Chapter Three

When Heather entered the bedchamber of her uncle the following morning, she was glad that the old man was up and about. He sat at the window, enjoying the warm morning sun of this early summer morning. When Sir Robert noticed his niece, he smiled and motioned her to his side.

'Good morning, niece,' he said after she had sat down on the windowseat.

'Good morning to you, too, uncle,' Heather replied, lowering her lids so that the old man could not see the dark circles beneath her eyes. But although Robert Du Lac was old he still had perfect eyesight and with a gnarled hand he raised her chin and watched her.

'You did not sleep well, child. What has happened?' he inquired.

Slowly, she told him about her meeting with Duncan De Gael. She described to him the strange sensations she had experienced when Duncan had touched her and that she felt confused and frightened. After she had ended her tale, Sir Robert remained silent for a long time.

'What do you feel when you touch me?' he asked suddenly and Heather looked up in surprise.

'I feel the love you have for me...' she answered softly but Robert shook his head.

'Nay, Heather, don't tell me what your mind is telling you. You know that I love you...' Robert replied and held out his hands. 'Tell me if you can sense any of my thoughts...' Heather did as he had asked her and when she touched him, the feeling of love rushed through her like a warm wave of welcome. When she probed his mind deeper she could feel the illness eating away slowly at Sir Robert's body but apart from that she could not detect any thoughts of fear as she had done with Duncan De Gael. Her uncle's soul was closed to her. With a gasp of despair, she let go of his hands and jumped to her feet.

'I don't understand,' she murmured and hugged herself. 'You are so very dear to me and yet I can only feel what is on the surface...'

Robert watche dhis niece and suppressed a heart-felt sigh. He knew the meaning, but he would be damned if he told her. She should figure it out on her own, now that the first steps were made. She would be save, he thought. If a man like Duncan De Gael was her husband, no one would accuse her of being a witch.
Ever since his illness had grown worse, and he had no illusions that it was going to end with him, he had been fretting about his niece's future. Now he could give in to the illness that was eating away at him, assured that she would not suffer. He chuckled silently. Who would have thought that a man like Duncan De Gael was the answer to all my prayers?

'Remember what your mother told you when you used your gift for the first time: The healer must endure the pain, only then he is able to heal, my beloved little flower,' he said calmly.

Heather's face went pale as she heard these words. She knew that Learned Ones were bound to their gifts, it was was their nature, and for the first time since this marriage business had come about, she wished she was a less fearful woman who would be courageous enough to go against the king's orders. Lord Robert Du Lac sympathised with his niece but on the other hand he was deeply relieved that this marriage would work out fine.

'Send Agnes to call upon Lord Duncan. I have to talk to him,' Robert demanded raspily after a coughing attack had subsided. Heather obliged her uncle's wish and a short while after she had sent Agnes on her errand there was a knock on the door. The young baron entered and watched the two persons intently.

'My lord Du Lac,' Duncan said and bowed his head. 'Lady Heather...'

Heather greeted him with so much as a nod and bent over her uncle to kiss him on the cheek. 'I will leave you now,' she said and straightened herself.

'Lady Heather, before you go I want to thank you again for your help,' Duncan said gruffly. 'The wound has almost healed...'

Heather blushed and bent her head. 'It was my duty to help you, Lord Duncan. You don't have to thank me!' She wanted to go but Robert captured her hand and held her back.

'I want to talk about the marriage arrangements with Lord De Gael and I want you to be present, child,' he shot the young lord a requesting look. 'You do not mind that Heather is present, do you?' Duncan shook his head at that. He wondered how much strength was still left in the old man for his request had been more a demand than a simple question.

'Nay, I do not mind. After all it is Lady Heather's marriage we want to talk about...'

'And yours, of course,' Robert retorted.

'Aye, and mine,' he said firmly.

'But you have to excuse me nevertheless, my lords. I have to prepare some things for the marriage after it was postponed these three days ...' Heather said apologetically but her voice was laced with weariness. Both men watched her and when she had left the room and Lord Robert turned towards the young man opposite him.

