Authors: April Holthaus
“Ye bloody barbarian!”
Anger flared in his eyes.
“Forgive my lack of patience lass, but ye are becoming a pain in my arse! Now let me help ye back on the horse.”
“Fine! But keep yer hands off me and keep yer distance. Tis nothing like riding wit’ a mon who smells of wet dog.”
“Damn it woman, ye try my patience.”
“Yer use of blasphemies and profane language has no’ fallen on deaf ears. Therefore, tis no’ just yer manner that offends me but yer speech, as well…ye know, for a Scot and a warrior ye have absolutely no redeeming qualities. That either makes ye daft or no’ any different than the bloody English!” she responded, proud of her clever reply.
The warrior muttered a curse, picked her up and plopped her down on the horse. He grumbled but ignored her insult. Keira smugly smiled, realizing that she’d gotten a rise out of him. It would let him know that she was not going to follow his orders without at least putting up some resistance.
The warrior mounted behind her, wrapping his arm around her waist, and pulling her close against him. Before she could protest, he snapped the reins, making the horse bolt before taking off at a hard run.
The lass’s revelation baffled Ian beyond belief. How had Clan Sinclair allied with the Chisholm without his hearing about it? Magnus Sinclair certainly wasn’t a person of interest, at least not one he was made aware of. Ian had always suspected Chisholm of treason, but was the Sinclair Chief a co-conspirator? The idea did not sit well with Ian. What was more disturbing was that he did not know what role the lass played in all of this. Was she, too, a traitor? Did she know of Chisholm’s plot against king and country?
Ian urged the horse faster. He needed to speak to his men and tell him what he had learned. He would then have to decide whether to continue on his course to hunt Chisholm down or to return to Linlithgow Castle to speak to his Sire about the new developments. His other matter of business, of course, was what he was going to do now about the lass. Caught in the middle of a civil war, he certainly could not allow the lass to continue on to Erchless nor could he allow her to return home. He needed to question her further. To find out what she knew and if she could be trusted.
In less than an hour, they arrived at the well-hidden campsite near the entrance of a rocky cave. Ian dismounted, and then helped Keira down from the saddle. She remained quiet and docile.
“What the bloody hell took ye so long?” Rylan asked.
Ian shook his head.
“Leland, tend to the lass. I need to speak wit’ Rylan,” Ian called out.
Leland walked toward them, but the lass ignored his offer of help, and went to sit down atop a large boulder. Satisfied she wasn’t going anywhere; Ian walked toward a stand of trees nearby, and nodded his head to Rylan, signifying for him to follow.
Once they were among the nearby trees, far from earshot of the others, Rylan asked, “What is it?”
“I was wrong about the lass. She is no’ a Chisholm woman. She be a Sinclair.”
“Aye. She was on her way to Erchless when we intercepted the carriage. She was to marry Thomas on this very day.”
Rylan raked his fingers through his hair.
“Why the bloody hell would her father agree to such a marriage? All the chiefs in the Highlands have been warned against making alliances with known traitors.”
“I suspect ‘tis because he too is a traitor.”
“What about the lass? Did she say anything?”
“Nay, and I dinna ask her. No’ yet anyway.”
“We must get word to James.”
“Aye! I think we just found one of the key players in the rebellion.”
“What are ye thinking?” Rylan asked.
“I shall leave for Linlithgow immediately. Now that we know where Chisholm’s hideout is, we should leave a few men behind to scout and track their movements.”
“What of the lass?”
“I‘ll take her wit’ me.”
“And what are ye going to do if ye find out that she is a part of this?” Rylan asked.
“Let us just hope she isna!”
Sitting on the rock, Keira watched as the men erected their tents and tended to the fire. Her stomach growled as she thought of the feast she would have been enjoying at this hour had she made her way to Erchless. Now she was forced not only to starve, but apparently to sleep exposed to the night’s cool air.
Surveying her surroundings, reminded her that she had no idea where she was. Nothing seemed familiar. Even surrounded with the group of men, she felt alone. A sliver of anger entered her heart as she thought about her predicament. Had it not been for her betrothed, she would never have been in this situation in the first place. He was supposed to have arrived at Inverness. It was he who was supposed to have escorted her to Erchless, and it was him these men apparently wanted, not her. Had Laird Thomas Chisholm been there now she’d…
spit on him
Keira no longer cared about the ridiculous contract her father had signed. There had to be another way to raise the money to pay the taxes. She would gladly work out in the fields herself if it helped. She would even sell her tapestries or her fine linens if she thought she could get a good price for them.
