Authors: Amanda Forester
Tags: #Romance, #General, #Historical, #Fiction
“And what brings ye to be traveling with such cowardly companions that they would leave ye at the first sight of trouble?” Morrigan asked.
“The hunters I met on the road. They invited me to walk behind them to their hunting lodge.” Jacques gave an impish grin. “I can only assume my services, they are no longer required.”
“Ah, then they are doubly fools, for a minstrel is a rare prize indeed,” said Archie.
“You mean for me to be ransomed?”
“Nay, nay, ye are our guest. We are but humble thieves, but we shall take ye to…” Archie swallowed what he was going to say and coughed. “We shall take ye to the doorstep o’ the great Laird McNab. We dare no’ cross the border o’ his domain, for he has no tolerance for our kind, but I am sure he will welcome ye. And he can pay for yer services,” said Archie McNab, jingling his ill-gotten gains.
“Archie,” hissed Morrigan drawing him aside. “What are ye doing? We canna bring him back to our hall.”
“Nay, we will drop him close and let him walk the rest,” whispered Archie in response. “Then we will ride ahead and wait for his arrival. We are still masked, so he canna identify us as McNabs.”
“But he has certainly heard us, Brother. Do ye no’ ken he will recognize our voices?”
“Nay, nay, ye worrit yerself. Think, Morrigan. When was the last time we had a minstrel?” Archie’s eyes gleamed above his mask.
Morrigan shook her head. It had been a long, long time. And for good reason. What minstrel in his right mind would travel into the Highlands to sing for the poorest clan west of Edinburgh? It was a tempting opportunity, and Morrigan knew all too well the devious gleam in Archie’s eyes. They would soon be hosting the clan’s first minstrel in twenty years.
Archie gave some rapid commands. The men, quick to see a potential reward, eagerly complied, gathering the weapons, money, and the dead boar. The minstrel appeared to be a pleasant sort of man, making no complaints and readily agreeing to the plan of taking him near the “great Laird McNab.” Morrigan wondered at the shocking hubris that would lead to that bold lie. Her brother always dreamed big and generally settled for much less.
Morrigan jumped up on her own mount. They needed to make haste, before their hunting friends returned in greater numbers looking for the return of their property, and for a hanging as their supper amusement. Perhaps the hunters would have the minstrel play a lively tune, while Morrigan and her fellow thieves danced at the end of a rope. Aye, it was most assuredly time to leave.
“Here, my friend,” said Archie leading the minstrel toward Morrigan. “Allow us to give ye a ride.”
“Nay,” said Morrigan, easily seeing Archie’s intent. “Let him ride wi’ someone else.”
“But ye are the lightest among us.”
“Nay, Toby over there is hardly seven stone.”
Archie walked quickly toward her and hissed, “Toby is a young fool. Ye take the minstrel and dinna let him get away.” Archie turned back to the minstrel saying, “So pleased ye could join us.”
The minstrel smiled at Morrigan. “I am causing you inconvenience? I must apologize.” His voice was smooth as velvet with his polished French accent. His eyes were a shocking, bright blue in contrast to his black hair, and even Morrigan had to admit that he was nice to look upon.
“No inconvenience, I assure ye,” Morrigan found herself saying. Maybe inviting a minstrel back with them was not such a bad idea.
She reached out her hand to help him onto the horse and he took it, swinging himself up easily with little assistance. He positioned himself behind her, the thighs of his long legs touching hers. Suddenly Morrigan felt quite hot in her hauberk and she took a deep breath. Damn, but he smelled nice too.
Morrigan revised her opinion of the minstrel. He was trouble; and like most of Archie’s plans, it would no doubt go horribly wrong.
Morrigan dunked her head in the water basin again, trying to get the mud out of her ears. Rolling around in the muck, and other substances she would rather not consider, was hardly good for her general appeal. Her brother had dropped off the minstrel as close to their home as he dared and gave him strict instructions to follow the road to McNab Hall. They rode off in the opposite direction, then doubled back and raced to the hall.
