The Laird's Choiceby Amanda Scott
Lady Andrena MacFarlan has been different since the day she was born. Possessing the power to sense others' most intimate desires, she knows her duty is to marry the man who will take the MacFarlan name as his own and help her father regain the chiefdom of their clan. But her unique gifts don't prepare her for the day when a mighty warrior/b>
Lady Andrena MacFarlan has been different since the day she was born. Possessing the power to sense others' most intimate desires, she knows her duty is to marry the man who will take the MacFarlan name as his own and help her father regain the chiefdom of their clan. But her unique gifts don't prepare her for the day when a mighty warrior suddenly enters her life. The attraction between them is undeniable and insatiable.
Hunted by brutal enemies, the wounded Magnus Galbraith washes up on MacFarlan land where he is rescued by a laird's lovely daughter. Andrena is like no one Magnus has ever known. She has the uncanny ability to both calm and enflame him in ways he never dreamed possible. But she has other unknown-and dangerous-powers. Now, as Magnus seeks to avenge a brother and protect a king, the young beauty could prove his greatest ally-or his ultimate undoing . . .
The Salinas Californian on HIGHLAND MASTER
TOP PICK! "Scott's story is a tautly written, fast-paced tale of political intrigue and treachery that's beautifully interwoven with history. Strong characters with deep emotions and a high degree of sensuality make this a story to relish."RT Book Reviews on HIGHLAND HERO"
Amanda Scott has done it again - provided us with an exciting, adventurous tale set in Scotland."Romance Reviews Magazine on HIGHLAND HERO"
Her colorful characters and their inter-relationships will absorb readers, while her plotting, dialogue and narration are also excellent. She's a true master of the Scottish historical romance."Romance Reviews Today on HIGHLAND HERO"
The settings and cultural feel authentic; readers who appreciate history will be sucked right in."Wickedly Bookish on HIGHLAND HERO"
As always in an Amanda Scott historical the inclusion of real persona and facts enhances the romance; while treachery and betrayal are a normal part of the court."Harriet Klausner on HIGHLAND HERO"
Great with sensual scenes, Scott excapes the cliche of a masterful male taming a 'wildcat' woman; instead, Fin and Catriona learn to communicate and compromise in this solid roomantic adventure....Scott...deftly handles period dialogue and attitudes."Publishers Weekly on HIGHLAND MASTER"
Marvelous Scottish tale of a time in history when various plays for power were held....a piece of history as well as a great tale. Amanda Scott does it again with another fascinating part of Scottish history."Romance Reviews Magazine on HIGHLAND MASTER"
Amanda Scott proves once again she is the Highland Master when it comes to a thrilling tale starring Scottish Knights."Harriet Klausner on HIGHLAND MASTER"
[Scott] uses her knowledge of Scottish history to weave an engrossing and sexy story about Highland life in the 1400s."Robert Walch, The Salinas Californian on HIGHLAND MASTER"
Blue-ribbon Rating - 4 ! Deliciously sexy....Highland Master is a rare treat of a read."romancejunkies.com on HIGHLAND MASTER"
Amanda Scott has an uncanny knack of picking up her readers and plunking them down right in the middle of her storyworld. The physical settings, the tenor of the times, the characters, the language, and the political and family tensions, all present an unmatched air of authenticity to her work...Highland Master is an eminently satisfying read."Romance Reviews Today on HIGHLAND MASTER
Read an Excerpt
The Laird's Choice
By Amanda Scott
ForeverCopyright © 2012 Amanda Scott
All right reserved.
Arrochar, Scotland, early August 1406
They’re coming, my love! I must go.”
The woman lying on the ground—nearly hidden by darkness, shrubbery, the thick bedding of pine boughs on which he had laid her, and the fur-lined cloak that he’d spread over her—opened her eyes and smiled wearily.
Had his hearing been less acute, he would not have heard his beloved wife’s soft murmur. As it was, he feared that he might never see her again.
“I’ll come back for ye, mo chridhe,” he said. The certainty in his voice was as much for himself as for her.
“Aye, sure,” she said. “I wish I could keep the bairn with me, though.”
“Ye ken fine that it wouldna be safe. If she cried, they’d find ye both, and I’ll take her straight to Annie. She has a wee one of her own and milk aplenty for two.”
“I know,” she whispered. “But guard our wee lassie well.”
“I will, aye.”
With that, he drew more shrubbery over her, but he could linger no longer. Sounds of pursuit from the north were louder, too loud. In the distance to the south, he could hear the raging river that might be their salvation. Reluctant though he was to leave her, he dared not let them catch him or all would be lost.
Turning toward the last stretch of hillside he had to climb before descending to the river, he shifted the strap of his baldric and felt the reassuring weight of the sword and spear across his back. In the cloth sling he carried across his chest, his wee daughter nestled, sound asleep, one tiny ear near his beating heart.
Cradling her in one large palm, he moved through the woods with the silence gained only by a hunter-warrior’s lifetime practice in such an environment. Pale rays of a slender summer moon slipped through the canopy to light his way.
He allowed his pursuers to see him only once, as he hurried across a clearing in the moonlight. He knew they would easily spot his movements there from below.
In the trees near the crest of the hill, he heard the river’s roar, still distant but louder. However, sounds of pursuit were louder, too. His enemies numbered a dozen or more, all warriors like himself. Doubtless, others hunted him all across his lands.
His mind raced. Thanks to a late thaw, snow still capped nearby mountain peaks. But the days had been warmer for a fortnight.
Although he had not seen the river for weeks, experience told him it would be running high, still in snow spate. The glen that it had cut was steep-sided and narrow, but below where he stood, the river’s course flattened for a short way.
With luck, he could cross it there in a manner that his pursuers would be unlikely to emulate. His primary concern was the babe he carried.
She was silent, still sleeping. But if she cried, they would hear her. Also, the river would be too deep and too turbulent—in its long, plunging course—to cross without swimming. That fact was the very one that might save them, though. He tried to imagine how, carrying her, he could get them both safely across.
The answer was plain. He could not. But safety lay only on the other side, on the sacred ground of Tùr Meiloach.
He carried his dirk, his sword, and his spear. He had also brought his bow from the castle but had left it with his lady wife. She had kept her dirk, too.
Although she had assured him she would keep safe until his return, he held no illusions. In such matters, he had never doubted her, nor had she ever proven wrong. But as weak and exhausted as she was now, she could not defend herself against so many had she every weapon in Scotland at her disposal.
Her only hope, and thus his own, was that he succeed in getting their bairn to safety. Then he could return for her.
Reaching the swiftly flowing river at last, unable to hear his pursuers over its roar, he wasted no time in deliberation but untied the sling. Then he pulled his spear from its loop on his baldric, uncoiled the narrow rope he’d wound around his waist against any such need, and fashioned a knotted cap with it for the blunt end of the spear. Working swiftly, he found two suitably curved lengths of bark, bound the swaddled babe inside a bark shell and then securely to the center of his spear. Then, hefting the result, he gauged the distance, hesitated only long enough to hear male voices above the din of the river, and let fly with the spear.
He knew he had chucked it far enough, that his arc was high enough, and that his aim would be true despite the added weight of the babe. But if the high end of the spear struck a tree branch, or if he had misjudged the position of the babe on the spear, she might land too hard. The spear might also hit a boulder. He knew that the thicket where he had aimed it boasted little such danger. But the Fates would have to be in a gey gracious mood for such a daring act to succeed.
