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By Scott, Amanda
ForeverCopyright © 2011 Scott, Amanda
All right reserved.
For readers who appreciate a quick guide to the meanings and/or pronunciation of certain words used in this story:
Aodán = AY den (ay as in hay)
Ay-de-mi = AY de me (also ay as in hay, an expletive)
Boreas = the North Wind (Greek mythology)
Finlagh = FIN lay
Forbye = besides or however
Garron = a small, sure-footed Highland horse or pony, alternative to foot travel
Himself = the way by which clan members, especially those who are not of the nobility, refer to a clan or confederation chief—in this instance, the Mackintosh
Lug(s) = ear(s)
Moigh = Moy (now the word is spelled so)
Rothesay = ROSS-ee
Rothiemurchus = Roth-ee MUR kus
Tadhg = TAY
“The Mackintosh” refers to the chief of Clan Mackintosh, who is also the head or Captain of Clan Chattan. The title “captain” is unique to Clan Chattan.
Tocher = a bride’s dowry
Perth, Scotland, September 1396
Abrupt silence filled the air when the young dark-haired warrior’s opponent fell. The lad looked swiftly for the next one but saw no one nearby still standing.
Then, hearing moans and weaker cries of the wounded and dying, the warrior realized that his sense of silence was no more than that the screeching of the pipes that always accompanied combat had abruptly ceased when his own fight had.
Not only had the pipes of battle fallen silent, but so also had the noble audience that watched from tiered seats overlooking the field. They had cheered at the beginning, for he had heard them before all his senses had focused on his first opponent.
The broad, usually green meadowlike expanse of the North Inch of Perth had altered gruesomely now to a field of bodies and gore.
Man after man had he slain in that trial by combat between Camerons and Clan Chattan, two of the most powerful Highland clan federations. Each, by order of the King of Scots, had produced thirty champions to fight. The royal intent was to end decades of feuding over land and other bones of contention.
The young warrior extended his gaze to sweep the rest of the field for any remaining opponent. He saw only three men standing and one kneeling, all some distance away from where he stood near the wide, fast-moving river Tay.
St. John’s town of Perth and nearby Scone Abbey having served as royal and sacred places for centuries, Perth’s North Inch had long been a site for trial by combat. The field was fenced off from the town just southeast of it on the river, and the river provided as effective a barrier as the fences did, if not more so.
The town overlooked the Tay estuary at the first place narrow enough to bridge. If a man should fall in, the swift and powerful river would sweep him into the Firth of Tay and thence to the sea or, more likely, drown him long before then.
Therefore, the day’s combatants had tried to keep clear of the precipitous riverbank. But when other ground grew slippery with gore and cluttered with the fallen, the area near the water remained as the only option.
None of the four who were still visibly alive looked as if he cared a whit about the young warrior. The lad remained wary but was grateful to rest, knowing that if he had to fight one or all of them, the likelihood was that he would die.
The others wore clothing similar to his—saffron-colored, knee-length tunics and wide leather sword belts. Each also wore a leather targe strapped to one arm to parry sword strokes. And each one wore his long hair in a single plait, as most Highland warriors did, to keep flying strands out of his face as he fought.
Although he could not discern their clan badges from where he stood, the lad knew they were all members of Clan Chattan, the enemy.
His sharp ears heard the voice, weak though it was, and he turned quickly.
Amidst the nearby bodies, he saw a slight but insistent movement and hurried toward it. Dropping to a knee beside the man who had made it and fighting back a rush of fear and icy despair, he exclaimed, “Father!”
“I’m spent,” Teàrlach MacGillony muttered, clearly exerting himself more than a man in his condition should. “But I must—”
“Don’t talk!” Fin said urgently.
“I must. Ye be all we ha’ left from this dreadful day, lad. So ’tis your sacred duty tae stay alive. How many o’ the villains be still upstanding?”
“I can see four,” Fin said. “One is kneeling—retching, I think.” With a catch in his voice, he added, “Except for me, all of our men have fallen.”
“Then them ye see be just taking a breath,” his father said. “Ye’ll ha’ to stand against them unless his grace, the King, stops the slaughter. But his brother, Albany, does sit by his side. The King is weak, but Albany is not. He is evil, is what he is. ’Twas his idea, all this, but his grace does ha’ the power to stop it.”
