The Seduction of a Highland Thistle (Preview)
The fire had started slowly, half green as it was, but it was now burning well. If Iris had planned properly, it would burn longer and hotter than dry kindling. The longer the flames burned, the longer it would take for her ruse to be discovered. She swallowed, considering the events that had led her to this: staging her own death and praying she could escape her cruel fate without abandoning her clan and her responsibilities.
The day of her father and mother’s passing had been terrible. It began with an accident in which her horse had abruptly taken her on a wild ride before finally unseating her, leaving her lost in the woods for hours until, by happenstance, she’d found a hunting trail that led her to familiar surroundings. Her parents had gone searching for her and had eventually perished, though none seemed to know the exact circumstances of their deaths. There were rumors of bandits that had been spoken of terrorizing nearby areas but also rumors of both of them taking a terrible fall in the dark, riding recklessly as they searched for her.
She’d thought, at their funeral, that nothing could be worse than that aching sense of mingled loss and guilt and the grief of being left behind.
Then her uncle Rory had taken over the holdings of the Grant Clan, establishing himself as the new laird, and she’d discovered how wrong she’d been. He’d instantly thrown anyone who could challenge his leadership out of the family keep, including her mother’s brother, her beloved uncle Liam MacLeod. Anyone who could offer her comfort or support in her distress had been sent away, and she was not permitted to see, write, or contact them in any way. And if she’d felt lost and alone after losing her mother and father, it was nothing compared to how she felt as Rory Grant took away every source of warmth and companionship in her life one by one.
She’d wondered for years why he’d been so cruel until she’d grown old enough to hear the rumors; that the accident that had taken her parents’ lives had been no accident at all but a plan for her uncle to gain the prestige and power of Clan Lairdship that being a second son had denied him.
Whether there was truth to these rumors or not, Rory Grant had never ceased to throw it in her face that she was responsible for their deaths. Any time she tried to protest, to rise above his vindictive cruelty, he would fling the memories back in her face, acting as if she was both uncaring of their demise and ungrateful that he’d taken her in after she’d proved such an agent of misfortune.
Worse, anyone who might be sympathetic to her situation was driven away or fed stories and falsehoods of her sly nature, careless disregard and ungrateful pettiness until they looked at her with eyes as cold as her uncle’s. Or, they betrayed her and turned away from her, choosing instead to keep their positions or to win favor with Rory in the name of promises of coin for themselves.
She’d planned to endure it stoically, hoping for the opportunity to seek a better man as a husband or to break free and seek refuge with the MacLeods, until she learned of her uncle’s latest plan to wed her to Caelan Rose. A fact that would cement a clan alliance that would bring him gold and the power and protection of a stronger clan than his own.
Caelan Rose was a man with a temperament as awful as Rory Grant’s and with not even the pretense of old grievance to induce her to bear his tempers and cruelty. Even worse, he was a man who treated the women of his clan like slaves and regarded her no better, considering a wife to be no more than a broodmare to be kept meek and quiet and with child.
For all she hated her uncle Rory, she’d been near ready to ask him to break the betrothal. She’d beg if needed. She might not have appealed to his better nature—for if he had one, he’d never shown it to her—but she might have forced his hand for the sake of clan honor or by pointing out Caelan’s ruthless, power-hungry nature and what it meant if he let such a man wed into the line of the only child of the eldest son. It wasn’t common, but Highland law would give Caelan the right to claim the Grant Clan, could he take control from Rory. And he was ruthless enough to make the effort.
However, she hadn’t had a chance before Rory Grant had gone to war to fight for the honor of the Highlands. In one sense, it was a relief, for the wedding was put off until he returned, giving her an unexpected reprieve and a measure of hope. But she’d also been frightened, fearing what Caelan might do in his absence.
She’d been content to stay out of his way, away from his notice, until two weeks ago when she’d received a letter with the seal of Clan Grant on it.
The letter was from her uncle’s second-in-command, telling her in plain terms that her uncle had been slain on the field of battle and that she was the last of the true bloodline of Clan Grant.
Her hand clenched on the letter in her pocket, the letter that had driven her to desperate action and the plan that included the flames she now watched rising over an abandoned barracks.
She’d always liked small animals, and discovering the abandoned barracks turned into a rabbit hutch had given her the first idea for escaping the tangled predicament she found herself in. She’d begun making regular trips, daily trips, then morning and evening trips, to visit the rabbits and other small animals housed there.
The guards had watched her suspiciously at first, alert for an escape attempt, and Caelan had asked several pointed questions about her intentions. But within a week, they’d all begun to relax, seeing her frequent visits as “female whims” and proof of her soft nature.
Now, nobody gave her trips a second look, especially not if she was carrying greens and other food for the small creatures in a basket over her arm. She walked unwatched and unremarked, as inconspicuous as any servant on an errand.
No one had noticed tonight that her basket contained bread and meats and cheeses for herself under the greens or that the worn cloth over the top of the basket was, in fact, a spare skirt and shirt—just like no one had noticed earlier in the day, when she’d left all the pens open and a scattering of treats to coax the animals to flee.
