|The Scottish Thistle is the story of Rory MacGregor, a chieftain whose father arranged for her to wed a Cameron after she witnessed a brutal attack on her village as a child. That man is Duncan Cameron, foster son of and bodyguard to the chief of Clan Cameron, Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel. Theirs is a tenuous alliance, endangered by the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie who comes to the Highlands to wage war against the usurper who sits on the British throne and by those Camerons who prefer traditional Highland life to the changes introduced by Sir Donald. Duty and honor dictate that Rory and Duncan answer the call to arms in different ways, yet separation and bloody rebellion strengthen the fragile threads that unite them.
“I wrote the opening scene while at a faculty meeting twelve years ago,” said Cindy Vallar. “Once I completed the first draft of the novel, my husband arranged for us to travel to Scotland to visit sites important to Clan Cameron and the Rising of 1745. That trip allowed me to provide readers with a sense of time and place so they feel as if they are in eighteenth-century Scotland.” After reading The Scottish Thistle, David Roderick Cameron, President of the Clan Cameron Association in Scotland, said, “I am very pleased to see a new historical novel involving Clan Cameron and its Chief the ‘Gentle Lochiel’ in the period of the ’45 following the spirit of the Jacobite novels of an earlier woman writer, D. K. Broster. The characters of The Scottish Thistle are its strength and they speak in a blend of Scots and English with occasional Gaelic words to give some of the romance of Scotland. Indeed it seems to me the script is there for ready adaptation to a film or TV serial. I do not know how an American author chose to write on a Scottish historical theme in such a Scots way and I warmly congratulate Cindy Vallar.”
The Scottish Thistle is available in trade paperback (ISBN 1-59105-034-0) and the following electronic book formats: PDF and HTML. Downloads (ISBN 1-59105-009-X) and paperback copies may be purchased directly from NovelBooks, Inc., as well as other online venues. Paperbacks may also be ordered through most bookstores.
Although The Scottish Thistle is Cindy Vallar’s first novel, books have always played an important role in her life. Her mother instilled a love of reading in Mrs. Vallar at an early age. She graduated from the University of Maryland with a Master’s Degree in Library Science. She worked as a school librarian for twenty years before her husband’s transfer to Olathe, Kansas allowed her to retire to pursue a career in writing full-time. She writes a monthly history column on maritime piracy for Suite101.com, and is both an editor and copy editor for Wings Press, Ltd. She also reviews books for Historical Novels Review, Ivy Quill Reviews, Appraisal, and The Book Report. She is a member of EPIC (Electronically Published Internet Connection), EPPRO (The Electronically Published Professionals), The Historical Novel Society, Dalriada Celtic Heritage Trust, the Clan Cameron Association, and the Kansas Authors Club.
PS Cindy’s sister did the artwork for her book cover 🙂
Purchase the book here from Amazon.com
Cindy sent us in a wee email saying…
Margo Fallis suggested you might be interested in some of my writings and in knowing how useful I find Electric Scotland. Not only do I link to your site from my web site, but I often refer others to it when I do workshops on Scottish history. SuiteUniversity asked me to teach a four-part course on Culloden and the ’45 (http://www.suite101.com/course.cfm/17151/overview/98799), so I selected Electric Scotland’s Battle of Culloden and Prince Charles Edward Stuart pages as recommended resources. I also refer participants to specific pages in several of the lessons. Since I also referred to your web site while doing research on my first novel, I want to thank you for all the content you provide on Scotland.
The ‘Forty-five unfolds in my novel, “The Scottish Thistle,” which is historical fiction intertwined with a love story. I thought visitors to your web site and readers of your newsletter might be interested in knowing about it. I’m including a copy of the press release for your information. If you want to read an excerpt or learn more about me and the novel, I invite you to visit my web site, Thistles & Pirates, athttp://www.cindyvallar.com/
And here is a short story from Cindy entitled “Odin’s Stone”
Long ago in the time when Norway claimed the isles west of Scotland, one clan controlled much of the land. After Alexander the Third defeated the Norwegian king at the Battle of Largs, the western isles became part of Scotland. Alexander’s death left the country in turmoil, for he had no direct heirs to succeed him. Civil strife, war with England, and the remoteness of the isles allowed the Lord of the Isles, chief of the largest and most powerful clan, to continue to rule the western isles. His power rivaled that of the king. He set laws, decided disputes, and protected those who pledged fealty to him.
Amongst those leal to Alexander, third Lord of the Isles, were Clan Gillean and Clan Fingon. In spite of this common bond, one clan had encroached on the other’s lands and murdered their chief, giving rise to a feud. This is the tale of how Alexander strove to end those hostilities by invoking an ancient Norse rite through the use of Odin’s stone.
“Daughter, ready yourself for a journey,” Lachlan of Clan Gillean said, refusing to meet her gaze.
Her father’s utterance puzzled Rona. Unwed lasses didn’t venture from Mull without reason. “’Twould be an exciting adventure, for sure, Father, but I canna leave the bairns. Who will tend them while I am gone away with ye?”