Fin looked again toward the tiers. Not only did the King and the Duke of Albany sit there but also members of the royal court, the clergy, and many of Perth’s townspeople. Banners waved, and vendors doubtless still sold the ale, whisky, buns, and sweets that at the beginning of the day had made the event seem like a fair.
“Albany is speaking to his grace now,” Fin said.
“Aye, nae doots telling him that there must be a true victor, so that the feuding betwixt the Camerons and Clan Chattan will stop. But hear me, lad. Our people did count on me as their war leader today, and I failed them. Ye must not.”
“You accounted for several of these dead, sir,” Fin said.
“I did, aye, but your sword sped more to their Maker than mine did. And, if ye truly be the last man o’ ours standing, ye ha’ a duty that ye must see to.”
“What is it?”
“Vengeance,” his father said, gasping. “Swear that ye’ll seek it against their war leader and… and others. Ye ken fine… after such slaughter… the right o’ vengeance be sacred. ’Tis a holy bequest that ye… as sole survivor, must accept.” Gasping more harshly for each breath, he added, “Swear it… to me.”
“I do swear it, sir, aye,” Fin said hastily. To his father, clearly dying, he could give no other reply.
“Bless ye, my…”
Teàrlach MacGillony gasped no more.
Tears sprang to Fin’s eyes, but a cry from the audience startled him from his grief. Glancing toward the tiers, he saw Albany waving for combat to continue.
The pipes kept silent. The King sat with his head bowed, making no sign, but people would see naught amiss in that. The King was weak, and Albany, as Governor of the Realm in his grace’s stead, had long been the one who made such decisions.
Looking toward the men of Clan Chattan, Fin saw that three of them faced the tiers. The fourth, a tall and lanky chap, spoke to the others. Then, his sword at the ready, he turned toward Fin. The others followed but stopped well back of him.
As the man approached, he kept his head down and watched where he walked, doubtless to avoid treading on the fallen.
Fin hefted his sword, drew a deep breath, and set himself.
When the other man looked up at last, his gaze caught Fin’s and held it.
Fin stared, then found voice enough to say, “Hawk?”
The other stopped six feet away. With a movement of his head so slight that Fin wondered if he had imagined it, he indicated the river nearby to his right.
The men behind him were talking to each other, cheerful now, confident of the outcome. They were far enough away that they could not have heard Fin speak, nor would they hear him if he spoke again.
“What are you trying to say?” he asked.
“Go,” Hawk said, although his lips barely moved. “I cannot fight you. Someone from your side must live to tell your version of what happened here today.”
“They’ll flay you!”
“Nay, Lion. I’ll be a hero. But think on that later. Now go, and go quickly before Albany sends his own men to dispatch the lot of us.”
Hawk being one of the few men Fin trusted without question, he whirled, thrust his sword into the sling on his back, and dove in, wondering at himself and realizing only as the water swallowed him that he must look like a coward. By then, the river was bearing him swiftly past the town and onward, inexorably, to the sea.
The weight and cumbrous nature of the sword strapped to his back threatened to sink him, but he did not fight it. The farther the current took him before he surfaced, the safer he would be, and if he died on the way, so be it.
Then another, horrifying, thought struck. He’d sworn two oaths that day.
The first had been to accept the results of the combat and do no harm to any man on the opposing side. Every man there, as one voice, had sworn to that oath.
But then his war leader—his own dying father—had demanded a second oath, of vengeance, an oath that Fin could not keep without breaking his first one. Such a dilemma threatened his honor and that of his clan. But all oaths were sacred.
Might one oath be more sacred? Had his father known what he had asked?
He began kicking toward the surface, angling southward, knowing of only one place where he might find an answer. He could get there more easily from the shore opposite Perth… if he could get there at all.
The Highlands, early June 1401
The odd gurgling punctuated with harsher sounds that composed the Scottish jay’s birdsong gave no hint of what lay far below its perch, on the forest floor.
The fair-haired young woman silently wending her way through the forest toward the jay’s tall pine tree sensed nothing amiss. Nor, apparently, did the large wolf dog moving through the thick growth of pines, birch, and aspen a few feet to her right like a graceful, tarnished-silver ghost.
