Ellie MacKyrie looked down on wolves, a dozen of them, circling below her in the light of early morning. They eyed her as they jumped, then snarled and snapped at each other, slavering, teeth flashing in frustration, unable to reach her. She ruffled her feathers.
She had enough self-awareness to know she slept. Did she merely dream? Or was this a Seeing?
Ah, she wore the brown breast and claws of an owl. Symbol of wisdom, knowledge, a night hunter of great vision.
Another Seeing, then.
But a night hunter facing a threat in daylight, hunted by the wolves below, who must know they could not catch her. So what, then, was their purpose? What were they meant to show her?
Suddenly, a man appeared, big, broad-shouldered, his hair shot through with golden streaks that gleamed in the sunlight. At his appearance, some of the wolves fell dead at his feet. Others ran, howling, scattering into the forest around them. Until nothing remained but the man.
He turned his face up to her, but the sunlight dazzled her dark-sensitive eyes. She blinked but could not see his features. Only the hand he held up to her, reaching for her. Why? Who was he?
She swiveled her face away, the better to see him from the corner of her eye. Strong features, but still not distinct enough to form a recognizable face. Closer by, his big hand looked strong and scarred. A warrior true.
She’d seen him before in visions like this one. Why did he appear, again and again, in her Sight? Always reaching up to her after turning aside threats, averting danger. Would she ever meet him in the real world? How dire would be the threats that finally brought him to her?
Would he still reach for her when he’d done what he came to do?
Scottish Highlands, 1517
Donal McNabb of Clan Lathan held up his left hand and closed his fingers into a fist. The six men following him reined their mounts to a stop. He glanced at Jamie Lathan and saw him nod. Aye, he heard it, too. The breeze carried banshee shrieking. The rough clatter of horses’ hooves on rocky ground. Still at a distance, but ahead.
The sounds coming through the trees were unmistakable to men who, between them, had fought too many battles to count. But something seemed odd. Why didn’t they hear the bright clang of sword-on-sword? Was the battle ahead already won—or lost?
“Wha’ the hell?” Jamie breathed the question, one eyebrow raised.
They couldn’t be sure how far their voices would carry in these woods, and that noise up ahead could be anything. A training session—a mock battle with wooden weapons—might explain the missing clang of swords. Or a joust. Donal had attended a tournament in Edinburgh many years before and watched in disbelief as French knights in costly armor rode full-out, intent on unhorsing each other with long lances. Such contests were not practiced in the Highlands, where life was much less genteel. But this far to the south and east, perhaps such contests had been adopted from the Lowlands.
In any event, they were in unfamiliar territory, so they took precautions.
Donal didn’t need to answer Jamie. He had trained the men riding with him from lads to seasoned warriors. At his nod, they picked their way carefully through the trees, spreading left and right, keeping in sight of each other. At his signal, they began to move forward, their well-schooled mounts making hardly a whisper as they passed between boughs and branches.
The racket grew louder as they approached, deepening into men’s hoarse shouts pierced by the terrified cries of—children? Donal spurred his mount forward. The rest of his men kept pace, stealth forgotten as they rode hard through the trees.
When they reached the source of the noise, Donal took in the scene with a glance. Horsemen charged in a loose circle around three wagons loaded with wooden casks and manned by young lads and old men. The normally placid Highland cattle hitched to the wagons tossed their heads, their horns threatening to disembowel any horse that came too close. The bandits, wearing plain clothing that lacked any clan insignia, slashed broadswords through the air over the heads of their intended victims. They whooped and jeered as the old men on the wagons shouted, thrusting swords at the circling mounts. The lads clustered around a wounded elder as they bravely waved dirks, then cried out and cowered away from certain death when the bandits’ blades whipped near.
In one smooth motion, Donal pulled his baldric over his head and slid his claymore out. He charged the nearest rider, swinging with deadly aim. His men engaged the others with equally fatal results. In moments, the few bandits still alive took off through the trees.
Donal reined to a halt and signaled his men. Jamie and Bram flanked him while the rest began to confirm the dead or stood guard against the remaining bandits’ return. He sheathed his sword and dismounted, eyeing the wagons’ contents. What bounty did they hold that failed to merit a decently armed and able escort, yet still attracted a band of ruffians this deep the Highland mountains?
The lads watched him approach, wide-eyed and ruddy with fear. The old men waited warily, swords brandished, to see what he would do.
He stopped several yards away from the wagons, hands out, palms open. “Are ye well, then?” he called out.
“Nay,” came the piping response from one of the lads. “Fergus is bleedin’.”
Donal kept his hands in view. Tempers ran high in the aftermath of a battle. He wanted to reassure the wagons’ occupants, not incite them into doing something unexpected. Surprises could be deadly. The last thing he wanted was to be forced to kill laddies and old men.
“Who’s in charge here?”
“I am.” The wounded elder’s voice sounded raspy but stronger than Donal expected, given the amount of blood staining the man’s shirt from a slice on his arm. “Fergus MacKyrie at yer service. We owe ye our thanks.” He waved away the lads and tried to stand, but couldn’t gain his feet. Two of the lads helped him up. Donal looked over all of them while he waited for Fergus, giving the man time to gain his feet and his dignity. Several were bloodied, though none as badly as their leader.
“No thanks are needed,” he said, finally. “We couldna stand by when we came upon such banditry. Where is yer escort?”
“Escort?” Fergus gestured at the wagons with his good hand. “We care for ourselves, and travel as ye see us, simple men on our way to deliver our goods.”
Donal eyed the casks, waiting for Fergus to offer more information.
“Nonetheless,” Fergus continued with a grimace, reaching behind him with his good arm to grasp the edge of a barrel, “ye have our thanks and those of the MacKyrie, should ye ever find yer way here again.”
“Clan MacKyrie is where we’re headed,” Donal told him with a glance at Jamie, who nodded. What did those barrels hold? “’Tis best we escort ye there. Those ruffians will come back.”
“But the whis…” one of the older men objected.
Fergus waved him to silence while he gave Donal a long, assessing stare.
Donal kept his face impassive, despite his mounting anger. That much whisky, with none to guard it but old men and lads? The MacKyrie laird was a fool or worse. Sending this lot without proper escort risked their deaths and the loss of their cargo, as they had just seen.
“Aye, that would be wisest,” Fergus continued after a few shallow breaths. “I believe I’m in need of patching up. As are some of the others.” He paled and sank onto the barrelhead. “Over the pass…”
“Mount up,” Donal barked to his men. The old man couldn’t last long, bleeding like that. “Get these wagons moving. Let’s get out of here before more trouble arrives. One of ye,” he said, gesturing to the MacKyries, “get Fergus flat and find something to bind his wound or he’ll no’ finish the trip alive.”
Jamie stood by Donal as everyone scrambled to obey. “Too bad Aileana’s no’ with us.”
Their laird, Toran Lathan, had escaped from an invading Lowlander army over a year ago, along with a woman who could heal with her touch, Aileana Shaw. Many in the clan, Donal included, had treated her with suspicion, distrusting her strange talent even after she’d saved Jamie from an arrow wound that would have killed any other man. Even after Toran married her. To this day, Donal regretted ever doubting her abilities or her devotion to their Laird.
“If we can keep that auld man alive until we arrive, they’ll sign the treaty, never fear,” Donal told Jamie. “That’s yers to do. I’ll get us there.”
“Would ye look at that?” Jamie’s voice held awe, but his face displayed pure consternation: brows drawn down around slitted blue eyes, his lips pursed. He shifted uncomfortably in his saddle, despite the easy pace they’d been forced to keep for the wagons.
The keep was bigger than the Aerie. A lot bigger.
“Toran’s a crafty one, he is, to ally with this lot,” Bram added. Donal ignored him and studied their destination.
The keep rose up behind its high walls across the glen, pennants flying from the tower tops at each corner. Glass glinted under the midday sun in every window. A sprawling village puddled out from the base of the walls like a sitting woman’s skirt, and a trail meandered through its midst to the keep’s open gates.
“Can we be sure of our welcome here?” Jamie asked quietly.
“We’re bringin’ home their whisky and their menfolk,” Donal groused. “The laird’s gratitude had better include answering questions, like why we’re havin’ to escort his wounded.” At Jamie’s raised eyebrow, he continued. “Once they ken how charming we are, there shouldna be any problems.”
Jamie grinned and shook his head.
Behind him, Bram choked back a laugh and began coughing.
What was Toran thinking, Donal fumed, sending them to a treat with a clan that could claim a seat such as this one? Damn him. Toran stayed in the Aerie, close by his hearth, besotted by his wife and bairns, but still determined to stitch together treaties with the surrounding clans so they would never again fall prey to a Lowlander army like the one that had plagued them last year.
