Chapter One...

 

 

Chapter 1

The North Inch of Perth, 25 June 1431

The night had been nearly starless before the clouds moved on.

Now, a pale golden glow edged distant hills to the east, which told twenty-three-year-old Sir Àdham MacFinlagh, riding south on the west bank of the river Tay, that the moon—full tonight—was rising.

Sir Àdham’s night vision was excellent, and his shaggy black-and-white dog, Sirius, ranging ahead on the undulating, shrub-lined path, would alert him to any disturbing movement, scent, or noise nearby.

The King’s annual Parliament was meeting in the royal burgh of St. John’s Town of Perth, so the road from Blair Castle, where he had spent the previous night, was safe enough to travel even at that late hour. Nevertheless, as Àdham neared the town, he welcomed the increasing moonlight.

Starlight had already revealed black heights of the town wall a half-mile ahead, beyond a rise in the landscape. He could even make out the tall, pointed spire of what he suspected was the Kirk of St. John the Baptist, for whom the town was named. The bridge crossing from the village of Bridgend to St. John’s Town’s High Street gate also soon came into view.

At that hour, even the broad expanse of water to his left had hushed, looking black and bottomless as it flowed toward the Firth of Tay and the sea. He knew the Tay was a powerful river. But now, it seemed calm and contained, reminding him that sea tides influenced its current. It was low, too, flowing some ten feet below its banks. So the tide was also low but on the turn. The breeze wafting toward him from across the water stirred no more than an occasional ripple.

His path lay between the river and a wide field to his right that, despite big patches of shrubbery and scattered trees, he believed was the infamous North Inch of Perth. The current King’s father, Robert III, had ordered a trial by combat there between the two great Highland confederations, Clan Chattan and the Camerons.

The full result of that great clan battle, more than that the two sides had had to provide thirty champions each and that the Camerons had lost all but one of theirs, depended on who told the tale and Àdham knew little about it. It had happened before his birth, and although a truce had resulted, no one on either side had been eager to discuss the battle with him.

All was quiet on the Inch, too, unnaturally so. Not even a night bird’s call.

His instinctive wariness of new places, augmented by years as a warrior, stirred strong then, as did his Highlander’s mistrust of any town’s dark environs.

His mount was tired after a long day’s ride, and enough of the moon peeked above the hills to light the river and its surrounding landscape, so he dismounted to lead the horse. Absently shifting stray hairs of his beard from his mouth with a finger of his free hand, and smoothing them, he scanned the nearby field.

He had not visited St. John’s Town before but had received detailed instructions from his foster grandfather to find their clansmen by following the High Street into the town from its north gate.

He could see the top parts now of a massive dark tower rising above the end of the town wall near the riverbank. Moonlight also revealed that the rise ahead was a low, rocky hillock extending into the water.

A short distance ahead, to his right, orange light revealed two high windows of an otherwise shadowed building inside a wall of its own. Torch-glow suggested that its east-facing wall had a gateway, but the rise hid all save its twin towers.

Rustling shrubbery near the field’s center sharpened the wariness awakened by its hitherto unnatural silence. His skin prickled, too, making him wonder if someone watched him from the Inch or one of those lighted windows.

The dog’s ears rose at the rustling sound, but when they relaxed almost immediately, Àdham relaxed, too, deciding that he had let his imagination turn a wakeful badger or fox seeking its supper into a bairn’s boggart.

***

“Whisst now, ye dafty!” the older of the two watchers hissed to the one creeping toward him with what the fool apparently mistook for extreme stealth. “’Tis like a herd o’ kine, ye be, a-pushing through them shrubs!”

“Whisst yourself!” his cousin hissed back. “Some’un’s coming, Hew. A chap on horseback with a dog, and a great sword on his back. D’ye see our quarry yet?”

“Nae,” Hew whispered. “Three men walked over from the town, though, and I saw one go into yon monastery. From here, I couldna be sure if them others went wi’ him or stayed outside. I’m thinking we may ha’ tae wait till they leave, though.”