“Ye mistake my meaning, daughter. ‘Tis yourself alone who goes to Skye. Take all your things, for ye winna return to Mull.”
“Not return?” She blinked several times at such startling news. “But Mull is my home. What have I done to warrant banishment? Who will see to my brothers and sisters?”
“’Tis not banishment, lass. With your tongue and temper I canna guess the why of it, but the Lord of the Isle wishes that ye attend him. Dinna fash about the bairns. Mairi is of an age to tend them. ‘Twill be good training for your sister before she weds.”
“But why am I summoned?”
“I swore fealty on my sword to Alexander of the Isles and dare not refuse him.” Lachlan drew a finger across his throat to signify what refusal meant. “Or mayhap ye would have him dispossess your brothers and sisters?”
“Of course not.” Rona’s fingers curled into fists. As a woman, she had no say in what happened to her. She was merely a pawn for men to use as they would. “Did he not tell the why of it?”
“The Lord of the Isles dinna have to explain! He expects his word to be obeyed without question.” Fixing her with his withering glare, he pointed at her. “As do I!”
Rona slouched, hoping to appear contrite. She preferred not to raise her father’s ire, but she had little control over her tongue. She often wondered if a vexing fairy spurred her to antagonize her elders. “I ken that, Father, but did he give no clue as to what he is wanting?”
“Ye are to wed one of Clan Fingon.”
Her eyes widened in horror. “Never! I winna wed our enemy.”
“Ye have no say in the matter, lass. What’s done is done. Ye will go to your lord and wed a Fingon if that is what he requires of ye.”
Rona stepped from the galley that resembled the longship of her Norse ancestors. Under power of sail and oar, the single-masted vessel had brought her from the Isle of Mull to a pebble-strewn beach on Skye. Shrouded by mist, Dunscaith Castle sat on an isolated precipice. The wind wailed, as if warning her of wile and risk within those forbidding walls. She shivered.
“This way, lass,” the gillie sent to fetch her said.
She took a deep breath to give her courage. Gathering the skirt of her ankle-length gown in one hand, she grasped the man’s extended hand to climb the rocky hill to the causeway. He escorted her across the turf-covered stone bridge leading to the castle, and then down several steps. Guards waved them through the raised portcullis and open inner gates. The gillie led her up a makeshift stairway of the rectangular tower house. Once inside, she climbed the narrow winding stairs to an upper floor.
Her guide paused outside the chamber at the end of the hall. From behind the closed door came a child’s muffled sobs and a man’s angry scolding. The gillie knocked, then stepped aside to allow Rona entry into the withdrawing room.
The man within raised his hand to strike the child.
“No!” The single word escaped Rona’s lips before she knew she uttered it.
A curt nod from his gillie confirmed Alexander’s suspicion as to the identity of the interloper. He admired audacity, but not when it interfered with the disciplining of his son. On that he brooked no meddling. He lowered his arm, sat in his chair, and crooked his finger at the lass. Her fleeting hesitancy told him she misspoke in haste, but her raised chin warned that she would not withdraw.
“I think ye dinna quite finish your thought, Mistress Rona,” he said. “Pray continue.”
She straightened and glared at him. “Harsh words and angry blows are no way to treat a bairn!”
“Even if his disobedience endangered both himself and others?”
“Aye, even then.”
“Do ye not ken who I be, woman?” Alexander leaned forward. “I am Lord of the Isles. None may gainsay me!”
“Do ye think to frighten me? I will not cower when I see injustice! If my tongue protects those who canna defend themselves, then I will gladly suffer punishment for them.”
Fury enhanced her beauty. Sprinkles of cream made her dark eyes flicker like firelight. Strands of rich brown hair wafted across her rosy cheeks. If his plans were of less import, he might forego them to tumble with her himself. Instead another would have the pleasure of taming her wildness. Alexander hoped only that she learned submissiveness before she forced him to break her. “Me thinks ye did not experience a sound enough thrashing when a wee bairn. Else ye would ken when to hold your tongue. One day soon I warrant someone will rectify that.”
She gave no answer to his prediction. Instead, she turned her back to him and crossed to the ewer of water by the door. After wetting a rag, she knelt before his son. “I am Rona. Have ye a name?”
She wiped his tear-streaked face, then sat on the rush-covered floor and signaled for John to join her. Alexander shrugged in answer to his son’s questioning glance.
“I oft disobeyed my father, too, John,” Rona said, “even though I kent ‘twould not go well for me when he learned of my defiance. After numerous scoldings, I discovered ‘twas best to confess my wrongdoing before he heard of it from another.”
“Did your father not punish ye still?” John asked.
“He did, but ‘twas not so bad as before. Showing humility and regret oft tells others that ye have learned a lesson in the doing and the ruing. Dinna think adults do only good things. They, too, err in their ways.”
John’s eyes widened and he glanced at Alexander before returning his gaze to Rona. “Including my father?”
She nodded. “Aye. Your father rules the Isles as the king rules Scotland. The first James and he oft clashed over who was more powerful. The day came when your father realized that while he was important, for the good of his people he must submit. He had greatly angered King Jamie, though, and kent his yielding had to appease the king else none would believe his sincerity.”