Not that Toran had anything to regret. The Lowlander army had brought Aileana to him. Donal scowled at his partner. If Jamie hadn’t bound the two of them together in the handfasting ceremony, it would be Toran out here in the hinterlands with Jamie, and Donal holding down the fort back at the Aerie, the clan Lathan seat. Wedded bliss…pah. Donal had no interest in that, especially after having seen the effect it had on his laird.
“Why did a clan as rich as this one appears to be send Fergus out with no escort?”
Jamie’s question brought Donal back to the present. He shook his head. “It doesna make sense.” As much as Donal would like to turn around and forget the whole mess, there was no hope for it—they couldn’t return to the Aerie without an answer from the MacKyrie or Toran would have their heads.
“Worst case,” Jamie added drily, “we can always ask guest-right. They wouldna turn us away then, no matter how many questions ye ask. Of course, gettin’ him to sign a treaty after ye finish yer interrogation might be more of a challenge.”
Donal slanted him a look. “I’m sure with yer ambassadorial skills, ye’ll be up to it.”
“Come on, then,” Jamie urged, smirking. “Let’s get this over with.”
Donal kicked his mount into a faster pace and crossed the glen, Jamie at his side. The wagons trundled faster behind him, the coos sensing home much as a horse would. The rest of the Lathans stayed with the wagons, the guard they should have had all along. The more he thought about the attack they’d broken up, the more his ire rose against the laird they were about to meet. Good thing Jamie was the ambassador. He would do the talking. As irritated as the laird’s neglect of his people made him, Donal was more likely to start a new war.
On closer inspection, the village seemed well kept if not overly prosperous. Off in the distance, black dots were scattered over the hillsides—each one a short, shaggy Highland coo. Or did they name them “cow” here, in the Lowlander manner? No matter. They had milk and meat aplenty then. Smoke rose from the blacksmith’s chimney. A lad barely old enough to be a tinker’s apprentice pounded out the side of a bent pot in front of his shop. But most of the villagers they passed were women. Several started toward the wagons only to be pulled back by their companions.
“They fear us,” Jamie remarked, “even though we are no’ threatening them or their men.”
“’Tis odd,” Donal agreed. “I’d expect more of a welcome from a Highland village.” He glanced behind him at the old men and lads. The men smiled at the women they passed. The lads waved and called out, but they failed to entice any lasses too near. Donal resolved to find out what had happened here to make the villagers so wary.
They made their way without incident inside the walls of the keep. The gate stood open. No one challenged their entry. Dangerously lax safeguards, Donal thought, looking around. The few men he spied were up on the ramparts. Women and children filled the bailey.
“Flodden?” Jamie asked quietly.
“That would be my guess,” Donal replied. “We’ll get more answers from the laird.” Many clans had lost their lairds and fighting-aged men in 1513 defending King James IV against the English at Flodden Fields. The losses were so heavy in the Lowlands that many clans had fallen apart. Some of the clanless “lost men” had joined together in the army the Lathans had broken up the year before. Losses at Flodden among Highland clans varied, but Donal suspected this one had been hit hard.
Donal and his men dismounted as old Fergus and the other wounded were moved into the keep. One of the lads approached, manlike despite his youth. “If ye’ll wait here, I’ll send the steward to ye,” he offered. “He’ll get ye settled in.”
“We’d like to talk to yer laird, lad,” Jamie told him.
“The laird will be with ye presently, I’m sure.” The lad shrugged, looking anything but sure as he took off at a run for the door of the keep.
“We’re to be left standin’ in the bailey, then?” Donal complained to no one in particular, his gaze moving from the people in the bailey, to the battlements, to the keep’s open gate, and back to Jamie.
“Let’s wait a bit for the steward.”
“If we’re left here much longer, we’ll take the horses to the stables, then look for the laird on our own,” Donal vowed. “We’ll no’ be treated like common tradesmen or worse.”
Before Donal could put words into action, an elderly man stepped out of the doorway into the keep and approached them. “Ye must be the men who rescued our folk.” He beckoned over several of the curious lads who had gathered nearby upon their arrival. “Take the horses to the stables, lads, and treat them well. We owe these men our thanks.”
“I’m Jamie Lathan, clan Lathan,” Jamie introduced himself. “Donal McNabb, clan Lathan, Bram, Forbes, Alpin, and Innis, clan Lathan all.”
“’Tis a great pleasure to make yer acquaintance,” the man said with a tip of his head. “I’m the steward, Sawney MacKyrie. Please follow me to yer quarters. Our laird wishes ye to be made comfortable.”
“As I told the lad,” Jamie said before the man could turn away, “we’d like to speak to the laird.”
“That won’t be possible today. The laird is quite busy, but will be available to ye in the mornin’.”
Jamie nodded, then raised an eyebrow as he looked to Donal, his meaning plain. What was going on here?
Donal shrugged and gestured for the others to follow the steward. As a group, they entered the great hall of the MacKyrie keep.
Ellie MacKyrie wiped her brow and pushed her hair out of her face for what seemed like the thousandth time. It had come loose from its braid again. Gotten in her eyes again. Irritated her beyond belief. Again. And dammit, in the midst of trying to stitch poor Fergus’s wound. She didn’t need the extra aggravation right now. Too bad Nan was busy tending one of the lads who’d come in with Fergus. She was better at this kind of stitchery. As healer, Nan had years of experience. A swig from the bottle sitting by Fergus’s left hand might be tempting, but while the fiery spirit could improve Ellie’s mood, she doubted it would improve her stitchery one bit. Fergus might be getting on in years, but even he would want her to do a neat job so he would heal with as little scarring as possible and keep the use of his arm. Besides, the whisky was for him, to dull his senses while she worked, and from the sound of his soft snores, it had done its job.
There, last stitch. The poor man could rest now, unmolested by her needle or her temper.
Who had done this? Who was to blame for terrorizing and wounding old men and lads? Lads, for God’s sake. Who did that to beardless lads? Or elders like Fergus? Rievers? Lost men? Or, as she feared, a neighboring clan? Who would stoop so low?
She put aside her needle and thread, dabbed Fergus’s wound with a whisky-soaked rag to clean away the rest of the dried blood, then stood and looked around her.
Davy met her gaze, still wide-eyed and fighting sleep. He’d seen more today than any nine-year-old should. Damn the auld king, the lairds, the warriors all, leaving them in this mess.
“Ye should sleep, Davy,” she told him as she bent to pull the covers higher on his thin chest.
“I canna, Ellie. No’ yet. I havena told ye about the brave warriors who saved us. And their leader, aye, his is the like we need.”
“Do we now?” Even the youngest lads knew they were in trouble and sought to help. If she didn’t need to reassure these lads, she’d be swamped with dismay by the burdens they bore. “Then tell me, laddie, so ye can rest.” She glanced around the room, noting several of her other patients awake and listening. “So all of ye can get to sleep.”
“There we were, surrounded,” Davy began.
“When horsemen broke out o’ the trees,” another voice piped in.
“They slew our attackers…whack!…just like that.”
“Aye,” Davy agreed solemnly. “But no’ before several of us were cut and bleedin’, tryin’ to defend ourselves and the MacKyrie whisky.”
“Like Fergus,” another added.
“Ye were all very brave,” she told them, fighting back tears of grief and anger. Those wagons should never have gone out without an escort, but where were they to find one of those? Instead, these lads, these bairns, had been forced to fight for their very lives.
“Their leader was a master of the blade,” Davy continued, oblivious to the turmoil nearly swamping her. “They were all braw warriors, but oh, if only ye could ha’ seen him! He killed five or six all on his own.” She couldn’t deny his enthusiasm for their rescuer. But this must be childish exaggeration. Or was it possible that he relating exactly what had happened?
“Did he?” Ellie’s heart picked up its pace. A warrior so grand as to best six attackers by himself? Could he be the one she’d Seen? The warrior who’d slain or chased off the wolves in her dream. Were those meant to be the raiders who attacked the wagons? It made a certain sense. Her dream had shown her the attack and its resolution, but she had not known how to interpret it. Could there be more to the dreams she’d been having? Did the warrior from her dream have a larger purpose than the rescue of the wagons? What if he’d come to train up their lads into men? To save the Clan MacKyrie?
“What’s all this racket?” Fergus’s gruff voice interrupted her thoughts. “A man canna sleep with all this blather.”
Ellie returned to his side to check his wound and placed a hand on his forehead. Good, no fever—at least, not yet.
“The lads tell ye true, lass,” the old man whispered. “One of them could be the one ye Saw in yer dreams. They all had strong sword arms and no fear o’ the battle. Ye must meet wi’ them and see for yerself.”
Ellie closed her eyes, picturing the man who’d appeared to her three times. If only she had seen his face clearly. Then, if she met him, she would have no doubts. She would know if one of these braw warriors who’d done her clan such a great service was the one in her dreams. She opened her eyes, pushed her hair back, and once again took Fergus’s hand. “If no’ the leader, then perhaps one of his men?”
