Kilts Ahoy! – Anna Markland

“DİNNA GO TOO far, Teagan,” Archie warned, frowning as he checked the bit of her horse’s bridle. “Our laird wants ye to stay within sight of the castle.” She rolled her eyes. It always amused her that Archie referred to their older brother as “our laird”. Beathan was a scant year older than Archie himself and they were sometimes mistaken for twins with their long chestnut-colored hair and hazel eyes, features Teagan herself had inherited. Beathan might be a smidgen taller than Archie, but both dwarfed her, though she was considered tall for a lass. The few months that separated the two brothers had preordained who would become chieftain of Clan MacCray when their father passed. Not that Archie had an envious bone in his body. She believed he preferred the role of lieutenant. “Ye dinna need to remind me of it every single time I go riding,” she admonished, all the while nursing a deeply buried desire to venture beyond the clifftops and into the nearby village of Wick. But Beathan had forbidden it. Flashing the beguiling smile all her brothers shared, Archie released Geal. Mounted on the white horse, she trotted out of the cobblestone courtyard of Castle MacCray; the faithful Bo loped along behind. She crossed the narrow stone bridge connecting the castle to the mainland, confident the waves crashing on the jagged rocks below wouldn’t alarm Geal or the plucky hound. Accustomed to the roar of the surf and the dizzying heights, they never strayed near the unprotected edge.

For as long as she could remember, there’d been talk of building a protective railing, a safety barrier of some sort, but nothing had ever come of it. Once across, she leaned forward to pat her horse. “My brothers think I’m still a wee lass.” When Bo tossed his head and woofed his agreement, she tugged the annoying snood net off her head, shoved it into her pocket and urged the horse to a gallop along the grassy headland. Face raised to the early morning sun peeking through the low clouds, she relished the warm wind tangling her long hair. Her exhilaration soared when the spirited steed kicked up his heels. The salty tang of the sea on her lips filled her heart with the joy of belonging in this wild place. Laughing at the raucous seagulls dancing on currents of air, she reined to a halt when they reached her favorite spot overlooking the North Sea. As usual, the panting wolfhound was there before her, wagging his tail furiously and expecting to have his ears rubbed. She dismounted and obliged, letting her horse eat his fill of the lush grass.

Geal knew enough to stay away from the cliff’s edge. She’d chosen this place because of a flat outcropping of rock that provided a fairly dry seat. Bo lay on his back, paws in the air, wriggling in the dew-laden grass. Yawning his satisfaction with the daily ritual, he stood, shook himself off and slumped at her feet. Together, they looked out at the gray waves and the distant horizon shrouded in fog. She inhaled the refreshing aroma of damp grass and wet dog. She sorely missed her daily ride when wind and weather conspired to prevent it. “I love it here,” she told Bo, stroking his head. “They say ye can see Norway on a clear day.” It was an observation she routinely made, though, even on the rare day without a fine mist, she’d never managed to catch a glimpse of the distant shores from where, according to legend, her Viking ancestors had evidently set sail on their epic voyages.

Despite a resolve not to look north to Moss Head, she turned her gaze to the four-story high Castle Robson looming atop its own verdant green clifftop. The imposing structure always drew her eyes but it was a startling reminder of how close her clan’s enemies were. Maybe Archie was right to caution her. The possibility that members of Clan Robson were watching was an unsettling thought. She was probably visible from their vantage point. Shivering, she turned her attention back to the bay, her heart lifting when she espied two birlinns heading for the port of Wick just around the headland. They looked like toy boats floating on a mirror as they made steady progress in calm seas. “Must be MacCrays,” she said. “Probably Ethan and Lachlan returning from Aberdeen. At least, that’s where they claim they sail to.

” Bo barked. “Aye. They dinna fool ye, either,” she exclaimed with a chuckle. The MacCrays’ home port lay just out of sight, but she’d never been permitted to venture into Wick. “This is the problem with having seven aulder brothers,” she lamented. “I love them to bits, but they dinna allow me to do anything. I expect they’ll be the ones to pick the mon I’ll wed when the time comes.” She found the notion troubling. At seventeen, she was of marriageable age, but there wasn’t a single eligible member of Clan MacCray she found appealing or attractive in any way. Beathan had already dropped unsubtle hints about certain suitors, none of whom she would even consider spending her life with.

“’Twould be better to marry outside the clan, in any case,” she declared. “Dadaidh always said so.” But her father was dead and buried, as was her darling mother who’d long ago come from Clan Cheyne to wed Angus MacCray. She nuzzled the dog’s head. “’Tis a lost cause. I’ll ne’er meet anyone from another clan. Nay even our Robson neighbors are allowed to dock in Wick.” They stared out to sea for a good while until the birlinns sailed out of view. “Can ye keep a secret, Bo?” she asked as she came to her feet. When the dog wagged his tail and looked up at her expectantly, she confided, “I think feuds make no sense.

