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The silvery blue mists hung in streamers over the late summer field where the shaggy, large-horned cattle browsed placidly in the light of early dawn. The clansmen, hidden in the shadows of the tree line, watched as a lone figure moved carefully among the beasts, separating several of the creatures from the main herd and driving them off in the opposite direction.
"He's a cheeky devil," Jamie Gordon remarked softly, and not without some small admiration, to his eldest brother, the laird of Loch Brae.
Angus Gordon's eyes narrowed, a certain sign of his acute annoyance. Then he said in a cold, measured voice, "He'll be with his master in hell before the sun reaches the mid-heavens this day. Loose the dogs!"
Freed of their leads, the canines leapt forward, barking and baying frantically as they scattered the cattle in their desire to chase after the intruder violating their master's pasture. It was a mixed pack. Smooth-coated greyhounds, as gray as the skies above, and darker, wiry-coated deerhounds, bigger, bulkier dogs capable of bringing down a man on the run.
"After him, laddies," the laird called to his men. "We'll hang the thieving bastard from the nearest tree when we catch him!"
The Loch Brae clansmen moved from the shelter of the trees, running across the meadow after the now fleeing cattle thief, who was making for the forest on the far side of the fields. The clansmen knew their best chance of catching the thief was before he reached the safety of the woodlands, but their quarry knew it, too. That knowledge added speed to his desperate flight. He ran as if wings had been attached to his heels.
"God's boots!" the laird swore violently as the thief disappeared into the trees, the dogs close on his heels. "We've likely lost him."
"The dogs could still bring him down, Angus," his brother said hopefully. "Let's follow a bit further."
The laird shook his head as they ran. There was a stream not far into the woods, and if the thief was familiar with this territory, which he surely was, he'd head straight for it. The dogs would lose the track. Nonetheless he led his clansmen into the trees. Ahead of them the dogs continued to bay and then suddenly stopped. Almost immediately there was the sound of barking and whining.
"They've lost him," the laird said, irritated. "He has gone to water."
They came upon the dogs, milling about at the brook's edge. Jamie Gordon dashed across the stream, seeking to discover where the thief had exited thebank, but he was unable to find any tracks. Shaking his head, he crossed back over to his brother.
The laird was moving slowly along the bank, his eyes lowered. Surely the fleeing felon would have left some mark in the soft earth. Finally Angus smiled wryly. "Our thief is experienced at evading pursuit," he said thoughtfully. "Interesting." He signaled to his men. "Spread out upon both sides of the stream, and see if we can pick up the bastard's track. He canna have vanished into thin air."
For some time the Gordon clansmen moved carefully along the swiftly flowing water, but no trace could be found of their prey.
"Where could he have gone?" Jamie asked.
The laird shrugged. "We have saved the cattle,"he said, "and while I should have liked to have hungthe pilferer, I must be satisfied to have prevented their loss, Jamie-boy. Let's go home." Calling to his men,he turned and made his way out of the woodland, the clansmen following. When they had again reachedthe laird's pasture, however, Angus Gordon burst out swearing.
"Jesu! Mary!" he said angrily.
"Angus, what is it?" his brother asked.
"Look, Jamie-boy! The herd is short by eight head. God's boots! The son of a bitch doubled back!" Then comprehension dawned in his eyes. "No wonder we could not find a trace of him. He hid himself up in the trees. That great branch over the water! Of course! He went into the stream, throwing the dogs off, and swung himself up into the trees. That's why there was no trace of him, the clever devil. I have been a ruddy fool! We have been neatly diddled." He turned to his head herdsman. "How many does that make in the last twelve-month, Donal?"
"An even dozen, my lord," the herdsman answered. "Four last autumn, and now eight today. 'Tis bold, our thief is."
"Aye," the laird agreed grimly. "Bold as newly polished brass and a wee bit too clever for my taste, but mayhap not clever enough. The ground is yet damp from yesterday's rain. Not wet enough to betray our fleet-footed robber, but certainly damp enough for the heavy-footed beasties he'll be driving to make their mark in the earth. I'll wager we can track my cattle now. We'll give our thief a good bit of time to believe he has managed to outfox us; then we'll see if we can find his trail and follow it to his lair. I want him to have time to reach his destination. I don't want my cows stam-peding among the trees and doing themselves an injury."
The laird, his brother, and their men settled themselves down to wait for a time. Pipes were lit. Oatcakes and flasks of cider were pulled forth and consumed. The talk was low. Finally Angus Gordon rose to his feet. He stretched his length in leisurely fashion.
"'Tis time," he told the others, and they all got to their feet obediently, pipes knocked free of ash, flasks empty. "All right now, laddies, let's go!" the laird said. "A silver piece to the man who first finds the trail!" The clansmen spread out and shortly found the track of the laird's pilfered cattle. It led back into the forest at a different point, and across the same stream their earlier quarry had half forded. Then they began to climb a barely discernible path up the ben. The imprint of the cows' hooves was visible in the ground. A fine rain had begun to fall, but the trail clearly led to this path, and there was no other way but the way that they went. The woodlands were thick with the summer's green growth.
"Donal"the laird turned to his chief herdsman "where does this trail lead? Do ye know?"
"These be the lands of the Hays of the Ben, my lord," Donal replied, "but that old devil, Dugald Hay, and his wife, God assoil her good soul, are both long dead. I heard they had bairns at one time, but I don't know anyone who has ever seen them. I canna even be certain there is anyone left of that family."
"There is someone left, for they've taken my cattle," the laird replied grimly, "and when I catch the thief, we'll hang him as a lesson to all who would think to steal Gordon cattle."
Suddenly the pathway opened into a clearing on the edge of the mountain. Nestled against the top of the ben was a stone tower house. Beyond it was a barn built of the same material. And there was a small meadow in which eight cattle were grazing placidly. The laird of Loch Brae smiled, well pleased to have found his property, for he had no doubt it was his property. Now he had but to find the thief and punish him. Leading his clansmen, he walked boldly up to the sturdy oak door of the tower house and pounded upon it with his clenched fist. It opened almost immediately.
"My lord?" Before him stood a little old woman with sharp brown eyes. Her gown was clean, if well worn. Despite her size, she most successfully blocked his entry.
"I am the laird of Loch Brae," Angus Gordon said loftily. "I wish to see yer master."
