Authors: Bride of a Scottish Warrior
The gaping hole at the entrance to the great hall allowed Ewan to see clear through to the other side and he quickly realized it was uninhabitable. Additional holes in the roof had left the interior exposed to the elements for years; it would take a crew of men weeks to make the necessary repairs before anyone could live in it.
Once gathered in the bailey, the men dismounted. Ewan turned in a complete circle to view every inch of his domain. Despite the disappointment at the appalling conditions, his heart pummeled in his chest.
Mine. My castle. My lands. My legacy.
It was exhilarating, intoxicating to realize how far he had risen in the world. From a starving, neglected, discarded bastard son of an earl to a laird of his own lands. An impossible dream for most, yet he had somehow achieved it.
With a blood-chilling battle cry, Ewan thrust his sword into the ground, then lowered himself to one knee and bowed his head. His prayers for the future were silent and heartfelt.
Let us have peace and prosperity and a wee bit of fun.
When he was finished, Ewan rose and regarded his men. “Ye four go out to the cottages and rouse the village folk. ’Tis time we all met.”
One of the men leered a smile. Ewan sent him a warning glare and added, “Dinnae draw sword or dirk unless ye are challenged. We want to live among these people, not scare them witless.”
Ewan waited patiently for the men to carry out his orders. It didn’t take long for them to round up a sad-looking collection of old men, young children, and frightened women. Dressed in little more than rags, they stood huddled together inside the crumbling bailey, their eyes darting suspiciously in all directions.
“Is this everyone?” Ewan asked one of the old men.
“Aye,” he answered, straightening his crooked back. “Though there will be far fewer alive once the winter sets in fully.”
A flash of pity burned in Ewan’s gut. ’Twas a harsh life, and though he vowed to try his best, he knew he could not alleviate all the pain and suffering that came with struggling to survive in such a brutal place.
“I am Sir Ewan Gilroy, newly appointed laird of these lands and Tiree Keep,” he shouted, his deep voice rumbling through the ruins. “At the bequest of our great King Robert, my men and I have come to rebuild this property and renew the bounty of the land. I will accept the pledges of all those who are willing to remain here and swear allegiance to me. In exchange, I vow that ye shall live here in peace and prosperity under my rule and protection.”
There was complete silence, then a few murmurs of fear and suspicion rumbled through the air. Ewan stood tall and proud, waiting for the first brave soul to break ranks and declare his intentions. He stared hard in turn at each of the old men, but surprisingly it was one of the women who stepped forward.
“What happens if we choose to leave?”
A raw tension stretched through the bailey at the bold question. “Ye’ll have till daybreak to pack what ye can carry and be gone from my land.”
“Ye’ll not force us to stay?” she asked, the doubt clear in her voice.
“Nay.” Some might think that a foolish answer, but Ewan calculated that if they had somewhere better to go, then they would have already fled. Besides, a pledge freely given had far more potency than one forced at sword point.
Nervous whispering among the villagers began and then slowly, one by one, they dropped to their knees and bowed their heads, until each and every one was prostrate. A rush of triumph seared Ewan’s soul at this first clear victory, accomplished without harsh threats or bloodshed.
“Wonderful,” Alec drawled beside him. “More mouths to feed.”
“Ye’ll be glad they are here come spring when the crops need to be planted,” Ewan said beneath his breath.
“That’s assuming we’ll still be alive in the spring,” Alec grumbled, yet he smiled in irony as he spoke.
Ewan gave him a sobering look, then turned to the villagers. “Tonight we will feast together on the fresh game my men and I hunted this morning,” he announced with quiet authority. “Tomorrow, we will start to rebuild the castle and yer cottages.”
The mood of the crowd changed in an instant. The stiff tension eased and cautious smiles appeared. Not a bad beginning, yet Ewan knew he would have to prove his intentions with deeds, not empty promises.
The bailey soon came alive with the sounds of preparations. Carts were unloaded, tents erected, sleeping quarters discussed. Ewan stood in the midst of it all, enjoying the commotion and activity, until he spied his mother gingerly making her way across the bailey, her pinched-faced maid at her side.
“I dinnae understand why you gave the order to unload the carts,” Lady Moira Gilroy said with annoyance. “Ye cannae possibly intend fer us to stay here tonight.”