The second element of her plan had been more difficult. It had taken time, effort, and caution, as well as several favors and most of the hard-earned coins she’d managed to scrape together over the years, but she’d finally managed to learn something of her uncle Liam’s movements and where he might be. She’d tracked down a messenger who, after some coaxing and bribery, revealed that word in the Highlands had Laird Liam MacLeod attending a birth celebration for his youngest nephew at Clan MacGille’s keep in three weeks.
And from there, she’d decided on the final element of her plan. She’d resolved to fake her own death in an accident that would let her escape unnoticed from Rose Castle to flee to her uncle’s side. It was risky but far better in her eyes than remaining in her current situation.
And what better way to stage a fatal accident than a fire? She was sure that Caelan and everyone else would assume she’d simply knocked over a candle, being only a “soft and foolish” female. The old barracks would burn, and it would be hours, if not days, before it was safe for any to search the ruins for her—longer still for them to realize there was no sign she’d perished.
She’d be long gone by then.
The fire was taking hold slowly, which was fine with her. The longer it took to grow large enough to draw attention, the more difficult it would be to extinguish and the longer it would take for anyone to realize she hadn’t been caught in the flames.
Heart in her throat, she hefted the bag she’d switched for her basket during a visit two days prior over her shoulder and crept toward the small door between the former barracks and the stables. It was hardly a gate, merely a postern door sometimes used by servants to dump rubbish, and so small no one bothered to watch it.
She was about to lift the latch when she heard it—the high, thin sound of an animal in a panic. It was a terror-filled squealing sound she’d heard only a few times before from a rabbit in a trap or in the claws of a fox.
A rabbit must have been trapped in the fire. Her heart leaped into her throat. She thought she had gotten them all out, but obviously one had come sneaking back in or been left behind.
Iris swallowed. She knew she should continue on her way. Every minute she wasted was one where she could be caught, taken back to her rooms, and the note discovered.
But she couldn’t. She held too much compassion, too much love for the animals she’d befriended. And there were too many years she had spent feeling like a trapped, scared rabbit herself.
With her heart hammering in her throat, she slid back into the building, the wood and stone already growing hot under her fingers. The crackling orange flames burned low and sullen, driving heat and smoke into the air, where it got into her throat and stung her eyes. She coughed, eyes watering as she stumbled toward the noises of fear that still came through the smoke.
Finally, she practically tripped over the tiny creature, a half-grown baby rabbit that had darted into one of the hutches for safety. It was too small, too young to have known what freedom and safety truly were. Why it hadn’t followed the older rabbits away, she didn’t know, but that didn’t matter.
It took only a moment to scoop the shivering little thing into her arms. At another time, she would have soothed it with gentle words and noises, but the searing, gritty ache in her throat and lungs suffocated her words, reminding her that time was running out.
She turned back in the direction she thought she’d come, hunched over to duck below the worst of the smoke as she stumbled back toward where the door should be. She was halfway there when a low cracking sound came from the roof. She had a fraction of a second, no time to react, before the first of the heavy wooden beams came crashing down.
The fire had spread faster, higher, and stronger while she’d been looking for the rabbit.
Iris stumbled, and an unexpected breath of air blew the flames and whipped them around to lick at her skin.
She screamed, as loud or louder than the rabbit had, as fire slashed across shoulders, hip, and shin. Driven by desperation, she staggered around the beam, entirely disoriented by the smoke and the rising flames. Just before panic gripped her completely, she stumbled against the rough frame of the door, finding it by accident.
The metal latch burned her hand, but she was past caring as she jerked it open in a frantic panic. Wood splinters bloodied her knuckles and arm, but she paid them no mind as she shoved the door open and fell into the cooler night air, sobbing and coughing as fresh air invaded her smoke-scoured lungs.
The rabbit wiggled out of her arms and bounded away, leaving bits of fur on her tartan and small claw marks on her arms.
The burns hurt, throbbing in the cooler air with a ferocity worse than the first hard slap she’d ever taken from her uncle. Her lungs felt as if she had coals lodged in them, and her eyes watered constantly, feeling gritty and ash-filled no matter how much she blinked. Everything hurt, and some small voice deep inside her wanted to stumble back to the castle and seek the attention of the Rose clan healer.
But who knew if she’d ever get another chance to make her escape? Besides, if anyone had heard her scream, it would only add the illusion of truth to her supposed demise.
Gasping and clenching her teeth against the pain, Iris went to the small postern door and worked it open with her unburned hand, glad her satchel hadn’t fallen inside the building. The door opened with a reluctant creak, and she shoved at it, coughing and sobbing with pain, frustration, and fear until finally it was wedged open far enough for her to slip through.
Minutes later, she was outside the keep, the door shut clumsily behind her.
She gathered her soot-stained skirts about her, clutched her bag tightly and started across the moorlands, a small figure in dull-colored clothing that would blend into the darkness. Her throat burned, her burns stung sharply as knife cuts rubbed with fresh nettle, and her lungs and eyes ached. She pushed all of it away and forced herself into a wobbly weak-legged lope.
She had three weeks to reach Castle MacGille and find her uncle Liam.
She had three weeks to ensure that Caelan Rose could not claim her and Clan Grant as his own, whether she gave her uncle the title or found someone else to aid her—to marry her, if needs must.
