How to Handle a HighlanderBy: Mary Wine
Dunrobin Castle, Sutherland, early spring 1489
“Bari Fraser is up to no good,” Gahan Sutherland insisted.
His father, Lytge Sutherland, peered at him through narrowed eyes. He was gripping the stem of a silver goblet, turning it slowly as he pondered.
“Now that the snow is melting, Bari will be on the move,” Gahan added. He spoke softly, not wanting to sound impatient, although he was.
“That might be so,” the earl said, “but you cannae convict a man before he acts. Thinking a thing does nae make a man guilty.”
“His sister tried to kill ye,” Norris interrupted from where he sat on the other side of his father. “I agree with Gahan—Bari Fraser will use the spring to try and cause trouble.”
Gahan locked stares with his brother. Norris was his opposite, with blond hair and green eyes. He kept his chin scraped clean and stood over six feet. Gahan’s own hair was dark as midnight and his eyes even blacker. They shared a father, though Gahan’s mother hadn’t had the blessing of the Church. Gahan was a few inches taller than his sibling, and more than one old woman had been heard muttering it was God’s way of making sure Lytge Sutherland knew his sins would not be hidden from the sight of the righteous.
Gahan had chuckled at their judgment. His father welcomed him as warmly as he had his legitimate son. That fact was his greatest gift, because it would have been less trouble for the earl to leave Gahan in the village, the way many a nobleman did with his bastards.
There was no hint of jealousy in his sibling’s eyes, which was something Gahan treasured. It wasn’t often that the legitimate son welcomed a bastard son at his father’s table. Even if their sire invited his by-blow to join the family at the high table, the heir often made it clear that competition for their noble parent’s good favor wasn’t welcome. But the Sutherlands were strong because they were united. In this case, against the young Fraser laird.
“Father, it’s imperative that we move our retainers closer to the border,” Gahan continued.
“I agree,” Norris said. “Even with the hawks to warn us, the snow melts later here than on Fraser land.”
The mood in the great hall was subdued. Conversation wasn’t flowing along the long trestle tables filling the large space in front of the dais where the high table sat. The Sutherland retainers were doing their best to listen in. The earl frowned and leaned forward to scowl at his clansmen. He thumped his goblet on the table and stood up. The young boy assigned to his cup leaned around him to snatch it up now that it was no longer in his laird’s grasp. Gahan found himself watching the drinking vessel to make sure it wasn’t unattended. His gut tightened, just a fraction, as he waited for the lad’s fingers to close around the silver stem. One careless moment of inattention could—and nearly had—cost his father his life.
Someone moved near the front of the dais, drawing Gahan’s attention. His sister-by-marriage climbed the three steps and lowered herself before Lytge. Daphne MacLeod waited only a moment before offering Norris, her husband, a smile, and moving to join him. Her dark eyes sparkled with merriment, and her belly was large and round.
“Agreeing or nae does nae matter,” Lytge said firmly. The earl raised his voice so it would carry. “We’ve had enough of assumptions clouding the thinking of the men inside this hall.”
Gahan ground his teeth with frustration but had to agree. Daphne frowned, looking between them as she sat down. Silence hung over the table as she tried to catch the earl’s eye and then Gahan’s. Gahan reached for his own goblet to avoid her scrutiny. She tapped a single fingernail on the surface of the table impatiently, and Lytge broke.
“’Tis naught to concern yerself with, lass,” the earl said.
“If it involves trouble with the Frasers, it concerns me. I find marriage agrees with me, and I am in no hurry to be a widow,” Daphne argued. She reached for Norris’s hand and clasped it. Gahan stared at the touch, because he was almost certain Daphne had reached for his brother’s hand out of instinct. There was a bond between the pair that intrigued him. Norris was the heir, the legitimate son of the Earl of Sutherland. Daphne was the daughter of a laird. Their match was logical and brought a great deal of gain to the clan. Yet they loved each other. It was evident in every look his brother cast toward his bride. Norris could have had any daughter of any Highland laird, and more than one had tried her luck at snaring his affection.
But they had all been disappointed. And then fate had brought Daphne into his path.