Alexander dared not give in to the anger that flared on hearing Rona’s words. The assassinated James Stewart might have been scholar and musician, but he was also brutal, tactless, and dishonorable. Though some years had passed since submitting, Alexander still suffered the humiliation enforced on him by the vindictive king.
“What did Father do?” John asked.
“Wearing naught but shirt and braies, he knelt before King Jamie and his court. He offered the haft of his sword, swore fealty to the king and begged his forgiveness.”
John stared at his father. “Truly?”
“What Mistress Rona says is true.”
His son remained silent for a time, then came to stand before Alexander. “I am sorry, sir, for not heeding your wishes. I am ready to accept whatever punishment ye feel is my due. I will never disobey again.”
Alexander swiped his hand over mouth and chin to hide the smile that threatened. John’s sincerity pleased him. Perhaps, in this instance, the lass was correct about harsh words and angry blows. When he regained his composure, he put his hands on his son’s shoulders. “A lesson Mistress Rona did not speak of is that ye should never promise what ye canna deliver. ‘Tis enough that ye try not to disobey again. Do ye understand?”
“Then off with ye. I will set your punishment later.” Alexander leveled his gaze on Rona, but continued to speak to his son. “I have business with Mistress Rona, who dinna seem to ken when to hold her tongue.”
“Ye winna be too harsh? She was only trying to help me,” John said.
“Dinna fash, son. Off with ye.”
John gave a quick bow and scurried away. The gillie left with him, leaving Rona seated on the floor. Alexander extended his hand to help her rise. She blinked, but accepted his assistance.
“Sit ye in yon chair, Mistress Rona.” He sat in the chair opposite hers. “I dinna ken what ye did on Mull, but ‘tis not our way to interfere in affairs that dinna concern us.”
“’Tis wrong to lay hands on a bairn in anger.”
“Heed me well, Mistress Rona. I am a tolerant man, but dinna push too far. John is my son and heir. ‘Tis for me to decide how best to teach him the lessons he must learn. Dinna interfere again!”
She shook her head. “I canna promise what I may not uphold, as ye just told your son.”
“Ye tempt fate, lass. I could order ye slain for such insolence.”
“I ken that.” She averted her gaze and studied her fingers.
Alexander sensed she would speak further, so he waited. With his hands held as if in prayer and his fingers resting against his mouth, he studied her. Her hesitancy gave the appearance of meekness, but her initial defense of his son contradicted that. He suspected she was reticent to voice her thoughts, but her tongue often spoke with a forthrightness that vexed men. When she lifted her chin and met his gaze, she confirmed his suspicions.
“Is death or imprisonment less onerous than wedding me to my enemy?” she asked.
“In spite of your quick tongue and penchant for interfering in others’ affairs, I selected ye to wed with Fingon because those I asked said ye were honorable, brave, tenacious, and compassionate. These qualities will help bring peace to your clan and Clan Fingon.” Alexander leaned back in his chair. “Enforcing my will on others is my right, but in this case ‘twill end in more feuding, I think. Since ye find this union so repugnant, I will give ye a way out without losing face. If, however, ye give the answer I seek, ye must abide by my wishes and wed with Fingon.”
Delight tempered with shame filled Rona. He honored her with his decision, but chastened her with his willingness to forsake his desire for peace. He asked her to put others before herself, a task she had often done when caring for her brothers and sisters. Much more was at stake this time, though. Had she the courage he thought she possessed to set aside the rancor for a clan she thought of as her enemy? To refuse would signify surrender, something she detested. Highlanders esteemed honor above all else. She was no different. “I accept your challenge, Alexander of the Isles. What question would ye have me answer?”
“Ye will ken soon enough.” He stood and offered her his hand. “‘Tis time for the pledging. Shall we adjourn below?”
Alexander escorted her into the courtyard. His retainers-men, women, and children-as well as his family and visitors had gathered around a standing stone. At a height above Rona’s eye level was a hole through the granite. Fitted around the rim worn smooth by wind and rain was a silver band. He positioned her so she stood with her right hand nearest the stone. “Do ye ken this stone?”
She shook her head.
“Long before our ancestors came to the Isles, they swore oaths by clasping hands through a ring of silver. On Orkney, they discovered a stone much like this one that they deemed was Odin’s stone. Vows spoken whilst holding hands were as sacred as those taken at the silver ring. On Skye, we melded the two. I had thought to see ye wed before a priest, but since ye question my wisdom in this matter, ye will plight your troth here. If ye then canna answer my question, the vow can be undone without injury to either party. Does this satisfy, Mistress Rona?”
What would he have her say? Refusal meant her father would never again welcome her in his home. Her chief might well banish her for not knowing her place. If Alexander of the Isles disliked her answer, she could well find herself rotting in the gloom of a prison pit. Or worse, he could make an example of her and order her death before witnesses. Her shame would forever live with her family.