“Who were they?”

“Sakes, how would I know? But the one as went inside, by his bearing, were a nobleman sure.”

“Deevil’s curse on all three o’ them. We canna bide here much longer! I did think this would be the night. But what if that dog senses us?”

“It’ll hear nowt if ye say nowt,” Hew muttered savagely. “It canna smell us, Dae, because wi’ this breeze a-blowin’ at us from yon river, the dog be upwind of us. This may be our chance tae win freedom for Alexander. So just hush your gob.”

Instead, his cousin Dae hissed, “Look now, Hew. Some’un’s a-hie-ing down tae the river from yon hedged garden!”

***

Àdham had seen no sign yet behind him of his squire and the two other lads who followed more slowly on foot, leading sturdy Highland garrons laden with bundles of the extra clothing and gear that they might need in town.

His sense of watchers had vanished when Sirius remained undisturbed, and he had heard no more himself beyond leaves hushing in the gentle breeze.

Increasing moonlight now turned the river into a wide silver-gilt ribbon. He began watching his steps as the path steepened and grew more rugged. But when he reached the top, he beheld a sight so unexpected that it stopped him in his tracks.

The dog stopped, too, and glanced at him uncertainly. Behind him, the horse whuffled, its sound no more than the fluttering wings of a nervous grouse.

Halfway down the rough slope, watching the moon, transfixed and unaware of her audience, stood a slender figure in a thin white nightdress or smock. The garment’s long sleeves and gathered neckline hid most of her. But it stopped at her knees, revealing bare calves, ankles, and small feet below.

Àdham’s breath caught in his throat, although anyone watching—had there been such a watcher—would have noted no change in his expression because he had habitually concealed his feelings since childhood. Emotions, after all, were private, not for sharing in the world of men that he customarily inhabited.

The lass, who looked only fifteen or sixteen, stood as still as sculpted marble, as if she focused every ounce of her being moonward.

Dropping the reins, hoping the horse would stay put, as the Blair Castle man who had provided it that morning had promised, Àdham stood still, too, unwilling to break whatever spell the moon goddess or unknown river nymph had cast on her.

Her dark hair, gilded by moonlight, fell past her hips in soft, shimmering waves. The white garment revealed little more than the slenderness of her figure, although his experienced eye detected the soft outline of a generous bosom.

As he watched, he heard only the murmuring river. Then, an owl hooted softly in the distance and Sirius made a petulant sound as if questioning his master’s stillness or his judgment.

Àdham’s wariness stirred again, but the lass did not react. Her gaze remained fixed, eastward, across the river on the rising moon.

To be sure, the moon, looking larger than life, was a splendid sight. More than half of it showed now above the dark mass of hills to the east. It seemed to have come nearer and grown bigger since the night before. Were he a fanciful man—which, decidedly, he was not—he might have called it magical.

Movement drew his gaze back to the lass as she raised her arms out from her sides. Then, to his amazement, she continued to hold them so as she stepped down into the water. She moved slowly and with more grace than one might expect on such a steep, uneven slope. Keeping her balance with outstretched arms, she eased forward until the flowing water reached her knees, her thighs, and then her hips.

Àdham shivered, watching her. Although the late-spring air was temperate, the hour was nearly midnight. The water had to be much colder than the air.

Evidently, however cold it was, its chill did not deter her. She took another step, then leaned forward and glided into the water, stroking gently from the shore, her head up, her hair spreading behind her on the water’s surface. Still gazing at the moon, she let the current carry her southward, away from him, toward the town and the sea. Then, in an eddying swirl, she vanished beneath the sparkling dark surface.

He watched expectantly. When she did not come up again, suddenly fearful, he dashed after her. Heedless of rocks, the uneven terrain, and other such minor obstacles, he cast off his baldric, belt, and heavy wool plaid as he ran.

