But his mirth went unappreciated, and his words chilled Juliana to the bone. Each one, an icy blast loosed just above her ear to banish all silly notions of black-winged devil-demons and restore her mettle.
But before she could gather her wits and sharpen her tongue, her knight gave a great whooping cry that sounded likeCuidich N Righ! . . . Save the King! . . . Clan MacKenzies battle cry some dim memory assured her.
Roaring the slogan again, and with such fervor her eardrum nigh burst, he slapped his horse with the flat of his hand and sent them pounding across the cobbled causeway. They thundered straight through the second gatehouses great portcullis arch, not halting until they reached the shallow steps leading up to the keeps massive iron-studded door.
Och, fair maid, do you not see? Your ill ease is sorely misplaced, he assured her, lifting his voice above the sudden ululant winding of a horn. Unless another has taken this holding, yon
devil you glimpsed is none other than my own good sire, Duncan MacKenzie. The Black Stag of Kintail.
But Juliana had already guessed.
And with the guessing came the faintest tinge of certainty that her knights imposing father had much to do with her own secret tragedy.
Linnet came awake at once.
She sat bolt upright at the high table, blinked the heavy sleep from her tired eyes. Where moments before the hiss and sputter of a guttering torch had been the only sound to penetrate her fitful dreams, now the stir all around proved deafening.
Throughout the great hall, clansmen pushed to their feet, some stumbling over trestle benches in their haste. Eilean Creags ageless female seneschal, Elspeth, Linnets childhood nurse, sent wide-eyed spit boys scampering about with heavily-laden platters fresh from the kitchens.
The old womans iron-gray curls bobbed and her apple-red cheeks glowed bright as she stood mid-hall, clapping her hands and keeping a good-natured but stern eye on the wee lads as they hurriedly placed viands, ale, and wine on the long tables.
Closer by, Elspeths grizzle-headed husband, Fergus, slept at the end of the high table, his undisturbed snores filling Linnets earsas did the excited barking of dogs and the ceaseless shrilling of horns. And from somewhere in the tower high above, fast-pounding footsteps and shouting could be heard.
A cacophony that could only mean one thing.
Robbie had been sighted.
Her stepson had returned at last.
His arrival imminent.
Beside her, already standing, her one-time champion, Sir Marmaduke, drew her to her feet. I will not let you fall, he promised, taking her elbow.
I know . . . th-thank you.
Linnet pressed his hand, welcoming the firm, steadying gripblessing the long years of friendship that let him know her knees had grown weak over time. She remained grateful as well for his undiminished ability to sense when her gift plagued her.
As if he, too, could hear the drone of bees buzzing furiously at the outer edges of her perceptionor perhaps caught a fleeting glimpse of the tall, lushly-curved figure shed seen briefly outlined against the flame-shadows of the halls cavernous hearth.
Lady. Sir Marmaduke gently squeezed her arm, gestured at her untouched cup of wine. If there is aught troubling you, mayhap you should have a sip before yon door bursts open?
Linnet raised arching brows at him, but she knew in her heart that her bravura did not fool her old champion. Not for the sliver of a heartbeat. He knew her that welland cared that deeply.
It is my hope that there will be no difficulties, dear friend, she said simply, reaching for the wine.
But the moment she lifted the cup to her lips, a jolting current of icy-cold pinpricks spilled down her spine. The air around her became so thick with the scent of damp earth, heather, and gorse, she would have sworn she stood in the middle of the purest Highland glen and not on the dais of her own smoke-hazed great hall with its usual less-than-pleasing smells.
More strange, the comely lass, so generously made, no longer stood so proud yet insubstantial, in the crackling flames of the hearth fire.
Nay, she now stood beside Robbie in the open keep doorwaya vision come to life on the arm of an incredibly handsome young man whose likeness to his father had only increased in the years hed been away.
Her breath catching in wonderment, Linnet stared across the hall at her stepson, now a man of full years and every well-muscled inch of him as impressive as his sire.
