Highlander’s Venomous Desire (Preview)
Braemore, Scotland 1678
“I willnae rest until vengeance is done, me brother,” Gregory’s voice rang out across the great hall.
Evan stood perfectly still in the center of the room, with his eyes on his half-brother. Gregory shared the same fair hair he had, though Gregory’s was long and plaited at the nape of his neck. Evan’s was short and cropped and curled around his forehead.
“Vengeance—it isnae an easy thing to accomplish,” Evan said with fear.
“Are ye sayin’ we should give up now?” Gregory spun round. He had been leaning on the back of the laird’s chair, which had been vacated the night before.
Me faither willnae sit there again.
“Of course nae!” Evan said quickly, maintaining his stance with his legs wide and his arms folded. “Can ye have any doubt on the state of me mind right now?” He challenged his half-brother. The night before, when they had both attended to their father in his dying moments, the sadness had been plain to see. Evan, who had not cried since his mother died, shed tears then.
“Nay, I daenae,” Gregory said, his voice deep and choked by restrained tears as he leaned on the back of the chair once again. Even at this distance, with the mahogany paneled floor stretching out between them, Evan could see his brother’s normally deep brown eyes were glistening a little. “We must have vengeance, brother. We cannae see our faither die and do nothin’ to repay the murderer for what he has done.”
“I agree,” Evan said, lifting his chin higher. “Yet, we cannae be sure –”
“There isnae any doubt anymore,” Gregory said firmly, turning as though about to sit down in the laird’s chair.
Evan stiffened at the action. It was not that he wanted the chair. As the late laird’s bastard, he had never thought of it nor desired it; it was merely the thought of another man sitting there, other than his father, that broke his heart. The chair was ancient, passed down from each McKerrow laird to the next. In the back of the heavy oak chair, there was a figure carved with an animal at its side—a wolf that howled at the sky. Though the wood was cracking with age these days, the image endured. The symbol of the McKerrow clan would always be the wolf.
“I cannae do it,” Gregory said, moving away from the chair.
“It is yer place now,” Evan said to his older brother, trying to persuade him of his right to sit in the laird’s chair.
“It will never feel like mine. It will always be our faither’s,” Gregory said, turning and gesturing back to the chair. Evan couldn’t argue, for he felt the same. He shrugged, the only answer he could give.
From behind Evan, the windows of the great hall stretched high with stained glass, predominantly red and gold, casting the hues across the room. The red glass cast Gregory’s stocky form into an unearthly light. As the same light fell upon the chair, Evan felt his blood run cold. It was as though the afterlife itself had stepped forward and claimed their father from this life.
“Ye said there cannae be any doubt anymore,” Evan said, calling back their last conversation. “What did ye mean?”
“The poisonin’. The MacAllister clan are responsible.” Gregory spoke with feeling, standing in front of the chair, though he didn’t yet sit.
“How can ye be certain?”
“Can ye doubt it after the years of skirmishes between our clans?” Gregory scoffed.
“That isnae proof, Gregory,” Evan said with feeling. “We need to be sure.”
“And I am,” Gregory said. “The physician came to me this mornin’. He tested the wine given to us all two nights ago.”
Evan winced at the memory of it. They had been feasting, celebrating Evan’s latest return from spying in other clans. The event was supposed to mark his last such challenge. From now on, he was to take up a place in the laird’s army and remain home. At the feast, people began to fall ill. Evan had somehow escaped the sickness, but he hadn’t drunk very much. Gregory had fallen ill but recovered by morning. Laird Bran McKerrow though had not recovered, and life had slipped away from him the night before.
The night before, he hadn’t been in the room when his father breathed his last breath. He had gone to fetch some water for him, and when he had come back, he found Gregory crying over their father, and the laird no longer breathing, his eyes glacially staring up at the lofted ceiling above them. Evan had taken his father’s hand and stayed there beside him, holding it for a long time, whilst the laird’s skin turned cold.
“What did they find?” Evan asked.
“Poison, from somethin’ called a foxglove. The physician says as much.”
“Ah,” Evan hung his head in realization, feeling the anger coil in his stomach. “We daenae have them here.”