***

Lady Fiona Ormiston savored the rare sense of freedom she felt deep beneath the surface, as her arms swept her forward and her legs kicked hard against the Tay’s strong current, heading back the way she had come. She was smugly pleased that she could hold her breath long enough now to count nearly to two hundred.

She knew that someone had been nearby, for her senses, especially on such moonlight ventures as this one, remained keenly attuned to her surroundings, and as she had waded into the water, she’d heard barely audible sounds of approach on the path northward and had given thanks that she wore her least revealing shift.

Peripherally, just before submerging, she had glimpsed a large, apparently cloaked figure cresting the rise and decided it must be one of the friars or a guard, who despite her caution, had seen her push through the monastery’s garden hedge and followed her. Such a man might watch her, even report her presence to others, but he would not harm her. She hoped whoever it was would be kind enough to return from whence he came without disturbing her or telling anyone else at the monastery that she had come down to the river.

In any event, although it was unusual to see anyone on that path at so late an hour, she would be safe enough in the water even if he was a late-night traveler.

A niggling discomfort stirred then at the intrusive memory of her first secret moonlight swim, years before at her home, Ormiston Mains, which was nearly four-days’ distant from St. John’s Town. She had emerged naked that night from the Teviot to find Davy, the youngest of her brothers, waiting on the riverbank. Eight years older and then sixteen, Davy had disapproved of her nudity and scolded her in that maddeningly calm but cutting manner he had.

Emboldened by her successful escape from Ormiston House and the bracing swim, she had dared to inform him that she liked to swim by moonlight.

When he’d smacked her bare backside hard and warned her to behave, she had demanded to know why she should not swim—having done so for two whole years, since she was six—especially late at night when everyone else was asleep.

His reply was that he had been awake, so others might be as well. When she had tried to argue that now obviously logical point by insisting that she’d have seen anyone else before she went into the water, Davy had ended the argument by tossing her back in the river. By the time she swam out again, he’d collected her cloak from the damp grass and held it ready to wrap around her.

She smiled at that memory, because Davy was her favorite brother and lived only a day’s journey now from their childhood home. Also, despite his displeasure with her that night, Davy had not betrayed her to their father.

That thought barely entered her mind before an unexpected surge in water behind her startled her so that she almost gasped. Certain that someone was now in the river with her, she surfaced to see if it was the man from the path.

He faced away from her, snapping his head frantically back and forth in an obvious search of the silent water downstream. Other than his unfashionably long and visibly tangled dark hair, only his arms moving on the surface and his broad shoulders—oddly golden in the moonlight—rose above the water.

Aware now that he likely feared the river had swept her away, she used the same sweeping strokes she employed underwater to swim swiftly and silently back toward shore, moving perforce with the current, but diagonally, so the water would not carry her right to him, and with her head well up to keep an eye on him.

When she could touch bottom with her toes, using her arms and hands to steady herself, she said just loudly enough for him to hear her, “I’m over here.”

He turned toward her, his movements powerful yet unhurried, revealing that as she had suspected, he was a skillful swimmer, too. She had therefore been wise not to try to swim away from him against the current. Nor could she have scrambled back up the steep slope and run away without drawing his attention.

Although only her head was above the water, he saw her straightaway and snapped, “What the dev—?”

When he fell silent rather than finish the likely curse, she said warily, “Why did you jump in? Did you fear the river had swept me away?”

He did not reply. Moonlight lit his face, revealing a prominent, even beaklike nose, as well as dark and deep-set eyes with a gaze both penetrating and piercingly intense, as if he would peer right through her skull to examine her thoughts.

His dark beard was thick and as unruly as his hair. He pushed a few long, wet strands of hair away from his face and took a stroke toward her.

Hastily, she said, “Pray, sir, just swim ashore. I do not need any help, for I learned to swim before I could walk. Also, the Firth’s tide is on the turn, so the current is not as strong now as it is at other hours.”

He stopped where he was and remained so steady that she knew he must be touching bottom and was strong enough to disregard the remaining current.

