Laird, we swear fealty to ye and the McIntosh Clan upon pain of death.” The new laird of McIntosh Clan looked out at his warriors, kilted in red and green, their dirks clutched tightly and proudly in their fists as they put their arms to their hearts and bowed their heads. Ryen Harper felt nothing. It was to be a momentous occasion when he became Laird, but now it had been thrust upon him both quickly and far too early for his liking by the cruel hand of fate. He had not been prepared for his father’s death nor his mother’s soon after. He stood tall looking out at his men and the crowd beyond. He knew the words all too well, and they came to him, even though the emotion was lost that was to linger behind them. He lifted his tankard of ale to the crowd and said to the men’s bowed heads, “And I vow to ye me protection while ye are under McIntosh colors and McIntosh lands. Do not betray, for the consequences will be dire.” The men lifted their heads, and the whole busy room of people lifted their cups high and cheered for the new Laird’s position. They had already spent the day paying their respects to his late mother, and since she had fallen ill soon after his father had died, there had been no time to perform the Lairdship ceremony. Ryen brought the cup to his lips and drank deeply, hopeful that he could even partially remove the pain of loss that threatened to split him in two. Now, he had a clan to lead. However, he resolved to do one thing as his first order of business: get mind-numbingly drunk. The feast continued, and as he sat down, his sister Mary leaned toward him, her reddishbrown hair glinting in the torchlight.
“Brother, Faither and Maither would be proud of ye. Faither always kenned that ye would be a good leader.” Ryen grumbled and leaned forward to the pewter pitcher of ale and poured himself another hearty tankard. In a moment, a servant came by to refill the pitcher. At least as Laird, his cup would always remain full. “Is that so? I doubt our Faither planned on dyin’ so early and leavin’ me with such a mess.” “Ryen, how can ye say such a thing? He is barely cold in his grave and Maither dead only days ago.” Ryen could hear sadness in his sister’s voice, but instead of saying anything, he merely placed a large, rough hand on hers. She calmed. His other hand still gripped his tankard and he took another long drink, wishing and praying for oblivion.
“My first plan is to get drunk, and then do it again. I daenae wish to wake from me stupor for two days at least.” Mary sighed and pulled her hand away from his. “And what of Lily? Ye at least enjoy carin’ for yer own niece, even if ye want nothin’ to do with Clan matters.” Ryen could see his sister was crossing her arms out of the corner of his eye. He kept his gaze ahead though, watching the most important members of his Clan and Castle eating, drinking, talking. No one else had to shoulder such a responsibility. They could eat and drink in peace with no dark shadows lingering in their minds. “It is nae that I want nothin’ to do with them. It is just that I dinnae expect it.
I was nae ready.” Mary gripped his arm and used her other hand to pull his bearded face toward her. She looked deeply into his brown eyes. “Brother, let me tell ye somethin’.” Ryen’s heart clenched as he realized what he had just done. Mary’s voice was firm. “Ye cannae expect death. It comes whenever it wishes. The world is a cruel mistress, and life has dealt us a harsh blow. First, with me husband, lost in a battle, and now our parents.
We cannae sit around forever, questionin’ why things happened, or else we would never get anythin’ done. So I suggest, ye forget doin’ that, but…” she paused, and he could see a smile curl at the corners of her lips, “ye would do well to get drunk tonight. It does help to ease the pain a bit.” She let him go, and Ryen took a deep breath from his seat at the head of the room. “It feels like Maither is nae gone, ye ken,” he smiled weakly. “For ye are just like her. Scoldin’, keepin’ me in line, forcin’ me to get me head out of me own arse.” Mary laughed aloud even though tears were beginning to brim in her eyes. “Ye are a good man, brother. Ye gave me and Lily a new beginnin’.
We are back home, and we are safe and loved. There is hope. I ken it. We will do this.” She gripped onto his hand. “Ye will be a wonderful Laird.” He doubted that very much. “Well,” she grinned, “ye will have to start by nae bein’ such a philanderer, takin’ woman after woman to yer bed, simply because ye are the best warrior in all of the McIntosh Clan. Now yer head will most likely be enlarged due to yer position.” She rolled her eyes.
