Highlander’s Pride – Adamina Young

Have at ye!” Laird Aulay McOrkil lunged forward on one foot, thrusting his corked rapier toward his opponent. His cousin, Ivor, used his own rapier to hit the laird’s sword away with a violent knock. So confident was Laird Aulay of the success of his attack, that he was caught off balance by the blow. He staggered to the left, and Ivor, taking the opportunity his cousin was presenting him, gave him a kick in the backside. The jolt was enough to send Laird Aulay sprawling onto the front courtyard cobblestones. He twisted his body around, only to see Ivor chuckling and standing over him with a superior grin on his face. “It turns out ye had naught with which to have at me,” Ivor crowed, struggling to keep the scorn out of his voice. “Admit it, why don’ ye? I’m the better man, and will always be so.” Laird Aulay felt it best to let the prideful remark slide. Ever since they were bairns, Ivor McOrkil had been the taller, stronger boy out of the two of them. Whenever Aulay felt himself to be inflated with self-admiration at the thought of his many achievements, all he had to do was look at Ivor, and his confidence would leak out of him like water through a sieve. As always, Aulay allowed the cocky remark to go by without challenge and took the hand Ivor was offering him with a rueful smile. “One of these days…” he said, looking around the courtyard to see who had witnessed his humiliation. His clansmen were gathered to practice their sword fighting, an occupation no man was permitted to forego for any reason other than illness or death. Laird Aulay had spent the first few years after his father had died consolidating his power and land.

Now it was up to him to make sure no one encroached upon it. This was a particularly grueling task on this side of the Highland Coast. Pirates, smugglers, and foreign forays had been trying to establish a foothold on these shores for decades; what he needed was a strong, influential comrade and ally. But until such a man showed his face, he would have to make do with Ivor. Aulay looked at his cousin from the corner of his eye. Ivor was a madman in battle and barely civil to anyone off the battlefield. He was built like an engine of war: single-minded, unemotional, and efficient. The man is tall, I’ll grant him that. And his reach with a sword is unparalleled. But his swordplay has no skill, no finesse.

All he does is use his weight and height to bludgeon his opponent until a blow lands. Ivor could see his cousin’s eyes narrow as the calculating thoughts flashed through his mind. “Hah! I can see ye are a sore loser once again, Aulay. Back on yer feet so I can teach ye a lesson!” Laird Aulay hastened to disavow the accusation. “Nay, n-nay! Ye have it wrong, Cousin,” Laird Aulay McOrkil stuttered, always too scared to alienate his cousin. “I was just thinking that ye could conquer the whole island if ye so wanted. Men flock to follow ye.” This was an outright lie. The only men who flocked to hang around Ivor were petty tyrants, drawn into Ivor’s orbit by admiration for his ability to browbeat lesser men. “And yer sword and fighting skills are legend throughout the Highlands.

” Ivor smiled, and was about to agree with his cousin, when he overheard one of the soldiers mutter to his sparring partner. “The man’s no better than a bully rook! And I’ve heard he’s pot-sure of himself and combative at all the feasts.” Ivor spun around at this whispered comment. “Ye miserable worm! How dare ye!” he screamed at the soldier. “I’m twice the man ye’ll ever be!” And on those words, Ivor tore the cork off the end of his rapier and launched himself onto the soldier, who had barely time to lift up his sword before Ivor McOrkil was raining down blows onto his armor. Things happened so fast, Laird Aulay did not even have time to calm things down. Fortunately, at that moment, a messenger rode into the courtyard, halting his steed in front of the laird and effectively cutting off his view of the fight. He shouted over the top of the horse, “We’re here to train! Not kill one another with illjudged reprisals. Cease this bickering while I read the missive.” Ivor set his sword point down on the ground, and the soldier took the opportunity Ivor’s distraction afforded him to skulk away to the guards’ room.

With his men silent and facing him, Laird Aulay held his hand up to the messenger. The man, after respectfully removing his bonnet and lowering his head in a deferential nod, handed him a folded piece of parchment. When Aulay broke the seal and opened up the paper, he read, Fellow Highlanders of the McOrkil clan – greetings Our beloved Highland games are upon us once more. This rightly reverend occasion is to be held at venerable Castle Mac an Goill. Please set aside the second week in May for traveling. All men in each clan must arrive wearing Highland coats, and armed with gun, dirk, sword, and pistol. This occasion is to mark, not only the gathering of the clans, but also to award those of you who excel most honorably in excellence, skills, feats of strength, and other qualities most worthy of a true Highlander. As with all sports dedicated to the most noble pursuits of combat and the pitting of manly wits against one another, a prize will be given in recognition of the winner’s prowess. Seek to win this goal, gentlemen. Ye will never find such a prize again.

