Scotland, 1314, September
COLIN McIntyre stared out into the fields surrounding his keep from the turret. There wasna anything more incredible than seeing the fruits of his clan’s labor finally coming together. They all worked tirelessly to tend to the lands to ensure their stores would be full before winter came, and in that feat they succeeded. His chest swelled with pride. His father would have been proud. If only the man were still with them.
He descended the stairs in usual fashion of slow and heavy steps. After maiming his leg in Bannockburn, he couldna help but land heavier with his left leg. The jagged scar had now all but turned white from the angry shade of red that once stood in its place. Pain would throb and ebb on occasion, serving as a reminder of that wretched battle. They’d held off the English this time, but one never really knew when they’d march upon them again.
Colin had reached the great hall when he noticed a messenger leaving his mother’s side by the hearth.
“There ye are, son. Come sit! The message happens to be for ye.”
He paused at the entryway and watched his mother continue her needlework. Her hair had turned silver in recent years, but the woman still possessed a tenacity for independence and yearned most desperately for grandchildren. A thought she reminded him of daily.
Colin took a seat at the table to read the missive placed there, catching glimpses of his mama looking up at him.
“The message has Sinclair’s seal on it. Do ye think he will offer one of his daughters as a bride?”
“I doona know yet, Mother. Allow me a moment to read.”
He snorted and slammed the parchment down, grumbling so low that he hoped his mother didn’t hear him say, “To hell with that!”
“To hell with what, dear? What does Sinclair’s missive say?”
“It matters not, Mother.”
Now she looked up at him and pursed her lips. Her glare was ice cold, and she set her needlework in the basket on the floor next to her. His mama rose from her chair and walked across the room to the window. She nodded at a guard to close the door to the room, which left them alone.
The once formidable Lady McIntyre stared out the window for a moment in silence and then spoke in her usual commanding, feminine voice.
“When yer pa was still alive, I recall a time when he was called upon by another leader he didna trust. His reaction was very much the same as yers a moment ago. We’ve all heard rumors in recent months about the Sinclair, but ne’er forget ye also have a duty to yer clan, Colin. Ye must have an heir, or this clan dies off when the English decide to return.”
Colin ground his teeth. His patience was all but gone, yet his mother spoke the truth.
“The message was a summons of sorts. To attend his keep. He apparently wishes to make a proposal.”
“Oh! What sort of proposal?”
“He didna say, yet I can only imagine what the bastard might be up to.”
His mother approached and knelt at his feet. She took his hands into hers and smiled sweetly at him.
“My dear son. Nothing good ever came out of making assumptions. I want ye to promise me something. Go and hear what the laird has to say. As long as yer on fine terms with the man, ye can always send word to us.”
Colin pulled his hands away, rose, and lifted his mama from her knees.
“I make no promises, Mother. I will do what I think is right for the clan after I listen to his proposal.”
“That is all I can ask for, dear.”
“Now, with all that aside, ye look weary, Mother. Go have a rest before the evening meal.”
She smiled again and left the room.
Silence. Blessed silence. He would leave this place to listen to a proposal which could have easily been sent in writing. Yet, one had to be suspicious of Sinclair’s motives.
Between his lands and those of the other surrounding lairds, they’d had their fill of crops for the last two seasons. He hardly saw what more the man could propose that he required.
Colin rose from his seat and left the keep to find their priest, Father McKechnie. The man of the cloth travelled often enough between the clans but would spend a great deal of time in their chapel. If anyone had heard of rumors, it would be Father McKechnie.
Down into the lower bailey he went, stopping along the way to notice his soldiers sparring to his left and, to his right, five men lined up for target practice. Pride filled him to his core. His men were always ready. Prepared for anything, and anyone.
He kept to the path until he saw the priest in consult with a villager. Colin stood several feet away to give the priest time to finish.
“Apologies, laird.” The frail old woman hobbled away as he approached McKechnie and the small chapel.
The priest curiously gazed up from his seat on a boulder. “Laird, how can I be of assistance?”
“I have a small matter I wish to discuss with ye.” He leaned against the boulder.
“Very well, come on inside and we shall see what I can do for ye.”
Colin followed the aging, tall, and lean man inside the cozy building. The priest stared back at him with dark brown eyes the color of mud and peat mixed together. Colin had once promised to make some structural changes to the construction, yet he’d never made it a priority. He hoped the priest wouldna question him on those matters whilst he discussed his own concerns.
“So what troubles ye, laird?”
“I need to know more of Laird Sinclair. I need to know who he confides in, who else he’s been raiding. I am on my way to his holding, at his request, to listen to a proposal.”
“Ah, well, let me see. When their eldest was born, I recall his wife being insulted at the spring festival when Lady Duncan commented that their daughter was the loveliest of ladies and lasses in all the land. Shortly after the gathering, the Duncans were raided and nearly everyone was left for dead, except the bairn, that is.” The priest shivered and continued. “Amongst the mortally wounded, not one shred of evidence was left behind indicating that the child was murdered in cold blood like the rest of the sorry lot. God bless their souls. They were taken too soon.”
“What has this got to do with anything?” he asked.
“I’m getting to the point, laird. It’s been said the Sinclairs are in league with demons, caring for nothing other than advancing themselves. No matter the cost. If I were ye, I’d be bringing men with me.”
“And who are these demons ye speak of, Father?”
The priest pursed his lips. “Forgive me. They’re not exactly demons per se, but their behavior is comparable.” He lowered his head and whispered, “My superiors have heard that Laird Sinclair is in league with King Edward II. Heed my counsel, laird…”
Colin left the priest before he could continue. “Many thanks, Father, but I’ll not endanger my men if I can manage this one task on my own.”
“May God go with ye, my son.”
Father McKechnie’s recommendation screamed a warning, but Colin wouldna yet worry. He wouldna leave without speaking to Cormac and Ewen. The day Colin McIntyre left anything to chance was the day he’d bring his clan to their ruin.
On his way back to the keep, Colin passed through the training field and stood idly watching Ewen discussing a matter with one of his warriors. After several minutes, he whistled to gain his man’s attention. “Ewen! In the hall now, and see that we are not disturbed.”
He carried on his way into the castle and straight into the great hall. Colin found himself gazing about the wall adorned with his father’s prized weapons, waiting for the heavy oak doors to be closed behind Ewen. A moment later, the door closed.
“Ye wanted to speak to me, laird?”
“Aye. I received a summons from Sinclair earlier today.” He braced the wall, his head dipped down, and closed his eyes. “I trust that ye will keep things in order while I am away. There will be talk…there is always talk. Stay close to the whispers. I have no reason to suspect anyone would betray us here, but this is just a precaution.”
Colin pulled away from the wall to take his seat at the table. “Come and have a seat.”
He pulled out two chairs, and they sat in silence for another few moments before Ewen spoke up.
“What do ye suppose the summons is for?”
“I havena a clue. ’Tis no secret I doona trust the man. When I do know, I will send word. I expect Sinclair will read my message before it leaves his lands, so I’ll not leave anything I doona want him to read written. I may have need for aid, so be sure that Cormac and the men are ready if I doona return within a sennight.”
“Verra well, laird, I will see to the arrangements.”
“Now, run along and see that my horse is readied. I would prefer to arrive while there is still daylight.”