If it did, the spear’s point would bury itself in pine duff and soft dirt, the knotted rope cap at its top end would prevent the babe in her swaddling and sling from hitting the ground, and the bark shell would prevent any other damage.
Then, if he made it across the river to her, all would be well. Muttering prayers to God and the Fates, he hurried to the upper end of the river’s flat section, arriving just as the sudden, unmistakable baying of a wolf struck terror into his soul.
His pursuers’ shouts were loud enough to tell him they were topping the rise, so he knew they had not seen him throw the spear. Also, he could at least be hopeful that the river’s noise would prevent their hearing the babe’s cries when she squalled. And she surely would, if not now then later, unless…
That thought refused to declare itself. He had to focus on his own actions now and draw his pursuers as far from his lady as he could. If they thought he was dead, so much the better. But they would have to see him in the river first.
Accordingly, he waited until he saw movement on the steep hillside above him. Then he leaped onto a moonlit boulder that jutted into the roiling flow.
Hearing a shout above, knowing that they had seen him, he flung himself into the torrent. Although the shock of the icy water nearly undid him, he ignored it and swam hard. Letting the current carry him, he also fought it to swim at an angle that would, he prayed, carry him to the opposite bank before it plunged him over the hundred-foot waterfall into the Loch of the Long Boats and out to sea.
When the river swept him around a curve, he swam much harder for the distant shore. His pursuers could not move as fast as the water did. And, if anyone was daft enough to jump in after him, he would see the fool coming. He also knew, though, that if he mistimed his own efforts, the sea gods would claim him.
Minutes later, nearing the shore and battered by unseen rocks beneath the surface, he dragged himself out and lay gasping in unfriendly shrubbery to catch his breath. Then, creeping through the shrubs, he prayed that the hilt of the sword still strapped across his back would look like a branch if anyone saw it moving. As fast as he dared, he made his way to the shelter of the trees and back up the river glen.
He heard only the water’s roar. Then, as that thought ended, he heard the wolf bay again, a she-wolf by its cry. Finding a path of sorts, he increased his pace.
The usual fisherman’s trail lay underwater. So this was a deer trail or a new one to the river from Malcolm the sheepherder’s cottage. In any event, the warrior’s finely honed sense of direction told him that the cottage stood not far away.
He soon reached the clearing, where he saw a pack of wolves gathered close around the spear. The weapon with its precious burden had landed perfectly.
The wolves’ heads turned as one at his approach, their teeth viciously bared.
He halted, terror for his child again clutching his throat. When the leader lowered to a crouch and crept slowly toward him, he could almost hear its growl. The others watched, their narrowed eyes gleaming reddish in the pale moonlight.
The warrior stood still. Hearing a faint sound above the river’s rushing roar, he recognized it for his daughter’s wail of hunger… or pain.
It stopped as suddenly as it had begun.
The lead wolf stopped, too, still in its threatening crouch, ready to spring.
The warrior drew his sword and took a step forward, mentally daring the beast to charge him. He had counted a half-dozen in the pack. But now he saw other dark, beastly shadows moving through the trees behind them, too many to count and far too many to kill before the pack would take him down.
The lead wolf, unmoving, bared its teeth again.
The man stood watching it, sword ready, long enough for the icy chill of his wet clothing to make him shiver.
Then, abruptly, the wolf rose, turned away, and vanished into the forest.
The others followed.
The baby remained silent.
Tùr Meiloach, Scotland, mid-February 1425
Dree, what’s amiss?” fifteen-year-old Muriella MacFarlan demanded as she stopped her spinning wheel and pushed an errant strand of flaxen hair off her face.
Tawny-haired Andrena, now six months into her nineteenth year, had stiffened on her stool near the fireplace in the ladies’ solar. Dark blue eyes narrowed, head atilt, listening but with every sense alert, Andrena remained silent as she set aside the mending she loathed.
Standing, holding a finger up to command silence, Andrena moved with her usual athletic grace to the south-facing window, its shutters open to let in fresh, sun-warmed afternoon air that was especially welcome after the previous night’s fierce storm. She could see over the barmkin wall to the steep, forested hillside below and others rolling beyond it to the declivity through which the river marking their south boundary plunged into the Loch of the Long Boats and on out to the sea.
When Muriella drew breath to speak again, the third person in the room, their seventeen-year-old sister, Lachina, said quietly, “Murie, dearling, possess your curiosity in silence for once. When Dree knows what is amiss, she will tell us.”
After the briefest of pauses, and not much to Andrena’s surprise, Lachina added, “Is someone approaching the tower, Dree?”
“I don’t know, Lina. But the birds seem distressed. I think someone has entered our south woods—a stranger—nay, more than one.”
“Can you see who they are?” Muriella demanded. Resting her spindle in its cradle, she moved to stand beside Andrena at the window.
“I cannot see such a distance or through trees,” Andrena said. “But it must be more than one person and likely fewer than four. You see how the hawks soar in a tight circle yonder. Such behavior is odd even for goshawks. Forbye, if you look higher, you’ll see an osprey above them. I’m going out to have a look.”
In the same quiet way that she had spoken to Muriella, Lachina said, “The woods will be damp after such a furious storm, Dree. Mayhap you should tell our lord father what you suspect, or Malcolm Wylie.”
“What would you have me tell them?” Andrena asked with a wry smile. “Would either of them send men out to search for intruders merely because I say the birds are unsettled?”
Lina grimaced. They had had such discussions before, and both of them knew the answer to the question. Andrew Dubh MacFarlan would trust his men to stop intruders. And his steward, Malcolm Wylie, would look long-suffering and declare that no one could possibly be there. By the time either decided, for the sake of peace, to send men out to look, there would be no one. Andrena had suggested once that their men had made more noise than the intruders did. But her father had replied only that if that was so, her intruders had fled, which was the best outcome.
“I’m going out,” Andrena said again.
“Surely, men on the wall will see anyone coming,” Muriella said, peering into the distance. “Both of our boundary rivers are in full spate now, Dree. No one can cross them. And if anyone were approaching elsewhere, watchers would blow the alarm. In troth, I think those birds are soaring just as they always do.”
“They are perturbed,” Andrena said. “I shan’t be long.”
Her sisters exchanged a look. But although she noted the exchange, she did not comment. She knew that neither one would insist on going with her.
Instinct that she rarely ignored urged her to make what speed she could without drawing undue attention to herself. Therefore, she hurried down the service stairs, deciding not to change from her green tunic and skirt into the deerskin breeks and jack that she favored for her solitary rambles. It occurred to her that she would have no excuse, having announced that strangers had entered the woods, to say that she had not thought anyone outside the family would see her in the boyish garb.
Andrew did not care what his daughters wore. But he did care when one of them distressed their mother, who had declared breeks on females to be shameful. Moreover, the mossy green dress would blend well with woodland shrubbery.
From a rack by the postern door, Andrena took her favorite cream-colored wool cap and twisted her tawny plaits up inside it. Then she donned the gray wool shawl hanging beside it and took down the dirk that hung by its belt under the shawl.
Fastening the belt so that the weapon lay concealed beneath the shawl, and leaving her untanned-hide boots where they lay on the floor, she went outside barefoot and crossed the yard to the narrow postern gate.
Four of the dogs, anticipating a walk, sprang up and ran to meet her.
Catching two by their collars, she said to the wiry redheaded lad eyeing her as he raked wood chips near the gate, “You must keep them in for now, Pluff. If anyone should ask for me, I’m going for a walk. But I don’t want to take the dogs.”
