Western Highlands of Scotland, April 1629
At sunset, Gavin MacTavish halted his horse at the edge of the ancient pine forest and held up his hand. His friends and their guards stopped behind him. Had he seen a flash of light in the dimness beneath the swaying branches? 'Twas like a final ray of dying, orange sunlight glinting off a polished blade. Narrowing his eyes to a hard focus, he scanned the area, certain he had not imagined it. He pulled the basket-hilt broadsword from its scabbard.
His longtime friend Torr MacElrath drew up on his left side. "Did you see something?"
"A glimmer there." Gavin pointed his sword at one of the low-growing juniper bushes among the thick pine trunks.
Stopping at his right side, his foster brother Brodie MacCain withdrew his sword. "Could be highwaymen wanting to steal our horses."
"Or Alpin. He still covets the chieftainship." But his cousin was third in line. Gavin's father, Lunn, still served as chief of Clan MacTavish.
Gavin briefly laid the sword across his lap, tied his long, dark hair back in a queue, and yanked the strip of leather into a knot.
Brodie's brown eyes gleamed with ire. "He was, without doubt, the knave who shot at Chief MacTavish last month."
"Aye." Gavin's father had been stalking a stag when an arrow had flown past his shoulder. Gavin hadn't been with him at the time, and the guards couldn't find the archer responsible. "My cousin has been angry and jealous since he was a lad… when his father died in battle."
Readying for a skirmish, Gavin lifted the round, metal-studded targe from his saddle and slid it onto his left forearm. He eyed the bushes, but the erratic gusts of wind made it difficult to see enemy movement.
Torr dismounted, his tawny hair blowing back, and strung his bow. "'Haps Alpin blames your father for his own father's death."
Having never considered it, Gavin frowned. "Mayhap. Though he has not said."
Alpin had left Caithmore Castle when his mother had remarried and moved away. Gavin hadn't missed his mean-spirited and vengeful cousin. Several years ago, he'd even caught Alpin beating a stable lad for a minor offense.
"I'll flush them out." Torr nocked an arrow, pulled back on the bowstring while aiming at the juniper, and released. A shout echoed. The bushes quaked, and almost a dozen sword-wielding warriors burst forth, charging them on foot.
"'Slud!" Gavin leapt to the ground and slapped his horse on the rump, sending it away to safety. Lifting his targe, he blocked the strike of the first enemy, a young, bearded man he had never seen before. Gavin struck out with his sword, but his challenger ducked.
"I'll take him out, Silas!" His dirty blond hair flying back, Alpin rushed Gavin while swords clashed all around him.
Fury singed Gavin's nerve endings. "I knew 'twas you, cousin! Are you ready to die this day?"
Alpin and Silas charged Gavin at once.
The bastards' fighting method held no honor. Nay, this was an assassination attempt. Gavin slashed his blade toward both men's necks, but they dodged back before he made contact.
For two foes, he would need two weapons. With the wide leather straps securing the targe to his left forearm, Gavin withdrew the foot-long Highland dirk from its scabbard and held it in a reverse grip in his left hand while his sword remained in his right.
Alpin and Silas circled sideways and attacked from opposite directions.
Gavin parried and thrust his sword at Alpin. He shoved Silas back with the targe and stabbed with the dirk.
Silas's blade slashed downward toward Gavin's head. He dodged back, but the sharp tip sliced down the left side of his face. Pain seared him. The blood burned his left eye and obscured his vision.
Enraged and even more determined to annihilate these bastards, he lashed out. He knocked Silas's blade away with his targe and cut his throat with the dirk. Silas stumbled backward and fell in the throes of death. Gavin spun and stabbed his sword toward Alpin's torso, but he blocked with his targe.
Face blanched, Alpin gawked at his dying friend, then whirled and fled toward the wood. "Retreat!" he yelled back at his cohorts. But another foe had already succumbed to Brodie's blade. He lay sprawled upon the ground while the rest bolted after Alpin.
"Cowards!" Gavin shouted. "Come back and fight like men!"
They didn't. They vanished through the pines, scrubby junipers, and bracken ferns.
"Gavin, your face!" Torr's scowl told him how horrible the cut looked.
"'Tis only a flesh wound." Gavin hoped. With the piercing pain and the hot blood dripping from his chin, turning his white shirt red, who could tell? Left eye squeezed closed against the burning blood, he glanced around at their guards. "Anyone hurt?"
"A few minor injuries," his brawny guard Finch said, then his eyes flew wide. "Sir! We must get you to Caithmore and the healer. You're losing blood!"
Gavin knew it.
Brodie stood over the man Gavin had dispatched. "You ken who he is, aye?"
"Alpin called him Silas."
Brodie gave a sharp nod. "I met him once. He's the MacRae chief."
Frowning, Gavin drew back. "In truth? Why the devil would he take such a great risk for Alpin?"