Gahan stood up. He tugged on the corner of his bonnet in respect before leaving the high table. There was a line of maids waiting to serve the table; two of them leaned over to offer him a view of their cleavage. He passed them by without a second glance. Sandra Fraser’s face flashed across his memory every time a woman flirted with him now. He saw the calculating gleam in her eyes as she had tried to convince him to turn traitor against his brother. The maids were no different, he thought bitterly; their goal was to use him to better their lot. Most of them wouldn’t hesitate to pray for a babe, simply to make sure they had a reason to expect support from him. None of them understood what it was like to be the bastard son. True, his sire had always provided for him, but the gossips had always made sure he knew that support might be ended at any moment. The Church would consider it his lot to endure on his own, since he was born in sin.
“Ye’re stewing in dark thoughts again.”
“And ye’re forgetting that being me man is nae the same as being me brother,” Gahan growled at his half-brother Cam. Their common blood came from their mother. Cam was legitimate.
“It’s pretty much the same, only our mother is nae here to smack ye on the top of yer hairy head when you growl.”
Gahan grinned in spite of his dark mood. “She wielded a spoon like a sword, sure enough.” He reached up and rubbed the top of his head. “I was sure I’d have lumps for life.”
“Maybe ye do, beneath all that devil-dark hair,” Cam suggested playfully. “It’s spread to yer face again.” He pulled a dirk from the top of his boot. “I can remedy that.”
Gahan rubbed the short beard decorating his face. It was groomed to perfection. “It will have grown back in before morning, so save yer effort.” To be smooth-faced, he’d have to shave it twice a day. His duties didn’t often allow him so much time to devote to vanity.
Dunrobin was a large castle. As Gahan climbed the stairs, he enjoyed stretching his legs on his way to his chamber. On the fourth floor of the second keep, the chamber was spacious, but he still wasn’t at ease inside it. As head of Norris’s retainers, his duty had been to guard his brother’s back. It was something Gahan had never expected to change, but their father had decreed differently. He could not legitimize him, because his mother had died before Norris’s, but the earl had recognized Gahan in the Church, in front of the clan. In the Highlands, that was as good as Lytge marrying Gahan’s mother posthumously, and that secured Gahan’s place in the same instant. Gahan had his own retainers now, and Cam was his captain.
“Ye might at least wipe that scowl off yer face,” Cam scolded as he helped Gahan remove his sword. “There are surely more than a few bastards who would like to have their father give them a position that includes fine chambers.”
“Aye, I am nae blind to the blessings given to me, but tell me ye are nae feeling stifled inside these walls,” Gahan said.
Cam opened his mouth but shut it again without answering. Gahan chuckled and let his brother take his doublet away. Neither of them had been raised to expect more than enough to survive. Lytge’s lady wife had not been fond of their common-born mother—or of her sons. While the lady had lived, neither of them had set foot inside Dunrobin.
“Ye seem to have ideas about getting out into the spring weather,” Cam stated suggestively. “I believe me duties do include anticipating what ye’d enjoy.”
Gahan grinned. “There are times I like hearing that brotherly tone in yer voice.”
“Even if it means I know ye too well?”
Gahan rolled his shoulders and popped his neck. “Since ye know me so well, do nae disappoint me by nae being ready at first light.”
Cam eyed him suspiciously. “Yer father was very clear.”
“Me father is nae finished discussing the topic. He’s done only with the part he’s willing to let his men hear.”
Gahan didn’t say any more. He moved to one of the large arched windows. It was set with shutters of glass panes that opened outward. Behind him, he heard Cam leave the chamber and close the door. The sound was still a bit jarring. Outside that door there would be two retainers. As the acknowledged son of the earl, he was never alone. Sandra Fraser had proven just how necessary protection was. Even Cam would not spend the night alone. He’d retire with the other men. Growing up in the village had not prepared Gahan for such a life. His father had seen to his training and moved Gahan into Dunrobin the day after the earl’s noble wife had died.
He drew in a deep breath to dispel his discontentment. His life was a fine one. No man went through his days without feeling the weight of his responsibilities on his back. At least no man worthy of respect. He had a place at Dunrobin, and Bari would not find it simple to strike against them.
That was something he was going to make very sure of.
There was a hint of spring in the night breeze. Somewhere there was newly turned earth and trees budding. The moonlight sparkled off snow, but the river was roaring in the distance, proof that the ice was melting and spring was on its way. Behind him the fire in the hearth was burning low. There was plenty of firewood stacked nearby, but he let the flames die. It was not so cold that he needed a fire for warmth, and he enjoyed the darkness.
