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That mighty stronghold of the west In lonely grandeur reigns supreme; A monument of feudal power, And fitting haven for a king. —M. C. MacLeod
Loch Dunvegan, Isle of Skye, July 1601
Isabel MacDonald had never thought of herself as lacking in courage, but over the past few days she’d begun to reconsider. The long hours of travel, with little to do but think, had tested her mettle. What had seemed in Edinburgh a well-conceived plan to help her clan, now, as they neared their final destination in the farthest outreaches of Scotland, felt more like a virgin being led to the sacrifice. An analogy, she feared, that was disturbingly close to the truth.
Huddled among her MacDonald clansmen on the small birlinn, Isabel felt strangely alone. Like her, the other occupants of the boat remained both watchful and silent as they approached their enemy’s keep. Only the droning sound of the oars, plunging into the black depths beneath them, pierced the eerie quiet. Somewhere ahead of her in the loch beyond lay Castle Dunvegan, the impregnable stronghold of Clan MacLeod.
An icy wind swept over the loch, sending a chill deep into her bones. Eilean a Cheo, she recalled the Erse name for Skye. The “Isle of Mist”—what a prodigious understatement. Cursing her inappropriate traveling attire, Isabel wrapped her fur-trimmed cloak—the only warm garment she was wearing—tighter across her body in a futile attempt to warm herself. But her garments provided such scant protection from the elements, she might as well have been sitting here in a sark.
Given her perilous task, the foul weather seemed somehow fitting.
Isabel had been promised in handfast to the powerful MacLeod chief. Ostensibly, the handfast was a union brokered by the king to end two long and bitter years of feuding between the MacLeods and the MacDonalds. In reality, it was a ruse to gain her access to their enemy’s keep and, if all went according to plan, his heart.
No wedding would follow this handfast. When Isabel found what she came for, she would repudiate the handfast and return to her life at court as lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne as if nothing had happened, secure in the knowledge that she had helped her clan.
Assuming, of course, she wasn’t discovered.
In retrospect, passing the days by thinking of the different ways a spy could be punished probably had not been the most efficient use of her time.
Sensing Isabel’s unease, her cherished nursemaid, Bessie, reached down and gently squeezed her clenched fingers.
“Don’t worry, poppet, it won’t be that bad. You look as if you are headed to the executioner instead of to a handfast. It’s not as if your bridegroom is England’s old King Henry.”
He might as well be. If Isabel’s perfidy was discovered, the result could well be the same as the fate doled out to many of Henry VIII’s wives years ago. She would expect no mercy from a fierce Highland chief. She could only trust that King James, a man who’d welcomed her into his household like a daughter, would not see her tied to a vicious brute. “I’m fine,” Isabel assured her, plastering a light-hearted smile on her face. As fine as she could be, she thought, given that she was about to be handfasted to a stranger.
It was thoughts of the man whom she must deceive that were partially responsible for her growing apprehension over the past few days. Her attempts to glean more insight into the MacLeod chief’s character had proven largely unsuccessful. The king claimed he was an amiable enough man . . . for a barbarian. As the king considered all Highlanders barbarians, the description did not concern her overmuch.
Her father was equally circumspect, calling the MacLeod a “formidable enemy” with a “good sword arm.” Hardly reassuring. Her brothers had been a little more forthcoming. They described the MacLeod as a cunning chief who was well respected among his clan and a fierce warrior who was unmatched on the battlefield. But she’d learned nothing of the man.
Too late, she realized Bessie was still watching her. “Are you sure nothing is wrong, Isabel?”
She shook her head. “It’s only that I’m freezing and anxious to get off this boat.”
Isabel watched with trepidation as Bessie’s graying brows gathered over the elfin nose that made her aged face appear strangely youthful for her two and forty years. God’s breath, Bessie saw too much. Those omniscient green eyes peered directly into her soul. Isabel knew that her nursemaid suspected something was afoot. From Isabel’s hasty decision to handfast a man she’d never met to the inappropriate traveling attire her uncle had insisted she wear, Bessie had not been fooled by Isabel’s vague explanations.