“Aye, m’lady,” the boy said with a gap-toothed grin. Setting aside the rake, he ordered the dogs back to their naps and unbolted the gate for her, adding, “Just gie a shout when ye come back and I’ll let ye in.”
Smiling her thanks, she went through the gateway and heard the heavy gate thud shut behind her and Pluff shooting the bolts. Looking skyward as she crossed the clearing between the barmkin and the woods, she saw that the circling birds had moved nearer. Whoever it was, was still two hills away but was definitely moving toward the tower.
Looking over her shoulder, she saw one of their men on the wall and waved.
He waved back.
Satisfied that her sisters and at least two of their people knew she was outside the wall, she hurried into the woods. She had her dirk and the wee pipe she always carried in the pocket that Lina had cunningly woven for it in the shawl.
Thanks to Andrew’s teaching, Andrena was skillful with the dirk and, if necessary, could use the wee pipe to summon aid. Since she did not expect anyone in the woods to see her, she doubted that she’d need any help.
He was out of breath from running. But he knew that in dashing away from his pursuers earlier, he had left evidence of his flight for a regrettable distance before he was far enough ahead of them to take precautions.
As it was, he needed to find cover and catch his breath. That his pursuers lacked dogs to track him was a rare boon from the ever fickle Fates.
He had been both careless and foolhardy, and it irked him. He had sensibly managed to keep his wool plaid with him, even as he swam, knowing he would need its warmth. Scaling the cliff from the stormy loch had been necessary, since he could not stay on the shore and in the rainy darkness he’d seen no safer way to go.
After reaching the top of the hurtling waterfall, sleeping for a time, and waking in foggy dawn twilight, it had come as a shock to find that he could not travel farther south without fording the damned river.
To be sure, he had seen this area from the water, including the distant sharp ridge of peaks beyond its cliffs and forested hills. The two great waterfalls had been full even then, but he had assumed he’d be able to cross the river somewhere.
However, it raged furiously down through its bed, tumbling over and around boulders and rocks in its path—too deep to ford, too wide and dangerous to swim.
He had followed it inland until he had seen and recognized the three men.
Now the fog had cleared, and the sun shone in a cloudy sky. He was well away from the river, deep in ancient woods—a magnificent mixture of tall beeches, oaks, thickly growing conifers, and where it was dampest, spindly birches and willows. The woodsy scents filled him with a heady sense of freedom. But his pursuers were not far enough behind yet for safety.
Although he had not entered such dense woodland for nineteen long months, he had hunted from the time he could keep up with his lord father and knew that he retained his skills, had even heightened most of them. Quietly drawing deep breaths and releasing them, he forced himself to relax and bond with the forest while he listened and waited for its creatures to speak to him.
Thinking of those creatures and the fact that he had come ashore north of the waterfall, he was nearly sure that he must be in Tùr Meiloach woods. He had heard men warn that the place was rife with danger, either haunted or bewitched. Some swore that it was a sanctuary for true MacFarlans, others that it was a taste of hell for unwary strangers. Wondering which it was would do him no good now, though.
It occurred to him that although he had moved carefully and in near silence for the past quarter-hour, the denizens of the forest remained remarkably still. He had not listened for them earlier, knowing that the din of the river would cover any sound they made and being more concerned about eluding his pursuers.
As if it had intercepted his thoughts, a hawk shrieked above. Then an osprey replied with its shrill whistle, declaring the woods its territory. It would, he thought, have better luck taking fish from the nearby Loch of the Long Boats and should leave the woods to the hawks, which were better-suited for hunting in dense foliage.
All thought ceased then, because he sensed someone in the woods north of him moving as silently as he did. Had one of the devils got round him? Was one north of him now and the other two south? He had seen only three men earlier on the far side of the devilish river. They had swung across it on a rope tied to a high branch of an ancient beech rooted in what looked from a distance like solid rock.
The three carried swords and dirks. When he’d recognized them as Pharlain’s men, he knew they were seeking him.
A soughing of leaves above drew his glance to a female goshawk on a high branch. The canopy above her was thick. But he knew that hawks, even big ones like the gos, with two-foot wingspans, were perfectly at home in the Highland woods. He had occasionally delighted in watching one take prey by flying at speed between trees that left insufficient room for it. To fit through, the bird seemed to fold itself, wings and body, into a thinly compressed, arrowlike shape and to do it without missing a single sweeping beat.
The hawk above him fixed a fierce yellow eye on him. Then, as if that glance were all it required, it opened its wings and swooped down and away.
He eyed the gos’s erstwhile perch. It was high, but in the dense canopy above it a man might rest unseen for hours. A rustle of disturbed shrubbery south of him, accompanied by a man’s muttered curse, made the decision easy. He paused only to conceal his plaid in the shrubbery.
Andrena heard the curse, too, and froze in place to listen. She had sensed the trespassers’ approach more easily with each step, because the woods were her home, their every sound familiar. She had noted the eerie silence, had seen the goshawk as it shot through the trees in front of her without making a sound.
The hawk’s presence might have frightened nearby small creatures to silence. But it would not account for the unusual quiet of the forest at large. It seemed to hold its communal breath, to be waiting as she was for the intruders to reveal their nature.
So still was it that in the distance to her right and far below, she could hear waves of the loch, unsettled from the storm, hushing against the rockbound shore.
The strangers were much closer.
Sound traveled farther through woodland than most people realized, and her ears were deer-sharp. The intruders were a score of yards away, perhaps more, but an effortless bowshot in the open. She would soon see them.
Noting movement in shrubbery near the ground, she saw that at least one creature had managed to follow her from the tower. Lina’s orange cat eyed her curiously through slender branches sprouting new leaves.
Without a sound, the cat glided off ahead, doubtless prowling for its supper.
Andrena moved on, too. She heard no noises specific enough to identify but she knew now that there were at least two or three men. Careful to stay hidden but watchful, she also knew that her sweeping gaze would detect any movement.
A large shadow passed between two large-trunked beeches ahead to her left.
Going still, she watched as a stranger stepped between the two trees. Two others followed. All three wore saffron tunics, kilted plaids of dull red and green, swords slung across their backs, and dirks at their belts.
So much, Andrena thought, for Murie’s certainty—and their father’s—that no one could ford the wild river south of their tower without plunging into the loch and out with the tide. Either the three men had forded it or they’d found other means of trespassing onto Andrew’s land without his or his men’s knowledge.
The man in the tree suppressed a curse when he saw the lass. Who the devil, he wondered, would be daft enough to let a girl wander out alone in such dangerous times? His eyes narrowed as she carefully shifted her shawl and he saw the long dirk in its sheath suspended from her narrow leather girdle.
If she had an ounce of wit she would at least try to keep it hidden, because if the louts searching for him saw it, and they would, they might kill her just to teach her a lesson.
Knowing that they might sense his presence as easily as he had sensed hers, he decided that he ought to do what he could to prevent that. Fixing his gaze on a leaf midway between the three men, now only five or six yards away, and the girl moving toward them—ten paces from his tree—he let his mind go blank.
The last thing he wanted was for anyone to sense him watching them.
The men had moved much faster than Andrena had expected, stirring irritation with herself as well as with them. Having expected to get her first look at them from the next rise, she realized now that she had taken longer than she had intended. In truth, she had paid more heed to the forest creatures’ silence than to its most likely cause, that the men were nearer than she had judged them to be.
Lina would say, and rightly, that having formed an image in her mind of what would happen, Dree had let her thoughts wander and, thus, had failed to think through all the possibilities of what might happen before coming out to investigate.