With his plaid slung oh-so-casually across his shoulder and his sword belt fastened fashionably low on his hips, hed acquired an irresistible air of twinkling-eyed confidence and pride that warmed Linnet to the roots of her soul.
For unlike her lord husbands still-daunting air of ferocity, Robbie MacKenzies well-defined dimples and crinkly-eyed smile spoke for a man who wore his name and power with ease, but who tempered his strength with a pleasing measure of good humor.
The long years had been good to Robbie.
Not so, the proud beauty at his side.
Even if one ignored the borrowed shirt and plaid clinging so fetchingly to her generous curves, the maids scuffed boots told a tale of their ownas did the determined lift of her chin and the heated flush on her cheeks.
The way her bold green gaze took probe and measure of every MacKenzie eyeing her so curiously.
Linnet stared, too, may the good saints forgive her. And her heart thudded heavier the closer Sir Marmaduke escorted her to this living vision shed glimpsed only in hazy dreams and quick-passing instants of brilliant but fleeting clarity.
Whateer had befallen the lass, she wore a strip of linen bandaging around her head and dear Elspeth, without doubt having noted the maids disheveled state, already fussed over her, clicking and tut-tutting her tongue, and shaking her gray head like a mother hen.
Yet through all the stares and old Elspeths attentions, the lass stood tall and kept her head held high, her shoulders and back straight and unbending. She clutched a tiny brown and white puppy in her arms, her fierce hold on the wee ball of fluff the only indication of the great strength of will it cost her to remain so calm.
Indeed, her remarkable self-possession and lissome grace claimed the hall and all within, hushing even the most boisterous clansmen to momentary silence and changing the penetrating stares to looks of interest if not outright welcome.
Even Linnets erstwhile champion appeared smitten.
There is the bold-eyed, high-spirited lass Robbie should wed, he decided, speaking the words just above her ear. And with enough curves to warm him of a long winters night . . . just as I said he needed.
But Linnet scarce heard him for in that moment the light of a flaring torch caught and shone on the maids coppery braids. As if lit by an unseen hand, the gleaming plaits took on all the bright-shimmering colors of a thousand sunbursts, giving Linnet the surety of what, to that very moment, shed only suspected.
The lasss sunfire hair was unmistakable.
the lady of flame! Linnet gasped as the forgotten wine cup slipped from her fingers, its spilled contents leaving a blood-red trail across the bare-swept floor.Robbies bride
is abed and will be sleeping! Sir Marmadukes deep voice rose above her blurted words. In her frail health tis surely best if we do not disturb her slumber, he added, propelling her past the wide-eyed scrutiny of those near enough to have heard her strange outburst.
He glared round as he elbowed a path through the jostling throng, letting the confidence of years and the look on his face warn any clansmen whose noses might be a mite too long to hold their fool tongues.
Her blood still roaring in her ears, Linnet pressed his arm. You are ever my champion, she said. My thanks to you, truly. She slid another glance at the fiery-haired lass, then jabbed a warning finger into Sir Marmadukes ribs. Yet, I say you, she is
She broke off when a suddenwhooshing
rush of air swept past them. A gusting blast of black-winged wind so strong its passage whipped the wall hangings and set the torches to hissing and sputtering in their iron brackets.
Saints, Maria, and Joseph! Where have you been, laddie? Duncan MacKenzie cried, his great plaid still flapping round his shoulders.
Breathing heavily, he grabbed his sons arms and stared, his dark eyes spilling over with a brightness that belied the bluster of his greetingand explained the unusual roughness in his voice.
A telltale gruffness that instantly wiped out more childhood hurts than Robbie had managed to eradicate in all his years away.
Blinking the hot moistness from his own eyes, he reached down to tousle the head of one of the many hounds running circles round his legs, their tails wagging furiously. Only then did he dare cast another look at his father, pretending not to see the strands of gray at the older mans temples, the deep-creased lines of worry that hadnt been there before.