“And where can ye find them?”
“I ken, I ken,” Evan said, waving a hand at his brother. “In the McAllister clan.”
“There can be little doubt now,” Gregory said, shaking his head. “Listen to me, brother.” He marched across the floor and placed his hands on Evan’s shoulders.
Evan was the taller brother. Not so stocky, but lithe and agile; Gregory had to reach up to him.
“I am laird now, as much as I wish I werenae. I willnae let this clan fall victim to the McAllisters again. We must make a stand, to show the McAllisters that they have poked a wasp’s nest by harmin’ our faither.”
“What do ye propose?” Evan asked, watching his brother closely as Gregory’s hand slipped away from his shoulders.
“An attack,” Gregory said with a smile appearing across his face.
“Gregory, nay,” Evan lifted his own hand this time and placed it on Gregory’s shoulder. “Our clan is torn, heartbroken by the loss of our faither. Is war really the way to put an end to that heartbreak?”
“It is the way to repair their hearts.” Gregory’s declaration meant something to Evan. He couldn’t deny it. The idea of showing Laird Martin McAllister that they would not be harmed by him again was hugely appealing. Perhaps it could quell some of Evan’s yearning to make someone pay for their crime.
Vengeance. It is what we both need.
“War would have to be done right,” Evan said with feeling. “If we are goin’ to do this, take yer people to war, then we must protect them the best we can. Go into the fight with our eyes open and avenge our faither.”
“I kenned I could count on ye, brother,” Gregory said with a small smile and clapped Evan’s shoulder another time before turning and walking back to the laird’s chair. For a minute, Evan listened to his brother’s footsteps clicking against the floorboards before he turned and sat in the chair.
Evan looked up, startled by how easily Gregory had sat in the laird’s chair after claiming that he couldn’t do it. After a few seconds though, Gregory began to fidget, clearly just as uncomfortable with taking the seat as he had been before.
“This feels odd,” Gregory acknowledged.
“Ye are laird now,” Evan said confidently and crossed the space between them. When he reached his brother’s chair, he knelt down before him.
“What are ye doin’?” Gregory asked, leaning back in surprise. Despite the fact that Gregory was the legitimate line, raised in the keep of the castle as the treasured heir, while Evan had been raised outside the castle walls and reminded every day that he was the bastard, the two of them had always been close. He was not going to let his brother down. Not now that Gregory had the weight of the new lairdship and the protection of his people on his shoulders.
“Pledgin’ ye me fealty.” Evan spoke plainly. With one elbow rested on a knee, he bowed his head toward his brother. “I give ye me word, Gregory. I will fight as yer soldier, as I did for our faither, and I will stay by yer side in yer endeavors. Ye will nae find anyone more loyal to the McKerrows, and to ye.”
He looked up, seeing Gregory staring down at him, frowning at first before a smile spread across his normally sharp features. Evan knew he had similar sharp features that they had both inherited from their father, including an angular nose and a wide jaw, but where Gregory had slightly puffy cheeks, Evan was even more angular.
“I thank ye for it, brother,” Gregory said, before shifting in his seat, “but I think ye can serve us better by leavin’ me side.”
“What do ye mean?” Evan asked, standing up slowly.
“We have nay better spy than ye, Evan.” Gregory spread his arms wide, as though his statement was obvious.
“I have just completed me works though. I was to come back here, to be a part of the army.”
“Aye, that was before our faither…before what happened, happened,” Gregory said, pausing in the middle, clearly uncomfortable with describing their father’s death.
Hearing it about to be spoken of, Evan lifted his head and looked away, feeling a muscle tick in his jaw. With their father gone, it was as though something was missing in Evan’s chest. He rather imagined his father had taken a piece of Evan’s heart with him when he died, and he could never get it back. He would always be as he was now, with a piece of his heart forever gone.
“As ye just said,” Gregory’s words brought Evan’s attention back to the discussion. “If we go through with this war—if we attack McAllister and pay him back for takin’ our faither away from us, then we do this prepared.”
“Nay…” Evan took a step back. “Ye want me to go to the McAllisters?”
“Well, I –”
“Gregory, that is it, isnae it?” Evan asked.