Archie gave excited instructions to the cook and provided him the boar to roast. News of their minstrel’s arrival spread like fever through the castle, infecting the generally glum residents with uncharacteristic anticipation. The news of their success on the road was relayed with more reservation, since the true nature of the McNabs’ extracurricular revenue source was a well-known secret.
In appreciation of their guest’s arrival, people broke out their Sunday clothes and did a cursory wash. Despite her fear that inviting the minstrel was a poor idea at best—for if he identified Archie as the leader of the band of thieves, he could spread that news far and wide—even Morrigan felt compelled to make herself presentable. Though if anyone asked, she would cite the mud as the reason, certainly not the warmth of the minstrel’s smile. Other lasses would surely have swooned to be in close proximity to such an attractive man. Good thing she was immune to that sort of rot. She doubted he even knew she was a girl.
Morrigan donned her usual attire, a long, loose tunic belted at the waist, and trews over her long legs. Underneath she bound her chest with a wide strip of linen. She found the evidence of her womanhood cumbersome in her present occupation. Since she was doing a man’s job, it was easier to look the part. Morrigan pulled on a pair of black leather boots and wrapped her one vanity, her long, brown hair, into a cap. She was thin and tall, standing at eye level or higher than most men in her clan. Only her brothers and a few others beat her height. Unless one knew otherwise, she looked to the world like a young lad. A young, thieving lad.
Ever since Morrigan took up the sword, she had dressed as a man. Archie had tolerated it when she was young, but in her teen years he had demanded she cease her militant ways and put on a skirt. She had replied that when he could best her at the lists, she would give up her sword. Morrigan absently traced the etched design on her scabbard with her left hand. Her sword was still at her side. Not that Archie was unskilled at the martial arts, but Morrigan could still best him, and every other McNab warrior for that matter.
Morrigan briefly considered putting on something feminine, in honor of their musical guest, and for the amusement of shocking her clan. She opened a trunk at the foot of her bed, but the only gown she could find was one she wore when she was ten, the year her mother died. Had it truly been so many years? Morrigan slammed the trunk shut. If she had been born a man, it would not have been so bad, but as a lass… Morrigan shook her head. Since she had been born a lady, her life by anyone’s estimation was a pathetic travesty.
Morrigan stomped into the great hall, so named only because it was the largest room in the tower castle, not for any intrinsic greatness. A few faded tapestries hung on the walls, the ones of any value had long since been sold to support the clan. Rushes of undetermined age covered the floor. Since Morrigan could not recall the last time they were changed, it had undoubtedly been too long. The trick was not to let one’s feet sink below the top layer to the slimy, stone floor underneath. The central hearth of the room was large, built in grander times. The small peat fire smoldering in the gaping hearth was a salient reminder of the unlucky clan’s poverty.
Passing by the lower tables on her way to the head table, Morrigan was ignored by men and women alike. Since she was the sister of their laird, they could do little about her existence in the hall, but the clan made it clear they did not approve of her gender-confused attire. According to the clan, and particularly the women of the clan, she should remain a lady, even if the clan starved without her aid. They would eat the game she caught, spend the coin she stole, but even if her support was all that stood between them and starvation, they would never accept her.
Morrigan understood their rejection. Long ago she decided she would sacrifice herself to support the clan. As chatelaine of the castle, it was her job to do everything she could to protect and support the clan. For Morrigan, that meant utilizing her one true gift: skill with a sword. Yet taking up the sword meant being ostracized from the clan she supported. She hated it. But there was no other way.
Morrigan sat at the table, noting that someone had bothered to put on tablecloths. The rumor of a minstrel brought out the hopes, and generally disregarded table manners, of the McNabs.
The minstrel entered the hall shortly after Morrigan. Unlike his previous hosts, who granted him the dubious honor of trudging along behind their horses, the minstrel in McNab Hall was treated as an honored guest, sitting just off the high table itself. Men and women crowded around him asking questions and preventing him from eating one of the best meals McNab Hall had seen in a long time. The minstrel’s fine features and easy smile may have played a role in the attraction. Serving wenches refilled his cup, leaning low on the table and spilling out more than just whiskey.