'As you well know my niece Heather is my only heir,' Robert Du Lac opened his speech. 'I do not have any children, either legitimate or illegitimate and my brother and his wife Amber had only her. After you have wedded Heather, she will inherit my lands and titles and will become the Baroness of Dunstan in her own right...' he paused but when he saw Duncan's frown, he continued. 'Of course, you will become Baron of Dunstan by marrying her but should your marriage end either by annulment or the death of you, she will keep her title and the land...'

'This is only fair, Lord Robert,' Duncan nodded. 'If it is God's wish that I will die before Lady Heather, she will not only keep her titles from you but also mine. The widow's taxes to the king will be paid off by my riches. I do not have any relatives who would demand their share of my land and titles. The only thing I would ask of her is to pay the yearly pensions to my soldiers...' When he heard Robert gasping he added: 'If it is your wish to have this agreement on paper send for a scribe to fix it. I will sign it!'

'My niece will write it down, if you don't mind. There is no need to involve a scribe who cannot keep his mouth shut. The less people know about this arrangement the better.'

'Aye, if it is your wish, it will be done,' Duncan replied. Robert drew in a shuddering breath before he continued. He had not thought this part of their conversation would go so well. It was unheard of that a woman would remain her own even after marriage, normally a married woman handed over all her belongings and herself to her husband, but considering the reputation of De Gael, Sir Robert had made sure to endow his niece comfortably should anything happen. That she would not only retain but gain had surprised him. Happy with the outcome, the old man prepared himself for the next part of his demands. And this one was trickier than the former.

'My niece is a very extraordinary woman and she is very gentle and caring in her ways as you have experienced yesterday. But let me be frank with you, my lord. Some people call her a witch or worse because she is a descendant of a very long line of Learned Ones from Wales,' he drew in his breath and watched the young man intently. 'It is only fair to tell you this before you make your marriage vows... Some people do not react kindly to this news, especially as her Welsh relatives seem to give you so much grief at the border marches,' he said and waited for an answer. 'Why should I detest her for this? I do not belong to people who want to destroy those who are different and have special gifts...' Duncan replied and Robert was relieved somewhat. 'As a matter of fact I believe you will have objections to me being the husband to your beloved niece. It is no secret that I am highly opposed to the marriage with your niece. But the reason for this is that I am a bastard child. For half of my life I believed that Lord Penfrey was my father but then I found out that was not so...' Duncan broke off and Robert bent forward. He was taken in by the young man's speech and he wanted to hear more. "I do not wish that my children should inherit such a legacy. I am resolved that if this marriage takes place that it will remain childless...'

'Do you not think that this is cruel? After all my niece is a gentle, caring woman. To sentence her to a childless marriage would surely depress her...'

'Aye, my lord. But do not think me so cruel,' Duncan replied slowly. 'She will have as many children as she likes if this is her wish but I will not sire these children. If Lady Heather is partial to another man I will gladly agree upon that she can take him as a lover...'

The silence that followed that statement lay heavily in the chamber. Robert stared at the young man before him, tried to gauge the man but could not find any indication that he had meant it in jest or not. With a shuddering breath he tore his gaze away and stared out of the window beyond De Gael. The nuzzling city beneath the Tower seemed like a strange, colourful painting and for a moment it struck the old man how sureal this whole situation was.

'Do you really think that my niece would agree to that?' Robert asked after a while, he knew he had to word the next sentences carefully because even though the young Lord had agreed to the financial side of this marriage, De Gael seemed adamant about this particular matter.

'It is against her principles to degrade her husband thus and if Heather hears about this she will give you a word of her own. She is a woman of very strong will and you are a man of strong passions. You may defy the Lord and the king but you will have to deal with my niece to settle this matter...'

"I can assure you, your niece will accept these matters. After all this marriage is a very favourable event for her..." Duncan said and shrugged his shoulder. He knew his demand was unusual, but he had always known not to sire any children. That Lady Heather was also a Learned One was making matters worse. What if any children he sired with her were to suffer from De Belleste's madness? Combined with the power of the witches of Wales, any child and later adult would be a dangerous foe, to all of them.