“Aye,” Gregory sighed with the words. “Ye are the best spy we have. Ye can learn everythin’ about them, pretend to be one of them, get them to trust ye. With the information ye can send to us about their army, we can attack when they are most vulnerable.”
Evan couldn’t say anything straight away. He had been about to begin a new stage of his life, turn away from such spying campaigns and begin afresh. Yet Gregory was right…everything had changed now.
“For our faither, Evan? Would ye do it?”
Evan looked away for a minute, walking across the room as he ruffled his hair in frustration, brushing it back from his forehead and closing his eyes tightly shut. He could see his father there in the darkness. He could see the man that raised him, acknowledging Evan as his own, despite the illegitimacy. The man who had loved him, cared for him, doted on him, and was now lying under a white cloth, ready to be buried.
The man who murdered him deserved any pain that was coming to him.
Evan turned back to face his brother.
“I’ll do it.”
“Ye’re up. Faither, ye’re up!” Shona cried loudly with surprise as she walked across the room. She had crept through the doorway, intent on seeing if he was still sleeping, to find that he was sitting in a chair by the window. “Faither! Why are ye nae in bed?” She hurried to his side and dropped to her knees in front of him.
He looked older than he had the week before. The man was no longer young, so the poison in his system had affected him badly. He used to have black hair; she remembered that from when she was a child. Over the years, it had gradually become speckled with grey, and now there were only silver strands. The bold, green eyes were still there, though—animated in a lined face.
“Shona, me dear,” he said with a smile, sitting back in the chair. “Ye are lookin’ at a recovered man.”
“Faither, I cannae believe it.” She reached out and took his hand, kissing it before laying her cheek upon it. He sat forward in the Savonarola chair and kissed her forehead, holding her close for a minute. The way they clung to each other made words unnecessary.
I nearly lost him.
When he eventually sat back, breathing deeply and tipping his eyes to the ceiling, Shona looked around the room. The chamber was large and draped with herbs that had been hung from the ceiling, to try and aid his recovery. The four-poster bed draped in white curtains had clean sheets, and the stone walls had been freshly washed. In the far corner of the room, the castle’s healer, Morna, looked up from her bag with a big smile on her face.
“It’s true?” Shona addressed her question to the physician.
“Ha! Is me word nae enough for ye, Shona?” her father said, laughing heartily. To hear that laugh again made her chest tighten, adoring the sound of it. Merely two days ago, she had sat by his side as he lay in bed, his body trying to fight the poison that had been slipped into his food or drink. She had feared that she would never hear the sound of his laughter again.
“Nay,” she said, jesting with him. “I want the word of someone who kens what they are talkin’ about, faither.” She loved the way he laughed at her again, just as she turned her eyes back to Morna who crossed the room toward them.
“Aye, lass. He has fought the poison. He is strong, yer faither.”
“Stronger than he looks,” Shona teased, causing her father to tap her hand in reprimand.
“Och, I’m a laird remember,” he laughed. “I have strength in me yet.”
“Ye truly frightened me, ye ken that?” she asked, feeling the threat of tears prick her eyes once again. She had cried so many times over the last few days she didn’t understand how there were any left in her body to shed. Her father turned and nodded his head to Morna, silently instructing her to leave.
Morna curtsied and hurried off, leaving Shona alone with her father.
“I was so scared,” she whispered softly after the door closed. “I thought I had lost ye.” She bent her head forward once more, resting it on his hand.
“I thought I was lost too.” He admitted, kissing her forehead a second time. “Do ye ken what I feared? When I thought I was dyin’?”
“Oh, faither, must we?”
“Aye, we must,” he said, his voice deep and husky.
She sighed and rested back on her haunches, terrified to think of him dying. She had lost her mother years ago, attempting to give birth to a second child. In one night, Shona had lost her mother and a little brother. Since that moment, her father had been her life. She was devoted to him, more so than any other person. The thought of losing him was pure agony.
“I just want to celebrate that ye are recovered,” Shona said, smiling up at him.
“In time,” he said, lifting a hand to her face and brushing the loose black locks of hair away from her cheeks and tucking them behind her ears. “I feared that I was leavin’ ye alone in this world.”
