Authors: J. Lee Coulter
Copyright 2012 J. Lee Coulter
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"I am sorry, Uncle, but I do nae choose to wed him. He is an ogre!" Fire shot from
blue-green eyes as she stomped her foot in protest. Her father had promised her freedom over choosing her spouse before he had died, she was not about to give it up.
Angus Fraser had no power to change her father’s will, as much as he would like to.
“Ye will just have to explain to Stephen that it is my choice and I, respectfully, decline.”
he began to lecture her on the pract
calities of the match. He needed her
before she di
covered that he had spent her entire dowry and was in dire
of more funds.
“Be reasonable, Brighde. Ye are approaching ten and eight years. Well past the age to wed. Soon, n
man will consider ye for a bride. As for Stephen…he is a perfectly suitable match for ye. He is young enough, mid-thirties I believe
and hale. And he is nae a poor man. Ye could do worse.”
My father promised—”
“Malcolm is nae here! He died five summers back! If he k
the way of things now, he would rescind his promise to ye! Of that, ye can be certain.” He snarled as his hands clenched.
Her eyes widened in alarm. Angus had never spoken so harshly to her before
…and what circumstances have changed to make him so desperate for her to wed? She was speechless as her mind raced to dire conclusions. Mayhap there was a clan war about to erupt and they would need the alliance. She shook her head…nay, that was nae possible. She kenned their neighbors and they were all fast friends. Try as she might, Brighde could not find a plausible reason for his upset.
, Uncle, but he just will nae do.”
. It appeared that he will need to approach this from another angle. His glance na
willing to wed
, then, there were other ways to accomplish the deed. He smiled at her as his mind plotted. “Very well, but he will nae be pleased. I will leave ye for now, Brighde. I expect ye to sup with us though. Tis the least ye can do to soften the blow.”
“Aye, I will join ye this eve.” She
back to her unfinished tapestry, and picking up her needle as she a
proached, dismissed the discussion from her mind. As far as she was concerned, it was settled.
After departing the solar, he snorted. The haughty little wench was going to receive her comeuppance very soon. He would make certain of that. He whistled as he strolled
The travel weary entourage grew silent as they
small village outside of Urq
The people they witnessed working the fields were ravaged with po
erty. Their sunken eyes showed hopelessness as they scratched out the meager harvest. Children that should have been laughing and playing stood silently in rags
by the wayside, observing the procession of highland warr
Robbie Grant scrunched his nose at the stench emana
ing from the muddy road they followed through the village. He glanced about him, search
ing for the source of the odor,
knowing it well. It was the smell of death. He had been subjected to it many times in the past year
while they were
the king’s service. Finally, their time was done and they could resume their lives.
He glanced at his laird.
Connall Canmore, the Blacksword of Halkirk, Earl of Caithness, sat ramrod straight in the saddle. Anyone would think that he did not see the destitute people they passed
, his emerald eyes star
straight ahead. There was not a single twitch of his nostrils as the foul smell was i
But if he were not wearing his gauntlets, they would see his knuckles whitening as he gripped the reins tightly in
. If not for his helm
they might notice the
of his strong jaw as he grit his teeth. The shameful condition of Laird Fraser’s clan did not pass by him unnoticed.
“Connall?” Robbie inquired
of him as they came to the point where the stench was the worst.
for his men to halt as they came alongside a hut that was in severe need of thatching. Connall removed his helm, glancing about him. People nearby looked on in fear as he dismounted and entered the run-down home. He emerged a few moments later carrying a small child of no more than four summers. Her hair was so filthy he could not determine the color. Her clothes barely clung to her fragile body
. Connall uncorked his wineskin, pouring the liquid slowly into her wee mouth. She swallowed weakly, and then coughed as the liquid lubricated her dry throat. He smiled for the first time since they had arrived. His eyes darted to his captain.
