About the book
She was like a force of gravity, pulling him down to his damnation...
Handling a farm with no male relatives, Cicilia O'Donnel realizes, would only make her easy prey. She vows to take this secret to her grave. Or at least until the day a Highlander shows up unexpectedly, looking for answers: the Laird himself.
Proper in every way, Alexander MacKinnon, Laird of Gallagher, takes pride in the way he runs his lairdship. Apart from one small thorn in his side: the O’Donnel farm. When he meets the headstrong daughter of the farmer, everything about her seems wrong. Especially the way she seems to dominate his senses.
A fire that destroys the farm forces Cicilia and Alexander to confront the one running through their veins for each other. Winds of war blow through Gallagher Castle, a storm started by the same man who took Cicilia's father from her. And only she seems to hold the key to stopping a bloodstained revolution...
Fortune Favors the Bold
Alexander MacKinnon, Laird of Clan Gallagher, was not the type to delegate responsibility. Despite the vastness of his clan, he had in-depth knowledge of almost all the weddings, births, and business contracts created within his borders.
He knew the variety of herbs in each healer’s shipment, the volume of ale in every tavern barrel. He could accurately recount the collection of livestock on every farm.
Every farm except one.
Alexander frowned at this thought, the discomfort causing a crease between his thick dark eyebrows. It was the only wrinkle anywhere on his person.
Unlike many other Lairds, Alexander placed prime importance on his appearance. It was not vanity, but rather a wish—a need—for his outward appearance to reflect the strict control he practiced within.
Someone was knocking at his door, but he was not yet ready. “A moment,” Alexander called as he brushed a tiny crease from his pristine white shirt. “I am nearly ready.”
“Aye, Me Laird. Sorry to interrupt, Me Laird,” a maid’s timid voice said. “It’s only tha’ Mr. Cunningham asked me to come to fetch ye.”
Alexander sighed, reaching for the embossed golden pin that he always wore on his shirt, attaching it to his breast. “Tell Thomeas I’ll be there directly.”
The maid did not reply, but he heard her footsteps as she hurried away down the corridor, eager to do his bidding quickly and accurately.
Ye’re too harsh, Alexander. Ye scared the poor woman again.
His brow creased again, and then he shook his head. No time for sentiment now. He could not worry about hurt feelings while he had a day’s duty ahead of him.
An’ ye ken they’re whisperin’ about ye regardless. It’s been that way for a decade past.
Alexander glanced at himself at the looking glass on the way past. He knew he cut an imposing figure, which no doubt added to the intimidating aura that seemed to follow him around. He was taller than most men, more than six and a half feet in height, with piercing blue eyes he’d heard the clansmen compare to ice.
He raised his hand, brushing an errant dark hair behind his ear in line with the rest of his uniformly short, impeccable hairstyle, and straightened the pin on his shirt.
“Audentes Fortuna Iuvat,” he muttered. “Fortune favors the bold.”
They were the words of his father and his ancestors before him. Most clans who bothered with a motto used their native Scots Gaelic, but Alexander’s great-great-great-grandfather, for whom he was named, had been a strange Laird. He was a scholar rather than a warrior. He was a man who dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge and its benefit to the Scottish people.
An’ bold we’ve been since. At least, I’m tryin’ me best.
The pin should not be his yet. His father should still be bearing it. His father, Declan, should still be leading the clan. Alexander remembered the irony of the day he’d received the pin. He’d coveted the shining status symbol his whole life, always asking his father when it would be his turn to wear it.
He’d been six-and-ten when his wish came to pass in the most horrific way possible, and he’d lived with the regret and not a little guilt ever since.
I was just a bairn who thought himself a man. Barely old enough to grow a beard.
The last words he’d ever spoken to his father had been those of adolescent irritation.
“Ye have nae right to forbid me from anythin’. I’ll be a better Laird than ye ever have been.”
Alexander flinched even now, remembering the tiredness that had flashed in his father’s eyes. Just six-and-ten and all too proud, Alexander had locked himself in his chambers and refused to even entertain seeing his parents away as they left to visit his older sister in the neighboring clan.
Catherine had left her Laird husband and her weeks-old baby behind to travel back and tell him the news personally.