Blinking again, he tried his best to speak past the thickness in his throat. I . . . my journey
Your journey took far too long, but never you mind, the Black Stag declared, dragging Robbie into a bone-crushing embrace, his still-authoritative voice buzzing in Robbies ears. You are here now, and your bride
Shall we fetch her, Papa? Two innocent voices chimed at Robbies elbow.
Breaking free of his fathers bear hug, Robbie wheeled around to stare at the girls.
His sisters, and near full grown!
Arabella? Gelis? His voice caught on the impossibility that these two burgeoning lovelies could be his scrawny, flat-chested sisters. Can it be?
Two deep dimples appeared in Geliss rosy cheeks. Do you not recognize us, Robbie? She twirled in a circle, white teeth flashing delight. Though I admit we have surely changed . . . a wee bit. You, thoughshe rose on her toes to plant smacking kisses on either cheekyou appear to have turnedrogue.
She slid a sidelong glance at her raven-haired sister. Do you not agree, Arabella?
That one said nothing, but nodded.
Not that she needed words after the look shed exchanged with her younger sister.
glance Robbie recognized.
He almost gave a short, mirthless laugh, but opted to brace himself instead. Throwing back his shoulders, he curled his hands around his sword belt as casually and demonstratively as he could. A wise move, too, for the light of a thick wax table candle revealed the girls expressions and told him they were about to pour fat onto the fire in earnest.
? Gelis demanded, turning to Robbies beauty to begin the assault. Her glee barely disguised, his youngest sister attempted to school her pretty face into an expression of mock concern. She appears to be wearing one of your shirts? Shall I not fetch down the lady Euphemia so she can perhaps lend your . . . eh . . .friend
something more suitable?
This lass would neer fit into Lady Euphemias gowns, the more quiet Arabella declared. And I doubt shed thank us for disturbing her . . . she was feeling out of sorts earlier
No doubt she will be feeling even more poorly when she wakens. All the better reason to leave her be, Elspeth declared, taking each girl by the elbow and maneuvering them from the hall.
Before the arched entry to one of the stair towers, she paused just long enough to glance back over her shoulder at Robbie. After Ive seen these two long-noses to their beds, I shall return to escort your lady to a decent chamber where your stepmother and I can see to her properly.
With that she was gone, vanished into the shadows of the stairwell and leaving only her seal of approval behind.
Shed called Robbies beautyhis lady.
And unless things at Eilean Creag had changed drastically during his absence, there was nary a soul within its walls brave enough to gainsay old Elspeth.
Save perhaps the Black Stag himself.
looked anything but eager to voice an objection.
Far from it, Duncan MacKenzie stared wide-eyed at Robbies beauty, his still-handsome face blanched white as new-fallen snow.
II know you, he said, the hesitation in his most-times booming voice making plain that he did not.
Truth be told, nothing about the mighty Black Stag of Kintails behavior appeared plain at all.
Nothing except the surety that he looked as if hed just seen a ghost.
Lady Euphemia stood in the darkness of Eilean Creags least-used stair tower and eyed her betrothed through narrowed lids. Sir Robert MacKenziefor she refused to call himRobbie
held court near the halls arched doorway, beaming delight, as all around him a great buzz of talk and conviviality broke out and fleet-footed servitors scrambled over themselves and each other to set every torch and sconce ablaze.
Aye, Sir Robert appeared well pleased.
His soon-to-be bride seethed.
A pox on the varlet and all his charm, she hissed, contempt winding through her. A worse plague on his . . .companion.
Her lips tightly compressed, she fisted her tiny hands against skirts still mussed from hours of uncomfortable, fitful sleep. Skirts that, no matter how well-cut and fine, would neer drape her slight form so alluringly as the indecently revealing mans linen shirt clung to the brazen curves of the bold-eyed whore standing beside Sir Robert.
Grinding her teeth, Euphemia slipped into the deeper gloom of the stair foot. There were other, more subtle ways to avenge herself than to be caught glaring fury at a blowsy, fiery-haired light-skirt who could be naught but a peasant from the looks of her.