Hoping that Lina would not learn what had happened, Andrena considered what to do next. She was close enough to the tower for people on its ramparts and wall to hear her pipe if she blew it, so she slipped it out of its pocket into her hand.
The hawks still lingered nearby, as well.
It occurred to her that she would offer help without hesitation had the men simply been storm-tossed onto the shore and missed their way. Perhaps if she…
What the devil was she doing now?
He tensed as he watched her step out into the path of his three pursuers. At least now he knew he need worry no longer about their sensing his presence. The louts had seen her, and the Fates knew that she was stunning enough, even with that ridiculous boy’s cap covering her hair, to stop most healthy men in their tracks.
She walked with unusual grace on the uneven forest floor and did so without glancing at her feet. Her posture was regal, and the soft-looking gray shawl did little to hide a curvaceous, womanly body.
Hearing a scrabbling on the bark below, he glanced down and saw her absurd cat clawing its way up the tree toward him. He could even hear it purring when by rights it should be flying, claws out, at the villains approaching its mistress.
“Forgive me, good sirs,” the lass said in a clear, confident tone, her voice as warm and smooth as honey. “Doubtless, you have lost your way and entered our woods unaware of whose they are. I fear that my father, the laird, requires that men present themselves at Tùr Meiloach before trespassing hereabouts.”
“Does he now, lassie?” the tallest of the louts said, leering at her. “And how might we reach yon tower without stepping on your father, the laird’s, land?”
“We be searching for an escaped prisoner, mistress,” the second man, dark-haired and midsized, said sternly. “Ye shouldna be out here alone like this.”
“I’ll see her tae safety,” the tall one said. “Come along, lass. I dinna think ye belong tae the laird at all. A laird’s daughter wouldna wander about all by herself. Doubtless, when we tell him ye’ve been pretending tae be his daughter, ye’ll find yourself in the suds. But I’ll no tell him if ye plead kindly wi’ me.”
“I would willingly direct you to the tower,” she said. “It lies—” Breaking off when he grabbed her right arm, she stiffened and said icily, “Let go of me.”
“Nay, then, I’ll ha’—”
Putting two fingers of her other hand to her lips, she whistled loudly.
“Here now, what the—”
A sparrow hawk flew from a nearby tree right at his face, flapping its wings wildly and shrieking an angry kek-kek-kek as it did.
With a cry, the man flung up an arm in defense. Shearing away at the last second, the bird swooped around and struck again. Flinging up both arms this time, the lout released the young woman, who stepped away from him.
The cat had reached the branch on which the hunted man lay stretched. It walked up his body to peer over his right shoulder into his face, still purring.
Short of grabbing it and dropping it on one of the men below, he could do nothing useful. So he ignored it.
Had he had his sword with him or even the lass’s dirk, he might have dropped in on the conversation. As it was, he hoped they would realize from her demeanor that she was as noble as she claimed to be and were wondering, as he did, why men were not already rushing noisily to her aid, summoned by her whistling.
He had barely finished the thought when three goshawks arrived silently, all much larger than the sparrow hawk. The lout already intimidated by the small hawk took off running, back the way he had come. The other two tried to shoo the birds away. But the birds screamed then as if they were new parents and the men had disturbed their young.
“Our hawks are exceedingly territorial, I fear,” the lass said matter-of-factly.
“Call them off, ye devilish witch!” the tall man yelled at Andrena while flapping his arms as wildly as the birds flapped their wings. Since he was also trying to protect his eyes with his hands, his flailing elbows had little effect.
“They are scarcely my birds, sir,” she replied, elevating him with that single word far above his deserved station in life. “They just know that I belong here and you do not. Had I brought my dogs, they would act in a similar way, as I am sure your dogs do when someone threatens you. I cannot call them off. But if you two follow your friend back to where you came from, they may stop attacking you.”
The hawks, acting more helpfully than hawks usually did, continued flying at the two despite their waving and shouts. One of the men reached for his sword.
“Don’t touch that weapon if you value your life,” she said, raising the wee pipe, still in her right hand, to her lips. “If I blow this pipe, our men-at-arms will come. So I should warn you that my father wields the power of the pit and gallows. Our hanging tree stands right outside our gate, and he will not hesitate…”
The man was staring beyond her, his mouth agape.
Glancing over a shoulder, she saw that with the racket the hawks had made, she had failed to hear the osprey arrive. The huge bird perched nearby, looking even more immense when it tensed, puffed its feathers, and glowered at the intruders.
Andrena said, “She has much worse manners than the others. So do not challenge her.”
“We’re a-going,” the dark-haired one said. “But tell your father that if he finds our prisoner, he must send him back tae the laird in irons.”
“I shall give him your message. But you must tell me who your laird is. I cannot pluck such information from your mind.”
“Aye, well, I thought ye’d ken who we be. The missing chap be one o’ Pharlain’s galley slaves, taken in fair capture whilst raiding.”
“Then doubtless my father will do as you wish,” Andrena said mendaciously. Andrew would more likely help the man on his way.
The osprey, balefully eyeing the intruders, spread its wings and twitched its talons menacingly.
Abruptly, the men turned and followed their erstwhile companion.
The goshawks, one of the few hawk species that will hunt together and now a veritable flock, swooped after them.
Andrena stood for a time, listening, to be sure they were well on their way. Then, hearing a loud purr at her feet, she looked down and saw the orange cat. It walked across her bare feet, rubbing against her shins.
“Where did you spring from this time?” she asked.
The cat blinked, then continued around her and back toward the tower.
Turning to follow it, Andrena found herself face-to-muscular-chest with a huge, broad-shouldered, shaggy-bearded, half naked stranger. He wore a ragged, thigh-length, saffron-colored sark, the ripped left shoulder of which revealed a bad abrasion and bruising that extended along his upper arm.
Startled nearly out of her wits, she snapped, “Where did you…? That is, I never even knew that you were—”
“Hush, lass, they may still be near enough to hear you.” His voice was deeper than her father’s, and mellow, unlike any she might imagine coming from a villain.
“They are halfway across yon hills to the river by now,” she said.
“They may be, aye. But I want to be sure.”
“Then follow them. But how did you get so close to me, especially as big as you are? Faith, you’re a giant, and I can always—” Breaking off, aware that she was talking too much, she said, “You must be their missing prisoner, aye?”
His twinkling gaze met her frowning one. “They would identify me as such, aye. But I disapprove of slavery. So I don’t see the matter as they do.”
“I suppose not. But—” Breaking off when she saw how steadily he gazed at her, she eyed him askance. “Are you not going to follow them, then?”
“Nay, for I cannot leave a wee lassock like yourself out here alone. I’ll see you safely to your gate first.”
“Thank you, but I don’t want or need your escort,” she said firmly.
“Aye, well, you need not look so displeased by the notion,” he said. A wistful smile peeked through his unkempt beard as through a shaggy hedge. “Unless you fear that your da will hang me for escaping,” he added.
“He will not do that. He feels no love for Parlan Pharlain.”
“Then why do you hesitate to go home? Art afraid he’ll punish you for coming out alone and learning how dangerous that can be?”
“He won’t do that, either. By my troth, although he will not hang you, you are the one who should be leery of him.”
“Why should I?”
“Because, since you managed to escape from Cousin Parlan and must therefore be Parlan’s enemy, I fear that Father will insist that you marry me.”
Mag Galbraith smiled. He couldn’t help it.
She was gazing up at him, looking into his eyes, and hers were such a dark blue that they looked black. Her long, thick lashes were black, too, but her delicately arched brows were deep golden brown. They knitted together when she said, “You do not believe me, but you should. My father can be most persuasive.”