She had given her word. Whilst not spoken here, ‘twas as binding as if she had kissed the blade of his dirk. She might be a mere woman, but honor was no less important to her than it was to him. “It does.”
“Splendid! Put your right hand through the stone and clasp hands with the man on the other side.”
The man’s grip was strong, yet did not crush her. He cleared his throat, then spoke. “As the oath sworn on the dirk, I give thee my sacred pledge to honor, shelter, and protect ye until my last breath. In four days’ time, I will wed with ye and make ye my wife. I do so plight my troth.”
“I, too, plight my troth,” she said, wondering who had spoken such honorable words. This man might be her enemy, but there still existed a chance that Holy Church would truly join them in matrimony. Then she would have to live amongst his people. Therefore, her words could be no less honorable. “I promise to cleave to ye, to honor ye in all things, and to provide ye with home and bairn once we wed.”
Alexander of the Isles raised his hands. “And so do these two plight their troth. All here present do bear witness. Come, Mistress Rona, ‘tis time to meet your betrothed.”
Three men emerged from the other side of the standing stone. The first man, who was neither short nor tall, seemed ill at ease. When he bowed, a curl of soot-black hair fell onto his brow. He brushed it aside, revealing eyes that were blue like winter ice. “I am Eric, falconer to my chief.”
The second man’s smile made his round hazel eyes twinkle. Wisps of hair the color of honey escaped the hood that covered his head. He stood a head taller than Eric and was as thin as the sword that hung from the baldric wrapped twice around his waist. “I am Aidan, a gillie gifted with stories.”
The last to introduce himself reminded Rona of birds of prey. His sea-green eyes tracked her like the falcon, while his hair was the rust of a kestrel and the brown of an eagle. He was tall like the fir pole men tossed and sinewy like an ox. “I am Kyle, a warrior.”
“But which am I to wed?” she asked. Perplexed at meeting three suitors instead of one, she realized she didn’t recognize any of the voices. Unaware that her lord would test her further, she had concentrated on the oath spoken rather than the person speaking.
Alexander’s left eye twitched and he gave her a devilish grin. “That ye must discover on your own, Mistress Rona. Ye will spend one day with each man. At eventide, ye will return to the castle where ye will share a bed fully clothed and separated by a bolster.”
Although she had heard of this wooing custom, Rona blushed. ‘Twas one thing to lay with your betrothed, but to do so with two who were not? Tongues would wag for sure over this for many a day to come. The sound of the Lord of the Isle’s voice roused her from her embarrassment.
“On the fourth day, we will gather at the kirk where ye will tell me with which man ye plighted your troth.” He drew his dirk. “To be certain that ye answer true, ye will so swear before all gathered here. Should ye answer false, then I will have the right to slit your throat.”
How like a man to think a woman had less honor than himself. If Alexander of the Isles wished to belittle her, so be it. In the end, she would prove him wrong. “Before I so swear, I would ask three boons of ye.”
Many witnesses gasped at her insolence. Alexander shook his head. “One day that tongue of yours will go too far.”
“That may be, but here and now I think not.” She met his searching gaze without blinking. Did he crave peace as much as she suspected?
“What favors would ye have me grant?”
“I would ken how the oaths spoken at Odin’s stone can be broken without shame.”
“Ye and he who also spoke the vow will enter the kirk together, but depart through separate doors. What else?”
“If I name the man who spoke the vow, then he must swear on the dirk that he weds of his own free will rather than at your bidding.”
A thin smile spread across Alexander’s lips. “Ye are wise in spite of your tongue, Mistress Rona. Agreed. If he will not so swear, then ye may also break the oaths without shame. Your last boon?”
“Swear on your dirk that ye will answer truthfully whether I guess right or wrong.”
His laughter drowned out the voiced dismay of the others. Then he lifted her chin with the point of his dirk. She drew in her breath and held herself still.
“Ye dare much, Mistress Rona. If I was not already wed, I would enjoy taming ye.” He flipped the dirk, then kissed the blade. “I swear that I will answer true when ye identify the man ye think spoke the vow.”
“When asked to name the man ye chose for my husband, I will give an honest answer.” She took the dirk from him and sealed her pledge with a kiss.
After breaking her fast, Rona went in search of Eric. She found him within a caged aviary on the far side of the courtyard. He wore trews and a leather doublet over a saffron shirt. His feet were shod in pointy-toed leather poulaines. Many Islemen remained barefooted except in winter, but as falconer, Eric held an honored position that allowed him luxuries most could ill afford.
“Good morrow, Eric,” she said.
He glanced at her, then returned his attention to his falcons and hawks without uttering a word. His lack of response and his attentiveness to the birds told her that they held more sway with him than she. That knowledge both irked and hurt. How could she live with a man for the rest of her life if he cared more for his animals than he did for her? Duty bound her to spend the day with him, so she waited.
“Have ye gone hawking before?” he asked, when he emerged from the cage with a hooded falcon ensconced on his thick leather gauntlet.
“Well, ye canna wed with me unless ye do. Wait here.” He re-entered the aviary and coaxed the falcon onto a wooden perch. He extracted a smaller gauntlet from a pile of leather and returned to Rona. “Give me your arm.”