“Robbie, see to her parents. They need burying.” His eyes scanned the gathering crowd. He could not berate them for not attending to the couple inside the hovel; they could barely tend to themselves. But the child…? “Be there anyone here who can take care of this
? Any rel
An old woman of indeterminate age spoke up in a w
vering voice. “There be nae one, your lordship. The rest of her kin died two moons back. And as ye can see,” she spread her thin arms wide, “we can nae even take care of our own selves.”
He stared keenly at her for a few moments, then gave a curt nod. “I will take her to your laird and have him care for her.”
A man to his left snorted. “Ye may as well slit her throat here. Twould be kinder.”
, his young squire
in shock. He spoke up in indignation for his laird. “Ye insult my laird! The Blacksword of Halkirk would never harm a woman or a bairn. Apologize!”
Connall’s hand rose quickly, demanding silence from his squire as the people gasped in fear. His penetrating gaze turned on the man that had spoken.
Why do ye suggest this abomination to me?”
The man lowered his eyes, a slight tremble passing through him. The Blacksword was well renowned throug
out the highlands. His enemies feared him greatly as the king’s enforcer. They had heard many tales of his ruthles
ness these past years.
“I only speak the truth,” he murmured.
Connall could discern for himself that it was true. As he perused the weary faces before him, he made his dec
sion. He handed the child
up to Fergus as he began issuing orders.
“This bairn will be my ward from this day onward. I want each of my guard to hand out half their rations to the villagers, including any clothing or blankets ye can spare. We will bury your dead if ye will point them out to my men. Can anyone tell me the child’s name…her age?”
“Aye. Her name be Amelia Connor, but we call her Amy. She will be four summers two moons hence.”
“I thank ye, woman.” He looked back at his men. “Ye will give aide where ye can then
up with us at the Keep. Ten guardsmen with me now.” They continued on to their destination, never looking back at the grateful villa
* * *
* * *
Angus was displeased with his earlier conversation with his niece. He needed gold for his coffers or else the villagers would not be the only ones starving at Urquhart this winter. Stepping out to the bail
a guard at the gate cried out.
“Riders approach, my laird!”
His head shot up. Who could it be? He snorted in di
Just what I need…more mouths to feed
“Can ye see their colors?”
The guard squinted at the approaching men for a few moments before his eyes widened in fear. “Aye, my laird. Tis the Blacksword! There be nae mistaking his pennant!” He crossed himself sending up a fervent prayer.
Canmore! Why would he be there? The taxes were not due yet, of this he was certain.
His thoughts scrambled in a panic as he awaited Connall’s arrival at the door of the keep. While he stood there, he sent a servant to request the lady’s presence to greet their new guest. She swept out of the door just before Connall entered the bailey.
“Who is it, Uncle?”
Eying her, a plan began to form in his mind. He would auction her to the highest bidder. If he did this right he might double the amount of gold he had hoped
to receive and finally be rid of her.
“Tis Connall Canmore, the Earl of Caithness. Ye may wish to consider him if he offers for ye. Ye could be a Countess!”
“Dear Angus, titles and gold mean naught to me. Do ye nae understand this yet?” Connall had drawn near as she answered her uncle’s
. Brighde glanced up gasp
as his vivid green eyes locked with hers. She trembled at the intense scrutiny of his mesmerizing gaze.
His eyes moved to Angus’ portly body and frowned as thoughts of the villagers flashed through his mind.
“My lord Canmore, what brings ye to my humble Ca
Connall did not answer immediately. He removed his helm and gauntlets slowly just to watch the despicable laird sweat.
He knew his reputation and the effect it had on pe
ple. This is one time he was glad of it. He glanced back at Brighde as he spoke in a deep voice. “Are manners more lax in this part of the
ighlands, Laird Fraser?”
Angus gasped and sputtered at the insult but knew he was correct. “Nay. Pray forgive me
my lord! I would pr
sent my niece, Brighde. Dear, this is Connall Canmore, Earl of Caithness, great grandson of King Malcolm III!”