She had three weeks, no horse, and a long road ahead of her.
Iris set her jaw and stiffened her spine. She would make it. She had to for the sake of Clan Grant and her own slim chance at happiness.
And then a soft smile found its way to her lips, despite the grimness of the situation and her pain. She was free.
The road to MacGille Castle
Three weeks later
Tristan shifted in his saddle and rubbed discretely at his aching knee, grimacing at the feel of the scar tissue under his palm. Riding was easier for his damaged leg than walking, but neither was comfortable for long periods of time.
Alistair noticed, as he always did. “We could have ridden in earlier, a day or two ago.” The tall, dark-haired warrior sat easily in his seat, and Tristan stifled a surge of jealousy. Alistair MacNeil was a good man and a good friend, and Tristan’s predicament was not his fault.
Tristan scowled at the thought. “Och, we aye could have if we could have convinced the council tae quit their fussing.”
Alistair made a soft sound that mirrored Tristan’s opinion of the matter. “And what were the old men tae be fussing over this time?”
“What are they ever tae be fussing over? The coming storm with Clan Rose and if it can or cannae be avoided—and whether or nae I’ve a mind for a chosen lass tae wed and bed for an heir, as there’s nae any left tae the Cabduh line. And o’ course, half o’ them dinnae care tae hear me say aught they dinnae agree with, either for resentment over my father’s bad leadership or distrust o’ me because I had tae take his life.”
Alistair grimaced in sympathy. “We did nae have tae come, if ‘tis so bad. Sure yer friend would understand if ye were needed with the clan.”
Tristan took a deep breath. He knew Alistair was trying to be considerate and was also tactfully avoiding the issue of his injured lag. “Mayhap Gavin would have understood. But ‘tis nae my way tae neglect kith or kin, and Gavin’s fair both. Were it nae for him, I’d yet be wasting away in a dirty English gaol or dead for fighting for the Jacobite cause, instead o’ being laird o’ my clan.” He sighed.
Maybe someday, he’d come to terms with everything—his father’s disregard of him, his mother’s neglect, his folly in going to war, the injury that had left him with a permanent limp when he walked, and the circumstances of his parents’ death. But he hadn’t come to terms with any of it in seven years and wasn’t convinced it would happen anytime soon.
Alistair nodded. “‘Tis a fair enough point ye make. Ye’ve often said enough that the Laird MacGille did well for ye. And truth is, even the old men who dinnae approve o’ ye taking the previous laird’s life ken that it was a necessary thing, for the man was fair mad after the lady died.” He paused. “‘Tis more that ye have nae heir, and few enough ken why ye’d leave for a field o’ combat when ye were the previous laird’s only heir. Mayhap ye could have kept him from getting so far gone as he was, had ye stayed.”
Tristan laughed, but it was a harsh, grating sound that felt sour in the back of his throat. “Ye did nae ken neither my father nor how he looked at me if ye think that.” He shook his head. Alistair was a good friend and a better advisor, but they’d met over the years, trying to rebuild the clan after everything had happened, and certain matters had never been discussed between them, this one among them.
“‘Tis true ye’ve never said. I’ve heard rumors, but I dinnae ken the truth o’ it.” Alistair’s voice was calm and soothing.
Well, there was no harm in telling Alistair about it. He trusted him enough to bring him along to Gavin’s celebration of his son’s birth. And it would be a bit of a relief to speak of it because Gavin knew everything and was often vocal about Tristan, whom he held in high regard, and his father, whom he had no respect for.
Besides, if he told the tale himself, there’d be less chance of Alistair hearing stories and half-truths that might cause him to question the circumstances and character of his laird. His clan’s rumors were far more restrained than some of the stories he’d been confronted with over the years by members of other clans.
“My father did nae want a child, but he wanted even less a firstborn son and heir who was nothing but a small, skinny lad that looked more like a thistle stalk than a warrior.” It was a sore spot still, for he’d grown up slender and light-boned, more in his mother’s build than his father’s broad-shouldered and heavily muscled frame. “It did nae matter how I trained, nor yet that I could hold my own against any lad my age as a boy and often matched some o’ the older lads as well. I was nae ever enough for him—nae strong enough, nae manly enough. ‘Twas more than once he called me a spindly disappointment and said a reed-slender nothing o’ a lad like me must sure be a changeling and nae true son o’ his.”
Tristan glanced at his companion. Alistair was slender, but his frame had more muscle than Tristan’s own. His face was craggy rather than slim and smooth, and his dark hair marked out his beard in clear, neatly-trimmed lines, making him look older than his years.
His father might have appreciated a son like Alistair.
He continued. “My mother… well, my father never gave her the time o’ day when she did nae give him the heir he wanted, and she was more after seeking his attention and his love—if ever he had any tae give—than she was for raising a son and a disappointment.”
He shook his head. “When I was old enough, I went tae the wars tae prove myself. ‘Twas my thought that if I could win a name on the field o’ battle, I’d fair earn more than disdain from my father. ‘Twas my thought tae take the battle tae the English, mayhap even strike true at William o’ Orange himself. But then I followed the troops tae Dunkeld.”
