From the first moment she clapped eyes on him, Deva MacLean knew that here was the man she would marry. Just like that – it was so instant, so arbitrary, and so completely impossible. The sun slid through the autumn skies, bringing a shaft of light into the woodlands where she collected fruit. Then she saw him. An unknown young man, riding through the clearing as if he owned it. Correction; an unknown handsome young man. Deva frowned. She had thought that she was alone, with just her maid, Allyth, somewhere behind her. This was private woodland. Trespassers were to be shot first and questioned later. Everyone knew that. Wondering who he might be, Deva put down the basket she was carrying and forgot all about the apples to look closer. Leaning forward, she was about to ask him his business when she stopped. His eyes. Glinting through the trees, his fiery eyes drew her in, compelling her to look closer.
And when she did, there was no going back. Because there, in front of her eyes, was a picture of perfection. Just for a moment, who he was, and what he was doing in their lands were secondary concerns. With her heart stuttering in her chest, Deva looked at the lad. He was unusually handsome, with waves of brown hair framing his strong facial contours. But it was the eyes that held her, glowering in the dim light like hot coals. Deva gazed at their incandescence; they were like nothing she had ever seen; a sun dipped in honey, their rays dazzling her. Here, Deva brought herself up. She needed to get a grip and fast. But as she turned to go, something caught her eye.
Something – or someone – had flitted across the glade but almost immediately vanished again. And now, a sound; hooves, galloping from somewhere across the glen. Anxiously, Deva looked around. Nothing. Then, overhead, an arrow soared, skimming the edges of the trees and jettisoning into the clearing ahead. “Get doon, laddie!” she hissed. But he did not hear. For a moment or two, Deva was torn. She wanted to go and help, warn him of the men coming. But a cursory glance told her she was much too far away to be any use.
And besides, her long red hair was signposting to the entire world her presence. Right on cue, the wind picked it up and sent it flying across the gray winter skies like a flare. Her heart thumping hard, Deva hesitated. What should she do? What could she do? She couldn’t just leave him to his fate. But the hooves approaching reached a crescendo, and finally, she saw them. The two brigands who had fired the arrows came crashing through the ravine with a treacherous zeal. Now arrows were falling like autumn leaves, searing through the copse close to his head. Heart in her mouth, Deva bit down a scream. She needed to yell at him, holler, do whatever it took to get his attention, regardless of what it might mean for her. Boldly, she opened her mouth.
“Qu…” she started, but the words she was about to speak were ripped from her by a hand on her mouth. “Shush!” The instruction was bold, but Deva did not turn. Although momentarily flushed, she was more annoyed than anything to be silenced. “I watched them from across the glade—they’re armed an’ dangerous, an’ they might hear ye!” the voice warned her. But Deva shook her head ferociously. “They need to hear!” she hissed, venom burning in her deep blue eyes. But then, she bit her lip and conceded that Allyth might be right. She always was. Displeased, Deva turned to look at Allyth, her best friend and lady-in-waiting. She had not heard her approaching through the wet bracken and undergrowth.
“We dinnae ken who they are,” continued Allyth, looking at her, her light green eyes aflame, “It isnae safe, so get doon… Miss!” Being too far away to affect much change, Deva complied. But her hands still shook as she hid in the undergrowth of the Scots Pine tree, which pricked at her uncomfortably. Fortunately, the arrow had missed its mark, and the young man in the clearing continued his trot, cantering slowly on the jet-black stallion into the center of the woods. Deva frowned from across the copse. It was as if he hadn’t seen the arrow at all! But with the two men still pushing their way through the woods, Deva’s anxiety rose like a crescendo. Whatever the danger, she could not sit back and do nothing. Casting her reservations to one side, she leaned in through the foliage. “Hoo!” her voice sung through the air. Beneath her, Allyth’s fingers dug in, urging her back, but Deva could not. Maybe she had no desire to be spotted by these men – who were likely bandits.
But equally, she couldn’t salve her conscience if something happened to the young man on the horse. “Get doon,” pleaded Allyth, pulling her back to the safety of the bush. Reluctantly, Deva complied. Deva peeked through the bushes and spied the lad, sauntering through the clearing as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Hoping fervently that he would be safe, Deva gawped. She was just near enough to catch a glimpse of his soft-toned olive face. Fastening her eyes upon him, Deva devoured him greedily. This was the first proper look she had gotten, and it did not disappoint. Even from this far back, she could see he was no ordinary rider. From the cut of his cloth and the patterned blue tartan he was wearing, it was clear that he was a man of some standing.
