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When Black Rob Brunson took his first waking breath that morning, he inhaled air free of the stink of cinders for the first time since the Storwicks had torched the tower's buildings scarce two months before.
Yet his waking thought was the same that morning as it had been the one before and the one before and the one before that. They would pay. Every last one of them.
Oh, he had taken retribution quickly. Their roofs had felt flame. Their head man now languished under the eyes of a Scottish guard.
But it wasn't enough. Not for all they had done.
The ashes had faded with the snow. The kitchen roof had new thatch, but with his second breath, he knew the truth. His nose would never be free of the stench.
Nor would theirs. He'd make sure of that.
He swung his feet over the side of the bed and glanced over his shoulder, still half-expecting his dead father's ghost to lurk behind him.
Rob was alone in the head man's chamber. He was the head man now, as he'd been raised to be for twenty-six summers.
He stretched, scratched an itch on his back and reached for his boots.
Snow and frost had lingered, but this morning, he felt a softness in the air. Spring. Lambing time. Time for him to be a shepherd as well as a warrior, riding the valley to be sure the flock was well tended.
Last year, he had ridden beside his father.
Up and dressed, he foraged the kitchen, searching for a leftover bannock to stuff in his bag. His sister used to do that for him, for all of them. Cooked the food, washed and cleaned, kept everything in order until a few months ago, when she deserted them for that untrustworthy husband of hers.
Soon, they'd be harrying him to find a wife. Some woman who would fuss at him for riding out alone. Danger was not gone with the snow, but he would be back before dark and no one would dare a daylight raid on a sunny spring day.
Besides, he preferred the solitude. Alone, he'd have at least a few moments when no one was looking at him, waiting for his word to be the final one.
He walked through the gate and surveyed the ponies grazing outside the walls, glad to leave the tower behind. He whistled and Felloun trotted over, ready to ride. In truth, Rob felt more at home on the horse than anywhere else. The ground beneath the pony's hooves, the land itself was home to him. He was part of it—hills, moss, rocks and soil. Kin to the earth, he sometimes thought, and not to men at all.
But that was the way of all Brunsons, since the First. A Brunson was of the land. Of this land.
The other half of him, the half some men found in mates, that half was in these hills. None would force them asunder.
He reached the closest family before the sun was high. Bleating sheep milled about and a well-trained dog tidied the edges of the flock, responding to his master's whistle.
Rob nodded to the man. 'All well?' Not to suggest Fingerless Joe needed help. Simply to be here if he did.
A new lamb, wobbly on his legs, stayed close to its mother.
Rob swallowed. 'The little one. Strong enough to move to high land come June?'
The man shrugged. 'He will or he won't.'
Rob looked away, towards hills that blurred before his eyes. It was the way of things. Weakness meant death. For man or beast.
He looked back at Joe, clear-eyed again. 'Any sign of Storwicks?'
Another shake of the head.
'Next week, then.' Rob pushed a knee into his horse's side and the beast turned, obedient.
No sign of them that Fingerless Joe might see. Rob would look for himself.
By midday, Rob was high above the valley where a hoof-worn track wound across the hills and over the border, one he knew well.
As did the Storwicks.
He rode across the border and back, looking for fresh horse droppings.
The path was clear, so he returned to his side of the hill, dismounted, stretched out on the ground and gazed down on the valley that was his. Clear, this day. Clear as he'd seldom seen. He could see all the way to the tower, thrusting up strong from the greening grass.
Tempting to a Storwick, aye, but there was no weakness there. Not now.
Something shifted. The wind. A scent. A sound. He stiffened, alert, and turned his head.
Above him and to his left, sat a woman, silent and stiff, eyes fixed on him warily as if he were a Storwick.
He fashed himself for not looking carefully before leaving his horse. What if he'd been surprised by the enemy?
Neither spoke, looking.
Dark hair tumbled across her shoulders, but he would not call her beautiful. At least, not from this angle. Eyes and lips fought for control of her face. Her nose was too strong. Her chin too sharp. She looked vaguely familiar, but he had seen every far-flung Brunson at one time or another. Still, he could not summon which branch of the family was hers.
'You're far from home,' he began, still trying to place her. The Tait cousin lived nearest, but he had no daughters.
