased you have returned safely.” He awkwardly patted her hand.
“As am I. It is good to be home.” Chloe kept her gaze in her lap.
“Glad, I am, that you feel that way. South Hearth belongs to the Fergussons. It always has, and we will never let some Sassenachs take it from us again!” At this, he pounded his fist on the table.
Chloe jumped at the sudden movement, but quickly recovered herself.
“As for you, daughter, you will be married.”
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