“Ye’ll nae hae my lands nor my lass,” old Ewan MacArthur, laird of Lochearn, told his cousin Gavin. “My sister’s grandson will inherit, and he’s a better husband for my granddaughter, Ellen, than any of yer wild lads.” “Yer proposed heir is a MacNab,” Gavin MacArthur said angrily. “Will ye gie MacArthur lands to a MacNab?” “What the hell would ye know about my lands?” the laird demanded. “Ye live miles from here on Skye. This is but the first time in my life that I’ve ever laid eyes on ye. Has yer vaunted master nae given ye lands?” “I hae four sons,” Gavin MacArthur said. “One will inherit my small holding. Another will hae my position as one of the lord’s pipers, which will gie him a home. The third is a scholar, and hae gone to the Church. ’Tis the youngest for whom I seek Lochearn. His name is Balgair, and he is a fair strong lad, cousin. He would do the MacArthurs proud. Tell me you will at least consider it.” “I hae made my choice,” the laird replied stubbornly.
“Donald MacNab will take my place, and he will wed wi’ my sweet Ellen.” “Ye’re a damned obdurate old man!” Gavin said. “Now, my lords, dinna quarrel,” Ellen MacArthur said from her place by the fire where she had been listening to the two men. She was a very pretty girl of sixteen with thick red-gold hair and lovely gray eyes with just the faintest hint of blue in them. “You are going to live forever, Grandsire.” She smiled at Gavin MacArthur. “Please understand, my lord, that my grandfather made his decision several years ago. We are well acquainted with my cousin Donald MacNab. And our people know him, and are content to have him follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. We did not know the MacArthurs on the island of Skye were kin to the MacArthurs of Lochearn.
Until you rode into our keep today we knew ye not. Ye are a stranger to us.” “I may be a stranger, lady, but I am yer blood kin,” Gavin said. “Ye canna deny blood. Yer grandfather’s lands and chiefdom belong to the MacArthurs, nae to a MacNab. I hope when I am gone ye will convince him to face the truth of this. Should ye nae hae some small decision in the choosing of a husband?” He smiled back at her, but it was an icy smile that did not reach his dark, fathomless eyes. “Highland women are outspoken in all manner of matters. Certainly this is the most important decision ye’ll ever make, lady. Will ye just accept the man placed before ye? Would ye nae prefer a choice? My son is a man grown, and ’tis said he is fair to look upon, and a lusty lover.
Ye would make pretty bairns together for this family.” Ellen colored at his words, making the faint sprinkle of freckles upon her face stand out in bold relief. “I know my cousin Donald, and he is a gentle, kind man, my lord. We are very well suited to each other. I am content wi’ my grandfather’s decision.” “I am pleased to see ye are an obedient lass,” Gavin MacArthur said. “Why should it matter to ye that my granddaughter is obedient?” the old laird demanded. “She is naught to ye, nor will she be.” “We will see,” Gavin MacArthur, said smiling toothily. “Get out!” Ewan MacArthur roared.
“Get out of my house.” “Grandsire, ’tis night already, and the laws of hospitality demand that we treat our guest with courtesy. He will depart on the morrow. Now dinna distress yerself.” She got up and moved to draw his woolen shawl about his hunched shoulders. Though it was midsummer, the evenings were chill near the western sea. “I will get ye both a nice goblet of ale, and then we will hae our supper at the board.” Gavin MacArthur left early the next morning, but not before once more telling Ellen to convince her grandfather to change his plans. “Ye’re a good lass; I can see it. Ye’ll make my Balgair a fine wife.
” When he had gone, Ellen told her grandfather what his cousin had said to her. “They mean to steal ye,” Ewan MacArthur said. “I’ll nae hae it! I canna protect ye here, lassie. I must send ye south to King Jamie for yer own protection. We canna waste time about it either. I hae nae doubt that once back on his damned island that cousin of mine will arrange to kidnap ye and take ye to Skye. He’ll see ye wed to his son in order to force my hand to disinherit young Donald. I’ll nae hae it! Tell Anice to pack yer things, for the pair of ye will go tomorrow. And ye’ll nae come back until I sense I am close to death. But when ye do ye’ll marry Donald MacNab, and I will rest easy knowing that ye’re safe.
