Set in the spring of 1477, this story takes place more than ten years before the events explored in my novel, and once again, it is inspired by real historical events. We know from historical accounts that Hugh Montgomerie married Helen Campbell in Dollar Church, Clackmannanshire in April 1478, and history certainly suggests that their marriage was long and fruitful. It may also have been a happy one: during a marriage which spanned decades, only one illegitimate child is recorded, which suggests that Hugh, for all his faults, was loyal and perhaps even devoted to his wife.
I wrote the longer work from which this fragment is derived as a way of exploring how the relationship between the couple may have developed, working on the premise that since Hugh was an orphan, he may have had more say than most in his choice of marriage partner. An alliance with the Campbells of Argyll was certainly very advantageous to him: it was Colin Campbell, 1st Earl of Argyll, who appears to have taken the young Hugh Montgomerie under his wing, with Hugh's first appearance on the national stage recorded when he accompanies the earl on a diplomatic mission to meet with John, Lord of the Isles in the early 1480s.
Since the Lord Montgomerie’s arrival, the entire household had been turned upon its head. Or it seemed that way to Helen: leaning against the bedpost with arms folded, she watched in silence as her two older sisters threw their hearts and souls into looking their best. There was a tense edge to their usual good humour, an unfamiliar urgency.
The eldest, Margaret, birled around in a blaze of glorious plum-red satin. “D’you think this’ll tempt him?”
“Why make all this effort?” Helen pointed out. “You don’t even know he’s a prize worth winning.”
“Oh, hush, Helen!” Margaret glanced skywards. “How can you possibly understand? You’re still too young...”
Helen pursed her lips, aware that a diplomatic response was needed. “You look very fine,” she replied. “I’m sure he’ll be smitten at first glance.”
“In a few years’ time,” Isabel chirped nearby, “You’ll see things very differently...”
Helen shrugged, non-committal. She grasped her book from a nearby kist - the Illiad, gleaned from the earl’s chamber - and escaped onto the stair with a weary sigh, hurrying away before Margaret could add some wisdom of her own. She wished with all her heart that the Lord Montgomerie would make his mind up quickly; at least then there’d be an end to the upheavel.
She supposed it was a good thing that her sisters dismissed her as a lost cause. Since she wasn’t an active participant in this tourney to capture a young man’s heart, she remained an ally, a confidante.
She was the studious one, the practical one, her face bronzed from days spent tramping the hills with hawk or hound. When the time comes for a fine young man to woo you, her mother had said, then in the name of God make some kind of an effort. And don’t for Heaven’s sake open that sweet mouth of yours and instruct him on those things he knows best. If he wants advice about his horse, he’ll ask his groom. If he’s troubled by the condition of his hounds, he’ll consult his huntsman. And if he seeks to understand the arts of war and statecraft, he’ll have friends enough to assist him.
But what if he can’t trust his friends? she’d asked. Surely if there’s one person in the world a man can rely upon, it’s his wife, for isn’t she the one who must always carry his best interests at heart...
Her mother laughed and skelped her head, gentle recrimination. Of course, my love. But men are strange creatures. They can’t abide it when their womenfolk prove wiser than themselves. A woman must steer her man’s course using guile and cunning. She can dictate the terms to those beneath her station, but never to her lord.
Remembering those words, Helen wrinkled her nose in annoyance. If a man couldn’t love her for what she was, she thought, then she’d be better off in a nunnery.
She stepped outside and basked in the promise of the morning. The sun was shining, the air unseasonably warm. The bees were busy amongst the herbs and already the buds were swelling on the roses.
Looking down at her shabby brown velvet grown, she gave a wry smile. She looked little better than the tacksman’s daughter, her skirt hemmed with dust and strewn with horse hairs. Her courser was casting: she’d spent hours the previous day currying his coat to restore his glossy brown gleam. You should tak better care o’ yerself, her old nurse had scolded her. If ye spend so much o’ yer time in the stables, ye’ll end up marrying a horse.