Morning would come early, but he remained in the window frame, waiting to see if his instincts were right. He heard the scraping of the stone against the floor before turning around to see a section of the wall pushing inward. A figure loomed in the darkness before stepping into the chamber.
“What does Father say?” Gahan asked Norris.
“I’ll tell ye meself.” His father’s voice came from inside the passageway. “As soon as me knees stop complaining about climbing a few stairs.”
Lytge Sutherland made his way through the opening in the wall. “I am going to enjoy the spring warmth.” He stopped for a moment and considered Gahan. “But I cannae be enjoying the new season if we’re feuding.”
Gahan grinned. “As I said, I will be happy to address the situation.”
“Nae without me, will ye,” Norris insisted.
Lytge sat down in a large chair near the hearth. The coals cast a red glow over him. “I did nae always spend so many hours in thought. There was a time when I was young enough to follow me passions.” The earl looked at Gahan, and his lips rose into a satisfied grin. “Yer mother was one of those times. If she’d lived longer than me wife, I’d have wed her. Ye should nae have to suffer for me sins. Yet ye are bastard-born because I was young and unruly.”
His father was lost in thought for a moment. At last he drew in a stiff breath and focused.
“I’ve heard rumor that Bari Fraser is making visits to the Matheson. Faolan Chisholms sent word of it. Achaius is bitter over the defeat at Sauchieburn, and his sons are being kept at Court by Lord Home to make sure the Matheson clan is loyal to the new king.”
Gahan snarled, but his father raised his hand.
“I am as suspicious as ye are, most likely more so, for I’ve known Achaius Matheson longer than ye. He is nae a man to be trusted, but he will say the same of me, for I supported the young prince over his father.”
“James III was nae worthy of the crown,” Gahan growled.
“Highlanders do nae follow blindly,” Lytge agreed, “which is what makes Achaius a dangerous man. If he thinks Bari Fraser has a just cause, the man might just be willing to meet his end on one last, glorious charge into battle. He’ll nae stop to consider the lads who will die along with him, or that those who survive will carry on a feud in his name.”
“We’ll ride out at first light,” Norris decided.
“Ye’ll be staying here,” the earl countered. “If ye ride out, the rest of the Highlands will hear we’re feuding, and the fact that we have nae said a word about it will nae matter. Some will think to join us while the rest take advantage of our being distracted. I need ye here to maintain order. As heir, it’s yer place to see to Sutherland land first. Gahan will ride for Chisholms land.”
“At first light,” Gahan confirmed.
Lytge pointed at him. “Carefully, lad. Sutherland was nae built on bursts of passion but on careful thinking. I may nae have cared for the number of times me own father jerked me back into line, but I see the wisdom of it. Ye’ll go because it will give the gossips something else to ponder besides whom we may or may nae have a reason to feud with.”
There was a hint of something in his father’s tone that challenged Gahan to think on just what else his sire had in mind. A laird had to be sharp-witted if he wanted to be victorious.
“They’ll wonder if ye’ve sent me off because Daphne is making ready to present Norris with an heir, and ye no longer need me to safeguard the family line.”
The earl slapped his leg. “Ye’re sharp as a whip.” He chuckled. “Aye, they will be thinking I am making ready to be done with ye since the bloodline is now secure. Ye’ll have to play the part of being unsure of yer future.”
“Which just might gain me a welcome from Achaius Matheson,” Gahan added.
“Brilliant,” Norris agreed.
“Make sure ye take four hawks, and never let yer guard down. Bari wants vengeance, and that’s a fact.”
“He’s nae the only one,” Gahan muttered.
Lytge stood. He paused in front of Gahan and reached up to clasp his shoulder. The earl was not a small man, but Gahan still looked down on him. Gahan was grateful for the low light in the chamber, because for just a moment, his eyes glistened as his sire’s strong grip sent a surge of emotion through him.
“I’ll do ye proud, Father.”
“Ye’ll do Sutherland proud,” Lytge told him in a rough voice. “Ye are more than me son. Ye are a laird of Sutherland. Do nae listen to the gossips. Ye have a place here now and always. So kindly do nae let that bastard Bari Fraser slit yer throat. The man no doubt thinks it his right. I’m right glad Norris did nae wed any of that blood. It’s tainted with insanity.”