"Well, ye canna see him unless yer willing to go to hell, and if ye did, 'tis unlikely from the look of ye that the devil would let ye come back," the old woman said sharply. "Dugald Hay be dead these past five years, my lord. Now I'll ask ye again, what is yer business here?"
"Who are ye?" the laird demanded, refusing to be intimidated by the old woman, especially in front of his clansmen, although he would wager that many were cowed by her.
"I am Flora Hay, the housekeeper here at Hay Tower. Whatever it is ye want, we don't have it!"
"How do ye know what I want?" the laird said, a slight smile lifting the corners of his mouth. He was curious as to who, or what, the old dragon was protecting as she stood so defiantly barring his way.
"I don't know what ye want," Flora told him, "but whatever it is, 'tis not here, my lord. As ye can surely see, there is little here of any value." She curtsied and attempted to close the door on him.
Angus Gordon swiftly placed his booted foot in the door, preventing her. "'Tis a fine herd of cattle ye have in yon field," he said.
Flora nodded. "Aye."
"And just where did ye get such fine cattle?" he asked her.
"Get? We didn't get the cattle, my lord. We raised them. They are all we have, and are to be used to dower two of my young mistresses," Flora told him, looking straight at Angus Gordon without so much as a blink.
"These lasses are Dugald Hay's get?"
"And how many lasses did that devil's spawn beget?" the laird demanded.
"Flora! Flora! For shame! Don't keep the laird of Loch Brae standing on the doorstep. Ask him into the hall for a cup of cider." A young female had appeared behind the housekeeper. She was tall for a girl, and almost too slender. She wore a simple wool gown, dark in color, and draped across her chest was the red and green Hay plaid, which was fastened to her shoulder with a rather fine silver brooch. "I am Fiona Hay, my lord, the eldest child of Dugald Hay and his wife, Muire," she said quietly.
It was impossible not to stare. Fiona Hay was absolutely lovely. Her hair was the color of a raven's wing, with the faint hint of a blue sheen. She was very, very fair of skin. Her features were perfectly set in a heart-shaped face. She had small white teeth, a slim, elegant, straight nose, a lush mouth, and a pair of oval-shaped emerald-green eyes, fringed in thick dark lashes, that were looking directly at him.
"A-Angus Gordon, mistress," the laird finally managed to grate out, tearing his gaze from the girl.
"And yer business with the Hays of the Ben, my lord?" she asked him coolly, ushering him into the tower house.
"I want my cattle back, lady," he said bluntly.
She turned her emerald-green eyes on him, saying as she did, "I don't have yer cattle, my lord. Why would ye think I have yer cattle?" Her tone was deceptively innocent. She led him up the stairs into the hall. "Flora, cider for the laird."
"There are eight head of cattle in yer meadow, mistress," Angus Gordon said evenly as his brother and clansmen entered the hall behind them. "Eight head of cattle were stolen from my herd this very morning. The trail led up the ben to yer meadow, where eight head of cattle now graze. Ye don't have to be clever to solve such a puzzle."
"The cattle in the meadow belong to me, my lord," Fiona said calmly. "They are my twin sisters' dowry. I am sorry ye have lost yer beasts, but those in my meadow are not they."
How could anyone look so sweet and innocent and be so bold a creature, the laird wondered. He knew damned well that the cattle in the field beyond the tower house were his. She knew it, too, yet she could look directly at him and lie without a quiver. She was obviously her father's daughter. Of that he had no doubt, but it would shortly be settled. "My brother has just examined the cows for a specific marking that all my cattle bear. If the cattle bear that marking, then there can be no doubt that they are mine," Angus Gordon told her sternly.
"The cattle are mine," Fiona Hay said sweetly. "I mark each of our beasts by nicking them on their left ear."
He was astounded. This was the sauciest wench he had ever met in all of his life! "What a most odd coincidence," he replied through gritted teeth. "My cattle are marked in the exact same way."
"Then it is simply my word against yers, Angus Gordon," she said in a dulcet tone.
"Ye know verra well that the cattle are mine, mistress," he responded angrily. "They are mine, and I mean to take them back!"
"The cattle are mine," Fiona responded, but then her voice softened. "My younger sisters, Elsbeth and Margery, are to be wed tomorrow. Each brings her bridegroom four cattle apiece, my lord. Would ye ruin the only chance these poor lasses have to be respectably married?"
He had not yet gotten his cider, and he badly needed it, he decided. His own men were crowded about, listening avidly to the exchange between their chieftain and the lovely girl. He could see that their sympathies lay with the girl, not because they were disloyal but because Fiona Hay was fair, orphaned, and obviously doing her best by her family. Or so it would appear. He muttered a dark curse under his breath.
"Yer cider, my lord," Flora said, shoving a tarnished silver goblet into his hand while casting him a black and disapproving look.
"Jamie-boy, the cattle?" he asked his brother.
James Gordon nodded in the affirmative. "Left ears, all notched," he said cheerfully. "They could be ours, Angus."
"Could?" The laird shouted at his younger brother. "Could?"
"Well, Angus," Jamie replied, nonplussed by the outburst, "if Mistress Hay notches her cattle on the left ear as we do, then who can tell whose cattle they are, unless, of course, the beasties could talk."
The clansmen in the hall chuckled, only to be silenced by a fierce glare from their master.
"Angus." James Gordon spoke low so that only his brother might hear him. "Don't be so stony-hearted. If the cattle are indeed ours, then the lassie was damned clever to have stolen them from beneath our very noses. Ye have more cattle than ye can count. Without them her sisters will not get their husbands. Ye canna take them back now. Besides, there is the chance they might be hers, and then ye would do a great injustice to the Hays."
"The cattle are mine," Angus said in a near whisper to James. "For God's sake, Jamie-boy, look about ye. 'Tis a poor excuse for a chieftain's house, this tumbling-down tower. And look to the girl. Beautiful, but as thin as a sapling, and the old woman, too. I will wager there is nothing in the stable even worth stealing. Did ye look?"
"An ancient plow horse and a pony, both as thin as their mistress."
"Then how, ask yerself, could they have a herd of eight fat cattle?" the laird said reasonably. "The cattle are mine. If I allow the lass to steal them and I don't punish her, or at least collect payment for them, every petty thief in the district will come to try and steal my cattle. I will forgo punishing her, for she is but a lassie, but she certainly canna give me their worth in any kind. So I have no choice but to take them back."
"At least give her the option of purchasing them," softhearted James said.
