Book 4 > Of Mist and Mountains
Isle of Skye, Scotland
“I dunnae wish to be flogged,” Isla MacLean whined as she held out the braies to Elena MacLeod.
Elena resisted the urge to roll her eyes at her younger cousin. Isla had been overly dramatic for as long as Elena could recall. Instead, Elena offered the practiced, pleasing smile that she normally reserved for her father when he was becoming irritable with her, and she took the braies in hand quickly in case Isla should change her mind and try to keep them. Elena needed these braies. She fingered the rough material that she would wear low on her hips to cover her legs and aid in her disguise to look more like a young boy than a girl. She moved the braies to her left hand, and with her right, she reached up and released her hair from the jeweled hair fastener her cousin had asked for in exchange for “borrowing” the braies from the bedchamber of Elena’s youngest brother, Brus.
“Did anyone see ye?” she asked as she handed the clip to Isla.
“I dunnae think so,” Isla said. She took the fastener and promptly pulled back the right side of her brown hair. “How does it look?”
“Excellent,” Elena murmured, not actually looking at her cousin’s hair. Instead, she surveyed the gathered items on her bed, which were about to help transform her from young woman to young man so that she could participate in the bow-and-arrow competition, which was the first contest of the annual MacLeod clan’s St. John’s Eve celebration.
Did she have everything she needed? She quirked her mouth, considering: a léine to slip over her head that would cover her chest, arms, and trunk; a jerkin that would fit over her tunic and help to disguise her breasts, which she had already wrapped material around to flatten; a belt to cinch the tunic and jerkin; and the braies, which would help to cover her slender legs, especially given the braies nearly went down to her ankles instead of stopping just below the knee the way most men’s braies did. Berries had been mushed to paint her face, and she had a cloak with a hood, which she intended to pull up and around her face. Given the chill in the air, likely no one would find it odd that she was wearing a cloak.
“Elena!” Isla said, snapping her fingers in front of Elena’s face.
Elena jerked her gaze to her cousin, who was frowning at her. “Aye?”
“Did ye hear a word I said?”
“Nay, I’m sorry,” she replied, unlacing her gown to pull it over her head. Halfway into the task, with her vision obscured by the material, Isla let out a loud sigh.
“I overheard yer mother telling my mother that yer betrothed has finally come to Dunvegan!”
Isla’s high-pitched tone made Elena wince, but her cousin’s words stilled Elena. Rolland MacKay was here? After nine years of not once bothering to come to see her when he had the occasion to return to the Highlands from England, where he’d been sent to apprentice, he had the audacity to come to her home today? It was one day before she reached two and twenty summers, the age at which their betrothal contract said she could withdraw from it and wed another if she and Rolland had not yet wed. The nerve of the man to come here today! She had long dismissed him as her future husband, and she had plans for herself. Why had he come here?
She tugged up the gown, the material scraping her nose as it went over her head, and she let out a disgruntled noise.
“Are ye excited?” her cousin asked. Isla’s own enthusiasm was obvious in her bright eyes and the tone of her voice.
Her cousin’s delight in a man who was known as the Highland Heartbreaker for his legendary conquest of women at the English court irritated Elena. “Nay,” she replied, discarding the gown on her bed. Whyever should Elena feel anything but apathy for a man who had made it clear with his actions that he had not wanted to wed her? Her cheeks still burned a tinge when she recalled how her naive younger self had been so smitten with Rolland MacKay and the idea of one day being his wife. The future laird of the MacKay clan had seemed like a hero to her when she was a young girl.
After all, he’d once risked his own life to save one of her brothers from falling off a cliff, and he’d risked his life yet again at the age of sixteen summers to kill a wild boar charging her mother. He’d been jovial with Elena whenever his family had come for the MacLeod annual festivities, but once their betrothal contract had been formally set and he’d left for England to apprentice, he’d shown his true colors and she’d lost her childhood naivete. Her eyes had finally begun to open to the unfairness women faced. It was a man’s world, and women were relegated to be pieces on a game board to be moved about as men wished. Wed for land. Wed for money. Wed for war. She had no desire to be bartered away to a man who respected women so little that he’d constantly bed one after another, and all while betrothed to her! He’d never be the sort of husband to treat her as an equal.
