The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1)

The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1) Page 23
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The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1) Page 23

He thought she looked like she was about to weep. Her eyes were misty, and it was very apparent to him that she was struggling to maintain her dignity. Judith hadn't been physically injured, but her feelings had certainly been trod upon.

"Winslow?" Iain's voice was hard, furious.

Isabelle's husband took a step forward. He knew what his laird was asking and immediately gave his explanation of what had happened in a quick, concise manner. Winslow still hadn't gotten over his anger, either. His voice shook.

Iain put his hand on Judith's shoulder. He could feel her trembling. That notice made him even more furious. "Judith is a guest in my brother's home."

He waited until everyone inside the cottage had acknowledged that statement of fact, then added, "But she is also under my protection. If there is trouble, you will bring it to me. Is that understood?"

The rafters shook from the fury in his voice. Judith had never seen Iain this angry. It was a little overwhelming. Frightening, too. She tried to remind herself that he wasn't upset with her, that he was actually defending her, but logic didn't help much. The look in his eyes still made her shiver.

"Laird Iain, do you realize what you're implying?"

The priest whispered his question. Iain stared at Judith when he gave his abrupt answer. "I do."

"Hell," Brodick muttered.

Iain let go of Judith and turned around to confront his friend. "Do you want to challenge me?"

Brodick had to think the question over a long minute before shaking his head. "No. You have my support. God knows you're going to need it."

"You have my support as well," Winslow called out.

Iain nodded. The muscle in the side of his jaw quit flexing. Judith thought his friends' show of loyalty was calming his anger.

Why the man needed their support was beyond her understanding. In England, hospitality was offered by all the members of the family to a guest, but here it was obviously very different.

"The council?" Winslow asked.

"Soon," Iain answered.

A gasp came from behind Judith. She turned to look at the midwives. She was surprised to see Helen's expression. The woman seemed to be relieved about the outcome of the inquisition. She was trying hard not to smile. That notice didn't make any sense to Judith.

Agnes's expression didn't leave her guessing, however. Her eyes blazed with anger. Judith turned away from the woman. Father Laggan, she noticed, was watching her intently.

"Father, do you have any other questions to ask me?"

He shook his head. He smiled, too. Since no one was paying the two of them any attention now, she moved forward to ask the priest a question. Winslow, his brother Brodick, and Iain were in deep discussion, and the relatives at the table were all talking at once.

"Father, may I ask you something?" she whispered.

"Of course."

"If there hadn't been any bruises, would you have condemned Isabelle and her son?" Judith adjusted the shawl around her neck while she waited for his answer.

"No," he answered.

She felt better. She didn't want to think a man of the cloth would be so rigid. "Then you would have taken my word alone as proof enough, even though I'm an outsider here?"

"I would have found a way to support your claim, perhaps by calling on all of Isabelle's relatives to speak up on her behalf." He took hold of Judith's hand and patted her. "The bruises made my task much easier."

"Yes, they did," she agreed. "If you'll excuse me now, Father, I would like to leave."

She hurried outside as soon as he'd given her permission. It was probably rude of her to leave without saying good-bye to the others, especially their laird, but Judith couldn't stomach the idea of staying in the same room with Agnes a minute longer.

The crowd had more than doubled in size since she'd gone inside. Judith wasn't in the mood for their curiosity now. She held her head high as she made her way over to the tree where she had left her mount.

She wasn't in the mood for the stallion's skittish behavior, either, she gave the animal a good swat on his left flank to get him to settle down long enough for her to gain the saddle.

Judith was still too upset by the ordeal she'd just gone through to go directly back to Frances Catherine. She needed to calm down first. She didn't have a destination in mind but goaded the stallion up the path toward the crest. She would ride until she'd gotten rid of her anger, no matter how long it took.

Father Laggan came outside Isabella's cottage a scant minute after Judith had left. He raised both hands into the air to gain the crowd's attention. His smile was wide. "It has all been resolved to my satisfaction," he called out. "Lady Judith cleared up the matter in quick time."