Still injured, and pale as a ghost. She may be thrivin’ now, but I ken she never recovered in her heid.
She’d been part of the whole thing, and young Alexander had all but forced her to tell him everything, trying to find some hole in the story, some error of judgment that told him that this was a lie.
He could still picture the word-portrait she’d painted in his mind to this day. How, as she and her parents chatted amiably, something had spooked the horses. How they had whinnied and screamed and veered off, and the feeling of her stomach dropping away as the carriage broke away from their harnesses.
How the carriage tumbled down the stark hillside, hitting every rock on the way down, and how the ice-cold water had soaked them through when it had plummeted into the water. How their father had been unconscious, bleeding badly from his head, and how their mother’s skirts had been tangled in the broken upholstery.
How she’d forced Catherine to leave her and swim for the surface, passing the body of the driver on the way. How Catherine had clung to a rock for hours, knowing her parents were drowning just below her as she waited and prayed.
I still thank God daily that the fisherman who saved her was fishin’ outside his usual area.
Cut and bruised and with a broken arm, Catherine had only spent a day at home recovering before she insisted on traveling to the Gallagher lands to let her brother know.
When she’d finished telling him, she’d held the pin out to him. “Father left it in his room,” she’d explained softly. “An’ it’s yer’s now, by right. I’m right sorry, Sandy, but I cannae stay more than a night or two. Ye ken that me bein’ wed to the Laird o’ Sinclair means I cannae interfere in business here.”
She was right. As far as the law was concerned, Catherine belonged entirely to another clan now. Even if there had been no male heir, the Lairdship would likely just pass to the commander of his father’s army or another suitable male candidate.
As if to punctuate the point, Catherine said gently but firmly, “Ye’re the Laird o’ Gallagher now.”
Alexander hadn’t felt any pain as his sister described his parents’ death and called him by his childhood nickname. There had been pain later, of course, much of it, but none where anyone could see. He’d sat there like an old Celtic statue, frozen in time.
Catherine had waited a few minutes, then gently reached over and pinned the badge to his shirt. “The servants are here, and Thomeas will be able to help ye with the finances. But ye’ve got a lot o’ tough decisions ahead o’ ye, and nae body much to help. Be brave. Be strong.”
“I will be bold,” he’d told her emptily, raising his fingers to brush the cold metal. “Audentes fortuna iuvat.”
“Aye, indeed,” Catherine had said in response, tears in her eyes. “Indeed.”
Alexander saw his sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew as frequently as his duty allowed, but no matter how she tried to approach it, he would never speak with her about that day.
He knew she simply wanted to remember the parents they’d loved. Still, Alexander had spent twelve long years building his hard, protective shell. He needed to, for the good of his people, and he could not let anyone break it, not even his sister.
Tha’s more than enough dwellin’ on the past, Alexander.
He blinked a few times, drawing himself back into the present. Thomeas was waiting, with whatever financial wizardry he had performed today.
The farmer had been due to leave for the town an hour before, but a mishap with one of the dairy cows meant that hadn’t quite gone as planned. Walking past one of their cottage’s windows, the loud voices of both siblings could be heard echoing loudly out.
With a sigh, the farmer headed inside again, and to the kitchen door. If something went wrong, they had no mother, no father—only some servants, and the farmer alone to deal with the eight-year-old twins.
It was hard, that was true, especially with the secret of their own identity that the farmer held close. Running a farm with two eight-year-olds would have been hard for anyone, never mind in these unique circumstances.
I’ll just stay out o’ sight an’ watch whatever they’re bickerin’ about now.
With that in mind, hiding just behind the doorway, the scene unfolded.
“Stop it, Jamie, or I’ll smack ye in the face!” Annys screeched at the top of her voice, dodging out of the way as the thick slice of buttered bread flew at her head. “I’ll do it!”
“Ye will nae!” her twin brother yelled back. “Ye stop it! Ye spilled milk on me best trews!” He picked up an apple from the table, ready to lob that at his sister’s head, too.
“Yer best trews are as ugly as yer face. I did ye a favor!” Annys snapped back.
“Stop it, the pair o’ ye!” a loud, imposing voice demanded, and the two eight-year-olds immediately stopped in their tracks.
