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Authors: Temple Hogan

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BOOK: The Laird's Daughter
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“Uncle,” Rafe said, crossing the hall to stand before him. “Dinna ye recognize yer own kinsman?” Still, the man looked puzzled. “’Tis Rafe. Did you not send for me?”

“Rafe!” Relief flooded Archibald Campbell’s bloated face. “You’ve come, God bless ye, lad.” He tried to get to his feet, but his great bulk and the swollen, gouty foot prevented such a courtesy. He cursed in frustration, his words slurred.

“Don’t try to rise, Uncle,” Rafe said kindly.

The laird fell back against his chair, breathing heavily with obvious relief.

“I received your message and came at once with Gare and two dozen of my men,” Rafe continued, “although I daresay there are not that many of us now for we were set upon in Oban forest.”

“Set upon?” Sir Archibald seemed lost in an alcoholic haze and unable to focus then he slammed a hand down on the arm of his chair. “Those devils! How dare they attack my clansman and a warrior at that? Their impunity knows no bounds. Baen!”

One of the men at the table glanced up then went back to his game.

“How did they know we were arriving?” Rafe asked, settling himself in the chair across from the once great warrior chief. His sharp gaze noted the signs of dissipation evident in his uncle’s mottled completion and puffy body. The nobleman’s tunic was badly stained and his braies snagged and ragged. Altogether he made a pitiful figure.

“Bah! They know everything.” Sir Archibald moved his foot and grimaced. “Damned gout.” A look of petulance crossed his face. “Don’t think they don’t know that I’m chair bound and can’t hunt them down. They think I’m weak and can’t repel them. Why they’ve even sent assassins to kill me, but I fooled them. They depend on my infirmities to keep me from punishing them. Their heads hang on the east tower wall to show the blackguards what happens to traitors and spies. Baen saw to that. Baen, where are ye?” He rapped the stone floor with his cane.

The gamers fell silent, and a tall man wearing a captain’s marks rose and sauntered to the fire with a slowness that denoted insolence. Rafe’s lips tightened at this lack of respect for the Campbell chief.

“What do ye want, old man?” the man asked brusquely.

“Baen, ‘tis Rafe, my kinsman and his lieutenant, Gare Campbell, come to help you put these scoundrels down once and for all.” Archibald’s swollen features stretched in a triumphant smile. “We’ll soon have these insurgents in hand.”

“I told you, I have no need of help.” Deliberately ignoring Rafe’s outstretched hand, Baen glared at the old laird.

He was a tall, fierce looking man, rough-hewed with heavy shoulders and a sullen air about him. An ugly scar began above one eye, drawing the lid down and distorting the pox-marked cheek before disappearing beneath an unkempt beard. His long hair was thick and matted, impatiently hooked behind hairy ears. He looked Rafe over with a derisive sneer, as if noting his saffron shirt, chest mail armor and clean-shaven jaw and finding it wanting.

“You’ve a pretty lad here, Archibald,” he said loudly. “I’ve no need of the likes of him.”

“It seems you do,” Rafe replied quietly, his gaze steady.

Baen’s face darkened at the challenge. His lips tightened in a snarl.

“I saw the way of it in the villages and fields,” Rafe went on without waiting for a reply. “There’s no sign yet of crops being planted or of cattle. Have you no herds, Uncle?”

“Aye, pitiful though they are. They dwindle day by day while the outlaws fatten themselves on my cattle.” His thin lips worked in a show of self-pity. His rheumy eyes darted glances around the room but refused to meet his nephew’s.

“We rode past villages where damage and rot affected nearly every croft. There were no gardens planted or milk cows. What will these people live on come winter?”

“That’s the point,” Baen said loudly. “They harbor the very renegades we seek. We’ll starve the lot of them then see how well these rebels fight when their bellies rub their backbones.”

“But you starve the women and children as well,” Rafe said, his tone even, his face unreadable.

Gare glanced at him, sensing his kinsman’s rising anger at the injustice of all the villagers starving to weed out a few rebels.

“Aye, maybe so, but we mean to punish those who would overthrow me.” The ailing laird glanced at his commander as if seeking approval that he’d recited his lesson well. “With you here, we’ll put them down quick enough and have things back to normal.”

Rafe pushed away a wave of impatience. The condition of the holdings had not come to this sad state in a mere few months. Years of neglect and lack of leadership showed plainly in the poorly managed villages and even the castle itself.