“We’ll talk as we walk,” he said, moving to retrieve his plaid from where he had hidden it. As he slung the length of still damp fabric over his injured shoulder, he added, “Art sure your devilish birds will continue to harry those louts away?”
“Most likely,” she said. “We’ll tell our lads on the wall about them, though, lest they try to sneak back. I was surprised they had got so close… and you, too.”
“I did see that I’d startled you.”
“And are amused to have done so,” she replied. “But where were you hiding? I thought no one but those men had entered our woods.”
“Dense woodland conceals much and is always dangerous,” he said, indicating that she should lead the way. “Your father should not let you wander here alone. One can never know when one might encounter menace.”
“I usually do know when others are near me,” she said, turning obediently back the way she had come. “I can sense danger, too.”
“ ’Tis true that hunters, woodsmen, and warriors can sense such things,” he said as he followed her along a nearly indiscernible path. “Their fathers and commanders train them to use all of their senses and to keep them well honed. Forbye, you are neither woodsman nor warrior.”
“I do not know what that has to do with using one’s senses. My father trained me just as yours must have trained you. He encourages me to roam our woods, to know every rock and rill, and to keep a close watch for danger.”
“Next you will say he encourages you to carry that dirk of yours.”
“Aye, sure, he does,” she replied. Glancing back at him, she added, “Why should he not when he gave it to me himself?”
“The man must be mad.”
“Mayhap you will tell him so,” she said with an edge to her voice. “I would not advise such a course, because his temper is uncertain at the best of times. It will be bad enough when we tell him that three of Parlan’s men—nay, for you must count as a fourth, must you not? So four men successfully invaded our woods. I know I said that he would not be wroth with you—”
“Because he’ll want me to marry you, aye,” he said, smiling again.
As he did, he realized that it was unusual for him to smile twice in the space of less than a few minutes. He could not remember a time during the past nineteen months when he had smiled at all.
Despite the smile and the engaging twinkle in his light brown eyes, Andrena told herself that he was just another man like any other. Wrinkling her nose at the smell of wet wool, she looked back again to say, “You look as if you’ve been in a fight, and, by the smell of that thing you carry, it is soaked through with sea water.”
“This thing is my plaid,” he said, hefting it slightly off his otherwise bare and exceedingly muscular but badly scraped shoulder. “I hear water gurgling, though, so there must be a burn nearby where I can rinse the brine out of it.”
“It will have to be stretched to dry if it is to cover you afterward,” she said. “How did it get so wet?”
“I had it on over my sark when I dove into the loch last night from your friend Pharlain’s galley,” he said.
“He is not my friend, and you cannot have swum with a plaid wrapped round you. However, if you swam ashore below our cliffs, I can understand why you look so battered and why that sark is in tatters. Some of those scrapes are bleeding and need attention, especially the one from your left shoulder down your arm.”
“The sark was ragged before I dove in, but I’ll admit it is more so now.”
“I wish you’d tell me who you are and how and why you came here.”
“Since we are apparently going to be married…”
When he paused pointedly and with another twinkle, she gave him the look that could usually silence even her sister Muriella. But he met it without a blink. Except for his persistent, rather annoying tendency to let his amusement show, the man’s thoughts failed to reveal themselves in either his voice or expression.
“ ’Tis good that the thought of marrying me amuses you,” she said. “I could enjoy it more, though, if I thought such amusement might last beyond your discovery that I am right about my father. Are you going to tell me who you are?”
“My family and close friends call me Mag,” he said. “Pharlain and most others call me Magnus Mòr.”
“Meaning ‘Big Magnus’ or ‘Magnus the Mountain,’ I expect, rather than that you have a son, a nephew, or a younger cousin who shares your name.”
“ ’Tis the first one,” he said. “I have nae bairns, and I doubt that any kinsman also bears my name. But how did you guess that?”
“From the way you said it. Also, you are gey big. The top of my head barely reaches your armpit. Forbye, had you been father or uncle to a Magnus named for you, you’d have said Magnus Mòr MacFarlan. But you are not a MacFarlan, are you?”
“Do you know every MacFarlan?”
“I do not, but I do know that you are not one of ours. And since you were a galley slave of Parlan’s… How did you come to be his prisoner?”
“By being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.
“Aye, sure, that explains it,” she said dryly.
His words were true enough, Mag thought, but he did not want to explain himself further… not yet. “How far is it from here to your tower?” he asked.
“How do you know it is a tower?”
“You said the word twice whilst you were speaking to those louts.”
“Twice? Faith, do you count such things? Nay, do not answer that. Instead, tell me where you were that you could so easily hear all I said.”
“I was above your head in the beech tree,” he said. “With your cat.”
“That cat is my sister Lachina’s, not mine,” she said. “Since I am sure you did not carry him up there with you, he must have followed you.”
“Aye, and stretched himself across my shoulders, purring, to watch you with the louts,” he said, taking advantage of the widening path to walk beside her.
Her expression lightened in response to the comment. But he had hoped to see her smile, and she did not.
Instead, she said, “ ’Tis unusual behavior for him, especially with a stranger. And you still have not told me much about yourself.”
“Nay, I have not,” he agreed. “Nor have you told me your name.”
She cocked her head, eyeing him rather than watching where she walked, which was a daft thing to do, he thought. She seemed to be assessing him, so he prepared himself to catch her if she tripped and waited for it to happen. But she walked as confidently as if her feet knew every pebble and declivity along the way.
“I am Andrena MacFarlan,” she said. “Andrew Dubh MacFarlan is my father. You know who he is, do you not?”
“I thought you must be kin to Andrew Dubh. I ken fine that Pharlain believes him to be his archenemy. In troth, though, I’ve heard nowt of Andrew’s making mischief against Pharlain.”
“Nay, ’tis Parlan who makes mischief against us. He killed my brothers and stole my father’s land years ago. Then he declared himself chief of all MacFarlans. Before, he was just my father’s cousin Parlan MacFarlan. Afterwards, he declared himself a direct descendant of the original Pharlain and entitled to call himself so.”
“Not MacPharlain, though, as would be proper for such a descendant?”
“Nay, and Parlan’s is not the true male line. He is my father’s cousin, no more. Our mutual ancestor, the original Pharlain, was a grandson of the third Earl of Lennox and his countess, who is also an ancestor of ours. Their son and heir signed a charter as MacFarlan, and so our name has remained. The rest is Cousin Parlan’s way of making himself more important. It also justifies, in his own mind, his usurpation of my father’s lands and chiefdom by base treachery and murder.”
“I believe you,” he said.
“Do you truly believe me, or do you say so just because you dislike Parlan?”
Andrena glanced up at him as she asked the question and eyed him more narrowly when he did not answer her. He continued to look straight ahead but said after a time, “I meant what I said, my lady. I will admit, though, that my dislike of Pharlain may have encouraged my belief in all that you say.”
“That is honest, at all events.”
“Aye, and I should also tell you that I do know more about this place and its people than I’ve led you to believe.”
“Then you were gey brave to enter these woods and come so far,” she said. “But why did you lead me to believe otherwise?”
“Sithee, I wanted to hear what you would say about your father and Pharlain. I’ve heard several versions of what took place at Arrochar two decades ago, but each new version seemed more mythical than the previous one.”
“You do know the meaning of the word, do you not?”
“Aye, sure; it implies either a fanciful account of the facts or a purely imaginary tale,” she said. It occurred to her that she might normally take offense at such a question. That she had not done so was doubtless a result of his nearly stoical nature. She believed he had asked the question only because he wanted to be sure that she’d understood him. Other men she knew would have asked it in a tone indicating certainty that she did not know.