“But, Elena!” Isla said, her eyes locked on Elena’s bound chest. “I’d wager he has come to finally wed ye!”
“I dunnae care why the man has come.” She yanked the tunic over her head and brushed past her gaping cousin to pick up the braies and don them.
“Ye kinnae mean that!”
“I do,” Elena replied, shoving her legs in the braies and then turning to face her cousin. Isla looked so distraught with her forehead wrinkled in a frown and her mouth turned down that Elena almost laughed. “As ye know, I have every intention of removing myself from the betrothal contract tomorrow. Then I’ll go to Court and find a man worthy of being my husband.”
“Uncle Iain will have a fit if ye do that.”
Elena rolled her eyes. “My father is always disgruntled with me. This will nae be anything special.”
Isla snorted. “Ye’re wrong about that. My mother told me that the MacKay clan is one of the strongest in Scotland, and that yer father relies upon them to keep Dunvegan Castle safe.”
“Well,” Elena replied, dipping her fingers in the cool, mushed berries she was going to paint her face with as the last part of her disguise, “I will find another man who can rely upon his clan. One who is more to my suiting. One who treats me as an equal.”
Isla snorted. “Ye’ve been listening to Auntie Bridgette’s fire talks for too long. Uncle Lachlan is a special sort of man. I doubt ye’ll find one who will tolerate ye being so opinionated.”
Elena ran her fingers under her eyes to cover the skin with the dark berry stain. “Uncle Lachlan kinnae be the only man in Scotland who wishes an equal as a wife.”
Isla wrinkled her nose. “I should be thrilled to have a husband like Rolland MacKay.”
Elena ground her teeth together. “Ye’d be happy to have a husband who dunnae honor yer marriage vows to bed only ye?” she demanded, setting her hands on her hips and glaring at her cousin.
“Ye are nae wed yet, Elena. I’m certain Rolland would nae dishonor ye once ye’re wed.”
“And what pray tell makes ye certain of that? Was it the story we heard about his last visit home when a serving wench graced his bed the entire time until her irate father came to fetch her by the hair? Did that make ye believe the man had honor he was hiding? Or mayhap it was the tale that we were regaled with a sennight ago by the traveling bard who’d just come from the English court?”
“I dunnae recall any—”
Elena put her hand up to silence her cousin. Her blood was now boiling. Women were trained from birth to think they should be grateful for any attention men gave them. The fairer sex was instructed that their lot in life was to wed for the betterment of their family and then to spend their remaining days meekly doing as ordered, while their minds wasted away.
She’d seen it time and again with women in the castle doing what they had been bidden to do. Her mother often bowed to her father’s wishes when she should stand her ground and demand to be heard. It made Elena grind her teeth. If it weren’t for Elena’s aunt Bridgette, who demanded to be equal to her husband in every way, Elena would not have even known it was possible to have that type of marriage. But she did know, and she would settle for no less. Oh, she didn’t want to be a warrior as her aunt was, but Elena did want a husband who would hear her opinions and allow her to run their castle alongside of him and not under his thumb. And she wanted a husband who would be true to her, who had honor.
The minute she lowered her hand to reach for her jerkin, her cousin said, “I dunnae think ye should go through with yer plan to enter the contest as a boy. Yer father will be livid if ye’re found out.”
“He’ll get over it.” Her father may lord over her mother too much for Elena’s taste, but he was a good, kind father and never stayed vexed for too long.
“Rolland may nae like it. If ye’re discovered, he could call off the betrothal.”
“Excellent,” Elena said with a grin as she picked up her bow and arrow. “That would save me the trouble of doing so myself.”
~ ~ ~
“I dunnae remember the St. John’s Eve celebration being attended by so many other clans,” Rolland said as men gathered at the shooting line for the bow-and-arrow competition.
Brus MacLeod lowered his bow, which he’d been nocking, and looked at Rolland with the half smile that characterized the underlying amusement Brus always seemed to possess with life. “Ye may well have recalled what the celebration was like if it had nae been nine years since yer last visit here.”
