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Authors: Amanda Forester

Tags: #Romance, #General, #Historical, #Fiction

True Highland Spirit (4 page)

BOOK: True Highland Spirit
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Coughing and sputtering for breath, Morrigan attempted to stand. She had to continue to help put out the flames. Their clan had precious little to begin with; if their fields were destroyed, they would starve.

“Ye well, McNab?” someone asked her.

Morrigan recognized the voice but when she turned toward her clansman everything was a hazy blur. “Aye,” she rasped. “Put out the fields.” She tried to yell but it came out in a hoarse whisper followed by rough coughing.

“You the laird of this clan?” asked an unfamiliar voice.

Morrigan turned toward the man but could see nothing but a hazy black blur.

“Aye.”

“This is for ye.” The man grabbed her hand and stuffed a piece of folded parchment in it.

Morrigan’s hand clutched it compulsively. “Who are ye?” she rasped.

The cloaked man chuckled and walked away.

“Stop him,” Morrigan shouted. It came out as a barely audible whisper. Coughing racked her frame. The edges of her impaired vision went gray, and then there was nothing.

***

 

Morrigan woke to a burning in her throat. Water. She needed water.

“Drink this.”

Morrigan took the offered cup and gulped down the cool water. It hurt to swallow, but the cold was soothing on her angry throat.

“The fields,” Morrigan rasped.

“Rest now. The fire is out,” said Alys, Archie’s new wife. Alys put a cool, wet cloth on Morrigan’s forehead. Morrigan despised being coddled or being thought weak, but at the moment she hated moving even more. She was sore all over.

Morrigan blinked several times and rubbed her eyes with the cloth. Alys came into view. Alys was a stout woman with a buxom figure and dark brown hair that fell in natural ringlets. She had a pleasing face with full, red lips that warmed easily into a smile.

Alys was of the Campbell clan and had wed Archie directly before he had left to rescue Andrew, who was arrested for crimes committed by Archie and Morrigan. After many sleepless nights, they finally got word that Andrew had been saved and was staying with the Campbells. What happened to Archie, however, remained a mystery. They received no word, and he had not returned. Why Alys continued to stay with the McNabs when she could return to the comfortable situation of the Campbells was beyond Morrigan’s comprehension.

“Least I can see again,” muttered Morrigan. “What happened?”

“What happened is ye saved that sweet bairn’s life,” said Alys with a wide smile.

“The child lives?” Her heart soared. It meant more to her than she would ever admit.

“Aye!” Alys beamed at Morrigan. “Ye did well, Morrigan McNab. Ye did yerself proud.”

Morrigan lifted a hand to wave off the comment and realized it was wrapped with white gauze.

“Yer left hand was burned, so I applied a salve and the bandage,” explained Alys. “It should heal fine in time.”

Morrigan wondered when she had burned her hand. The events were a bit cloudy in her memory. “The fields…?”

“Aye, the lads put it out. Suffered some damage but we’ll survive.”

“How long have I been here?” Morrigan strained to speak but could barely manage more than a hoarse whisper.

“A couple o’ hours, I warrant.”

“How did the blaze start?” Morrigan struggled to sit up. Fields do not burst into flame without help.

“No one can say. They did find clumps of straw in different places in the field. Once those caught it made it more difficult to put out, but the lads managed.”

Morrigan shook her sore head. “Someone set that field on fire.”

Alys pulled a folded parchment from her pocket. “I found this in yer hand.” Alys’s eyes were questioning.

Morrigan sat up farther and swung her legs over the side of her pallet. “The man, now I remember. There was a man, dark, wearing black maybe. I coud’na see. Did the lads catch him?”

Alys frowned and shook her head. “What did he look like?”

“I canna say, my eyes were so clouded from the smoke.” Morrigan snatched the parchment from Alys. One glance chilled her blood.

“What is it?” asked Alys.

“’Tis naught.”

“But who is it from?”