“I need you, lad. ‘Tis glad I am you’ve come. You and your men can reinforce Baen’s men and together you’ll put down this uprising.”

“Aye, we’ll do our best to help.” Rafe glanced at the glowering captain. “That is if Baen doesn’t object.”

“Of course, he doesn’t object, my boy. Why would he?” Archibald wheezed heavily from his efforts to speak. “Do you, Captain?”

Baen scowled. “Just stay out of my way.” He stalked back to the table and poured himself a full goblet of ale.

The woman had also left her place at the table and came to stand behind Archibald Campbell’s chair, one pale hand lying possessively on his shoulder. During the conversation she’d remained silent, her lips curved in a discreet smile, but now she swayed closer to the old laird, her bold gaze meeting and holding Rafe’s.

“Are you not feeling well, Uncle?” she asked, smoothing down Archibald’s thin, graying hair with her long, pale fingers.

The old chief looked surprised at her solicitation then shrugged her hand away.

“Rafe, this is Maid Dianne, my niece, come to visit for a time. Dianne, ‘tis your distant cousins, Rafe and Gare Campbell.” Introductions done, Archibald seemed to lose interest in his guests and reached for his goblet with a trembling hand.

Dianne Campbell made a deep curtsy, bending lower than was required and revealing a tantalizing glimpse of creamy rounded breasts. She was a petite woman blessed with the dark beauty of the Campbell women, and she had a sprightly air about her.

“My lady.” Gare bowed over her slender hand, eyes sparkling as he looked appreciatively at the lovely wares that had been so wantonly displayed. “’Tis a pleasure to meet a cousin.” He grinned, so the deep dimples in his cheeks flashed. Taking hold of Dianne’s hand, he bent to kiss it. But her gaze was on Rafe. She made a pretty moue with her full lips and watched him expectantly until he stepped forward to brush his lips against her knuckles.

“You must excuse us, m’lady. My men and I have traveled far this day, and I must see to my wounded and dead.” Preoccupied, he barely noted her scowl of displeasure but turned away from the beautiful noblewoman. Gare grinned again.

“Uncle, have you a midwife or surgeon?” Rafe asked.

“A midwife. I expect she’ll manage well enough.”

“And my men and horses need food and shelter. There was no one about in the bailey when we arrived.”

“A lazy, shiftless lot,” Sir Archibald muttered. “Look for Annie. She’s generally around. She tends the fowl, and she’ll roust the others for you. She’s a mute, but she’s a fine one for getting things done.”

“Annie?”

“Aye. She’s that poor, raggedy little goose girl you likely saw when you arrived.”

“I’ll find her, and I’ll return once my wounded men, and our mounts have been seen to.”

Rafe sketched a bow to Dianne and strode across the rush-strewn floor with Gare following quickly behind. When they reached the bailey, Rafe drew a deep breath but even here the air was tainted with soiled stables and courtyard. A few sullen servants had ventured into the bailey, but more out of curiosity than to offer hospitality.

Rafe glanced around and saw a girl standing near the gate. Her head was tilted downward so the strands of hair that escaped her untidy braid spilled across her face. Her shoulders were thin, her slight figure looking even more insignificant in the loose clothes meant for a woman much larger.

“Are ye Annie?” he called to her.

Her head jerked up then quickly lowered. She made no answer, but Rafe suspected she saw more than others might imagine.

“Come here, lass,” he commanded and slowly, with a great show of reluctance, she hobbled across the courtyard, adroitly sidestepping the piles of horse dung.

Up closer, he could see her poor clothes were held fast at her waist with a cord and were surprisingly clean. Her hair, though in disarray, reflected a golden shimmer of sunlight. The breeze carried her scent, which was most pleasant. When she stood before him, she fixed her gaze on his dusty boots and waited for his biding.

“Well, lass, we’ve need of stables for our horses, barracks for my men and the midwife for our wounded. See to it.”

She hesitated a moment, her lips tightening then with a nod, she spun and limped across the courtyard toward the stables. In no time, a burly young man appeared.

“Welcome, sir,” he said, bobbing his head with surly deference. “My name is Bryce. If your men will follow me, I’ll show ye the stables and barracks. The girl has gone to fetch the midwife.”

“Well done,” Rafe said, somewhat mollified over the earlier lack of service. “Gare, see the men get settled in decent quarters. When Annie returns, send her to the kitchen for food for the wounded and come to the great hall when the rest of you are finished and in need of nourishment.”