The farmer hadn’t noticed that Angelica Humphries was in the room with the twins, but it gave some relief. After all, the cook could get good behavior from anyone.
“Sorry, Mrs. Humphries,” Annys said meekly, obviously trying her best to seem entirely angelic. “Jamie started it.”
“Annys started it,” Jamie protested. “She always does, Mrs. Humphries, ye ken she does!”
“Enough!” The cook was in her forties, plump and pleasant, red-cheeked with sandy hair and big brown eyes. She’d served the family for longer than the twins had been alive, sending most of her money back to help her widowed father, Old Ewan, who still lived in the village. “What would the farmer say at such a scene? I have half a mind to go out to the village now an’ tell—”
Usin’ me as a threat, are we? Ha!
“Oh, dinnae!” Annys said, suddenly panicked. “Dinnae tell Cil we’ve been naughty, please. We’ll be good. I’ll even clean the milk off o’ Jamie’s trews.”
Well, what do ye ken. It worked.
Cil—Cicilia—had run the farm since the death of their father last year. As a woman, she had gone to all sorts of lengths to protect her family and their land. She knew that O’Donnel Farm should, by law, be in the hands of some distant male cousin or the other, but…
Well, she’d lost her mother eight years ago, and her father even more recently. She would not lose her farm, too. She wouldn’t let anyone take away the only home her little siblings had ever known.
Jamie nodded frantically in agreement with his sister, his red curls bouncing as he did. Cicilia saw Annys glare at him a little, and couldn’t help but smile.
Annys had always been jealous of her brother’s lovely curls and the bright orange mop that both Cicilia and Jamie sported, though Cicilia’s was much wilder than Jamie’s. Annys’s own hair was long and straight, always worn in pigtails, and jet black. No matter how often Cicilia told her it was pretty, she’d huff that she was the only one without Daddy’s hair.
“It’s our mammy’s hair,” Cicilia had told her when she’d asked about it once. “Just like how Jamie’s got her brown eyes. But look, Annie, ye and me have Da’s special green eyes wi’ the wee gold fleck that marks us as O’Donnels.”
That was a bit of comfort to them both, especially after Daddy had died half a year before, leaving Cicilia alone with the twins and the farm. When she looked at Annys, sometimes she saw her father smiling back at her.
“Why’s Cil in the village, anyway?” Jamie asked Angelica. “Nae breakfast wi’ us today?”
Annys rolled her eyes. “Because it’s tax day, ye bampot. It’s time to give Mr. Jenkins our fee to pass on to the Laird. We got told this yesterday.”
Aye, so tha’ nae body else learns me secret. Thank God the villagers rallied to help me.
“Dinnae call yer brother a bampot,” Angelica scolded. “But aye, in the village. The farmhands are handlin’ the milkin’ an’ the feedin’ this morn. Ye two have to get out and collect the eggs after breakfast instead, mind.”
Annys groaned. “Betsy doesn’ae like it when I take her eggs. She only lets Cil do it. She’ll peck at me!”
Jamie chuckled. “Better than Cil peckin’ at ye if we dinnae do it,” he pointed out.
It sometimes made Cicilia a little sad to hear her siblings talking about her that way. She adored the twins, both of them, and wanted nothing more than to spoil them whenever she could. But running a farm required strictness, and so Cicilia couldn’t tolerate laziness, even while taking on most of the work alone.
“Ye’re right,” Annys said, reaching for her bread and hastily chewing on it. With her mouth full, she added, “I bet I can collect more eggs than ye, Jamie.”
“Aye?” Jamie asked with a teasing smirk. “Well, I bet ye slip in the mud and fall on yer backside!”
As they started to bicker again, Cicilia saw Angelica roll her eyes and mutter a prayer on her way out of the room. She quickly stepped away from the door and down the corridor, out of sight before Angelica entered the hallway.
Annys and Jamie would be fine, as always.
An’ now it’s time to deal wi’ the taxman.
Thomeas Cunningham stood as Alexander entered the office, and he bowed low until the Laird told him to stop. Alexander appreciated the formality, but it felt a little odd, even now. He’d known Thomeas since childhood, when the man had first come to work for his father.
An’ he’s been invaluable since the accident. Without him, I dinnae ken how we could o’ survived, much less flourished the way we have.