A loud cheer went up. The priest moved to the side of the stoop to allow Brodick to pass by. Iain and Winslow followed.

The gathering moved out of Brodick's way as he strode over to the trees where Judith had left his horse. He had almost reached his destination before he realized his mount was gone.

Brodick had an incredulous look on his face when he whirled around. "By God, she's done it again," he roared to no one in particular. He couldn't seem to make sense out of the insult Judith had given him by taking his horse. The fact that the stallion actually belonged to Iain didn't make any difference, either.

"Lady Judith didn't steal your horse," Winslow called out. "She only borrowed it. Those were her words to me when she arrived here, and I imagine she still believes—"

Winslow couldn't go on. His laughter got in his way. Iain had more discipline. He didn't even smile. He gained his mount, then put his hand down to Brodick. The warrior was about to swing himself up behind his laird when Bryan, an older man with hunched shoulders and bright orange hair, took a step forward. "The woman didn't steal your mount and you shouldn't be thinking she did, Brodick."

Brodick turned around to glare at the man. Then another soldier shoved his way to the front of the crowd. He took his position next to Bryan. "Aye, Lady Judith was probably just in a hurry," he said.

Yet another and another came forward to offer their reasons for Lady Judith taking the mount. Iain couldn't have been more pleased. The issue wasn't really the borrowing of the horse, of course. The men were letting it be known to their laird that Judith had won their support… and their hearts. She'd stood up for Isabelle and they were now standing up for her.

"She didn't have to help our Isabelle last night and she didn't have to come back here today to answer Father Laggan's questions," Bryan stated. "You won't be speaking ill of Lady Judith, Brodick, or you'll answer to me."

A stiff wind would have knocked Bryan over, so feeble was he in strength, yet he courageously challenged Brodick.

"Hell," Brodick muttered, his exasperation obvious.

Iain did smile then. He nodded to Judith's champions, waited until Brodick had swung up behind him, and then goaded his mount forward.

Iain assumed Judith would go directly back to his brother's home. The horse wasn't out front, however, and he couldn't imagine where she'd gone.

He stopped his mount so Brodick could drop to the ground. "She might have ridden back up to the keep," Iain remarked. "I'll look there first."

Brodick nodded. "I'll look down below," he said. He started to walk away, then suddenly turned around again. "I'm giving you fair warning, Iain. When I find her, I'm going to give her hell."

"You have my permission."

Brodick hid his grin. He waited for the catch. He knew Iain well enough to understand how his mind worked. "And?" he prodded when his laird didn't qualify his agreement.

"You may give her hell, but you can't raise your voice while you're at it."

"Why not?"

"You might upset her," Iain explained with a shrug. "I can't allow that."

Brodick opened his mouth to say something more, then changed his mind. Iain had just taken all the bluster out of his indignation. If he couldn't yell at the woman, why bother lecturing her at all?

He turned around and started down the hill, muttering under his breath. Iain's laughter followed him.

Judith wasn't waiting for him at the keep. Iain backtracked, then took the path to the west that led up to the next ridge.

He found her at the cemetery. She was walking at a fast clip along the path that separated the sacred ground from the trees.

She had thought that a brisk walk would help her get rid of some of her anger over the ordeal she'd just gone through for Isabelle, and had come upon the cemetery quite by chance. Curious, she'd stopped to have a look.

The burial ground was really a very pretty, peaceful place. Tall wooden slats, newly whitewashed and standing as straight as lances, surrounded the cemetery on three sides. Ornately carved headstones, some arched, others square-topped, filled the interior in neat rows. Fresh flowers covered almost every other plot. Whoever had been given the task of looking after this final resting place had done his duty well. The care and attention was very evident.

Judith made the sign of the cross as she walked along the path. She left the cemetery proper and continued on up the narrow climb, past the line of trees blocking the sight of the valley below. The wind whistled through the branches, a sound she found quite melancholy.

The ground reserved for the damned was directly ahead of her. She came to an abrupt stop when she reached the edge of the stark burial ground. There wasn't any whitewashed fencing here, or any ornately carved headstones. Only weathered wooden stakes had been used.