“Does anyone else know you are swimming here?” he asked. His voice was deep and so vibrant that it seemed to hum through her, strumming unusually pleasant chords in her body and instilling an unexpected calmness there, as well.

Those feelings did naught to help her identify him, though, nor did she trust her own calm. Doubtless, he was good with animals. But she was no dumb beast.

She had also detected an odd, vaguely familiar accent. In fact, there was something oddly familiar about him, although she knew they had not met before.

As for his question, she was uncertain of what to say.

He was certainly at home in the water. His shoulders were broad and muscular under what was evidently saffron-dyed cloth. She knew she could not outswim him, and she certainly could not outrun him even if she could manage to scramble up the slope to the riverbank before he caught her.

Such thoughts made her aware again of how vulnerable she was, and he was closer now, making her wish that he had been one of the friars or a guard.

“Are you going to answer my question?” he asked her. “’Tis the least you can do after pretending to drown.”

“Sakes, I just swam underwater. Did you truly think I was drowning?”

“I thought you might be trying to drown.”

“So you jumped in to save me?”

“This water is cold, and I’ve had a long day,” he said. “Also, you have not answered my question, making me sure that you did slip away without permission.”

She could hardly say that she had had permission, because she had told no one any more than that she meant to walk in the garden to enjoy the moonlight.

Although she could climb up the slope to the riverbank from where she was, she knew that her shift would reveal too much as she did and that the air would now feel colder than the water did. So she stayed where she was, watching him, as she said, “I merely came out to enjoy the moonlight and swim in a well-guarded stretch of the river. And you interrupted my solitude. I am not cold, and I do not mean to return yet. But I am perfectly safe. If I whistle or scream, men will come.”

“Then whistle,” he said lightly.

Fiona grimaced, wishing the irritating man would just go away.

***

The expression on her face stirred Àdham’s sense of humor, although he hoped he had concealed it. Clearly, she did not want to whistle and likely would not scream either, and he did not blame her. She would not want to draw such attention. Her air of confidence and gentle speech told him she was wellborn.

But if her people let her think she could safely sneak out at such an hour, they were fools. He had seen no guards. Doubtless, her father owned a house in town or had taken one there for the duration of the King’s Parliament, although his foster grandfather had said naught of any nobleman’s residence near the north gate.

In fact, he had described only one residence of note at the north end of town. That was a monastery of Dominican Blackfriars outside the north wall. Likely, it was the walled area that contained the large, shadowy building with its two lighted windows, and which Àdham could see more clearly now.

He was wet and cold, and the lass had neither whistled nor spoken since suggesting that she could whistle for help. She had taken a step or two up the slope, far enough to reveal her slim shoulders, but she still eyed him cautiously. Her eyes were unusual. Their pupils were so large and their whites so clear in the moonlight that if she had irises, they were either too light or too dark for him to discern them.

“You are gey quiet for one who needs only to whistle,” he said gently, with perhaps just a touch of mockery.

“I think I have somehow amused you,” she said. “I could hear it in your voice before, and with the moonlight on your face now, I saw your lips twitch.”

Her voice was lower than most women’s and so softly musical that it was as if it caressed his ears. Pushing that foolish notion from his mind, he said bluntly, “The plain fact is that you are not whistling, my lady. Nor have I seen any guards along this stretch of the river.”

“I wonder if you doubt that when I do whistle, help will come.”

“I believe someone might come,” he said, certain now that she was noble, because she had not blinked at “my lady.” “But I doubt that you want anyone else to see you clad as you are now. Will not your lord father be displeased with you?”

“So you think you know who I am, do you?”

“Only that you are noble,” he replied honestly. “I dinna ken your name or even your age, come to that.”

“My name is Fiona, and I shall turn eighteen on the last day of this month.”

“What is your family name?”

She hesitated and then said with a sigh, “You will find out easily enough that my father is Lord Ormiston of Ormiston Mains, in Lothian.”