Ryen drank again. A nice bedding after a bout of drinking would certainly do the trick to ease the hollowness he felt inside. It had always worked before whenever he was doubting himself or feeling like he wasn’t prepared to be as good of a laird as his father, and he could do it again. What was the harm? “I daenae think that will happen, sister. Is a Laird nae supposed to be the seducer of women? The charmer of the land as well as the best in battle?” Mary slapped his arm lightly. “Ye will certainly be Faither to many children if ye did that,” she said with a grim voice. “I would much prefer ye find a lovely woman who ye could give yer heart to and spend a life together. That was what I hoped for.” Ryen opened his mouth to say something, but she interrupted him. “Nay, let me speak.
It is what I hoped for and I had it. Even if it was a brief time, it was the most beautiful experience. Daenae close yer heart to it.” Ryen nodded. She had long given him this speech, but he still couldn’t understand it. A life spent with one person? He wasn’t sure that he could stand anyone for that long. He only loved a very small group of people, and with his parents dead, the group was very small indeed. He stood up. “I think I have had enough of talk of the future. Our focus should be the evenin’.
Ye told me yerself, sister, that I should drink meself into a stupor. Ye are welcome to do so as well.” “Och, thank ye, kind brother. So if we are to maintain the festivities, why do we nae ask Hendrick for a song or a poem?” Ryen nodded. “Aye, it appears the man has brought his bard family.” Ryen stopped a servant and asked them to bring Hendrick to him. He returned to sitting and waiting, speaking to Mary while Hendrick approached, and when he turned to face them, he wasn’t sure if it was the ale making him dizzy or the fact that whoever Hendrick, his bard, had brought with him was the most stunning creature he had ever beheld. “Laird,” young dark-haired Hendrick bowed his head, “I have brought me family here, or at least some of them to meet ye. We bring our condolences on the loss of yer Maither.” Hendrick was always a grim sort of fellow, and he looked even grimmer now.
While Ryen tried to right himself, he tried to keep his gaze on Hendrick’s boring face, instead of the vision of loveliness that stood next to him. Clearing his throat, he replied, “Thank ye. Me Sister and I both thank ye.” Hendrick bowed again. “This is me Faither, Thomas Williams, and me sister, Isobel.” Hendrick gestured to his father with reverence, but waved a hand in Isobel’s direction and introduced her in a bored voice. Ryen was surprised. How could one dismiss so anyone as bonny as that? “Laird,” she and her father said together. “Our condolences, Laird,” the father said solemnly, bowing again. Isobel said, “It is good to meet ye at long last.
Me brother has told me much about his time here.” As she spoke, Ryen realized he was most definitely feeling the effects of his alcohol, for her voice sounded so melodious that he could feel each note of it tingle pleasantly over his body. Besides the voice, the loveliness of her face and figure was almost too much to bear. She was rather short, but that did not mean she was not shapely in all of the right and most tantalizing places. Her blonde hair was like gold, and it was braided around the crown of her head. Her brown eyes were sharp and lively, and when she smiled with her greeting, Ryen noticed a dimple on her right cheek. Perfectly imperfect. He felt an elbow jab into his side. “Och!” he said looking at his sister who stared back at him with wide eyes and gesturing her head softly to those in front of them. He realized then that he had not spoken in quite a long time.
“Och, aye,” Ryen collected himself clumsily. “I am glad that he has enjoyed himself. That is why I called ye here, Hendrick. Please favor us with a song or poem. I think me Maither would have appreciated such a gesture.” “Of course, Laird. I shall begin right away.” Hendrick bowed his head and grabbed at his sister’s arm to pull her away. She glanced up at Ryen for a moment, gave him a small smile and left with her father to sit down. Ryen felt like he was in a daze as he retreated back to his seat and Hendrick began to sing one of the old funeral songs that his father had the bard sing at his grandfather’s funeral.
