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Lilidh MacLerie, eldest daughter of the MacLerie laird and Earl of Douran, looked out her window and tried to sort through her options. This silent time between the gloaming and the night was her favourite when she needed to make decisions or choices. Remembering now that she'd made the decision that had brought her to this time and place made her pause. Mayhap she should wait until morning instead?
Turning from the window and gazing across the large, well-furnished chamber, she knew she had little time or choice again. The parchment remained as she'd left it and she lifted it, tilting it so that the light of several candles made it able to be read. For the fiftieth time, she said the words and could not yet decide what else to write, when so much more was needed.
To the Earl and Countess of Douran, it began, using their formal titles first. Father and Mother, next.
And then the words disappeared.
How could she explain the private misery behind the very public death of her husband of only two months?
The MacGregor's death had been kept quiet for now until his heir, his younger brother, was approved by the clan elders as chief. Her purpose in this marriageto bind their clans and to produce an heir for the MacGregorwas a failure. Though, even as an innocent young woman coming to this marriage, she understood that things were not as they should have been between her and Iain MacGregor.
The parchment in her hand moved in the current of the warm air created by the heat of the candles and reminded her that this task also went unfinished. Sitting at the table, she lifted the quill, dabbed the ink so it would not splatter and forced the words on to the page that would both embarrass and humiliate her in her parents' and clan's eyes.
I find myself in need of your counsel concerning the situation of my position here in Iain MacGregor's household and family. As his widow, though with no hope of producing an heir, I know
What did she know? She had married him under a contract negotiated by her uncle and signed by her father. Her dower portion was protected for her use and she had been given the choice of remaining here as part of her husband's clan or to return to her own. Her uncle had made certain to protect her in the contract, but giving her such a choice made things more difficult than if she'd been simply told what to do.
If she remained, there would be another marriage arranged for her, to a suitable eligible man, to keep the bonds between the clans strong. If she returned home, there would be another marriage, but also she would face the disappointment of her family in her failure. And with no way to explain and with no one to speak candidly about it, what could she say? Lilidh dipped the quill again to freshen the ink and placed the tip of it on the parchment.
She was being a silly ninny. Her parents loved her and would accept her back, explanation or not. Her mother was the only one to whom she could speak on personal matters. As she had before her marriage, even if that conversation did not explain what had happened or, as it was, not happened between a husband and wife. Looking off at the flame of the candle, she took and released a deep breath, and did the only sensible thing she could: she asked leave to come home.
I find little reason to remain here and would ask your permission to return to Lairig Dubh as soon as an escort can be arranged. I would seek your counsel on other important personal matters, but I hesitate to put them in this letter.
Father, please send word if this is your pleasure.
Mother, please keep me in your prayers and ask the Almighty to watch over me during this trying time.
It was short, but to the point, and there truly was little else to say in her missive. Sanding it, Lilidh allowed the ink to dry and then folded the letter, sealing it with the ring her father had given her on the anniversary of her birth a year before. She would send it off on the morrow with one of the MacLerie servants who had accompanied her here. Hopefully, within a fortnight, she would have an answer from her parents and know what her future held for her.
But how could she explain that though she was a bride and a widow, she'd never been a wife?
Jocelyn MacCallum, wife to Connor MacLerie, held the parchment before her and read it once more. The sadness in her daughter's words was clear to her. Lilidh, her eldest daughter, was never anything but confident and self-assured. But the words, nay, the tone of this latest letter, told her that Lilidh was lost.
'You will give her permission?' she asked her husband as he climbed from their bed and walked to where she sat. As she glanced up, her mother's heart grew heavy in her chest. Lilidh was far away and all Jocelyn wanted to do was to take her in her arms and soothe away the pain that was so evident in her words.