Rolland let the jab pass without responding. For one, Brus was mostly right. Rolland had purposely not returned to Dunvegan since the betrothal to Brus’s sister, Elena, had been forced upon him by his father. It wasn’t that Rolland hadn’t liked Elena. As far as he could recall, the lass had been pesky but in an amusing sort of way. She’d always wanted to do what her brothers were doing, though she was a spoiled thing who was feminine through and through, but he remembered she didn’t like that. At one moment she’d squeal at a spider and demand Brus or their elder brother, Royce, kill it, and in the next moment, she’d insist she should also learn to shoot a bow and arrow, while complaining how it hurt her fingers. That was about all he recalled about her. Well, he did remember she had eyes the color of the ocean so blue, and she had a look of innocence that allowed her to get away with far too much. And she’d had an uncommonly husky laugh for a girl not even a woman yet. He frowned as he nocked his own arrow and raised his bow to see the course he was about to shoot.
The other reason Rolland didn’t remark upon Brus goading him was that Brus was Rolland’s best friend. Hell, he was one of his only true friends besides his cousins. A future laird who worked secretly for the king did not have the luxury of giving his trust to many men. Brus was his oldest friend, but Rolland hadn’t seen him in two years, as he’d been away in France for the king. Brus didn’t know what Rolland had been doing, though. No one did. They all thought he’d been cavorting at the English court, having too much fun enjoying the English wine and women. And while he had overly indulged in both wine and women while he had been there, he had not done so since King Robert had visited him at court and told him he was making Rolland one of his personal spies—a post that required absolute discretion, secrecy, and loyalty to the Crown. And when the king had told Rolland that his father had recommended him for the post, Rolland had been shocked.
As long as he could remember, he and his father had been at odds. Looking back now, Rolland realized it was mostly because he had been balking at not having a voice in the path of his own life. His anger at his father being so controlling had led to many years of doing the opposite of what his father demanded. He could see now that his father’s actions had been over concern for the clan, but his father had never explained that. So the more he expected, the more Rolland had rebelled and the more critical his father had become.
“Do ye have wool in yer ears, Rolland?”
Rolland blinked away the past and focused on Brus. “Sorry. What did ye say?”
“I said if ye’ve come to fetch my sister to wed ye finally, the task may nae be as easy as ye think.”
Rolland had come to do just that. It still wasn’t what he wanted, but it was what the clan needed him to do, and Rolland had matured enough to realize the clan’s needs had to come before his desires. It was nothing against Elena MacLeod. He was certain she’d grown into a perfectly acceptable lass, and she would no doubt be a good match to his being laird, trained, he was certain, in proper obedience, unwavering loyalty, and meekness. The problem was, he still didn’t like being told what to do—never had—and he’d been told to wed her. And meekness in a woman never had inspired one flicker of desire in him.
“Am I to assume yer sister has heard of my activities while away from the Highlands?”
Brus smirked. “Everyone has heard of yer activities. Ye know they call ye the Highland Heartbreaker, aye?”
Rolland grimaced at the nickname he was positive Lady Arabella had given him, or in truth, it could have been the lass Ainslie from his father’s home. He wasn’t a saint. He was far from it, but he’d never considered his behavior to be dishonorable because he’d been very clear with his father that he would never wed Elena MacLeod, and he had, in fact, told her father so the day the formal betrothal had been signed. He could only imagine how foolish his father and Iain MacLeod must have thought him—foolish and naive. “I did nae break any hearts.”
Brus hitched his eyebrow so high, Rolland swore it almost touched the man’s hairline. Rolland cleared his throat as the tips of his ears warmed at his friend’s obvious skepticism. “Nay purposely,” he clarified. Brus snorted at that. “I told the women I was with that I was nae free to pursue wedding them because I was betrothed to another.”
“How verra convenient for ye to use a betrothal to keep other women at a distance when ye did nae have any intention of keeping it.”
The sharp words filled Rolland with embarrassment. His dishonorable, selfish action embarrassed him now, and that he had ignored the truth of how he had been behaving was even worse. Yet, he could not take what he’d done back, only proceed forward with honor. “Was it my declaration years ago nae to wed yer sister that turned her against me?”
“Nay.” Brus’s lips pressed into a grim line for a moment before he spoke again. “Yer actions of nae ever returning to see her turned her against wedding ye. My da kept yer words to himself, telling only my brother and me last year because he had finally started to question if ye would truly come round to yer duty.”