Seabhac Tower, Fraser land
The snow was melting.
Moira felt the sun chasing the chill from her nose for the first time in weeks. Seabhac was set against the shadow of the mountains. The stone of the three keeps was dark, and when the days were short, it sometimes felt like night lasted too long. But the mews were built facing the valley. The hawks needed the light. The long building that housed the raptors was constructed on the ground, but she didn’t mind the number of stone steps needed to reach them. Among the perches, she might at last be free from her half brother’s attention.
She smiled, amused by her thoughts. Freedom was not something she had ever enjoyed. Her half brother, Bari, was laird, and he’d always kept her on a short leash. Even a half sister was expected to learn how to run the castle, in case he ever wanted to use her to secure an alliance through marriage. A laird negotiated for a bride who could keep the estate books and run his home. The skills were many and often frustrating to learn, but she admitted to enjoying the challenge. She doubted her laird and half sibling would like it if she ever confessed that to him. Bari did enjoy thinking he was pressing her into submission.
At least Sandra was gone. No matter how unchristian it was, more than one Fraser was relieved to be rid of the spiteful redhead. Sandra had been a demanding mistress, quick to remind one and all that she was the full-blooded sibling of the laird and she would someday wed well. Moira had served the high table as a reminder that she had common blood in her veins, even if she was legitimate. Sandra’s mother had been a blue-blood, and she made sure everyone knew it. She expected to hook herself a noble husband, preferably one with a title and enough gold to ensure Sandra never had to do anything more than enjoy herself. There had been no challenging moments of ensuring the castle was running smoothly for Sandra. She had never concerned herself with making sure every inhabitant was provided for as the traditions of the Highlands demanded. Instead, there had been intrigue and schemes. Sandra enjoyed Court, often demanding money from the household accounts to fund her newest gowns. Moira’s own clothing was worn and tattered from Sandra’s excesses because there had been little coin left after Sandra was satisfied.
Sandra’s ambition had been the end of her.
For a moment, Moira was caught in the grip of lament, but it wasn’t truly sadness over Sandra’s death. It was more of a feeling of pity for the way Sandra had wasted her life. She had left nothing but scandal and hardship behind. Moira found herself happy to wear her worn dress, because at least she’d come by the tattered hem honestly. No one would speak ill of her when fate decided her days were over.
There were more than a dozen hawks waiting for her attention in the mews. They flexed their wings and twisted their heads, using their sharp beaks to tend to their feathers. Each wore a hawk’s hood, but they could sense the sunlight. They heard her steps, and several cried out, eager to be chosen for the first hunt of the day. Moira stopped in front of a hawk and stroked its back. She removed its hood. She cooed softly to it as she cleaned around its perch. The raptor watched her with keen eyes, and she kept her motions slow to avoid startling it.
“There ye are,” said a familiar voice.
The raptor let out a shrill cry and flapped angrily. Bari’s head of house froze instantly, her eyes rounding.
Moira cooed to the bird. The hawk kept its head turned, one eye on the housekeeper.
“Ye have an amazing way with the birds,” Alba observed.
Moira shot her a grin. No matter how much of a sin pride was, she was proud of her feathered babies. “I raised Athena from a hatchling after her mother died.”
“Aye, ye did, and I recall more than one man saying it was best to just give her a quick end.” Alba twisted part of her skirt, her expression one of contemplation. At last she nodded. “I’ve come to fetch ye up to the keep. The laird is asking for ye.”
There was the firm ring of duty in Alba’s voice, and her expression was guarded. She looked away when Moira tried to catch her eye.
Moira’s belly twisted, which irritated her. Her half brother, Laird Bari Fraser, was not going to frighten her. He wielded the authority of the lairdship like a whip over every person wearing the Fraser colors, but she had decided long ago that she would not be afraid of him.
Apprehensive, perhaps, she admitted.
She made her hands stop shaking. The hawks’ perch was on the far side of the tower. Moira tried not to let her belly twist again because Alba was following her. There was only one reason the head of house would be walking behind her, and that was because Bari had ordered the woman to make sure Moira made an appearance.
