“The cast of that sky warns of a storm brewing, Ronald,” Ainslee MacNairn said as she scowled up at the rapidly darkening sky.
“Aye, mistress,” agreed her gray-haired riding companion. “Methinks we had best ride back to Kengarvey.”
Ainslee smiled at him. “Are ye afeart of a wee fall tempest?”
“Nay, lass, and weel ye ken it. Howbeit, we have wandered far afield, and I am afeart of the Scots or the Normans. They would think it a fine thing if they got their hands on you. They would savor the chance to do a bit of bargaining or exact some revenge, or a wee taste of both. And with ye being such a comely lass, I dinna need to tell you how our enemies would seek their revenge through you.”
As she turned her mount back toward the sturdy fortress she called home, Ainslee cursed softly and tightened the hood of her voluminous cloak over her dark red hair. “Will there never come a day when I can ride free of the fear of all our neighbors, Ronald? We are at odds with one and all of the nearest clans, at odds with the Normans our good king has set just o‘er the river, and at odds with the people in the lowlands. Do ye ne’er grow tired of all the fighting and the dying?”
“Aye, but ’tis the way of the world, lass. Someone is always thinking to conquer us. Someone is always coveting our lands. There is always some dispute, someone claiming a grievance or insult. And there will always be the English, the Normans, or the neighboring clans to contend with. If it isna a raid, ’tis a fueding.”
“Weel, I grow heartily sick of it all. I often wish to leave this place so badly I ache with it.”
“Ye will soon be wed, and then ye will leave. Ye will, howbeit, forgive an old mon for hoping that that day doesna come too soon, as I have had the care of you since I set you on your first pony, and I will sorely miss you.”
“Thank you, but it doesna appear too promising that I shall be wed and carried away to a better place, so I shouldna worry overmuch. I am eighteen, Ronald, and nothing has yet been arranged for me. By the time I was six, my sisters were wedded to men from our neighboring clans in the vain hope of increasing our laird’s power. My father clearly feels that I am too thin and too ugly to make a good bargain with.”
“Ye talk nonsense, lass.” He shifted his stiff left leg to a more comfortable angle, and then idly rubbed the scarred spot on his left hand where he had lost three fingers. “Ye arena too thin. Under that heavy cloak is a form many a mon would be eager to curl up with. Aye, ’tis slim and limber, but ye have all the curves a mon wants. Ye have slim hips, but they are rounded enough to promise a mon the children he craves. Ye have fine red hair shot with gold, and eyes as blue as a loch on a fine summer’s day. I could flatter ye more, but ye are blushing like fire now”
“Ye speak verra directly, Ronald.”
“Someone must, if ye are to shed the foolish thought that ye arena bonny enough for any mon.”
She smiled faintly as she slid her delicate, long-fingered hands up and down the reins she held. “Mayhaps I am not unpleasing to a mon’s eye, but I am not what a mon searches for in a wife.”
Ronald’s weathered face creased into a grimace as he softly cursed. “ ’Tis true that, as the youngest of all your siblings by near to seven years, ye have grown to womanhood alone. Your friends and teachers have been those of us who serve the castle and the MacNairns. Your sisters were wed and gone, and your brothers were busy learning the ways of men. I was the one given the honor of raising you, and I fear I didna do it verra weel.”
“Ye did verra weel indeed, Ronald. I learned a great deal from you.”
“Aye, to ride as weel as any mon, wield a sword adequately, and be nigh on deadly with a knife. A bow is no stranger to those wee hands either, and ye have set many a beast of the forest on the tables of Kengarvey. Ye can read and write and even cipher a little, since ye blackmailed your brother Colin into teaching you when he returned from the monastery. Howbeit, ye have only a meager skill with a needle, unless ye are stitching a wound. Ah, but ye can play the lute and sing sweet enough to make even this hardened old mon weep. In truth, I dinna ken all ye can do or what skills ye have gathered in your unfettered life, but ye would make any mon a fine wife, one who can stand beside him and not cower behind him.”