He continued to walk silently beside her. But she was curious to know more about him and what he was thinking. Trying to keep her voice as neutral as his had been, she said, “Did you think that we were figures of myth?”
“You will admit, I think, that Tùr Meiloach has a mythlike reputation. Its very name means a small tower guarded by giants. Forbye, ’tis said to be dangerous, even deadly, to trespass here. Men swear that birds and other beasts of the forest are wilder and more vicious here than elsewhere and that your bogs reach out to grab unwary strangers and drag them under. They say that your terrain is replete with rivers too wild to ford—a fact that, like your birds, I saw for myself. But they also speak of deep chasms with walls that crumble at a man’s touch and bury him. I’ve even heard that whole armies have vanished here.”
“Then why did you come?”
“It was not by intent,” he admitted. “I thought the galley was still far enough south of here for me to make landfall in Colquhoun territory. But the storm had carried us farther north than I knew. In the pitch darkness, with waves battering me as I swam, it was hard to tell where I was.”
“Are you a Colquhoun, then?” She knew any number of Colquhouns, who were their nearest neighbors to the south.
“Nay, I’m not.” His gaze met hers.
“Is your home near them?”
“Aye, in places, and near MacFarlans, too. I’m a Galbraith. But let us stop now before we ford yon burn. I want to rinse out my plaid and tend my scrapes.”
She watched him stride to the gurgling burn and drop to a knee beside it. She knew who the Galbraiths were. But, despite their being neighbors of a sort, she had never met one before. Their lands lay over the mountains, along Loch Lomond and south of the MacFarlan land there. The Galbraiths also owned an island castle in the loch, near the ancient sanctuary of Luss, where many MacFarlans lay buried.
“I have heard my father speak of Arthur, Laird of Galbraith.”
“He is my father,” Mag said, glancing back over his shoulder as he pressed his plaid into the stream with one hand.
“Then your family lives on Inch Galbraith and in Glen Fruin,” she said.
“We have a tower on the inch, the land on west Lomondside, and more on east Lomondside in Strathendrick,” he replied as he switched the plaid to his left hand so he could splash water on his injured shoulder with his right. Still trailing the garment in the water, he knelt to duck his head in the icy stream. Then, shaking the water from hair and beard, he slicked his hair down and combed it with his fingers.
“That’s got most of the salt out, I think,” he said.
She could tell nothing from his voice or what little expression his beard let her see, so she said, “I thought the Laird of Galbraith was one of Parlan’s allies.”
“My lord father would say he is not. He would insist that he just follows the dictates of our liege lord, the Earl of Lennox.”
“Aye, sure, for that is what Parlan says, too, and other Loch Lomond lairds, according to my father. And, although the King ordered Lennox’s arrest two months ago, Lennox is still allied with his good-son, Murdoch Stewart, and Murdoch’s two scurrilous elder sons. But if Parlan took you prisoner, you must have been in some sort of fray against him. Did you fight against your father, too?”
“We are not going to discuss politics or my activities of nearly two years ago,” he said, taking his plaid from the burn as he stood and shaking it out.
“Do you want help wringing that dry?” she asked.
He smiled again. Truly, he had a charming smile. One wanted to smile back at him, even if one had no idea what he might be thinking.
“ ’Tis a kind offer,” he said. “But I am accustomed to doing it myself.”
As he spoke, he held the plaid high, letting its rectangular length drape nearly to the ground. Gathering the fullness of it into his right hand below where he held it at the top in his left, he pulled his right fist slowly but steadily downward, forcing water from the length of wool in a veritable cascade.
With an envious sigh, Andrena said, “I wish I could strip water from a sheet or a garment as easily as that.”
“Aye, well, I’ve had much practice.”
“If you rowed a galley up the loch in last night’s storm, you must have had to row against the wind,” she said. “And if you swam ashore and climbed one of our cliffs, you must have been exhausted afterward.”
“I was, and battered, too, as you see. Your coast is as unfriendly as men claim it is. I did sleep, though, after I reached the top.”
“Good sakes, how could you sleep out in that storm as you were?”
“I wrapped myself in my plaid and slept under a rocky outcropping with thick shrubbery betwixt me and the worst of the storm.”
“In a wet plaid?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Lass, men sleep out in wet plaids all the time. On cold nights especially. Wet wool retains a body’s warmth better than dry wool does.”
She was skeptical about that. But something else concerned her more. “Your pursuers got here the same way you did, did they not? What if they’d found you?”
“They swam ashore but not until after dawn. And they landed on Colquhoun’s side of yon great waterfall. Doubtless they’d expected me to make for home.”
“Then how did they cross to this side?”
“I saw them swing across it on a rope from a tree limb. Sithee, I’d had to wait until dawn myself to see well enough to travel. I do respect the tales I’ve heard, mythical or not—and even more so now that I’ve seen those birds of yours.”
“They swung across it on a rope?”
“Aye, and perforce left it attached to its tree. So they cannot get back without following the river to its headwaters, unless there is another way across.”
There was, of course, but she was not about to reveal it to him. Nor would the Colquhouns tell Parlan’s men about it. In fact, if the Colquhouns caught Parlan’s men, those men would sorely regret trespassing on Colquhoun land.
“How much farther is it now?” Magnus Mòr asked.
“Not far. As for those men, they will have to climb down one of the cliffs.”
“I don’t envy them that endeavor. Climbing down a cliff is much harder than climbing up one, even by daylight.”
“Parlan’s galley will not wait long for them either,” she said. “The Colquhouns take strong exception to unwelcome boats lingering in their waters.”
“They are friendly enough to Pharlain, lass—or Parlan, as you call him. I have seen that for myself.”
“Aye, sure, when Parlan is not threatening them. But to send men ashore on Colquhoun land without permission and wait offshore to pick them up again? With or without a prisoner, that would not sit well with the Laird of Colquhoun. And, unlike most other lairds hereabouts, he has never answered to the Earl of Lennox.”
“Perhaps not, but he does not go out of his way to annoy Lennox, either.”
She did not reply, for she was crossing the burn. Moreover, she knew that what he said about Colquhoun was true.
Mag watched her lift her kilted-up skirts higher to cross the burn, stepping from rock to rock with the same easy confidence that she had shown all along. She had lovely feet, trim ankles, and shapely calves.
She still wore the silly cream-colored cap, and he wished she would take it off. He wanted to know if her hair matched her eyebrows or was lighter. He wondered, too, about her willingness to discuss matters concerning men whom he doubted she had ever met. Most women had no interest in such matters, nor—in his opinion—should they have. But she was unlike any woman he had ever known.
His sisters were not at all like her. Of course, all three were married by now unless Lizzie, the youngest, had turned up her nose at the man their father had chosen for her. She was a contrary lass but a charming one, and she usually got away with her contrariness.
“You can see our tower now,” the lass said.
He had been enjoying the way her backside twitched from side to side as she strode ahead of him. Looking up now, he saw the brownish-gray stone tower ahead, framed in an opening between trees. A deep clearing separated the tower’s barmkin wall from the woods. He saw, too, that men on the wall walk had seen them. They held bows at the ready, arrows nocked to drawn bowstrings.
“Tell them to stand down,” he said just loudly enough for her to hear him. “I come in peace and bear no weapons, as you have seen.”