My brothers continue the standoff with the Robsons and deny them access to the only port for miles because of some battle that took place hundreds of years ago. Daft.” Makes My Blood Boil GLAD OF THE familiar weight of the woolen plaid around his shoulders, Marshall Robson stood on a windswept promontory overlooking the wide expanse of Sinclair Bay. Beside him, the shivering laird of Clan Robson, his older brother, huddled into his plaid. “Makes my blood boil,” Elgin declared as they watched their clan’s three birlinns fight the roiling surf. The crews were attempting to dock the boats in the wee village of Cèis—a task rendered challenging by ever-shifting sandbars. “Aye,” Marshall replied. “If we had access to the sheltered port at Wick, we wouldna be obliged to bring our boats into a dangerous harbor so far from our own lands.” He looked south to their imposing castle that dominated the distant skyline. So near, yet so far away.

“The ten mile trek to transport goods from Cèis to Moss Head is infuriating enough,” Elgin hissed. “But to pay fees to the greedy Sinclairs for moorage…” Marshall bristled, drawing the plaid tighter. This was an all too familiar conversation. Clan Robson could operate more than three birlinns if they could dock in the easily accessible and nearby port of Wick, thereby increasing their revenues. However, their late father had always steadfastly refused to approach Clan MacCray with a view to discussing a treaty to end the feud that had gone on for hundreds of years. Marshall feared Elgin was too much like their sire, from whom he had inherited his fondness for whisky. It was more than probable they’d be harping on these same complaints when they were ancient graybeards if doing something about it was left to his indolent brother. He took the bull by the horns. “’Tis time to parley with Clan MacCray.” Elgin raked dirty fingernails through his wild red beard.

“Nay. They’ll want some concession from us in return for using their port, and we have naught to offer.” Marshall filled his lungs with the salty air. He was reluctant to give voice to his plan but it was past time to act. “Aye, we do. Ye can broker an alliance by offering to wed the MacCray daughter.” He stiffened his spine, unsure what the reaction would be. In truth, he pitied any lass obliged to wed his brother. He deliberately stood well apart from Elgin who firmly believed in bathing regularly—once a year, needed or nay. His matted red hair and unkempt beard reminded Marshall of drawings in a history book he owned, one of the favorites in his library.

Elgin could be the reincarnation of Brian Boru, the medieval High King of Ireland. Except that, from what he’d read of Irish history, Boru had been courageous and decisive in his efforts to unify Ireland until his death at the Battle of Clontarf. His legendary exploits were even celebrated in Norse sagas. It was difficult to believe the lazy Elgin was a descendant of Vikings. If he was remembered by future generations, it would be for… Preoccupied with wondering why one of the incoming birlinns hadn’t yet taken down its sail, Marshall was unable to think of anything noteworthy his brother had achieved in the two years he’d been laird. Against his better judgment, he took another tack. “As chieftain of Clan Robson, ’tis yer duty to sire heirs.” He gritted his teeth. Of late, his thoughts had often turned to finding a wife of his own. Castle Robson was a lonely place.

Elgin didn’t share Marshall’s interest in history and literature. How pleasant it would be to have an intelligent wife who could discuss something other than food and whisky—the plays of Master Shakespeare mayhap. Ideally, she’d be a beautiful woman who enjoyed bed-sport. Noisy bairns would fill the empty castle nicely. Somehow, he just couldn’t see Elgin as a father, whereas he… “MacCray had a daughter?” his brother asked, jolting Marshall from his reverie. He fisted his hands and prayed for patience. “I believe so. Born after several sons.” “Is she comely?” This from a man whose appearance would frighten any maiden half to death. “I dinna ken.

I’ve ne’er met her.” He decided not to mention he surmised the lass who regularly rode a white horse along the distant cliffs was the daughter of the MacCray family. He’d taken to climbing up to the battlements every morning to catch a glimpse of her, disappointed when the weather kept her away. She always took off her headgear and let her hair fly free in the wind—chestnut colored, as far as he could tell. She seemed to be a spirited lass, and she loved the dog who sat beside her as they stared out to sea. Aye, she’d make a fine wife for his laird, but the prospect gave him no joy. His musings were cut short when the birlinn he’d been watching tipped alarmingly, its mast nigh on touching the water. “Why hasna he taken down his sail?” he shouted. If the boat capsized, men and cargo would be lost, the long voyage to Scandinavia rendered a completely wasted journey. He wasn’t sure who was in command of the birlinn in difficulty, but most of his captains were capable of righting this situation and bringing the boat in safely.