“I am nae alone, faither. I have people here in the castle that care for me. Me maid, me friends –”
“None of them are family.”
“Faither, this is hardly the time to talk about a husband again.” Shona sighed with frustration, looking up at the ceiling as though pleading with the heavens.
“On the contrary, it is the best time,” her father’s tug on her hand forced her to return her gaze to him. “I cannae face leavin’ this world kennin’ ye are alone, Shona.”
“I am nae alone.”
“I want ye to have a family. Someone to love, maybe children to love too.”
“It isnae the children I object to –”
“Merely the potential husbands I have put before ye?”
“Well…,” she paused and smirked at her father. “Aye. I love ye dearly, but ye have poor taste in suitors.”
“Ha! Well, in some ways I am pleased about that but, in others, very sad.”
“Now, is that the end of this conversation?” she asked with hope.
“Far from it,” he said firmly. She was thrilled he was sounding much more himself, sitting straight in his chair and adopting a deep tone that she had not heard since the day he was poisoned. “Ye have rejected four suitors already. I want ye to ken that from this moment on, I will be tryin’ even harder to find ye a suitable husband.”
“Suitable? How romantic,” Shona teased, earning a shake of her father’s head.
“I want someone who can protect ye, child.”
“I want someone who isnae just after yer lairdship, faither,” she said pointedly, earning a slow nod from him. They both knew it was a possibility. As she was his only child, whoever she married would be the next laird. “Yer clansmen have vowed to uphold me as a lairdess if it came to it. I daenae need a husband.”
“Shona, this is nae negotiable,” her father said, leaning forward in his chair.
“Ye are soundin’ surprisingly stubborn for someone who has just climbed out of his sickbed!” she said tiredly, watching as her father’s stern face broke into a smile before he turned serious again.
“I am sorry. I do this only because I love ye. I willnae risk leavin’ ye alone again.” He sat back in his chair and released her hand signalling that the conversation was coming to an end.
“What do ye mean?” she asked, standing in preparation to leave the room.
“I mean that ye will find a husband.”
“I will continue to consider yer suitors, faither,” she said, folding her arms in irritation.
“Nay, ye daenae understand. Ye will find yerself a husband in one month.”
Evan rode his grey steed along the mountain pass, looking down into the valley between the hills. He was at the border between the McKerrow and the McAlister clans, looking down one side toward the McAlister castle that stood solidly in the distance.
“Me enemy,” he muttered under his breath, keeping his gaze on the castle for a minute. He had never known such anger as that which now coiled in his stomach, like an adder that writhed and flicked its tail, wanting something or someone to bite. “Soon,” he said to himself. “Soon we will have vengeance for me faither’s death.”
The McAlister castle was perfectly situated on top of a smaller hill, with two greater mountains on either side that met behind it. The castle battlements offered the perfect view of anyone approaching. The Laird McAlister and his army would know well in advance if there was an attacking force nearby. The clan could be quickly prepared. Around the bottom of the hill and surrounding the castle was a town built of stone cobbled houses whose red tiled roofs stood out in contrast to the purple heather and lush green grass on the hillside.
The castle would be his new home for a while, though he regretted the circumstances that made this move necessary. This was not the way his life was supposed to go. He had been looking forward to a life back in the McKerrow Clan, until his father had been poisoned. Now, he would have to rub shoulders with his enemy.
There was a snap of twigs off to his left. Evan slowly turned his head in that direction, looking for the source of the sound. Being so high up on the mountain pass, he had a good view around him. On his right, the mountain dropped away in a steep white cliff made of chalk. It was so steep that far below there were rock outcroppings that many unfortunate animals had met their doom on. The other side of the trail was a gentle slope of purple heather down to a copse of trees. He squinted, peering into the trees and waiting for any movement.
At first, he thought it could be a stag, moving between the pine trees with its antlers rustling the lush green needles, but it quickly became apparent that was not the case, unless antlers had adapted to look like bows.
“In the name of the wee man…” he had to break off from his own curse as he heard the arrow whistle through the air. He bent forward sharply, leaning down over the head of his horse to dodge the arrow.
