A HEAVY STONE weighed in Angus Mackenzie’s stomach as he rode past the granite gate of Delny Castle. The sharp iron stakes of the portcullis hanging above his head didn’t look as menacing as the heavy stares of the guards and men-at-arms standing on the curtain walls and in the courtyard. Swordsmen rested their hands casually on their swords’ hilts. Archers held arrows to their bows, and crossbowmen gripped their weapons with charged bolts facing down. Cold pinched the insides of his nostrils, and the smell of manure and the blood of some recently slaughtered animal in the mud-churned snow assailed him. Reaching the courtyard, Angus suppressed his instinct to grab the reins of the horses his brother and his sister were riding and gallop the hell out of here. “Catrìona, stay behind me,” Angus said quietly. Then he turned his head to Laomann, chief of clan Mackenzie. “God’s blood, brother, they didna look like they’re waiting for welcome guests.” Flanked by men-at-arms, three richly dressed figures and a priest stood before the rectangular keep that shot into the leaden sky like a dark mountain. The battle-clad warrior in him noticed the well-thought-out defenses that could threaten his clan: the parapet with holes for pouring hot sand, the four defensive turrets at the corners of the tower called bartizans, and the slit windows where archers and crossbowmen could hide. “Calm down,” Laomann muttered through a strained smile directed at their hosts. “The Earl of Ross is our suzerain. He wilna threaten us as long as we pay our annual tribute. And we’re bringing it.
” But the tension in his voice told Angus he wasn’t so sure of his own words. “Only half,” Angus said. Given the chilly welcome, it was possible they may not ride out of here unharmed. Or alive. Riding farther into the courtyard, Angus caught the gaze of William II, Earl of Ross, and knew he wasn’t just imagining the tension. The threat was in the stony face of the earl himself, in the arrogant angle of his raised chin. The man in his late thirties looked freshly groomed with his thin mustache and a small blond goat-beard. The long fur cloak sat on him more like armor than protection against cold. Angus’s fist clenched as he stopped the urge to reach for the sword in the sheath on his back. The only one who studied the Mackenzie band without a trace of tension was a woman standing by the Earl of Ross’s left shoulder.
This must be Euphemia of Ross, William’s sister, Angus thought. She was a little older than him, her blond hair still shiny under the fur-trimmed hood of her rich, woolen cloak. Her blue eyes sparkling and firmly on Angus, her rosy, full lips parted, she fiddled with her cloak’s fastening brooch. Somehow, that interest unsettled Angus more than the antagonistic gazes of the surrounding men. Next to her stood a young woman, probably Catrìona’s age, with ashen skin and dark circles under her eyes. This must be Euphemia’s daughter, Malise. She glanced around at the Mackenzies, then dropped her gaze to the slush under her feet. “But they dinna ken we only have a half,” Laomann retorted. Angus pulled the reins and brought his horse to a halt. “And yet they look at us as though we’re the enemy,” Angus muttered.
“’Twas a wee bit over a year ago that William submitted to the Bruce, but I am nae sure he’s come to terms with that decision.” Laomann halted his mare. “I said ye were stupid to offer Bruce shelter four years ago.” Angus descended and helped Catrìona down from her horse. His sister took after their deceased mother and was the only blond member of their family. The fair locks gave her an air of innocence that clearly didn’t extend to all blondes. She eyed everything with curiosity. Normally, Angus wouldn’t have let her come with them, but she was due to go to the monastery by the end of summer, when she would be twenty-four, and she wanted to see as much of the world as possible before then. She had no desire to marry, and was already older than most lasses were on their wedding day, but Laomann still hoped she would change her mind before the end of summer. He hoped she would be as happy being married as he was.
“Thank ye, brother,” she said with a sweet smile. Angus couldn’t stop himself from smiling back. She’d always been his gentle, young sister. How could he not try to shield her from every harm? He didn’t like this chilly reception one bit. He should have insisted she stayed home. The rest of their men descended, alert and watching for a sign of an attack. Laomann was greeting the Earl of Ross, who offered a pinched smile. With a heaviness in his gut, Angus approached their hosts. Slush slurped under his shoes, and he already felt the dank wetness seeping into the seams and soaking his woolen hose. Humid cold seemed to spread ice through his bones, or perhaps it was the intensity in Euphemia’s eyes as she studied him with undisguised interest.
He clenched his teeth and brought his attention to William. “May God bless ye, Lord,” Angus said with a short nod. “Lady Euphemia,” he added, trying not to shudder as he met her gaze. William nodded. “Ye’re very welcome here, Angus Mackenzie.” But everything else said how false those words were. “May God bless ye, Lord Angus,” Euphemia said, her voice low and slow, as though she were tasting a honeyed pastry on her tongue. Angus was not a stranger to female attention, but there was something about this woman that made him wary. He gave a curt bow to Euphemia and greeted her daughter. Then they were invited into the great hall.
The room was impressive—large, with columns and an arched ceiling. Braziers illuminated the embroidery of the Ross’s hereditary coat of arms: three white lions on a crimson background. Garlands of juniper, which, as Angus knew, was the Ross clan tree, hung on the walls. Tables were set with platters of freshly baked bread and bannocks, small jars of butter, salted and dried fish, boiled eggs, and pastries. The Earl of Ross and Euphemia sat at the table of honor, and the priest took his seat by William’s side, opening a thick book on an empty page. He had a quill and a jar with ink at the ready. “We prepared a feast in yer honor,” William said. “But before we begin eating, I do believe we have the matter of tribute to settle, aye?” Angus’s stomach churned. Laomann cleared his throat and exchanged a glance with him. The pouch containing two hundred and fifty pounds weighed on Angus’s belt.