When he had read through the announcement and committed the details to memory, Laird Aulay told the messenger to tell Laird MacGill his clan would arrive sometime during the third week of May. The man nodded and rode back out of the gate, after declining Aulay’s offer of hospitality; he still had many clans to visit. “What does it say?” Ivor wanted to know. “The games are to be held at Mac an Goill this year,” Aulay informed his men in a loud voice. “And the winner’s prize promises to be one of extreme rarity and uniqueness!” A loud shout of excitement rose from the McOrkil clan soldiers. “‘T 1 FORTUNE FAVORS THE BRAVE MARCH is about time Maggie was betrothed,” Laird Gilbert MacGill said to his wife. Lady Christine MacGill was sitting in front of the mirror on her dresser, inspecting the work her maid had done on her hair that morning. Gilbert MacGill stopped what he was saying to admire his wife for a moment. Even after two years of marriage, she still had the ability to stop men in their tracks with one glance out of her dark brown eyes. She was well into her second pregnancy, and the rosy glow in her cheeks and round curves of her body gave her a voluptuous air.

He could not help himself; Gilbert moved closer, placed his hands gently on her shoulders, and bent to give the perfect skin on her neck a kiss. Then he stood up again. “Do ye disagree with me?” he asked, baffled by Christine’s silence. His wife sighed. “Aye, but ye cannae just spring it on her like that. Margaret is timid and reluctant to engage with men on any level. Every time we host a reel, she sits on her seat mumchance and hides behind her fan.” Laird MacGill was an observant man, but failed to see why shyness should be an obstacle for him to set about arranging an advantageous marriage for his eldest sister. She was eighteen now, an age considered to be perfectly appropriate for a young woman and sister to a laird, to embark upon the wedded state. Christine saw her husband’s raised eyebrow in the mirror.

She turned around to face him. “I had been out a full two seasons before me faither thought to consider yer offer, Gil. I was nearly twenty years old, as I recall, and had already turned down numerous proposals. I believe we should try to bring Margaret into contact with men farther afield than just the young men with whom she grew up.” Laird MacGill gave this some thought, before replying, “Aye, I hear ye. But that’s how things are done down in the Lowlands where yer folks are based. Here in the Highlands, girls are married out o’ hand.” Christine scoffed, “Hmph! It might be the man’s opinion that Highland lasses are permitted to marry whomever they want, but I have heard different from the woman! Parents often have the final say, and unless the girl has a very decided opinion, many are forced into marriage against their will.” Laird Gilbert said, “That’s what betrothals are for, me love. The lassie goes to visit with her betrothed or he with her, and if they cannae stand the sight o’ one another, the betrothal is called off, and none the worse for the venture!” Christine shook her head, the action making the ringlets on either side of her head bounce from side to side.

“Nay, dearest husband, that’s seen as a slight on the girl, and well d’ye ken it is so! I don’ want Maggie sent out for approval like a horse bought at auction. Parents have to guide young people before they jump into marriage, Gil, and as ye stand in loco parentis to yer sisters, ye’re duty bound to ensure both young people are happy to wed.” Gilbert thought about how his three sisters had blossomed since he had wed Christine. They loved to sit and drink a dish of orgeat with her every afternoon, chattering about the occasional trip down to Edinburgh to have new dress robes made up and visit the milliners. At Mac an Goill Castle, the girls’ days consisted of sewing, dancing lessons, French and Latin lessons, and playing with wee Gilchrist upstairs in the nursery; life at the castle had become far more sedate and ladylike since he had married Christine. His wife gave herself one more look in the mirror, and stood up, saying, “I’m going to speak to Maggie to see if she has anything to say in the matter.” Before she could walk out, Gilbert grabbed his wife around the waist and gave it a gentle squeeze. She giggled, and arched her back into the crook of his arm. They came together for a soft, lingering kiss. Embracing was something they did frequently and with as much passion as they had during the first days of their courtship.

It was proof enough for both Gilbert and Christine that it was possible for strangers to become betrothed and have a delightfully fulfilling married life. “I will speak to the builders and see how soon the ballroom and salon can be finished,” Gil said, before allowing his wife to break away and straighten the pretty lace cap she had set on top of her hair that morning. Mac An Goill Castle had been undergoing a significant renovation to bring it up to the architectural standards of the times. Gone were the days when stern, stone edifices had to adorn every Highland coast and hillside defense. An elegant mansion was being added to the west tower wing of the castle, and the crumbling east tower had been completely demolished. Narrow window slits had been replaced by elegant window casings and leadframed glass. Interior flagstones were covered over with thick wool rugs; rotten wainscoting and tapestries were being ripped out and silk wall hangings put in their place. Once the dungeons had been turned into pantries and cellars, the refurbishment would be complete. Christine was more than happy to host a gathering to show off Mac an Goill in all its stately glory. Now, all she needed was to find out if Margaret was willing to be the belle of the ball.