“We shall sleep in our tents, as we did on those nights we couldnae find shelter during our journey here.”
Lady Moira stared blankly at him for a moment, then laughed aloud. “Surely ye are jesting, Ewan.”
“Do I look amused, Mother?”
“Nay, ye look like a simpleton, preening like a proud peacock. Well, ’tis no great favor King Robert has done ye, my son, granting ye a pile of burned out rubbish and calling it a reward. ’Tis disgraceful.”
Ewan sighed. “I’ll be sure to share yer opinion of his gift the next time I’m in the king’s presence.”
“This place is a hovel,” she declared, turning up her nose. “If you stubbornly insist on staying, then we must take up residency in the cottages. I noticed a few of them were not completely destroyed.”
“I’ll not be turning folks out of their homes.”
“Ye are laird here now.” His mother took hold of his arm, her expression anxious. “Ye must establish yer authority or else ye’ll never be respected and obeyed.”
Ewan gently patted his mother’s wrist. Life had been unkind to Moira Gilroy. Raised to be a lady, the life she had envisioned never materialized. It vanished when she became pregnant and bore an illegitimate child. Cast out by her family, disgraced and forsaken by the father of her only child, she had struggled to keep herself and Ewan alive.
“Ye have to trust me, Mother. I know what I’m doing.”
Her reply was a disbelieving snort. Ewan refused to acknowledge it. With a reassuring smile, he turned to direct his men, though deep in his gut he was silently wishing he possessed at least half the confidence of success he so brashly portrayed to the world.
Grace turned at the sound of her bedchamber door opening, relieved to see it was Edna. In her hands the maid carried Grace’s midday meal, but Grace had no interest in the food. Even if she had, she knew it would be near impossible to eat, for in the week since Alastair’s death her stomach seemed to be tied in a permanent knot.
Sadness, everyone said. The result of respectful mourning from a pious wife and gentle lady. But Grace knew the truth. ’Twas guilt over the part she had played in her husband’s demise, mixed with a strong measure of fear, that kept her stomach churning and her nights sleepless.
“Well, ’tis finally decided,” Edna huffed, as she set the plate of warm food on a small table. “Douglas will be the next clan chief.”
“How did Roderick take the news?”
“Poorly.” Edna nudged the bowl of stew closer to Grace. “His face was a thundercloud when it was announced and he stormed from the hall cursing a blue streak. A group of his most loyal men followed behind.”
Grace turned her back on the food and sighed. “Will he challenge his brother?”
Edna shrugged. “Who knows? Some say he will, but most dinnae think he will be so foolish.”
Grace frowned. She had little faith in the good sense of men, especially when they were angry. Especially when they were denied something they wanted so badly.
A noise at the chamber door distracted her. Lifting her head, Grace barely stifled a shriek at the sight of Roderick in the doorway. He glanced at Grace with narrowed eyes, then gestured to Edna. “Leave us.”
The maid scurried closer to Grace. Though grateful for the support, Grace could see the gesture only succeeded in angering Roderick. “Please fetch me some wine, Edna,” she said, dismissing the servant.
Roderick moved toward her the moment they were alone. “Ye’ve heard the news about Douglas?”
“Aye, Edna just told me he’ll be chief.”
“Does it please ye?”
“I’m glad it has been settled, for the sake of the clan.”
Roderick’s eyes turned suspicious. “Would ye be as glad, I wonder, if I had been named chief?”
“I dinnae believe it.” He leaned in close, his face nearly touching hers. “I’ve some questions I want answered about the night that Alastair died.”
Grace backed away and averted her eyes. “’Tis a raw and painful memory and much too soon to speak of that tragic night.”
Roderick reached out, grasping her chin in the palm of his hand and jerking it upward. “Is that a guilty look I see?”
“Ye are speaking nonsense,” Grace bristled. She kept her eyes upon him, though his searing look made her skin crawl.
“I think not.” Roderick squeezed his fingers and a sharp stab of pain shot through Grace’s jaw. “Tell me true, are ye in league with Douglas?”
“Nay!” Grace shut her eyes to gather her composure.
’Tis no more than I deserve, dear Lord, and yet I ask fer mercy.