"Yer a kind lad, Jamie-boy," his elder brother said. Then he turned back to Fiona Hay. "The cattle are mine, Mistress Hay. We both know that is the truth of the matter. I will argue it with you no more. If, however, ye wish to purchase the beasts from me, I will gladly sell them to ye." He looked her directly in the eye.
She stared back. Tall with a hard-looking framehe was, Fiona Hay thought. Hair as black as hers, and green eyes, too, but a dark green, not the emerald of her own eyes. He couldn't take the cattle, she thought desperately. He couldn't! Not with Walter Innes and Colin Forbes coming on the morrow to wed her sisters. Why had she waited until the last minute to steal the damned beasts? If only she'd taken them two at a time over the last few months, but the truth was she hadn't the means to feed them. The cattle would have lost weight if they had been in her care for too long. She couldn't offer her prospective brothers-in-law scrawny cattle. She had attempted to take the creatures last week, but the cowherd's dog had set up a barking to wake the dead. She supposed that was what had alerted the laird of Loch Brae to watch his cattle more closely. What on earth was she to do?
"Well, Mistress Hay? Will ye buy my cattle, or will I drive them back down the ben to their own meadow?" Angus Gordon demanded.
A proposal, outrageous but possibly workable, entered Fiona's mind at that moment. He could not accept, but he would certainly be shamed by it and leave her in peace. "I have only one thing of value that I might give ye in exchange for the cattle, my lord," she told him, refusing to admit even now that they were his. "It is my most precious possession. Will ye have it?"
"Take it!" James hissed at his elder sibling. "Honor will be satisfied, and none will call ye weak, Angus."
"I would know what this valuable property is first, Jamie-boy," the laird told his brother. He looked again at Fiona. "What is this most precious possession thatye would offer me in exchange for my cattle, Mistress Hay? A dozen head of cattle don't come cheap, lass."
"Eight, my lord," Fiona replied softly.
"Twelve, including the ones you stole from melast autumn," he answered her as softly, his eyes meeting hers.
"Twenty head total. I'll need eight more head to dower my two youngest sisters, but they're only seven and ten years of age now, so I would not want them until Jean and Morag are old enough to wed. I canna feed them."
She was the most outrageous lass he had ever encountered, Angus Gordon thought again, amused in spite of himself. She audaciously stole his cattle, yet when caught, attempted to bargain with him for more of them. He was not as hard-hearted as Jamie thought, but if he allowed the girl to evade the consequences for her thievery, he'd have no end of trouble. He managed to keep the look on his handsome face severe, but it was not easy. His brother was right. Fiona Hay was a very clever wench. However, he was no fool. "Twenty head of cattle is a costly amount, Mistress Hay. Ye must be certain that what ye offer me in exchange for them has an equal or even greater value. Just what do ye propose to give me in exchange for my beasties?"
"My maidenhead," Fiona said quietly, her gaze never leaving his. She stood tall and proud and defiant.
The laird's amazement was evidenced only in a slight widening of his dark green eyes. It was the most brazen proposal he had ever heard. Then he realized that the girl did not expect him to accept her offer. He was obviously supposed to be so taken aback by her boldness that he would demur and depart, leaving her with his cattle. He smiled wolfishly at her. "I accept yer offer, Mistress Hay. Yer maidenhead in exchange for twenty head of my cattle. It seems a fair bargain, although I think ye may have gotten the better of me."
He had accepted her! Fiona grew very pale with shock. What kind of a man was he that he had accepted her? What kind of a fool had she been to have even made such an offer? The laird of Loch Brae spit into his palm and held it out to her. Her knees were suddenly threatening to give out on her. The Hays of the Ben might be poor, but they were honorable, or so her mam had always said, and Fiona had no choice now, lest she bring disgrace upon her family name. Spitting into her own palm, she reached out and shook his hand. "Done, my lord!" she told him, never once looking away, although her stomach was roiling with nervousness.
"Oh, no, Fi! Ye canna do it!" two young voices cried in unison.
The two girls pushed through the Gordon clansmen to where their elder sibling stood. They were auburn haired, amber eyed, and identical in features. Their distress was more than evident.
"The bargain is now struck, sisters," Fiona said.
"But if ye give him yer maidenhead, who willhave ye to wife one day?" asked Elsbeth, tears in her bright eyes.
"If I don't give him my maidenhead, who will have ye to wife, Elsbeth? Or Margery either?" Fiona asked. "The Forbeses and the Inneses will have their dowries or they will not have ye, I fear. Besides, by the time I see Jeannie and Morag safely wed, I'll be much too old to marry. I won't mind growing old here upon the ben." She patted her sisters, comforting them as best she could.
"But what if he gives ye a child?" asked Margery.
"The Gordons take care of their own, Mistress Hay," the laird reassured her. "If yer sister bears my bairn, I will not desert either of them."
The twins began to weep simultaneously.
"Flora," their elder sibling said, "take my sisters to our chamber and stay with them until I call for ye."
The older woman shepherded the two girls off, alternately scolding and cooing at them as they went. "Now, hush, ye two. Up the stairs with ye! Embarrassing yer sister. And her so brave and only looking out for yer happiness."
"Tam, where are ye?" Fiona called out to Flora's husband.
"Here, mistress." An old man shoved through the clansmen.
"Have we cider enough to quench the thirsts of all these men?"
"Aye," he answered dourly.
"Down the stairs and outside with ye, laddies," the laird ordered his men. "Tam will bring ye cider. Refresh yerselves while Mistress Hay and I make final our arrangement. Ye, too, Jamie-boy." Angus didn't need James appealing to his conscience.
When the hall had emptied, Fiona invited the laird to sit by the fire. "I canna offer ye wine," she told him honestly. "I have but two barrels left in the cellar. The Forbeses and the Inneses are mighty drinkers."
He nodded and raised the goblet. "This cider will be fine. The weddings are tomorrow?" He settled himself by the hearth, but the blaze was small, offering little warmth.
"Aye, Colin Forbes is to wed Margery, and Walter Innes will wed Elsbeth. They'll be here with their clansmen and pipers early in the day. A priest is coming from the abbey at Glenkirk to perform the ceremony. We don't have our own priest. My father didn't like priests, although my mother insisted on calling one each time she gave birth so we might be baptized, or buried. When she died giving birth to our Morag, he would not send for the priest. Morag is not baptized, nor was our mam shriven before she was buried. When our father died, I didn't call the priest for him, though he begged me to do so," she said with a fierce satisfaction. "I shall ask the priest to baptize wee Morag tomorrow after my sisters are wed. 'Tis not right she be aheathen."