Whatever her brother wanted to say to her, it wasn’t going to be pleasing.
Seabhac Tower was comprised of three keeps. There was only a small courtyard between them, so it took her little time to make it to the steps of the newest keep. The stone was dark and still cold from the night. The keep rose three full stories into the sky, but only the top story was being kissed by the morning light. The rest would be in the shadow of the mountains for another few hours.
The air was chilly inside, and the scent of smoke tickled her nose. Bari was in the hall, sitting at the high table. The hall wasn’t really big enough for the raised platform, but her brother had insisted on it being built. The dais for only the laird’s table now took up a quarter of the hall’s floor space.
Her father had never seen the need for such a display. Her half brother, on the other hand, sat smugly at his high table while she made her way down the center aisle. She stopped and lowered herself. A tingle traveled along her skin when she noticed there were more than a few retainers standing nearby. They watched her intently, as if they expected her to bolt.
“Rise,” Bari instructed.
Straightening up allowed her to see more. Moira’s throat felt like it was closing up, but she swallowed and looked her brother straight in the eye. Better to face him with courage.
“Are you suffering yer woman’s curse?” he asked bluntly.
Her cheeks heated, and she looked away out of surprise. To have any male ask such a question was intrusive. Only a husband had the right to know such a thing.
Husband…Bari had been threatening to find her one for a while. She stiffened and looked back at her brother, her teeth grinding as her temper flared.
“I am yer laird. Answer me.”
She slowly shook her head.
“Pack her things. We leave within the hour.”
Bari stood up, and his men shifted. Alba had lowered herself in deference to the command from her laird. Moira turned one way and then the other, watching everyone moving as though they understood perfectly what was happening, while she was left in bewilderment.
“Where am I going?”
Bari had already reached the edge of the platform. He looked back at her, his lips twisted with displeasure.
“Ye know yer place, Moira, and I promise ye that Laird Matheson will expect ye to remember to keep yer mouth shut unless ye are asked a question.”
Her brother’s voice echoed between the stone walls of the hall. Alba grabbed her arm and tried to pull her away, but Moira resisted.
“Ye haven’t told me my purpose.” Her brother always had something in mind when he made decisions. She’d learned long ago how to pry information from his lips. All she needed to do was allow him to think she wanted to do her duty.
Bari paused and played right into her hands.
“Yer purpose is to wed Achaius Matheson. I need the Matheson clan to help me win vengeance for Sandra.” Bari descended from the platform and walked toward her. He studied her face for a long moment. She honestly couldn’t recall the last time he’d looked at her so directly. “Ye’re no beauty, but ye’ll do. Ye will be his fourth bride. The last one died in childbirth. The man may be old, but he seems to still have a taste for a warm bed.”
Moira gasped, and Bari laughed at her horror. “Aye, ye heard me right. ’Tis old Laird Matheson ye’re set to wed. Both of his sons have been called to Court. It seems the young king wants to make sure of their loyalty. It’s left Achaius alone, and he does nae like having his family questioned by those in Edinburgh.”
“The Sutherlands are in good standing with the king,” she warned.
Bari’s face darkened. He lifted his hand but didn’t deliver the blow. “Ye’re lucky Achaius wants to enjoy ye as soon as possible. He’s paid off the Church to allow him to wed ye before the week’s end. Otherwise, I’d darken yer cheek.”
Alba was tugging on her arm again, but Moira wasn’t willing to give up. Desperation was clawing at her. “The Sutherlands are nae weak. Even with the Mathesons with ye, it will nae go well.”
“I told ye to make ready. Me word is given on the match, and that’s nae just the word of yer brother, it’s the promise of yer laird. Ye will wed Achaius Matheson.” He looked at the men lingering in the hall. “Make sure she’s ready.”
She heard their steps on the floor and felt them closing in on her. Alba’s grip became painful, and Moira stopped resisting. There was no point. Bari ruled absolutely on Fraser land.
But the thought that Highland lairds usually did brought her little consolation or made forgiving Bari any easier.
Alba paused and cleared her throat as several maids scrambled to stuff Moira’s meager belongings into leather bags. Two retainers had delivered one of Sandra’s old trunks, but after another man had snapped that the laird would be riding fast, it was only half-full and sat abandoned with its lid open. There would be no cart for the trunk.