Most of the winter’s snow had melted, and the day was a temperate one.
The breeze hushing through the canopy overhead and the still damp forest floor beneath eighteen-year-old Lady Catriona Mackintosh’s bare feet made keeping silent easier than it would be after warmer temperatures dried the ground and foliage.
When a fat furry brown vole scurried out of her path and two squirrels chased each other up a nearby tree, she smiled, feeling a stab of pride in her ability to move so silently that her presence did not disturb the forest creatures.
She listened for sounds of the fast-flowing burn ahead. But before she heard any, the breeze dropped and the dog halted, stiffening to alertness as it raised its long snout. Then, trembling, it turned its head and looked at her.
Raising her right hand toward it, palm outward, Catriona stopped, too, and tried to sense what it sensed.
The dog watched her. She could tell that the scent it had caught on the air was not that of a wolf or a deer. Its expression was uncharacteristically wary. And its trembling likewise indicated wariness rather than the quivering, bowstring-taut excitement that it displayed when catching the scent of a favored prey.
The dog turned away again and bared its teeth but made no sound. She had trained it well and felt another rush of pride at this proof of her skill.
Moving forward, easing her toes gently under the mixture of rotting leaves and pine needles that carpeted the forest floor, as she had before, she glanced at the dog again. It would stop her if it sensed danger lurking ahead.
Instead, as she moved, the dog moved faster, making its own path between trees and through shrubbery to range silently before her.
She was accustomed to its protective instincts. Once, she had nearly walked into a wolf that had drifted from its pack and had gone so still at her approach that she failed to sense its presence. The wolf dog had leaped between them, stopping her and snarling at the wolf, startling it so that it made a strident bolt for safety. She had no doubt that the dog would kill any number of wolves to protect her.
That it glided steadily ahead but continued to glance back told her that although it did not like what it smelled, it was not afraid.
She felt no fear either, because she carried her dirk, and her brothers had taught her to use it. Moreover, she trusted her own instincts nearly as much as the dog’s. She was sure that no predator, human or otherwise, lay in wait ahead of her.
The jay still sang. The squirrels chattered.
Birds usually fell silent at a predator’s approach. And when squirrels shrieked warnings of danger, they did so in loud, staccato bursts as the harbinger raced ahead of the threat. But the two squirrels had grown noisier, as if they were trying to outshriek the jay.
As that whimsical thought struck, Catriona glanced up to see if she could spy the squirrels or the bird. Instead, she saw a huge black raven swooping toward the tall pine and heard the larger bird’s deep croak as it sent the jay squawking into flight. The raven’s arrival shot a chill up her spine. Ravens sought out carrion, dead things. This one perched in the tree and stared fixedly downward as it continued its croaking call to inform others of its kind that it had discovered a potential feast.
The dog increased its pace as if it, too, recognized the raven’s call.
Catriona hurried after it and soon heard water rushing ahead. Following the dog into a clearing, she could see the turbulent burn running through it. The huge raven, on its branch overhead, raucously protested her presence. Others circled above, great black shadows against the overcast sky, cawing hopefully.
The dog growled, and at last she saw what had drawn the ravens.
A man wearing rawhide boots, a saffron-colored tunic with a large red and green mantle over it—the sort that Highlanders called a plaid—lay facedown on the damp ground, unconscious or dead, his legs stretched toward the tumbling burn. Strapped slantwise across his back was a great sword in its sling, and a significant amount of blood had pooled by his head.
The dog had scented the blood.
So had the ravens.
Sir Finlagh Cameron awoke slowly. His first awareness was that his head ached unbearably. His second was of a warm breeze in his right ear and a huffing sound. He seemed to be facedown, his left cheek resting on an herbal-scented pillow.
What, he wondered, had happened to him?
Just as it finally dawned on him that he was lying on dampish ground atop leafy plants of some sort, a long wet tongue laved his right cheek and ear.
Opening his eyes, he beheld two… no, four silvery gray legs, much too close.