“Aye, lass. Worthy lads, all. But ye must see for yerself.”
“I will, Fergus. But now, ’tis time for all of ye”— she paused and gave the laddies a stern look—“to sleep. The clan needs ye. Ye must heal and get strong.” She turned back to Fergus with a fond smile and squeezed his hand, then removed the whisky bottle to a pocket in her apron. “Ye, too, auld man. I need ye most of all. Sleep well.”
She waited while her charges settled down and closed their eyes. Fergus gave her a conspiratorial wink before he, too, dozed off again.
Her lads. No matter their age, they were her lads and she worried over each and every one of them. If only her Sight proved to mean what she hoped it did. What she longed for. The clan needed strong men to protect it, no’ these lads and elders. Damn the king. Damn the auld laird. They needed help.
The next morning, Ellie entered the great hall dressed in a simple blue kirtle. She’d been told the Lathans were on their way down from their chambers, but saw no sense ruining a fancy dress when she had work to do in the sickroom.
Others were in the hall breaking their fast, passing through on the way to their chores, or, judging by the slight hum of tension in the air, waiting to see what would happen when the strangers arrived. Some of the neighbors had caused trouble lately. Would these men add to MacKyrie’s problems? Ellie hoped not. So far, they’d done the clan a service in saving Fergus and the others, not to mention the whisky. If she’d truly seen one of them in her dream, they were destined to do so much more.
She spotted Micheil and joined him. They rarely sat at the high table. Both preferred to sit with everyone else, moving to a different table for each meal as whim took them. “Mornin’,” she said, greeting him simply as was their custom. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, and heart-stoppingly handsome, Micheil was her closest in age of the surviving MacKyrie men. They’d grown up together, mourned their losses together. Some thought they would make a good match. Even Micheil. But he had always been her friend, never her lover. She couldn’t think of him in that way.
And after the dream she’d had, the one she fervently hoped for the sake of the clan was a true Seeing, she believed her destiny led her to another man, one with lighter hair, sharper eyes, and a Roman nose broken more than once. “Our guests havena arrived, then?”
“Nay,” he replied, signaling to a serving girl for Ellie’s breakfast. “But when they do, they’ll be properly thanked, rewarded, and sent on their way, aye?”
Ellie glanced around the room, avoiding his question. Micheil thought the clan should solve its own problems. Ellie didn’t think it could.
She wished Fergus could be here to greet the Lathans, too. Fergus had a calming presence, despite his reputation as a ferocious fighter in his youth. Micheil sometimes let his temper get the best of him. She needed this meeting to go well. The future of the clan might depend on it.
She glanced at her companion and pursed her lips. But before she could frame an answer, the Lathans appeared on the stairs leading down from their quarters in this tower. Ellie stood. Micheil rose to his feet beside her as a serving girl pointed in their direction. As the rest of the clan stood, giving honor to their heroic guests, the Lathans moved together toward them. A tingle of anticipation curled around Ellie’s ribs. Was he truly here? Which one?
“We thank ye for yer hospitality, Laird MacKyrie.” A man with hair the brownish color of old copper addressed his comment to Micheil. “We have a proposal we’ve been sent to discuss with ye by Laird Lathan, to the benefit of both our clans and others in this region.”
Ellie and Micheil exchanged a glance. They did not know? How could they not? Fergus hadn’t mentioned discussing the clan with the Lathans, but surely…or one of the lads?
“Indeed?” Micheil prompted.
“Perhaps ye’d like to be seated,” Ellie interrupted, giving Micheil a pertly arched eyebrow before she continued, “and break yer fast before beginnin’ such a serious conversation. I’m Ellie MacKyrie and this is Micheil, whose manners have apparently deserted him this fine mornin’. We owe ye a great deal more than a part of our simple repast.”
Ellie let her gaze travel over two other men who resembled the one she’d seen in her dream. The blond? Or the one with light-brown hair, streaked with gold? Either of them might be the one. The man in her dream had golden hair.
The man who’d spoken moved into a shaft of sunlight. His hair suddenly blazed with copper highlights. Ah, definitely not him, then.
He broke into a grin. “Jamie Lathan, at yer service, lass.” He indicated each of his companions. “Bram, Forbes, Alpin, and Innis Lathan. That brooding presence to my right is Donal MacNabb, arms master to Clan Lathan. We’d be pleased to break bread with ye before we begin.”
They all greeted her, some with a smile or a nod. But the one named Donal MacNabb merely studied her, acknowledging her with a lift of one eyebrow, then letting his gaze skim down her body and back up to meet her eyes. Suddenly Ellie’s palms dampened. Why? His glance hadn’t seemed sensual so much as analytical. Judging her? Did he suspect?
Micheil gestured to the empty table next to theirs and signaled for the serving girl’s attention. The Lathans sat and accepted food and drink—politely, Ellie thought, for such fierce-looking men. Especially that last one, Donal. Fierce-looking, indeed. Arms master! He had the look of the man in her dream, big and strongly muscled. But so did the one sitting next to him, called Bram. Donal had dark blond hair, or light brown, streaked by the sun, cut shaggy and loose to his jawline. Light eyes. Blue? No, green. Bram’s hair had more blond in it, and he stood a bit taller. Ach, she couldn’t be sure. Both would bear watching.
Smiling, Micheil sat and whispered to her as she also seated herself, “What do ye think, Ellie?”
“They seem civilized enough.” She kept her voice low, too, and a smile on her face as she nibbled at her breakfast. “Let’s see how they react when they learn the truth.” Ellie lingered over her food, allowing the Lathans time to finish theirs. Micheil fidgeted at her side, but followed her lead for once. Finally, they finished eating. The time had come to talk.
Micheil rose beside her as Ellie stood. “I’m afraid we havena been entirely truthful with ye,” he began.
Ellie saw their visitors tense. To their credit, not one laid a hand to a dirk.
Micheil held out a palm in a gesture Ellie recognized as his attempt to placate and calm the reaction they’d both observed. “Ye’ve come to meet with Laird MacKyrie. I’m no’ the one ye seek.”
Jamie Lathan canted his head and widened his eyes. Donal MacNabb’s expression provided contrast. Ellie saw suspicion and calculation on his face as he shifted his weight forward to the edge of his seat.
A shiver ran down her spine as it occurred to her the game she and Micheil had been playing might be a dangerous one.
With courtly flourish, Micheil made a half bow and continued, unabashed. “May I present to ye the Laird and Seer of Clan MacKyrie, Elspeth MacKyrie.”
If possible, Donal’s expression became even more fierce. Ellie tensed as Jamie’s and the others’ eyebrows arced toward their hairlines, but then Jamie grinned. Ah, he liked surprises. But Donal looked like he wanted to take the table apart with his bare hands. His fists clenched at his sides, standing veins and white knuckles giving away his irritation. Did their deception anger him? Or the fact of a woman at the head of a clan? A Seer?
Ellie took a breath, waiting to see what consensus they would reach amongst them.
“Laird MacKyrie.” Jamie stood and bowed to the precise degree Micheil had demonstrated. “I am most honored to meet ye.” He glanced around as his companions gained their feet. Taking note of the thunderous expression on Donal’s face, smiled even more broadly. “As are we all.”
So, Jamie was in charge, at least of the business that had brought them here, though the lads had reported that Donal led them in battle. Ellie released a pent up breath and returned his grin. “I’m glad,” she answered, then indicated the stairs with a tilt of her head. Down to business. “Let’s move to the solar to begin our serious conversation. I gather ye have much to say.”
“Indeed.” Jamie sketched another half bow, then turned to the glowering Donal and the rest of his men. “Donal, with me, if ye please. The rest of ye, see to the horses. We’ll meet later.”
Ellie led them up the stairs and settled them in the upholstered chairs normally occupied by women doing needlework. She took her accustomed place in the center seat, framed by its high back and the MacKyrie tartan covering it. The laird’s seat. It had been her father’s favorite. After four years of bearing his title, this was her first encounter with men from a strange clan. Could she truly act in his stead? It didn’t take her second sight to know she would soon find out. She smoothed her skirt and clasped her hands in her lap.
Micheil stood behind her. Jamie sat opposite. Donal stood at his back, a scowl drawing down his brow as he glanced around. His gaze met hers and his expression lightened, but only for a moment until he looked away again. Perhaps his frown was not for her? Did this fierce-looking man have a softer side, after all? Though she wouldn’t mind spending some time getting to know some of Donal’s other moods, that would have to wait.
“Please, begin,” Ellie offered with a nod. Jamie had not stopped smiling. He seemed quite taken with the idea of a woman as laird.
“Laird MacKyrie, I bring ye greetings from Toran Lathan, laird of Clan Lathan. Since the losses at Flodden, Scotland has been weakened. Sassenach incursions across the border have become more frequent. Worse, lost men from broken clans wander both the Lowlands and the Highlands, causing trouble.”