“I said ’tis naught yer concern. Thank ye Alys for yer care, I can take care o’ myself now.”

“Morrigan.” Alys used her patient voice. “With Archie and Andrew gone, we need to work together to help our clan. Please, let me help ye.”

“This is not yer clan, Alys. Ye would go back to the Campbells if ye had any sense to ye.”

Alys inhaled sharply and pursed her lips together, the tears in her eyes a clear indication that Morrigan’s shaft had struck home. Alys stood and swept from the room without looking back.

Morrigan sighed. She was actually beginning to respect Alys for her competence and her hard work. The tower was considerably cleaner since she took on the role of chatelaine. But McNab was not her clan. Alys had a way out. She should go back home where she would be safe, protected, and fed. It was more than what she could expect from life with the McNabs.

Morrigan fingered the dangerous seal on the parchment. It was a picture of two knights on a single horse in red sealing wax. Morrigan saw it before when it was sent to Archie. It always contained instructions from the man who paid them to do certain tasks, generally of an illegal or immoral nature. Who sent the missives or why, Archie would not say.

Morrigan broke the seal and opened the missive.

Kill
the
bishop
of
Glasgow, or they all will die
.

Morrigan stared hard at the words. She sounded them out carefully to ensure there was no mistake. She was not the most proficient reader, but she knew her letters well enough to be chilled by the missive’s meaning.

Kill. It most definitely said kill.

“Damn ye, Archie,” Morrigan rasped. “What the hell have ye gotten us into this time?”

***

 

It took one week before the pain in Morrigan’s throat subsided. It was another week after that before she could draw a full breath without wheezing. During that time Morrigan paced, fretted, and waited for her wayward brothers to return. She wished to see Andrew because she was secretly fond of her younger brother. She wanted to see Archie because only he knew who sent the missives and who was threatening the clan.

Archie and Morrigan followed the directions in the missives for the past several years. Generally the directions were to raid a particular clan’s livestock or rob a certain group of travelers. Truth was, they did that anyway, so doing what the missives required for an extra reward was hardly a difficult decision. In return, they received small payments, sometimes some cloth or occasionally some livestock. The McNabs were raiders. Thieves. Nothing to be proud of, but it was the only way they had to provide for their clan, impoverished as it was. Raiding was the only thing she did well. Very well, though it was a shame to admit it.

It had not always been that way. Years ago, the stomachs of the McNab children did not rumble as much as today. They had never been a rich clan, but they had never been poor either. Morrigan’s grandfather was to blame for their current distress. He had sided with the English when it was no longer fashionable to do so.

Grandfather McNab had made a promise to the English king, and he would keep his word. Most lairds had sworn allegiance to England, Robert the Bruce included. But the Bruce had no compunction in switching his allegiances when it was politically advantageous to do so. McNab had not, and when Bruce came into power, he revoked much of their land, took their cattle, and forced them to pay huge reparations. The clan never recovered.

So they stole when they were hungry. Morrigan had no ethical dilemma regarding her criminal activities. She knew whose bellies her stolen goods filled. Their neighboring clans had benefitted from their disgrace. Morrigan cared not if they stole back some of what used to be theirs.

“Rider approaching!” a watchman called from the wall.

Morrigan put her hand on her sword hilt and strode out of the main hall to the inner ward. She stepped lightly, a habit from her career choice, her boots making little sound on the stone passageway.

Outside, a rider had been let through the main gate, which was never fully repaired from the last time some invader had knocked it down. People in the courtyard gathered around; a visitor was unusual and cause for inspection.

“A message for the McNab,” said the messenger.

“I’ll take that,” said Morrigan. “See to his horse and get the man a draft o’ something wet.”

“What news?” asked Alys, wiping her dirty hands on her apron. She had no doubt been working on a kitchen garden again. Morrigan was not sure if she appreciated the effort or resented her for making improvements some might say Morrigan should have considered years ago.