It was the equivalent of paying the yearly wages of fifteen knights or building three farmhouses. The Mackenzies needed the latter the most, though they might wish for the former if the Earl of Ross responded badly. What would the Earl of Ross do once he found out how much of their tribute was missing? The glistening swords and the charged crossbows might provide the answer soon. Willing the tremor in his fingers to stop, Angus unfastened the heavy pouch on his belt and handed it to Laomann. If they were robbed on the long journey here, Laomann as the laird would most likely be attacked, so Angus had carried the silver. The Earl of Ross took the purse, his hand sinking with the weight of it. He spilled the coins on the table and carefully counted the tribute. His blue eyes, as hard as rocks, met Laomann’s. “Is this a jest?” William said. Just as though they were both lads again and stood in front of their father, Laomann shrank and Angus stepped forward, shielding him.
Angus replied, “The tribute is high, and we lost many men who fought for our king.” Their eyes locked at that. Angus meant Robert the Bruce, while everyone knew the Earl of Ross had been loyal to the King of England. Angus continued, “We lack people to farm the land, and therefore, bring rent.” The Earl of Ross leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms on his chest, his chin high. “We will pay ye next year,” Angus pressed and, hating himself, added, “Please, my lord.” He was ready to plead or do anything he must to shield his clan, to take any harm that came their way on himself. “We could take Kintail.” Euphemia’s voice was so calm, as though she suggested having the leftovers of a roasted chicken. “What?” Laomann croaked.
“My lady, there’s nae need to—” “Kintail belongs to clan Mackenzie,” Angus said through gritted teeth. “’Tis our land. Our home. Our father, Kenneth Og Mackenzie, sinned much. But he did one thing right. He protected the clan lands and kept them. They’re rightfully ours.” Euphemia arched one elegant eyebrow. “Rightfully yers?” She chuckled. “Just as Bruce’s throne is rightfully his because he killed Red John Comyn and proclaimed himself king?” “He has the right to the throne by blood,” Angus said.
“So did the Comyn.” “Euphemia…” the Earl of Ross said, his voice a weak warning. But she waved her hand. “New king, new rules,” she said. “Ye owe us tribute. We could take Kintail back.” Silence hung heavy and thick like a cloud of fog. Angus’s blood felt as if it had been replaced by the coldest waters from the depth of a loch. “We need to discuss this. Isna it much, Euphem—” William began.
“Shut up, William,” she snapped. She gazed at Angus like a bird of prey and tilted her head. “We could take Kintail,” she repeated slowly. Aye, they could. Despite the fact that the Earl of Ross had submitted to Bruce last year, probably because he knew he’d be obliterated if he hadn’t, they did have a significant force compared to the Mackenzies. Fifty years ago, when their grandfather, Angus Crom Mackenzie, fought William I of Ross, he’d had to secure the support of five other clans to stand any kind of chance. Now, with the wars still going on and their allied clans having lost many men, who would stand by the Mackenzies’ side? And even if some would, they’d never gather a force that could protect against such a powerful clan as Ross. Their father had died six years ago, and Laomann had just gotten a bairn. Angus couldn’t stand the thought of something happening to his nephew. And Laomann.
And Catrìona. And even Raghnall, who would come to their rescue from his wanderings the moment he learned of their trouble. Suddenly, Euphemia’s face relaxed, and she looked at William. “We’re being bad hosts, brother,” she said. “Tribute questions can wait. We have much time to discuss it, dinna we?” She smiled a sly smile as she held Angus in her gaze—a smile that made him wish he had a dagger in his hand. “Please, Lord Angus, Lord Laomann, and Lady Catrìona. Take yer seats. Let’s eat and drink, and I’m sure we will find a solution. Nae everything should be decided with swords and axes.
” William was still frowning at her. “Aye, she’s right,” he said finally. “Please. Let us eat and drink.” Angus, Laomann, and Catrìona exchanged long glances. William gestured at the chairs around him. The priest moved, allowing Laomann to take a seat by William’s side. Angus had no choice but to sit between the Earl of Ross and his sister, while Catrìona took a place on the other side of Euphemia. The Mackenzie men filled the tables, and so did the Ross men. Voices hummed quietly, the men from the opposite clans still not trusting one another.
Servants came to pour ale, but Angus covered his cup with his hand. “How about some Mackenzie uisge,” he said. William’s mouth curved upward. “Ah. The famous Mackenzie uisge.” Angus waved to one of his men, and he brought the cask. Angus served the uisge, and as they drank, Angus felt a cool hand on his thigh. “Ye make the uisge yerself?” Euphemia asked, her voice husky. He clenched his jaw and turned to her. “Aye, Lady,” he said.
“’Tis one of the things I enjoy.” Without breaking eye contact, she took another sip and moaned in appreciation. “A fine drink, my lord.” She stroked his thigh, and he tensed. What, by God’s bones, was she doing? She behaved like a street harlot, not like a noblewoman with land and riches and power. “I am glad ’tis to yer satisfaction, my lady,” Angus said with an effort to relax his gritted teeth. He was a warrior. A protector. He wasn’t a diplomat. How would he get out of this without offending her? “A man who can make such delights for the mouth… Ye’re nae marrit, my lord, aye?” By God’s blood.
“Nae.” “Neither am I. I’m a widow twice.” The Earl of Ross, who’d been listening to Laomann, turned his head to Angus and chuckled. “One of the poor fools is dead by her will.” Angus frowned. “Have ye nae heard?” William said darkly. “She ordered her second husband beheaded.”