“Somethin’ the matter, me friend?” he asked as he took the seat across the desk from the accomptant’s.
“O’Donnel is at it again,” Thomeas said without any preamble, as he sat down again, too. “He’s sellin’ to the Macrories and the MacDonalds as well as half o’ our allies, I swear to it.”
Alexander groaned. “The Macrories have been off-limits for a decade, since the last fightin’,” he said. “An’ everybody kens ol’ MacDonald is keepin’ materials from us. We cannae be seen tradin’ as if everythin’s all right.”
“Aye, well, Farmer O’Donnel doesn’ae seem to care,” Thomeas said with a slight shrug of his shoulders. “Me sources claim he’s been tradin’ wi’ the Macrories regardless o’ the insults the whole time.”
The accomptant was much older than Alexander, forty or so, with tidy brown hair, glasses, and sharp gray eyes. He was tall—though not compared to Alexander himself—and slender, and he often reminded the Laird of a sly gray wolf. He was quick, territorial, and cunning, and had seen Clan Gallagher through more problems than Alexander wished to recount.
Alexander drummed his long fingers on the table, listening to the clacking noise they made to try to center his thoughts. He hated this. Hated it. He’d always liked things tidy and orderly, and that need had only increased since he inherited his father’s title.
Most of his subjects were respectable, even if they found him a little intimidating. He was known for his harshness when laws were broken, but in general, the clan was thriving. As long as taxes were paid on time, and rules were followed, there were no problems. They had good wealth, better even than under the previous Laird, and relations with most other clans were decent.
An’ I help out where I can, though I dinnae want the people kennin’ a’ that.
He gave tax breaks, brought in external workers, supplied shops with extra stock—anything to help his people prosper. But he did this all out of sight of the people, not wanting to build up a reputation of sentimentality. He’d been a lad when he took the seat, but he’d made sure they didn’t think of him that way for long.
For the most part, it was fine. But then there was Cameron O’Donnel. The man had been a thorn in Alexander’s side for twelve years, even though Alexander had never met him. He was a farmer on the very borders of the Magee lands, at least a seven-day journey from here.
Which is why he keeps gettin’ away wi’ this.
O’Donnel had been making illicit trades and deals over the borders for years. Still, whenever Alexander sent a man out, the farmer had gotten enough warning to cover his tracks. In a strange way, Alexander had respect for the man. That wasn’t enough to make him tolerate this any longer, though.
Since his declaration of Lairdship, Alexander’s irritation with disorder had spiraled deeper and deeper into a near obsession. He wanted, no, needed his affairs in order so that he could feel comfortable.
Cameron O’Donnel was like an itch, one he couldn’t scratch, burning in a dark corner of his brain. Every time Alexander remembered that this one tiny thing was out of order in his otherwise perfect clan, it made all the hairs on his arms stand on end and his teeth clench.
Well. Nae more o’ this. He might be clever, but he is nae as smart as me best man.
He laid his hands flat on the table. “Right,” he said. “Right. He might nae care, but I do. It’s time we put an end to this nonsense once and for all.”
Thomeas raised an eyebrow. “Oh aye, Laird? O’Donnel’s nae fool, dinnae have any doubt o’ that. He’s secretive and stays well back. He sends his taxes to my collectors through a middle man to avoid bein’ seen. What exactly do ye have planned?”
Alexander nodded, pondering this information. It didn’t change anything. In fact, it made him even more determined to proceed with his idea.
“How would ye feel,” he asked his accomptant, “About takin’ a wee trip to our borders?”
Non Loqui Sed Facere
Not Talk but Action
Three weeks passed between Thomeas’s departure and his return. In that period, Alexander tried his level best to stay focused on other things. Still, a small section of his mind was stuck on what, exactly, could possibly be going on at that farm.
He didn’t bother looking up when the door to his quarters opened without anyone knocking first. Only one person in the world would dare to interrupt him like this. “Ye ken I’m yer Laird, Barcley?”
A chuckle came from ahead of him, and then Nathair Barcley swung into the chair opposite him and said, “Aye, I ken. Hard to believe it, but I ken. We’re still waitin’ for the reveal that it’s all been a big jape.”
“Charmin’,” Alexander said dryly, finally looking up from the document he was trying to read.
