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By Hannah Howell
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2006 Hannah Howell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneScotland Summer 1480
"Ye dinnae look dead; though I think ye might be trying to smell like ye are."
Angus MacReith scowled at the young man towering over his bed. Artan Murray was big, strongly built, and handsome. His cousin had done well, he thought. Far better than all his nearer kin who had borne no children at all or left him with ones like young Malcolm. Angus scowled even more fiercely as he thought about that man-untrustworthy, greedy, and cowardly. Artan had the blood of the MacReiths in him and it showed, just as it did in his twin, Lucas. It was only then that Angus realized Artan stood there alone.
"Where is the other one?" he asked.
"Lucas had his leg broken," Artan replied.
"Could be. I was looking for the ones who did it when ye sent word."
"Ye dinnae ken who did it?"
"I have a good idea who did it. A verra good idea." Artan shrugged. "I will find them."
Angus nodded, "Aye, ye will, lad. Suspicion they will be hiding now, eh?"
"Aye, as time passes and I dinnae come to take my reckoning they will begin to feel themselves safe. 'Twill be most enjoyable to show them how mistaken they are."
"Ye have a devious mind, Artan," Angus said in obvious admiration.
"Thank ye." Artan moved to lean against the bedpost at the head of the bed. "I dinnae think ye are dying, Angus."
"I amnay weel!"
"Och, nay, ye arenae, but ye arenae dying."
"What do ye ken about it?" grumbled Angus, pushing himself upright enough to collapse against the pillows Artan quickly set behind him.
"Dinnae ye recall that I am a Murray? I have spent near all my life surrounded by healers. Aye, ye are ailing; but I dinnae think ye will die if ye are careful. Ye dinnae have the odor of a mon with one foot in the grave. And, for all ye do stink some, 'tisnae really the smell of death."
"Death has a smell ere it e'en takes hold of a mon's soul?"
"Aye, I think it does. And since ye are nay dying, I will return to hunting the men who hurt Lucas."
Angus grabbed Artan by the arm, halting the younger man as he started to move away. "Nay! I could die and ye ken it weel. I hold three score years. E'en the smallest chill could set me firm in the grave."
That was true enough, Artan thought as he studied the man who had fostered him and Lucas for nearly ten years. Angus was still a big, strong man, but age sometimes weakened a body in ways one could not see. The fact that Angus was in bed in the middle of the day was proof enough that whatever ailed him was serious. Artan wondered if he was just refusing to accept the fact that Angus was old and would die soon.
"So, ye have brought me here to stand watch o'er your deathbed?" Artan asked, frowning, for he doubted Angus would ask such a thing of him.
"Nay, I need ye to do something for me. This ague, or whate'er it is that ails me, has made me face the hard fact that, e'en if I recover from this, I dinnae have many years left to me. 'Tis past time I start thinking on what must be done to ensure the well-being of Glascreag and the clan when I am nay longer here."
"Then ye should be speaking with Malcolm."
"Bah, that craven whelp is naught but a stain upon the name MacReith. Sly, whining little wretch. I wouldnae trust him to care for my dogs, let alone these lands and the people living here. He couldnae hold fast to this place for a fortnight. Nay, I willnae have him as my heir."
"Ye dinnae have another one that I ken of."
"Aye, I do, although I have kept it quiet. Glad of that now. My youngest sister bore a child two-and-twenty years ago. Poor Moira died a few years later bearing another child," he murmured, the shadow of old memories briefly darkening his eyes.
"Then where is he? Why wasnae he sent here to train to be the laird? Why isnae he kicking that wee timid mousie named Malcolm out of Glascreag?"
"'Tis a lass."
Artan opened his mouth to loudly decry naming a lass the heir to Glascreag, and then quickly shut it. He resisted the temptation to look behind him to see if his kinswomen were bearing down on him, well armed and ready to beat some sense into him. They would all be sorely aggrieved if they knew what thoughts were whirling about in his head. Words like too weak, too sentimental, too trusting, and made to have bairns not lead armies were the sort of thoughts that would have his kinswomen grinding their teeth in fury.
But Glascreag was no Donncoill, he thought. Deep in the Highlands, it was surrounded by rough lands and even rougher men. In the years he and Lucas had trained with Angus, they had fought reivers, other clans, and some who had wanted Angus's lands. Glascreag required constant vigilance and a strong sword arm. Murray women were strong and clever, but they were healers not warriors, not deep in their hearts. Artan also considered his kinswomen unique and doubted Angus's niece was of their ilk.
"If ye name a lass as your heir, Angus, every mon who has e'er coveted your lands will come kicking down your gates." Artan crossed his arms over his chest and scowled at the man. "Malcolm is a spineless weasel, but a mon, more or less. Naming him your heir would at least make men pause as they girded themselves for battle. Aye, and your men would heed his orders far more quickly than they would those of a lass, and ye ken it weel."
