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The Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands, 1052 AD
Euan Donald watched dispassionately as the decapitated body of the Hay fell lifelessly at his feet. Blood oozed out from where the laird's severed head had been but moments prior, pooling around him in a river of dark red.
Sheathing his sword, the Donald's dark head came up, his black eyes boring holes into the anxious faces of those Highlanders surrounding him. None would rebel. None would second-guess his decision to execute the Hay chieftain. None would dare.
'Twas not bravado on his part, not even ego. Not really.
'Twas simply the way of things, the territory that came with being the Lord of the Isles, the king of the Highlanders, a god unto himself. Euan's word was law, as it had always been, as had the word of his father, as had the word of his father's father, and so on.
At the age of five and thirty, Euan had been chieftain to the Donalds and Lord of the Isles for over fifteen years. The price of being the master of all he surveyed had been paid in full.
His six-foot-six-inch body was heavy with muscle and riddled with battle scars. The harsh angles of his face were chiseled into a stone-like façade and hinted at no compassion, no mercy for any who would come up against him. His eyes were as black as his hair, calculating pools of obsidian that broached no argument and conveyed no emotion at all.
To come up against the Donald was to die. This fact was one that kinsmen and Outlanders alike understood well.
Today, as he did on most days, Euan wore his plaid of muted blue and green, a large emerald brooch holding the material together at his shoulder. 'Twas a fitting banner for the man who ruled the Highlands with an iron fist and who dwelled on an island many said was close to the heavens themselves, for it was surrounded on all sides and in all views by a formation of impenetrable clouds.
"'Tis done then." Graeme Donald, youngest brother to Euan, nodded toward a bevy of soldiers, indicating 'twas time to remove the Hay's bloodied carcass from the great hall. Turning to scan the nervous faces of the clan chieftains behind him, he waved a hand toward them and bellowed, "Will another amongst ye dare tae steal from the Donald?"
Murmured nays floated throughout the great hall, all eyes shifting from the Hay's remains to Euan's stoic form.
Graeme's upper lip curled wryly. "Weel then, 'tis time tae make merry, aye? Ye came fer a feast and a feast ye shall have."
Oppressive silence filled the chamber for a suspended moment. None were certain what to make of such an odd declaration. They had come for a wedding feast, every last one of them. They had journeyed from the protection of their respective keeps to witness marriage rites betwixt the Lord of the Isles and the first-born daughter of the Hay.
Not a one amongst them had ever fathomed the possibility that Tavish Hay would refuse to deliver the Donald's betrothed to her own wedding. Not a one amongst them would have credited the notion that the Hay would have been daft enough to allow Moira to break her sacred agreement and run off to the northlands with the brother of a Viking jarl.
For that matter, not a one amongst them would have been lackwitted enough to deliver such news to the Donald himself. Nay. They would have run hightail in the opposite direction. But then the Hay had never been renowned for his thinking abilities.
At last the laird of the lesser MacPherson clan broke the uncomfortable spell with a forced chuckle. "I will drink tae that." He lifted his goblet toward Euan. "Tae the Donald," he toasted, "and tae, err..." He shifted uncomfortably on his feet, the color in his face heightening. "Tae..."
Swallowing roughly, the MacPherson met Euan's black gaze. "Weel..." He lifted his goblet higher. "Tae the Donald."
"Tae the Donald."
The others were quick to chime in, all of them lifting their ales and meads in toast to the Lord of the Isles. Graeme's brow shot up, forming a bemused slash over his eyes as he cocked his head to regard his brother.
Euan smiled humorlessly as his dark gaze flicked from Graeme to the men standing behind him. Saying nothing, he stalked toward the dais that had been prepared for him in a slow, methodical stride. The great hall was so silent that each of his footfalls could be heard effortlessly, rushes on the ground or no.
When at last he reached the raised dais, he lifted the goblet that had been prepared for him and turned on his heel to face his rapt audience. Nodding once, he prepared to down the honeyed mead. "Aye," he rumbled, "I will drink tae that."
"What will ye do now, brother?"
Euan lifted a curious brow but said nothing. Standing atop the battlements, he scanned the outside perimeter below their position and absently awaited Graeme's meddling. His youngest sibling was the only one in god's creation who could get away with such. 'Twas mayhap because he had raised him and felt him more a son than a brother.
Graeme waved a hand absently through the air. "Aboot getting wed, aboot siring an heir, aboot "
"Graeme," Euan said quietly. "I'm no' lackwitted, mon. I ken your meaning."
Graeme nodded. "Then what will ye do?"