"Ye'll come with me to Brae Castle after the weddings," the laird told her. "And yer two little sisters, and the old servants. They can't remain here, Fiona Hay. I'm amazed this tower has not fallen in by now. Ye'll all be safe with me." What on earth was he letting himself in for? Angus Gordon wondered. But of course he could not leave the two elderly servants alone to care for the two small girls in a dwelling about to tumble down about their ears.
"This is my home, my lord," Fiona said proudly. "It may not be as fine as yers, but I won't abandon it. Ye haven't the right to ask me. I have offered ye only my maidenhead. Though I know nothing about the business, ye can only take it once, I believe."
Angus Gordon had to laugh. She was as bold as brass, though he suspected she was afraid, even if she wouldn't show it. "Don't think for a moment, lassie, that I intend letting ye off for yer offenses, for I will not, but a maidenhead, even a royal one, is scarce worth twenty head of my cattle. Ye'll come back to Loch Brae with me and live there as my mistress until I deem that ye have worked off yer debt to me," he told her. "I'm a fair man, Fiona Hay. Yer sisters will live with ye, and yer servants, too. They will be well treated. I will care for them as if they were my own family. You will have regular meals, for if the bairns are as thin as ye and the two brides, then good food will not be amiss."
"We don't need yer charity!" Fiona cried.
"Charity? Nay, lassie, 'tis not charity. Ye'll pay me back for every penny, I promise ye." Reaching out, he took her hand, smiling slightly at her startled look when his fingers enclosed hers. "How old are ye, Fiona Hay?"
"Fifteen," she told him. Her hand trembled in his.
"When did yer mam die? I remember her long ago. She was to have been my father's second wife. The twins are her mirror image, but for their brown eyes."
"She died when Morag was born. I was but eight, but I became the woman of the house then," Fiona told him. "Our father died when I was ten."
He was astounded. Except for her two old retainers, she had been alone up here, raising her sisters since she was ten years old. "How did ye manage to make matches for yer sisters?"
"We went to the games last summer," she told him. "Anne met Duncan Keith there, and they were married last autumn. Margery and Elsbeth met Colin and Walter then, but they were too young until now to wed. Thirteen is a good age to marry, I think. Anne will not be here tomorrow, for her bairn is due to be born soon, and she has not been wed even a year. Duncan is verra pleased that she is such a good breeder."
He smiled at her. "Yer mother was, too."
"Aye, but Mam only birthed live daughters. Her three sons were born dead, or died soon after birth. 'Twas my grandmam's curse on our father, ye see," Fiona told him solemnly. "'Tis why ye have the glen lands that belonged to my grandfather Hay. Did ye know him?"
"Aye. Ye didn't?"
"My father would not allow us to go into the glen, or our mam either, after he took her forcibly from her parents," Fiona explained. "He said our grandfather was a stubborn old man who would not see reason and would give away Hay lands rather than admit that he was wrong. He never forgave our grandfather and cursed him with his dying breath."
"Ewan Hay never forgave yer father for stealing his daughter away, but he was a fair man, proud and good. He would have liked ye, lassie, although I don't think he would have approved of yer bold ways."
"Would he approve of yer bold bargain with me, my lord?" Fiona asked him slyly. "I may be brazen, but I have done what I had to do in order to see to my sisters' futures. They have only me to look after them and protect them."
"Ye'll not shame me, Fiona Hay, with yer goodness," he teased her. "Ye must see, however, that I canna allow ye to go unpunished for yer crimes against me. If I did, I should open myself up to all sorts of difficulties from our neighbors, who would think me a weakling. I must help to keep this region peaceful for the time when the king returns to Scotland. I canna do that if I am thought ineffectual or craven. No, lassie, ye'll have to pay the piper."
"Do we have a king?" she asked, surprised. "I thought the Duke of Albany was our ruler."
"He was regent in the king's name, for King James has been held captive in England since before ye were born," he explained. "When the duke died two years ago, his son, Murdoch, took his place, but he is a weak fool. Negotiations are under way even now to bringthe king home at last. I have spent time in Englandwith the king. We are kin. Both our grandmothers were Drummonds."
Fiona managed to extract her hand from the laird's gentle but firm grasp. It was difficult to think, she found, when she could feel the heat of his skin. "Why has the king been in England instead of here in Scotland, my lord?" Her curiosity was overcoming her nervousness.
"Because he was captured by the English when he was but a wee lad. Ye see, his father, old King Robert, was not a strong king. He was past fifty when he came to the throne, neither sturdy of body nor majestic of presence, and he was given to deep black moods. He was truly unfit to govern, but he was a decent prince, and 'twas thought it better to proceed with the coronation. After he was crowned, however, his brother, the Earl of Fife, was made Governor of the Realm by the lords. There was much corruption, with lawlessness increasing daily. The king, a good man even if he was ineffectual, finally recommenced his responsibilities with much urging from the queen, Annabella Drummond, my grandmother's own sister. For the next few years he tried to rule, but 'twas not easy, for the high lords were used to having their own way.
"Then, two years before the queen died, she attempted a small coup. She saw the danger her brother-in-law posed. She wanted to be certain the oldest ofher sons was secure in his position as heir to Scotland. The eldest of the royal sons, Prince David, was created Duke of Rothesay, and made Lieutenant of the Realm. The king's brother, however, objected so strenuously that the king felt he had to name him Duke of Albany. The queen died. Then David Stewart died mysteriously while he was with his uncle.
"The king feared for his only surviving son, Prince James. He decided to send him to France for safety's sake. Unfortunately, the merchant ship upon which the prince traveled was captured by the English. The wee prince was sent to King Henry. The shock of learning of his son's capture killed old King Robert. His uncle, now Scotland's ruler, didn't try verra hard to regain the laddie's person, which was, perhaps, the best thing that could have happened. He surely would have killed the little king. The English, however, took good care of the lad."
"So now the king is coming home to Scotland?"
"Aye, he is. And Scotland will be the better for it, lassie. King James is a strong man. He'll keep a tight rein on his kingdom."
"He'll not be able to tell the clans what to do," Fiona said wisely. "The old chieftains don't like being told what to do. My father always said that those in the south never understood those of us here in the hills. And those in the highlands, he said, were even more independent. No king can rule all of Scotland in truth, I fear, my lord."
