Lammas Fair, August 1744
“After that, Ranulf carried the dagger with him everywhere he went.” Elspeth Marshall looked around at the dozen or so children who were gathered in a semicircle on the lawn listening to her recount the tale of Ranulf and Hilaria.
“And it worked?” one of the older girls asked. “He didn’t fall in love with Hilaria?”
“That’s correct,” Elspeth said. “The dagger prevented it.”
“Because the witch Mazelina enchanted the dagger to protect him from the Heart of Llanllwch,” another girl, with bright red hair, said with a touch of impatience. Her attempt at the Welsh double-l sound wasn’t quite right, but it was very difficult to make. Elspeth had worked years to get it right.
The first girl, a blonde, frowned with disappointment. “But he should be with Hilaria.”
“She shouldn’t have tried to use the magic heart to win him,” the redhead said. “That wasn’t fair.”
“All is fair in matters of love and war,” the blonde argued. “Hilaria loves him, and Maud isn’t very nice.”
Elspeth smiled at the blonde. “Well, we know that, but Ranulf doesn’t. She’s very nice to him, isn’t she?”
The redhead scoffed. “He’s blinded by love.”
“Will you finish the story?” a boy of about ten asked.
“Of course.” Elspeth picked up the thread. “Ranulf was indeed blinded by his love for Maud. He failed to see how much Hilaria cared for him. However, his younger brother, Aldred, was not so foolish. Captivated by the kind and beautiful Hilaria, he fell in love with her instead.
“The cunning Maud used her friendship with Hilaria’s sister to encourage their union. She also continued to woo Ranulf. Smitten as he was, he married her, breaking Hilaria’s heart.”
The blonde gasped and shook her head. A few of the children spoke amongst themselves. Elspeth looked past them and saw that several adults, besides the children’s parents, had also gathered. One of them, an exceptionally tall, broad-shouldered gentleman leaned against a tree. His arms were crossed over his chest as he watched Elspeth intently.
“Do not fret,” Elspeth soothed the girl. “For Aldred was gentle and charming, and most of all, patient. He asked Hilaria to be his wife and while she refused him at first, she eventually relented.”
“Was she trying to make Ranulf jealous?” the blonde asked.
The redhead turned toward her friend. “What would it matter? Ranulf was already married.” She looked back to Elspeth. “Please say that Hilaria grew to love Aldred.” Her keen expression showed how involved she was in the story, which delighted Elspeth. Telling stories, especially to children, gave her such joy.
Elspeth glanced back at the tall stranger. He was still intently engaged. Something about the way he watched her sent a shiver down her spine. Not a bad, apprehensive shiver, but one that made her heart beat faster with anticipation.
Putting her attention back to the story, Elspeth said, “As a matter of fact, Hilaria did grow to love Aldred. He was a kind and loving husband, and soon Hilaria forgot all about Ranulf. By then, however, Ranulf had learned just how conniving and cold his wife could be. He regretted marrying Maud and not giving Hilaria a chance, especially when he saw how happy Hilaria and Aldred were.”
“So did the magic heart even work?” a boy asked. “It was supposed to make Ranulf fall in love with Hilaria, but he didn’t. I think it wasn’t real.”
“But it had already been used to make others fall in love by the time it came to Hilaria.” This came from the tall stranger, prompting all the children—and Elspeth—to look in his direction.
The man continued, his gaze on the boy who’d asked about the heart. “If Ranulf hadn’t found out she had the heart and gone to the witch Mazelina to ask for a way to stop its magic, he would have been beguiled, just as Hilaria intended.”
“I’m glad he wasn’t,” the redhead said, crossing her arms. “Hilaria shouldn’t have wanted to trick him. Either he loved her or he didn’t. And he didn’t.”
“But he was sorry he married Maud,” the blonde said. “Maybe he and Hilaria were meant to be.”
The redhead gaped at her. “What about Aldred?”
Elspeth chuckled. This story never failed to provoke discussion. Perhaps that was why it was one of her very favorites.