The steed whinnied in surprise and objection. He jumped off the side of the horse, sliding down to use the animal as a shield, and peered over the top of the saddle just long enough to see the archer among the trees notch another arrow. There were two other shadows behind the archer.
Evan snatched his weapons from his saddle—a rapier first that he added to his weapon belt, a dirk, then his crossbow into which he hurriedly placed a bolt. Peering again above the saddle showed him that the archer was ready, and a second arrow was shot at him. He bent down, avoiding the arrow so narrowly that he could practically feel it ruffling the top of his hair as it whipped by. The horse reared back on its hind legs in complaint.
Evan knew well enough that this mountain pass was notorious for brigands and highwaymen. It seemed he was not to pass unscathed.
He clapped the horse on its rump, urging the steed to gallop down the hill a little, away from the danger. Then Evan lifted his crossbow with the bolt ready and fired into the trees. The bolt was sent blindly, since the brigands were no longer visible, just to let them know he would stand his ground and fight back.
There was a cry of pain from one of his attackers in the trees. Evan allowed himself the smallest of smirks at having managed to hit one of them. Yet the smile didn’t last long. He backed up, closer toward the precipice of the cliff, as two of the brigands appeared from the trees, one with his rapier drawn and the other with his bow out, hurrying to load an arrow.
“What do ye want? Money?” Evan cried. He took another step back, then felt the ground slip away from his heel. He snatched his foot forward, looking down again to see just how close he had come to slipping off the edge.
“We have come for somethin’ else, though we wouldnae say nay to yer purse as well,” said the brigand with the rapier. With two weapons aimed in his direction, Evan couldn’t dart to the side, not right away, out of fear of being caught by one of them. “Stand yer ground. Daenae move.”
“Ye havenae given me much choice,” Evan said, nodding his head at the second brigand carrying the bow and arrow. This one had a smattering of dark red hair atop his forehead and a scar at the top of his neck that ran all the way up to his cheek.
“I am glad to see ye arenae goin’ to cause us too much trouble,” the first brigand said as he moved toward Evan, swiping the rapier in the air for good measure. One careful glance at the brigand showed Evan that this man shared something with his friend. They had the same scar that travelled up their neck to the cheek. He frowned at the sight of it.
Is it some kind of initiation symbol?
“Where is yer friend?” Evan asked.
“Ye may have caught him with yer blind bolt,” the second brigand said. Evan couldn’t help smiling at the idea. “Ye are smilin’? Now? Have ye nae noticed ye are minutes from facin’ yer death?”
Evan looked between the two brigands advancing toward him, feeling the fear begin to crawl up his spine.
I willnae die today.
He had a job to do before he met his death. He had to avenge his father first.
“Ye can have me purse if ye want it,” Evan said firmly. “Ye cannae have me life.”
“Ye daenae have a choice in the matter,” the first brigand said with a dark tone and placed the very tip of the rapier to Evan’s chest. Indicating the steep incline behind Evan with a motion of his head, he ordered. “On ye go.”
“Ah…ye wish me to take the jump? To make it look like a tragic accident?” Evan asked, watching as the two brigands glanced at each other. “I am nae so much a fool as to make it easy for ye. Ye want me life, ye will have to be the one to take it.”
He was waiting patiently for the right opportunity. As his attackers realized that he was not going to do the job for them, they would now have to think what to do next, and Evan had the moment of hesitation he needed. He swiped the tip of the rapier away from his chest with a flat palm, earning a cut to his hand before grabbing his own rapier from his belt.
“We said daenae move!” the second brigand roared the words.
Evan was already advancing toward the first man. With two strikes of his own sword against his attacker’s, he knocked the rapier away, forcing the man to turn with the sheer momentum of the swipe. Then Evan grabbed the man’s loose arm, dragging him in front as a human shield and placing his sword at the man’s neck.
He heard the whistle of the arrow through the air before he saw it, then the thud of it reaching a target and the brigand in his arms letting out a cry of pain. Evan swiveled the two of them, just enough to see where the arrow had landed.
Stuck in the brigand’s leg, the other man was looking down at his bow in pure shock and horror that he had shot his friend rather than his intended target.