'I am discussing it with Duncan and the other elders,' Connor replied quietly as he lifted the parchment and placed it back on the table. 'The MacGregors have kept Iain's death quiet until his heir is in place. With tensions so high and war with their rival clan the MacKenzies in the air, they do not wish to open themselves to attack. But, for this night, there is nothing to be done, Jocelyn. Come back to bed.' He took her hand in his and entwined their fingers, tugging her to stand.
She allowed her husband to wrap her in his arms, much as she wanted to do to Lilidh, but Jocelyn realised quickly that his aim had little to do with comforting a lost child. She caught her breath as he lifted her in his strong arms and carried her back to their bed. She understood that her husband's need for her as well as his attempts to distract her from her sadness and taking too much interest in clan decisions brought on his intimate attentions. She'd allow it, later, for those same reasons.
For now, she asked her last question once more, not content to let the men make this critical decision without her counsel.
'Will you bring her home?' She watched as many emotions crossed her husband's face, but the final one that settled was acceptance. As she knew it would.
'Aye. I was simply waiting on her word.'
She leaned into him and kissed his mouth. 'Did you send her word yet?' He pulled her close, surrounding her with his strength and his love. Kissing her forehead, he rested his chin on her head.
'The message to the MacGregor will go out on the morrow. She should be home in a sennight.'
'And the implications?' she asked. This marriage arrangement had been between clans and chiefs and not simply between a man and woman. And it had been part of their, the fathers' and the mothers', wager to find the best match for their children. Since this involved her daughter, Jocelyn had been left out of most discussions, except for the private ones she'd had with Connor. Ones that always seemed to end up with them in bed!
'You know the implications. No questions have been raised to me about her involvement in Iain's death, so the MacGregors must be at peace with how it happened. Her dowry will be returned to us and any future marriages will be at my discretion.'
Those were the words she wanted to hear. Lilidh would return home to her family and her future happiness would again be in her father's hands, along with the counsel of his closest relatives and advisers and her.
But since Jocelyn had thought this marriage a good one, she could little complain about Connor's choice. Whatever had happenedbetween Iain and Lilidh and to cause his deathhad ended any chance that it could prove out.
Comforting done, Connor lifted his head and touched their mouths together. In only moments, the passion between them flared and Jocelyn savoured it. This is what she'd hoped Lilidh would find in her marriage. Even though older and married before, Iain had seemed a kind soul and appeared to worship Lilidh. Their betrothal and marriage showed promise and Jocelyn had no doubt that she would soon have grandchildren from the match.
Now, Iain was dead and Lilidh returning home.
She would get to the real reasons and to the true situation once she had Lilidh back and they could speak plainly. Her letter asked for such counsel, almost begged for it, and she would help her daughter in any way she could.
But, for now, her husband demanded her attentions and when the Beast of the Highlands called to his mate, she always answered.
Robert Matheson clenched his teeth until he thought they would crumble under the pressure. Anything, anything to keep from letting his anger and frustration spill out the way he wanted to. Clenching his fists did not help either and finally he could not allow this madness to continue.
'Halt!' he called out to those bickering before him. 'Attacking the MacLeries will lead only to our destruction.' Looking from one to the next, he met their gazes and realised the futility of trying to stop them. If he could not stop them, he must delay them. 'If we are to do so, we must have a plan and ready ourselves. It cannot be done as quickly as you would like.' Or as easily as they thought.
The Matheson clan elders had approved him as chief when his father passed, but it had been a hard-won battle. His cousin, Symon, the son of his father's older sister, had been in contention and was suited for the warmongers among the councillors. Rob, on the other hand, had a clear understanding of the strength and power and fighting might of the MacLerie clan for he had spent years among them.
As Connor MacLerie's foster son.
Rob had lived for five years with them, learning his own fighting skills from the best of their warriors, learning battle strategies from their tacticians and the ways to prevent battles from their negotiator. Now, he had no intention of leaping into a fight with a clan he could not defeat. Or worse, with a clan who would destroy them and leave not a piece of wood or stone standing on their lands. Though listening to some on the council drone on and on about all the reasons they should and listening to those who knew nothing and understood less made him think about letting them all charge into the fray unprepared.