He clenched his fists, still angry he’d been prevented from sailing with the fleet to Norway. If he hadn’t had his hands full carrying out duties that were Elgin’s responsibility, he’d be the captain bringing the birlinn home safely. He ground his teeth when men aboard the floundering vessel began jumping overboard. “Nay,” he bellowed, though there was no chance the crew could hear him. It was obvious they’d all abandoned the ship as the waves tossed their plaything about like a cork. One minute the boat was headed in the wrong direction entirely. The next it flipped over and was swallowed by the waves. Marshall could scarcely believe his eyes. The cargo was one thing, but seasoned sailors might be lost infuriatingly close to home. They’d safely docked for years in worse conditions than today.

When he got his hands on the incompetent captain… There was no chance of saving the birlinn and his main concern was for the men. From his vantage point, he judged the outgoing tide could carry them onto the rocks at either end of the bay. If they made it to the beach, they’d be exhausted and in dire need of help. He ran for his horse, mounted and galloped down the hill. Coming Home TEAGAN RODE BACK home from the cliffs slowly, dismounting when she came within sight of the stone bridge. Conflicting emotions swirled in her heart as she contemplated Castle MacCray. The impressive fortification perched atop the cliffs had protected her family from the relentless power of the sea for generations. The place of her birth had been their stronghold against enemies. Yet, increasingly, she found herself reluctant to return within its sheltering walls after her rides. “I dinna ken what’s wrong with me,” she told Bo, hunkering down beside him.

“I have my own spacious chamber that Beathan has allowed me to decorate to my own taste. My armoire is full of weeltailored clothing. I belong to an ancient clan with a proud history. I’ve been provided with a tutor who is teaching me about the world. I should be content.” The whimpering hound cocked his head. “We live on the sea. My brothers talk incessantly about the places they’ve sailed to, yet I’m nay allowed to set foot on a boat.” It was pointless to explain to a hound that the sea called to her. The rougher the water, the more certain she became that she was born to ride the waves.

If someone would only teach her. “’Tis in my blood, just as much as in my brothers’.” She gently pushed Bo over so she could tickle his tummy. “They dinna have the first idea what being a lass is all about.” She sometimes wondered herself. Her body was changing alarmingly fast. “If I had a sister, ’twould perhaps be different, but how can I ask any of my brothers about womanly things?” She smoothed her hands over her breasts. “I fear they’ve grown too big but the last time anyone mentioned the word breasts, my brothers guffawed and made lewd jests.” Bo groaned with pleasure, all four paws batting the air. “’Twas a good thing Mammie was still alive when my courses began.

I thought I was dying until she explained. Beathan and the others would have been no help at all. When I have wee lasses of my own…” Bo rolled to his feet when she stood abruptly. “’Tis useless to think on such things. I’ll probably die a crotchety auld spinster unless my brothers find a suitable husband, which I fear is unlikely.” Saddened by the reality she might never know the joys of a happy marriage that her mother had constantly boasted of, she retrieved the hated snood from her pocket and jammed her tangled hair within its confines. “’Tis simply to avoid another argument,” she explained to the dog. “Beathan refuses to accept snoods are auld-fashioned.” A terrible thought crept in. “If he insists I marry someone I dinna like, I’ll have to leave this place.

Run away.” Her stomach churned. Where would she go? Castle Robson was close, but she could never go there. “Nay. I have to stand my ground and be just as stubborn as my laird,” she declared, mounting Geal for the ride across the stone bridge. * BY THE TİME Marshall reached the beach, exhausted survivors were being pulled out of the water by men from the two boats that had docked successfully. The loss of a birlinn and her cargo was the biggest catastrophe the clan had faced in years, yet a quick glance showed the laird was making slow progress down the hill. Tamping down his anger as he barked orders, Marshall strode up and down the beach, frustrated when his boots sank in the wet sand. It made for slow going, but it was a relief most of the crew had survived. Wet and dispirited, they huddled in blankets brought from the supplies stored in sheds near the dock.

When Elgin finally arrived, Marshall gritted out what should have been obvious to the laird. “The loss of a boat means unemployment for her crew.” “Especially since Clan Robson already has a surfeit of expert mariners,” his brother replied, seemingly untroubled by the disaster. Elgin’s apparent lack of concern added fuel to Marshall’s anger. “It means they willna share in the rewards. Families will go hungry if the menfolk dinna work.” Elgin shrugged, looking out to sea. “Naught much we can do about that now.” Inhaling deeply, Marshall walked among the shivering survivors. “Where’s yer captain?” he asked.

Most were clearly in shock and didn’t seem to know where the man was. “Pierce must have gone down with her,” one bedraggled soul finally told him. “Pierce?” Marshall shouted. “Who appointed him captain?”

.

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