Nathair was his Man-at-arms. He was outgoing, loud, and rough-looking—in short, he was everything that Alexander was not. The men stood at the same height exactly, but that was where the similarities ended.
Where Alexander’s hair and beard were dark and well-kempt, Nathair’s wild honey-blond curls surrounded his face like a mane. It was hard to tell where the facial hair started, and the head hair stopped. That, combined with his narrow tawny eyes, was one of the reasons he’d gained his nickname in the army.
The Chieftain was known as Leòmhann amongst his men, the Lion of Gallagher. It wasn’t just for his appearance; he was fierce as a lion, too, and as strong a leader for his squaldron. He was friendly and sociable but never hesitated to act. He was oft untidy, but always vain, and he could tell a joke as easily as he could wield a sword.
Nathair was the opposite of everything that anyone saw when they looked at Alexander. As well, he wore the opposite of every personality trait the Laird held dear. The two men could not be more different, nor could they have been closer friends.
I sometimes wonder if we’d be so close if we had nae grown up together.
Possibly not, but it did no good wondering. Despite his charade of irritation, Alexander valued Nathair above all else and did not know how he would have succeeded in the Lairdship without him.
In a very real way, he’s the only family I have left aside from me sister. He’d mock the life out o’ me if I said as much.
So instead, Alexander said, “What do ye want?”
Nathair snorted, leaning casually forward on his desk. “An’ ye criticize me for me charms! Shockin’. Do yer people ken what a dobber ye are to yer Man-at-arms?”
Alexander rolled his eyes. “Me people dinnae care to ken much about me, an’ that’s the way I like it. Ye ken that better than anyone else.”
“True, true. Ye like to retain yer secrecy for sure. Helps ye hide tha’ golden heart ye hide under tha’ pin o’ yer da’s,” Nathair teased.
With an exasperated sigh, Alexander repeated, “What do ye want, Nathair? Some o’ us have to work.”
With a loud belly chuckle that seemed to reverberate around the entire room, Nathair said, “What do I want? Well, a castle o’ me own would be nice. For me Mither to stop goin’ on about how at nine-and-twenty I should be long wed. A tumble wi’ yer sister wouldnae go amiss.”
Alexander raised an eyebrow. “Me married sister, ye mean?”
“To me eternal disappointment. Catherine was the love o’ me life, an’ I may never recover.” Nathair sighed dramatically.
“She’s six years yer senior an’ she never saw ye as anythin’ but an even more annoyin’ wee brother than the one she already has,” Alexander told him.
“Och, ye wound me, Sandy,” Nathair replied sadly. Alexander was never sure how serious he was about his feelings for Catherine. Still, it had been a running joke since they were boys, and it hadn’t stopped him from courting others in any way. “Och well. In tha’ case, then, I’ll settle for five eligible lassies all for meself.”
“Did ye barge in here to talk abou’ yer flirtation needs?” Alexander asked. “Or did ye have somethin’ to report?”
“Oh, aye, tha’s right,” Nathair said cheerfully. “Yer man, Cunningham’s back. He’s a gibberin’ wreck. A couple o’ the kitchen lassies are sittin’ wi’ him as we speak.”
Alexander sat bolt upright. “Is he hurt? Do we need a healer?”
Nathair laughed again. “Och, nay, he’s just bein’ a big jessie. Must o’ seem something that had him right scared out at thon farm.”
Well, that explains why ye’re in such a good mood, at least.
Nathair’s dislike for the accomptant was well known. He ridiculed him—in private—almost as often as Alexander sang his praises. Alexander tried to ignore it. He knew that Thomeas wasn’t the most likable of men, especially to someone with Nathair’s cheer, but even Chieftain Leòmhann couldn’t deny his worth for the clan.
“I should go to him,” Alexander said, getting to his feet. “How about next time, ye try leadin’ wi’ the news rather than natterin’ on about me sister?”
“Och,” Nathair said, looking wounded again, one hand fluttering to his heart. “And where would be the fun in that?”
“Laird,” Thomeas said as soon as Alexander entered the kitchens. The women attending to him scurried off into other areas, leaving them in privacy.