Ellie nodded for him to continue, thinking they might have seen some of the same trouble here very recently. Or perhaps not.
Jamie took a breath and continued. “Toran began overtures to nearby clans more than a year ago. He thought it wise to join together for the common defense. At the same time, a Lowlander army made its way into the Highlands—by a route that left yer lands untrammeled, I presume?”
“Aye.” Micheil answered, shifting his weight behind her.
“The leader of that group wanted to subjugate the Highland clans. He laid siege to our seat, the Aerie. He was unsuccessful. But his attempt cemented in Toran’s mind the need for the Highland clans to quit feuding and band together lest we lose our lands and kinfolk to another would-be conqueror.”
“Where was the Regent while all of this was going on?” Ellie placed her elbows on her chair’s arms and wrapped her fingers over the curved front. She’d seen her father sit this way. Somehow, it made her feel more commanding.
“Nowhere to be found,” Jamie answered, the smile finally absent from his face. “The King is a bairn, ye ken, barely out of swaddlin’ and the Regent lingers in France. We had the help of a neighbor, who needed our assistance more than we needed theirs after the invaders destroyed their village, but no other.”
So the clans were truly on their own. Ellie’s stomach sank. She wished she could see Micheil’s face. It was unsettling to hear of such troubles even further into the Highlands. She wondered what Micheil made of their tale.
Donal appeared to be watching both of them carefully. But for the most part, he directed his impassive gaze over her shoulder. It never wavered. Was that some form of silent male communication? I’m here and I’m watching ye? Dinna do anythin’ stupid?
Let the two of them eye each other, she thought, so long as doing so kept them occupied and silent. The rough nap of the woolen tartan beneath her fingers recalled her to the present. She leaned forward, returning her attention to Jamie.
“Yer assumption is correct,” she told him. “The army ye speak of must have used another route into the midst of the Highlands. We neither saw nor heard of them. Our valley is protected by mountains on all sides, with limited access by high passes that are often blocked by snow in winter. We’ve no’ been disturbed here in my lifetime.”
“Yet ye sit behind fortified walls.” Jamie pointed toward the windows and the curtain wall beyond them, then steepled his fingers together in front of him. “Someone must have had a reason to build this keep in such an imposing manner.”
“Long ago, aye. Lately, nay, save for occasional disputes with nearby clans.”
“And yer menfolk. Lost at Flodden? Didna yer Sight give ye a warning?”
Ellie fought to keep her gaze level while anger and sadness fought for supremacy in her mind.
At last, she spoke, clear-eyed with anger. She suppressed the heartbreak that would not heal, for the menfolk they lost and the troubles they left behind. “Aye, lost at Flodden. I regret that my talent is never so specific or infallible. At times, I canna determine what a Seeing means until the event takes place. Else I surely would have warned against sending our men.”
Jamie’s gaze dropped to the floor. Could he not bear to look upon one who had failed her clan in such a devastating way? “Then I’m doubly sorry for yer losses. It must have been even worse for ye.”
Ellie’s temper spiked. Worse that her talent had failed to save her laird and clansmen? That she now sat in their place? “It was bad enough for all of us,” she spat. She noted Donal’s frown. Was that in sympathy or in reaction to her irritation? If only she could read minds instead of, sometimes, seeing the future. She’d like to know what was going through his. He looked bloody dangerous. And yet, there was something about him. Even without her Sight, it was plain there was more to Donal MacNabb than that.
“Much the same in many clans.” Jamie sighed and she realized his words had been spoken in sympathy, not recrimination. “As a younger son, Toran never expected to lead our clan. But a fine leader he is—for the Lathans and for others in the Highlands who wish to ally with him.” His words softened somewhat the sense of failure that his avoidance of her gaze had given her.
“How can the Lathans help us?”
Micheil’s belligerent tone put Ellie on alert. Donal, too, from the set of his shoulders.
Micheil continued in the same tone. “Ye’re too far away to reach us in time of need. The same if ye called on us—we’d ne’er arrive in time to be of any assistance.”
“Perhaps no’,” Jamie conceded, “but the signed treaties that we’re carryin’ back to the Aerie ensure there will be help available from other clans nearby.”
Micheil’s fists pounded the cushioned back of Ellie’s chair. “We dinna need…” Micheil began.
“To finish this discussion now,” Ellie completed the sentence for him, then held her breath. Not this time, Micheil. She willed him to silence. Now was not the time for a display of temper. Hers had been bad enough. Besides, Donal watched Micheil like a hawk spotting its prey.
Micheil must have heard the censure in her tone, for he remained silent. She didn’t need him to cause the negotiation to break down completely.
If the MacDuff was one of the nearby signatories, that would be a complication she needed to consider before speaking about it. The tip of her tongue tingled with a question, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the answer yet. “Let us think on the matter for a while. If ye have the time, ye’re welcome to guest with us while we discuss this further.”
Ellie rose and Micheil moved to her side. Jamie stood quickly. Was he nonplussed by their resistance or by sudden change in direction their conversation had taken?
“Of course, Laird MacKyrie. Would yer hospitality extend to showing us yer lands and holdings? We would be better able to assess how to help ye if we could see the extent of yer responsibilities.”
Would they? Or would they use the information to come back with more men and take over her glen? Ellie studied their faces—Jamie’s open and guileless on the surface, though she’d already seen evidence of his sharp mind and sharper wit. And Donal, fierce and brooding, keeping his own counsel yet fairly vibrating with the strength of his emotions. She lowered her gaze to his hand, resting on the back of Jamie’s chair. Strong, big, scarred. Could he be the man in her dream?
Had the Sight shown her this man saving the wagons, Fergus, and the lads?
It seemed right somehow. A risk, but one worth taking. “We’ll ride out in the morning. Today, I must tend to my wounded. I thank ye again for their lives and safety.”
Ellie moved to the door. Jamie sketched a quick bow, but Donal stood straight behind him.
With a nod to both of her guests, Ellie left the room, Micheil on her heels.
“Ye have a home many would envy.” Donal couldn’t help but be as impressed by the MacKyrie glen as he’d been at the first sight of the MacKyrie keep. Aye, he’d had some concern about taking its laird—and Seer—outside her walls given the raid they’d broken up on the way here, even with Jamie and Micheil riding ahead of them. But once they’d quit the keep and village sprawled at its walls, they’d been out for hours and met no one. They’d crossed several burns, stopping at one to rest the horses and allow them to drink the bracingly cold water before continuing up into the higher elevations of the valley, following game trails through the thick woods. He nearly forgot to keep alert for wolves or bandits or any other dangers that could lurk among the thick trees. Against all of his instincts, he was starting to relax and enjoy the ride and the company of the woman at his side.
Ahead, he could hear Micheil telling Jamie about the tactical advantages offered by the high passes and steep-sided mountains surrounding them, as well as the types and bounty of game available to them. Those things should be Donal’s prime concern, yet he couldn’t keep his attention on their conversation. Ellie had ensnared him with her enthusiasm for the day. The only voice he wanted to hear was hers.
“We’re favored indeed,” Ellie answered proudly. “But ’tis welcome to see it again through a newcomer’s eyes. Lately I’ve been too busy to look over the walls, much less to ride out and enjoy all of this.”
As she pointed out the beauty of her holdings, Donal found himself spending more time watching her than the scenery she so patently loved. His heart eased when she laughed at the summer-fattened coos dotting the clearings. It soared every time she smiled. What was she doing to him?
He could not remember the last time he’d simply spent time with a bonnie lass, talking and watching her laughter light up her eyes. He nearly laughed aloud himself at the thought of what Toran’s new wife would say to see him now. He had no doubt Aileana would blame his gruff demeanor on his monk-like existence these last few years and tell him someone like Ellie would give him just the healing he needed. He deserved Aileana’s teasing after the way he’d distrusted her talent, but he didn’t need to hear advice from her. Despite his reluctance to become involved with a woman of unusual talent, Ellie attracted him in a way that made him think about leading her to the nearest moss-covered hillside, tossing up her skirts, and losing himself in her. Still, he was content, today at least, simply to be. Besides, he reminded himself with a grimace, she was a laird. He was no one.
Eventually, they came to a large open clearing.
“What’s this?” Jamie’s exclamation drew Donal’s gaze from the woman beside him back to the glen. A fast moving burn danced down one side, splashing over rocks and flowing deeper into the valley behind them. A large stone building sat at the upper end of the clearing, surrounded by several smaller ones.
“The MacKyrie distillery.” Ellie raised her voice to answer him since he and Micheil had gotten a few lengths ahead. “Ye ken those casks ye saved were full of whisky. This is where we make it.”
The buildings looked well-used to Donal. “For how long?”
Ellie cut her gaze to Donal, then tipped her head as Jamie and Micheil continued ahead of them toward the building. Donal merely lifted an eyebrow, accustomed to Jamie’s curiosity. He would be eager to see everything. Donal found himself content to stay with Ellie.