“Aye, Rafe,” Gare said with some enthusiasm. “I’ll look forward to another chance to visit with Sir Archibald, although he seems much diminished from his previous glory. Then there’s the Lady Dianne.” He grinned wickedly and went off to complete his tasks.

Rafe watched the men follow the stout, young servant. Something about him seemed vaguely familiar, but Rafe couldn’t think how. The girl returned leading a buxom woman with a plain, round face. The midwife veered off in the direction Rafe’s men had gone, but the girl continued toward him. She moved with surprising speed for one who was crippled. For a moment, she stood with her head up, studying Rafe through golden strands then abruptly tilted her head downward in her customary pose.

“Good job,” Rafe said and dug in his pocket for a coin.

The girl caught it deftly and bit it, testing its true value before dropping it into a small bag tied at her waist. What would she do with a coin like that, he wondered. Perhaps she’d save it and spend it at next fair day. Dismissing her, he turned back to the castle, his mind already listing the improvements that could be made with little cost but a great deal of hard work and wondering how many of his men would be required to patrol his uncle’s borders.

 

Chapter Two

 

 

Annie watched him go, the curl of her lip showing her contempt. Another cursed Campbell. She’d seen the anger on Bryce’s face as he led the Campbell men toward the stables. She’d not dealt the deathblow to the Campbell warrior when she’d had the chance. How could she answer the accusing looks in their eyes, when she couldn’t understand it herself? Some instinct had told her to let him live. Even now, Bryce and one or two of the other clansmen would be hatching a plan to rid themselves of these unwanted visitors. She’d have to caution them. Rafe Campbell and his soldiers were well-seasoned warriors. They’d proven that in their skirmish in Oban. She’d hated sounding the retreat, but neither had she wanted to lose men. Her small band was made up of husbands and fathers and brothers—true MacDougall clansmen one and all—but their cause to regain their lands and reestablish the clan shouldn’t cost them their lives and bring hardship on their families.

Seemingly unfocused and bored, she wandered through the courtyard back to the bailey where stables and barracks and workmen’s sheds sat haphazardly against the castle’s east wall. Campbell soldiers had already removed bridles and saddles and set about brushing down their weary beasts, which stood munching on pitifully meager rations of oats. The men grumbled among themselves about the accommodations.

Annie perched on a mounded hay wagon and listened, gauging their strengths and weaknesses. Only a few hours ago, she and her band had been engaged in a life and death battle with these very same men. Likely they would be again.

Their battle to regain their clan and redress the wrongs done them had taken years, and many had grown weary, uncertain there would ever be any other future for them than the sad lot they suffered this day. She remembered well the windy day on the mountain when Bryce and the other clansmen had revealed themselves to her. She’d reached her sixteenth birthday and wondered if she must always play the part of a mute goose girl, when in fact, she was better educated than most noblemen. She could thank Father Cowan for that.

She remembered when he’d come upon her as a child singing beside the pool one day and had realized she wasn’t mute. First, he’d berated her for her seeming hoax. Then he’d smiled and set about sharing every shred of knowledge he possessed. Each day, she’d climbed high into the mountains where he’d tutored her. And it was there that her clansmen had come to claim her, their laird’s daughter. And it was that day that their rebellion had begun, not to be squelched until the MacDougall clan rose again to its rightful place.

These Campbell newcomers, she decided, possessed a certain amount of arrogance and that was to be expected. They were, after all, connected with one of the most powerful clans in all of Scotland. Unlike her father who had angered Robert the Bruce, the Campbell chiefs had curried favor with the King both before and after his victories against the English king derisively referred to as Longshanks. But as she listened to their easy conversation, she discovered these seasoned veterans had willingly followed Rafe Campbell into battle and would do so again. They gave him their loyalty without question, and that would make them harder to defeat than simple paid mercenaries.

She thought of the broad-shouldered man who took command so effortlessly. For a moment, she’d faced him in battle today, but another soldier had intercepted her. And when she’d glimpsed his tall figure again, he’d been engaged in a fierce combat with Aaron Lobban. Only after the man's claymore had taken, Aaron’s lower arm had she called the retreat. Aaron had a wife and three small daughters. With one arm, he’d be hard put to take care of his family, if he lived at all.

BOOK: The Laird's Daughter
3.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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