Tensing, but straining to keep still as the animal licked him again, well aware that wolves littered all Highland forests, he shifted his gaze beyond the four legs to see if there were any more. He did see two more legs, but either his vision was defective or his mind was playing tricks on him.
The two legs were bare, shapely, and tanned.
He shut his eyes and opened them again. The legs looked the same.
Slowly and carefully, he tried to lift his head to see more of both creatures, only to wince at the jolt of pain that shot through his head as he did. But, framed by the arch of the beast’s legs and body, he glimpsed bare feet and ankles, clearly human, then bare calves, decidedly feminine.
By straining, he could also see bare knees and bare…
A snapping sound diverted him, and the animal beside him backed off. It was larger than he had expected and taller. But it was no wolf. On the contrary…
“Wolf dog or staghound,” he muttered.
“So you are not dead after all.”
The soft feminine voice carried a note of drollery and floated to him on the breeze, only he no longer felt a breeze. Doubtless, the dog’s breath had been what he’d felt in his ear earlier. Coming to this conclusion reassured him that he hadn’t lost his wits, whatever else had happened to him.
“Can you not talk to me?”
It was the same voice but nearer, although he had not sensed her approach in any way. But then, until the warm breath huffed into his ear, he had not sensed the dog either. He realized, too, that she had spoken the Gaelic. He had scarcely noticed, despite having spoken it little himself for several years.
Recalling the shapely legs and bare feet, he realized with some confusion that his eyes had somehow shut themselves. He opened them to the disappointing revelation that her bareness ended midthigh. A raggedy blue kirtle, kilted up the way a man would kilt up his plaid, covered most of the rest of her.
“I can talk,” he said and felt again that odd sense of accomplishment. “I’m not so sure that I can move. My head feels as if someone tried to split it in two.”
“You’ve shed blood on the leaves round your head, so you are injured,” she said. Her voice was still soft, calm, and carrying that light note, as if she felt no fear of him or of anything else in the woods. “I can get your sword out of its sling if you will trust me to do it. And I can get the sling and belt off you, too. But you will have to lift yourself a bit for that. Then, mayhap you can turn over.”
“Aye, sure,” he said. If she had wanted to kill him, she’d have done it. And she was too small to wield his heavy sword as a weapon.
She managed without much difficulty to drag the sword from the sling on his back. But when he raised himself so she could reach the strap’s buckle under him, he had to grit his teeth against the pain and dizziness that surged through his head.
Still, he decided by the time she unbuckled the stout strap and deftly slipped it free of his body that little was wrong with him other than an aching head.
“Now, if you can turn over,” she said, “I will look and see how bad it is.”
Exerting himself, he rolled over and looked up to see a pretty face with a smudge on one rosy cheek, and a long mass of unconfined, wild-looking, tawny hair.
Despite the look of concern on her face, her eyes twinkled.
Fin could not tell their exact color in the shadow of so many trees and with an overcast sky above, but they seemed to be light brown, rather than blue.
“Are you a sprite, or some other woodland creature?” he murmured, finding the effort to talk greater now. His eyelids drooped.
She chuckled low in her throat, a delightful sound and a stimulating one.
His eyes opened again, and he saw that she had dropped to one knee to bend over him. As he took in the two soft-looking, well-tanned mounds of flesh that peeped over the low-cut bodice so close to him, his head seemed instantly clearer.
Her lips were moving, and he realized that she was speaking. Having missed the first bit, he listened intently to catch the rest, hoping thereby to reply sensibly.
“… would laugh to hear anyone mistake me for a sprite,” she said, adding firmly, “Now, lie still, sir, if you please. You must know that I was leery of getting too near until I could be sure that you would not harm me.”
“Never fear, lass. I would not.”
“I can see that, but Boreas, my companion here, dislikes letting any stranger near me. Had you moved suddenly or thrashed about as some do when they regain consciousness after an injury, he might have mistaken you for a threat.”
Having noted how quickly the wolf dog had stepped back after the snapping sound he’d heard—surely a snap of her slim fingers—he doubted that it would attack against her will. But he did not say so. His eyelids drifted shut again.
“Are you still awake?” No amusement now, only concern.
“Aye, sure, but fading,” he murmured. “What is your name, lass?”
“Catriona. What’s yours?”