“’Tis such a shame ye’ll nae be able to take all this finery.” Alba still sounded as though she might begin weeping.
“It was nae mine and should stay,” Moira assured her.
Alba looked up at her. “Laird Matheson will be expecting ye to arrive with a suitable wardrobe.”
“It seems me laird is nae very worried about what I shall be taking with me,” Moira said softly. “All that pile of silk does is remind me of how many are in need of winter boots because of the coin paid for those Court fashions.” Her own toes felt like they were still frozen, because she had on only a pair of shoes. But the stable boys needed boots before she did.
“That is a solid truth,” Alba agreed. “A shameful one at that. Yer father would nae have allowed it. He was a man of honor. A true Highlander.”
Moira gave her hair a final pass with a comb, then began braiding it. She made the plait tight, because she had no idea how long it would be before she might attend to her grooming again. Her chamber was on the ground floor, and she could hear the horses being brought out into the yard. Above her chamber, she could hear the hawks, and the sound of her babies screeching threatened to make her weep. “Bari is concerned only about how quickly I shall be ready to depart.”
She spoke firmly, trying to steady herself. She had never been off Fraser land but had to accept that she was leaving. Only children cried over such unchangeable facts of life.
“Aye, and that is a shame. He should have given thought to making sure ye’d arrive as a bride should. A thought for how the Fraser name will be spoken when ye arrive in rags like a servant. There should be a trousseau, or at the least a wedding dress.”
Alba brought her a cap made of fine linen. It was made to cover her hair and keep the wind from tearing at it. Once tied beneath her chin, only a thin line of her blond hair peeked out. Alba returned to the trunk and searched through it. With a soft grunt, she tugged a bundle free from near the bottom.
“Yer sister would never have worn this.” The older woman spoke with a tone rich in reprimand. “It is far too practical, since it is wool, but it is a pretty color. Green befits a bride.”
There was no way to tell what shape the dress was because it was bundled and tied with a ribbon. Alba pushed it into the single sack Moira was allowed to take.
“At least ye shall nae have to be a wife for long. Laird Matheson is very old.”
There was kindness in Alba’s voice. When Moira looked at the woman, she saw a wealth of experience in her eyes. “It’s nae as though ye ever thought to have any say in who ye wed.”
“Nay,” Moira agreed. Of course not. That would have been foolish and guaranteed to bring her nothing but grief. Even a half sister of the laird knew her place was to secure alliances for her clan.
“How old are ye?” Alba asked, slightly embarrassed by her lack of knowledge. Sandra’s birthdays had seen lavish suppers, with jugglers and musicians brought in especially for the event, but there had never been any fuss over Moira.
“Twenty-two, and before ye ask, I understand what me duties will be as a wife.”
Alba nodded, her relief obvious. She glanced at the half-full trunk and surprised Moira by smiling approvingly.
“All of that fine cloth never made a bit of difference on how rotten the woman wearing it was.”
Never once had Moira heard any member of the house staff speak against their mistress. Now the chamber was heavy with emotion as the maids all froze, their attention on their head of house.
“Even in death, she’s still bringing trouble.” Alba reached for Moira’s hand and clasped it firmly. “Perhaps yer brother has never treated ye as the mistress, but ye are the daughter of the laird I served faithfully. Ye have put the members of this household above yer own comfort. We are yer clanswomen, and I’m asking ye, one woman to another, to do yer best to keep peace. For our sake.”
There was pleading in the older woman’s voice, and the other maids reached for her too. She’d never felt so much responsibility before, never seen so many looking to her for assistance.
“I do nae know what I can do.”
“A man who has a bride happy to welcome him often finds reasons to delay leaving his keep,” Alba suggested in a low tone. “He’ll have ye either way, but if ye make him think ye enjoy his company, he may nae be so willing to join yer brother in battle.”
Alba’s eyes were bright with unshed tears, and all around her, the other women began to nod. Moira’s life had never been full of unkindness, but she realized that she had never had the opportunity to help others. Not in such a large way.
The desire to make such a difference for her friends and kin grew quickly. It burned away the reluctance that had been fueling her anger.
“I will try. I promise ye I will try very hard.”
Alba smiled. Moira’s hands trembled, then Alba patted the top of Moira’s hand. The tension in the room broke, and Moira smiled.
