A Sword to Be Sheathed by Darcy Armstrong

1

Ismay Geddes

“Good morning, junior chamberlain,” someone said in passing, and Ismay beamed.

Yes, it was her official title now, and had been for the better part of the week. And yet every time she heard someone say it, she couldn’t help but swell with an almost disbelieving pride.

Junior chamberlain.

No longer simply a maidservant, as she’d been since she was a young lass, but assistant to what could be argued was the most important role in the castle. After all, it wasn’t the laird that saw the beds made every day, or the rooms kept clean and tidy, or food laid out on the table every evening, was it?

Nay. It was the chamberlain that was the true heart of Dun Lagaidh, as it had always been.

But although the initial nerves had faded, Ismay found herself left with a stubborn sense of self-doubt that wouldn’t seem to disappear, no matter how much she tried to convince herself that she deserved such a position. After all, surely there were other people more suited to the role? Those older than her, and with more experience than her?

But Chamberlain Margaret had chosen her, not anyone else, and so all Ismay could do was work hard, and hope the woman hadn’t lost her mind.

Perhaps it was normal to feel fraudulent in this manner, she told herself. And the truth of the matter was that everyone had to start somewhere; even the chamberlain herself. Perhaps in a few years, after she’d gained a little more experience, Ismay would wear the role comfortably, free of such nagging self-doubt.

With a frustrated sigh, Ismay pushed away her inner turmoil, and focused instead on more positive thoughts of what the future might hold for her. As junior chamberlain, she’d work closely with the Laird and Lady McCaskill, helping to shape and influence the future of Dun Lagaidh. She would be the voice of the servants and maids, cleaners and cooks, able to raise their concerns and act on their behalf, creating a better and fairer place for all.

They were good and noble thoughts, and before long, Ismay had a spring in her step and a smile on her face once more.

Across the great hall she spied the Laird and Lady McCaskill, saying their goodbyes to a visiting dignitary representing the MacKay clan far to the north. As the dignitary sketched a bow and left the room, Ismay saw the laird look down at his wife with a warm smile. He turned to her and they kissed, chaste in the company of others, and yet it was impossible to miss the sense of love and desire that enveloped them. They walked away together, hand in hand, and Lady McCaskill said something that made her husband roar with laughter.

Ismay smiled at the sight, wondering if her future also included someone to share it with.

Perhaps someone to look at her the way Laird McCaskill looked at his wife?

Ismay shook her head. No, she wouldn’t allow herself to dwell on such matters. Not today, which had started so happily. She thought back to her promotion and the future that awaited her, searching again for the spark of pride and hope. Junior chamberlain. Faced with such responsibility, what did it matter than she hadn’t found a man yet?

That she’d never even been kissed?

Ismay swallowed heavily and looked down at the papers in her hand. Her next task was to speak to the head of the kitchens about finding a new junior cook, and so she crossed the main hall to seek out Lilidh MacBrennan, knowing as she did the woman had a knack for calming her thoughts. In truth, Ismay and the head of the kitchens had formed something of a bond of friendship over the last year or so, despite their age difference. Ismay appreciated the older woman’s no-nonsense, hardworking approach to life, and did her best to shape her own attitude in a similar fashion.

The warmth of the ovens hit her as she stepped into the kitchen, followed shortly by the smell of baking bread. Her stomach protested at the rather unwelcome reminder that she’d skipped her morning tea.

“Is Lilidh about?” she asked a woman standing at the washbasins.

“She stepped outside, junior chamberlain,” she replied, nodding her head towards the main doors. “No' more than a few minutes ago.”

Ismay thanked her and walked to the main doors of the castle, pulling her cloak tighter around herself. She could feel the blast of cold air sweeping in from outside. Another fell day. The sky above was a dark and angry grey, and the ground was covered in muddy snow, rutted and tracked from use. She spied Lilidh MacBrennan leaning against the stone parapet in the distance, looking down over the town. Ismay was about to walk over when the woman turned and waved at someone approaching, and Ismay spied her husband, Mathe MacBrennan, walking up the hill with his characteristic limp.

Ismay paused as she watched the husband and wife embrace. Mathe leant her backwards into an extravagant kiss, and Lilidh’s delighted laughter floated back on the chill wind.

As she had when she watched the Laird and Lady McCaskill in their affections, Ismay felt a quaking inside, but this time she simply spun on her heel and marched straight back into the castle.

Her list, her list, her list.

She read it almost desperately, feeling the vague and yearning sadness returning as she searched for the next task to put her mind towards. Margaret wanted to speak to her about the rostering of cleaning staff. Perhaps it was an additional responsibility she wanted Ismay to take on? Yes, that was good. Focus on the job, she ordered herself, as she navigated the long and twisting corridors to the chamberlain’s study.

Don’t think of Lilidh and Mathe MacBrennan, kissing passionately in the softly falling snow.

Don’t think of Laird Blaine and Lady Kenzie, undressing each other with their eyes.

Ismay yanked open the door to Margaret’s study, only belatedly realising she forgot to knock…

… And was greeted by Steward Fergus sitting in Margaret’s chair, with the chamberlain in his lap, locked in a passionate embrace. At Ismay’s abrupt entrance, Margaret leapt to her feet with an embarrassed squeak.

“Ismay!” she all but shouted.

Ismay felt her face redden. “Oh, goodness, I’m… I’m so sorry, chamberlain,” she stammered, backing out of the room. “I should have knocked. I shouldnae have seen… that. I’m terribly sorry. It willnae happen again.”

She pulled the door closed with trembling hands, and practically ran back down the corridor, knowing she was losing the battle to distract herself from her own loneliness.

Was everyone in this castle so damnably in love?

And when was it going to be her turn?

Ismay shook her head angrily. She was better than that. Dun Lagaidh needed a junior chamberlain with her mind on the job. Not a silly fool daydreaming of love. After all, love wouldn’t see the servants managed, or the larders stocked, would it? Love wouldn’t change the sheets, or make the beds, or keep the castle turning like a well-maintained waterwheel. In fact, it appeared that love only served as a distraction, and Ismay knew she couldn’t afford any such thing. Let others have love, and let Ismay Geddes focus on her duties.

And yet, despite her best efforts, she still wondered.