He thought about it briefly, then said, “Fin… they call me Fin of the Battles.”
“What happened to you, Fin of the Battles?” Her voice sounded more distant, as if she were floating away again.
“I wish I knew,” he said, trying to concentrate. “I was walking through the forest, listening to a damned impertinent jay that squawked and muttered at me for trespassing. The next thing I knew, your escort was huffing in my ear.”
He drew a long breath and, without opening his eyes, tried moving his arms more than had been necessary to shift himself. Pain shot through his head again, and he felt more pain from some sort of scrape on his left arm. But both arms seemed obedient to his will. His toes and feet likewise obeyed him.
A hand touched his right shoulder, startling him. She had come up on his other side, and again he’d not heard her move. He was definitely not himself yet.
“Be still now,” she said, kneeling gracefully beside him. As she bent nearer, he noted the bare softness of her breasts again before a cold, wet cloth touched his forehead and moved soothingly over it to cover his eyes.
He knew then that she must have gone to the burn that he could hear splashing nearby. He tried to decide if he remembered seeing that burn.
“That feels good,” he murmured.
“It won’t in a minute. You have a gash on the left side of your forehead with leaves, dirt, and hair stuck in it. You will have a fine scar to brag about.”
“I don’t brag.”
“All men brag,” she said, the note of humor strong again. “Most women do, too, come to that. But men brag like bairns, often and with great exaggeration.”
“I don’t.” It seemed important that she should know that.
“Very well, you don’t. You are unique amongst men. Now, hold still. Recall that Boreas will object to any sudden movement.”
He braced himself. He was not afraid of the dog, but he hated pain. And he had already borne more than his share of it.
Catriona saw him stiffen and easily deduced the reason. All men, in her experience, disliked pain. Certainly, her father and two brothers did, although they were all fine, brave warriors. The excellent specimen of manhood before her looked as if he could hold his own against any one of them.
When he’d turned over, it had taken all of her willpower not to exclaim at his blood-streaked face. She reminded herself that head wounds always bled freely, and noted thankfully that all the blood seemed to come from the gash in his forehead.
In cleaning his face before she put the cloth over his eyes, she had decided that, besides being well formed, he was handsome in a rugged way. His deep-set eyes were especially fine, their light gray irises surprising in a darkly tanned face. His thick, black lashes were less surprising. For a reason known only to God, men always seemed to grow darker, thicker lashes than women did.
“Have you enemies hereabouts?” she asked as she gently plucked hair and forest detritus from his wound.
Instead of answering directly, he said, “I have not passed this way before. Are your people unfriendly to strangers?”
Having ripped two pieces from her red flannel underskirt to soak in the burn, she’d used one to cover his eyes, hoping it would soothe him and keep him from staring at her as she cleansed his wound. The latter hope was not for his sake but for hers. Aware that she would be hurting him, she knew she would do a better job if she need not keep seeing the pain in his eyes each time she touched his wound.
Now, however, she plucked the cloth from his eyes, waited until he opened them and focused on her, and then raised her eyebrows and said, “My people?”
To her surprise, he smiled, just slightly. But it was enough to tell her that he had a nice smile and that her tone had tickled his sense of humor.
“Do you dare to laugh at me?” she demanded.
“Nay, lass, I would not laugh at such a kind benefactress. I am still wondering if your people are human or otherwise. Sithee, although you disclaim being a wood sprite, I have heard tales of wee folk in this area.”
“I am human,” she said. “Lie still now. Your wound is trying to clot, but I must rinse these cloths, and if you move too much, you’ll start leaking again.”
“Tell me first who your people are,” he said as she stood. His voice was stronger, and his words came as a command from a man accustomed to obedience.
Catriona eyed him speculatively. “Do you not know where you are?”
“I am in Clan Chattan territory, in Strathspey, I think. But Clan Chattan boasts vast lands and numerous clans within it—six, I think, at last count.”
“All controlled by one man,” she said.
“The Mackintosh is chief of the whole confederation, aye,” he said, almost nodding. She saw him remember her warning about that and catch himself.
