Knight in Highland Armor

By: Amy Jarecki

“Honestly,” Lady Struan groused in Margaret’s ear.

The vendor held up a gnarled finger. “I’ve just the thing, but I’ll have to charge ye a penny.”

Mother gasped. “Thievery.”

Margaret held up a hand. “’Tis only fair. I should have thought to bring mine.”

The man filled the rickety old basket and held it out. “Four pennies, m’lady.”

She dug in her leather purse that hung from a cord on her belt, and handed him the coins. “Thank you, sir.” Margaret shifted her gaze to the laddie and plucked the largest apple. “This one’s for you.”

A huge grin lit up the child’s face. “Ta.” His darling little voice peeped when he accepted the gift with both hands.

Mother grasped her elbow and led her into the throng. “How could you allow that man to take advantage of you so?”

Margaret twisted her arm away. “I did no such thing. Did you see the half-starved child hiding behind the barrow?”

Mother frowned.

“I was simply buying the lad enough food to last through winter. Had I a mind to barter, I would have paid no more than one and a half.”

“Thank heavens someone else will be providing your allotment in the future. It pains me to see coin tossed away with such frivolity.”

Margaret tightened her grip on the basket handle. She loved her mother dearly, but the woman thought charity was giving alms at Eastertide and that was the end of it. She’d seen plenty of hardship, collecting rents from the estate’s crofters. A master with figures, Margaret knew full well her father could support a number of starving commoners without feeling the slightest pinch to his coffers.

Mother led her toward a tent filled with textiles. “Cloth from the east is more worth your coin, my dear.”

Margaret sighed. She’d spent the past week up to her eyeballs in cloth, standing for hours on end while the tailor pinned and snipped an entire new wardrobe. Dutifully crossing the grassy aisle, Margaret followed her mother’s lead. A juggler caught her attention. Dressed in bright yellow and red with a pointed hat, he tossed three balls high in the air.

A midget, clad in matching costume, held up another ball. “One more, master?”

“Toss it up.”

The little man threw it in and the juggler miraculously added it to the pattern of colorful flying balls. Margaret slid the basket over her wrist and clapped her hands. She rarely got to see jesters and players near Loch Rannoch. The juggler’s balls spun in a tantalizing circle that appeared to blend into one ring.

Margaret reached into her purse to pluck a farthing when horse hooves pummeled the ground. Looking up, she scarcely had the chance to dash aside. Two riders thundered through the fete at a brisk canter. She tripped over her gown. The fruit flung from her basket as the horses sped past. Margaret crashed into something sturdy and hard. Her hands whipped around it, saving herself from falling. Her hood flew from her head and dropped to her back.

It wasn’t until a pair of massive arms encircled her that she realized she’d fallen into a man—a very large, very strong man. She inhaled. The heady and exotic fragrance of cloves laced with a hint of ginger and male toyed with her insides. Struggling to drag her feet beneath her, Margaret made the mistake of grasping him tighter. His back muscles bulged beneath his quilted doublet. Her heart fluttered.

“Forgive me,” she uttered breathlessly.

His enormous hands held her shoulders firmly and helped her gain her balance. “Are you all right, m’lady?”

Flustered, Margaret pushed away and smoothed her fingers over the white ribbon encircling her crown. She brushed her fingers down the length of her exposed tresses, cascading over her shoulder to her waist. First, her gaze leveled on his red tunic, with a white cross emblazoned on the center of his very broad chest. Then her eyes drifted to his face, framed by dun-colored curls. Beneath his cap, they shone like silk in the sun, and she wanted to reach up and touch them to see if his hair was actually as soft as it looked.

Dark brown, wide-set eyes gazed upon her with a glint of humor. They were so friendly, her tension immediately eased. His features were undeniably masculine; his bold nose slightly bent toward full lips that grinned, revealing a row of healthy white teeth.

“I…I am unscathed, thank you.” Margaret inhaled a stuttered breath and hoped to heaven she wasn’t blushing. “Please forgive me.”

“There is nothing to forgive. Those lads had no business riding through the fair at full tilt. I shall have a firm word with them.”

“I’m sure they are long gone…” Margaret peered up at his feathered ermine cap—a fur only worn by Scottish barons like her father. “…m’lord.” She stepped back, taking in the whole picture. She’d seen the square white cross on his tunic somewhere before—it definitely identified him as a knight, though she could not place the order. Unusually tall, he had to be at least eighteen hands—six feet was enormous, especially compared to her five. He wore a stylish doublet of black beneath the sleeveless tunic. His woolen hose were also black, and they clung to his thighs like a second skin. His muscles bulged when he stepped toward her with fashionably pointed shoes.

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