Although Lord Robert was anxious to know who Lord Duncan De Gael's father was and why he was so adamantly refusing to sire children, he let drop the matter and called for his niece. After she had entered Sir Robert directed Duncan to a chair which looked far too delicate as to hold the weight of a tall warrior like De Gael. The young knight mused about this for a short while before he sat down on the window seat whose other half was already occupied by Heather. When Robert saw this he had to smile to himself, try as he might, the young warrior had already bonded with his future wife.

When he had informed Heather about the outcome of the discussion, leaving out the more delicate parts, Heather stood up and went over to a small table on which were quills and vellum. The young lady was still shaken of the outcome of this meeting and when she started to write the arrangement her hand was shivering but after she had ended the document, she poured sand onto the parchment lavishly before handing the document over to Duncan. Deliberately, she handed it over to him upside down and when the young baron noticed that, he had to smile.

So, the lady has claws, he thought.

'Thank you, my lady,' he said as he turned the paper around to read the Latin words written there. When he had read the whole document, he nodded.

'You have a beautiful script, Lady Heather. It is good to know that you can read and write Latin...' Hearing this, she blushed embarrassed. She reached for the quill and dipped it into the ink pot. With swift strokes, Duncan put his name and seal beneath it and handed it back to Heather.

'Are you able to read Greek as well?' Duncan inquired. His interest in Heather increased.

'Aye, not only Greek but French and the Saxon and Celtic tongues as well, my lord...' Heather answered but when she noticed the warning glance of her uncle, she lowered her lids. 'But if you think it is too bold for a lady, especially for your wife, to be able to read and write, I will not mention it again...'

'Aye, lady. You better hide your talents for men do not react kindly to literate women,' Duncan replied sarcastically and when he saw uncle and niece tensing, he shrugged his shoulders which he regretted immediately because his wound was still sore.

'But as I know that one cannot hide one's talents, it will be difficult to ignore the fact that you are literate, especially to yourself. I do not have a scribe in my household and as I cannot read Greek I would be glad if you helped me with my correspondence. You are free to frequent my library whenever you wish!' Heather's smile was answer enough to him and Sir Robert nodded his head.

'Thank you,' the old man said.

The day passed uneventful, though the hall was busy with life. The servants were busy decorating the hall for the impending marriage as Heather went down for the evening meal. De Coulter had excused himself for he had immediate business with the bishop of York to attend to. When Sir Robert mentioned that Duncan frowned. He had sent a message earlier to the bishop informing him that his son had been proscribed and the king had put a high price upon his head.

Heather excused herself after a while. She felt tired and wanted to seek silence and peace in her room but when she entered her chamber, her maid Agnes was already there and she chatted constantly about the pleasures of the marriage bed. The young woman sighed when Agnes told her for the umpteenth time how much pleasure it was to be with a man between the sheets.

'Just you wait, my lady. A young man like Lord Duncan will give you much pleasure though you have to feel a little bit of pain beforehand...'

Heather closed her eyes. The constant babble of her maid was tedious and made her nervous. Although she knew from her work as a healer about the theory of mating, the act itself frightened her. 'Better prepare a cup of valerian then, Agnes,' she said. 'it is better to feel nothing rather than enduring all this...'

'Fie, lady. You must not say thus,' Agnes reprimanded her gently. 'Valerian indeed and miss all the fun?' The young woman sighed.

'Agnes, if you are so intent on bedding my future husband then do so!' she replied sharply, but regretted it immediately.

The maid watched her warden thoughtfully. She knew that Heather was far beyond the marrying age. Of course, her lady was scared about what would happen to her in the marriage bed. 'Oh, my little lamb,' the elderly woman said. 'Do not be afraid and do not heed the babble of your old stupid nurse!' She gave the young woman a gently hug and Heather returned the caress, before she unbraided her hair.