The chance to go hawking both thrilled and frightened her. The challenge appealed to her sense of adventure and her desire to do what few had the chance to try. The birds of prey, however, had huge wingspans and sharp talons. Unwilling to show hesitancy, which Eric might mistake for cowardice, she offered him her right arm.
“No, your other one,” he said, failing to hide his irritation. He fitted the gauntlet onto her hand, then held up leather straps with tiny bells for her to examine. “These are jesses. While the bird perches on your arm, ye must hold these tight twixt your fingers. Dinna release them unless ye want the bird to fly.”
“What are the bells for?”
“Falcons and hawks are wild birds, much like yourself I’m thinking. No matter how much training or taming ye have-” His face reddened when he realized he misspoke. He swallowed. “I…I meant the birds. They may not wish to return or they fly farther than desired. The tinkling of the bells helps me find those gone astray.”
“Dinna fash, Eric.” She touched his sleeve, but he jerked away from her. “Ye did nocht but speak the truth. There are times I forget myself. Is there anything else I should ken?”
“Dinna shirk from them. If ye can imitate the stance ye took yestreen with the Lord of the Isles, ‘twill stand ye in good stead.” He glanced at her from beneath hooded eyes. When he saw her smile, he gave a quick grin. “Are ye ready?”
At her nod, he brought out a bird with blue-grey feathers and an undercoat streaked reddish brown. He coaxed the merlin onto Rona’s gloved arm. The bird’s powerful talons gripped her wrist so tight she gave an involuntary gasp.
“Are ye all right?” Eric asked.
“Aye. I just did not realize how strong they are.”
“’Twas why I gave ye the merlin. Can ye handle the weight?”
“I can.” She wrapped the jesses as he had shown her, then waited while he retrieved the dark brown falcon from its wooden perch. Upon his return, he set off across the courtyard, matching his stride to hers. “Eric, why do they wear hoods?”
“Birds of prey find their food by tracking with their eyes. When they canna see, they dinna get excited.”
They walked a fair distance from the castle, but not as far as the village.
“‘Tis time to let them fly. Watch what I do.” He removed the hood from the falcon’s head, then swung his arm while releasing the jesses at the same time. The bird took flight. It circled the field for a time, then gracefully landed on a stout branch of a weathered oak. “Think ye can do the same with the merlin?”
Rona took a deep breath, then followed Eric’s steps. She lacked his finesse, but the merlin didn’t seem to object. It came to rest on a boulder not far from where they stood.
“Now, ye must call him back.” Eric placed raw meat on her gauntlet, then called to the bird.
The hungry merlin soared toward her. It took all Rona’s steadfastness to keep from flinching as it swooped onto her wrist. While it devoured the meat, she tried to recapture the jesses, but her fingers shook. Eric fitted them between her fingers, then bid the falcon to come to him.
“I’m sorry, Eric.”
“Dinna apologize, lass. Ye did well. I ken ‘tis fiercesome your first time. With practice, ye will come to master the trick. Are ye willing to try again or would ye rather leave off for the day?”
Her answer seemed to please him. They spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the field and giving flight to the birds. As eventide approached, they returned to the castle.
Rona waited with trepidation for Eric to come to her bedchamber. When he arrived, he seemed as restless as she.
“’Tis been a long day.” He swallowed. “Mayhap we should just retire.”
Not knowing what to say, she approached the bed. A thick bolster divided it in two.
“Ye are on your honor to behave,” said a voice from the doorway.
Both she and Eric jumped back from the bed.
Alexander of the Isles roared with laughter. “Sleep well, Mistress Rona. Master of the Falcons.”
Before she could give a retort, he touched hand to forehead and disappeared from whence he had come.
“Dinna say a word, Rona.” Eric’s tone warned her not to disobey.
She sighed and sat on the bed. “Ye dinna approve of my forthrightness, do ye?”
He stretched out on his side of the bolster. He clasped his hands behind his head before he gave answer. “No. I have worked hard for my standing within the clan. Even so, I stand apart, for ‘tis difficult for me to be with people. I am most comfortable amongst the birds. They accept me as I am. Had I the freedom to choose whom I wed…”
“Ye would have chosen a lass who kens her place,” she finished.
When he said no more, Rona dared to glance at him. He was fast asleep. Whilst hawking, they had gotten on well together. Yet, he spoke of little else but his birds and he aspired to learn nothing of her. As she settled under the plaid, she felt a vague disquiet. She admired his skill with the falcon and merlin, but he seemed uncomfortable around people. His unwillingness to learn about her and his disapproval of her quick tongue boded trouble. If they truly had spoken the vows, how did the Lord of the Isles expect to win peace between their clans when she and Eric seemed ill matched? Before she found an answer to that question, the rush of the day caught up with her and she fell asleep.
Unlike Eric, Aidan strode into the hall where Rona broke her fast and sat beside her. He helped himself to bread, cheese, and ale. “Good morrow, Mistress. I pray ye slept well last night.”
