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Isabelle urged the horse to a canter, wanting only to put space between herself and Castlemora for a while. In theory she ought not to ride out alone but Murdo and her brother had gone out hunting earlier so there was no one to prevent her. All the same, freedom was going to be short-lived. Her father might have decided to bide his time over the Neils, but he had not been tardy in seeking another husband for her
'Glengarron is an old ally. Marriage will serve to strengthen the tie.'
Her stomach turned over. Somehow she managed to control her voice. 'Forgive me, but I thought the Laird of Glengarron was already married.'
'So he is. I was speaking of his brother-in-law, Lord Ban.'
' I see.'
'He's a Sassenach but that canna be helped.' 'A Sassenach?'
'It's not ideal, I admit. On the plus side he's a respected warrior with strong family connections, but, having no land, he canna be so particular in his choice of a bride.'
Her jaw tightened. 'Nor I so particular in my choice of a husband?'
'You canna afford to be choosy now.'
'Perhaps it is the Sassenach thane who will be choosy.'
'Why should he be?' He eyed her appraisingly. 'You've looks enough and the Graham blood to boot. No doubt some small financial inducement could be found as well. It should be enough.'
With an effort she held fury in check. 'And if it isn't?'
'There's always a convent.'
'I have no vocation for the religious life.' He regarded her steadily. 'Murdo looks at you a good deal. You could do worse.'
'I hardly think so.'
'In that case I advise you to put on your finest gown and make yourself agreeable when Lord Ban arrives.'
Her mouth dried. 'When is he expected?'
'Very soon now. See to it that all necessarypreparations are made to welcome him.'
The recollection of that conversation filled Isabelle with roiling anger. Nevertheless, she didn't dare to disobey. Castlemora was ready to receive the guest. Meanwhile, she needed time alone to gather her composure and ready herself to face what was coming. For that she required some peace and quiet.
Holding her mount to a steady pace she followed the burn until it widened out into a pool beneath a stand of trees. Although it was just within the bounds of Castlemora land it was a secluded place and, ordinarily, she would not have come here alone. If Murdo ever found out, the fat would be in the fire. Over the years the master-at-arms had evolved a highly efficient system of intelligence. Almost nothing happened at Cas-tlemora without him knowing. The hunt was a fortunate distraction.
Isabelle dismounted and tethered her horse. The sun was high now and the day hot. Her clothing was sticking to her back and the water looked inviting. She glanced around but the land was still; there was no sign of human presence as far as the eye could see. The temptation grew stronger. It ought to be safe enough for a while at least.
Ban smiled and leaned back against the tree, glad to be out of the saddle for a while. He and his companions had been riding since early morning, albeit at an easy pace to spare the horses. Their mounts were dozing in the shade while the men, having partaken of bread and cheese and slabs of dried meat, stretched out awhile at their ease. A little way off among the trees Davy stood watch. For all that the country seemed peaceful it never paid to be complacent. Ban had learned that through long experience. For five years he had ridden with Black Iain of Glengarron, watching, learning, training, his body growing hard and lean and strong, his mind sharp and focused. The stripling youth who had been saved after the destruction of Heslingfield was long gone and in his place the man, now a respected warrior in his own right. Being Iain's brother-in-law had won him no favours. Ban was expected to prove himself like all the rest. He applied himself wholeheartedly, for by concentrating on the new life he could forget the old. Here the past mattered not. He was judged by what he did now. Though he was treated with civility enough by his companions he knew they watched him, judged him. It had been a matter of pride to be found worthy, to win their trust and acceptance.
He glanced across at his companions: Ewan, Jock and Davy, good men all, men he trusted at his back in a fight. They would stand by him as he would by them. They had been through enough adventures together to know it. Not that he expected to do any fighting in the near future. Delivering some horses to an old friend was hardly likely to be fraught with peril. He did it as a favour to Iain. Of the other, more personal, matter he had said nothing to his men. After all, he had not positively decided yet; could not decide until he knew more. A few days at Castlemora would doubtless clarify matters.
Unbidden his mind returned to the conversation a week earlier. He was playing in the courtyard with his young nephews when Iain appeared on the scene. For a while Iain watched the boisterous game, an indulgent smile hovering on his lips. When eventually they stopped for breath he dismissed the two children with the intelligence that he wanted private speech with their uncle.