"King James will do his best," Angus Gordon said, allowing himself a small smile at her rather astute assessment of the political climate in their country. It seemed that as each year passed, the peoples in the south and those in the north grew further and further apart.
Old Tam came in, bringing a pitcher of cider. He refilled the laird's cup and poured one for his mistress, then disappeared again.
"You know the king," she mused.
"The English didn't mind the visits, for in a sense all of us who came to be with the young king were hostages for Scotland's good behavior. We came to keep company with our liege lord and to be certain he did not forget his own country, for the English captured him when he was verra young." He suddenly changed the subje
"Jesu, no, lassie!" Looking closely at her, he said, "Yer a sly wench, Fiona Hay. If I find yer not a virgin, I'll kill ye, I promise ye. Do ye swear to me that ye never have been with a man?"
"I am a virgin, my lord, and not dishonest, I promise ye. It's just that the house is small. My sisters and I sleep in the room above the hall, while Flora and Tam have their bed in the attic above us. Ye may sleep in the hall by the fire. There is no other place for ye but the stable. Yer men may rest there."
"When I take ye to my bed, Fiona Hay," he told her seriously, "it will be a pleasant experience for ye, I promiseand ye will not be afeared." He tipped her face up, looking intently at her with his dark green eyes. "Yer a pretty lass, but I see none of yer mam in ye."
"I look like my father, I am told," Fiona replied. "It is not surprising, for I was conceived, my mother told me, the day of her marriage to my father. She didn't love him, ye know, nor he her. He wanted her for the glen, but he didn't get it. He loved me, or so he said, for I was his firstborn, but then when my sisters kept coming and my brothers kept dying, he became impossibly cruel. The night our Morag was born, he took one look at her and howled his outrage. My mother lay dying, yet she somehow found the strength to laugh at him. He had taken her from the only man she always told me she loved, and only for the glen, but in the end she beat him, and he knew it. I believe my mam died a happy woman, my lord."
"My father never stopped loving her," he said, releasing her chin from his hold.
"I might have been yer sister," she said softly.
"But ye are not my sister, Fiona Hay. Yer a defiant little thief who will shortly be my mistress, though why I even accepted yer offer I'll never know. Ye will, I suspect, be more trouble than ye are worth. Still"he chuckled"ye'll not bore me, I'm thinking."
"No, my lord, I'll not bore ye."
He wasn't certain whether her words were a threat or a promise, and that in itself was intriguing. Standing, he stretched his long frame. "I must see to my men, Fiona Hay. May I take supper with ye?"
She nodded. "Ye may, and yer brother, too, my lord."
Finding Jamie, he proffered the invitation, but his brother refused.
"I want to return to Brae Castle and bring back our piper for the wedding," Jamie explained.
"Also bring back two casks of my best wine and two sheep ready for roasting, Jamie-boy. Mistress Hay will not be embarrassed by the scantness of her hospitality tomorrow. If I am to have the responsibility of the lass and her sisters, a poor reception would reflect badly on the Gordons of Loch Brae. Go now, and come right back in the morning, for the bridegrooms are due early."
Angus Gordon joined the Hay sisters for supper.It was a simple meal of rabbit stew, bread, and cheese, but it was served upon a polished high board on pewter plates with silver spoons. Fiona, very well mannered to his surprise, had introduced him formally to thetwo brides-to-be, Elsbeth and Margery. Then she had presented him to her two younger sisters, Jean, who was ten, and Morag, who was seven. Like the twins, Jean was auburn haired and amber eyed. She had a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her elegant little nose.
"Are ye really going to make my sister yer mistress?" she asked him bluntly.
"Aye," he drawled, amused. Turning to Fiona, he inquired, "Are all the Hay women as brazen as ye, lassie?" To his great amazement he saw that Fiona had blushed at her sister's inquiry.
"Jeannie, mind yer tongue!" she scolded hersibling.
"Well, Margery says ye are," Jean replied. "Didn't ye think we ought to know such a thing, Fi?"
Fiona ignored the query and introduced the youngest of the sisters. "This is our wee Morag, my lord."
Morag Hay was but a younger version of her eldest sister. Her emerald-green eyes surveyed the lairdof Loch Brae. Then, following Jeannie's example, she curtsied carefully. "How do ye do, my lord," she lisped prettily.
"I do very well indeed, lassie," he answered her, enchanted.
Morag favored him with a brilliant smile, and when he grinned back at her she giggled. It was a wonderful sound, like water tripping over small rocks on a clear bright day.
"She does not usually take to strangers, particularly men," Fiona observed, surprised. "She isn't used to men. By the time she could distinguish between men and women, most of my father's clansmen had run off back to their relatives in the glen."
"I was raised with two sisters, and they have daughters, although not as old as Mistress Morag. I believe yer sisters will like Brae Castle," he told Fiona. "It is set upon a small island in the loch, and connected to the shore by a causeway. The lasses can learn to swim, and row their own boats."
"Ye speak as if we have some permanent arrangement," Fiona said to him, "and we don't, my lord."
"For now it is permanent. Afterwards, who knows? No matter, I don't believe yer grandfather, Ewan Hay, would approve of my leaving ye here upon the ben now that I've found ye. I think if he had but known ye, the lands in the glen would have been yers, and ye an heiress. Yer father was not just a cruel man; he was a foolish one as well, I fear. Ye could easily be in danger now that so many are aware of yer existence. Keiths, Innes, and Forbes all know ye live here upon the ben, alone and unprotected with but two elderly servants. Any of them could attack ye and steal yer lands, poor as they may be. Ye and yer sisters will be safer with me. Tomorrow I will make certain that yer brothers-in-law and their clansmen know that ye are under the protection of the laird of Loch Brae."
"I wonder, my lord, who is more dangerous? My brothers-in-law or ye?"
Angus laughed. Then, reaching out, he took her hand and raised it to his lips. "In due time, Fiona Hay, ye will learn the answer to yer question. For now I would but ask that ye trust me." He kissed the hand in his, turning it over to press his lips upon her upturned palm, his eyes never leaving hers.
Fiona felt as if she had been struck in the belly. She couldn't breathe, and she could feel her heart leap suddenly, then pound wildly in her ears. Startled, she pulled her hand away.