“Nae supposed to happen?” Evan said, unable to stop himself from finding the humor in the moment. As a spy, he had been caught more than once by people who thought they had the jump on him, but he had been able to escape every life-threatening situation. Had the bandit not hesitated, he was confident he would have found another way out of it. He had rarely ever been hurt in a fight.
“Ye tadger!” the injured man cried before Evan shoved him to the ground. He would live but would need the care of a physician for that wound.
Evan snatched up the crossbow from his belt, managing to load a bolt before the other attacker notched another arrow in his bow. Evan stared down the barrel of his crossbow, glaring at the man, ready to deliver a fatal shot if it were required.
“Put the bow down.” Evan’s order was quickly followed. “Now, kick it over the cliff.” Reluctantly, this order was followed as well, with the wood bow tapping the cliff face as it fell. “Who sent ye?”
This time, his demand was not met. The two brigands exchanged a glance.
“Ye said ye didnae come for me money; ye wanted me life. Why?” Evan barked the words loudly, making the men flinch. He could see they weren’t going to answer him. Whatever was afoot…they had come for him for a reason.
There was a scuffling sound off to the side. Evan shot a quick glance in that direction, just in time to see the third brigand limping out of the trees, with the bolt Evan had fired earlier still lodged in his ankle but snapped off.
“Thacker, now!” the uninjured man roared.
The third man, Thacker, snatched up his own bow and arrow, but he was too slow. Evan turned and fired the bolt, aimed straight at the man’s other ankle. Incapacitated, he fell to the ground, crying out. Two brigands were down, but Evan no longer had the advantage.
He ran, sprinting away as he hurried to load another bolt in the crossbow. Behind him, he could hear the uninjured attacker chasing him, no doubt with some weapon now in his hands.
Evan wasn’t going to give him the chance to take another shot at him. He ran down the hill, glancing back just once to see the brigand still in pursuit, with the first injured attacker hobbling behind, clutching his leg.
Evan skidded on some of the loose stones in the chalk path, his eyes fixed on his horse. The steed had taken refuge a little further down, under two oak trees with the leaves around him as though they were a shield.
“Much use ye were,” Evan muttered under his breath, running up to the horse and leaping onto it. He grabbed hold of the reins and urged the animal forward, kicking the horse’s sides while he loaded another bolt. He turned, ready to fire at his pursuers, but it wasn’t needed. There was already too much distance between him and the brigand.
In the end, his pursuers gave up, and Evan turned back to face the path down the hill toward the McAlister castle. This time, he kept the crossbow in his hand, just in case someone was to emerge from the nearby trees again.
The farther he rode, the more the thrill of the fight began to wane, and Evan considered what had happened. Were they really brigands after all if they had come to take his life? Were they taking his life for fun, or had they known who he was?
Something didn’t add up. Evan put as much distance between them as he could, riding until the horse grew tired and its head lowered, nose snuffling toward the ground.
Once Evan crossed the border into McAlister land, he slowed the pace, giving the horse a break and looking back up the mountain pass. From this distance, he couldn’t see if there was anyone still on the path, but the certainty he was being watched lingered with him. He glanced around a few times before setting his gaze forward. With the McAlister castle in sight, his worries slipped away.
I am here for a reason. I am nae in danger anymore. I am the danger, and it is Laird Martin McAlister who should be afraid.
By the time Evan had reached the castle, he had adopted the manner he always wore when he went anywhere as a spy. Rather than the serious and somewhat severe manner that had been usual with him back home, he became someone new—someone who liked a jest, who was fond of teasing and had an easy manner. It had not taken long to see that people warmed to this side of him much easier than the other. People liked a friendly face, after all.
Evan hovered as close to the castle as he could without looking out of place; he was assessing its security and looking for a way in, at the same time. There were high battlements that separated the grey-stone castle inside from a deep-ditched moat. A drawbridge could be let down for safe passage over the moat or pulled up to prevent entrance to the castle. The battlements were heavily guarded with soldiers dressed in uniform, some with tartan kilts and plaids thrown over their shoulders, and others with red jackets and black hats that sat halfway down their brows.