“I liked that story,” a younger girl said. “Thank you, Miss Elspeth.”
“You’re welcome.” Elspeth smiled at her, then let her gaze go to the tall man once more. He hadn’t been there at the start of the story, but he seemed to know the entire tale.
Before she could find a reason to make her way toward him, he came forward, skirting the children as they stood and returned to their parents.
“You’re an excellent storyteller,” he said.
“Thank you. And you are familiar with the tale of Ranulf and Hilaria.”
“I am indeed.”
One of the boys, whom Elspeth knew quite well, came forward without even looking at the gentleman. “Miss Elspeth, are you going to tell us about the rest of the thirteen treasures?”
Elspeth laughed softly. “David, you have heard about the thirteen treasures maybe thirteen times. And I just told you about one of them—the Heart of Llanllwch.”
“I’d rather hear about the sword—Dyrnwyn,” he said stubbornly, his small mouth turning down.
“Would you like to hear about Dyrnwyn’s twin?” the man asked, prompting both David and Elspeth to swing their heads in his direction.
“There’s another sword?” David asked, his voice rising and his eyes widening eagerly.
“I am not aware of a twin sword,” Elspeth said, her breath catching with excitement. There was nothing she loved more than discovering a new story.
“You are familiar with Rhydderch Hael, of course, since Dyrnwyn, or White-Hilt, belonged to him?”
“He was Rhydderch the Generous,” David responded quickly. “Because he loaned Dyrnwyn to anyone who wanted it.”
“Most people didn’t want it, however,” the man said with a chuckle. “At least not then. Now, there are plenty of those who would like to own the sword that flames blue.”
David nodded. “I would!”
“Well, eventually, someone did take Dyrnwyn. That was the knight, Gareth, to whom Rhydderch gifted the sword on his wedding day. However, there was a second sword called Lann Dhearg, or red blade. It also fired from tip to hilt, but the flames were an orange-red instead of blue. This blade belonged to Rhydderch’s brother, and he was…not so generous.” The man winked at David.
“What happened to Lann Dhearg?”
“It was lost, unfortunately,” the man said with a touch of sadness. “Just as Dyrnwyn has been lost.”
“How come Dyrnwyn is one of the thirteen treasures and Lann Dhearg is not?” David asked.
“Because Dyrnwyn was given to one of Arthur’s knights, but you know that, I expect.” He looked at Elspeth. “Something tells me you know every detail of those treasures.” His blue eyes sparked with an inner heat.
“David!” the boy’s mother called from several feet away.
Elspeth turned her head to see the woman smiling at her son and gesturing for him to come. David threw his arms around Elspeth for a quick hug. “Thank you, Miss Elspeth.” He looked up at the gentleman and said, “And thank you for telling me about Lann Dhearg.” He turned and dashed to his mother.
“Are you visiting for the Lammas Fair?” Elspeth asked the man.
“Passing through town on my way to Inverness, but yes, I am spending the night.” He spoke in a deep, lowland brogue.
“I ask because David will probably draw a picture of Lann Dhearg and if he sees you again, he’ll offer to give it to you.”
“He’s drawn pictures for you, I take it?”
Elspeth thought of the stack in her library. “Many. My favorite is Dyrnwyn.” She paused and contemplated him a moment. “I still can’t quite believe you knew of Ranulf and Hilaria and that you had a new story to share. Is there more you can tell me of Lann Dhearg?”
“Not much…Miss Elspeth?”
“Miss Marshall, but the children call me Miss Elspeth.”
“I am Roy Williams.” He bowed. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.” He grinned, and Elspeth’s knees felt watery. He was exceptionally handsome. The strong, angular planes of his face were utterly masculine in their shape, from the square set of his jaw to the sharp line of his cheekbones. But it was his interest in her storytelling and his contribution of his own that captivated her.
“How do you know about this twin sword?” she asked. “I’ve never heard of it, and I go out of my way to hear every story and legend I possibly can.”
