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Martinmas Fair, November 11, 1450
Saint Andrews, County Fife, Scotland
Brianna slipped out of the covered market building where the fair day feast was under way. Though she was a stranger here, indistinguishable from the other fairgoers, the bounty offered rivaled any banquet served to honored guests in her da's great hall. Even with her belly so full her sides felt close to splitting, thinking of the delicacies weighing down the trestle tables within the delectable tarts and custards, fancy nuts and cheeses, and flaky pasty pies both sweet and savorymade her mouth water. The richly spiced foods had left her with a powerful thirst, which she'd quenched with cup upon cup of the free-flowing, honey-sweetened milk. Now her brimming bladder would no longer be denied. Future laird or no, she was still human. Nature's call cared not for rank or bloodline.
Hugging her plaid about her shoulders, she left the market cross and headed down the High Gate in search of privacy, her footfalls nearly soundless on the mud-packed lane, her way lit by tarred torches and bracketed by empty market stalls. Flute music drew her toward the stable. The plaintive song stopped just as she approached the half-cocked door. Deciding it must have come from off in the distance, after all, she darted a glance over her shoulder and then slipped inside, pulling the door closed behind her.
A lantern hung on a peg on the far wall, its feeble light scarcely strong enough to tunnel through the shadows. Brianna shivered, the darkness resurrecting childhood fears of witches with warty noses, demons that poked you with their pitchforks, and goblins that stole naughty bairns from their beds atnight. She shuffled toward the light, arms outstretched to ward off falling. Her palms scraped the rough wall. Anchoring herself to the corner, she lifted her skirts and squatted. Ah, sweet relief
"You piss a rare fine stream for a girl."
Brianna started. Heart hammering, she yanked down her skirts and leaped up, searching the shadows.
"Up here." The husky tones beckoning her to look above belonged to a youth, not a grown man, and certainly not an otherworldly creature.
Face burning, Brianna craned her neck and squinted. A pair of long-boned legs swung from the beam above, the big booted feet barely clearing her head. The feet belonged to a boy of twelve or so with wavy, shoulder-length dark hair, laughing eyes and a wooden flute held in one broad hand.
From his perch he must have gotten a good glimpse of her woman's parts. Six months ago that wouldn't have bothered her a bit, but since the start of her courses, she'd developed a new modesty. Shameful heat seared her cheeks as though she stood too near a fire.
Determined to regain her lost dignity, she lifted her chin and speared him with a deliberate dagger glare. "You should have made your presence known."
He jumped down, landing in the straw beside her. "Why? You didn't see fit to announce yours." Straightening, he brushed the hay from his tunic and trousers, both sadly in want of mending, and tucked the flute inside his pocket. "Besides, I was here first."
It was the truth. She had entered uninvited, though the stable was a public place. "It doesna matter. As a future laird, I outrank you."
Instead of being cowed as she'd expected, he threw back his dark head and laughed. Swiping a hand over his eyes, he shook his head as though she were a child and he a grown-up. "Girls canna be lairds."
The statement inflamed Brianna like the striking together of flint and steel. She punched a fist in the air. "I canand I will. My da swears it will be so, and as he is clan chief, his word is law. Someday I shall be known as The MacLeod."
Before they'd set out on their journey, her father had told her he didn't mean to take another wife. He had four bairns in the kirkyard, her dear mother buried with the last, and he was coming to believe he wasn't meant to beget boys. Before his death, an event Brianna hoped wouldn't come to pass for a very long time, he meant to name her, his sole surviving child, as heir.
The youth rolled his eyes and Brianna was struck by their clear gray, almost opaque colora trick of the shadows, perhaps, though she didn't think so. "A laird's duties include leading men into battle. A woman can't do that."
The comment hit home. Before setting out, she'd overheard the old gentlemen, her father's trusted councillors, say much the same. "I suppose you've never heard of Joan of Arc, you oaf."