Frowning, Àdham said, “So he is one of his grace’s tame Lothian lairds, is he not? I do not know precisely where Lothian is …”

“The noblemen his grace calls his Lothian lairds all own lands between the south shore of the Firth of Forth and Scotland’s southeastern border.”

“Have you then perhaps a warrior knight amongst your kinfolk, a man of uncertain temper that men call Devil Ormiston?”

She smiled then, and her eyes twinkled mischievously, sending a physical jolt to parts of him that had lain dormant for months. “Aye, my brother Davy,” she said. “But to say that Davy’s temper is uncertain is gravely to understate the matter. In troth, I was recalling earlier how uncertain it can be.”

He had no doubt that his amusement showed this time, but he said, “I expect he would disapprove of you being here with me. I have ken of him only because two of my kinsmen have spoken of his valor in battle and tourney. But we should get out of this water and warm ourselves whilst you tell me more about yourself.”

“I don’t suppose that I will tell you more,” she retorted. “You may know who I am, but I do not know you.”

“I am Àdham MacFinlagh of Strathnairn.”

“Well, Àdham MacFinlagh of Strathnairn,” she said, pronouncing the name nearly as he had, “I agree that we should not continue this discourse in the water. So if you will turn your back whilst I fetch my cloak, I shall get out. I suspect that this shift may become rather transparent whilst it remains wet.”

“If you did not want anyone to look, you should not have come out in it,” he said, unable to resist teasing her.

“You have already made your opinion clear, so you need not belabor it,” she said, remaining as she was. “I shan’t get out until you turn away. But you could just get out yourself, instead, and leave me to finish my swim.”

“Nae, m’lady, I cannot do that,” he said, although he did turn his back to her. “I’d be ill-serving your kinsmen if I left you here alone. Moreover, three of my men follow me and will soon be upon us if we stay here.”

“Why are they not with you now?”

“Because they are afoot, and I was not. But, if we miss each other, I expect they will ask for me at the north gate, and the guard will direct them to the alehouse where we are to be staying.”

Her eyebrows shot upward. “There is no guard for them to ask. All of the town gates, which people here call ‘ports,’ stay open to everyone, especially whilst the King holds his Parliament here. Have you not visited St. John’s Town before?”

“I have not.” He glanced toward her as he spoke and saw that she was scrambling onto the bank. She had been right about the thin smock, so he turned away before she could catch him appreciating her shapely backside and added, “I do know that St. John’s Town is our Scottish capital, though. So why even have a wall around it, and fortified gates … ports … if no one guards them?”

“’Tis because of the Parliament,” she replied. “Anyone who wishes to attend must be allowed to attend. So all the gates stay open. Sakes, St. John’s Town has been a royal burgh and our capital since the early twelfth century.”

“I did not know it was as long as that,” he admitted. “Or that it was walled.”

“Sithee, when England’s first Edward invaded one hundred and fifty years ago, St. John’s Town had only a ditch to defend against his assault. He built stronger fortifications, including a wall to protect against our barbaric Highlanders. Decades later, Robert the Bruce recaptured Perth, and it remained peaceful until England’s third Edward invaded a hundred years ago. Meaning to finish what his grandfather started and make his permanent base here, he forced the monasteries to rebuild the wall. St. John’s Town thereby became Scotland’s strongest town, more fortified than even Edinburgh or Stirling. It remains so to this day.”

“How do you know so much of St. John’s Town’s history?” he asked, as he made his way up the slick, rocky slope.

She bent to pick up a dark cloak from the grassy riverbank. As she did, her wet smock hugged her body enticingly enough to stir a brief wish that he could forget having vowed to behave honorably toward those weaker than himself.

“I like to know things,” she said, looking back at him.

He was soaked through, and when a foot slipped, he realized that in his concern for her safety he had spared none for the leather breeks and snug-fitting rawhide boots he had worn to ride. The boots were getting little traction, and he did not want to embarrass himself by falling back in.