Judith knew who was buried here. They were the poor souls the Church had decided belonged in Hell. Aye, there were robbers, and murderers, and rapists, and thieves, and traitors, of course… and all the women who had died during childbirth.

The anger she'd hoped to get rid of grew until it was a burning rage inside her.

Wasn't there any fairness in the afterlife, either?


She whirled around and found Iain standing no more than a few feet away. She hadn't heard him approach.

"Do you think they're all in Hell?"

He raised an eyebrow over the vehemence in her voice. "Who are you talking about?"

"The women buried here," she explained with a wave of her hand. She didn't give him time to answer her. "I don't believe they're in Hell. They died doing their sacred duty, damn it. They suffered with the laboring and died fulfilling their obligation to their husbands and their priests. And for what, Iain? To burn in Hell for eternity because the Church didn't think they were clean enough for Heaven? It's all rubbish," she added in a harsh whisper. "All of it. If that opinion makes me a heretic, I don't care. I cannot believe God would be so cruel."

Iain didn't know what to say to her. Logic told him she was right. It was rubbish. In truth, he had never taken the time to think about such matters.

"A woman's duty is to give her husband heirs. Isn't that so?"

"Yes," he agreed.

"Then why is it that from the moment she finds out she's carrying his child, she isn't allowed to go inside a church? She's considered unclean, isn't she?"

She asked him another question before he could respond to the first. "Do you believe Frances Catherine's unclean? No, of course you don't," she answered. "But the Church does. And if she gives Patrick a son, she need wait only thirty-three days before she undergoes the cleansing ritual and can return to church. If she gives him a daughter, she must wait twice as long… and if she dies during her laboring or any time before she's received the blessing, she'll end up here. How fitting for Frances Catherine to be buried next to a murderer and a—"

She finally stopped. She bowed her head and let out a weary sigh. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have railed against you. If I could just force myself not to think about such matters, I wouldn't become so angry."

"It's in your nature to care."

"How would you know what's in my nature?"

"The way you helped Isabelle is one example," he replied. "And there are many other examples I could give you."

His voice was filled with tenderness when he answered her. She felt as though she'd just been caressed. She suddenly wanted to lean into him, to wrap her arms around him and hold him tight. Iain was so wonderfully strong, and she was feeling so horribly vulnerable now.

She hadn't realized until that moment how much she admired him. He was always so certain about everything, so sure of himself. There was an air of quiet authority about him. He didn't demand respect from his followers. Nay, he'd earned their loyalty and their trust. He rarely raised his voice to anyone. She smiled then, for she'd just realized he had raised his voice to her several times. He wasn't as disciplined when she was around, she guessed. She wondered what that meant.

"If you don't like something, isn't it your duty to try to change it?" he asked.

She almost laughed over his suggestion until she realized from his expression he was quite serious. She was flabbergasted. "You believe I could take on the Church?"

He shook his head. "One whisper, Judith, added to a thousand others will become a roar of discontent even the Church can't ignore. Start with Father Laggan. Put your questions to him. He's a fair man. He'll listen to you."

He smiled when he said the word "fair." She found herself smiling back. He wasn't mocking her. Nay, he was really trying to help. "I'm not significant enough to make any changes. I'm only a woman who—"

"As long as you believe that nonsense, you won't accomplish anything. You'll defeat yourself."

"But Iain," she argued, "what difference could I make? I would be condemned if I openly criticize the teachings of the Church. How would that help?"

"You don't begin by attacking," he instructed. "You discuss the contradictions in the rules. If you make one other person aware, and then another and another…"

He didn't go on. She nodded. "I must consider this," she said. "I can't imagine how I could make anyone pay any attention to my opinions, especially here."

He smiled. "You already have, Judith. You made me realize the contradictions. Why did you stop here today?" he asked.

"It wasn't on purpose," she replied. "I wanted to walk for a little while, until I'd gotten rid of my anger. You probably didn't notice, but I was really very upset when I left Isabelle's cottage. I was ready to scream. It was all so unfair, what they put her through."

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