He shrugged his shoulders, broad for a boy of his young years. "That was different. She had visions from the saintsSaints Michael, Catherine and Margaret, to be exact. You don't strike me as likely to be visited by the divine anytime soon."
Brianna bit her lip. She couldn't argue with him there. She'd been getting into scrapes almost since taking her first shaky baby step.
Seizing the upper hand, the boy barreled on. "Besides, you'll have to marry someday and you know what that means. You'll birth bairns. Your belly will grow big as a croft, and you'll be too fat to lead your men into battle unless you want them to waddle like ducks. Your enemies will call the MacLeods Clan Quack-quack."
Brianna stamped her foot in the straw. "They will not."
No doubt her dear departed mother was wagging an admonishing finger at her from heaven above, but for the moment, Brianna was too angry to care. She balled her fingers into a fist, hauled backand swung.
Her knuckles met the lad's lean midriff, stony hard despite his lack of years and girth. Such a blow would have felled most boys her age, but to his credit, he held his ground.
"Ouch!" Rubbing his stomach, he stared at her, the crystalline purity of his gaze already rendering her sorry. "I ken you have a temper to match your hair."
Ignoring his reference to her red-gold tresses, presently gathered into a single messy plait, Brianna folded her arms and glared at him. "'Tis your just punishment for speaking out of turn, for you are neither my kinsman nor my equal." She raked her gaze over his common garb with deliberate thoroughness.
He glared at her, his eyes darkening. "For all you ken, I'm a future clan chief myself."
She glanced at the worn plaid gathered about his shoulders and chest. Faded though the fabric was, now that her eyes had adjusted to the low light she made out the pattern of brilliant scarlet interwoven with forest-green, the Fraser colors. Brianna drew back. The Mac-Leods and the Frasers weren't enemies, exactly, but they weren't friends, either. In recent years, MacLeod cattle had been known to "wander" off, particularly around market days. She'd heard the laird had twin sons, Callum and Ewan, two years younger than she and born mere minutes apart, but before now she'd never given that bit of news all that much thought.
Wondering which of the brothers she faced, she asked, "Well, are you?"
He shook his head, gaze clouding. "Nay, my brother Callum is older than I by two minutes. I am Ewan, my father's youngest."
She reached out her hand. "I am Brianna, my father's only." Even resolved to be friendly, she couldn't seem to set aside her pride.
He took it, long fingers furling about hers, his grip firm but gentle and pleasantly warm. "I am pleased to meet you, Brianna of the MacLeods. So what brings a laird's daughterexcuse me, a future lairdto a fair day so far from our island home?"
"I'm helping my da drive our cattle to market, but we bided here to see the fair and celebrate the feast day." She glanced down to her hand, which he still held.
Cheeks coloring, he released her. "Driving cattle to market seems a verra big job for a girl."
She sensed he was deliberately tweaking her again, and yet, as always, the reference to her sex rankled. If only she might have been born a boy, how much simpler life would be. She drew herself up to her full height. Though still growing, she already topped most of the women in her clan and stood on eye level with many boys her age. Despite being her junior, Ewan Fraser stood several inches taller than she.
"I'm not just any girl. I'm the daughter of The MacLeod."
He shook his dark head, daring her with his clear, canny eyes. "Well, you're verra pretty, Brianna of the MacLeods. And you smell like spring flowers."
Meeting his gaze, Brianna felt her heart give a funny little flutter. He must have noticed the perfumed soap with which she'd washed her face and neck and hair a concoction of crushed cherry blossoms and lavender her nursemaid, Milread, made for her specially.
But even better, he'd called her pretty. She wasn't ugly, certainly, but she'd never before thought of herself as fair. For one thing, she was too tall and too big-boned.
And she was too wide-mouthed for another. And then there was the matter of her hair, the riotous red curls defiant of any plait or coil. Pretty girls were tiny as fairies, with pink pouts and straight flaxen locks that fell below their waists like silk curtains.
"'Tis a pity you're so verra haughty," he added, gaze narrowing.