Now run along, lassie, and tell Birk I wish to write a letter.” Ewan MacArthur watched as his granddaughter hurried from his hall. He did not want to lose his Ellen in his last years, but there was no other choice. In King James’s custody she would be safe, and the king would follow the laird’s wishes should Ewan die before she returned home to Lochearn. He knew the island branch of the family by reputation. They were wild people. He sighed. Sending Ellen away was not the happiest solution for him, but now it seemed the only solution if she was to be kept safe. Chapter 1 “But I dinna want to leave Lochearn,” Ellen MacArthur’s servant and companion wailed, and she began to cry. “There is nae choice in the matter, Anice,” Ellen told the weeping girl.
“Grandsire is convinced that once his cousin returns to Skye he will mount a raiding party and come to steal me away. He doesn’t want me to be kidnapped, and I dinna want to be stolen. We’ll be safe at court. I ne’er thought I would go to court.” “I dinna want to go to court.” Anice sniffled. “Why must I go? Nae one will bridenap me, Ellen. Do I have to go wi’ ye?” “I canna go wi’out a serving woman, and ye’re the one who serves me, Anice. Ever since I grew too big for my nursemaid, Peigi, ye hae been my servant and friend,” Ellen said quietly. “I’ll go wi’ ye, lassie.
Ye need nae put up wi’ the likes of her,” Peigi, who had been helping the two younger women pack, said sharply. “She dinna know the meaning of loyalty or clan, as she hae none.” “Peigi, ’tis cruel ye are!” Ellen scolded. “Ye know very well that Grandsire considers Anice a MacArthur.” “The old laird’s heart is a good one,” Peigi replied. “It isn’t my fault I was found on the hillside,” Anice said, and her lower lip trembled. “It isn’t my fault that me mam dinna want me.” “Born in shame, ye were, and that’s for certain, else ye would nae hae ended up naked in the heather. Yer mam was probably little better than ye are, and God only knows the seed from which ye sprouted. Yer mam probably dinna know either.
The wild beasts would hae made a meal of ye had the old laird not found ye himself and taken ye in, ye ungrateful lass. Ye would hae nothing wi’out him. He gave ye a home, food, garments to cover yer nakedness, and a purpose in life. If ye let the lady Ellen go south alone, what would ye hae or do? Now cease yer caterwauling, and hurry wi’ the packing. The lady must be safe away before the MacArthurs of Skye come calling.” “I thought ye wanted to go in my place,” Anice said slyly. “I’m too old to travel,” Peigi snapped. Ellen hid a smile. Peigi had resented Anice from the moment her grandfather had assigned the young woman to serve her. Peigi did not trust Anice.
But when she had protested, the old laird had told Peigi that Ellen needed a younger companion; and Ellen had promised her nursemaid that she would care for Ellen’s bairns one day after she and Donald MacNab were wed. Now, however, it appeared that the wedding, which was to have taken place in another year, would be postponed further. Ellen sighed. She didn’t want to leave Lochearn either, but her grandfather’s instincts were still sharp, and there seemed to be no other solution at hand. A rider was dispatched that same day to King James with instructions to ride as quickly as he could and find the king. He carried a letter from the laird of Lochearn explaining in full the situation that Ewan and his granddaughter faced. Ewan MacArthur begged the king to take charge of Ellen MacArthur’s care, and keep her safe until he sent for her, which would not be until he sensed his death. She was a good and obedient girl, a virgin, the laird wrote. If the king would be so kind as to put Ellen MacArthur in the household of some respectable lady, the lass would earn her keep, as would the serving wench who traveled with her. Upon receiving the missive from this unfamiliar Highland laird, the king turned to his aunt Margaret for advice.