After Agnes had left to min her own business, Heather tried to sleep. But the impending marriage and her doubts and fear brought her nightmares about death and destruction. The young woman cried out when she awoke with a start. Shivering, she reached for her bedrobe and went over to the shuttered windows. The images had not been as clear as her visions when she used her gift but nevertheless they were frightening. The Learned Ones never had dreams either good or well, but if they had dreams they were visions about the past and the future and generally coming true. She sat down on the windowsill and opened the shutters. The cold chill of the night hit her with full force but she did not mind as she sat there in the darkness, hugging herself for warmth and comfort.

Duncan De Gael entered the yard and drew the cloak closer around his tall frame. Since the day he had received the king's demand he had felt restless and tonight he had visited a tavern on the other side of the river where a weary traveller was not only able to have an ale or two and a meal but also willing wrenches. He had been determined to get laid by a full-breasted whore, most of them happy to engage their mouths than any other body parts and the women in the tavern had been more than willing but he could not forget a pair of eyes the colour of green hills. He had cursed then, had cursed the woman who was soon to be his wife, but try as he might, he did not enjoy the advances of the whore and after an ale or two he had left the tavern alone and made his way back to the castle.

When the young lord was halfway across the yard his gaze was drawn to one of the upper windows where he could see a still figure in a night-gown. He recognised Lady Heather immediately after his eyes had grown accustomed to the dim light. For fear that she had fallen asleep on the windowsill, he quickened his steps and a short while later he found himself in front of the door of her room and opened it carefully.

The nightcandle had burned low but its light bathed the figure at the window in a golden haze. Duncan caught his breath when he saw her slumped over, her figure shrouded in the most glorious mane of hair he had ever seen before. Fire-gold curls framed her face and shoulders in soft disarray.

Slowly, he stepped closer and he must have made a sound for the woman raised her head and looked at him. 'Lord Duncan...' she whispered, her voice coarse.

'I feared you had fallen asleep,' Duncan said gruffly. Now that he had assured himself that she was well there was no reason to linger any longer. And yet he could not move. He wanted to dismiss any thoughts of her from his mind but he could not suppress the strong passion rising in his body. When Heather did not answer, he noticed that she was unable to move her limbs. 'Lady Heather?' Duncan asked in alarm and crossed the distance between them with two steps. He squatted down beside her and he touched her hands, they were ice-cold.

'You need a warm fire,' he whispered but when he saw that she was shaking violently, he embraced her. From the moment Duncan had touched Heather, images came flowing through her mind; anger, concern and passion were overwhelming her mind.

'No,' she gasped when she felt his passionate thoughts. 'Please, do not touch me...' She tried to push him away and when he noticed that, he immediately let go of her and stood up.

'I will not frighten you any longer with my presence!' Duncan snarled through clenched teeth and backed away. When he turned, Heather scrambled to her feet, tripping over her still numb limbs and the hem of her nightgown. Deliberately, as to assure and dare herself put a hand on the sleeve of his tunic.

'I am sorry,' she whispered, still shaken from the close contact with him. Duncan turned and looked first down at her hand on his sleeve then into her face.

'You made it quite clear that you do not want to be touched by me,' he said coarsely.

'My lord, I am sorry...' she lowered her head and searched her mind for a reasonable answer. Duncan stared at her bowed head in confusion. He wanted to ignore her and yet he could not do so. He reached out his hand and touched her cheek. Heather flinched when skin touched skin.

'Do you detest me so much?' he asked hoarsely. Heather swallowed and closed her eyes for a moment.

'How can I detest the man I have healed only a few days ago? A man who will pledge his life and honour to me on the morrow?' she asked shyly. 'It would be against my principles as a healer and as the niece of my uncle to detest a man who had shown me only kindness so far...' she wetted her rosy lips with the tip of her tongue.

Before he knew what he was doing Duncan bent down and kissed those very lips. When their lips met Heather closed her eyes. Ruthless passion flooded through her body and mind and she shivered all over. Never in her life she had experienced emotions like this and her body pained with lust. Duncan groaned as their tongues mingled with each other and he grabbed her harder. He could feel her breasts against his chest and he could not restrain himself any longer. Passion flooded through his body and it sought an outlet. The young warrior felt extremely aroused and on the brink of his mind he could sense the passion of his bride as well. Suddenly he knew what was happening even though passion and need for the woman was lancing through his entire body. With effort, he let go of her and stepped a safe distance away. Heather sighed in protest and slumped down on a chest at the foot of her bed for her limbs felt weak. When their immediate contact broke, the emotions slowly subsided.