Caught up as she was in the earlier unexpected compliment, it took her a moment before for the criticism hit home. She'd sat in on a sufficient number of quarterly court days to know that her father always treated the lowliest crofter and the loftiest lord with the same courtesy. Magnus MacLeod's fair-handedness was one of many qualities that had earned him the fierce loyalty of his fellow clansmen. Though Brianna strove to be like him in every way, it seemed she'd failed once again.
She let her shoulders droop. "I suppose I could do with a wee bit more humility." Striving to be more fair-minded, she added, "You can hit me back if you like."
He answered her suggestion with a fierce shake of his head, horror dawning on his lean-featured face. "Nay, I canna."
"Don't be silly, fair is fair." She stuck out her less than slender stomach and braced herself for his blow. "No, really, go to."
Clear gray eyes rested on her face. Despite his mild manners, she sensed the steel in him. "Even if you are a MacLeod, you're still a lassie. My da would have my hide if he found out I'd struck you, and what was left of me my ma would tan. You're verra brave, though." He hesitated. "Do you really think they'll let you be laird?"
For the first time since her father had taken her aside and confided his plans, Brianna felt a seed of doubt take root. "If my da decrees it, then it must be so."
Gaze dropping to their feet, he moved straw about with the toe of one boot. "You'll still have need of a husband, though."
Brianna shrugged. "Aye, I suppose I will." Of all the many things she was looking forward to about being a grown-up, marriage ranked low on her wish list. "I've been betrothed to my cousin Donald since we were weans, but he doesna fancy playing outdoors as I do, and my cat, Muffin, makes him sneeze."
Ewan snapped his head up, a smile spreading over his face. "Marry me instead. I best my brother in nearly all the games. In another few years I'll be old enough to take part in the caber toss with the grown men. Oh, and I like cats well enough." He hesitated, and then added, "Well, at least they don't make me sneeze."
Brianna stared at him, curious and a wee bit flustered. Had she really just received a proposal of marriage? If she must take a husband, certainly Ewan Fraser would suit her far better than her quiet, bookish cousin.
"I'll have to ask my da, but I suppose it'd be all right."
Ewan's smile broadened. "I dinna have anything to serve as a ring, but for a betrothal to be binding, we must exchange something."
She stopped to think about that. The only thing of value she had with her was her short-bladed dirk, a gift from her da on her last saint's day. She was reluctant to give it up.
"A blood oath will serve as well as a gift, mayhap better." She slid up her skirt and unsheathed the small knife from her stocking. Straightening, she brandished the blade.
Ewan didn't flinch, nor did he exclaim over the handsomeness of the jewel-encrusted hilt as she'd supposed he would. "Here's hoping you ken how to use it."
"Of course I do," she retorted. "To prove it, I'll do mine first."
She turned her left hand palm up. Biting her bottom lip so as not to cry out and shame herself, she dragged the blade tip over the fatty part of her thumb, raising a thin scarlet semicircle. Holding it out, she said, "See?"
She reached for his hand, but he shook his head. "I'll do my own cutting, thank you very much."
Brianna hesitated. Dare she turn over her weapon to a stranger, let alone one belonging to a rival clan? Rival or not, she doubted he would use it to slit her throat he was only a boy, after all, albeit an uncommonly beautiful and strong onebut what was to keep him from pocketing her prize and running off?
But his steadfast gaze struck down that fleeting thought, stirring something inside her, a queer fluttery feeling taking root in her heart. Whatever Fate held in store for them, Brianna sensed it involved a good deal more than petty theft.
She handed over the knife. "Verra well. Only mind you don't get any ideas about running off. I'm strong as any boy, and I've legs like a rabbit. I wouldn't rest 'til I'd run you to ground, and once I did, it's more than your thumb I'd cut."
The corners of his amazing eyes crinkled in a smile.
"Brianna of the MacLeods, without doubt you're the boldest lass I've ever met."
Brianna found herself smiling back. "Mayhap you should get out more." Never mind that the present journey was the first time she'd set foot on mainland soil.