He gave her a slow smile. "Don't be afraid, lassie," he murmured so only she might hear him, and not be embarrassed. "I will not hurt ye. Harming ye is the furtherest thing from my mind." This morning, he thought to himself, suddenly bemused as to his softening in attitude, he had wanted to hang the thief who had stolen his cattle. Now all he wanted to do was cover her face with kisses. What sorcery was this wench practicing upon him? She had made a bold bargain with him that he fully intended she keep. She would pay in full for the cattle she had so daringly pilfered from his meadows. There would be no escape for Fiona Hay from Angus Gordon's bed.
Fiona arose quickly from the high board and shepherded her sisters up the stairs to their chamber. "We'll have to waken early so we can bathe. Ye'll not go to yer husbands dirty," she added, looking at the brides-to-be.
"He's verra bonnie," Elsbeth remarked as the door to their chamber closed behind them.
"Who?" Fiona asked.
Elsbeth laughed. "The laird, ye witless fool."
"He has the look of a rogue," Margery said primly.
"I like him," Morag said.
Jean looked thoughtful. "I wonder if he'll give us our own ponies? I'm going to like living at Brae Castle."
"How can ye be certain? Ye've never even seen it," Fiona said.
"It will be warm and dry, and we'll get to eat regularly," Jean said, thinking practically. "I'll like it!"
Fiona felt guilty at her sister's words but then wondered why she should. She had done her best for her siblings, especially in the years since their father had died. But it was true that Jeannie was always hungry and complaining about it, whereas the others, if they were also hungry, had not whined and fussed. "Wash yer faces and get out of yer clothes," she ordered the girls. "Morning will come before ye know it, and there'll be water to draw and heat for the baths. Elsbeth, Margery, are yer trunks packed for the morrow?"
"Aye," the twins chorused.
"Then see to the younger ones and get to yer beds. I must make certain the laird is settled and comfortable before I can sleep," Fiona told them, hurrying from the room before they might tease her further.
"She is giving up a great deal for us," Margery said slowly. "I wonder if it is right that we let her do it."
"And if we don't, what would happen to the rest of us?" Jean asked, with far more wisdom than her years allowed. "We'd all die old maids here upon the ben. No, tomorrow ye two will wed with yer laddies because that is the way Fi wants it to be. Then we shall go off to Brae Castle to live. If Fi pleases the laird, he will probably find fine husbands for our Morag and for me."
Fretting, Margery asked, "But what would our mother think of such an arrangement as Fi has made?"
Jean snorted. "Our mother did what she had to do to survive our father, and Fi will do the same to survive the laird."
"Ye don't know that," Elsbeth said. "Why, ye can't remember our mother, for she died when ye were barely three."
"No, I don't remember her," Jean admitted, "but Flora often says how like Mother in character Fi is, even if she looks like our father."
"Did I know our mother?" Morag wondered aloud as Margery wiped her face clean of the supper stew.
"Mam died when ye were born," Margery said.
"Why?" Morag said. She always asked why, though she knew the answer that she would be given.
"Because God wanted her in heaven, our Morag," Elsbeth replied in kindly tones. Margery drew off the child's gown, leaving Morag in her chemise to climb into the large bed she shared with the twins and settle herself in the middle, which was her usual place. "Now shut yer eyes, and go to sleep. Tomorrow is a big day for us all."
The three other girls finished their ablutions and, garbed only in their chemises, climbed into bed.
"I'll leave the candle burning for Fi to see by," Jean said, snuggling down into the feather bed she shared with Fiona.
In the hall below, Fiona found the high board cleared, but her two aged servants were nowhere in sight. She suspected they had already climbed to their attic and gone to bed. Folding back the wooden shutters on a sleeping space set in the wall near the fireplace, she hauled a feather bed from a storage chest and placed it in the space, adding a pillow and a coverlet. "When yer ready to sleep, my lord, ye'll find the sleeping space comfortable," she told the laird.
"Have ye slept in it, then?" he teased her.
"Aye," she said shortly. "Whenever our father wanted to use our mam, he sent us to the hall to sleep. Good night, my lord." Fiona hurried back up the stairs to her chamber.
Watching her go, he contemplated what a strange female she was. Saucy and bold she was without a doubt, yet loyal and protective of those she loved. She seemed to have little use for Dugald Hay, her sire, but then few had ever had use for the Hay of the Ben. He had not been a well-liked man, particularly after his rape of and forced marriage to Muire Hay, who had been betrothed to Angus Gordon's father, Robert. Dugald had kept to himself after that, siring child after child upon his unfortunate wife in his desperate attempt to gain his father-in-law's lands, for those lands would only be his if he sired a son on Muire. What had he been like in the years after Muire's death? How had it affected his daughters, particularly the fierce Fiona?
He smiled. She was really quite lovely. He would enjoy initiating her into the amatory arts. Even though he had earlier questioned her virtue, he knew without asking that she was absolutely ignorant about what transpired between a man and a woman. She had been too young for such things when her mother had died, and it was unlikely Dugald Hay had enlightened his daughter. Unlikely? Unthinkable!
Tomorrow night they would be safe at Brae Castle. Tomorrow night she would be his. Why did the thought excite him so? He had just met the lass. He hardly knew her. Yet he wanted to possess her, wanted to taste that ripe mouth, wanted to caress that fair white flesh, wanted to feel her lithe body beneath his. The laird of Loch Brae climbed into his bed space and, not without some difficulty, finally fell into a restless sleep.
He awakened slowly, realizing that it was still dark, although the skies outside the tower's window were graying. He heard soft sounds in the hall, saw shadows moving about. He reached for his sword and waited to see who the intruders were and what they could possibly want from this poor place. Then suddenly he heard a giggle, followed by an authoritative "shush," and he realized that there were no intruders. It was the Hay sisters.
He watched from his bed space as they struggled to maneuver a large oaken tub from its storage nook at the end of the hall, pushing and pulling it down the length of the room, setting it before the fire. The door to the hall was flung open then, allowing him to observe the girls as they carried bucket after bucket of water from the well outside, heating it in an iron cauldron over the fire, and pouring it into the tub until finally it was filled to Fiona's satisfaction. Two of the girls dragged a screen from another cranny, fitting it about the tub area.
"Elsbeth and Margery first," he heard Fiona say. There followed much whispering and giggling frombehind the screen as each sister took her turn in the oaken tub.