She drew herself up into a crouch, like a wary animal ready to run. 'Nay so far.'
He raised and lowered his shoulders, sorry he had frightened her. He motioned his head uphill, towards the border. 'Storwicks are no more than five miles away.'
Not taking her eyes from his, she stood slowly and took a step back, as if nearness to the enemy had just occurred to her. The blush on her cheek paled. 'Have I crossed the border then?'
'Nay.' He rose to his feet, uncomfortable that she stood while he was stretched out on the grass. What was the strangeness in her accent? 'It's just over there.'
Her eyes widened. She turned to look over her shoulder. Then ran.
That was when he recognised her.
Stella Storwick didn't look back, praying for her feet to run faster.
But the Brunson kept coming, strong as a charging ram, trampling the grass behind her. Then he was in front of her, cutting off her escape as if she were no more than an unruly ewe.
She dodged. Left. Right. Thinking she could confuse him.
He was a broad man. She could be quicker. More steps, her skirt and the grass holding her back. If she crossed the border, she would be safe
But next she knew, he grabbed her arm, whirled her around and both of them tumbled to the ground. She on her back, pressed to earth, he straddling her legs.
She lifted a clawed hand to scratch his eyes, but he caught her wrists and held her arms tight against the dirt without effort. Even when she shut her eyes against him, he surrounded her, warm and smelling of leather.
'You're Storwick.' He did not ask a question. She opened her eyes. His were brown. And murderous.
'And you're Brunson.' Close now, she knew him, the man she had seen near half a year ago at Truce Day. Fool she was, not to have recognised him immediately.
Not just a Brunson. The Brunson.
A flash of heat crackled through her body. Hatred, no doubt.
He was one of the Black Brunsons. Broad of shoulder and brow, dark of hair and eye. Yes, he had the brown eyes that marked all his cursed clan.
'You'll not take me.' She braced herself, stiff armed and legged, as if that would stop him. 'I won't let you.'
He froze, then turned to spit in the dirt in contempt. 'Brunsons don't treat women so.' Disgust now, in his eyes. 'It's your kind who do that.'
One villainous kin of hers who had done that.
She knew the truth of the whispers about him, though the man had never dared touch her.
No one dared that.
'That's not what I've heard.' A lie, but one she hoped would keep him off guard. She tugged against his hold. An iron manacle would have given way more easily.
He released her hands with a look that warned her to keep them quiet. 'You've heard wrong.'
She pushed herself up on her elbows. 'Then let me go if you don't mean to take me.'
He sat back on his heels and crossed his arms, his very silence ominous.
She held her breath to stop her speech. He had not guessed which Storwick she was. Or that she had come to the hills to spy on his precious tower.
'How far behind are the others?' He stood, pulling her to her feet, keeping his hand on her wrist while he gazed towards the English side of the border.
'No others.' Foolish admission. She had told no one her plan when she left this morning. Perhaps that had been unwise.
He turned back, sweeping her with a glance head to toe. One that said she might be daft, but he wasn't. 'You wander the hills alone with no horse?'
She shrugged to hide the shaking. 'Sun doesn't often come like this. I wandered too far.' And had hoped to wander further. A horse would draw attention. 'Let me go. I'm of no use to you.'
'Oh, you're of use to me. You're going to serve as a hostage for the good behaviour of the rest of your people. If they ride to rescue Hobbes Storwick, you'll be the one to pay.'
She blanched. Thank God. At least her father was alive.
They had not even been sure of that.
In violation of the Border Laws, the Brunsons had torched her home and captured her father, too ill to travel to the most recent Truce Day gathering.
But never too ill to defend his home.
Since then, there had been no word. None of them would have put it past the Brunsons to have killed him outright, but if he was alive, who held him?
That was why she had come to the hills today. To discover if her father was alive, where and what it might take to rescue him.
At his words, he'd seen a flash of fear disrupt the pride in her eyes. As if she really thought he was no better a man than her own vile kin.
Scarred Willie Storwick had shown no mercy to Johnnie's Cate. This woman deserved no better.
But Rob Brunson was not a Storwick.