Looking out in the distance, she watched a herd of deer prance through the tall grass. Their freedom saddened her. Not because of her captivity, but because even if she were to escape and return home, her father would just find her another suitor. And she was sure that next time, she would not be given a choice. It felt as if her world was crumbling down around her like a stack of bricks and there was nothing she could do to stop it. She had never felt more alone than she felt at that very moment.
Keira released a deep breath and turned her attention back to her captors. So far, she knew three of their names: Ian, Leland and Rylan, but the other two still remained a mystery. Those two were quiet and kept to themselves. As for Ian, she knew that he was a man of authority, although he had not introduced himself with such a title as Laird or Chieftain. It was however, apparent that he was at least the leader of these men; the governor of outlaws.
As Ian and Rylan returned to the camp, Keira ignored them by fiddling with the hem of her gown, but kept an ear toward the men. Listening to their conversation, she overheard talk of their Laird and the details about their travel, including where they would go from here.
“Ian, what are we going to do?” Leland asked.
Ian glanced at Keira before answering.
“We must speak to Laird Gudeman. If what I think is true, we’ve got bigger problems. Tomorrow, ye, Rylan and I will take the lass and travel to Linlithgow. Daven, I need ye and Alec to stay and keep watch. Report any activity ye see.”
“Aye,” the two men nodded in agreement. Keira’s brow creased at the mention of their Laird’s name. She had never heard of any clan by the name of Gudeman nor was it a typical Scottish name. Perhaps these men were not Highlanders after all, perhaps they were Lowlanders. Of course their size suggested Norsemen as their height and girth were comparable to giants.
Keira hated not being included in their conversation. She had every right to know what was happening, but it was clear that these men were not going to tell her anything. They ignored her as if she did not even exist.
Keira plucked up the head of a dandelion sticking out of the ground near her feet and began taking it apart, one small petal at a time before tossing the stem onto the ground. She welcomed the distraction. Ian stared at her intensely as he and the men continued to talk about their journey thus far. From what Keira gathered, these were men for hire. Hired to hunt down those their Laird ordered them to, and Thomas Chisholm was on the top of their list.
Once their conversation was over, the red-headed man that Ian had called Daven stood and headed over to the horses while the others stayed seated around the fire. Keira’s stomach growled loud enough to break their silence.
“Are ye hungry lass? Daven is fetching ye something to eat,” Ian informed her.
“I will no’ take yer food,” she stubbornly replied.
No matter how hungry she felt, she would rather find her own food than share theirs. She thought she could probably go a few days without eating before she would starve to death.
“Suit yerself,” he said under his breath.
“Lassie has quite a wicked tongue on her, dinna she?” Leland spouted as the others snickered by his remark.
Keira lowered her eyelids and furrowed her brow at them, then returned her attention back to the
. His amused smile fueled her anger further. She didn’t know why she cared what they thought of her.
“Ian, we’ve been robbed!” Daven said, walking toward them, holding onto a small brown cloth bag.
“What are ye talking about?”
“Most of the meat is gone. I only found enough food here in this bag to last us the night.”
“How the bloody hell did that happen?” Rylan asked.
“I dinna know, but I saw footprints near the horses. It must have been taken when we were setting up the camp.”
“Then whoever took it must no’ have gone far. I am going after the thieving bastard!” Rylan said as he stood and made his way to his horse to grab his sword and dagger.
“Well, let’s get to cookin’ what we still do have. We will have to scare up some bird or rabbits in the morn’.” Ian suggested.
As Daven put the food on the spit, Ian glanced behind him at the lass. The forlorn look on her face made her appear vulnerable and defeated. Digging in the bag, he pulled out an apple, and stood. Walking away from his men, he went to stand near the lass. She refused the piece of fruit he held out.
Ian kneeled down in front of her.
“Lass, I know ye are hungry. Ye have no’ eaten fer hours now. Go on, take it.”
“I’m no’ hungry,” she whispered, facing away from him.