Angus Gordon lay quietly, enjoying the sounds, his bed space quite cozy with the freshly built fire blazing away. He, too, came from a large family. Besideshis youngest brother, Jamie, he had another brother, Robert, who was two years his junior, and two sisters, Janet and Meggie. His mother had been Margaret Leslie, the daughter of the laird of Glenkirk. She had borne her children over an eight-year period, dying as Muire Hay had in childbirth. How strange, he thought, that both he and Fiona Hay were the eldest of their siblings, and had each lost mothers when they were but eight years of age. At least his father had lived until he was grown, Angus thought gratefully. He had been a good man who grieved hard the wife he had loved and lost, as well as the lovely Muire Hay, whom he had also lovedand lost in an equally cruel manner.
"Upstairs, all of ye," he heard Fiona ordering her sisters. "I'll be with ye in a few moments' time. Flora, good, yer up! Is the bread baked yet? Give the lasses a loaf, some butter, and honey before they dress. I want to bathe, too."
"Oh Fi! Honey? This really is a grand day," the laird heard Jean say enthusiastically to her sister.
The hall grew silent. He could hear the sounds of splashing behind the screen. He could hear Fiona humming softly. Sliding from the bed space, he pulled on his boots and wrapped his kilt about his lean frame. He needed to pee, but first he would bid his hostess a good morning. It was simply too irresistible. Striding the hall, he moved around the screen.
"Good morrow, Mistress Hay," he said cheerily.
The emerald-green eyes looked up, slightly startled, but she made no great outcry. "Good morrow, my lord. I imagine we awakened ye, but 'twas time," she said calmly. Then she washed her face. Little else of her was available to his eyes but her shoulders and upper chest, for the tub was deep and well filled.
The most incredible urge overcame him. He wanted to lift her dripping from the tub, and kiss her cherry-red lips! He wanted to pull the pins that secured her black hair atop her head, and let it fall over her wet shoulders, where he might bury his face in the soft, fragrant mass of her tresses. Then he wanted to carry her to the dark security of the bed space he had only recently vacated, and make love to her until she cried with the pleasure he would give her.
Instead he bowed politely to her, saying, "Ye were a verra courteous hostess, Mistress Hay, and I thank ye for yer hospitality. I hope ye will not be offended, but I wanted to repay that hospitality. I sent my brother back to Brae for two whole sheep to be roasted and some casks of wine. By the time ye run out," he told her with a smile, "the Forbeses and the Inneses will be verra drunk, and fortunate to find their way back down the ben to their own lands."
"'Tis most generous of ye, my lord," Fiona acknowledged as she vigorously scrubbed her neck. "I'll serve yer wine first, for it's certain to be better than the poor stuff my father had in his cellar. Would ye hand me my towel, please?" she requested sweetly.
Why the little vixen, he thought, half-amused, as he complied. He had sought to tease her, but she was giving him back as good as he had given her. Would she really arise from the dirty water in the tub while he was still with her? He decided to wait and find out.
Positioning the towel carefully before her so that he could view nothing of her charms, Fiona stood and wrapped the cloth tightly around her body. Then with the grace and dignity of a young queen she descended the narrow little steps from the tub to the hall floor. "Thank ye for yer help, my lord," she gently mocked him, turning and running up the stairs on slender white legs to the chamber she shared with her sisters. As she gained the landing, she looked down and stuck out her tongue at him.
The laird of Loch Brae burst out laughing. "Ye'll pay for that insult, Mistress Hay," he vowed, shaking his fist at her. He went out into the clearing before the tower house, where he found his men preparing themselves for the wedding.
James had obviously returned. Two shallow pits had been dug in the earth, and the sheep were already roasting slowly upon their spits over the hot fires. Angus Gordon walked into the woods near the tower and relieved himself, but even emptied of his waters, his manhood was still swollen and sensitive. He cursed softly beneath his breath. How could she be affecting him so strongly when he scarcely knew her? He had never known his lust to be so quickly engaged as it was now. He would have to slake that lust immediately, or she would drive him mad. He thanked God that she was too young and innocent to understand the effect she was having upon him.
By midmorning the priest had arrived from Glenkirk Abbey. His first order of business was to baptize Morag Hay. Then he went into the Hay burying ground and prayed over the graves of Muire and Dugald Hay. The skirl of pipes was heard coming up the ben from first one side, then the other. Elsbeth and Margery were almost sick with excitement. Which of the clans would reach the crest of the ben first? The Forbeses or the Inneses? A clan feud was averted, however, when by prearrangement the two families marched into the clearing before Hay Tower together. The Forbeses, in their blue-and-green tartan with its single white stripe, had come up one side of the ben. The Inneses, their tartan a more complicated plaid of red, black, and green with narrow stripes of yellow, white, and blue, had come up the other side. Each had a single piper with them and together with the Gordon piper brought back by James, the ben rang with wild and savage music such as it had never heard.
Fiona Hay, dressed in a fine green velvet skirt and white linen blouse, the red-and-green Hay tartan across her bosom, a small flat green velvet cap with an eagle's feather upon her dark head, stepped from the house. She wore the clan badge of a Hay chieftain on her shoulder, and her family's plant badge, a sprig of mistletoe, was pinned to her cap. "I bid those who are to become my kinsmen welcome," she said. "Have ye come in peace?"
"We have," the Forbeses and Inneses chorused.
"Come into the house, then, that we may celebrate the marriages between our families." She ushered them into the hall.
The hall had been swept clean. A roaring fire burned in the fireplace. The Gordon wine casks had been set up to one side of the hall. The high board glowed with candles. The clansmen crowded into the hall, Forbes, Gordon, and Innes plaids mingling. The two fathers of the bridegrooms immediately saw the laird of Loch Brae and hurried to pay their respects, for he was the most important chieftain in the near region. They wondered why he was there. Then, simultaneously, each remembered that Angus Gordon had inherited the lands in the glen that had belonged to the Hay sisters' mother's family. Perhaps the laird felt some sort of responsibility because the lasses had been so unfairly disinherited, and had come to the wedding to smooth over any hard feelings.
Andrew Innes introduced his son, Walter, to the laird. Then Douglas Forbes presented his son, Colin. Angus Gordon was gracious, wishing both young men a long and happy life with their brides and, of course, a houseful of sons.
The Innes chief, bolder than his companions, asked, "What brings ye to Ben Hay, my lord? I was not aware ye knew Dugald Hay's lasses."