“I do not control those men any more than I controlled the birds,” she said. “My father is too canny to allow his guards to lay down their arms merely because someone outside the wall bids them do so. Even if it is one of his daughters,” she added. “Someone inside will tell them that no danger threatens.”
He opened his mouth to ask how anyone inside could know such a thing. As he did, the narrow gate opened and a maiden with long, flaxen plaits and eyes that he could see were light blue, even at that distance, hurried out, crying, “Dree, you’ve been gone for an age. We’ve been watching the birds and decided to go and find you. But who is this? Faith, he looks like one of the giants that guard Tùr Meiloach.”
“He is called Magnus Mòr,” Andrena said. “This is my sister Muriella, sir.”
“But you are injured!” the lady Muriella exclaimed. “How came that about, sir? Did the birds attack you? Prithee, tell me what happened!”
“Murie, dearling, do let Andrena and her companion enter.”
He had been staring at the flaxen-haired lass, only faintly aware that another young woman had followed her through the gateway. The new one’s voice was lower, more dignified, and her gray tunic and skirt suited her calm demeanor. Her eyes were an intriguing bluish-gray hazel. Looking from one to another and then to the lady Andrena, he could see the strong family resemblance. Andrena was the tallest, the lady Muriella the shortest of the three.
“Lina, this is Magnus Mòr Galbraith,” Andrena said. “This is my sister Lachina, sir.” To the others, she added, “Parlan has been holding Magnus Mòr prisoner as a galley slave. He escaped last night during the storm.”
“But surely, one man seeking sanctuary did not distress those birds,” Muriella said. “We saw them, Dree, and we both felt—” Glancing at Mag, she broke off and looked sheepishly at Andrena. “As I said, we decided to meet you.”
“Aye, but do let us go inside, Murie. As you have noted, our guest is not at his best and will doubtless be grateful for food and drink. Go and ask Malcolm to arrange it, will you? And tell him, too, that three of Parlan’s men were after him. I must find something to make him more presentable before Father sees him.”
“Very well,” Muriella said. “But do not talk about anything important until I return. I want to hear everything that happened.”
“Indeed, my lady,” Mag said, “there is no reason to fuss, because—”
“If you mean to suggest that you should try to make your way home without sustenance or weapons,” Andrena interjected, “pray put that notion out of your head. My father does not let strangers roam our land at will. You must ask his permission if you want to cross it safely.”
“Then take me to him, if you please,” he said, following her through the gateway. The men on the wall had returned to their duties, evidently having decided to accept the lasses’ approval of him without question.
“If you truly want to see Father, looking like a scruffy poacher, I will take you to him,” she said. “But you’d do better to eat and furbish yourself up a bit first.”
“I have salve to put on your scrapes, sir,” the lady Lachina said. “Also, that plaid is wet and your sark is badly torn. I can improve them, as well.”
“I’d be grateful, my lady,” he said, realizing that it would be daft to avoid Andrew Dubh and dafter yet to present himself looking like something their wretched cat had dragged out of a bush.
Andrena hoped that Magnus had decided to be sensible. But as had been the case from the moment she’d found him blocking her path, she could tell nothing about his thoughts or feelings. She was more accustomed to men—and women, too—who wore their feelings on their faces and in their voices.
Leading the way into the tower with Magnus and Lina following her, she wondered what he had made of Murie’s comments.
She had little time to ponder such thoughts, though, because when they reached the main stairway, Lina said, “Let us go to the solar, Dree. That sark I mended for Malcolm’s Peter still sits in my mending basket. Peter is large enough, although not as tall as Magnus Mòr. Moreover, Peter has two other sarks, so he will not mind if Magnus wears his until I can provide Magnus with one of his own.”
Nodding, Andrena led the way up the winding stairway to the second landing above the great hall. Two rooms opened from the landing. One was their parents’ bedchamber, the other the ladies’ solar.
Inside the solar, Lina went to her usual place and opened the woven-willow kist that sat beside her stool. “Here it is,” she said, taking out a large, gray tunic. “Before you put it on, sir, scoop some of the salve from this pot and smear it on the worst of your scrapes. It will speed their healing.”
Andrena watched with amusement as Magnus warily took the wee pot and lifted the lid to sniff its contents.
Murie, entering as he did so, laughed and said, “It won’t poison you, sir. Lina’s potions always do exactly what she says they will do.”
“I’m sure they do,” he said. “But, I must also hope that the contents will not permanently stain this borrowed sark.”
“Any stain will wash out,” Lina said. “I just hope that Peter’s sark is long enough to protect your modesty, sir.”
“I haven’t got much left to me these days, my lady. I would be grateful, though, if you have a place where I may see for myself if it will do.”
“Stay here,” Andrena said. “We’ll go onto the landing and return when you declare yourself properly clad.”
“Wait,” Lina said, diving into another kist. “Try this, as well, sir. It should be long enough to wrap round yourself and kilt up in the usual way.”
The length of gray and cream-colored fabric she held out to him was one that Andrena knew Lina had intended to make into a dress for herself. But Lina’s offering it was no surprise. Nor would it trouble her to have done so. She enjoyed weaving and sewing and was always thinking of new patterns to create. She and Murie talked often of possible dyes for the threads and yarns that Murie spun and Lina wove into fabrics and stitched into garments. Both were highly skilled.
Visibly stunned by Lina’s kindness, Magnus accepted the length of wool fabric that she held out to him, and the sisters went out to the landing. Shutting the door, they stood quietly until he bade them enter again.
When they did, Andrena saw that the sark was long enough, barely, and that he had arranged the gray and white plaid and kilted it up with his belt.
“This wool is exceedingly soft,” he said, stroking it.
“We have our own sheep and do our own carding,” Andrena explained. “Lina is particular and will not accept wool that does not feel right to her. That length of fabric is lambs wool.”
“I thank you for lending it, my lady. I’ll see that it gets better treatment than my last one did.”
“If you are ready now, sir,” Andrena said, “I’ll take you to my lord father.”
“I am, aye,” he said.
“He’ll be in his chamber,” she said. “It lies just downstairs.”
She led the way and rapped on a door at the next landing. Hearing her father’s voice from within, she pushed the door open.
“We have a guest, sir,” she announced as she entered the small room. A large rectangular table took up most of the space, and her father sat behind it with his book of accounts. “This is Magnus Mòr Galbraith,” she said. “He has been a—”
“—a prisoner of Parlan’s for this past year and a half,” Andrew Dubh said, pushing back his stool and getting to his feet. “Come ye in, lad, and tell me all about yourself. By the size and look of ye, ye should have escaped that villain eighteen months ago. But afore ye explain yourself, tell me this: Are ye married?”
Hesitating briefly at the threshold, Mag decided that for the moment, he would be wiser to ignore Andrew MacFarlan’s provocative question than to answer it. Accordingly, keeping a wary eye on his host, he entered the chamber, saying, “It is an honor to meet you, my lord.”
Despite MacFarlan’s welcoming demeanor, Mag remained cautious, knowing that Andrew Dubh, in his prime, had been one of the Highlands’ greatest warriors. He still looked fit and a decade younger than the fifty years he was surely nearing. His dark brown hair showed no hint of gray, and the only evident wrinkles were laugh lines at the outer corners of eyes that were as dark blue as the lady Andrena’s.
Hoping that he faced a friend and not a foe, Mag assured himself that MacFarlan’s greeting had not been a challenge, despite having had the ring of one. After all, his daughters had offered hospitality. That fact alone would prevent the laird’s treating him badly. Highlanders extended hospitality as a matter of honor, offering it even to their worst enemies. He would be safe enough while he ate and slept under MacFarlan’s roof. But that would not stop the man, if he were so inclined, from ordering him killed the minute he left Tùr Meiloach land.