“What the devil am I supposed to do with a good and obedient virgin, Aunt?” he said. And then he grinned wickedly. When he had been a little younger, the king had been terrified of Margaret Stewart, but as a bachelor king, James had needed a respectable older woman to oversee the females at his court. He had called upon his late father’s younger sister, now in her mid-thirties. And she had come from her house on Castle Hill in Edinburgh to give him her loyalty and her help. Margaret Stewart barked a sharp laugh. “I’d tell you to behave yourself, Jamie, but I know how difficult that might prove,” she said. She was a very tall, bony woman with the long, straight Stewart nose, fine amber eyes, and auburn hair that was pulled into an untidy bun at the back of her head. When she walked, the princess thrust her chin forward as if to meet all of life’s obstacles without fear. She had been convent educated, and was highly intelligent and very well-read.
The king had come to both respect and adore her. They were oddly much alike. “However, this laird of Lochearn has a difficult problem to solve,” the princess continued. “But it will be solved one way or another. In the meantime I will take this little Highland flower into my household. She’ll be uneducated, have no sense of fashion, and speak in a Highland cant, but we will keep her safe for her grandfather. When I have her civilized, Jamie, I will present her to you once so she may return to her Highlands able to say she met and spoke with the king. And you will not tamper with the lass, nephew.” The king grinned again. “I promise,” he said to his esteemed relation.
“I mean it, Jamie. The girl’s life is well planned, as it should be. She’s promised to the laird’s heir, Donald MacNab, the laird’s letter said. He’s her cousin, and the old man’s inheritor. Marrying this lass will permit the MacArthurs of Lochearn to accept a MacNab laird, and that is important. There is already enough trouble in the Highlands for you to contend with, and you don’t need any more.” “Many a marriage is planned, but is not celebrated,” the king said slyly to his aunt. “How is my cousin, Maggie?” “Your father, in a well-meaning political gesture, tried to send me from Scotland into England to marry Queen Elizabeth Woodville’s brother, Earl Rivers. I had no intention of being a sacrificial lamb upon the altar of futility. The English cannot be trusted, as we well know.
I tried to convince your father otherwise,” Margaret Stewart said, “but he would not listen.” “So you had an affair?” the king chuckled. “I looked about the court—I still had the advantage of youth then, Jamie—and chose the man I decided I would enjoy giving my virginity to, and then I let him fuck me well for several months so that he got me with bairn. Oh, your father was so angry to have all his fine plans spoiled, but I told him I would not leave Scotland. It was not my fault he didn’t listen.” And now it was the princess who chuckled. “My daughter is frail but well.” “Ye’re a wicked woman, Aunt,” the king told her. “Nonsense!” Margaret Stewart replied. “I’ve had no man since Will Crichton, nor none before him.
Until you asked me to come back to court, dear Jamie, I was most content living in my house on Castle Hill and reading my books. And your cousin is content in her convent. She will soon take her vows, and it’s a good fate for a lass born on the wrong side of the blanket. God bless my brother for dowering her.” “Did you love him, Aunt?” the king asked her. “Lord Crichton.” “Love is a fool’s game, Jamie. And you are already proving to be a great fool,” she teased him. “But, by God, the people love you, and your lords for the most part love you. You are Scotland’s most perfect king, with your charm, your fecund mistress, and your healthy little bastards.
But you should begin to consider taking a wife, Jamie.” James Stewart laughed aloud. “Aye,” he admitted. “I am indeed a fool where love is concerned, Aunt. I can no longer casually bed a woman. I must care for her, for if I sheathe myself in her she is certain to give me bairns, for my seed is strong. A man should like the mother of his bairns.” Then he grew serious again. “You will take in this lass from Lochearn, then, and watch over her? When do you think she will arrive?” “Sooner than later, unless I miss my guess,” Margaret Stewart said tartly. “The old laird’s cousin, having been refused, would have hurried home to Skye, gathered a raiding party, and returned with all due haste to take the girl.
He will be mightily surprised to learn his quarry has eluded him. If she rode swiftly enough she would not be worth going after at this time. If these MacArthurs of Skye are determined enough, they will wait for their prey to eventually return home. I wonder if Ewan MacArthur’s strategy is as clever as he believes it to be. I hope young MacNab is capable of defending himself, for he may have to fight for his betrothed bride.” Gavin MacArthur, being predictable, did indeed return to Lochearn several weeks after his first visit. His son Balgair rode with him. Ewan MacArthur was not surprised to see them. And the moment he set eyes on Balgair MacArthur he knew he was right in refusing his cousin’s request. The younger man was rough and coarse.