Alistair winced. Every Scotsman who fought against the English knew how bad Dunkeld had been for the clans.
“During the fighting, I fair took a musket shot tae my knee, shattered the bones and took my feet out from under me.” Tristan grimaced at the memory, rubbing at his knee in remembered pain. “From there, they took me tae the gaols. I thought I was tae die and none o’ my kin tae ken what happened. But ‘twas fair luck I met Gavin MacGille, and he helped me tae heal and escape. We swore tae be brothers, or close as, after that.”
The words left a sour taste in his mouth. Despite all that, despite his oaths, he’d failed his brother, failed to save him from the prison, only able to save himself. It was a miracle Gavin had escaped before facing the rope, let alone that they’d encountered each other again four years later. It was a greater miracle still that he’d never faulted Tristan for leaving him.
But escape he had, and when he’d come seeking his lover, and later Tristan’s help in saving her, the latter hadn’t hesitated in offering it.
He took a breath. “Gavin came tae me looking for his lass a few years later, the same one who’s his wife today, Amelia. It happened that she was a healer and a skilled one. She was visiting with Gavin’s clan, as he was after pledging his hand tae her, for all she was English when my father sent word that they needed a healer. ‘Twas when my mother took sick, with the wasting illness caused as much by nae caring for herself as it was anything else. Amelia came tae the keep, but there was nothing she could do, nothing any save the gods themselves could be doing. But my father, Laird Cabduh, was nae one for seeing aught he did nae want tae be seeing. He went fair mad and decided that Amelia was a witch, out tae weaken Clan Cabduh with her wicked spells and kill the clan, starting with his wife.”
Tristan could remember the bitterness of his grief, the wildness of his father’s madness in those days. He’d tried to calm his insanity and cruelty but ended up taking a beating for it. He’d only just regained his feet when Gavin came looking for his beloved.
He continued the story. “Gavin came tae me when Amelia did nae return home. He begged fer my father tae release her, but I had already helped her escape. It was a huge mess really, all that happened afterward. In the end, I had tae choose between a man I’d pledged kith and kinship tae and loved like a brother, a man I owed a life debt tae, or a man mad with grief and guilt, a man who’d never given me more than the rough side o’ his temper and the back o’ his hand but was kin by blood all the same. And ye ken well enough how that ended.”
Alistair nodded, his expression thoughtful as he considered Tristan’s words. Then he shrugged his shoulders, dismissing the matter with an ease Tristan envied. “Och, well, it’s a pretty tangle, for sure. And who’s tae be saying if ye chose well or nae? A tangle like that is for the gods tae be sorting and nae me.”
He rode close enough to clap a hand on Tristan’s shoulder. “Well enough. Now I ken the truth o’ it, and I’ll say only this on the matter: I’ll stand with ye as ever I have and with yer bonded brother, whatever may come o’ it. And I’ll drink tae his son’s health and a long alliance between our clans. Ye ken?”
Tristan nodded, swallowing the lump in his throat. “Aye. And thank ye.”
He might have said more, but a flash of color to one side caught his vision. He reined in his horse, blinking to focus his eyes more clearly.
He spotted chestnut and a flash of color that looked too regular to be forest floor. It looked like… a woman?
It might have been, but if so, she’d fallen in a strange position, crumpled like a tartan tossed aside. And she lay in a strange place, almost invisible behind a tree.
“My laird?” Alistair had noticed his preoccupation and reined in his horse as well.
He needed to reach Gavin’s keep. The sooner he was off the road, the sooner he could rest his leg, perhaps commiserate with Gavin over his clan’s desire to marry him off to the first girl he met and find some allies among the other lairds attending the celebration.
It was so tempting to ride along, but…
He was a man of the Highlands, a man of honor. He sighed and waved a hand at Alistair.
“There’s something in the woods. ‘Tis like tae be nothing, save tired eyes, but I’m of a mind tae be checking.”
Alistair started to turn his horse. “I’ll look for ye, if ye like.”
Tristan shook his head, already dismounting. “Nay. ‘Tis like tae be nothing. Even so, my leg will be thanking me for the chance tae stretch the muscles, and my back as well.” He waved his friend on. “Ye keep riding, and I’ll join ye on the road or at the keep, as ‘tis nae far.” He looped the reins on a convenient branch and moved into the forest, carefully stepping to avoid a fall that would cause pain to his already crippled limb.
Moving closer, he realized he’d been right, and his eyes hadn’t tricked him after all. It was a woman.
She was thin, petite, with long chestnut hair and fair skin, though her skin was heavily smudged with dirt and dressed in clothes that had seen better days. The tartan of her sash wasn’t one he recognized, as it was rather scruffy and faded.
She had a worn and tattered bandage across her hand. Perhaps she’d been injured and seeking help? She looked unconscious, and he knew there were bandits aplenty in the Highlands. It was possible she’d been traveling or lived in a farm, been injured or attacked, then lost consciousness while seeking aid or coming to call upon her laird.
He stepped closer. She’d collapsed with one hand out-flung, her other hand dropped limply behind her and lost in the folds of her skirt, twisting her body into what looked like an uncomfortable position.