Alexander was stunned at his accomptant’s appearance. Thomeas was pale and drawn, his eyes wide, and he looked like he hadn’t slept in a week. “What happened to ye, me good man?”
Thomeas shook his head, sipping at the ale one of the kitchen maids had slipped into his hands before vanishing. “Laird,” he said hoarsely, “Dinnae send me back there.”
Alexander paused in place, trying to process the disheveled appearance of a man usually so organized, and fending off the familiar itch of discomfort at the sight as much as he could. “Did they hurt ye?” he said uncertainly. “Did ye speak wi’ Farmer O’Donnel?”
“Only his bairns were around,” Thomeas told him, shaking his head. “I stayed for a few days, but they were…the two younger bairns yonder, Laird, I am sure they must be demons.”
“Demons?” Alexander repeated incredulously. “Come on now.”
Thomeas shook his head. “Nay, dinnae mock me. Ye dinnae see it for yerself. Twins, they are. Ye ken that’s rarely a good omen, and one o’ them is bound to be blessed by the Great Deceiver himself.”
Alexander crossed his arms over his chest. “Oh aye? An’ which o’ these twins is a devil-child?”
“Both,” Thomeas said darkly. “But the sister more so. I wouldnae be surprised if she was the spawn o’ the Dark One himself.”
The Laird raised his eyebrows. Thomeas was more open about his devoutness than many of his men, it was true. Still, he had never heard the accomptant rave so, especially not about children. He saw how off-kilter his friend was and tried to move the topic along. “What o’ the farmer? Where was he?”
“Away, the older bairn said. On business,” Thomeas grunted. “Dinnae ken when he’ll be back, apparently.”
Alexander nodded. “Very well,” he said. “Take a couple o’ days off, Thomeas. Ye’ve more than earned it.”
“An’ what’ll ye do about the farmer?” Thomeas asked. “He cannae be left to operate like this.”
“Dinnae ye worry,” the Laird told him with a sharp nod. “He will nae be. Nae more talkin’ about everythin’. I’m gonnae go deal wi’ this meself.”
Nathair offered to accompany him on the journey as soon as Alexander told him his plans. In fact, he practically insisted on it. “Ye are nae gonnae meet any demon bairns without yer Man-at-arms,” Nathair had said with authority.
In truth, Alexander was grateful for the insistence. He would need to travel as lightly as possible, which meant no maids, no servants. Likely he’d take nothing more than a change or two of clothing and provisions for the journey.
The farmer will provide for me when I arrive. Nae matter what he’s hidin’, it’s his duty as me vassal.
Still, Alexander hated to travel. He hated change. He had his routines, and since he was a boy, he had stuck to them. He’d slept in the same room, with his bed at the same angle. He’d taken his meals at the same time and washed at the same time every night.
He woke exactly when he meant to and followed a regimented order of events as he went about his day. Some saw it as rigidity or inflexibility, but Alexander thought it nothing of the sort. It was just important to know exactly what was going on at all times. Only then could he be the Laird his people deserved. Only then could he be even half the Laird that his father had been.
But ye cannae do that on the road. Ye have to just go wherever the wind blows ye.
The thought made him acutely uncomfortable. At least, with Nathair’s company, it would mitigate some of the strangeness. The Man-at-arms had been the most constant thing in Alexander’s life since childhood, more so even than his sister.
I’m lucky to have him. It was supposed to be Ilene.
He pushed that thought out of his mind, angry that she had even intruded. It had been years, and he had learned since then. Love was too much of a distraction—even now, long after it was over. He must focus.
“We’ll stay three days at most, nae longer,” Alexander said decisively as he and Nathair selected the horses they would ride out on their journey. “That should be more than enough for a quick reprimand an’ gatherin’ o’ what exactly the man’s been up to. Then we can get home, quick as ye like.”
“If nae quicker,” Nathair snorted. “I’m surprised yer doin’ this, Sandy. Ye could o’ just sent me alone.”
Alexander shook his head. “Nay. I’ve sent enough men. Cunningham came back fair traumatized. I dinnae ken what they’re up to at O’Donnel farm, but it’s far gone the time for me words and come me time for action.”
“I’ve been sayin’ that since we were eight and nine years old,” Nathair teased. “I think I’ll take this Irish Cob. Does he have a name?”