Morrigan considered leaving the spectacle, but the smell of roasting pig proved too tempting even for her to ignore. Cook had risen to new heights in the preparation of the meal. She suspected that there would be meager days ahead, since they were most likely eating all the food in their larder in just one day. Villagers had come in from the surrounding areas, and many freshly scrubbed faces could be seen around the full tables. Morrigan turned to her brother beside her, intending to voice her complaint, but Archie’s eyes were glowing.
“’Tis wondrous, no?” he asked.
“Aye. ’Tis is the best night we e’er had!” replied her younger brother, Andrew, taking a healthy bite of roasted meat. Andrew had not been with them on the raiding party. It was one of the few things Archie and Morrigan agreed upon. They were sending Andrew to university in Edinburgh and would never allow him to join in their thieving ways. Their young brother was to be the salvation of their clan.
The great hall was filled with the unusual smell of delicious food and the utterly foreign sound of laughter. Before Morrigan’s eyes, men brought logs to the fire and coaxed a blaze unseen for years. Memories of long ago flashed through her and formed a lump in her throat. It was different once, when her parents were alive. Music had filled the hall. It was before poverty had made them desperate, before her mother’s death had killed every ounce of joy she had ever known.
Morrigan closed her eyes to dispel the ghosts, but the music continued to play. Opening her eyes, she saw that Jacques stood before the crowd, playing a familiar tune on his lyre. His hands swept skillfully over the instrument, producing a rich melody, pure and true. Never before had she heard anything more beautiful. He was a tall man, well proportioned and trim. Everything about him was smooth, from his fluid movements to his silky voice. The hall silenced to hear him, ensnared in the melodic web he spun.
The music was familiar; soothing ballads of lovers or rousing songs of Scottish victories over the evil English invaders. People cheered at the victories of the Scots, cried to the sorrowful ballads of unrequited love, and danced to the lively tunes. Morrigan listened with quiet enjoyment, appreciating the skill of the minstrel, until unwanted memories marred the beautiful melody like a dissonant chord.
Music sliced through her with sharp pleasure. The minstrel had chosen a painfully familiar tune. The haunting melody he strummed on the lyre touched her deeply, penetrating her carefully wrought barriers. Morrigan clenched her jaw, trying to keep the emotions at bay. She needed to escape before anyone noticed the bewitching effect the music had on her.
Morrigan stood from the table and made her way to the door. No one noticed. Morrigan, the lass who feared neither death nor pain, who never ran from a fight, who never looked at a man but to mock him, turned and fled up the tower stairs.
Morrigan chose the east tower because she wished to be alone. The top floor was dirty and damp, with the faint odor of mold. It was a perfect fit for her mood. One corner was drier than the rest, and Morrigan plunked herself down on a stool, leaning back against the wall and placing her candle on the alcove in the wall beside her. Something squeaked in the moldy rushes. With a healthy curse aimed at men and rodents (one being no better than the other), she put her booted feet up on a crate to avoid having them nibbled by hungry pests.
Taking perverse pleasure in teasing herself, she wondered which of the serving wenches the minstrel would bed tonight. From the way those lasses stared at him with hungry eyes, there might be a fight for him. Perhaps he would simply line them up and pleasure them in turn. Indeed, no doubt that would be how he would spend his night.
Morrigan tried to distract her thoughts from the melody he played, but the painful refrain sang softly in her mind. She fought valiantly against it, but the memory surfaced unbidden and unwanted. She was a little girl, and her father played the lyre as her mother sang. It was the same song, the same sad love story. Tears that threatened spilled down her cheeks. She wiped them away in frustration, but two more followed, and soon it was pointless to fight the flood. She missed her mother and her father, dead these twelve years. She missed what might have been. Had her mother been alive, Morrigan would be married with children of her own, not some wretched thief. More tears spilled over the life she could never have.