And now he came closer into view, she could see that she had been right. In the lad’s hand, a fine sgian-dubh glinted in the errant sunlight. By the looks of it, it was made of silver, and the deep colors of the base suggested rubies and diamonds. But it was in his face that his nobility shone. She didn’t know how, but there was something in that thick brow that suggested breeding. And when he turned, she could see she was not wrong. The strong jaw and the firm contours of his nose combined to produce a striking profile. Further down, the plushness of his lips only confirmed his outline. At once soft and determined, they combined a haughty masculinity with just a hint of the feminine. Inside her, something pulsated, sending a little jolt down below.
It had been there from the first moment that she had seen him, making her sizzle and burn. Then, Deva pulled herself up. This was not the time or the place for such thoughts. And she had other things to think about. Like staying alive. “Get doon!” Allyth said again, dragging Deva from the spot they were standing in and further back, “I think they’ve spied us!” A few moments passed as Deva, and her maid hid nervously in a shallow ditch. Pressed hard into the mud, Deva hardly dared breathe as the men charged past, without so much as a glance in their direction. Inside, Deva felt her heart thunder. When it was certain they had gone, she hoisted herself up out of the ditch, tearing at her skirts and catching her hair in the process. Too bad she had spent all night in curling papers, but never mind.
The only thing that mattered was that he had gotten free. Deva emerged from the swamp, more mud than human, just in time to see him wandering along the glade, his beautiful face completely lost in thought. Knocked for six, Deva gave a low whistle. He hadn’t even noticed them! Not only was he unharmed, but the man hadn’t even realized that he was being used as target practice! Deva could barely contain herself. She was in that strange place, hovering between laughter and tears, in near hysterics. Then, Allyth snapped her out of her thoughts. “We should go, Miss,” murmured her maid, and then she hesitated, “I wouldnae usually insist so, but yer father’s nae goin’ tae be pleased if we dinnae get back safe an’ sound…!” “Och,” huffed Deva, “Father doesnae care for me… I’m nae but a prize to his highest bidder!” A stab of anger ran through Deva, but her face stayed calm. Although she was not happy about the situation, she had just about reconciled herself to it. Being married off would get her out of the MacLean keep and away from her father. “I’m sure that’s nae true,” murmured Allyth, but from the way that she shifted her eyes away, Deva knew she had hit her mark.
Warming to her theme, Deva continued, “Well, aye, it’s nae completely true, they’re nae even bidding for me, just throwing clumps o’ dirt in the air, or whatever…” Allyth’s eyes cut into hers with a flash of mischief. “It’s a twenty-pound lump o’ granite, Miss! Nae a lump o’ dirt!” Although her words sounded serious, they were shot through with satire. Now that the men had passed, Allyth’s mood had restored. “An’ there’ll be a jousting contest too…. So, whoever wins will ha’ truly proven he is a man!” Deva darted her a glance. “Nae, he’ll ha’ proven he’s a daft lummox who lifted a twentypound lump nae-one wants…” she said, acerbically, “If he thinks that’ll impress a lass, then he’s a bigger lump than the thing he’s throwing!” Allyth grinned before leading them back out onto the main passageway that led into the MacLean lands. “An’ worse still, I’m to be this ninnyhammer’s glittering prize!” Deva concluded, with a quick glance up to the skies. The men on their horses had passed, and now the biggest risk was the weather. Undoubtedly, it was going to rain. Beside her, Allyth tugged her urgently, also mindful of the weather.
“All I ken is that I’m to get ye back to the keep in one piece, else my life is nae goin’ tae be worth living,” said Allyth, “The men are coming for the tournament, an’ ye have to welcome them in as the hostess, that’s if we can drag ye out o’ this bush an’ make’ ye presentable in time!” “The tournament!” said Deva, “It’s all I hear. Well, maybe I can wait to be auctioned off as the glittering prize…!” But even as she said this, Deva was well aware that her skirts were ripping, her arasaid muddied and her hair, literally, dragged through a hedge backward. Some glittering prize. “There they go,” Allyth’s voice cut her out of her thoughts, and for a few minutes, the pair watched as the brigands carried on into the empty canyon beneath them. Deva waited as they disappeared into the distance, fervently hoping the young man was finally free of them. For several minutes, Deva stared into the abyss, but the view of the clearing and the valley beyond were obscured by the side of the hills, cutting into their path. Reluctantly, Deva let him go. So much for her fancy notions. As if she was even free to give herself in marriage. Or do anything without the say-so of her father.
Anything she might want came a poor second to whatever the mighty laird of the MacLeans had decreed. She was to be bought and sold like a chattel. Or, in this case, won as a trophy for flinging lumps of clay into the air. Deva bristled at her fate but dampened herself down, determined to make the best of it. It was not to be, and there was nothing she could do about it. At least it looked as if the young man had gotten away. He had gone, and he wasn’t coming back. Most likely, she would never see him again. There was nothing else to say.