Still, his innate loyalty to his family, kith and kin stopped him from goading them into such an act. Glancing at his other cousin, Dougal, the one who did not wish to be laird, he waited for the only person with some sense to speak up and support his plan. Dougal did and though those wanting war did not quiet completely, it did make them listen.
'Robbie is right,' Dougal called out, gaining their attention. 'To rush in against such a clan will result in all our deaths.' Some grumbled at his declaration, but the others quieted and waited on his words. 'Let the laird study this and make the necessary plans. Hear him out when he does for no one knows the MacLeries as he does. If there is a weakness to be found, he is the one to find it.' His voice rang out in the silence, but Rob did not know whether to cheer or to strangle him.
The best way to defeat the MacLerie? The Beast of the Highlands?
There was none.
Rob's actions so far must even be considered a betrayal of their bond by Connor. Attacking would simply be a death warrant for him and the rest of the Mathe-sons. The only weakness the man had was for his children and, other than that, he was ruthless in weeding out enemies and dealing with betrayal. Breaking his ties with Connor at the behest of the council and currying favour with the MacKenzies had been the hardest thing he'd ever done. He did not doubt there would be hell to pay over it.
Dougal finished and stepped back, allowing Rob to move to the centre of the dais while the men were yet calm.
'I have been gathering information already,' he said. 'Even now, I've sent messengers out to determine their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. In a few days or a sennight at the most, we will meet and prepare our plans.'
He dismissed them with his most imperious wave, hoping they would obeyand they did. All save Dougal left him in peace. He returned to the table and filled his goblet with ale. When Rob turned back, Dougal remained. He poured another goblet and handed it to his cousin, the one who did not wish to be laird.
'You sounded convincing, Rob,' Dougal said. He drank a couple of mouthfuls and then wiped his mouth with his arm. 'Do you have a plan?'
'Other than praying to the Almighty for a flood?'
'You had that look in your eyes,' Dougal said laughing. 'You never could bluff.' Dougal met his gaze and all mirth disappeared. 'What will you do?'
'Stall for more time,' Rob said. 'I cannot figure out why they want to go up against the MacLeries. Come nowI cannot be the only one who knows their strength?'
Rob drank deeply, watching the servants in the hall preparing for the evening meal. It was not as spacious or well appointed a hall as the one at Lairig Dubh, but it was his. He'd sworn an oath to protect his family and if it had to be from themselves, so be it. Something more was going on here, something he could feel, but could not see, and getting the real reason why some in the clan wanted to ally them with the MacKenzies and break all past ties with the MacLeries was critical.
'How can I help?' Dougal asked, putting the now-empty goblet down on the table.
They both watched as a comely maid approached and took the goblet and the pitcher to refill it. Unmarried and one of the most beautiful of his cousins, removed by several generations, Ellyn smiled at them and sauntered away, her shapely hips moving in a rhythm meant to entice and draw attention. A moment or two passed before they regained their senses and their subject.
'As I said, how can I help?' Dougal repeated.
Rob looked at his closest friend and decided he must trust someone in this matter before everything went out of control. Stepping closer, he lowered his voice.
'Someone is behind this effort to make the MacLeries our enemies. Though not friends or enemies of the MacKenzies, they avoid each other's areas of concern and properties. So this intentional goading is not something either one wants and not something we can afford to get in the middle of now.' He paused and checked to see who was near them. Seeing no one, he said, 'I suspect that my cousin Symon is the one, but without proof, I cannot accuse.'
Dougal studied him and then nodded. 'I will see what I can do.'
Rob smacked his shoulder. 'I will be in your debt.'
Dougal strode off, leaving Rob behind to deal with the other matters that faced a clan chief and laird every day. Complaints from villagers. Requests from the clan. Demands from the elders that he marry his betrothedSymon's sisteras his bride sooner to unite the two fighting factions. And on and on each day.