“I’ve come round to it,” Rolland assured Brus, though saying the words made his entire body tense. He raised his bow and arrow to aim it again, but suddenly his right elbow was bumped and he inadvertently released the arrow. It went flying down the length of the path, past the target and into the woods. “Damnation!” he swore, looking to his right to tell the fool who had wedged in next to him what he thought of his clumsiness.
He stopped short at the sight of his competitor. The boy had dark berries smeared all over his face and a hood pulled down almost over his eyes. Instead of apologizing to Rolland, he glared at him, which stirred Rolland’s ire and had him reacting when he should have just let it go. “If ye’re so untried in the ways of the shooting competition that ye dunnae know to mind another’s body, then ye should nae enter the competition.”
The boy’s mouth slipped open and his eyes popped wide for one moment, but then his lips turned down and he swept a hand around him. “I’ll nae ask ye if ye see the crowd around ye,” he said, his voice unusually high. He cleared his throat, indicating that mayhap he had something caught in it to make it pitch so high, and then he said in a lower tone, “Ye have two eyes, so I know ye see the throng of people. I was pushed, ye clot-heid, and so I bumped ye. ’Tis nae my fault ye kinnae hold steady when bumped.”
“Seems to me ye have the same problem,” Rolland pointed out, glaring down at the much shorter lad. “And since ye bumped me, I suggest ye go fetch my arrow quick like before the competition begins.” They were each only allowed to bring one arrow to the line to shoot, and that was exactly what Rolland had done. He’d even marked it specifically to indicate it was his. His father was watching the competition, and Rolland had no intention of giving the man another reason to criticize him.
“Ye may suggest all ye like,” the boy replied, his tone dripping with sarcasm, “but that dunnae mean I’ll scramble to do yer bidding. I’m nae a hound to be ordered, ye arse.”
A horn blasted just then, announcing the competition was about to start. The space in the line seemed to shrink as men jostled to get a good position. If Rolland got out of line, he’d lose the advantage of where he’d been standing, but he could see by the mutinous look upon the boy’s face that he didn’t intend to budge. Rolland pointed his bow at the lad, getting so close to the lad’s nose that he unintentionally scraped it. The boy cried out, making the men around him laugh at him.
Rolland opened his mouth to apologize, but the lad spoke, cutting him off. “I’ll have yer bullocks for daring to touch me!” The declaration only made matters worse for the lad, which served to fill Rolland with unwanted guilt. He held his tongue on saying anything apologetic, though, knowing instinctively it would not help. The men saw the boy as weak, and they had been bred not to tolerate weakness in their own kind. It was a benefit in war and a detriment in all other matters. The trick was knowing this.
“I’ll tell ye what,” Rolland said, “I’ll keep my bullocks, and ye can keep my place in this line.” Hopeful that his comment had settled the matter and would allow the boy to retain some pride, Rolland stepped out of the line and strode toward the woods and his arrow, but behind him a roar of merriment went up with hoots and hollers at the boy’s expense. Knowing there was nothing more to be done than let the matter die away as it would, Rolland kept going toward the woods, but then one voice rose above the others—the boy’s.
“Ye there! Halt and face me like a man. Take up my challenge to outshoot me!”
Rolland didn’t bother to turn back. He’d been using a bow and arrow practically since birth, and he’d won enough competitions that he doubted the lad would stand a chance in besting him. He took one more step, and then something sharp pierced his right buttocks, sending a sting into the cheek and down his leg. He stopped, frowning for one breath, as the burning grew so hot that he had to grit his teeth.
What the devil?
He looked over his shoulder, the raucous sound of laughter filling the air, and he stared dumbfounded at his own arse. An arrow was lodged there. He didn’t need to look to see who’d done it, but he did anyway. The boy stood grinning at him as the men around him slapped him on the shoulder. Except for one, Brus MacLeod, who stepped in front of the boy as he glanced back at Rolland. He could see by the worry etched on his friend’s face that he was concerned Rolland would retaliate. Brus had every right to be concerned. Rolland’s blood took on a full, immediate boil. Though the lad was small, he was clearly impetuous and dangerous and needed to be taught a lesson, which Rolland fully intended to do.
A hit to the mouth ought to do it.