Brodie shrugged. "He has a mad dog reputation. His da died last year, so he has not been chief long."
The man appeared four or five summers younger than Gavin's own age of eight and twenty.
"Here's the one I shot with an arrow," Torr called from the wood.
Gavin, Brodie, and their guards joined him in the ever-deepening gloaming. A man lay behind the scrubby bush, an arrow protruding from his throat.
"Saints! I had nay inkling you were such a deadly marksman," Gavin said.
Torr shook his head, appearing baffled.
"His sword is still in his hand, so he intended to kill us," Brodie said.
"Alpin planned to murder us all. I'm ashamed of my cousin. I should've killed him instead of Silas MacRae."
Torr nodded. "When Alpin saw his friend lying dead, he realized he could not win. He lost all courage."
"The MacRaes will seek revenge for their chief's death, even though 'twas a fair fight." Gavin despised clan feuds. They could last hundreds of years and cause countless deaths. "Alpin is such an adder; he will lie and claim we ambushed them."
Brodie sheathed his sword. "We'll go with you to Caithmore and be ready when they attack. I'll send for reinforcements from my clan."
"As will I." Torr pulled a round silver flask from his doublet and handed it to Gavin. "You must be in pain."
His face ached, but Gavin shrugged, downplaying it. He drank a swallow of the potent whisky, then happened to catch sight of his reflection in the polished silver of the flask. The thin cut started on his forehead, bisected his left brow, then sliced down his cheek. Once he wiped the blood from his left eye, he discovered it remained just as blue and flawless as his right eye. 'Twas undamaged and his vision perfect, thank the saints. But he would be left with an unsightly scar.
Out of breath from running miles across the heathery moors between the rugged mountains, Alpin MacTavish stopped in a small copse of trees, bent, and propped his hands on his knees. Darkness closed in upon them. Gavin and his bastard friends had held their horses captive, forcing Alpin and his companions to return to MacRae lands on foot. Why couldn't the whoreson die?
A pang of loss struck Alpin's vitals like a dull sword. Silas had been his best friend, and they'd had a grand plan of being elevated to chiefs of their clans at the same time. Silas hadn't wanted to kill his own father, so Alpin had stepped in and dealt the killing blow so Silas could be chief sooner rather than decades later. Silas had been willing to return the favor and kill either Lunn or Gavin… or both of them. Neither had happened, but Silas had tried.
The wind sighing through the pine needles like ghosts, Alpin glanced out through the trees toward the flickering torches lighting the walls of Raeglen Castle in the distance. Imagining having to tell Silas's mother, Lady Wilona MacRae, her son was dead, Alpin cursed. The woman would be furious. She might even blame him and have him killed. He couldn't let that happen. She had to know Gavin did the deed.
Alpin faced his men and Silas's remaining guards, their plaids and leather armor stained with blood. "Listen, lads. Our eye-witness accounts must match. We were out stalking deer when Gavin MacTavish, his friends, and their guards ambushed us. They outnumbered us two to one and murdered Laird Silas MacRae and two of his guards."
Solemn, the men nodded. They would go along with the lie, else he would make sure they lost their positions… or their very lives.
Surely Lady MacRae knew Alpin would never harm Silas, for they were like brothers. But at times, he suspected she was touched with a bit of madness.
Alpin pointed at three of his own guards. "All of you quit MacRae lands. Go back to Gormly Castle and hide. We're going to say you were killed in the ambush."
One of the guards, Telford, quirked a brow. "Sir?"
"Do it, and ask no questions. I'll sort it out later." Lady MacRae did not know his guards by name or face. She paid no attention to them. Nor would she ever go to Gormley, his stepfather's holding.
Still scowling, Telford nodded, as did the other two.
"Go then," Alpin barked.
The men trotted away, over the brown pine needles, and disappeared into the dimness. Alpin glanced at the remaining guards, MacRaes. They sported bloody clothes and a few minor cuts, as did he. That might be enough to prove they'd had a horrible fight, but 'haps they should embellish the story.
"All of you fought hard to protect your laird," Alpin said. "Gavin's force was huge in number—three dozen or so. We could never have defeated them."
The guards nodded.
"You, pretend you have a great pain in your back," he told one of them. To the guard with a bruise and cut on his forehead, he said, "You are knocked out. Those two will carry you in."
The guards eyed each other as if Alpin had lost his senses.
"If you don't convince his mother of this story, we could all be hanged. She is a vicious harpy… and, some say, a witch."
They nodded, for they knew the truth of it.
"Let us go." Alpin ran out of the wood and across the grassy field toward the locked portcullis of Raeglen, the others following. "Guards! Allow us entry!"
Once inside the walls, he dropped to his knees upon the cobblestones, gasping for breath. "We were ambushed! They murdered the chief!"