Satisfied, she said, “That’s right, although we call him our captain, to show that he is more powerful than other clan chiefs in our confederation.” Moving swiftly back to the burn, she knelt and rinsed the bloody cloth in the churning, icy water. Then she dipped the other one, wrung them both out, and returned to him.
As she approached, she saw Boreas go into some bushes a short way beyond the man’s head, sniffing the air. The dog pushed its snout into low, dense shrubbery, plucked an arrow from it, and trotted back to her with it in its mouth.
Taking the arrow, Catriona said, “I think Boreas has found the cause of your injury, sir. If so, I can tell you that this arrow came from no Clan Chattan bow.”
“Nor any Lochaber one,” he muttered.
“Are you from Lochaber then?”
Cursing himself for the slip, Fin said, “I grew up on the west side of the Great Glen. But have spent little time there of late. Do you ken aught else of this arrow?”
“Nay, but I do wish that Ivor were here,” she said.
“Ivor?” He raised his left eyebrow, winced, and said ruefully, “I shall have to remember for a time not to express my feelings with facial movements.”
Chuckling, deciding she liked the melodic sound of his voice, she said, “Ivor is the younger of my two brothers. He is also the finest archer in Scotland, so he knows the fletching of most Highland clans and taught me what little I know. But he, my father, and my brother James are in the Borders with the Lord of the North.”
“What makes you think this Ivor is the finest archer in the land?” he asked. “Scotland boasts many fine archers. I’m deft with a bow and arrow myself.”
“No doubt you are. I shoot well, too, come to that. But Ivor is the best.”
“I know a chap who can beat anything that your Ivor might do,” he said.
“No such person exists,” she said confidently as she slipped the arrow under the linked girdle that kilted up her skirts. Then, kneeling again, she added, “Now, let me finish cleaning your wound. The only thing that I might bandage it with is a strip of my underskirt. But I fear that the flannel would chafe it and make it bleed more.”
“I don’t need a bandage,” he said. “I heal quickly.”
“See, you do brag, like any man. How much farther must you go?”
“A day’s walk, mayhap two.”
“Then you should come home with me and rest overnight. That gash will open again, because it does need bandaging and may even require a stitch or two.”
His grimace revealed strong reluctance, either to stitches or to her invitation.
Before he could speak, she said, “Don’t be so daft as to refuse. Someone wickedly attacked you, and that arrow knocked you headfirst against yon tree. You hit hard enough to make you bounce back and fall as you were when I found you.”
“Sakes, lass, if you saw all that, did you not also see who shot me?”
“I saw none of that,” she replied.
Looking narrowly at her, Fin said, “If you saw none of it, you cannot possibly know how I fell. Sakes, I don’t know that much myself.”
“Nevertheless, that or something like that is what happened,” she insisted. “This arrow that Boreas found made the gash in your forehead because the blood on it is still sticky. You have a lump rising here by your ear”—he winced when she touched it—“and I see bark in your hair and down the collar of your shirt. Also, the sleeve of your jack is torn, and I see more bits of bark on your arm. The event depicts itself, sir. Moreover,” she added, pointing, “he shot from across the burn.”
He had to admit, if only to himself, that if she was right about the rest, she was right about the direction of the shot.
Deciding that he had lain long enough on the damp ground, he sat up and then had to hold himself steady and concentrate hard to fight off a new wave of dizziness. He tried to do so without letting her see how weak he felt.
Meeting her twinkling gaze, he grimaced, suspecting that her powers of observation were keener than his ability just then to conceal his feelings.
“That dizziness will pass if you give it time,” she said, confirming his suspicion. “But you would be foolish not to come with me, because one can easily see that you are in no fit state to continue on your own.”
The dog moved up beside her, eyeing him thoughtfully. Just looking at it reminded Fin that Highland forests sheltered many a wolf pack. The beasts would soon catch scent of his blood if he did aught to start the wound bleeding again.
“Would your kinsmen so easily welcome a stranger?” he asked.
“My lady mother welcomes all who come in peace,” she said. “In my father’s absence, I warrant she will be fain to have a strong man at hand, even overnight.”
He realized then that she was of noble birth and that he ought to have known it despite her untidiness. Commoners rarely owned wolf dogs or spoke as she did.
“How far is your home from here?” he asked.
