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Lochalsh, Inverness-shire, June 1605
He was going home.
Alex MacLeod urged his mount faster down the narrow path. The powerful black destrier responded with a sudden burst of speed through the densely wooded forest, as if this were the first mile and not the hundredth. The grueling pace Alex set three days ago had only intensified as they neared their final destination. He knew that he was pushing his men, but they were accustomed to—nay, thrived on—such rigor. They had not become the most feared band of warriors across the Highlands by suffering complacency. His brother, Rory MacLeod, Chief of MacLeod, had summoned Alex home for an important mission. His chief needed him, and Alex would not delay.
Rory’s message was circumspect and brief, but Alex knew well what it meant. The opportunity he’d been waiting for loomed. And Alex was ready. Battle-hardened, honed as sharp as the edge of his claymore, and primed for whatever task his brother sought to impart upon him.
Nearly three years had passed since he’d last set eyes upon the jagged, rocky shorelines of Skye and the forbidding stone walls of Dunvegan Castle—the stronghold of the MacLeods for nearly four hundred years. He hadn’t intended to be gone for so long. But in the most brutal and primitive of conditions, living the life of an outlaw, Alex had found his calling.
He was at his best on the battlefield. It was the only place where he could quiet the demons, the restlessness that drove him. But the years of constant battle could not dull the fire that burned inside him. If anything, the flame burned even hotter.
For now the battle had moved close to home.
Home. A wave of something akin to wistfulness washed over him. Alex rarely allowed himself to think about all that he’d left behind. His family. Peace. Security. Such things were not for him. His destiny, he knew, lay in a different direction.
Charging into a clearing, he slowed, giving his men time to catch up. His squire, Robbie, pulled up beside him. Not yet ten and seven, the lad was already on his way to becoming a skilled warrior. Living by the sword did not leave much margin for error. Boys quickly became either men … or corpses.
Robbie was breathing heavily, and sweat poured down his face, but Alex knew the lad would rather take a dirk in his gut than admit he was tired.
“Will we make it, do you think?” Robbie asked.
Alex caught the direction of his gaze. “Before the rain?”
The lad nodded.
Alex looked up through the curtain of trees at the darkening skies. A storm was brewing, and if the thickened air and dense black clouds were any indication, it was going to be a fierce one. He shook his head. “Nay, lad. I fear we’ll get a good soaking.” Wiping the sweat from his own brow, he added, “One that we all could use.”
The boy made a face, and Alex felt a rare tug of amusement. There had been precious little to laugh about lately. It would not be the first time they’d traveled in treacherous weather. And at least this time they were not dodging the king’s henchmen.
They rode for perhaps another mile before Alex’s ears pricked at a faint sound. He hadn’t kept the Reaper at bay the past three years only by his skill with a claymore; he’d learned to trust his instincts. And right now those instincts flared.
Reining in his mount, he raised his fist in a silent command for his men to follow suit. The band of warriors immediately ground to a halt behind him.
A soft breeze pushed the stray leaves scattered across the forest floor in a gentle rustle, and with it carried the almost imperceptible sounds of a cry.
Alex met the hard stare of his chief guardsman. “An animal?” Patrick asked.
Alex shook his head. “I don’t think so.” He held perfectly still, listening again. He knew he should just move on; he had a job to do. But before he could order his men on their way, he heard another cry.
This one more distinct.
More distinctly feminine.
Damn. He couldn’t ignore it now. His brother’s words flashed in his head: Keep your identity hidden.
Alex shook off the reminder. Not many would recognize him after so many years. He’d changed. War had hardened him, and not just in spirit.
Do not delay.…
There would be no delay.
This wouldn’t take long.
Feeling the familiar surge of blood rush through his veins as his body anticipated the coming battle, he swung his destrier around to the south and plunged into the trees, leading his men in the direction of the screams.
Right before the sky broke open, unleashing its torrential fury.
It was going to rain. Perfect. Meg Mackinnon pulled the wool arisaidh, the full-length plaid she’d wrapped around her for protection from the elements, more firmly around her head and once again cursed the necessity for this journey. They’d only just begun, and already she was dreading long days on horseback, navigating the treacherous tracks of the drovers. Even had her father been able to arrange one, a carriage would have been useless along these paths. The “road” from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh was barely wide enough to ride two abreast. The cart that carried their belongings had proved to be enough of a burden on this rugged terrain.
Meg had at least a week of discomfort left before her. It would take them that long to reach Edinburgh, where she must begin in earnest her search for a husband.
She felt the familiar flutter of anxiety when she thought of all that was ahead of her. Her father had entrusted her to find the right man for her clan; she would not let him down. But the responsibility inherent in her decision weighed heavily on her. The pressure at times could be stifling. A wry smile touched the edges of her mouth. Perhaps a week of travel wasn’t long enough.
Yet part of her couldn’t wait until it was all over. It would be a relief to have the decision made and behind her. Of course, then she would be married. And that brought a whole new bundle of anxieties.
Meg sighed deeply, knowing she couldn’t have put off the trip to court any longer. Her father’s recent illness had made that very clear. Without her help, her brother’s place as chief would be challenged. The corbies had begun to circle the minute her father had taken to bed with a mysterious wasting ailment. Her once hale and hearty father, the powerful Chief of Mackinnon, had lost nearly two stone and was still too weak to travel.
Meg glanced over at her mother riding beside her and felt a pang of guilt for dragging her so far from home. It was difficult enough for Meg to leave her father and brother; she couldn’t imagine how her mother must feel.
“I’m sorry, Mother.”
Rosalind Mackinnon met her daughter’s gaze with puzzlement. “Whatever for, child?”
“For taking you away from Father at a time like this.” Meg bit her lip, feeling the need to explain. “I just couldn’t bring myself to accept—”
“Nonsense.” Her mother cut her off, a rare frown marring her beautiful face. “Your father is much better. A trip to court is exactly what I need. You know how I love all the latest fashions, the latest hairstyles,”—she smiled conspiratorially—“and all the latest gossip.”
Meg returned the smile. She knew her mother was only trying to make her feel better, though she did love going to court. Meg, on the other hand, hated it. She never fit in the way her mother did. Partially, it was her own fault. She did not share her mother’s enjoyment of frippery and gossip and was not very good at pretending otherwise. But this time, she swore she would try. For her mother’s sake, if not for her own.
“Besides, I’ll not have you marry a man you do not love,” her mother finished, anticipating the apology Meg had been about to make.
Meg shook her head. Rosalind Mackinnon was a hopeless romantic. But love was not the reason Meg had refused the offer of marriage from her father’s chieftain. The offer that, had she accepted it, would have dispensed with the need for this trip.
But Meg’s choice of a husband was dictated by unusual circumstances, and Thomas Mackinnon was not the right man for her. He was an able warrior, yes, but a hotheaded one. A man who reached for his sword first and thought later. Meg sought a strong warrior, but a controlled one. Equally important, she needed a clever negotiator to appease a king with growing authority over his recalcitrant Highland subjects. Tensions between the two ran high. The time of unfettered authority by the chiefs was waning. She must find a husband who could help lead her clan into the future.
But lack of political acumen was not the only reason she’d refused Thomas. She also sensed too much ambition in him. Ambition that would put her brother’s position as the next chief in jeopardy.
Above all, she needed a fiercely loyal man. A man she could trust.