Alexander patted the horse’s nose. He knew each of the animals in here by heart and could recite where the stable master had purchased them and for what price. Alexander liked horses.
They make more sense than most people, tha’s for sure.
“Aye,” he said. “This is Ailill. The filly I’ll be ridin’ is his sister, Aibreann. Catherine got them from an Irish trader when they were naught but foals an’ she left them behind when she went to wed her Laird.”
He headed across the stable to where the filly in question was snacking on some hay and smiled. Horses were, indeed, majestic creatures.
Aye, they’re filthy at times, but their glossy coats and their discipline more than make up for it.
“Aibreann? Ye ready for a journey?”
As if she understood, the horse let out a low whinny.
Leading the Way with Deeds
Alexander and Nathair didn’t even wait a day before they left, not giving any leeway to Cameron O’Donnel’s foremen to warn him of their coming. They took the back roads, avoiding human and animal traffic where they could.
Gallagher Castle was on a high peak, a statistically logical place for the Laird’s castle to be. The surroundings were mostly rocks and moss, and the whole thing looked like a severe fort from myth. The stone castle almost seemed to grow out of the hill. From here, it seemed as much a part of the craggy landscape as the cliff’s edge.
But the lower into the valley Alexander got, the more things began to change—from moss-green to the green of rain-fed grass, and wild heather as far as the eye could see. They didn’t stop often, and the sights flew by faster than Alexander could imagine.
His people were spread out across the vast Gallagher lands, but they avoided all of the small village clusters for the most part and completely circumvented the one next to the castle. Alexander loved his people, but that didn’t mean he knew how to talk to them.
Besides, they’d just be alarmed to see their Laird ridin’ into town wi’ nae notice whatsoever.
As they climbed new hills and traversed new valleys, Alexander had to admit to himself that it had been a long time since he’d witnessed the beauty of his own land. He spent so much time in his castle, worrying about his people and seeking order, that he sometimes forgot what waited outside.
The disorder of the countryside stressed him, but it filled him with a childish wonder, too, deep in his heart where nobody else could see. The faerie mounds with their stones and flowers, the rushing rivers with their little silver and blue fish. The weeds that looked like the most exquisite blossoms, thistles and dandelions and daisies decorating the landscape.
Mither always loved daisies. Me an’ Catherine used to bring them in big bunches.
Nathair kept pointing out landmarks as they traveled. He tried to interest Alexander in the finer mythology of the Gallagher land. Every few seconds, he said something like, “Look, there’s where Joshua Wainwright got Madame MacCallum wi’ a bairn!” or “There’s the tavern where Mary Reid ran away wi’ that English banker!”
“Ye’re makin’ half o’ these stories up,” Alexander said in disbelief. “In fact, ye’re speakin’ absolute nonsense.”
“I am nae!” Nathair told him, offended. “I’m just tryin’ to introduce Me Laird to his own people and land.”
As much as Alexander would have liked the journey to end as quickly as possible, Aibreann and Ailill were as alive as he and Nathair and required rest from their burdens. While they usually stopped at a tavern or subject’s cottage nightly, they were always off again at first light, no time for gallavanting at all.
On the seventh day of travel, as they approached the outskirts of the O’Donnel farm, Nathair managed to convince him to stop. The sun was beating down unusually fiercely even for July, and their poor horses were clearly thirsting for a drink.
“Here,” Nathair insisted. “We stop here. We’ve nae been to the Loch de Òr since we were lads.”
Alexander gave his friend a skeptical look but eventually agreed. It had been a long time since he’d seen the so-called Loch of Gold, and longer still since he’d been near it, other than in a carriage while speeding past the border.
I have nae been here since me betrothal turned sour. I wonder if it’s still beautiful.
So they dismounted, their bags still on their horses' backs, and led the creatures off the beaten track and over the small hill that hid the vast loch behind it.
Oh me God.
He’d forgotten. He always forgot how beautiful the loch was. It got its name from multiple sources, all of which contributed to the sheen of gold that colored the waters no matter the time of year.
In the autumn, the golden leaves of the surrounding trees were reflected back, but even in winter, it retained its shine. The base of the loch was unusually sandy, with little gold, silver, and bronze fish that swam to and fro in the waters. When the sun hit just right, thanks to the angle of the loch, the light reflected back was otherworldly.