“How came ye here to us?” MacFarlan asked.
Andrena said, “He escaped from one of Cousin Parlan’s galleys during last night’s storm, sir. He dove into the loch and came ashore below our cliffs.”
“Did he, indeed?” her father said, beaming at her. “Then ye’ll ken fine why I would talk privily with him. Forbye, your sisters will want to hear the whole tale from ye straightaway.”
Meeting Andrena’s gaze and reading the query in it, Mag gave a slight nod to show that he was content to be alone with her father. So obviously was she a lass who knew her own mind that he half-expected her to ask MacFarlan to let her stay. But she curtsied and left without another word, closing the door after her.
Andrew Dubh raised his thick eyebrows. “D’ye think she fears I’ll eat ye, lad?”
“I doubt that, my lord. What I do think, because she said so herself, is that she suspects you will urge me to marry her.”
“I see that ye be a plainspoken man,” Andrew said with a chuckle. “Well, I be another m’self. I’ll tell ye to your face that if ye be willing, I’d urge that very course. Ye’re Arthur Galbraith’s fourth-born son, are ye no?”
“I am, aye, sir, although only three of us remain now.”
“Aye, ’tis true. I’d forgotten that your brother Will died in the fracas your lot had two years ago with Parlan, or Pharlain, as the traitor likes to call himself.”
“Nineteen months ago, to be exact,” Mag said.
Andrew’s eyebrows rose again. “Ye say that with nae expression, lad. I’d expect ye to show bitterness, even fury, toward the villain who killed your brother.”
“I don’t like Pharlain, sir. But I have a more vital matter on which to expend my energy now. Also, I learned quickly as a prisoner that one is wiser to conceal one’s emotions. Otherwise, one’s captors will exploit them.”
“Ye’ve gained wisdom then. That be nae bad thing for a man. Forbye, your father still has two other sons. But I’m thinking our Dree may no have told ye of the impediment for others that I’ve approached on her behalf, fathers and sons alike.”
“She mentioned only that you seek a marriage for her.”
“I thought so. Sithee, when I came to Tùr Meiloach, a number of me own lads followed, if not straightaway, then as soon as they’d taken Parlan’s measure. Ye ken the man, so ye’d ken fine that he’s nae one for a sensible man to trust.”
“I’d never trust him. But tell me about this impediment of yours.”
“ ’Tis just that I’ve only daughters now—that traitor, Parlan, having stolen Arrochar and murdered my three sons, not one of them yet of age to fight. So—”
“He tells everyone that you abandoned the place to him.”
“Aye, sure, he does. And what else was I to do, with my sons already dead in a surprise attack by an army greater than mine and our wee Andrena a newborn babe in arms? I had a bolt hole, o’ course—as any man of sense must in these perilous times. So my lady and I snatched up our babe and fled here to Tùr Meiloach, which has ever been a sacred and safe haven for true MacFarlans.”
“As Pharlain tells the tale, he saw you plunge into the river, which swept you over the falls. He suggests that only the magic of wee folk or witches could have seen you to safety after that.”
With a wink, Andrew said, “Aye, well, it was dark with but a sliver of a moon. He didna see all that he might have seen.”
“I’ve not come this way before,” Mag said. “From Inch Galbraith, the usual way to the Highlands is along the west shore of Loch Lomond. One then crosses the narrow tarbet to the Loch of the Long Boats and goes through the pass northwest of Arrochar. I do know of a pass west of Glen Luss and an ancient one from the tarbet itself. But both routes are apparently so treacherous now as to deter travelers.”
“I ken the Lomondside routes well, lad. As chief of the MacFarlans, I used to be keeper of that pass and controlled the tarbet of Ballyhennan, too.”
“As Pharlain does now,” Mag said. “But, I tell you, sir, I’ve heard talk about the river guarding your north boundary and know that it is as wild as the one I saw for myself that serves as your south boundary. I’d like to know how you forded the northern one with only a sliver of moon to light your way.”
“I’ll tell ye one day,” MacFarlan said. “But now, about the impediment… Sithee, with only daughters to inherit, and being determined to win back my lands and chiefdom as I am, I need powerful allies and warriors to aid me. The Earl of Lennox wields great influence despite his arrest and allies himself with Murdoch, second Duke of Albany, and his thievish elder sons. At Lennox’s order, all of my neighbors save one have as good as joined Murdoch in his quest to unseat our King.”
“That one being the Laird of Colquhoun, or so I have heard,” Mag said.
“Aye, and even Colquhoun prefers to keep the peace and takes no side in any fight. Your da were like that at first, too, seeking to please all. Now he seems fixed with Murdoch, Lennox, and Parlan. As I see it, I owe allegiance as chief of Clan Farlan first to the King of Scots, not to the treacherous dukes of Albany or their equally underhanded kinsmen. That includes Lennox, be he my liege lord or none.”
“Years ago, according to my father,” Mag said, “the first Duke of Albany governed the kingdom legally in his brother the King’s stead and did so for much of his reign. Then Albany continued to rule after the English captured Jamie Stewart and the old King died. Noblemen believed that they had to follow Albany then and his son, Murdoch, after Albany died. Both men dealt ruthlessly with defiance.”
Excerpted from The Laird's Choice by Amanda Scott Copyright © 2012 by Amanda Scott. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Amanda Scott is the author of over 50 romance novels and the recipient of the Romance Writers of America's prestigious RITA Award. She lives in Folsom, California, outside of Sacramento. She is a fourth-generation Californian.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I liked the description of the fog.
Save your money. Not worth the read. NO chemistry. Skipped many pages due to worthless dialog and sequences of events. Boring.
wonderful novel. great story line. l felt like l was right in the center of of the action.
THE LAIRD'S CHOICE by Amanda Scott is an interesting Medieval Scotland historical romance set in 1406-1425 Scotland. Book 1 in the new series "Laird's of the Loch". Slow to start specifically for an Scott story,but picks up as you go along. Filled with danger,passion,clan loyalty,Highlanders,treason,secrets,and love with a bit of mythical illusion. Written with great details,the exciting part to me was toward the end. While, I enjoy Ms. Scott's stories,this one was a bit disappointing at the beginning but the end was wonderful. Received for an honest review from the publisher and Net Galley. RATING: 3 HEAT RATING: MILD REVIEWED BY: AprilR, My Book Addiction and More/My Book Addiction Reivews
This wasn't at all what I thought it would be. Based off of the synopsis I thought it would be a historical romance but instead the majority of the book is about the two of them running between clans trying to warn everyone of a plan set in motion to over throw the king. But let me back it up a bit. Mag has been held captive as a slave for a year and a half now. When he finally manages to escape he washes up on MacFarlan land and ultimately meets Andrena. Her father seeks a husband for Adrena and before you know it the two are wed. However, while being held captive, Mag heard about a plot to overthrow the king to take his crown. So once married Mag and Adrena set off to meet the king to tell him of the news. After meeting the king they go back to Adrena's father to tell him what came of the meeting and then to Mag's clan land to let his father know of the plot and to see whether his father stands with the King or not and then... well you get the point. There is a ton of traveling, a lot of strategizing and a very minimal amount of romance, which is what I signed up for. I found myself really struggling through this. I couldn't seem to connect with the characters for some reason and even though the concept sounded like a win to me, I found myself not really getting into it. It would be perfect for someone looking for historical fiction but for someone like me who was looking for romance, I found it lacking in that department.