Aye, she would indeed do her duty and give her marriage her best effort.
Bari just might not get the feud he was hoping for.
“Ye did nae ask permission to take that hawk.”
Moira walked toward Bari as she left Seabhac Keep for the last time. Athena was perched on her wrist, a thick leather gauntlet protecting her skin. There was a small perch attached to the front of her saddle for the hawk. Once the raptor was more at ease with being on the horse, she would rest her arm.
“I raised Athena.”
“Yer duty was to look after the hawks. That one is no different than the others.”
Moira stroked Athena’s feathers gently. “She is different, for her mother died, and she would have too if I had nae taken pity on her.”
Her brother scowled at her. “I recognize no difference. Yer time belongs to me.”
“Yet there are differences that ye have no control over.” A retainer held the mare waiting for her, and she took the hand offered to her to mount. Athena shifted, raising her wings and crying in warning, then settled down as Moira gained the saddle.
“What do ye mean by that?” Bari demanded.
Moira surprised him by smiling. “Ye might order me to wed and have yer retainers ensure that I arrive on Matheson land, but when the wedding chamber doors are closed, only I will have the power to control me actions.” She fluttered her eyelashes. “I wonder how pleased Laird Matheson will be with a weeping bride?”
Bari’s complexion darkened. “Ye’ll do no such thing.”
Moira stroked Athena’s back again. Her laird and half brother snorted.
“Take the bird. At least Matheson will nae be able to claim I sent ye with naught.”
Her brother urged his stallion forward, leaving her behind. Alba stood at the top of the keep’s steps, watching her with a gleam in her eyes that looked something like approval. It was a small thing, and yet, a victory for Moira.
“We’ve land to cross!” Bari ordered. “And a wedding to witness.”
He never looked back at her. The lack of any sort of compassion from her sibling made it easy to ride through the gate and away from Seabhac Tower. She wouldn’t call it home; no, she would not. She had friends there but no family, and it was family that made a place a home.
Maybe she’d find it on Matheson land.
Her confidence wasn’t strong enough to shield her from doubting it. She searched her memories, trying to think of any tales she’d heard of Achaius Matheson, but there were none. If he was a monster, there would be rumors. At least that was what she tried to convince herself of.
But she’d be lying if she said she was completely at ease.
“Well now, it seems the Frasers are out to enjoy the spring weather,” Cam muttered.
Gahan held up his hand to shade his eyes and watched the column of Fraser retainers. One man carried a pole with the Fraser laird’s pennant fluttering atop it. “Bari is with them as well.”
Temptation was toying with him. It took all of Gahan’s control not to order his men to sweep down into the valley and claim the vengeance he craved. His hands tightened on his reins until his stallion snorted because he was pulling so hard on the bit. He eased his grip and scanned the Frasers once more. Something caught his eye, and he focused on it.
“They’re riding with a woman,” Gahan said.
Cam lowered his spyglass and looked at Gahan. “That might be bad news.”
“Or the evidence we need to prove Bari is making trouble,” Gahan replied. “The man has a half sister, and he’s heading toward Matheson land.”
“Did nae Matheson’s wife die during the winter?”
Gahan nodded. “I believe it would only be fitting to make sure a member of the Sutherland family is present at the wedding of a vassal laird.”
“I’m sure the earl would agree,” Cam offered. “But ye cannae stop Bari from contracting his sister.”
Gahan put his spyglass back into the pocket on his saddle. It was a costly item not easily replaced. He made sure the pouch was tied closed, but the time needed to do so frustrated him. There was a sense of urgency riding him that was hard to control.
But only a lad went off without thinking, or a fool who didn’t care if the Frasers ended up with the right to start a feud with his father. The king was a boy, who took a great deal of advice from Lord Home. Home was a man who understood how to manage power, and he’d be happy to see Sutherland weakened by feuding with vassal clans, because it would make the king that much more powerful.
Which left Gahan with the very difficult challenge of trying to find a way to keep Bari Fraser from wedding his half sister to Achaius Matheson and forming an alliance.
He grinned as he leaned over his horse’s neck and gave the powerful animal his freedom. There was nothing he loved better than a challenge. Especially if it meant gaining the opportunity to snatch something Bari Fraser wanted from his grasp.