“I did.” She ignored his rakish grin.
“‘Tis market day in the village, but I fear the day is not so fine as ye had for hawking.”
“One canna grow up on the isles without learning to abide the weather. Whether ‘tis windy or calm, sunny or wet, ‘tis a good day for going to market.”
His eyes twinkled with merriment. “Mayhap ye are the lass of my heart. Fetch your cloak and I shall escort ye to yon village. Since ye are guest of the Lord of the Isles, I am sure he will purchase whatever fancy catches your eye.”
“Ye presume much, Master Aidan.” Alexander stopped at the ewer to wash his hands. “’Tis your responsibility to fend for your lady, but since ye are not yet wed, I will grant that Mistress Rona may select some trinket as a token of my esteem.”
“Thank ye, my lord,” she said, wondering exactly how much he respected a woman who dared to defy him. Aidan offered her his arm, and they departed the tower house.
Although small, the village bustled with people and traders, artisans and entertainers. Aidan delivered broken tongs to the blacksmith, who promised to repair them within a sennight. While they haggled over price, Rona wandered amongst the stalls. She fingered finely woven wool and elegantly embroidered cloth. She admired spoons of horn and drinking cups made of staved wood. She couldn’t decide what to purchase until she spotted a miniature seal carved from a stag’s antler.
“’Tis just the thing for she who is named for the seals,” Aidan whispered, as he came up behind her. “Would this please ye?”
“Aye, but it has no purpose.”
“Rona, ye are too practical. Ye must learn to dream. Not all must have a purpose. ‘Tis enough that it makes ye smile.”
Treating herself to something just for pleasure was a rarity. Since the Lord of the Isles had given her leave to buy something, she set aside her doubts. “Ye have the right of it, Aidan. This is exactly what I want.”
“Done.” He haggled a second time, then gave the merchant a crest with a boar’s head on it and told him to present it at the castle gate. Alexander of the Isles himself would pay the agreed-upon price and add a wee more for the merchant’s inconvenience.
As they strode through the village, Rona asked Aidan about the crest.
“’Tis the badge of Clan Fingon. Are ye hungry?”
“Then come with me. I ken a widow who will feed us, then we can walk the moor while I dazzle ye with my stories.”
‘Twas after the moon rose when they returned to the castle. The portcullis was down and the inner gates shut. Aidan shouted to gain someone’s attention, but the wind carried away his cries. “I am sorry, lass. I dinna ken we had strayed so far that we would return after curfew. Either those inside canna hear us or we have riled Alexander of the Isles so he refuses to give leave to unbar the gates.”
“What are we to do?” she asked, furious that Aidan had ignored her pleadings to return earlier. He acted as if only his desires mattered.
“’Tis somewhat sheltered here, and I would not wish to miss being here when the gates reopen on the morrow. I suggest we sleep here. If ye dinna mind lending me your cloak, I will shelter ye within my arms while wrapping the cloak around us both.”
She relinquished the garment. He wrapped it around himself, then sat so he blocked the wind from her. When she sat, he enfolded her in his embrace. His warmth drove the chill from her.
“Have ye no other stories?” she asked. “Mayhap ‘twould ward off the cold.”
“Ken ye Cú Chulainn, the Hound of Culann the smith?”
“The Celtic hero who slew the blacksmith’s hound and had to take its place?”
“Aye. Did ye ken he once lived within these walls?”
“Long ago fairies-or a witch if that is more to your liking-built Dunscaith in a single night with their singing. From out of the cliff grew palisades of iron. Seven ramparts protected the tower and turrets within. To discourage intruders, they filled a pit with vipers and beaked toads. The warrior queen Sgathaich took up residence here and instructed many, including Cú Chulainn, in the ways of war. ‘Tis from her that the castle gets its name.”
The whistling wind conjured up the fairies in Rona’s mind. She could see the walls rising up from the rocky precipice. An ironic thought struck her when she thought of the warrior queen. “Do ye think Alexander of the Isles ever thinks of Sgathaich when he sees me?”
Her question brought no response from Aidan.
In answer she heard his soft snore. At least his spinning of tales had woven its magic for him. Was something wrong with her that he was the second man to fall asleep in her company? Did men find her dull? Her sympathy turned to anger and she chided herself for such ridiculous thoughts. She wasn’t the problem-the men were! Aidan had gifted her with a day she would long remember, but she knew no more of him than she had when they broke their fast together. If a husband was supposed to protect his family, how could she ever depend on Aidan to do so when he thought of himself before others? He would amuse and charm her, but she would always feel exasperation and annoyance whenever he failed to deliver what he promised.
Within her chamber in the tower house, Rona marveled at the cloth-lined wooden tub that held steaming water for her bath. Alexander of the Isles had been none too pleased to find her outside the portcullis when he woke, but seemed to have expected it. At least he vented his rage on Aidan rather than her. His command to her was one hour to bathe and dress before the last of her suitors appeared. She would prefer to postpone their meeting, but ‘twas not to be.