Covering herself as she straightened and turned back toward him, she added, “When I meet someone who might have answers to my questions, I ask many.”

“But you fail to answer questions when others ask them of you.”

“Look here,” she demanded, “do you mean to betray me?”

“So you did sneak out,” he said, looking for his warm woolen plaid.

“Think what you like about that,” she said. “Are you coming now or not?”

“I am,” he said. Putting fingers to his lips to give two quick, sharp whistles, he stepped onto the grassy slope and then to the path, where he picked up his cap.

***

Deftly braiding her wet hair into a long, tight plait over her left shoulder that would not instantly reveal to anyone who saw her that she had been in the river, Fiona glowered as the man made his way toward her.

His saffron-colored shirt looked almost thin enough to see through, certainly thin enough to reveal his muscular chest. To her relief, she saw as he emerged that he had kept his breeks on … and his rawhide boots.

They squished as he walked, so he was doubtless unhappy about those boots.

He was tall, taller than Davy, and broader, especially across his shoulders.

“Why did you whistle?” she asked when he came nearer, refusing to let his size intimidate her. The humming sensation inside her began again as he got closer. Striving to ignore it, she added, “Are you trying to wake everyone?”

He gestured toward the river path north of them. “I whistled for my horse. I left him just beyond that rise. Also, somewhere in that direction, my plaid, my bonnet, and my weapons lie where I flung them.”

She cocked her head. “Your plaid?”

“’Tis a garment that you might regard as a sort of bulky cloak or cape.”

“Do you mean to stay in St. John’s Town?” she asked, remembering that her glimpse of him had revealed a man heavily cloaked, and trying to ignore a twinge of guilt at hearing that he’d cast aside his cloak and his weapons to rescue her.

He did not answer immediately, so she added, “Would you not liefer go into town as if you had never met me? Truly, sir, I did not need your help. No one here has forbidden me to swim by moonlight, although you are likely right about my father’s reaction if he should learn of it.”

Hearing hoofbeats then, she turned toward the sound and saw a handsome, dark horse with four white stockings and a white blaze on its forehead trotting toward them. A shaggy black-and-white dog loped awkwardly at its heels dragging an unwieldy length of cloth and a wide leather strap from its mouth.

“Is your dog friendly?” Fiona asked.

“He is, aye, unless someone threatens me. His name is Sirius.

“Like the dog that follows the hunter Orion across the night sky?”

“Aye,” he said, giving her another searching look. “And unless I’m mistaken, Sirius carries my belt and my plaid.”

The dog approached him, its upper teeth bared as if it were smiling.

Moran taing,” he muttered, taking the cloth and draping the wide leather belt over one shoulder. Stretching the long cloth out and shaking a few dead leaves and some of the path’s dust and gravel from it, he proceeded to wrap it deftly around his thighs, hips, and lower torso. “Fetch my sword, lad,” he said as he adjusted the garment’s folds and reached for his belt.

To Fiona’s amazement, the dog trotted back the way it had come, and before MacFinlagh had fastened his belt, it returned, dragging a leather baldric and sword.

“You have trained him and your horse well,” she said, watching in fascination as the man flung the remaining length of cloth over his left shoulder.

“I cannot take credit for the horse,” he said as he reached down for the baldric and sword. “A friend trained it.”

She nodded. Taking in his full image as he straightened and slung baldric and sword into place, then stood with his feet planted apart, gazing confidently at her, she felt a tremor of dismay and realized why he had seemed familiar to her earlier. His shirt; long, tousled hair; and unkempt beard had reminded her of the Lord of the Isles when he had submitted to the King at Holyrood.

Their accents, even the two strange words he had said to the dog, sounded similar. She had also seen northern lords and the men in their retinues in town wearing the odd garment he called a plaid.

He cocked his head. “What is it?”

“Why, you’re a …” Hesitating, she fought to think of a tactful word.

            His lips twisted wryly. “Aye,” he said. “I’m one of those infernal, barbaric Highlanders that you mentioned earlier.”

 

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