“ ’Tis in the glen just over yon hill,” she said, pointing toward the granite ridge above them to the northeast. “We’ll go through the cut above those trees.”
“Then I will gratefully accept your invitation.”
Smiling in a way that made his body stir unexpectedly in response, she picked up his sword and sling and stood back to let him get to his feet.
When he stood and reached for the sword, she said, “I can carry it.”
“Nay, then, I do not relinquish my weapon to anyone, woman or man.”
He saw a flash of annoyance, but she handed him the belt. He strapped it into place and took the sword from her, feeling its weight more than usual as he reached back and slipped it into its sling. But he did so, he thought, without noticeable difficulty. She did not seem to notice, but he felt new tension between them.
The hill was steep, and it proved harder than he had expected to follow her up through the forest to the ridge. The waves of dizziness persisted, and halfway up, he began to feel weary, almost leaden. To be sure, he had traveled far that day.
But such profound weariness was abnormal for him.
When they reached the scree-filled cut below the sharp crest, the going grew easier. Still, the loose rocks underfoot and a number of huge boulders in their path required vigilance to avoid a misstep.
Fin stopped gratefully when the lass did but assured himself that naught was amiss with him but his recurrent dizziness and the strange lassitude. The sweeping prospect of the towering, still snowy Cairngorms beyond was spectacular.
“There,” she said, pointing. “We need only row across the loch.”
He looked down to see a curving, mile-long, deep-green loch that looked like a shard from a lass’s looking glass, reflecting the wild beauty of heavily forested slopes and a few steep granite ones that surrounded it like the steep sides of a basin.
Following her gesture southeast to a much nearer point, his gaze fell on an island fortress some hundred yards from where the shore curved around the base of the steep hillside just below them. At the sight of that fortress, he felt a sense of unexpected disorientation and disbelief.
Maintaining an even tone of voice with effort, he said, “Is that not Castle Moigh, the very seat of the Mackintosh?”
“Nay,” she said. “That is Loch an Eilein and my father’s castle of Rothiemurchus. But you are not the first to mistake it for Moigh. See you, we Mackintoshes like islands. They provide more security than other sites do.”
“So you must be kin to the Mackintosh.”
“He is my grandfather,” she said proudly.
“Then you can tell me exactly how far Loch Moigh lies from here.”
“Aye, sure, but why do you want to know?”
“Sithee, I have come into Clan Chattan territory a-purpose to talk with the Mackintosh, to deliver a message to him.”
Her eyes twinkled again. “Have you, in troth?” When he nodded, she added, “Then it is good that you did come with me, sir, because at present the Mackintosh and my lady grandmother are staying with my mother and me at Rothiemurchus.”
“Our meeting today was fortunate then, was it not?”
“It was, aye,” she agreed, turning away. “We’ll go down now.”
He recalled then her belief that, in her father’s absence, her mother would welcome a “strong man” at Rothiemurchus.
“I trust that your grandfather is in good health and…” He hesitated, having seen enough of her to know that the words on his tongue might offend her.
She looked back, and he saw that the twinkle in her eyes had deepened. “If you were about to suggest that my grandfather is ill or has lost his wits—”
“I did not say that.”
“But you nearly did say it, or something like it. Do you deny that?”
“Nay, but I did hear that he was too elderly to wield a sword with his once-legendary skill. And since I have come to ask a boon of him and would not press him to do aught that he is too feeble to—”
“Feeble?” Her lips twitched in a near smile, and as she turned away, she said over her shoulder, “He came to us because, having learned of trouble stirring in our area, he wanted to look into its cause. However, my mother does hope that my father and brothers will return soon. See you, my grandfather trusts my father to deal with any problem we might face, because he is our Clan Chattan war leader.”
New tension gripped him. Quietly, he said, “Who is your father, lass?”
“Shaw Mackintosh, Laird of Rothiemurchus,” she said. “Before he married my mother and took the name Mackintosh, men knew him as Shaw MacGillivray.”
Stunned, Fin stopped in his tracks.
Shaw MacGillivray was the Clan Chattan war leader he had sworn to kill.
Excerpted from Highland Master by Scott, Amanda Copyright © 2011 by Scott, Amanda. Excerpted by permission.
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