She shed her clothes and sank into the water. It was a rare treat. At home she had washed in a pond near her home. This tub was fit for a king, for she could submerge all but her knees, shoulders, and head. She leaned back, closed her eyes and savored the heat that dispelled the last chill of the night spent outdoors.
A clatter jarred Rona awake. She blinked several times, then opened her eyes wide in alarm. Encircling the tub were trimmed fir logs cut in lengths for the hearth. She peeked over the side and saw the naked sword that had fallen from atop the logs.
“’Tis the second time Clan Fingon has surprised Clan Gillean,” a deep male voice said from behind her.
A shriek escaped her lips. She tilted her head back to look into predatory eyes that held her captive.
“Once whilst the chief of my clan visited the Lord of the Isles, your clan stole our lands. Thinking ‘twas a deed well done, your chief and his warriors slept within a fine house on Mull. Fingon showed your clan the error of such thinking. He ordered fir trees cut and trimmed, then set them around the house wherein Gillean slept. When done, Fingon bared his sword and set it atop the fir he himself placed before the door. Do ye ken why?” Kyle traced her jaw with his finger.
Rona shivered, then swallowed. She half whispered and half squeaked her answer. “To show Gillean death was near to hand.”
“Aye. As in days past,” he said, retrieving his sword from the floor and pointing it at her, “I could have slit your throat while ye slept. Instead I showed mercy to my enemy.”
“Get out!” Her scream echoed in the chamber.
“’Tis yourself who is getting out and right now. Ye have kept me waiting over long.”
“I will not!”
“Dinna fash about modesty. I saw all ye have to offer whilst I reenacted our shared history. Now get dressed before I dress ye myself.”
“We are not yet wed, and until we are, which I can assure ye ‘twill never happen, ye will not be giving me orders!”
“While ‘twould be fitting to see Mistress Rona and ye go at each other, Master Kyle, she does have a point,” Alexander said, standing once again in her doorway. He pointed his finger in her direction. “Ye had best be dried, clothed, and in the courtyard before my gillie comes to fetch the tub. If not, Master Kyle will have my leave to carry out his threat.”
The instant her door shut, she scrambled from the water. She fumed at herself for showing meekness and at Kyle for his unmitigated gall, daring to intrude upon her whilst she bathed. How dare he threaten her within Alexander of the Isles’ abode? She tried to plait her hair, but her fingers refused to cooperate. Wisps of hair escaped the braid, which had a slight crook in it that she could not straighten. Exasperated, she gave up trying. If she looked less than her best, ‘twas his fault for scaring away her wits.
As she scurried down the hall, she met the lord’s gillie and two others heading for her chamber. The instant she appeared at the top of the steps leading to the courtyard, Kyle turned and headed for the gate. She hastened to follow, sensing he would ignore her plea to wait. For every stride she took, he covered twice the distance. Soon out of breath, she paused to rest. He kept walking. The farther ahead he got, the angrier she became. How dare he ignore her! How dare he assume she would do his bidding! No more. If she dared to defy Alexander of the Isles, she could well gainsay a Fingon. With that, she began walking again, only this time she returned the way she had come.
Without warning, she found her feet no longer touched the ground. In fact, Kyle slung her over his shoulder.
“Put me down!” She pounded his back to drive home her point, but cried out in pain when her fist struck his shirt of mail.
He disregarded her demands and pleas. She hung upside down, seeing only his back and the ground he walked. Why ever had Alexander of the Isles thought she would consent to wed such an irritating man?
When Kyle reached a small loch, he waded into the water, transferred her from his shoulder to both arms, and said, “Since ye are over fond of water, I bid ye bathe to your heart’s content.”
Before she understood his intent, he dropped her into the cold water. She fought against the panic that clawed at her throat. Her feet struggled to find purchase, but the depth was more than her height. She thrashed about, and somehow reached the surface. When she opened her mouth, water rushed in instead of air. Before she could spit it out and scream for help, she sank. She flailed her arms, hoping to gain Kyle’s attention. Just as her lungs felt like they would burst, strong arms hefted her from the water and carried her back to shore.
“Why did ye not tell me ye could not swim?” he asked, peering down at her.
“I dinna remember being asked!” When her breathing slowed and calm returned, she pushed him away. She slowly regained her feet and retraced her steps toward the castle.
“‘Twould be better if ye remember that the fault of this feud between our clans lies with Clan Gillean.”
At first, she thought to ignore Kyle’s claim, but honor demanded she give answer. She whirled. “’Tis not!”
“Rona, my lass, ‘tis! First, ye thought to steal Mull from us. Then your chief contrived to wed the daughter of John, first Lord of the Isles, by kidnapping him until he gave his leave. During the reiving, though, ‘twas Gilleans who slew the chief of Clan Fingon. Ye have yet to pay that debt.”
Her fury knew no bounds. With hands on hips, she stomped back to confront him. “’Twas Fingon who insult Gillean, contrary to the rules of Highland hospitality. My kin sought only to right the slur, as was their due. ‘Twas not my doing and ye canna blame me for it. After all, I am but a mere lass.”
He grunted, provoking her further.