Rolland jerked the arrow out of his arse, wincing against the throbbing pain and the warm blood that now trickled down his leg and soaked his braies. Without hesitation, he stalked toward the boy, his temple pounding harder with each step. “Ye!” he said, pointing the lad’s arrow at him when he was almost upon him. “Ye need a lesson in manners!”
The boy’s face appeared around Brus’s shoulder, who still stood in front of the lad, as a protective shield, it seemed, and faced Rolland. “And I suppose ye, ye big, brawny clot-heid of a man, intend to teach me manners?”
“Shut yer trap!” Brus snarled at the boy as he raised his hands, palms up, at Rolland. “I’ll deal with the las—lad,” Brus said.
“I dunnae need ye to defend me,” the boy insisted, skirting Brus as Brus tried to grab him and missed. Stopping directly in front of Rolland, the boy tilted his head up, his anger so obvious it lit his bright-blue eyes with streaks that glittered like gold. “Ye deserved that,” the lad said, poking Rolland in the chest. “’Tis ye that needs to learn manners or I dunnae doubt ye’ll get another arrow in yer other arse cheek one day soon.”
“Well, I’m about to show ye what nae shutting yer trap as Brus there suggested gets ye,” Rolland snapped, raising up his arm to give the lad a pop—though, a light one—in his lip. Just enough to make it swell a bit and remind him of this day. He snapped his fist back fast and brought it forward only to have his hand stopped by Brus, who surprised Rolland by once again placing himself between the lad and Rolland.
“I’m afraid I kinnae let ye do that,” Brus said, jerking the boy to him and glaring at the lad.
“Why the devil nae? Because he’s a MacLeod?”
“Nae,” came a voice from behind Rolland that rose easily above the deafening silence that had descended among the group.
Rolland turned to find Brus’s father, Iain MacLeod, standing there, looking irate enough to spit fire. “He kinnae let ye hit the lad because that’s nae a lad afore ye, Rolland MacKay.”
“Rolland MacKay!” the lad exclaimed, his voice going oddly high and sounding rather like a woman’s.
“Ye’ve been shot in the arse by my hellion sister,” Brus stated.
“I dunnae believe it,” Rolland mumbled, staring at Elena MacLeod but unable to see her as she should be.
“Nay?” Brus said with a grin. “Allow me to prove it to ye.” With that, Brus whipped the hood back from her face, tugged off her cloak, and quickly yanked on the knot of hair, now visible, that was piled on top of her head. Waves of long, fiery locks suddenly slid down past the lad’s—no, lass’s shoulders, to nearly her waist. A loud murmuring went up in the crowd, and the lass let out an outraged sound and tried to wrench free of her brother. Her thick halo of hair glistened around her face like a sunset made up primarily of golds and reds. Brus swept a hand at the lass as he released her. “If ye can tame her, she’s all yers,” Brus said, chuckling.
“Tame her?” Rolland repeated, years of flirting with lasses making him immediately calculate what to say to ease the fury that burned in Elena MacLeod’s eyes. “I dunnae wish to tame her if being wild is what’s made her such a good shot.” He met her gaze, which widened, and he struggled to control the need to grin with victory. “I wish lessons as my wedding gift from ye.”
Her lips parted in surprise for one second before a flash of a smile tried to take over, which she immediately controlled, but he had already seen the effect it could have on her face. It lit her up and heated his veins. He wanted to see that smile again very soon.
“Ye’ll nae be getting a gift since ye’re nae getting me,” she said, brushing past him, her father, and the other men who’d been waiting to shoot. Laughter rose around him, and her father, looking ready to strangle her, turned to follow her. Rolland stood watching the enticing sway of her hips, now on full display in the braies she’d been so daring as to don.
Brus tossed his arm over Rolland’s shoulder, and Rolland glanced to his friend, who was grinning at him. “I told ye wedding her may nae be as simple as ye thought.”
“Aye,” Rolland said, unable to tear his gaze away from Elena as she trudged toward the long, winding seagate stairs that led to her family’s castle, which towered well above the shore where they were all gathered for the festival. She had long legs, by the looks of her, and he couldn’t help but wonder if her hair was as silky as it looked. Persuading Elena MacLeod to wed him likely would not be simple at all. He’d thought he’d show up here and she’d be beside herself with gratitude and gladness. His mistake made him grin. He had always liked a challenge, and Elena MacLeod was going to be exactly that.