As Hendrick’s song wove through the crowd, putting all of its listeners into a lovely trance, helped also by warm wine and ale, Ryen allowed his mind to wander. He couldn’t help but let his gaze creep over to where Isobel was sitting. He stared at her as she looked up at Hendrick, her eyes wide. She must think something of that serious brother of hers. But she is lovely. Nearly transfixing. He kept filling his tankard as Hendrick moved to a new song, and Mary leaned into him to whisper, “I would suggest nae makin’ that lass as one of yer conquests. She seems too sweet to be that sort of woman.” Ryen scoffed at her. “What? The sort of woman who should be charmed by me?” “Exactly.
Let her be. Look at her. Why she is quite a proud little sister.” I am looking at her. He had noticed women before. All the time in fact. But there was something different about her. She radiated a sort of purity and freshness that intrigued him, more so than perhaps it should for it led to dangerous thoughts and ideas that were most certainly not pure. His intention was to be reckless that evening and drink himself into a stupor. Why not speak to the bonny lass who was looking at her brother the way he wished she might look at him? Hendrick was eventually finished with his song, and the buzz of the room returned to normal.
Servants were moving about, replacing plates of meat and hot bread, and filling casks of wine and pitchers of ale. And to his delight, Hendrick and his father moved to go speak to another group of men on the other side of the room. Isobel was at last alone. He nearly jumped up from his chair, and ignoring Mary’s questioning look, he walked toward her on the far side of his great hall, under the flickering shadows of the torches, the heat and conversation from the rest of the hall to his side. When he reached her, she stood up hastily and put her hand to a strand of hair that had fallen loose from her ear. “Laird McIntosh,” she said, a little breathless. Ryen smiled. He was used to making women breathless, and he felt smug that he had done the same to this one. “Lass, why have yer brother and Faither left ye on yer own?” “They have met an old friend, I believe. A bard from a neighboring clan.
” “They do nae wish ye to accompany them?” She shook her head. “Nay,” she said with a weak smile, “why should they?” Because ye are lovely and perfect. “Well, have ye never been to McIntosh Castle before? I must confess that I have never seen ye, if ye have. I would have remembered ye.” He gazed at her, and he could feel his whole body thrumming with heat and desire. She blushed. “Och, nay, I have nae, but I was most looking forward to seein’ it today.” She blushed even deeper. “Och, do forgive me, Laird. I ken that it is nae a pleasant day to think about such things.
” “Nay, it is nae, but I say that we should attempt to make it pleasant in some way. Is there some part of the Castle that ye wish to see?” Isobel’s brown eyes sparkled. “I would very much like to see from high up and look down at the village under the stars. I have never been high before, and I have always seen the Castle from afar, wonderin’ what it would be like.” “Then see it we will.” Ryen downed the last of his ale, feeling delightfully warm and at ease. Thoughts of his mother being buried in the ground that day did not even attempt to enter his mind. Here he was, ready to forget everything. He clasped onto her wrist and began to pull her to a side door away from the crowd. “Laird McIntosh!” Isobel said sharply, but she said nothing more, and Ryen grinned, knowing that for certain the rest of the party was looking their way wondering what on earth their new laird was doing.
He was sure that Mary was back at the table clicking her tongue in disapproval. Well, Mary would have nothing to worry about. He had no plans to despoil the lass. Well, not yet at least. When they reached the stone steps, he slid his large hand around hers and they walked up and up, twisting around and around the stone walls until his mind grew a little fuzzier. The ale was doing its work credibly. At the top, he took one of the torches from the wall and led the way to another side door which opened onto a small balcony. He pushed the torch into its setting on the outside wall. “This is the place I go to when the busyness of below gets too much. It is good it is a windless night, or else we might have been in total darkness.
” That does not sound so bad. Isobel let go of his hand and walked forward slowly until her palms grazed the top of the gray stone wall, and he could hear her gasp. “It is more beautiful than I could have imagined,” she said softly, tenderly. Ryen moved beside her. He knew that he should not stand so close, but he could not help it. Her energy was addictive. He wanted to be near to it, to be a part of it. He looked up to see a lovely blanket of stars swirling around them and down below, dots of fires scattered to the west, the village that was the closest to the Castle. “Ye are from there, lass?”