Angus nodded and ran one scarred hand through his black hair, which was still thick and long, but was now well threaded with white. "I ken it, but I have a plan."
A tickle of unease passed through Artan. Angus's plans could often mean trouble. At the very least, they meant hard work for him. The way the man's eyes, a silvery blue like his own, were shielded by his half-lowered lids warned Artan that even Angus knew he was not going to like this particular plan.
"I want ye to go and fetch my niece for me and bring her here to Glascreag, where she belongs. I wish to see her once more before I die." Angus sighed, slumped heavily against the pillows, and closed his eyes.
Artan grunted, making his disgust with such a pitiful play for sympathy very clear. "Then send word and have her people bring her here."
Sitting up straight, Angus glared at him. "I did. I have been writing to the lass for years, e'en sent for her when her father and brother died ten, nay, twelve years ago. Her father's kinsmen refused to give her into my care e'en though nary a one of them is as close in blood to her as I am."
"Why didnae ye just go and get her? Ye are a laird. Ye could have claimed her as your legal heir and taken her. 'Tis easy to refuse letters and emissaries, but nay so easy to refuse a mon to his face. Ye could have saved yourself the misery of dealing with Malcolm."
"I wanted the lass to want to come to Glascreag, didnae I?"
"'Tis past time ye ceased trying to coax her or her father's kinsmen."
"Exactly! That is why I want ye to go and fetch her here. Ach, laddie, I am sure ye can do it. Ye can charm and threaten with equal skill. Aye, and ye can do it without making them all hot for your blood. I would surely start a feud I dinnae need. Ye have a way with folk that I dinnae, that ye do."
Artan listened to Angus's flattery and grew even more uneasy. Angus was not only a little desperate to have his niece brought home to Glascreag, but he also knew Artan would probably refuse to do him this favor. The question was, why would Angus think Artan would refuse to go and get the woman. It could not be because it was dangerous, for the man knew well that only something foolishly suicidal would cause Artan to, perhaps, hesitate. Although his mind was quickly crowded with possibilities ranging from illegal to just plain disgusting, Artan decided he had played this game long enough.
"Shut it, Angus," he said, standing up straighter and putting his hands on his hips. "Why havenae ye gone after the woman yourself, and why do ye think I will refuse to go?"
"Ye would refuse to help a mon on his deathbed?"
"Just spit it out, Angus, or I will leave right now and ye will ne'er ken which I might have said, aye or nay."
"Och, ye will say nay," Angus mumbled. "Cecily lives at Dunburn near Kirkfalls."
"Near Kirkfalls? Kirkfalls?" Artan muttered; then he swore. "That is in the Lowlands." Artan's voice was soft yet sharp with loathing.
"Weel, just a few miles into the Lowlands."
"Now I ken why ye ne'er went after the lass yourself. Ye couldnae stomach the thought of going there. Yet ye would send me into that hellhole?"
"'Tisnae as bad as all that."
"'Tis as bad as if ye wanted me to ride to London. I willnae do it," Artan said, and started to leave.
"I need an heir of my own blood!"
"Then ye should ne'er have let your sister marry a Lowlander. 'Tis near as bad as if ye had let her run off with a Sassanach. Best ye leave the lass where she is. She is weel ruined by now."
"Wait! Ye havenae heard the whole of my plan!"
Artan opened the door and stared at Malcolm, who was crouched on the floor, obviously having had his large ear pressed against the door. The thin, pale young man grew even paler and stood up. He staggered back a few steps, and then bolted down the hall. Artan sighed. He did not need such a stark reminder of the pathetic choice Angus had for an heir now.
Curiosity also halted him at the door. Every instinct he had told him to keep on moving, that he would be a fool to listen to anything else Angus had to say. A voice in his head whispered that his next step could change his life forever. Artan wished that voice would tell him if that change would be for the better. Praying he was not about to make a very bad choice, he slowly turned to look at Angus, but he did not move away from the door.
Angus looked a little smug, and Artan inwardly cursed. The old man had judged his victim well. Curiosity had always been Artan's weakness. It had caused him trouble and several injuries more times than he cared to recall. He wished Lucas were with him, for his brother was the cautious one. Then Artan quickly shook that thought aside. He was a grown man now, not a reckless child, and he had wit enough to make his own decisions with care and wisdom.
"What is the rest of your plan?" he asked Angus.
"Weel, 'tis verra simple. I need a strong mon to take my place as laird once I die or decide 'tis time I rested. Malcolm isnae it, and neither is Cecily. Howbeit, there has to be someone of MacReith blood to step into my place, the closer to me the better."