“My grandfather started with a small still, making just enough for the clan.” Ellie let her mount walk up the hill. Donal kept pace with her, listening without comment, enjoying the sound of her voice. “But word got out. In my father’s time, demand grew such that he built this place and we expanded our production.” Ellie pursed her lips and glanced at Donal, then returned her gaze to the building. “’Tis the best thing left to us, yet since Flodden, we struggle to keep it going.”
Her sudden change in tone alerted him her mood had shifted from that of a simple lass enjoying the day to a heavily burdened laird. “What do ye mean?”
“We have a master distiller who oversees the operation. We grow some barley and buy the rest, do the malting in those smaller buildings, the mashing there, distilling and several years’ storage in the largest building. But every step takes skilled craftsmen we have nay longer. We’ve enough casks aging to last us a few years. Long enough, I hope, to see us back up to strength so we can begin to make more than we can at present. Without the whisky, we have little income for aught else we need, unless we sell off more cattle.”
“I ken what ye mean when ye say ye lack the means for the tasks, but I dinna ken what ye mean by malting and mashing. Is it difficult then, to make whisky?”
“Ye drink it, yet ye have no idea how ’tis made?”
“I drink it. I like it. Is there more I need to ken?”
“Much,” she told him, her smile returned. “Come on then. I’ll show ye.”
They dismounted outside the largest building where Micheil and Jamie waited.
“Where is everybody?” Jamie looked around as if expecting a crowd to step through the open doorways. Ellie shook her head. “Everybody? Nay. Just Friar Tam. Some of the lads help when they can be spared from other chores.”
“Here I am.” The florid-faced friar’s sonorous voice preceded him out of the door of the larger building. His pudgy frame was dressed simply in trews, a shirt, and a plain woolen coat against the cold, not the robes Donal expected. Donal looked him over carefully, but could detect no weapons on him. Nothing to defend this place that Ellie said contained the lifeblood of her clan. It made no sense.
The friar quirked an eyebrow. Ellie blushed. “Where are my manners?” She gestured to the Lathans. “Friar Tam, this is Donal MacNabb and Jamie Lathan of clan Lathan. I’m sure by now the news has reached ye. They’re the ones who saved Fergus and the lads during the attack on the wagons.”
“Blessings on ye! Bless ye both. ’Twas a brave thing ye did, fightin’ off those bandits.”
“Thank ye, Friar,” Jamie said.
Tam waved his words away. “No thanks are necessary, lad. Clan Lathan? No’ one I ken.”
“We come from deeper in the Highlands,” Donal told him.
“That would explain it, then. I misspent my youth in the northeast.”
“Have ye no guards here?” Donal turned to Ellie for an answer. As laird, it was her responsibility to see the wealth of the clan protected.
“Nay, no’ since Flodden. But this is the most remote area in the MacKyrie holdings. We’ve had little reason to fear someone would come this far to do us harm, especially when they must pass the keep to reach this. We defend the keep because our people are there. All of these,” Ellie said and waved a hand about her to indicate the surrounding buildings, “could of need be replaced. As we’ve learned to our great grief, our people canna.”
The friar stood by, silent, while Ellie spoke of their losses.
Something about the friar didn’t seem right. Something other than his lack of clerical clothing, but damned if Donal could put his finger on what bothered him. The friar seemed relaxed, but watchful as well. Even stranger, he had failed to provide the usual “God rest their souls” response to Ellie’s comment. What was he doing running a clan’s distillery instead of one belonging to a holy order?
“Well, then,” Friar Tam continued, interrupting Donal’s musings, “I suppose Ellie brought ye here to show ye the pride of clan MacKyrie.”
“I did, Tam. Donal claims he doesna ken how whisky is made. We must show him so he can appreciate it even more than he does already.”
“Follow me, then.”
Donal gestured for Ellie to precede him. Jamie followed, but Micheil hung back.
“I’ll await ye here,” he announced.
Ellie nodded her agreement and entered the large building.
Donal blinked at the sudden change in illumination. A low fire burned under a copper still, providing some light and heat, but the room remained darker than the sunlit clearing outside.
“This is where our undertaking becomes complete,” Tam announced. “Distilled here, then aged in those kegs ye see back there,” he added, pointing toward the shadowy end of the hall away from the still, “for eight to twelve years—or longer. Much happens before the whisky reaches this point. For that, we must go to the other buildings. But I wanted ye to see this to understand where it all leads.”
Donal nodded. Jamie looked around, then turned toward the back where kegs were stacked row upon row. “That doesna seem like very many kegs for a still of this size.”
“We keep the new whisky here for a short time, then move it to the keep to better protect it,” Ellie added.
“Protect it?” Donal wanted an answer. What other threats beset this clan?
“Aye, but not from raids. Fire. We have a cavern where it can age undisturbed and be close at hand when it’s time to send it out to be sold. Here, when production is underway, there are too many cooking fires. They could become a conflagration if the casks were damaged and the whisky spilled.”
Donal bit back an oath. With so few here to keep an eye on things, this was a disaster waiting to happen.
“Come along then,” Tam said. “We’ll start at the beginning.”
Tam led them to a small building filled with pots. “The barley starts being malted here after soaking for three days. We change the water several times, stir the grain, then let it rest. Larger producers use tanks, but we find these pots adequate and easier to handle.”
“More suited to the size of the lads carrying them?” Donal kept his gaze on the friar, but saw Ellie’s frown out of the corner of his eye.
“Ye have the right of it,” Tam agreed. He led them to the next building, a large open floor with four walls and a ceiling. “This space is used to allow the barley that soaked in the last building to germinate. We spread the grain out on the floor and stir it now and again. Once it’s sprouted, we take it up to kiln dry it. That stops the germination and adds flavor to the malt from the peat in the furnace. Then we grind it up.”
“Why go through all of those steps when the barley starts as a dry grain?”
Donal quirked a brow. Jamie often spoke Donal’s thoughts before Donal had a chance to—or needed to. Jamie’s curiosity always got the best of him eventually and he would ask what Donal also wished to know. But Donal found this lesson interesting and asked, “Is there aught else ye do with this dried and ground barley?”
Tam answered Donal’s question first. “Nay, it all goes for the whisky. We do all of this to make the grain into mash ready to be distilled. The quality of the whisky depends on it, and on the water used in the next step, the mash. Fortunately, the water in our burn comes pure from melting snow.”
Tam led them to another building, this one with a large tank. “Here we mix the ground barley with water to make the mash and develop the sugar from the grain. We add and drain off the water three times, getting all the goodness the grain has to offer. Yeast is added to the liquid we collect and allowed to ferment. Then it goes into the larger building to be boiled off and distilled.”
“Then ye have whisky?”
“Aye, very young whisky. Hardly fit for drinking, though if ye wish to try some…” At Jamie’s laugh and seeing Donal’s palm come up to signal his refusal, he continued. “But let it age for several years in one of those casks ye saw, and aye, ye have whisky.”
They walked back to the larger building where they’d started.
“How many batches do ye make?” Donal looked toward the casks lining the far wall. Was that a plenty, or not?
“As many as we can with the barley we grow or can get,” Tam said.
“And as many barrels as we have to receive it,” Ellie added. “We retrieve the empty barrels from our customers and reuse them as long as we can. ’Tis another thing we lack. We lost our cooper along with all the others at Flodden. We must replace him or the cost of replacing worn out or damaged barrels will be too high. So far, we’ve yet to find one skilled enough for our needs.”
“Yet ye have kept this going the last four years on yer own?” Donal couldn’t help asking the question. This process seemed too daunting for a lass of a laird and her nearly broken clan. He had to respect the determination it took to rise to such a challenge and continue to make any whisky at all.
“Aye, as we must. We canna survive raising and selling cattle. Since we use many of our coos for food during the winter, as do some of our neighbors, our whisky is our wealth—or was when we had the men to keep up production. But we canna grow as much barley now that we lack the means to harvest it, so we either buy it or make less whisky. Each step becomes a stumbling block we must overcome. Our problems amplify one another.”
“For want of a nail…” Jamie murmured the start of the ancient proverb.
“Aye.” Ellie shook her head. “But we need many ‘nails’ as ye call them. Men here, in the fields, manning the walls and the passes, driving the wagons to market, guarding them, even husbands for our lasses and fathers for their children, all of that and more.”
“Ye need men.” Donal summed it up for her, growing more impressed at what this slip of a lass had accomplished while wearing the title “Laird.” Many men born and trained to the lairdship would not have done as well.
“As do many clans, I’m sure,” Ellie answered. “We ken we are no’ alone in our losses.”
“We’ve seen no other clans that have held together as well as ye,” Jamie told her. “Ye’ve done a fine job thus far, ye and yer clan. But we also see ye are stretched to the limit. We can help. And we can bring help from the treaty clans, if ye’ll let us.”