Ian huffed out a sharp breath, trying to be patient with the lass.
“Tis all the food we have. Ye should eat what we have to share.
Ian took a spot on the ground in front of her, hoping to gain her trust. He had to find out what she knew, and hoped that she would confide in him eventually.
“Lassie, I give ye my word that nothing will happen to ye. I am sorry that I can no’ let ye go, but tis fer yer own safety.”
“Safety! From what? Why do ye insist on keeping me captive wit’ out even giving me an explanation?”
“What do ye know about Laird Chisholm?”
“Nothing! I have never e’en met the mon.”
“So yer betrothal to him was arranged?”
“Did yer father arrange it?”
“Aye. But what does my father have to do wit’ any of this?”
“Possibly more than ye think.”
“My father is a great mon!” she defended.
“I am no’ questioning yer father, only his motives. Did ye know he was marryin’ ye off to a traitor? Chisholm has allied wit’ the English to overrule the king. He is a verra dangerous man. ‘Tis why we are searching fer him.”
“My father is no traitor if that is what ye are suggesting!”
“For his sake, my lady, I hope ye are correct.”
If Ian was a betting man, he would guess that this wee lass knew more than she was letting on, but he decided that he had told her enough for now. Ian picked himself up. With the tip of his boot, he slightly tapped the apple that lay on the ground and watched it slowly roll next to Keira. He confidently stepped away knowing that if the lass was hungry enough, she would eat it. Only a foolish person would refuse to take it and he did not take the lass for a fool.
“I caught the wee hellion who pilfered the meat,” Rylan said, roughly shaking a young lad by the collar of his dirt-stained shirt.
The young boy stood silent and wide-eyed. Ian studied him for a moment. The wee lad looked no more than seven or eight summers.
“I am thinking this whelp needs to feel the sting of my belt on his backside or perhaps I should cut off his hand fer stealing,” Rylan suggested.
Ian watched as the blood drained from the lad’s face at the mere mention of punishment. Ian held back his smile for he knew all too well that Rylan would never cut off the lad’s hand. However, a few lashes might teach the lad a lesson.
“What is yer name?” Ian asked.
“Robbie,” the lad replied in a soft whimper.
“Is what Rylan said true? Ye are the one who stole our bounty?”
“We needed the meat,” the lad snarled.
Ian always had a soft spot for those less fortunate, but he respected those who asked for charity rather than taking it for themselves.
“Ye ken stealing is a serious offense. And crimes cannae go unpunished.”
Ian scratched his rough chin as he thought of a punishment that would best suit the crime, given the age of the lad.
“What clan are ye from?”
“I am no’ part of any clan. Me mum and I are alone. We ran away from Clan Ross.”
“The Rosses, ye say? What happened to make ye leave?”
“My mum’s new husband beats her, so we ran away where the bastard can ne’er find us.”
“Does yer mother ken ye steal?”
“Rylan,” Ian nodded to him to mete out the lad’s punishment.
Keira bolted straight up, ready to defend the young lad.
“Surely, ye have enough food to spare this child a meager meal!” she spat.
“Ye stay out of this,” Rylan growled. “Punishment must be given fer such disrespect.”
“Then give him my share!”
“Dinna worry lass. A sound lashing can no’ cause permanent damage,” Ian said, trying to console her.
“He’s just a child who is scared and hungry! Where is yer sense of honor?”
Ian looked at Rylan before turning his attention to the lass. Arguing with Rylan, nicknamed the
, for his fierce growling voice, never ended well. Though it was honorable of the lass to offer to sacrifice her meal, the provisions were not hers to give away, nor would it save the lad from a good thrashing or two. Regardless of the situation, the lad would not learn his lesson without honest discipline behind it. He must not only hear and understand the lesson but feel it as well, therefore the next time the lad mustered the courage to go thieving, he would think twice about from whom he stole.
After Ian heard the first two strikes of the leather belt making contact with the lad’s rump, he stopped Rylan from going any further. The tears in the lass’s eyes were as unnerving as if she held a knife to his heart. Had she never witnessed a thrashing before? For a moment, he found himself wanting to hold her and comfort her. Given what the lass had already been through, he couldn’t stand to be the cause of anymore pain.