Ainslee smiled and shook her head. “That isna what a mon wants, Ronald, and weel ye ken it. A mon wants a wife who will kneel before him, heed his every command with blind, smiling obedience, and never, never complain. I dinna think that will change be the mon a Sassanach, a Scot, or one of those Normans our king so assiduously courts.” She frowned when she realized that Ronald was no longer listening to her. “What is wrong?”
“Dinna ye hear that, Ainslee?” he asked as he stood erect in his saddle and looked around.
After listening carefully, Ainslee tensed and nodded. “Aye, I hear it. ‘Tis the sound of horsemen, and they are coming up hard from behind us.” She glanced down at the motley, huge gray wolfhound that trotted beside her and saw the fur bristle down his back. “Ugly hears it too, and by the mean look he now carries, ’tis not our own people who now approach.”
Ronald signaled her with one sharp movement of his hand. She spurred her horse into a gallop at the same moment he did, and they raced toward Kengarvey. At the crest of the next rise, she saw a band of Normans clear the thick wood behind them. A cry cut through the chill fall air, announcing the dire fact that the Normans had espied her and Ronald. The chase was on. She could only hope that their enemy would be slowed by the weight of their armor, for there was a lot of distance between them and the safety of Kengarvey.
Gabel de Amalville shifted wearily in his saddle. He hated leading forays into the wild area of the Highlands. At times he wished he could slaughter the whole ragged collection of clans and reivers, sweeping the entire area clean for miles around. Even if he was allowed such freedom, he doubted he would succeed, however, for the troublemakers he sought were hard to catch. One glance at the twenty heavily armed men who rode with him told Gabel that they were as ill-pleased with the duty as he was.
“Gabel, look there,” cried his cousin Justice Luten, tearing him from his disgruntled thoughts. “We have flushed out a pair.”
“So we have, cousin, and, if we do not stop them, they will alert Kengarvey.”
Gabel spurred his horse into a full gallop, and his knights were quick to follow. The pair of riders they sought were just disappearing over a small rise. They looked to be a young rider with an old man for an escort. It was not to Gabel’s liking to put such people to the sword, but he steeled himself for the distasteful chore. If Kengarvey was forewarned, his journey there would be for nothing, as he could never storm the alerted keep. It was not until the distance between him and the fleeing Scots was closed slightly that Gabel had the disturbing thought that one of the riders could be a woman.
He hastily shook away that idea. It was inconceivable that any woman could ride so well, or do so while riding astride such a powerful mount. The rider appeared completely unafraid of the speed of the horse and controlled the animal with an astounding skill. All of that told him that his prey could not possibly be a woman, yet his eyes continued to tell him that it was. He wanted the heavy dark cloak the rider wore to fly open, so that he could have a clearer view and end the confusion he suffered. Then, suddenly, Kengarvey rose into view and he reined in, too stunned to chase his prey even though they also reined to an abrupt halt. Kengarvey was in flames, and the harsh sounds of battle were easy to hear.
“ ’Tis the MacFibh clan,” cried Justice. “I recognize the banner. They have set upon the castle.”
“Aye. It would appear that the castle was as weakly defended as we were told it was,” agreed Gabel. “Watch our game, cousin. They now find themselves between two enemies. There is no way to guess how they will move next.”
Even as he spoke the riders turned. Gabel shared the surprise of his men when the pair suddenly rode straight across their flank, racing back toward the shelter of the forest. His men loosed a few arrows, even as a cry went up from the MacFibhs and they sent a messenger out. Gabel wanted to race after the fleeing MacNairns, but was forced to wait.
“If ’tis the MacNairn ye seek,” said the Scot as he reined to a halt before Gabel, “ye are too late. The bastard has fled with his four sons. The battle nears an end here. Those who arena dead or dying have fled, and the keep burns.”
“Then we shall face MacNairn on another day. Hie, men, I want those two,” Gabel cried to his men, even as he turned and spurred his mount after the two fleeing toward the forest.