“Lass?” he called out softly, but she didn’t move. “Lass?” he called louder.
There was still no movement. She was most likely unconscious then. He was tempted to check her for a head injury or untended wounds, but if she’d been attacked, she’d likely take it amiss.
He slid closer, then crouched awkwardly beside her and uncapped his water skin before sliding his hand under her head to try and get some water down her throat.
He’d just lifted the skin to her lips when several things happened.
The girl’s eyes snapped open, revealing a hard, bright gaze as she jerked away from the skin and came partially upright.
Something sharp came to rest against his neck, and he realized the hand hidden in her skirts had also been hiding a knife. He cursed himself for not having checked, for assuming she was helpless and unarmed.
Then, before he could ask a question or do anything other than stare at her and curse his foolishness, her other shoulder shifted. Her arm flew forward, and something crashed hard against the side of his head.
His vision blurred with pain as he toppled off balance, trying to catch himself, to respond and get some form of defense up before she struck again.
Her hand had been reaching out to where she could grab a rock quickly.
He’d just managed to orient himself and blink to clear his vision when another blow crashed against his skull, and his world spiraled into darkness.
Iris grimaced as she watched the road, waiting and hoping for a rider to pass by her hiding spot. As she sat there, her fingers rubbed the soft linen of the bandages around her hand.
She’d traveled that fateful night until she could travel no further. By morning she’d been feverish, pain screaming from her wounds and her throat dry with the fever heat of possible infection.
Iris had been near delirious with pain and fever, muttering and trying to walk around when she could scarcely stand. It was only by luck that she’d stumbled across a healer’s cottage, half off her head and seeing visions that weren’t there. And it was the gods’ own kindness that the woman had taken her in and treated her.
A week she’d been confined to the healer’s hut, given teas to soothe her mind and break her fever and poultices to draw the pain of the burns and drain the infection from her. She also had broth to nourish her body, followed by solid food when she’d regained some sense to eat properly.
She’d been grateful enough to leave what remained of her money with the healer when she left, but there was no question that the week had taken precious travel time from her. And worse, it had cost her time that Caelan Rose could use to look for her.
There was also no question that she was still not fully healed from her wounds. They’d closed, the infection drained, but they weren’t alright. She was still weak from the fever and the pain, needing frequent stops to rest lest she become dizzy and faint from overexertion.
The healer had been kind but blunt. The burns would never heal completely. She would forever be scarred by the flames that had touched her. The wounds on her hand, arm, leg, and side would eventually become scars nothing could disguise.
The idea of carrying a permanent reminder of this nightmarish time of her life left a sour taste in her mouth, but she tried not to focus on it.
To protect her clan now, she’d need to do one of two things. First, she could formally turn the clan over to her uncle Liam, officially ending the status of Clan Grant as an independent clan rather than a cadet clan of Clan MacLeod for all time.
Or, she needed to marry before Caelan Rose could find her or find word of her whereabouts. She needed to marry a man who’d take the name of Clan Grant and agree to the promise of a son to carry the name. It had to be a man who’d swear to make certain her clan would continue, in his first son if he had no title of his own or his second if he was a laird in his own right.
What made the truth all the more bitter was that she needed a laird, for a man who had no power of his own could hardly oppose Caelan Rose, even with her uncle to aid him. Nor would a man who’d never been of the ruling clans know how to be a proper laird to her people.
The pretty lass she’d been before that night might have managed to secure such a laird as her husband, even under her current circumstances. But a scarred wench with little but trouble to her name and who was barely acknowledged among her own clan would be like a bitter pill indeed.
Nonetheless, she’d set out to find her uncle for what other choice did she have?
Between her wounds and the days lost, time flew by, and now she only had a single day before her chances of meeting her uncle were gone. As laird of his own clan, he wouldn’t stay at Castle MacGille for long after the celebration.
Her time was running out, and she’d no notion how close she was to MacGille Castle. She imagined she must be close now, certainly within a day’s ride but not a day’s walk in her condition.
That was why she’d decided on a desperate plan.
Surely there would be others traveling to the celebrations or even other travelers on the road on other business. She’d planned to wait until she saw a rider then pretend to be wounded and fainting. God willing, he’d be man enough or curious enough to approach her, and then she could knock him out, bind him, and take the horse.
The very idea made her feel slightly sick, but what choice was there? The MacGilles had no reason to accept her presence or give her shelter, not if she arrived after her uncle departed. There’d be no reason to aid her and every reason not to once they heard of the trouble trailing in her wake.
But how could she trust any man she asked to help her? There was no telling what price they might demand from her. And what if, by some chance, they were associated with Caelan Rose or turned out to be men of a similar temperament who’d only stopped because they thought to take advantage of her weakened and solitary state?
She took a deep breath. Yes, it was a cold and dishonorable thing she was planning. But it was what needed to be done for her clan.
She’d choose a rider with a tartan. Like as not, she’d recognize the clan. But even if she didn’t, she’d know it for later. When her own problems were resolved, she would find the unlucky clansman she assaulted, and she’d repay him for the bruises and for his horse. God willing, he’d not endure too much distress in the meantime.