'Is anything wrong?' asked Ban when the youngsters had gone.
'No, 'twas merely that I would ask a favour.'
'What kind of favour?'
'I need someone to deliver some horses to Castlemora. Archibald Graham asked me for some good breeding stock a while ago. I told him I'd look out for some likely animals.'
'The brood mares from Jarrow by any chance?'
Ban nodded. They were fine animals. However, it wasn't a challenging undertaking and any of Iain's men could have delivered them, so why was he being singled out for the task? As so often he sensed there was more here than appeared on the surface.
'Would you mind?' Iain's tone was casual. That more than anything else set off alarms in Ban's brain and he couldn't help but smile.
'Of course not.' The assertion was sincere. Cas-tlemora was no more than two days' ride and the weather fine. Besides, he owed his brother-in-law a great deal and was glad to return a favour when he could.
Ban waited certain now that there must be more to come. He was right, though he could never have guessed its import.
'The journey may be made to serve two ends,' Iain continued. 'Archibald Graham is an old friend and ally but, sadly, his health is failing.'
'I am sorry to hear it.'
'He has a daughter. The last time I saw her she was a child, but she must be eighteen or thereabouts by now. She was widowed a while back and he seeks a new husband for her.'
Ban's expression grew more guarded. When he 'd guessed at some ulterior motive he could never have suspected anything like this. Yet it was typical of Iain that he should, with such unruffled ease, let drop some small but incendiary piece of information.
'By that you mean me?'
'Not at all,' was the imperturbable reply. 'I merely suggest you should go and take a look.'
'She's a widow so there will be children as well, Iain.'
Ban raised an eyebrow. 'Not?'
'She was married but a year, and the mortality rate among infants is high.'
'As you say.' Although he didn't pursue it, the matter still left a question in Ban's mind.
'The woman is reputed fair and, being Graham's daughter, will have a handsome dowry to boot.'
'Better and better. And of course I am five and twenty and single yet.' Ban paused. 'Did my sister put you up to this?'
'No, though I know she would like to see you settled.' 'She told you that?'
'She may have mentioned it once or twice.'
'An understatement if ever I heard one. She has been matchmaking these last five years.'
'Aye, well, what do you expect? You 're her only brother.'
'And being the last surviving male of the family I must get an heir.'
'Have you any objections to marriage?'
Ban shook his head. 'Nonein principle.'
It was true as far as it went. The idea of marriage did not displease him. It was a necessary step in a man's life, a responsibility that must be undertaken to ensure that his name and his line continued. The woman should be compliant and, ideally, pleasing to look upon although, as he knew to his cost, beauty was no guarantee of a warm and generous heart.
His brother-in-law nodded. 'Well then.'
Considered dispassionately, Ban knew the scheme made sense. All the same he couldn't quite repress a twinge of envy when he compared it with what Iain and Ashlynn had found in marriage. He saw the love and the passion in their relationship, heard the shared laughter and the witty banter. Iain was a devoted husband and a good father. Recalling how he had once doubted the man, Ban was ashamed. Ashlynn could not have found a better. Among married couples they seemed to be the exception that proved the rule. To his knowledge Iain had never strayed from his wife's bed. He had eyes for no one else and that was as it should be. A vow once made should be kept.
'Of course this commits you to nothing,' Iain went on. 'The woman may not be to your liking.'
Ban schooled his expression to neutrality. It was far more likely that a landless thane would not be to her liking. 'As you say.'
'If so, you were merely delivering horses. On the other hand '
'I might fall in love?'
'Stranger things have happened.'
Ban grimaced. In his experience love was a chimera, the stuff of boyish dreams. It also made a man dangerously vulnerable. If he married it would be a business arrangement, essentially. If affection followed later well and good. It was as much as one could hope for. 'Indeed.'
Again the lazy smile appeared. 'As I said, she is reputedfair'
'Damn you, Iain.' The words were uttered without rancour.
'Then you'll go?'
Aye, confound it. I'll go and look over the goods but I warn you now, I'm hard to please.' 'So was I.'
A gentle nudge brought Ban back to the present with a start and he realised Jock was passing him the water bottle. He took it with murmured thanks, realising guiltily that he hadn't been taking in any of the conversation thus far.
'We should be assured of a warm welcome anyway,' said Ewan. 'Archibald Graham has a reputation for hospitality.'