Gabel was acting on impulse and intuition. Instinct told him that the pair of riders now barely in sight were of some importance. There was a chance that the MacFibhs were wrong, and not all of MacNairn’s sons had fled at his side. If his instincts proved correct, he could demand a hefty ransom for the boy’s return, a ransom that might well force MacNairn to at least confine his troublemaking to his own lands and those of his immediate neighbors like the MacFibhs. Gabel knew that this attack would not be enough to end MacNairn’s reign. Kengarvey had been put to the torch numerous times over the years, and MacNairn had always risen from the ashes.
Any sort of truce with MacNairn would be a balm of sorts for the king, Gabel decided, and it was very important that he placate the king. Not only had he sworn allegiance to the Scottish king, but he was very comfortable in the keep and on the lands that pledge had gained him. Now that his elder brother had sired a third son, Gabel knew he had little chance of inheriting the English lands William I had given to their great-grandfather, Charles de Amalville.
The grant of lands from the Scottish king David was vitally important to Gabel, for he had no desire to live and die leaving nothing to the sons he craved. Neither did he wish to waste away his life as a mercenary, or join the priesthood. His time of personal service to David was nearly at an end, and, if he satisfied the king, the lands would be his. It had worked for others. If he could end the troubles stirred up by the MacNairns, he could then rest awhile, supporting the king by less demanding means. He could finally marry and begin his family.
Even now his manor was being prepared for a wife. Gabel decided it was not truly vain to be so confident that he would find one with ease. Women had never shied from him. Many a man had also indicated a wish to have him become part of their family. All he needed was the land, and the two riders now disappearing into the wood could well help him secure that largesse.
Minutes after they entered the forest, Gabel and his men had to slow their pace because of the thickness of the trees. When they lost sight of their quarry, Gabel ordered his men to halt. Justice dismounted and studied the ground. As he moved along, his mount trailing behind him, Gabel and the others gave their horses a well-deserved rest. Gabel refused to accept that he had lost the race. If Justice could find the trail, then they could catch their prey where the pair had gone to ground.
“One of them took an arrow, Gabel,” Justice called. “The trail of blood is clearer than any of the hoofprints.”
“Then they shall soon need to halt. Let us dismount and follow on foot for a pace,” Gabel said as he slid out of his saddle. “Our horses need to rest. My backside could do with a respite from the saddle as well.”
“See here, Gabel, they turn westward by this tree.” Justice pointed at the gruesome markings when Gabel moved to stand beside him. “This bloody trail tells me that, whichever one of them is wounded, he will not be able to stay in his saddle for very much longer. Even now he must be growing very weak from loss of blood.”
“Then we shall have them.”
Ainslee turned to speak to Ronald about stopping at the small brook they crept by, and gasped. Ronald was as white as the cleanest linen. Even as she reached out to him, he swayed and slipped off his horse. Swallowing a cry of alarm, Ainslee flung herself from her saddle and rushed to his side. She cursed when she saw the arrow wound in his right leg.
“Why did ye keep silent about this?” she demanded. “Aye, but ye have lost a great deal of blood. The arrow?”
“I pulled it free, lass,” he replied, his voice little more than a hoarse whisper as he clung to consciousness with grim determination. “Ne’ermind tending to me. Flee this place, ere those Normans catch you.”
“And leave ye here to be captured, killed, or bleed to death? Never.”
She fetched the small bag she always hung from her saddle. Ronald had taught her to travel prepared for any trouble, no matter how short a journey. Since she had been a small child, there had always been Ronald and his small bag of assorted necessities. As she had aged, she had begun to assemble her own. In it were scraps of linen to bind his wound, and a mixture of herbs to use as a salve. All she needed to fetch was the water to clean his injury.
“Curse ye twice over, ye fool lass,” Ronald muttered as Ainslee removed her mantle, folded it, and placed it beneath his head. “Will ye favor me by fleeing, while ye still can?” He started to curse fluently when she ignored him.