“That’ll be enough lad,” he said, looking to Rylan, devoid of emotion. “As fer ye, wee Robbie. Ye may take the meat ye have stolen and nay more. Best ye think twice the next time ye decide to steal a mon’s bounty,” Ian said, hoping the lad would heed his warning.
Rylan released the lad from his hold and Robbie dropped to the ground, obviously nervous and in some pain. Scurrying away from Rylan and Ian, he picked up his satchel and hobbled off into the woods.
“Ye are getting soft,” Rylan accused Ian.
“The lad got what he deserved,” Leland muttered.
“Aye, but the lass is right. We have plenty of provisions to last us until tomorrow,” Ian said.
? What say does she have? Is that the way of it, then? She’s the one givin’ the orders?”
Rylan stood nearly toe to toe with Ian and boldly held his gaze.
“Back down Rylan,” Leland warned, stepping in between the two angry men.
“I told ye the lass would be nothing but trouble!” Rylan said, kicking up dust as he walked away.
Fury burned in Ian’s veins. Never had Rylan questioned him before and disrespect was not going to be tolerated. Had they not been such good friends, Ian would have sliced him through. Rylan was as reckless and defiant as his nickname,
“Dinna mind him,” Leland said to Ian as he and Ian watched Rylan saunter off.
It wasn’t just Rylan that angered him but the lass as well. Ian was a man of logic and reason. He did not make decisions based on emotions. Allowing his heart to choose for him was not only dangerous but foolish. But this lass made him feel as if the walls he’d erected to protect his emotions were beginning to soften. He felt pity rather than resolve, and that did not sit well with him.
He hated the way she questioned and argued with him. Not only was she becoming a sore on his arse, but she was beginning to make him question himself. If he made decisions based on the lass’s tender heart, he would accomplish nothing. Every time he was around her, he felt as if he walked on glass, stepping carefully to prevent injury. He needed to draw a line separating his duties from his feelings toward the lass.
“Ian, I got her tent ready as ye asked,” Daven announced.
Ian glanced back over at her. She was looking between the horses and around the sides of the tent.
“What are ye lookin’ fer?” Ian asked.
“My bags! They were in the cart when we left but I cannae find them,” Keira answered, her voice loud and shrill.
“We dinna take any bags wit’ us.”
“But all of my clothes, my belongings, they were in my bags. How do ye suppose I am to change or stay warm wit’ out any of my clothing?”
“I have a plaid ye can use. We took what we needed and left the rest.”
“Does nothing I own have value to ye?”
“Ye can get new dresses once we reach our destination.”
“I dinna want new dresses. Ye could have told me. I would have carried my bags myself.”
“That would have only slowed us down. Now I suggest, my lady, ye get some rest. T’will be a long day tomorrow.”
“I dinna need yer blanket, yer tent, nor yer food. I will stay right here and sleep near the fire if I get cold.”
Ian stomped over to his horse and pulled out a plaid from one of the saddle bags, gathering it into his arms. Walking back to the lass, he threw it at her.
“Now get to sleep,” he ordered, before turning his back to her and heading over across the camp to lean against the trunk of a wide ash tree.
“Bastard!” Keira mumbled, just loudly enough that Ian could hear when he walked away.
As the sun sank beneath the horizon, the air began to cool. Picking up the plaid she had intentionally dropped on the ground, Keira wrapped it around her shoulders. The men were quiet. The only sounds she heard were the occasional hoot of an owl in a nearby tree, and leaves rustling in the light breeze.
Keira’s mind was consumed with what Ian had told her. Did her father know Laird Chisholm was a traitor? He couldn’t have! Keira refused to believe that her father had a part of any plan or scheme against the king. To do so would be treason; punishable by death, and why would her father risk such a thing?
She decided she would sneak away once the men were asleep. Keira looked down at the red apple Ian had left for her, which now lay next to her foot. Her stomach growled. She glanced up at the others before snatching it off the ground and took a small bite. The juice of the apple ran down her chin as she took another. It tasted sweet, and helped curb her hunger. She should have thanked him, but her stubborn nature would not have allowed her to do so.