Ban and Jock exchanged glances and grinned. One of Ewan's prime concerns was his stomach. Yet no matter how much he ate it made not the slightest difference to a frame that was small and wiry. There wasn't an ounce of fat on him, but he was surprisingly strong. At eighteen he had ridden with Ban for three years now, at his side in whatever adventure came their way.
'Good. A well-cooked meal and a comfortable bed will suit me fine,' replied his leader.
'The old man was ailing last I heard,' said Jock.
'I heard that too.' Ewan took a swig from the leather costrel in his turn. 'Fortunate then his son is of an age to manage things after him. He has a widowed daughter too, accounted fair forbye.'
'She'll no lack for suitors then. Graham is rich enough.'
'She's marriageable all right.'
'Do ye think she'd look my way?' Jock's craggy face split in a grin revealing a missing front tooth.
'No,' replied Ewan. 'She could have her pick of men. Why would she bother with an ugly brute like you?'
'You can talk. If ugliness were a crime, laddie, ye'd no be in prison; ye'd be ten feet under it.'
Unperturbed, Ewan grinned. 'I'm thinking she'll no marry either one of us, but what about Davy? He's handsome enough.'
'Aye, he is, but he and Lachlan's daughter have reached an understanding. Besides, Davy's a commoner too.'
'Then what about you, my lord?' said Ewan.
Ban was almost taken by surprise for it came so near his private concerns, but he managed to return the smile.
'I have nothing against marriage, though heiresses are almost invariably ugly.'
'I've never met any so I'll have tae take your word for that,' replied Jock.
Ban plucked idly at a strand of grass, thinking that, ugly or not, no heiress was likely to consider a dispossessed English thane to be a good catch. His fortunes had mended considerably in the last six years and he had gold enough but his lands were lost, perhaps in the hands of some Norman lord now. It was beyond mending, like a father and brother slain along with his brother's wife and their infant son. King William's men had laid waste to a huge swathe of the north of England, leaving a charred desert where nothing lived, and the bones of the dead lay bleaching amid the ruins of their villages for there were too few left alive to bury the number of the slain. All for the death of one man, and that man a fool. Robert De Comyn's brutality had led to the uprising in which he was killed. However, he was one of William's most favoured earls, and the king had taken a terrible revenge. Ban wondered whether the land and the people could ever recover from it.
'Perhaps Graham will have her matched with a Norman lord,' said Ewan.
Once again Ban was jolted out of his reverie. 'A Norman?'
'The Treaty of Abernethy has effectively made Malcolm a vassal of King William.' Jock spat into the dirt. 'What better way to create strong political alliances than to wed Scot to Norman?'
They digested this in silence, recognising the unwelcome truth of it. King Malcolm's raids into northern England in 1070 had been all too successful and called forth an uncompromising response from William, who raised an army and marched north to confront the Scots. Though brave and eager their army was routed by the Norman host. As a result Malcolm was forced to pay homage to William and sign the treaty at Abernethy two years later.
Ewan was scandalised. 'The lassie deserves better than that surely?'
'That she does, lad. Under all their pomp and titles the Normans are just treacherous bastards.'
'Aye, and led by a bigger bastard.'
It drew a laugh for King William's lowly birth was well known. It was also known to be a sore point with him.
'Dinna let him hear ye say that. He'd cut out your tongue.'
'He isna here though, is he?' Ewan reasoned.
'No, but he's left his mark has he not?'
'Aye, he has. Northumbria's naught but a wasteland.'
Silence followed this for they knew something of their lord's past and none cared to dredge up a subject they knew to be painful. Aware of their discomfiture, Ban adopted a lighter tone.
'So tell me, Ewan, is there no lass you've set your heart on?'
'There's no lassie in her right mind would have ye,' said Jock.
'Why not? You managed.' 'Aye, for my sins.'
Ban and Ewan grinned. Jock's wife, Maggie, was known for her acid tongue. She and Jock argued often and loud, but none doubted for a minute that they were devoted. They'd had a brood of eight children, of whom five survived infancy. Three were fine strong boys already showing the promise of their sire in their skill with weapons. Jock was rightly proud of them.
However, the subject of marriage came too near the knuckle and presently Ban excused himself on the pretext of wanting to stretch his legs, wandering away from his companions to follow the burn. He found the tenor of the conversation strangely unsettling and he wanted some time alone with his thoughts.