Euan shrugged. He had known three wives and had lost all of them to laboring his bairn. Out of all three pregnancies and subsequent fatal deliveries there had been but one survivor, and that was his six-year-old daughter Glynna. After losing so many wives and babes, 'twas nothing really to lose a betrothed.
He turned his head to look at his brother, his facial features reflecting the fact that he had not a care one way or the other. A woman was a woman. Any woman of breeding years would do. "Get another wench tae take Moira's place in the bedsheets."
Graeme chuckled at that. "Mayhap had ye tumbled the Hay's daughter before the wedding she would have shown up."
One dark brow shot up. Euan shook his head slightly and looked away, his gaze flickering back down below the battlements. His hands fisted at his hips, the thick muscles in his arms bulged further in response. "I'm glad she dinna," he said honestly. "Truth be told I think a troll would be better bedsport than Moira."
Graeme grinned. "Ye have seen her before then?"
Euan shook his head. "Nay. But on Michaelmas three years past 'twas said by her own clansmen that she is possessed of an awkward appearance."
"I was no' there. That must have been whilst I still fostered under the MacPherson."
The brothers stood in silence for a long moment, breathing in the crisp night air. 'Twas May so the days were longer now, darkness still not having descended though it was well past the time of the evening meal.
Graeme's chuckle at last broke the silence. "I was thinking..."
"Aboot the Hay."
Euan craned his neck to glance toward his brother. "Aye?"
"He owes ye a bride."
Euan waved that away. "I did no' kill the mon over Moira, though I know 'tis what the other lairds think. I killed him for betraying me. 'Tis a difference." He shrugged his broad shoulders. "Besides, the mon is dead," he rumbled. "His debt has been paid."
Euan sighed. It had been a long day and he was in no mood for conversing let alone for solving riddles. His youngest brother was mayhap lucky that he was able to rein in his temper where he was concerned. "Explain yourself."
Graeme thought to tease him a bit, but relented when he saw his brother's lethal scowl. He sighed. Why couldn't the man learn how to make jest? "As to that, 'tis true the Hay paid the price for helping Moira in her deceit, yet did he no' deliver another bride tae take her place in the bedsheets."
Euan grunted. "'Tis true."
Graeme stood up straighter, his back rigid with determination. "Then mayhap a wee bit o' reivin' might be in order."
"Reivin'? Ye want tae go steal some cattle?" Euan said the last incredulously. "'Twill no' even the score."
Graeme's face flushed at the criticism for which the Donald felt an uncharacteristic pang of sympathy. He knew that the boy had only been trying to help lighten his black mood. What his sibling seemed unable to understand on his own was that his mood was always like this. After ten and eight years the boy should know that. But he didn't.
Sighing, Euan forced a grin onto his face and ruffled Graeme's hair affectionately. "Ye are just wanting tae prove that ye learned things from the MacPherson more useful than merely how tae bed a wench. Aye, that's what it is I'm thinking."
Graeme chuckled, no longer embarrassed. "Mayhap."
Euan considered the idea more thoroughly before responding. Mayhap his brother was on to something. Not something quite like Graeme had envisioned he hardly needed more cattle on Skye for the love of the saints but something vastly more important. He did, after all, need a wench to take to his bed and get her with heir. Besides, as black as his mood had been as of late a bit of thrusting between a wench's legs was an enticement unto itself.
The Donald's black gaze flicked over the castle walls and toward the rock-strewn beach below. 'Twas not so long a boat ride to the mainland. And from there mayhap a sennight's journey to Hay lands at best. "I think," he murmured, "that ye might be right, brother."
Graeme's eyes widened in surprise. "I, uh, I...am?"
Euan couldn't help but to grin at the boy's astonishment. 'Twas true he wasn't a man known for changing his mind. Set in his ways he was. "Aye." He nodded, his demeanor growing serious. "We shall depart on the morrow when the sun falls."
Graeme smiled broadly, unable to contain his excitement. 'Twas the first reiving the Lord of the Isles had made him a part of, brother to him or no. 'Twas past the time to prove he was now a man and no longer a boy. "'Twill be a good time, thievin' the Hay's cattle."
Euan shook his head slowly as he met his brother's eager gaze. "'Twill no' be cattle we steal, boy."
Graeme's eyebrows shot up forming an inquisitive dark slash. "The Hay's sheep are sorry I've heard it be told. No' verra wooly at all. Nay, brother. I dinna think their sheep are worth the time."
Euan shrugged. "'Twill no' be sheep we reive either."
"Then what? What will we be reivin'?"
The Donald arched one arrogant black brow. His upper lip curled into a mirthless smile. "Wenches."
Copyright © 2007 by Ellora's Cave Publishing, Inc.