He sighed and eased his grip on her arm. The road to the south was clear and quiet, but he wondered whether to trust his ears and eyes. He'd been so lovesick at the sight of his land, he had not even noticed her before he dismounted.
His father would have never made such a mistake.
Against her skin, his palm heated, but he could not let her go or she would run again, bringing the others if they were not already on the way.
'You're a Storwick, that I know.' He remembered, too late, why she looked familiar. He had seen her on Truce Day, last autumn, and spared one glance too many for her swaying hips. 'Which one?'
She lifted that pointed chin in his direction, then pursed her lips before she answered. 'One of the Red Storwicks.'
A Red Storwick without red hair, but she had the green eyes, huge and heavy-lidded. 'You're looking at Black Rob Brunson,' he said.
She nodded, as if the news were old. 'I know. Head of your clan.'
She could say so, but after eight months, those words still did not come easily to his tongue. 'What do they call you?'
'Stella.' No hesitation this time.
'What kind of name is that?' It was no name he had ever heard. Not like Mary or Agnes or Elizabeth.
One she was proud of, judging by the way she held her head. 'It's Latin.'
'Latin! Only churchmen know that.'
'My mother does.'
Disbelief must have shown clear on his face. 'Well, she knows a word or two.' Proud of that, too. This woman seemed proud of everything. 'So what does it mean, your name?' 'Star.'
A chill rippled down his back. Silent as moon-rise, sure as the stars. Thus began the Ballad of the Brunsons.
Those stars had no connection to this woman. None.
'Well, Stella Storwick, you'll have no need for Latin in Brunson Tower.' He pointed to the pony. 'Up there. Now.'
Stella kept her head down as they rode through the Brunson gate, hoping he would not see how closely she studied the family stronghold. Would they hold her father on the top floor? Or in the tower's dark bowels? She searched every slit in the stone wall, hoping to see his face.
Black Rob rode behind her, his arms reaching around her, tight as shackles, to hold the reins. After he dismounted, he helped her down, a greater kindness than she had expected. Men appeared. A few women. A young, round-faced boy stared at the head man as if he were a hero.
Someone led the horse away and Rob told them who she was in few words while she looked around. The Brunsons had made more progress on rebuilding since their last raid than the Storwicks had.
Of course, they'd had more time.
He pushed her ahead of him towards the tower.
'Where are you taking me?'
'To the well room with the ale barrels,' he growled. 'And the spiders.'
Her heart beat faster. No, please not there. She swallowed.
He studied her silence. 'Afeared?' Stella stood straighter. 'No Storwick ever feared a Brunson.'
'The canny ones did.' No touch of sympathy warmed the cold words.
'Is that where you hold Hobbes Storwick?' If so, she would force herself, despite the fear.
He narrowed his eyes and stared at her until she felt certain he knew who she was and why she asked. 'No,' he said, finally.
Did that mean they did not hold him in that room? Or was her father not here at all? She wrestled her disappointment.
Inside, thick walls blocked the sun. Cool, damp air, smelling of ale, surrounded her. And she heard the echo of water, deep in a well.
Once safely ten steps beyond the sound, she breathed again. She was to be spared that, at least. For now. With the reprieve, she could think again and realised she had been walking since daybreak.
At the tower's next level, she paused. 'I need ' She faced implacable disgust in his eyes. He would not care that she needed a garderobe and a moment of her own. It was not something she wished to speak of to any man.
Remember who you are, Stella.
She lifted her head and fixed her stare on Black Rob. 'I need time for women's things.'
Puzzlement, then understanding unseated the disgust in his eyes. A flush stained his strong cheekbones. Still gripping her arm, he pushed her to the other corner of the floor until they stood before the door of the little room. The man who had been full of bluster shifted from one foot to the other.
A young girl walked out of the hall and he dropped Stella's arm to grab hers. 'You. Stand before the door. Call me when she's done.'
He stepped back. 'And don't think about jumping out.'
She raised her eyebrows. 'How daft do I look?' 'Daft enough to wander alone on the wrong side of the border.'
She closed the door on him and listened to his retreating steps, grateful for a moment alone to gather her strength. She had planned to get close to the tower, close enough to see or hear something about her father that would force her squabbling cousins to act. Instead, she was within the walls and a prisoner.