She found the eldest MacGill girl in the withdrawing room. Margaret MacGill was putting the finishing touches on a wooden screen she was painting. Christine had to admit to herself, Maggie had many artistic and housewifery talents. If a particularly delicious batch of cakes or pies were presented at the dining table, there was no need to ask for the name of the cook who had prepared them; it was always Margaret. If only the girl were more forthcoming! It was baffling for a beautiful and confident woman like Christine to see how Margaret behaved around men. If they spoke to her, she would lower her eyes and whisper her reply, and when a male companion or visitor paid Margaret a compliment, she reacted as though he were an ogre trying to force his way into her bedchamber. The behavior went far beyond that of a simple maiden trying to be demure and ladylike—it verged on being the most bashful and inappropriate society manners, especially when it came to the cheerful, friendly folks living in this part of the Highlands. The time had come. Christine wanted to know why Margaret had become so shy. She had always been a sweet-natured, biddable girl, but that behavior did not translate well into the manners expected of a young woman on the verge of setting up a betrothal.

She lacked confidence, a trait most husbands required in a wife, especially if he was a great laird or Highland chieftain. Margaret looked up and smiled when Christine entered the room. It gave Lady MacGill a wonderful opportunity to observe the eldest of Gilbert’s sisters while the young girl was relaxed and welcoming. She did not appear to her best advantage at gatherings and reels. “May I take a look?” Christine asked, returning Margaret’s smile. “Aye,” Maggie said softly. She did not bear up well under criticism, but knew that Christine readily admired her work. Christine leaned over to look at how Maggie had painted the screen. The room smelt wonderfully of linseed and pigments. When Maggie married and left the castle, she knew she would miss these little indications of Maggie’s quiet, industrious nature.

She sat down on the sofa opposite, sighing slightly as her bodice lifted and pinched around her swollen stomach. “How are ye today?” Margaret looked over at Christine with a worried frown. “Is the bairn giving ye a good kickin’?” The women smiled, and Christine replied, “Nay more than usual, Maggie. Yer brither sent me here to ask if ye had given the idea of a betrothal any more thought?” Margaret MacGill, always so compliant when it came to lessons and etiquette, bridled at Christine’s polite question. Only yesterday, Gilbert had descended into her dressing room all unannounced and, after sending away her maid, had demanded to know her mind on marriage. “It’s time ye were married, Maggie,” Laird MacGill had announced brusquely. “I cannae have ye sulking around the castle for the next ten years, too scared to even look at a man sideways, ready to bolt at the first sign of interest.” Margaret was used to Gilbert’s straightforward speeches, but this one went too far. “I don’ sulk around the castle, Gil! How unfair of ye!” she said in the loudest voice she dared to use. Gilbert did not want his concern to spill over into a fight, but he found his sister’s reluctance to speak to men infuriating.

“Ye’ve known Laird Buccleuch’s youngest son for the past two years, and whenever he comes over to visit, ye run for yer bedchamber and hide. I asked Mildred, yer maid, if it were so, and she confirmed it.” Margaret had her own reasons for doing this, and had no wish to share them with her brother. The meeting had ended with them both walking off in frustration. That’s what Christine was here to find out. Why did Margaret mix with others so unwillingly? When she looked at the girl, she found nothing in her appearance to be unhappy about. She was flaxen fair, the pale skin of her face was unblemished, except in summer when a slight sprinkling of freckles strayed across her pert nose and rosy cheeks. When she laughed, her mouth spread into a wide, generous smile, showing off white teeth and crinkling her beautiful blue eyes into mischievous slants. Margaret’s nature was amiable, and her disposition helpful and kind. Any man would be so lucky to have her as a wife.

“Gil tells me ye’re loath to contemplate a betrothal, Maggie, and ye’ve taken to hanging about the kitchens and yer bedchamber more than usual. Is there any reason for that?” Margaret wanted to answer, but struggled to find the right words. “Christine, when I see how successful and lovin’ yer marriage to me brither has been, I despair of ever finding the same for meself. And having Grace and Kirsty scrutinizing every man who comes here and then teasing me about him, well, it’s got to the point where I cannae bear it nay more!” Lady MacGill nodded understandingly. Grace, the middle MacGill sister, was not so deeply immersed in her studies as to turn up the chance to make jokes at her eldest sister’s expense. And as for Kirsty—now a boisterous ten and three years of age—it was more like living with a court jester than it was having a younger sister.


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