Ellie shrugged. “We’ll talk more on it later. For now, ’tis time to head back for the evening meal.”
She turned to the friar, who had stood aside while they talked. “Are ye set for tonight, Tam, or is there aught ye need?”
“Nay, lass. I’ll bide well enough here.” He gave her a wink. “I’ve my prayers to keep me company.”
Ellie chuckled, surprising Donal. What amused her about a priest at his prayers? But Ellie merely waved to Tam and headed outside.
Jamie glanced at Donal, then turned to speak to the friar. “Thank ye for the lesson. I for one will savor the whisky even more, now that I ken the extent of yer efforts in making it.”
Donal nodded his agreement. “I’d like to come back when ye have the next batch underway, to see it done.”
“Ye’ll be welcome. But for now, be off with ye,” Tam told them with a decidedly unclerical grin. “The lass awaits ye outside.”
As they exited the building, Donal and Jamie traded a glance. Aye, something seemed odd about the good friar. What it was would have to wait. Ellie sat ready to ride back to the keep.
The next day, Donal stalked the bailey, Bram at his side. Jamie and the MacKyrie were having a private discussion, at her request. Aye, what a bonnie lass. He wouldn’t mind some private time with one so lovely, if the lass were not a Seer. Despite what he’d learned from Aileana, he still found himself reluctant to accept that such a thing could be real, no matter the lass herself believed in it.
Donal hoped Jamie settled this matter quickly so they could head back to the Aerie before the weather got any worse. This summer trip had stretched beyond what they’d expected, as every laird who signed the treaty insisted on hosting them for days or weeks at a time, then recommended other clans to treat with, which added even more stops to their journey. But Jamie was determined to do a thorough job, just as Toran would have done, so here they were, with autumn tending toward winter. ’Twas not a good time to be traveling these mountains.
“Look at the lads on the ramparts,” Bram muttered beside him. “Barely out o’breeks, those lads, sittin’ on a bucket, playin’ cards, unless I miss my guess. Nary a one keeping’ watch.”
“And none at all trainin’ with sword or bow,” Donal answered him, then stopped, fists on hips. “’Tis up to us to make this right.”
Bram nodded. “Aye, let’s set up a trainin’ ground and see who we can recruit.”
Donal nodded his approval.
Bram gathered up the lads who were standing around, then broke up the game on the ramparts and brought those lads down, too.
Donal had collected sticks and wooden swords lying about in the dirt. He gave one to each lad, paired them up, then ordered, “Show me what ye can do.”
Their enthusiasm for sparring didn’t surprise him, but their lack of skill did. After a few minutes to give them a chance to settle down, he barked, “Do ye think to defend yerselves or yer mates like that?”
The lads stopped what they were doing and stared at him, wide-eyed. “Aye,” a brave one answered him. “We’ll defend our clan to the death.”
“Then die ye will, laddie, unless ye learn how to fight. Bram, let’s show these lads a thing or two. First, what they’re doin’ now…”
Bram nodded and stepped forward, pulling his claymore before squaring off with Donal. The lads formed a ring around them, wider and wider as Donal waved them back, then he pulled his claymore and faced Bram. “Whenever ye’re ready.”
Bram swung as the lads had been doing. Donal danced out of his way. “When yer opponent is unskilled, all ye have to do is wait for yer chance,” he said, watching Bram’s movements while he talked. The moment Bram dropped his guard, Donal struck, but stopped his blade just before it connected with Bram’s chest.
Bram dropped his sword and grinned. “A bit close, ye think?”
Donal ignored the question. “Let’s show them how to fight, then we’ll work on skills with each lad until they can defend themselves.”
Bram picked up his blade. He and Donal traded blows, working up a sweat despite the chill in the air, while Donal kept up a running commentary, describing what every move they made was meant to accomplish and how the other countered it.
The crowd around them grew in size as they sparred and began to include women and the older men. The one called Micheil showed up as Donal called a halt to the demonstration.
“What’s this?” Micheil demanded.
Donal eyed him before answering, taking the measure of the younger man’s temperament. His face flushed red and his brow drew down in an angry frown.
“Merely a demonstration for the lads,” Donal answered, glancing around the crowd. A movement in the background caught his attention. Jamie and the MacKyrie were watching from an open window in the solar.
“Ye think Lathans are the only ones who ken how to fight?” Micheil challenged.
“No’ at all,” Donal answered smoothly, with a nod toward Bram, who moved out of the circle to guard Donal’s back. “Would ye like to join the demonstration?”
Micheil stood his ground, hand on the dirk at his waist. “I’m captain of the guard,” Micheil asserted. “I dinna need to demonstrate anythi…”
“Ye are the one responsible for the sad state of these lads?” Donal interrupted. He knew that would goad the man, but if he’d allowed the reprehensible state of affairs here, Donal would not spare him. “They need trainin’. That appears to be sorely lackin’.” Toran would have his head, for certain, but Donal could not let this situation stand. These lads would die the first time they faced anything bigger than a dirk.
Micheil growled an oath and shoved through the crowd into the circle. “They’re too young to take up fighting,” he argued. “No one would accost them.”
“Were those lads on the whisky wagon too young to be waving their dirks at brigands armed with claymores, then?”
That stopped Micheil in his tracks. With an oath, he drew his weapon.
Donal grinned. “That’s better. Let’s dance, shall we?”
Micheil swung. Donal twisted out of the way, then slapped his opponent across the back with the flat of his blade.
“Point for me, I believe,” he taunted.
Micheil roared and charged Donal, aiming to impale him on the tip of his steel. Donal sidestepped, tripping Micheil as he barreled by. The man came up muddy and swinging. Donal crossed blades with him a few times, to show how it was done, then grew tired of parrying Micheil’s out-of-control thrusts. In no way was this a fair fight. Donal had to put a stop to it before one of them accidentally got hurt.
“It’s time to end this, laddie,” Donal told him as they danced around each other. “The lads have seen enough for one day.”
“Nay, this’ll end when ye’re skewered on my blade.”
“Now lad, we’re no’ fightin’ for real. We’re showin’ the bairns how ’tis done.”
Micheil hesitated for a moment, giving Donal hope that his sense would catch up with his pride, but apparently his pride ruled him. Micheil’s face turned even redder as he swung his blade at Donal yet again.
“Ye think so? Have a care, auld man. I mean to take ye down.”
“Lad, I’m asking ye nicely to back off. We’re merely showing the laddies how to survive in a fight.”
“I’ll back off when ye’re dead.”
This lad needed a lesson. Too bad he was in no mood to learn. “If ye willna listen to reason, ye leave me no choice.” With a resigned shrug, Donal slid his blade up Micheil’s until they were face to face. Donal freed one hand and punched Micheil with his fist. Micheil went down like a sack of stones and stayed down.
The crowd gasped.
“Dinna fash. He’s alive, just taking a wee nap.” Bram moved into the circle to stand at Donal’s shoulder. With Bram to keep an eye on the crowd, Donal risked a glance up at the solar window. Jamie shook his head. Even from this distance, Donal could see him sigh. But the look on the MacKyrie’s face—now that was interesting. Speculative. One eyebrow arched. Her gaze locked with Donal’s and she nodded. Aye, she liked what she’d seen. She’d give Jamie no trouble over it.
Then she smiled. Aye, she’d done that, and laughed, too, as they traveled her glen. But there was something different about this one. Like she’d decided something, and it had to do with him. This smile hit Donal like a fist to the gut. Already too beautiful to his eyes for words, it made her breathtaking. And she’d given it to him, full on, no hesitation. Donal got the distinct impression that he might be in a different sort of trouble than he’d ever been in before. But this trouble, he might come to enjoy.
In the list of things Donal regretted in his life, trouncing Micheil MacKyrie didn’t rank very high, despite the verbal lashing Jamie was determined to give him over it. Ale and whisky awaited down in the hall. Surely Jamie would rather be there than continuing this conversation. Donal certainly would.
“No, I didna ken when we started that Micheil was the MacKyrie’s master of arms.” He stood calmly, arms at his sides, allowing Jamie to vent.
“Truly? Ye had no indication, even after he said he was the captain of the guard?”
“Training up the laddies is his responsibility?” Donal gave Jamie his best wide-eyed innocent look, then rolled his eyes. Did Jamie intend to spend the entire evening chastising him? He hadn’t killed the foolish lad, after all. “From what I saw, he deserved to have some sense knocked into his thick skull, and let that be a lesson to him.”
“And ye laid him out like a new bride.”
“Well, no’ exactly like that. I’d hope a new bride would be awake and enjoying…oh, never mind.”
Jamie choked. Donal grinned, relishing his struggle. Since Donal almost never jested, that quip had caught Jamie by surprise.