Keira looked up at the tent Daven and Alec had erected for her. It looked warm and inviting. She figured she needed to at least get a few hours’ sleep before attempting her escape. Hiking through the Highlands on foot with little sleep, she would not get far. Plus, if they thought she was in the tent all night, it would allow her a chance to cover a fair distance before they discovered she was gone.
Keira stood and headed over to the tent. She felt the men’s eyes following her. Pulling back the flap, she slid inside. Within the tent, was a pallet layered with several warm plaids. She slipped underneath one of the layers and closed her eyes.
Keira slept fitfully inside the tent, wrapped in the oversized, wool blanket Ian had offered. Tossing and turning, worries of what tomorrow would bring kept her awake and restless for most of the night. At what she assumed was just a few hours before dawn, she poked her head outside the tent. Four of the men lay asleep near the low-burning fire. Looking around, she could not find Ian. He was not leaning against the tree where she had last seen him, nor was he one of the men lying near the fire. Keira slipped through the opening into the cool air.
With Ian nowhere in sight, and the men fast sleep, she picked up her skirt and tiptoed toward the trees, trying to be as quiet as a mouse. She made her way just beyond the tree line. Satisfied she had successfully crept enough distance from the camp without being heard, she started to run.
With only the light of the moon guiding her, Keira had no idea in which direction she ran but any direction was better than back toward their campsite.
“Oh the nerve of them!” she muttered to herself.
She tried to put together the pieces of information she had learned from their conversations, but still nothing made sense. As if she were having a conversation with another, she cursed and ranted out loud about Ian and his band of barbarians. Her frustration building, she realized she had more and more unanswered questions. She believed that only her father would have the answers, as he was apparently in on this mess along with her intended groom, Laird Chisholm.
She ran until her legs burned and the bottom of her feet grew sore. After nearly an hour, Keira stopped and rested against a tree, to catch her breath. To the east, the sky was beginning to lighten. She closed her eyes and listened to the sound of her breath, wondering how much farther she had until she reached a nearby village or passed someone on the road. With no food, weapon or coin, she hoped to find someone with God’s blessed grace who would offer her aid.
“Tis foolish fer a lass to be out here alone,” a male voice said.
At first Keira thought it was her own conscience replying to her. She was beginning to agree that wandering off alone was a foolish idea. But the familiarity of his rough tone brought her back to the present.
Keira’s eyes popped open in surprise. Leaning against a tree stood a smug-looking Ian. How had he found her? How had she not heard his approach?
“How did ye find me?”
“I’ve been following ye the whole way.”
“My Lady, nothing gets past me.”
“If ye have been following me this whole time, why did ye only now reveal yerself?”
“I wanted to see how far ye’d get on yer own. I must say, I was quite impressed and amused.”
“I am no’ here fer yer amusement!” she spat.
“I dinna think ye know it, but yer quite bonny when ye banter wit’ yerself.”
Known for talking out loud to herself when deep in thought, she felt mortified by the things he could have heard, though most of it curses aimed at him and his men.
“So, ye think I’m a beast, aye?”
“I think ye are more than just a beast!”
Ian smirked at her remark.
“That may be true lass. Where is it ye think ye were going?”
“And yer plan was to walk all the way there?”
“Aye, if I had to!”
“Tis no’ necessary. Once we make our journey to Linlithgow, I will see ye arrive home safely and promise ye, no harm will come to ye. But ye must promise me that ye will no’ try running off again.”
“May I have yer word?”
“On my father’s life, ye have my word.”
Keira bit her bottom lip, leery of just how good his word was. The mention of his father sparked her curiosity like flames to dry parchment.
“Who are ye?” she asked.
“I already told ye who I am.”
“Ye did no’ such thing. Ye gave me only yer given name. Surely ye are more than just one name. Ye dinna tell me where ye are from, or what clan ye belong to. If I am to trust ye wit’ my protection, I wish to know who is protecting me.”
“I was born into Clan MacKay, and MacKay is my name.”
“MacKay? Yer clan hails from just west of mine. Are we allies?”
“My father is at peace with most of the neighboring clans.”
“Yer father is Jacob, chieftain of Clan MacKay?”
“Aye, he is.”
“And the others? Are ye all MacKays?”
“Nay! Only Leland and Rylan. Daven and Alec are warriors from other clans. I’ve told ye enough. We must head back. If ye wish to return home, we must leave soon.”