Stocky and of medium height, he had dirty blond hair and light blue eyes. He could neither read nor write his name. Such skills, he told the laird, were a waste of time when all a man needed was a knowledge of how to fight well, hold his ale, and fuck a woman. “Ye’ve met my granddaughter,” the laird said to his cousin Gavin. “Do ye really think this ignorant bear of a lad of yers is fit to be her husband?” “He’s strong enough to hold Lochearn, and lusty enough to put a bairn in her belly, cousin. What more could she want in a husband and protector? And ye would hae the protection of my lord, the MacDonald of the isles.” “I dinna need his protection, unless it would be from ye and yer kin,” Ewan MacArthur snapped. “Where is the lady Ellen?” Gavin MacArthur asked. “On her way, two weeks now, to King James. I hae put her under his protection,” the laird said.
“I told ye that she will wed Donald MacNab and nae other.” “Search the keep,” Gavin MacArthur said to his son and his men. “Go ahead.” The laird chortled. “She’s gone. Did ye think I dinna divine yer purpose when ye left here? But ye’ll nae steal this bride!” The MacArthurs of Skye departed Lochearn an hour later, Ewan MacArthur’s laughter ringing in their ears. “One day I’ll kill that old man,” Balgair told his father. “Not until ye hae the lass in hand,” Gavin replied. “Could we nae send to the king and demand her return?” Balgair asked his father. “’Twould do us nae good, for my cousin hae got to Jamie first, and besides, we hae nae legal rights to Lochearn.
The girl will come back in time, and we will be waiting. The priest, Father Birk, comes from the isles. I hae asked him to let me know when the young mistress returns. And I gae him a silver penny. He’s old and a bit confused in his mind. We’ll know when Ellen MacArthur is coming home to Lochearn, Balgair, for he will let me know. He thinks I am in the laird’s favor, for I hae spoken most kindly of Ewan MacArthur. And you will be there awaiting her when she does return.” “But when will that be?” Balgair demanded to know. “We hae time, my lad,” Gavin MacArthur replied.
“Now look about ye and see what ye’ll inherit one day. Lochearn is a fair land to look upon.” “Why can we not simply slay the old man and take it then?” Balgair said. “I am a MacArthur born. Are MacArthurs not entitled to MacArthur lands?” “Ye need the lass to make yer claim a legitimate one. If yer clansmen rebel ye hae no power, lad. With Ellen MacArthur for a wife yer claim on Lochearn is a valid one.” “Then I’ll wait for her to return, Da,” Balgair said. “When can we return home to Lochearn?” Anice asked for what surely was the hundredth time, Ellen thought. “When Grandsire sends for us, and not before,” she said.
“What if he doesn’t send for us? What if he dies, and no one knows where we hae gone?” Anice whined. “I dinna like it here in the south. I dinna like that high and mighty Lady Margaret either. She treats me like a servant.” “You are a servant,” Ellen said. “A very spoiled one, it would seem.” “They say yer da fathered me before he wed yer mam. They say the old laird knew it. They say when I was found he recognized me, and that is why he took me in.” “They seem to say a great deal,” Ellen responded.
“But it means little.” “This chamber is a wee one. There is scarce room for the bed and my trundle,” Anice remarked meanly. “Dinna you realize how fortunate we are to hae this wee chamber?” Ellen asked her serving woman. “We might hae been put in wi’ the other women of the princess’s household. She was most gracious to us. Now stop complaining and unpack what ye can. I am going to join the lady Margaret in her little hall.” Ellen hurried from the room. Anice had done nothing but fuss and wail since they had departed Lochearn.
Ellen almost wished they had left her behind and brought Peigi instead. She made her way to the private hall where Lady Margaret spent her afternoons. Seeing her enter, the princess waved the girl to her. Ellen came forward and curtsied politely. “You are settling yourself, lassie?” Margaret Stewart asked. “I am, ma’am. Yer kindness is appreciated. I dinna nae what to expect here at the king’s court. I hae ne’er seen such a grand place as this Sterling.” The girls sitting about the princess giggled at Ellen’s Highland accent, and the girl flushed, knowing the reason for their hilarity