“All right, I have to admit the MacKyrie, Ellie that is, didna seem upset by the trouncing ye gave her champion. On the contrary, she seemed rather pleased, which puzzles me, and I dinna like being puzzled by a woman.”
“Truly? I thought all women puzzled ye. Are ye no’ used to it?”
“Ye jest twice in one day?” Jamie chuckled. “Enough, enough. I’m for bed.” He went to the door, opened it, then paused. “But it would help if ye didna start a feud with the MacKyrie champion, all the same.”
“Aye, but it may be too late.” Donal shrugged.
“Let’s hope not. If he has any influence over her, our welcome here may be brief. And I’m sure Toran won’t enjoy the tale of why we failed to get her signature on the treaty.”
“Perhaps I’ll have to use my charm on her.”
“Aye, that’ll work…” Jamie snorted as he left Donal’s room, closing the door behind him. Donal could hear him laughing all the way down the hall.
“I think I’ve been insulted,” he muttered. Not that he worried much on that score. He’d had his share of lasses, just none lately. And Ellie MacKyrie did have the most radiant smile.
Pah. He’d best get his mind on business. The lads’ training started on the morrow, whether the MacKyrie arms master liked it or not. But…it would be better to have his cooperation. After he learned a thing or two, he could become fit to carry on when the Lathans returned to the Aerie. Aye, that was a sensible plan.
Satisfied, Donal decided Jamie had a good idea in heading to bed. He unbuckled his belt, stripped his shirt over his head, then sat by the hearth and pulled off his boots. Clad only in his breeches, he stirred the fire and watched as the flames began to dance.
Flames, aye, those were flames he’d seen in Ellie’s eyes as she watched him best her champion. He interested her, for certain. But why him? Why not the charmer of their group, Jamie? Or Bram, younger, or hell, even that fool Micheil? Donal supposed the lasses would call him handsome. Why would Ellie MacKyrie give Donal the eye?
Well, it didn’t matter. She was untouchable. He couldn’t risk a liaison with her. He meant to leave here in days or weeks. If he hurt her in any way, it could destroy the alliance Jamie was dead set on achieving for Toran.
And God forbid he left her with child. An unmarried, pregnant laird? What would the priests make of that? Or her clan? They would deem her unfit to be laird. He could ruin her life for one night of passion. Well, perhaps not only one night. Surely the heat in her gaze promised more than one. More than one…ach, he had to get his mind off of this daft, foolish nonsense.
He had been too long without a woman. No question about it. It made sense that he’d be attracted to a comely lass, one powerful in her own right, who’d shown an interest in him. So what? There were lots of others in the keep, all bereft due to the regrettable lack of men in this clan. Or perhaps a convenient lack, not that he would have wished such a fate on any clan. Perhaps if he went back down to the great hall after all, instead of finding his bed alone, he would encounter a lass willing to join him. Or if he wandered down into the village. The tavern there would serve as well to find a willing lass. There were plenty who’d been long without a man, from the look of the place.
At the very least he could do with a dram of their whisky. He’d yet to taste it. But only one; he had his work cut out for him on the morrow.
He reached for his shirt.
Someone knocked on his door.
Who could that be at this hour? Jamie, returned to pester him some more? Or one of the other Lathans, bored and thinking along the same lines Donal had been moments before? Aye, a dram with a friend would not go amiss. He tossed the shirt onto the bed and hurried to the door before the Lathan on the other side started pounding loud enough to disturb the entire keep.
When he opened the door, it was all he could do not to close it again in shock. The MacKyrie stood in the torchlit hallway. She gave him a quirk of her lips as he stared at her, too surprised to utter a word.
“I’m sorry to bother ye, Donal McNabb, but I wished to speak to ye privately.” She glanced away, down the darkened hallway.
“Privately? Why did ye no’ send for me, then?”
Her gaze returned to him, bold, even defiant, as her gaze skimmed his chest. Then she glanced over his shoulder. “May I come in?”
Donal’s eyes widened. Into his room? Alone? This couldn’t be good. She must be upset about her arms master after all.
Finally, Donal remembered his manners. “Aye,” he said, stepping back to let her pass by him in to the room. “Come in.”
He turned to face her, leaving the door open, but she gestured for him to close it. He did so with a frown of apprehension, then remained with his back to the sturdy oak. He crossed his arms, only then remembering his chest was bared to the eyes of this lass. He uncrossed them, intending to retrieve the shirt from his bed, then decided he’d better not draw attention to the bed at all. Ellie had gone to stand by the fire, for which he was thankful, because he didn’t think he could restrain himself if she put the bed and her body in the same area. He settled his stance, folded his arms across his chest and waited.
Ellie turned from the fire to study the man whose room she had invaded. Aye, invaded. She was laird, and a woman. He could no more refuse her than refuse to breathe. Though he should have, and they both knew it.
It was highly improper for her to be here—alone with a strange man. An attractive man. A half-undressed man. One who sent her pulse to racing and quickened her breath. His naked shoulders, arms and chest bulged with muscle. His hair, badly trimmed, grazed his square jawline. His proud nose had been broken a time or two, but suited the intensity of his gaze. His eyes were hazel in this light, green in sunlight. What color would they be in the throes of passion? His mouth…were his lips soft or firm when he kissed?
They were set in a stubborn line at the moment as he waited for her to explain herself. He probably thought she remained angry about Micheil, though in truth, Donal had given him a lesson he sorely needed. The few fighting men they had left were mostly untested. They’d been left behind to guard the keep while the Laird marched off with his heir and their best men to fight with the King four years before. The lads were barely more than bairns. Micheil had done a poor job of training them, but could scarcely be considered at fault, given that he’d still been in training when most of their fighting force fell at Flodden.
They’d been lucky so far that none of their neighbors had tried to overrun them with a massed attack. Instead, they’d picked off her few remaining fighting men, then sought to gain MacKyrie lands through marriage. To her.
She wanted none of them.
Lately, her dream had come three times, always the same. Within it a man, much like the man before her, hair falling into his eyes, but in her dream, his well-muscled arms had been reaching for her. Donal’s most assuredly were not. They formed a barrier across his impressive chest. Their message was clear: stay back.
“I’m sorry to disturb ye,” she began.
“I owe ye an apology,” Donal spoke right over her. “I shouldna put yer man on the ground.”
“Aye, ye shouldha. I’m glad of it.” Ellie huffed out a breath. Focus on the goal, not on the man’s undeniable attractiveness. At least try. “That’s why I’m here, Donal. I need ye to stay and train our lads. Micheil is no’ able, as ye saw for yerself today. I need yer help.”
“I have responsibilities to the Lathan.”
“I ken ye do. But the Lathans have fighting men aplenty. Ye’ve trained them well. Jamie has told me so.”
Donal’s habitual frown turned positively fierce and his eyes narrowed at that statement. Did this man own any other expressions?
“Have ye spoken to Jamie about this, then?”
“Nay, I havena. I wanted to give ye a chance to think on it. To sound ye out before others became involved.”
“Why me? Bram is skilled, as are all the Lathans here.”
“Ye’re the best, Donal. And ye’ve trained countless lads…”
“Ye make me sound like an auld man.”
“Nay.” Ellie took a breath, then a step toward him. And another. She had to convince him. “Ye have the experience my clan needs. But ye’re far from old.” When she reached him, she rested her fingers on his arm to add emphasis to her words. His eyes widened a fraction. She heard his breath hitch. When the heat of his skin started burning her from her fingertips to her toes, she clenched her fingers and drew them back. Her cheeks heated as she clasped her hands together.
He remained still, watching her through slitted eyes as his chest rose and fell with his breath. He’d allowed her touch, though it was improper. She knew he could have removed her hand and thrown her bodily from his chamber with no effort at all. He should have. The muscle jumping in his jaw gave the only indication her touch still affected him.
She swallowed and licked her lips. “Ye are the man I need, Donal.”
He didn’t flinch, but his eyes narrowed again.
“Do ye, now? Has yer Sight shown ye this?” Quick as a viper, he uncrossed his arms and grabbed hers, lifting her onto her toes. His lips waited a whisper away from her mouth, taunting her. “Are ye certain that’s all ye need me for, Ellie? Is that why ye came to my chamber?”
Startled, she shoved against his chest. She had as much success as pushing against a fire-warmed granite wall. He didn’t resist, didn’t shake her, merely stood, as if waiting for her to decide what she would do. As if he held all his power leashed, under tight control. His breath on her lips fanned the flames in Ellie’s face. Her heart thudded as his chest muscles flexed beneath her fingers.
“Nay. Aye.” She pushed again with one fist, torn between making him release her and making him listen. “Nay!”
He let go of her suddenly. Ellie nearly fell as she lost the support of his grip. He steadied her, then released her again and moved toward the door.
“I’m sorry, lass. I shouldna done that.” He spread his fingers, then clenched them into a fist. “Yer touch…ye make me forget my place.”