It wasn’t a perfect solution, but she could breathe easier, vowing to herself that she’d not permanently inconvenience whatever poor clansman she stole from. He’d get a bump on the head and a bit of bruised pride, perhaps sore feet from walking, but she’d take nothing that couldn’t be replaced or reparated.
Movement caught her eye. There were two riders on the road. For a moment, she was tempted to let them pass her by. But both were of slender build, better options than she could have hoped for. And neither were wearing clan colors of the Rose Clan or any other she knew well by association.
She could try now or risk waiting, and every candle mark she waited for increased her chances of failure.
Best to chance it.
She found a place visible enough, but not so much as to cause suspicions of a trap, and dropped herself to the ground. It hurt, but she managed, conveniently settled, so her knife was hidden by her skirts, her fingers of her other hand brushing a nice large stone.
She heard voices speaking in low tones. She couldn’t make out the words but clearly heard the change when two sets of hoofbeats turned into one.
She slit her eyes open a fraction to see.
One of the men had stopped. To her luck, it seemed to be the one with the slighter, slimmer build.
After a moment, he dismounted. He likely thought he needed no help with an unconscious maid, so by the wave of his hand, he’d sent his companion onward.
All the better for her.
She heard soft footsteps, curiously uneven. It took her a moment to realize the man was limping, one leg bending awkwardly. The gods were truly favoring her for she couldn’t have asked for a better target.
She kept her breathing soft and shallow as if she’d fainted as he approached. She even closed her eyes in case his vision might be sharp enough to see she was awake otherwise.
The footsteps stopped. “Lass?” The voice was pleasant, kind, and concerned. At any other time, she’d have appreciated it more.
She made no move.
“Lass?” he asked a little louder. She kept herself still, her breathing shallow despite how her heart was actually racing.
There were shuffling footsteps and the sound of someone kneeling or crouching close to her. For a moment, she wondered if he’d try to remove her clothes. She wasn’t sure she could stay still if he tried to do something like that.
But he didn’t. Instead, she heard movement, then the pop of a cork from a water or wineskin. A slender hand slid under her head, lifting it, and the mouth of the skin touched her lips.
Iris snapped her eyes open. Her gaze met a surprised blue-eyed expression, and then her knife was against his neck as she wrenched herself into a sitting position, rock firmly in one hand.
Shock, surprise, or the implicit threat of the knife left him motionless for a split second, and he was unarmed. It was all she needed. She brought the rock up and around to slam it against his skull. The man went down, crumbling to the dirt with a grunt of pain and a clumsy effort to break his fall.
She hit him again for good measure, and he went limp. She took a deep breath, staring at him as she willed away the shaky feeling in her limbs and chest. She’d not struck hard enough to draw blood, and she was fairly certain he’d have a headache and perhaps a lump on the head but no worse.
The ruse had worked better than she’d expected.
“Please, forgive me,” she whispered to the unconscious man.
Iris felt bad about attacking a man who had tried to help her and was clearly crippled already. The guilt, however, was not strong enough to keep her from approaching his horse and using a couple of saddle ties to bind his feet together and his hands behind him. His tartan wasn’t one she recognized. She took careful note of the pattern and his features in order to repay him later, then returned to the horse. It took some coaxing to get it to accept her, but she’d always had a way with animals that served her well.
She was astride and guiding the horse to a deer trail she’d noticed near the path in less than two minutes. She’d make better time on the road, but she couldn’t risk running into his partner as he might recognize the horse. Not half an hour later, she heard hooves and saw the other rider, who was returning to where she’d left her unconscious victim. She paused as he passed, then urged her stolen horse back to the road. With luck, she’d arrive at MacGille Keep before the evening meal.
She’d finally be safe with her uncle—as safe as she could be, at any rate.
Tristan felt a damp, uneven surface under his side. His shoulders ached, and his head throbbed like the worst hangover he’d ever had the misfortune to suffer.
Then, he felt someone slapping gently at his cheek in a manner his nursemaids had often used when he was a boy and calling his name. “Tristan. Oi, Tristan, wake yerself.”
He blinked bleary eyes and looked up into Alistair’s concerned expression. He blinked again.
Had he fallen off his horse? It felt like it. Had it startled for some reason? He couldn’t recall any reason his generally sensible and stalwart beast might bolt, but even the best horse could be startled under the right conditions.
Groggy, he lifted his head and started to roll himself into an upright position to see if Alistair had caught the horse yet and promptly rolled over in an awkward tumble, wobbling precariously for a moment as his limbs refused to respond before he half-skidded, half-rolled down a mild slope and thumped into a fallen tree trunk. “What the…”
The stop wasn’t painful, but it jarred him and gave him a clear view of his bound ankles. It was then he realized his wrists were tied as well, loosely but competently, behind his back.
The memory came flooding back. He remembered a flash of color and the girl lying in the leaves. He recalled attempting to aid her and getting ambushed for his trouble and a rock to his temple before everything went dark. Tristan groaned. “Sure, and the gods are fair laughing now. Blasted, misbegotten…”
Alistair slid to his knees beside him. “Och, I do apologize. I did nae ken ye were bound and did nae think tae check ‘afore I woke ye.”