'Your uncle told me that you are a Learned One but I did not think you had such powers...' he whispered hoarsely, trying to suppress his raging passions. Heather hid her face behind her hands, trying to gauge what she was feeling.

'You must despise me for what I am, I am sorry...' she whispered. 'But I never experienced ... this ... this.'

'Lust, Heather. What you felt was lust!' Duncan said coarsely and turned away. 'I don't think that given the special powers you own we can commence with the marriage.'

'I thought my uncle told you that I am a Learned One...' Heather said and looked up to him in confusion and dread.

'Aye, he told me today,' Duncan said and if drawn by an invisible hand, he squatted down beside her and brushed away her hair, careful not to touch her skin. 'But if I would marry you, we had to live as man and wife. I am a warrior and the emotions I harbour deep inside of me could kill you...'

Heather watched him and saw the pain in his eyes. Some of this pain she had felt herself when she had attended to his wound and even now in their passionate embrace she had sensed it and she was afraid. But unless there was evident cause the marriage could not be postponed for the king's wishes were demands for his subjects.

'If we do not marry the king will surely put a price upon your head and I will...' she broke off. Her best chance would be to be send into a convent where she was to take the veil but over the passed months the skirmishes between the English king and the rebels in Wales had grown more serious and the king would execute her as an example of his power.

'We have to go through with the marriage plans of the king, otherwise he disowns you and my uncle of all your lands. I know it is difficult and I am not experienced in the ways of marriage but I promise you that I will never come near you if this is your wish,' she blushed deeply. She felt appalled to be speaking so frankly, but she knew that she had to keep her distance, keep her body under control that even now shivered in anticipation of what could be shared between herself and Duncan De Gael. 'I know a man needs a wife in more than providing him with a home and running his keep but as it seems this .. this intimacy usually found among couples cannot be so you have my permission to... to seek other relations with women.'

If she had not sounded so serious Duncan would have laughed at her suggestion. After all, these were almost the same words he had said to her uncle in the very morning, only that he had suggested that she should take lovers. 'Don't you think that this arrangement is very unfair to you or do you suggest that you are also free to take lovers?' he asked half amused but Heather did not hear his teasing tone. She blushed even more and shook her head.

'I don't think this would be very appropriate, my lord. I am far too old to be so foolish enough as to overstep my duties and rights. Besides...,' she lowered her lids as she paused. 'I am not the kind of woman who could entice any man to dishonour you...'

Duncan arched a brow and stood up. Not the kind of woman who could entice a man? he asked himself. Lord, the kisses they had shared had left him hot and burning for her.

'So you want to spare me of dishonouring me. How noble of you, Lady Heather, but what about your honour? If I would take a leman people would soon talk,' Duncan suggested.

'Though I am quite innocent to the facts of married life I am aware that lords are known to have mistresses, Lord Duncan. It is a fact that we women have to live with...'

She sounded very resigned and intent of making their very unusual marriage work. Duncan was sure that she would do anything to keep her pledges but he was not as sure about himself as he was about her. Their kiss had triggered something off deep inside of him. When he had seen her for the first time in the solitude of his chamber he had sensed that she was something special. Of course, like any other healthy man he had lusted after her. After all, she had given him an enticing view albeit innocently, but at the same time something had happened, something had shifted inside him and he wanted to have her as his wife, he wanted to lose himself in the softness of her... He dared not spin the thought further. It almost seemed as if they were destined for each other and he didn't like this prospect at all.

'So it is marriage then?' he asked, his tongue quicker than his brains.

'Yes,' Heather nodded. 'It is the only reasonable choice we have!'

Duncan bowed his head in silent regard and left her room. Heather stared after him for long moments before she returned to bed. Until morning she had recurring dreams but they were not as frightful as the one before.

Chapter 01 | Chapter 02 | Chapter 03 | Chapter 04 | Chapter 05