Ellie shook with the effort it took to keep from crying out. His place? Nay! Couldn’t he see she was more than a laird? A woman? Why did he think he must also be a laird to be suitable for her? All she had to do was look at the scars on his arms, shoulders, and chest. They were badges of honor, valor, and survival. Exactly the lessons her lads needed to learn. Did the bloody treaty mean so much to him that he would refuse her even now? What a fool she was to forget that damned Lathan treaty, even for a moment. Donal graced her keep only because of it.
She lowered her head, but that brought his lower half into view and made her blush hotter, thinking of what waited beneath his trews. She had little experience enticing a man. A few weeks with her husband were poor preparation if she meant to wage a battle for this man, but battle she must. If she failed to convince him to see her as a woman, then she must appeal to his sense of duty, though that would be a poor reflection of what she’d seen in her dream. The man had been reaching for her. The expression on his face, though dimly seen, had betrayed his longing. “Dinna be sorry, Donal,” she whispered, then looked up and captured his gaze. “Truly, I’m no’ sorry. I need ye to stay.”
“Tonight? Is that what ye’re askin’? Ye canna be offering to trade yerself for my help.”
“Nay!” She choked, shocked he’d said that out loud, but now that he had, was he right? Had she implied that? Did she want that? Nay, she daren’t. She had something much more permanent in mind. Besides, if she saw Bram in her dream and not Donal, she’d be making a terrible mistake. Even though Donal drew her gaze every time they happened to be in the same room, not Bram.
His muscles bulged as he ran both hands through his hair in frustration.
“I willna make that kind of bargain. But I need ye to agree to stay for the time it takes to train MacKyrie men into a force that can defend this keep.”
“Years? That’s what ye need. I canna do that. And tonight has proven that I shouldna. If I were to stay here, Ellie, I dinna ken what will happen…though perhaps with yer Sight, ye do?”
Her heart skipped a beat. Why did he taunt her with her Sight? “Nothing will, Donal. I promise ye.” Liar. Given time, she would come to be sure which man she saw in her dream. That man might come to care for her, at least. She could not think of love, not yet. But a partner, a man to stand beside her and help her clan, aye.
Donal lifted one eyebrow.
She had to make him believe her if she was going to convince him to stay. But she daren’t push him farther tonight. She’d cede this battle, but she refused to give up the war. She could only give one honest answer, though it pained her at this moment more than she’d ever imagined it could. “I’ll do what’s best for the MacKyries.”
His shoulders dropped. “Somehow, I kenned ye would.” He reached behind him and opened the door for her, then moved aside. “Goodnight, Laird MacKyrie.”
Head down, she stepped across the threshold into the night-darkened hallway. One torch guttered, well away from where she stood. She turned back to answer him, but he’d already closed his door to her. “Good night, Donal,” she whispered. “Sleep well.”
Donal tossed and turned for most of the night, dozing for a while, then dreaming about Ellie. The heat of her lips close to his. How soft and warm they’d have been if he’d done what his body demanded and kissed her. The firelight reflecting in her hair. The silvery depths of her eyes. Awake now in the predawn glimmer, he lay abed, staring at the ceiling, thinking.
She’d exhilarated and infuriated him the first time he’d laid eyes on her, playing games with Micheil rather than introducing herself as laird right away. And last night—he’d held her more in anger than anything else. He regretted his roughness. But she thought to tease him into staying with her and saving her clan? By touching him? Licking her lips and showing him the tip of her little pink tongue? Foolish woman. He was made of stronger stuff than that.
Aye, he could do what Ellie asked of him. He could make her lads into the fighting force she needed. But his loyalty to the Lathans ran deep. He must return to the Aerie.
The auld laird had made him, a younger son of another clan, the Lathan arms master when his prowess became evident after a series of battles with encroaching clans. He had charged Donal with guarding his home in his absence. And then died at Flodden Field. Donal never forgot the trust—and the responsibility—the old man had placed with him.
Donal had redoubled his efforts to hone Toran’s fighting skills, determined to force the new Lathan laird to develop the prowess to prevail in any battle. Toran had proved his mettle against the Lowlander invader last year. That had been a fight worthy of all the years of training.
With the Lathans, Donal had already been through the kind of rebuilding the MacKyries needed. But the MacKyries had the misfortune to be closer to the Lowlands. They suffered more notice from the King and court, so had been obligated to send more men. And now Ellie MacKyrie wanted Donal to start over with her lads. He sighed. Maybe he was getting old.
Nay, that wasn’t it. Clan Lathan had become his clan, his home. He needed no other.
But a certain silky-haired temptress had other ideas. Well, let her.
Donal rolled to his feet. Time to meet with Jamie, then start the MacKyrie lads on their drills. He’d do what he could while the Lathans remained here. But he would not stay indefinitely.
He dressed quickly, then made his way to Jamie’s door. Forbes and Innis were already there. Alpin and Bram came down the hall after Donal. They perched on the furniture in Jamie’s quarters, a fine sitting room with upholstered chairs and bedroom beyond, fit for a visiting laird or ambassador. Donal took it all in, then turned his attention to Jamie, sprawled in a high-backed chair. Jamie shrugged.
“Whisky buys some fine things,” Jamie began, “but it canna replace the lives lost on a foolish King’s errand. This clan is in trouble.”
“Aye,” Donal replied as they others nodded their agreement. “They need our help more than we’ll ever need theirs.”
“That may be true, but ’tis not the spirit of the treaty we’re here to see signed. The burdens of this clan will fall to its closer neighbors.”
“What’s to stop those neighbors from claiming it all for their own?” Innis asked. “This lot canna defend themselves.”
“The treaty is meant to provide for mutual defense.” Jamie straightened. “To tie the clans together to the benefit of all. Any clan that breaks the agreement is subject to the others.”
“The future of this clan is in those barrels we rescued,” Forbes interjected. “Trade. If they do well enough, canna they can hire defenders?”
“There are plenty of lost men who would be happy to look to a clan like this,” Alpin suggested.
“Aye, to get inside its walls and slit the throats of all the inhabitants,” Bram scoffed. “These folk lack the warriors to defend against treachery.”
Jamie spoke up then. “Donal, what do ye recommend?”
Donal tensed. Did Jamie know about Ellie’s visit last night? Nay, she’d said she hadn’t discussed with Jamie the notion of Donal staying with the MacKyries. Best to leave it that way for now. He forced himself to relax as he answered. “Bram and I will train the lads hard while we’re here. Ye other three will assist us while Jamie is talking the MacKyrie into signing the treaty.” Ellie’s request was at the forefront of his thoughts. That gave him another idea. “On our way back to the Aerie, we should make arrangements with the other clans to send some unmarried warriors, apprentice tradesmen, anyone they can spare for a year, or forever.” He quirked an eyebrow. “What this clan needs is some new men for their women, and time for the lads to grow up.”
“If that’s agreeable with the MacKyrie,” Jamie answered, nodding, “it sounds like a sensible plan. If one or two men come from each, that will greatly improve the situation here. If they marry into the clan, fine. If they only stay a while to help with the training, that will be better than naught.”
“That’s it, then, lads,” Donal said, standing. “Go find the bairns. We’ve much to do to make warriors out of them.” The other four trooped out of the door ahead of him.
“Donal,” Jamie said quietly after the others had gone out into the hall. He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees and steeple his fingers together. “Even if the MacKyrie won’t agree to the treaty, we canna leave them undefended.”
“How long do ye propose to stay?” Donal cast about for a way to make his point. “We’re overdue back at the Aerie, Jamie. Do ye want Toran out scouring the countryside looking for us?” He risked a grin, trying to keep his argument light, though he was determined to make his point. “Aileana willna appreciate that. Ye dinna want to anger her. She would undo what she did to save yer life.”
Jamie stood and moved to the hearth. “Not all of us,” he said, not responding to Donal’s jibe. “If it comes to that, I want ye to stay with the other three, while Innis and I take the treaty back to Toran.”
Donal held his temper. Inside, he fumed. Things were stacking up against him. “Let’s hope it doesna come to that,” he challenged and closed the door.
You’ve Been Reading HIGHLAND SEER
Donal MacNabb is loyal to his adopted Lathan clan, yet he resents being a pawn in their treaty negotiations with the struggling MacKyries. The MacKyrie clan needs his skills as an arms master, but its Laird is bartering for more than Donal is prepared to give.
Ellie MacKyrie knows the Lathan treaty will help protect her clan from the neighbor determined to seize her holdings any way he can—including forcing her into marriage. But she has another reason to want the Lathan alliance. She has Seen the stubborn Donal MacNabb reaching for her in her dreams.
While Donal fights to save a clan in trouble, his desire for the MacKyrie Seer wars with his obligation to his Laird. Before she is forced into a marriage that will destroy her clan, Ellie must find the heart behind Donal’s gruff exterior and convince him he is the man of her dreams.