"Mistress Fiona purchased the cattle yer sons are receiving as dowry from me," Angus Gordon said pleasantly. "I have decided to take an interest in the welfare of the Hay sisters from now on, Andrew Innes. 'Tis not easy for them, although I will admit that Mistress Fiona has done well by her sisters so far. Still, when none knew they were living upon the ben 'twas safer. Now, however, I fear for them. I shall take Mistress Fiona, Jean, and Morag back to Brae with me today and set my own men upon the ben to watch over it for them."
"An excellent idea, my lord!" Douglas Forbes said jovially, with a smug grin at Andrew Innes. The Forbes chieftain knew that Innes, a recent widower, had planned to court Fiona Hay this very summer, with an eye to annexing the lands upon the ben for himself. And he hadn't intended taking no for an answer. Douglas Forbes chuckled softly to see Andrew Innes so neatly foiled. He had not been happy at the thought of an Innes taking over the ben, and its lands, but he had a wife, and all his sons were wed.
The priest from the Glenkirk Abbey announced that he was ready to begin the ceremony. Fiona Hay led her sisters down the stairs, putting Elsbeth's hand in that of Walter Innes, and Margery's hand in that of Colin Forbes. The twins were garbed as their elder sister, in green velvet skirts and linen blouses. Neither wore a plaid, or a cap upon her head. Instead their hair was loose and flowing to signify their innocence and virtue. In their hands they carried posies of wildflowers that Jean and Morag had gathered for them earlier. The priest performed the ceremony for the two bridal couples together. When he finally pronounced them man and wife, each of the bridegrooms carefully laid their own clan tartans, in sash form, across the breasts of their brides, afixing them to the girls' shoulders with pretty pewter pins. Margery's was decorated with a piece of green jasper; Elsbeth's was studded with black agate. As the pipes began to play once more, the young couples kissed each other, and congratulations rang thr ough the hall.
Fiona noted with gratitude several Gordon clansmen aiding her two aged servants in passing wine to her guests. The wedding party settled itself about the high board. There were trestles below for the others. Plates were heaped high with lamb, fresh bread, butter, and cheese. The goblets never seemed to grow empty. When everything had been eaten but there was wine yet to be drunk, the trestles were pushed back to the sides of the hall. Crossed swords were laid upon the floor, and as the pipes began to play, the laird of Loch Brae danced for the entertainment of the guests, nimbly treading between the swords, slowly at first, and then prancing more quickly until the dance reached its ending. With a shout each bridegroom followed him. The hall rang with merriment and goodwill.
"Yer most graceful, my lord," Fiona said. "Ye have made more than one contribution to this day, and I am grateful to ye for it. I don't believe this wedding would have been as fine without ye."
Angus Gordon nodded in acknowledgment of her appreciation, and then he said, "That silly fool, Andrew Innes, lusts after ye. Have ye noticed it, mistress?"
"It isn't me, my lord," Fiona laughed. "'Tis the ben and its lands he wants. That's all."
"Then he's a fool, Fiona Hay, for yer far more valuable than the lands ye believe he covets, and tonight ye shall be mine!" His voice was ragged with his desire, and he silently cursed himself for being soopen with her. She would learn soon enough her power over him.
She could hear the hunger in his voice, a hunger she could not understand. A hunger for what? Theintensity of it, however, sent a ripple down her spine. For a brief moment she closed her eyes in order toregain her composure. It wasn't that he frightenedher, because he didn't. Rather, he excited her with anunspoken promise of something wonderful to come. She should probably be very ashamed of herself, Fiona thought, but she wasn't. She had made an outrageous bargain with this man, but what else could she have done if these marriages were to be brought successfully to a favorable conclusion? She had done the right thing. What happened to her did not matter. Fiona would put a high price on herself, for if she was to be the laird of Loch Brae's mistress, Jeannie and Morag would getbetter husbands for themselves. Fiona promised her mother when she had died that she would look to her lasses, and Fiona had done so.
It was two hours past noon, and time for the brides to depart with their new husbands. Their chests with their clothing and linens were lifted up by their new clansmen. Outside the house, Fiona turned over four cattle apiece to each of her brothers-in-law. "The dowry, paid in full," she said, and they accepted them, nodding in agreement. With each clan's piper playing and leading the way, the Forbeses and the Inneses departed down their respective sides of the ben, driving the beasts before them. The brides hugged Fiona, Jean, and Morag but once, then were happily gone, arms linked with those of their new husbands. The remaining Hay sisters stood with Flora and Tam until the sound of the pipes had faded completely. It had been a gray day, but they had not noticed until now.
Flora sniffled, wiping her rheumy eyes with her apron. "God keep them safe, my bairns," she sobbed.
"Now, then, old woman," her husband said gruffly, but Flora cut him short.
"Don't ye scold me, Tam Hay!" she said fiercely. "Yer just as brokenhearted as I am, and don't ye attempt to deny it!"
The Gordon clansmen were beginning to regroup in the clearing before the tower house. "It is time forus to go, too," Angus Gordon said to Fiona Hay. He turned to the elderly servants. "I would have ye stay here tonight. Pack the lassies' belongings, and tomorrow my brother will return with the men to bring ye to Brae."
"Aye, my lord," they chorused, accepting his authority, and Flora curtsied to him.
"Can we walk to Brae by nightfall?" Fionaasked him.
"Jamie has left the horses at the foot of the ben," the laird told her. "Have ye ever ridden?"
"The pony, but not often," Fiona admitted. "I would like to learn to really ride, my lord. Will yeteach me?"
"Aye, lassie," he promised her, taking her hand in his. "I will teach ye to ride all manner of beasties before much more time has passed. Come, now, and letus go home to Brae." He turned and called to the two younger girls. "Jeannie, Morag, we are ready to go. Follow closely now, and don't get lost in the trees."
"Will I ever come back here, my lord?" Fiona asked, suddenly unsure of herself for the first time. Had it been only yesterday when he had come into her life? Somehow it seemed much longer.
"The ben is yers, lassie, as Dugald Hay's eldest child," he reassured her. "I'll keep it safe for ye, and I'll keep ye and yer sisters safe, too, but first we have a wee matter of payment for the eight cattle that have gone off down the ben with the Forbeses and the Inneses, and the four that went with the Keiths last autumn. Are ye ready to meet yer obligations, lassie?"
"Aye," she said slowly, and her heart beat just a little faster as he squeezed her hand.