A few of Lady MacRae's henchmen helped him up, asking many questions at once, while others assisted Silas's injured guards. Several times, Alpin repeated the story he'd concocted, having to invent new details as the questions continued. As he'd suggested, two of Silas's men lay upon the ground, pretending to be knocked out or injured.
He caught sight of Lady Wilona MacRae in the torchlight, still an attractive woman in her mid-forties, with copper hair and fierce emerald eyes. When she descended the steps, his stomach clenched. Hell, he had to do his best performance.
"What happened?" Gaunt but deadly, she rushed toward him, then stopped a few feet away. "Where is my son? Where is Silas?" she demanded, nearly hysterical already.
Alpin shook his head, thinking how much he would miss his best friend. "We were ambushed, m'lady."
Her mouth gaped, wrinkles forming between her brows. "Where is Silas?"
Alpin braced himself, then blurted, "Gavin MacTavish killed him."
Rage contorted Lady MacRae's face. "What? He murdered Silas?" Gasping, she could hardly get the words out. She swayed. The bodyguard behind her caught her arm to keep her upright.
"Indeed." Alpin nodded emphatically, trying to appear aggrieved. "Gavin and his army ambushed us in the wood while we were stalking deer. They had dozens more men than we did. They slaughtered several of my guards, and Silas's guards are injured." He motioned toward them lying upon the cobblestones of the bailey.
"Nay!" She shrieked, grasped his shirt front in both fists, and dragged her pale, lined face within inches of his. "You, go get him! Bring his body back here immediately! How dare you leave him out there?"
Alpin tried to draw away from her. Clutching her wrists, he attempted to break her grip on his shirt. "Pray pardon, m'lady, but 'tis turning dark. And they are still out there."
"Do you think I care?" She shook him, her eyes turning dark. "Go get him now, you cowardly lackwit! Take the guards and clansmen."
"As you wish, m'lady. I'll go now." Alpin blinked, eyeing her until she released him from the death-lock.
Wilona ran up the steps of the keep. At the top, she let loose a keening scream and disappeared inside the great hall.
Saints, the woman might go mad in truth.
After Alpin and the MacRaes retrieved Silas's body, the other two slain MacRae guards, and the horses, they returned to the castle. Gavin and his cohorts had been nowhere in sight, and Alpin was glad. He didn't want another battle with them.
Lady MacRae banished everyone except her favorites from the keep, where they mourned the whole of the night. Alpin spent the night in the barracks with the guards, grieving the loss of his best friend in his own way—by guzzling copious amounts of whisky.
Now, 'twas morn, and Lady MacRae had sent for him. His head paining him, Alpin entered the solar where she stood by the window.
She faced him, her eyes swollen and red with tears, her lined face looking haggard in the daylight. "Tell me everything that happened," she ordered, clutching a handkerchief in her fist. Her sharp green gaze speared into his, searching for someone to blame. He had to make certain she directed her rage at Gavin. Aye, she would have his loathsome cousin killed, making Alpin's path to the chieftainship easier.
"As I mentioned, m'lady," he said, keeping his voice calm, "we were hunting stag at the edge of the wood, along the border. Gavin, his friends, and their massive army charged us with bows and swords. We fought hard, but they outnumbered us four to one."
"Why? What reason did he have to attack Silas?" Her voice screeched and grated.
"Gavin needs no reason. He is vile and vicious."
"I will have my revenge against that devil and his allies." Her words emerged through clenched teeth.
"Are you going to have them killed?" Alpin tried to hide his eagerness.
"I would love to." She narrowed her eyes. "But killing them would be too quick. I'll make sure they suffer for many years, just as I will suffer without my son. Who are his friends?"
"Torr MacElrath and Chief Brodie MacCain."
She nodded, her gaze calculating. "I will deal with them all." She strode away, mumbling to herself. At the desk, she dipped her quill and scribbled on a paper.
Alpin followed a few steps. How could he soon become chief of his clan? His uncle had to be removed first.
"Gavin's father, Lunn, the chief… he will retaliate."
"I have nay fear of him or anyone in the doomed MacTavish clan." She glared around at him. "Including you, Alpin MacTavish. How do I ken you're nay loyal to them?"
Uncertainty prickling through him, Alpin cleared his throat. "Gavin and Lunn are mine enemies. They expelled me from the clan. But once those two are dead, I will be a good chief to the MacTavishes."
"Think of someone besides yourself for once!" she scolded.
Annoyance twisted his gut, but he held his tongue. "Aye, m'lady."
"Once I have my revenge, you may do whatever you wish with the clan… if any of them are left."
Hope lit within Alpin. "I can at least gain possession of the castle."
"If you wish." She shrugged. "It matters naught to me."
He needed to spur things into motion. "Silas was like a brother to me. I will help you exact revenge for his death. What can I do?"
"Naught, but remain patient. I intend to take everything from them, little by little, day by day. They will rue the day they crossed me."