“’Tis from Andrew,” said Morrigan. She could tell by the small, tight writing of her university-educated brother.

Alys followed Morrigan into the tower house and up to the family solar. “What does it say? Does he know where Archie is?”

Morrigan broke the seal and tried to read Andrew’s proficient, tiny script. Perhaps sending him to university was not such a grand idea after all. She sat down on the stone seat cut into the wall by the window and focused on the smooth lettering. Alys hovered over her shoulder until Morrigan’s glare got her to step back, but no farther than the end of the stone seat.

“Nay, it canna be!” exclaimed Morrigan.

“What is it?”

“Andrew has married Cait Campbell, Laird Campbell’s own sister!”

“Nay!” Alys forgot herself and snatched the parchment from Morrigan’s hand to read it herself.

“If ye dinna mind, Alys,” snarled Morrigan and grabbed it back. “I wonder how on earth he managed it.”

“I canna believe Cait be wed. I served her since she was a wee thing,” mused Alys.

Morrigan grunted in return. She knew Alys had served as Cait’s lady-in-waiting. What she did not understand was how Cait came to be married to her younger brother.

“’Tis a good match, Andrew is a fine lad and I’ve no doubt Cait will be verra pleased wi’ him.”

“I wonder why Campbell would allow such a son-in-law. I well know Andrew’s finer qualities, but material wealth isna among them.”

“There is more to life than money, Morrigan.”

“Ha! The man who said that ne’er went to sleep wi’ an empty stomach or watched his children beg for food.”

Alys was silent, and Morrigan continued to read Andrew’s missive, straining to make out the words, sounding out the more difficult ones. Andrew’s prose was almost as expensive as his education. Morrigan preferred plain and simple.

“Andrew will continue to stay wi’ the Campbells,” said Morrigan. “He talks a bit about his love for Cait Campbell, what a waste of good parchment.”

“But Archie…”

“I’m getting to it.” Morrigan concentrated hard. “It says Andrew has not seen Archie and then it says something about the bishop o’ Glasgow.” A cold weight of apprehension formed in the pit of her stomach. What had Archie done with the bishop? She concentrated hard on the writing but the two sentences that discussed Archie had been hopelessly smudged.

“The bishop o’ Glasgow?” asked Alys. “What is he to Archie?”

“I dinna ken,” replied Morrigan. Except that perhaps Archie had been sent to kill him, but Morrigan was not inclined to share all her secrets with Alys. “Here, maybe ye can make it out.” Morrigan handed over the smeared parchment to Alys’s willing hand.

Alys focused intently on the parchment, her brows scrunched together in concentration. After a minute, she held it up to the light, frowned, and squinted at the words. “I canna read it,” she finally admitted defeat. “What would Archie be doing wi’ the bishop o’ Glasgow?”

Morrigan did not answer, her mind examining the pieces of the deadly puzzle. In his letter, Andrew devoted many lines to describing his love for Cait, and his plans to seek the knighthood. If Archie had been arrested for killing the bishop, wouldn’t Andrew’s missive have taken a different tone?

“I know naught what Archie is doing,” Morrigan replied.

“Do ye think he needs our help?”

Morrigan snorted in affirmation. “He is always in need o’ help. Foolish bastard that he is.”

Alys frowned.

“Ye of all people canna deny Archie is in desperate need o’ sense. His daft plans are always ending poorly.”

Alys lifted her chin and folded her arms across her chest. “I woud’na say so.”

Morrigan sighed. Alys had been part of one of those daft plans and had no doubt taken offense. “Ye marrying him was more than he deserved.”

“He needed me.”

“I would ne’er deny that.” Morrigan stared aimlessly out the window. She could wait for Archie no more. The warning from the man who burned her fields promised retribution against the clan if she failed to comply with his evil demand. They were too close to the edge of starvation to survive another attack. They needed that grain. The full harvest must come in, or many of her clan would not survive the winter.

BOOK: True Highland Spirit
6.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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