She nodded. “I write them down. Someday, I hope to publish them.” Her father wished she would marry instead, preferably to the young physician he’d recently hired to join him in tending to the people of Dunkeld as well as Birnam on the other side of the River Tay. “Will you please tell me more about Lann Dhearg? And Rhydderch and his brother? I’d love to hear whatever you have to share.”
“It would be my privilege. Perhaps in return, you’d agree to show me around the fair?” He offered her his arm.
“I’d be delighted.” Elspeth put her hand on his coat sleeve. He was garbed entirely in brown, save the white of his shirt and the slight green tinge to his waistcoat. His clothing was made from fine, quality wool, indicating he was not poor. “What is taking you to Inverness?”
“Visiting family.” He guided her from the lawn near the cathedral toward the High Street and the stalls set up there. “Highland games near there, actually.”
She looked at his profile, thinking he presented a striking figure with his aristocratic nose and dark sable hair gathered into a queue at the back of his neck. “How exciting. You’ve been before?”
“Every year since I was small.” He peered down at her. “You didn’t think I was from there?”
She shook her head. “Not with your accent. In fact, I would say you are from the area of Rhydderch Hael. He was a king of Alt Clut.”
“You have a good ear,” he said with a hint of admiration.
“I’ve listened to a great many oral stories. I’ve become good at detecting where people are from. I’m still waiting for you to tell me about Lann Dhearg. Is there a chance Rhydderch was your ancestor?”
He laughed. “That would be remarkable, wouldn’t it? You are correct that I am from that area. Stories of him—and other kings—are still told. You should visit sometime, for there would be much for you to hear.”
“I would love to.” In truth, she wanted to travel all over Scotland and into Wales and England. But as a young, unmarried woman, she didn’t have the ability to do so. Nor would her father approve. He had, however, provided her with space for her growing library and supplied her with ink and parchment.
“In the meantime, I will tell you what I know,” Mr. Williams said. “Although, there isn’t much more beyond what I already told the young lad. Two swords were made—Dyrnwyn and Lann Dhearg. One was for Rhydderch and the other was for his younger brother, Constantine.”
“I thought Constantine was his son.”
“He was named for his uncle.”
“Did he also inherit Lann Dhearg?” Elspeth asked, her mind working with excitement over finding a new story to record.
“I can’t imagine so, since he abdicated the throne and devoted his life to religion.”
“Of course.” Elspeth knew Rhydderch’s son was Saint Constantine. “I am getting ahead of myself in my enthusiasm. You said the sword was lost. Do you know what happened to it when Constantine died?”
“Unfortunately, I do not. It is mentioned in a description from the tenth century regarding Owain ap Dyfnwal, who was a King of Strathclyde. He formed an alliance with Alba and Mercia, and was said to have carried a ‘red sword.’ Many believe that was Lann Dhearg. However, that is the only mention of it.”
“And yet, the legend persisted.” Elspeth had learned that stories were easily lost. It was easy to discount one story from over a century ago, harder when there were two stories, as in this case. It was harder still if there were several tales about a person or an object. She tipped her head to look up at him as they entered the market square. “Do you think it is that—a legend?”
He lifted a shoulder. “Probably. But as you say, it has persisted. I suppose a part of me hopes it really exists. Do you think the thirteen treasures do?”
Elspeth exhaled. “Like you and Lann Dhearg, I want to believe they do. Especially the Heart of Llanllwch.”
“Why, so you can make someone fall in love with you?” His tone was teasing, but there was something else to it too.
Elspeth paused, and as he drew to a stop beside her, he turned slightly. “No, it’s just more appealing to me than a sword or a halter or a cauldron.” She named just a few of the treasures.
Mr. Williams laughed, a warm, robust sound that made Elspeth smile. “For me, it’s the cloak. I should like to be able to render myself invisible.”
“I can definitely understand the benefits of that. Perhaps I might change my mind.”
“You cannot, I’m afraid. The cloak has been spoken for—it is mine. You may have the heart. It’s made of tourmaline and quite pretty, it’s said.”