Tristan struggled into a sitting position to let Alistair get at the bindings around his hands. “Aye. Dinnae worry, just get me loose.”
His friend went to work on the knots. “What happened tae ye? When ye did nae catch me up, I thought ye might o’ come tae an accident, riding off the road. But I did nae see yer horse coming back, and if ye’re bound…”
Tristan growled low in his throat. “‘Twas a wench I saw on the side o’ the road, sure enough. I thought she had fainted on the roadside, too heated or parched, mayhap. So, I bent tae give her a sip o’ water, and nae sooner had I bent tae aid her than the treacherous, sneaky, conniving little fey daughter of a girl put a dagger tae my throat and a rock full force tae my head.”
Alistair snorted, mirth clear in his tone. “Ye cannae be telling me that ye, a warrior blooded on the field o’ battle, were outsmarted by a little slip o’ a maid with a rock.”
The mocking edge to his words, however much it was meant to be teasing rather than shaming, sent heat flaming to his cheeks and rage boiling in his gut. He snatched Alistair’s knife and wrenched it through the bonds on his ankles, ignoring the slight burn as it nicked him. “I dinnae need tae be sneered at by ye for attempting tae be a decent man. I’d like tae see ye do aught better when ye’ve a water skin in hand and a blade tae yer neck, slip o’ a maid or nae.”
Alistair sat back on his heels, hands up in a gesture of surrender. “Peace then. I did nae mean tae give offense, my laird.”
The form of address made him pause, rage cooling. In truth, he was angry at the girl for attacking him when he would have helped her had she only asked. And he was angry at himself for not being more wary and falling for such a simple ruse. He sighed.
“Aye, and sure ‘tis nae yer fault, though I’m nae minded tae be amused by the whole thing.” He sighed again and rubbed briefly at his wrists and ankles before levering himself to his feet. “But there’s nae reason tae sit around here fretting when we’re expected at MacGille Castle. Best tae be going on.”
He followed Alistair back to the road, grimacing at the twinge at his knee and shoulders. It wasn’t until he actually reached the road that he realized there was another problem.
They had only one horse. And as they’d chosen horses for speed and traveling light, Alistair’s mount was too small for two riders to sit comfortably or safely, even if they rode bareback.
Alistair recognized the problem at the same time. “I can walk the rest o’ the way…”
“And a fair brute I’ll look, having my companion walk and arrive hours behind me.” Tristan shook his head.
Alistair cut a sideways look in his direction. “Well, it’ll look far worse if ye try tae walk it, and never mind the issue o’ ye being late and sore tae boot.”
Tristan eyed the horse again. “It’s possible we can both be riding. ‘Twill be a tight fit but nae unmanageable.”
Alistair snorted. “Nae comfortable either.”
Tristan scowled. “Nae worse than walking.” Alistair might not have any issue with walking the rest of the way to MacGille Castle, but he would be nigh crippled for days if he made the same trip on his own two feet.
Alistair eyed the horse in his turn and grimaced. “It’ll be a tight fit, but I suppose we can manage. Do ye want tae ride in the front o’ the saddle or the back?”
“Back. Better a sore arse than tae be riding like a damsel in distress.”
Alistair snorted. “Nae disrespect intended, my laird, but ye’d look more the part than me. But never ye mind. I agree with ye. So, how are we tae be getting on the horse?”
Tristan frowned. “The usual way o’ it with doubled riders, I suppose. Ye’ll mount first, and I’ll step up behind ye.”
As it turned out, it wasn’t that simple. He couldn’t brace himself the way he normally would to swing himself into the saddle because Alistair was already mounted. Even with Alistair kicking back the stirrup for him to use to place his foot, he had no place to brace his front hand and couldn’t swing up with his injured knee.
His first attempt sent him tumbling into the heather by the roadside like a youngster on his first riding lesson. As he scrambled back to his feet, he was grateful that Alistair had managed to keep the laughter from bursting out of the corners of his mouth.
His second attempt, bracing himself on Alistair’s knee, brought him too close, and he kneed his friend in the back. The collision threw them both off balance and himself back into the dirt. The horse nervously danced in place and needed a few minutes to calm down before the next try. Finally, he threw pride to the wind and wrapped one arm around Alistair’s waist, his arm pinned by his friend’s grip, while heaving himself up and slung his leg sloppily over the horse’s tail, twisting himself around as if trying to stand on the stirrup and wrap his companion in an embrace at the same time.
It was horribly awkward and made him look like an untaught child taking his first ride with an experienced rider, but it worked. He was able to scramble into a stable, if highly uncomfortable, seat. The back edge of the saddle was pressed firmly into his backside and likely to bruise, his nose was far too close to Alistair’s shoulder, and his legs were wrapped awkwardly about the barrel of the horse, but he was mounted.
In front of him, Alistair grimaced, nearly sitting on the horse’s withers, his groin pressed hard into the front of the saddle. He flexed his hips uncomfortably, forcing Tristan to shift as well, then edged the horse around toward the center of the road.
Tristan clamped a hand on either side of his friend’s tunic. He didn’t want to wrap his arms around Alistair, but since he was awkwardly seated without reins to grip, he had to hold on to something or risk toppling right back over the horse’s rear.
