Authors: Mary Wine
Copyright © 2013 by Mary Wine
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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.”