“They willnae let anyone cross easily,” Evan muttered to himself as he climbed down off his horse and tied him to a hitching post nearby. To anyone watching, he appeared to be interested in the town and the market that was set up there. With so many people wandering to and fro on this side of town, it was easy to pretend to be one of them, but it wouldn’t get him very far.
He had to find a way into the castle.
With his eyes on the market goers, a solution soon presented itself. A tall man with curly black hair was striding toward Evan and the castle behind him. From the broad shoulders and the military way in which he walked, it was not difficult to discern that he was a soldier. Evan didn’t even need the plaid uniform across his shoulder, half covering the brown waistcoat, to tell him that. The pinned badges on the plaid did tell Evan one thing that was useful, though; this was a Captain in Laird MacAllister’s clan.
Evan walked forward alongside the Captain while trying to make it look like he had no interest in the man at all. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the soldier, waiting until he turned his back for an opportune moment. On cue, the Captain turned to talk to someone moving past him into the market. Evan took the opportunity to slip a finger past the man’s belt and easily retrieve the purse that was tied there. The tiny blade that Evan had palmed helped him to cut the strings loose and retrieve it.
“Oh, wait there, me good man,” Evan said before the Captain could set off again. He bent over and made a pretense of picking the leather purse up off the ground. “Ye nearly lost this.” He proffered it to the Captain, who turned back with misty grey eyes wide in surprise. He tapped his belt a few times, but realizing it was truly gone, he then took the purse from Evan.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said to himself, shaking his head. “I thank ye, stranger. There are many a man here that would have happily kept me purse for themselves.”
“Ah, I am nay thief,” Evan said with an easy smile. “What good would that do me? Besides, I’ll warrant there arenae many coins in a purse so small. What would be the point in stealin’ that?” His jest worked perfectly, and the Captain laughed.
“Aye, I guess ye be right.” He stepped forward, closer to Evan. “Captain Craig Brodie.” He offered a hand to shake. “Who am I indebted to for the return of me money?”
“Evan,” he said, thinking on his feet for an invented surname. “Evan Darrow.”
“Well, thank ye again,” the Captain said, then examined his purse, clearly noticing that the strings had been snapped, he attempted to retie it to his belt. “Ye must be new here.”
“Do I stick out like a sore thumb?” Evan asked, gesturing to himself.
“Nae so bad,” the Captain said with a tease. “But I do ken everyone around here, and I daenae ken ye. So either ye are a stranger passin’ through or here for a reason, which is it?”
“A reason,” Evan said. “I’m lookin’ for work.”
“As?” the Captain asked, folding his arms and looking a little wary. He didn’t blame Captain Brodie in the slightest. Had their roles been reversed, he would have been just as hesitant.
“A soldier, if ye are willin’ to train up a farmin’ lad.”
“A farmin’ lad? Pah!” Captain Brodie laughed. “Ye are a fibber.”
“A fibber? Why do ye say that?” Evan asked, following as Captain Brodie walked away, heading to the castle.
“I’ve seen farmhands. They are usually weedy—pimply, too—like young’uns. Ye are neither.” Captain Brodie pointed at him with emphasis. “Look at ye. Ye probably could lug one of these market stalls half way across the street.”
“Well, a quarter of the way perhaps,” Evan jested, pleased when the Captain once again laughed at his joke. It was all too easy to make someone like him, he had discovered. He just had to first make them laugh. “Workin’ on the farm makes strong ones as well as weak ones. When the horse was nae good at pullin’ the crop wheel, I set to it meself.”
“That I can believe,” Captain Brodie said with a nod and turned to walk onto the drawbridge.
Evan tried to follow, but one of the guards moved to the side, clearly not allowing him to go any further. Evan stepped back again until his feet were off the drawbridge. Seeing the fun in the situation, he placed one toe on the drawbridge, prompting the guard to move toward him and then drew his foot back, making the guard fall still. He did this a couple more times until Captain Brodie, who was watching, laughed once more.
“Step back, Anderson,” he said to the guard. “I wish to speak a little longer with this daft man.”
I’m in, Evan thought as he strode forward onto the drawbridge.
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