“Dinnae look so surprised by the question.” Roderick’s face tightened with annoyance. “No one can deny that Douglas benefited from Alastair’s quick passing. And ye, milady, were the only one with Alastair when he died.”
Grace held back a gasp.
The poor man had suffered mightily for weeks. “’Twas hardly unusual that I was with my husband when he died. I stayed at his bedside throughout his illness.”
“I spoke with Brother John the morning of the funeral. He told me that ye insisted he leave the chamber that night. Why?”
Grace twisted out of Roderick’s cruel grip and stepped away, turning her back to him. It was too hard to answer these questions under his sharp, accusing gaze. “Brother John was clearly exhausted. I merely suggested that he take a few hours to rest before returning to care fer Alastair.”
“The monk said ye repeatedly insisted that he leave the sickroom.”
“I did no such thing,” Grace answered truthfully. It had taken little persuasion that night to get Brother John to seek the comfort of his own bed. Getting a lethal dose of medicine, however, had been a far more daunting task.
“Brother John said that Alastair was improving.”
“Och, Roderick, ye cannae believe it. Ye saw him yerself. Alastair was dying and there was nothing anyone could do to save him.”
He moved behind her, put his hands on her shoulders, and forced her to turn. “Are ye speaking the truth?”
“I have no reason to lie.”
Roderick’s face filled with fury. “Ye’ve every reason to lie and we both know it. If Alastair had lived but a few more weeks, then I would be chief, not Douglas.”
Grace opened her lips to protest, then closed them without saying a word. Jaw set, eyes grim, she saw there was no argument she could present that would sway Roderick from that belief.
“Ye cannae undue the past, Roderick. Best to go forward and accept God’s will.”
“I cannae. I willnae.” Roderick blinked and something dark shifted in his eyes. “Be warned. The longer ye keep to yer lies, the harder it will be on ye when I uncover these falsehoods and take vengeance against my enemies.”
Roderick slammed the door hard as he left. It took four deep breaths before Grace could find the strength to guide her shaking legs and collapse on the chair. She didn’t even notice that Edna had returned until the maid spoke to her.
“Take a good long drink.” Edna held out a wine goblet.
Though tempted, Grace shook her head and woodenly turned to the maid. “Roderick suspects I was involved in Alastair’s death. He threatened a mighty vengeance.”
The maid paled. They had never spoken of that night, but Grace was aware that Edna knew something was amiss. And the loyal maid refused to judge, an action for which Grace was profoundly grateful.
“’Tis no longer safe fer ye here,” Edna whispered. “We need to go home, milady.”
Grace swallowed hard. Home. Where exactly was home? Promised to the church as an infant, Grace had been taken to the Convent of the Sacred Heart at the age of five, a few months after her mother had died. The dedicated nuns had raised her, preparing her for a spiritual life that had never come to pass. Her brother, Brian McKenna, had plucked her from the convent when she was barely fifteen and married her to Alastair, to secure an alliance with the Fergusons.
As Alastair’s wife she had been treated with respect and deference, but she stood apart from the clan. Young, unsure of herself, and naturally shy, Grace had been unable to form any deep bonds of friendship with the wives and daughters of the clan. Perhaps if Alastair had been there to smooth the way for her, she would have learned how to accomplish that much-desired goal. But the reality remained that despite being married to the clan chief, she was an outsider.
“Do ye think my brother would welcome me if I went to him?” Grace asked anxiously.
Edna nodded. “Ye’re his blood. And the McKennas always care fer their own.”
“Won’t I look guilty if I run?”
“Nay. Ye’re a widow with no children. There’s no reason not to return to yer family. I think that most would expect it.” Edna sat on the edge of the bed, absently taking a sip from the wine goblet Grace had refused. “Ye’ll have to ask Douglas fer an escort.”
Grace flushed. “What if he commands Roderick to do the deed? I’ll not be safe with him and certainly cannae tell Douglas why.”
“Aye. Ye’ll have to get word to yer brother without either man knowing and ask fer a McKenna guard to be sent here to bring us home.”
More intrigue? When would it end? Grace sighed. She was a simple woman, used to living a quiet life of wifely duties, attending to the running of her household, acting with the decorum and piety befitting a woman of her stature. This sort of clandestine behavior went against her experience, as well as her nature. Yet she was quickly learning it was but part of the price she’d have to pay for her actions.