I could do worse than that, she thought. And it was true. Her horse lacked neither courage nor courtesy, was always willing to provide a sympathetic ear in times of sorrow or distress.
Settling comfortably on the seat in the rose bower, Helen felt suddenly grateful for the silence and the solitude. Opening the book in her lap, she cast her eyes over the dense Latin text. The hand-crafted words were solid, reliable, with a lively flourish in the script. She liked the way they looked, and sounded. She liked the way they spoke to her as she read them aloud in her thoughts, the images they conjured up, of bold warriors clashing in an ancient world long turned to dust.
A dark shape loomed over her, eclipsing the sunlight.
Helen glanced up, mildly annoyed. But it wasn’t her brother Archie come to plague her. It was, instead, a young man she’d never met before.
Helen stared. So here he is, she thought with a jolt of surprise. And I’ve had the misfortune to encounter him first.
Even she - with her indifferent eye - could appreciate his qualities, admiring him in the same way she marvelled at the strength and magnificence of a mighty destrier, or the sleek lines of a prized hunting dog. The Lord Montgomerie possessed both grace and presence in abundance, worthy traits in a nobleman, and in a husband, too.
“Hello,” she said. It wasn’t strictly appropriate, for a maid to speak out so boldly to a stranger, but since she considered herself quite impartial, she saw no harm in it.
He didn’t reply. When he stood so close, she could see why her sisters might consider him desirable. He was lithe and tall, with a thick head of black hair that hung to his shoulders. But what struck her most of all were his eyes, grey and bright as polished steel.
She smoothed out her skirts, avoiding his gaze. She supposed she should make some effort to be friendly. “Is our place to your liking?”
He blinked, shaking himself to his senses. “It is,” he said, surprisingly emphatic. “Very much so.”
“I’m pleased to hear that.” She paused a moment, wondering what to say. “Have you found yourself a wife yet, Lord Hugh?”
He grimaced. “Not yet. But I’m sure I won’t leave this place without one. Or the promise of one, at least...” He nodded to her. “Might I sit with you?”
Helen fixed a wary glance upon him. “I see no harm in it, my lord. Though if my father catches us here together, you may find yourself wed sooner than you’d thought.”
He smiled at that, and settled alongside.
Twisting a lock of hair between her fingers, she studied her feet, awkward, uncomfortable. She’d thought nothing of him before now. But when he squeezed his tall frame onto the wooden bench beside her she felt the skin on the nape of her neck prickle in an unfamiliar way.
“Tell me about your sisters.”
Her heart sank. “I can’t possibly discuss such private matters with a stranger.”
He studied her carefully with those brilliant eyes. “And you are?”
“The Lady of Troy,” he said. “The fair-faced queen for whom the ancient heroes fought and died...”
She smiled and shook her head. “You can rest assured, Lord Hugh, that no man has ever fought and died for me.”
“Not yet, at any rate. But then, you’re still very young...” He regarded her in silence for a while, eyes narrowed. “Do you often visit this place?”
“When circumstances permit it,” she replied. “Sometimes I prefer my own company. But if I’m found consorting with impulsive young men like yourself then I daresay my freedom will be curtailed.”
“Heaven forbid.” That smile touched his lips again. Reaching out, he slipped his fingers beneath her book and lifted it slightly. “And what, exactly, are you reading?”
“An ancient tale, by Homer. No doubt it’s familiar to you.”
“The Illiad?” He stretched out his legs before him. They were the limbs of a knight, long and slender, but well-muscled.
She didn’t answer at first, keenly aware of the press of his hips against her own, the scent of him, his warm male fragrance masked by musk and lavender and leather. Her heart quickened at the possibilities and she glanced aside, blushing. “I’m named after her, you know. The Lady of Troy...”
“I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate,” he told her. He clasped his hands before him, frowning, jiggling his knee and making no attempt to conceal his agitation. “You’re right to be wary,” he agreed. He looked her in the face, suddenly earnest. “At what hour would I find you here tomorrow? After mass, perhaps? Or once dinner is behind us?”
“When the noon bell rings,” she replied. “Wait for me then.”