Isabel met Bessie’s questioning gaze, imploring her silently not to ask what was really bothering her. The temptation to confide in the woman who’d cared for her like a mother was overpowering, but she dared not risk it. Only her father, brothers, and uncle were aware of her true purpose in agreeing to this handfast. It was safer that way.
For once, Bessie relented and pretended that she did not know that something beyond the nerves of a soon-to-be bride were at work. She squeezed Isabel’s hand again. “I’ll call for a bath as soon as we arrive, and you’ll feel much better.”
Isabel managed a smile. Dear Bessie thought every problem could be solved by a long soak in lavender-scented water. “That sounds divine,” she murmured. But as soothing as a warm bath would feel to her aching, travel-weary bones, Isabel knew that her problems would not be so easily solved.
It had all seemed so straightforward a few weeks ago when her father, the MacDonald of Glengarry, had suddenly appeared at court. Her initial surprise and excitement at his unexpected visit, however, had quickly turned to wariness. Her father had never shown much interest in her before, so there had to be a catch. If he was in Edinburgh, it had to be for something important. And she had never been important.
She’d been shocked but enormously pleased by his request. Her father had sought out her help! She’d been so thrilled by the prospect of his approaching her with such an important mission that she had jumped at the opportunity to help without much considering the particulars of her task.
It was not the first time Isabel’s eagerness to impress her family had landed her into tricky situations—Bessie could attest to that. But even now, she could not regret her decision. Already her brothers were more relaxed around her, even going so far as to tease her about some silly nickname at court. Her father, too, seemed different. He actually looked at her for longer than a moment.
Unfortunately, he was not the only one.
The back of her neck prickled with awareness. Her uncle was watching her. Again. Since leaving Dunscaith Castle a few days ago, Isabel had often felt her uncle’s heavy stare boring into her back. He unnerved her. Whenever she turned, he was there, watching her with those hard, unblinking eyes.
She’d tried to pretend that she didn’t notice, but his oppressive presence made it impossible. She couldn’t stand the constant staring any longer. Willing herself not to be intimidated, Isabel turned to face him.
“How much longer, Uncle?” she asked, hearing the slight tremble in her voice. Her uncle, the MacDonald of Sleat, hadn’t missed it, either.
He frowned and crossed his thick arms forbiddingly across his chest. A ruddy freckled countenance and graying red hair that receded determinedly from a high broad forehead gave him an older appearance than was suggested by his six and thirty years. Isabel could not help focusing on the center of his face, where one too many drams had left his tremendous nose bright red and bulbous. Overall, he presented quite an imposing figure. Sleat was a great bear of a man, his large frame heavily padded with thick muscle and blanketed with a generous layer of dark red hair. Her nose wrinkled with distaste as his strong scent floated toward her. He even reeked.
Her eyes flickered over his heavy features, searching for a connection. It was so difficult to believe he was related to her mother. Isabel had been told that except for their like coloring, her late mother, Janet, was the very antithesis of her much younger brother. Whereas Janet had been a willowy, delicate beauty, brutish Donald Gorm Mor was far from a handsome man.
He was, however, a powerful one. And her clan desperately needed that power if it were to have any chance of survival.
Uncomfortable under her uncle’s heavy stare, Isabel waited, trying not to fidget, for his response. She looked to her father, but he seemed just as annoyed by her show of nerves as her uncle. She would get no relief in that direction. Her father needed her uncle, and her uncle needed Isabel.
His next words reminded her of that fact. “Do not disappoint me, daughter.”
Her chest twisted. That had always been the problem.
“I thought you were made of sterner stuff, little niece,” Sleat added. “Yet here we are not yet in sight of the castle and you quiver like a scolded bairn. Make yourself ready.”
Isabel knew what he was trying to do—shame her into being brave—but it wasn’t working. She knew what she was up against. Only a fool wouldn’t be nervous, even if only a wee bit.
“Look, my lady, there it is now,” one of the clansmen whispered softly, momentarily dropping an oar and pointing across the loch before them.
Isabel forced herself to follow the direction of his finger. Slowly, she lifted her gaze to the castle that was to be her new home—or, if she was caught, her dungeon.