Now, in the height of summer, the trees were a stunning dark green. It added to the effect rather than taking away from it, though. Alexander found himself at peace as he stared into the green loch with its flecks of gold, representing calmness, representing peace.
At least she could nae take this from me.
Nathair was giving him a knowing look from the side of his eye. “Ye quite grand there, Laird?”
Alexander snorted. “Proud o’ yerself, are ye, Chieftain?”
“Och, aye,” Nathair agreed, pulling out some of their provisions and taking a seat on a jutting rock near the water’s edge. “I’m always proud o’ myself when I get a reaction out o’ ye, Stoneface, Laird o’ Statues.”
“Ye’re a menace,” Alexander told him with a smile, hunkering down next to him and accepting the offered bread. “But regardless, I’m glad ye’re me menace.”
Nathair gave him a long look, then patted him on the shoulder. “Dinnae ye worry, Sandy. I will nae tell anyone how soft ye’re gettin’.”
“Much appreciated,” Alexander snorted. “Now shut it so I can eat me luncheon.”
Six hours later, the night was beginning to fall, and Alexander had to admit they were horribly lost. They couldn’t have been more than a few hours out from the farm as they reached the crossroads, but neither had any clue which way to turn.
There was an old stone marker dead in the center, but it was weather-beaten beyond readability. Though it clearly marked out two different directions, the words were entirely obscured, and Alexander couldn’t tell at all which way he was supposed to go.
“Look,” Nathair pointed out. “An’ old man’s approaching yonder. Perhaps he kens where we’re supposed to be goin’.”
Alexander looked where Nathair indicated. There was, indeed, an elderly gentleman, perhaps seventy or so but sprightly for it, making his slow way along the path they’d just ridden. “Hail, Grandfaither,” Alexander called. “Will ye stop for some poor lost travelers?”
He ignored the look Nathair gave him at that, more interested in the surprised expression on the old man’s face.
“Ye’re talkin’ to me, sir?” the old man asked cautiously as he approached. “I dinnae have any money nor status. If ye’re lookin’ for—”
“Simply directions, me good man,” Nathair told him jovially. “To the O’Donnel farm. Do ye ken it?”
The old man’s eyes widened in alarm. Closer, his age was much more apparent. While he was hale and healthy, and obviously had been quite fit in his youth, his dark eyes had lightened with time. His forehead bore the many creases of age under his shock of white hair. “What business do ye have wi’ Farmer O’Donnel?” he asked cautiously.
Alexander and Nathair exchanged looks before Alexander said, “If ye dinnae mind, Grandfaither, me name is Alexander MacKinnon, an’ this is me friend, Nathair Barcley. We—”
The old man squinted at Nathair. “Barcley? The Man-at-arms Barcley?”
Nathair gave a little flourishing bow, made more impressive from the fact he had not yet dismounted his horse. “In the flesh, good sir. Ye ken me?”
“Aye,” the old man said absently, suddenly looking alarmed. His eyes were darting around the place, and Alexander wished that he could read minds so that he might understand the calculation in the old man’s head. “Aye, me granddaughter, me wee Jeanie, she met ye once when she was a-courtin’ one o’ yer soldiers. I—”
Then the old man’s eyes widened as he seemed to fully take in Alexander as well.
“And ye’re the Laird o’ the castle,” he said, with something like a tremor hidden in his old voice.
“Aye, that I be,” Alexander agreed. “An’ hopin’ to reach the O’Donnel farm before true nightfall. Do ye think ye can help us out?”
Swift calculation crossed the elderly man’s brow, almost too quickly for Alexander to read, and then his old face cleared into a smile. His alarm all but vanished as he said, “Aye, Me Laird. If ye and the good Chieftain just take a right here an’ keep ridin’ for a mile or two, ye’ll come across the farm in nae time at all. Ye cannae miss it.”
“Good,” Alexander said. He reached into his pocket and drew out a gold coin, which he gently tossed towards the old man. The fellow caught it with surprising deftness and a look of shock. “For yer troubles,” Alexander explained.
Nathair grinned. “Thank ye kindly, Grandfaither,” he said, and with that, the two men and their horses turned to the right path and began to ride.
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