Elspeth grinned. “You’re a beast, but fine, I’ll take the heart.”
They continued to the stalls, where Elspeth introduced him to everyone she knew. They sampled ale and fresh-baked pastry, and watched a trio of musicians. By the time they’d made their way to all the stalls, it was late in the day.
“I must return home to have dinner with my father,” Elspeth said reluctantly. She’d enjoyed their afternoon together.
“Would it be wrong of me to ask for one more story?” He grinned. “That makes me sound like a child.”
Elspeth was inordinately flattered. “It does not. Must you leave on the morrow?”
He nodded. “I’m afraid so.”
“Perhaps you’ll stop by again on your return trip. My father is the physician here—you can find us on the other side of town.” She gestured past the square toward the road that led to the river.
“I may do that.”
They found themselves removed from the stalls, in a quiet area off the road. Elspeth took her hand from his arm and allowed herself to stare up into his striking blue eyes.
“I hope you will,” she whispered.
He took her hand. “I did not expect to find you here, Miss Marshall. You are an impressive woman—smart and confident. Most women of your age are already married or nearly so.”
“My father would like me to be. I am too interested in books, however. The reading and writing of them.” She blushed. “Most men—of any age—find me…odd.”
“That is their misfortune,” Mr. Williams said softly. “I hope your father won’t press you into a union you don’t want.”
“He won’t.” Of that, Elspeth was certain. He wanted her to wed, but more than that, he wanted her to be happy. “He knows and accepts that I am content with my library. For now.”
For the first time, Elspeth glimpsed a shared future. With a strong man who found her interesting.
“I am glad to hear it, Miss Marshall. Perhaps when I come by again in the future, you will still be unmarried.”
What was he saying?
Before she could ask, he shook his head. “Forgive me. That was inappropriate. I shall hope our paths cross again. Until then, be very well, Miss Marshall.” He bent his head and brushed his lips across her cheek.
Lightness filled her, as if she might float away. She clasped his hand tightly so that he might anchor her to the earth.
Without thinking, she put her other hand on his neck and held his head down. She moved so she could put her lips to his.
Shocked by her action, she gasped as she pulled back. “My apologies. I don’t know what I was thinking. I wasn’t, actually.”
“Sometimes thought is overrated.” His eyes gleamed with heat. “Don’t apologize. I am not in the least offended.”
Elspeth relaxed slightly, even as a wonderful current of anticipation flowed through her. “I really must go.”
“You look as if you don’t want to.”
“I do not. Maybe just one more—” She cut herself off and wrinkled her nose. “You’ll think me a wanton.”
“One more kiss?” He leaned close as he steered her toward the side of a shop. Blocked by the stalls, they could not be seen from the square. “If you are a wanton, then I am a rogue.”
She smiled up at him. “Oh, I like rogues. Remember, I write down stories. And rogues usually make the best characters.”
“How lovely to hear.” He swept his mouth over hers, gently at first, then with more pressure, his lips molding against hers.
They were soft and wonderful, and the energy coursing through Elspeth intensified. She put her arms around his neck and stood on her toes as he clasped his arms around her.
His tongue licked along her lower lip. “Open your mouth,” he whispered.
She did and was simultaneously shocked and thrilled when his tongue stroked inside. Somehow, she knew to use her tongue too, and the kiss became something far more intimate…and passionate.
His hands moved over her back as she clutched at his neck. She never wanted this moment to end, and yet she knew it must.
And just like that, it was over. He released her and stepped back, his eyes a storm of desire. She knew it because she felt the same.
“You should go.” He sounded hoarse, as if the kiss had affected him physically.
“I hope I’ll see you soon.”
“I hope so too.”
Reluctantly, Elspeth turned and walked slowly toward the square. She pivoted before going to the street she would follow home. He stared after her, his gaze smoldering.
Elspeth felt the connection between them deep in her bones. She would count the days until his return.Return to A Very Highland Holiday