“Feuding is the way of men. Dinna be blaming me for your foolishness, Kyle of Fingon. Ye or yours could have sought justice or recompense, but instead ye held the grudge. We are blood enemies and naught will change that.”
“Fine,” he said, not appearing ruffled by her words. “If ye ken the way, ye should arrive back at the castle before curfew this night.”
How could she know the way? She had spent most of the walk slung over his shoulder. When he turned his back to her, the simple gesture broke the last of her restraint. If he wished to keep the feud alive, she would gladly honor his wish. Gathering her strength, she launched herself at him just as he spun around. She hit him a glancing blow. He reached to catch her, but tore her cloak instead. Her momentum carried her toward a rock. She tried to twist her body to avoid the collision, but too late. Blackness descended.
The warm glow of a fire welcomed Rona when she opened her eyes. She lay on a bed piled thick with furs. Spying the thatched roof overhead, she realized she didn’t lie in her bed within the tower house at Dunscaith. Was this Kyle’s home? Strange that he would bring her here rather than return her to the castle. With all his bullying and intimidation, she never expected him to tend her wounds.
She made to rise, but dizziness and twinges of pain forced her back against pillows stuffed with heather. Her head throbbed. She touched her brow and felt the swelling where her head had grazed the rock. Her attempt to examine her other bruises caused the pelts covering her to slip. A purplish welt discolored her shoulder. The sight of her bare skin brought with it the awareness that she wore nothing from her head to her toes. She scanned the room. Her scattered clothes dried near the fire.
Kyle slept in a chair beside her bed. Asleep, he seemed less fiercesome, but he maintained a warrior’s stance. One sun-browned hand held his dirk at the ready, guarding her while she slept. Intertwined with the fingers of his other hand were her fingers. His tenderness surprised her, and she reconsidered her initial impression of him. His shuttered eyes erased the wariness she saw when he looked at her. She fought the urge to brush strands of rusty brown hair from his forehead. His nose reminded her of an eagle’s beak. The comparison confirmed her previous impression of likening him to birds of prey, but she liked the sculpted ruggedness of his face.
Her gaze returned to the hand that held hers. A tingle stirred within her, bringing a smile to her lips. In spite of their differences, he had rescued her and kept her safe.
When she awoke on the morrow, Rona found herself safely ensconced in her bedchamber at the castle. She possessed no memory of how she had gotten there. Perhaps she had dreamed the day spent with Kyle. The soreness in her shoulder and the bump on her head belied that notion. After her morning ablutions, she descended the winding stairs to the hall. Alexander of the Isles waited while she broke her fast, then escorted her to the kirk. His train of gillies accompanied them as did young John. Already gathered were the priest, Eric, Aidan, and Kyle. None met her gaze.
“Ken ye your betrothed?” Alexander of the Isles asked.
“Go and stand beside him.”
Rona took a deep breath, then went to Kyle. The simple act sealed her fate, for she knew without a doubt that he was her betrothed. The path before them would be fraught with trials and arguments, of that she had no doubt since his stubbornness matched her own. She hoped, though, that honor and courage would provide a strong enough footing for unity and peace between themselves and their clans. To show her willingness to try, she slipped her hand in his. Kyle glanced askance at her, but didn’t break the handclasp.
“Why do ye pick the one with whom ye argued?” Alexander asked. “It would seem more in keeping to choose Eric or Aidan.”
“They are good men,” she said, “with qualities that speak both for and against them. Eric has goals that dinna include me. If we wed, we would manage, but he dinna trust his enemy. Ye canna win peace where distrust exists. Aidan brings smiles to all he encounters. If we wed, we would live in a world spun from gold, but he canna reveal the truth to himself. Without honesty peace falters. Although Kyle and I have our differences, we dinna hide them from each other. We value honor and loyalty. Our word once given is sacred and we would rather die than break it. These are the foundations on which peace thrives.”
“Ye have answered as I hoped, Mistress Rona.” Alexander stroked his beard. “Ye ken this means ye must wed?”
“Only if Kyle swears on the dirk that he weds with me of his own accord rather than on your orders.”
“Then ‘tis yourself who holds the answer I need, Master Kyle. Will ye so swear?”
“I dinna ken. I must think on it within.” He nodded toward where the priest waited.
“But ye must swear before ye enter,” Alexander of the Isles said.
Kyle shook his head. “No matter the answer, Rona and I must enter yon kirk. If I give my oath, ‘tis given to her not ye, Alexander of the Isles. If I refuse, then ye have already sworn on the dirk that we may dissolve the vows she and I spoke at Odin’s stone. Me thinks ye must wait to see whether we leave the kirk by one door or two.”
He bowed and Rona curtseyed. As he escorted her to the kirk, she felt elated and vexed. Kyle’s refusal to give answer showed the Lord of the Isles that she wasn’t his only subject who dared boldness. While this pleased Rona, it also nettled because she wondered if Kyle would wed her. He held the power to decide her future and she knew not what lay ahead.
Kyle opened the door wide enough for them both to enter together. The priest followed and closed the door…