"Aye, 'tis the way it should be."
"So, e'en though ye have MacReith blood, 'tis but from a distant cousin. Howbeit, if ye marry Cecily-"
"Wheesht, what are ye looking so horrified about, eh? Ye arenae getting any younger, laddie. Past time ye were wed."
"I have naught against marriage. I fully intend to choose a bride some day."
Angus grunted. "Some day can sneak up on a body, laddie. I ken it weel. Now, cease your fretting for a moment and let me finish. If ye were to marry my niece, ye could be laird here. I would name ye my heir and nary a one of my men would protest it. E'en better, Malcolm couldnae get anyone to heed him if he cried foul. Cecily is my closest blood kin, and ye are nearly as close to me as Malcolm is. So, ye marry the lass and, one day, Glascreag is yours."
Artan stepped back into the room and slowly closed the door. Angus was offering him something he had never thought to have-the chance to be a laird, to hold lands of his own. As the secondborn of the twins, his future had always been as Lucas's second, or as the next in line to be the laird of Donncoill if anything happened to Lucas, something he never cared to think about. There had always been only one possibility of changing that future-marriage to a woman with lands as part of her dowry.
Which was exactly what Angus was offering him, he mused, and felt temptation tease at his mind and heart. Marry Cecily and become heir to Glascreag, a place he truly loved as much as he did his own homelands. Any man with wit enough to recall his own name would grab at this chance with both hands; yet despite the strong temptation of it all, he hesitated. Since Artan considered his wits sound and sharp, he had to wonder why.
Because he wanted a marriage like his parents had, like his grandparents had, and like so many of his clan had, he realized. He wanted a marriage of choice, of passion, of a bonding that held firm for life. When it was land, coin, or alliances that tied a couple together, the chances of such a good marriage were sadly dimmed. He had been offered the favors of too many unhappy wives to doubt that conclusion. If the thought of taking part in committing adultery did not trouble him so much, he would now be a very experienced lover, he mused and hastily shook aside a pinch of regret. He certainly did not want his wife to become one of those women, and he did not want to be one of those men who felt so little a bond with his wife that he repeatedly broke his vows; or worse, find himself trapped in a cold marriage and, bound tightly by his own beliefs, unable to find passion elsewhere.
He looked at Angus, who was waiting for an answer with an ill-concealed impatience. Although he could not agree to marry a woman he had never met, no matter how tempting her dowry, there was no harm in agreeing to consider it. He could go and get the woman and decide on marrying her once he saw her. As they traveled back to Glascreag together, he would have ample time to decide if she was a woman he could share the rest of his life with.
Then he recalled where she lived and how long she had lived there. "She is a Lowlander."
"She is a MacReith," Angus snapped.
Angus was looking smug again. Artan ignored it, for the man was right in thinking he might get what he wanted. In many ways, it was what Artan wanted as well. It all depended upon what this woman Cecily was like.
"Cecily," he murmured. "Sounds like a Sassanach name." He almost smiled when Angus glared at him, the old man's pale cheeks now flushed with anger.
"'Tis no an English name! 'Tis the name of a martyr, ye great heathen, and weel ye ken it. My sister was a pious lass. She didnae change the child's christening name as some folk do. Kept the saint's name. I call the lass Sile. Use the Gaelic, ye ken."
"Because ye think Cecily sounds English." Artan ignored Angus's stuttering denial. "When did ye last see this lass?"
"Her father brought her and her wee brother here just before he and the lad died."
"How did they die?"
"Killed whilst traveling back home from visiting me. Thieves. Poor wee lass saw it all. Old Meg, her maid, got her to safety, though. Some of their escort survived, chased away the thieves, and then got Cecily, Old Meg, and the dead back to their home. The moment I heard I sent for the lass, but the cousins had already taken hold of her and wouldnae let go."
"Was her father a mon of wealth or property?"
"Aye, he was. He had both, and the cousins now control it all. For the lass's sake, they say. And, aye, I wonder on the killing. His kinsmen could have had a hand in it."
"Yet they havenae rid themselves of the lass."
"She made it home and has ne'er left there again. They also have control of all that she has since she is a woman, aye?"
"Aye, and it probably helps muzzle any suspicions about the other deaths."
Angus nodded. "'Tis what I think. So, will ye go to Kirkfalls and fetch my niece?"
"Aye, I will fetch her, but I make no promises about marrying her."
"Not e'en to become my heir?"
"Nay, not e'en for that, tempting as it is. I willnae tie myself to a woman for that alone. There has to be more."
"She is a bonnie wee lass with dark red hair and big green eyes."
Excerpted from Highland Barbarian by Hannah Howell Copyright © 2006 by Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission.
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