Alistair nudged the horse into a gentle walk, and Tristan winced as every step dug leather into his hips. He tightened the grip of his knees and his hands. “Can ye make a canter or a trot?”
“Aye. But it’ll be aye worse for both o’ us.” Alistair’s discomfort was clear in his voice.
“That’s as may be, but we’ll be there sooner. I’ll take the greater discomfort for fewer candle-marks over lesser aches for a longer time.” His arse notwithstanding, his knee wouldn’t take too many candle-marks in its current position, and he’d no wish to arrive at MacGille Castle unable to walk at all.
Alistair made a noise that could have been agreeing or disagreeing with either option, but he did urge the horse into a faster pace. Tristan set his jaw and held on.
By the time the walls of MacGille Castle came into view, just over a candle mark later, Tristan wasn’t sure he’d made the right decision, but he was more than ready to climb off the horse. His knees and thighs were aching, his hips were on fire, and his buttocks felt bruised and quite possibly blistered. In front of him, Alistair was making soft noises that suggested he felt equally uncomfortable.
Alistair announced them at the gate, and all of them, the horse included, waited impatiently while the gates were opened. He sent them trotting over to the stables, and Tristan heaved himself off as soon as the horse came to a proper stop, his friend barely a breath behind him as he moved.
The jolt of his feet hitting the stones of the courtyard drew a hiss of pain from him and made him stagger, but it was better than continued jarring from the stallion. He swallowed, flexed his legs and rolled his shoulders, trying to get the blood flowing properly in the affected areas.
“Tristan!” The shout of his name had him turning, striving to keep any indication of his aching hips off his face.
Gavin MacGille strode toward him, smiling broadly as he reached them and pulled Tristan into a rough embrace, thumping him on the back before he released him. “I’m well pleased tae see ye!”
“And I’m well pleased tae have been able tae come. Congratulations on a healthy bairn and a healthy son.” Tristan grinned back, soothed by the presence of the man who’d been his friend for years.
“I thank ye. Ye have only the one horse?”
“Aye. But nae fear, I’ve still a birthing gift for yer son.” Alistair had been carrying it, thank the gods. He grimaced. “Originally we had two horses, but there was an incident with the one. I’ll be checking tae see tae the matter later, so dinnae worry yerself over it.”
He didn’t have much hope of catching a horse thief who was as clever as the girl had been, but he could always hope. Perhaps she’d wanted a horse for an emergency and would turn it loose. Or there was a chance she’d be spotted or turn out the saddle pack and reveal a tartan that wasn’t hers, and someone would notice and be suspicious enough to ask questions.
Gavin was happy enough to leave it at that. “Well, ‘tis the people more than the horses we’re looking for at the feast, though we’ll be short a few heads.”
“Aye? And who are ye thinking tae be absent?”
“Lucas and Ella are like tae be missing tonight. I had word from the lass that their bairns are sick with the spring fevers and nae a one o’ them feeling well enough tae walk a straight line tae a chamber pot. The youngest is needing constant care.”
“If the bairns are nae well, then it stands tae reason they’ll stay with the youngsters. There’s nae shame in that. There’ll be other days and other bairns tae be celebrating.” Tristan shrugged easily. “What o’ the others?”
“Milly and Nathan will be along, but they’re nae making the journey at speed. They’ll be arriving closer tae time for the feasting. As for Liam MacLeod, he’s here with his son Iain, a fine young man.” Gavin grinned. “And a surprise for us all, Liam’s niece turned up nae even an hour gone. I did nae ken he had a niece old enough tae be attending, and I dinnae ken how she came tae be learning o’ this celebration. But she’s here, right enough.”
“MacLeod’s niece… I dinnae think I’ve ever met her.” He frowned, yet, he and MacLeod were scarcely close. He’d never been immersed enough in clan politics or socializing to know all the various lairds and their kin.
“I had nae either, till now. But she’s a quiet lass and charming enough, and I’ll wager she’s got hidden depths. She did make the trip here from whereever she was alone, so the lass is nae short o’ courage, for all she seems a bit shy.”
He was about to respond when a familiar splash of color and movement caught his attention. He twisted his head.
One of the stable boys was leading a horse to the trough to drink. It was the horse that he’d been riding not two hours ago. His eyes narrowed, and his jaw clenched.
Gavin followed his gaze. “‘Tis the horse MacLeod’s niece came riding in on. ‘Tis a fine animal and well-mannered, seeing as how it brought her safe tae the castle, though she’s nae expert rider. The tack was all wrong for her, and she could scarce get her foot tae the stirrups. Whoever saddled the beast for her did her nae favors.”
Likely because the beast was nae meant for her tae be riding, and the tack was arranged for a rider my size!
He had no time for words as Laird Liam MacLeod strode out the castle doors, trailed by a young woman with familiar chestnut hair. Despite her unkempt clothing, she was cleaner, her skin dirt-free, but there was no mistaking who she was. Tristan felt his blood boil with rage, and he struggled to keep the snarl from his face.
His horse thief was apparently none other than the long-absent and mysterious niece of Laird Liam MacLeod.
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