The Dreamer – Maeve Greyson

“IF YE RİDE any slower, the horses will die of old age before we reach the keep.” Ian Cameron ignored his cousin’s jests. In fact, the man could shove them up his arse. After all, Sutherland’s views would be a damn sight different if he was the one the MacCoinnich Clan was trying to chain to Gretna Neal. “They didna say ye had to marry the lass,” Magnus de Gray, fellow mercenary and brother by battle, if not by blood, sagely reminded. “They only wish yer help for the poor woman. Those sons of hers need a man’s guidance. Yer Christian duty, aye? Helping widows and children.” “Ye truly think me that daft?” Ian cast a dismal glance around as they entered the village at the base of Ben Nevis. The place had become too cluttered, even acquired the stench of a town. It was a great deal busier than its former state of scattered dwellings belonging to a few MacCoinnich crofters. Of course, it had been nigh on three years since he’d been here. He scowled at Sutherland. “Explain to me why Alexander didna choose ye rather than me for this task? Ye darken the halls of Tor Ruadh far more often than I, and ye’re a MacCoinnich to boot.” Sutherland gave him a sly wink and an even more irritating grin.

“Gretna said she wouldna have me nor wished her sons trained up to be womanizers.” “At least it sounds as though the woman still possesses some good sense,” Ian grumbled. And it was further proof this had nothing to do with helping three boys become men. This was a blatant marriage trap for certain. “She’s still a beauty, too,” Magnus reassured as their mounts wound through a jumble of carts lining both sides of the lane. “Hair shines like polished copper and curves a’plenty. That bonnie lass would keep a man warm through the coldest of winters.” “Then ye marry her,” Ian said. “I’ll dance at yer wedding, aye?” Clanging metal and an angry stream of cursing grabbed their attention. A pair of horses, harnessed for pulling a cart, trotted across the intersection in front of them.

“Ye wee bastards! I’ll be a’shootin’ ye, I will!” A short, disheveled man, hands shaking as he fumbled a rusty pistol free of his belt, jittered back and forth in front of a horseless cart. Pots, pans, and all manner of wares were scattered on the road, while some still swayed from the wagon’s racks. A young lad, accompanied by two smaller scamps, stuck out his tongue, then added a series of rude hand gestures to his taunting dance. “Try an’ shoot us! I dare ye, ye scrummy ole baw bag! That pistol of yers is shoddy as the wares ye rob the folk of Ruadh with!” A sense of doom tightened Ian’s gut. The trio harassing the traveling peddler looked vaguely familiar. He turned to Magnus and Sutherland. “Gretna’s cubs?” “Aye, cousin,” Sutherland confirmed as all three men dismounted. “There be all three of yer charges. Congratulations.” “Congratulations, my arse.

” He strode between the jeering lads and the cursing man, just as the peddler aimed the weapon that looked too old to fire even if the man managed to pull the trigger. “Hold fast. Ye canna shoot these lads.” “The hell I can’t,” growled the old coot. He swaggered forward, greatly resembling a disgruntled badger. “Them brats been nothing but trouble to me all summer. Every trip I make through these parts, they pull some such devilry on me. Cause me nothing but grief. Now, they done gone and ran off me team and damaged me goods. Ignored it long as I can stomach.

” “Damaged yer goods?” laughed the oldest boy, still spoiling for a fight. “Yer goods already be shite! They barely last ’til yer next trip through, so ye can charge folk double to mend’m.” “Ye see?” The peddler waved the pistol toward the lad. “No respect for their elders. None at all.” He thumped his chest, his faded tunic and jacket so grubby that dust puffed out in a small cloud. “And I’m not the only one that’ll tell ye them there three need to be horsewhipped and taught what for.” He swung the weapon up and down the street. “Ask any a’these here folk. They’ll tell ye.

” He jutted his scruffy chin upward. “And my wares be good as any and cheaper than most. The poor here in Ruadh be lost and have to do without if it weren’t for old Duff Tamson. Heart a gold, I have. Ask any of’m.” “He’s a cheat!” the young ringleader shouted, charging forward. Ian grabbed hold of the lad’s collar and yanked him back. “Enough!” Still holding fast to the boy, he leaned forward and plucked the pistol out of the man’s hand. “And that goes for ye as well.” “But…” “Take it to the meetin’ today!” shouted one of the villagers clustered in front of the shops.

“Chief’ll sort it!” The suggestion brought a rumble of assent through the growing crowd of onlookers. “A fine idea,” Ian said with a backward glance at Sutherland and Magnus. Both men agreed with a single nod. He motioned for the peddler to gather his team. The pair of horses had come to a halt farther up the way. “Fetch your team. To great hall we’ll go, and let the MacCoinnich do as he sees fit about this matter.” Tamson darted a shifty-eyed glance in the keep’s direction. “Chief MacCoinnich doesna have time for such foolishness as this.” He jerked a thumb in the boy’s direction.

“If’n ye swear ye’ll thrash these boys good and proper, I’m a big enough man to accept that as payment for all me damages today.” With a labored grunt, he scooped up one of his pots and brushed it off. “Just a bit a dirt it seems. No real harm, after all.” The peddler’s sudden change of heart told Ian all he needed to know. Perhaps the lad spoke the truth about the man’s business practices. With a firm shake, he stilled the boy’s struggling to escape his hold. “Which of Gretna Neal’s sons are ye?” The child glared up at him and stood taller. “I be Evander. The eldest.

” “And I be Rory,” the next in height said with a cocky toss of his head. “Middle son.” “And yerself?” Ian looked to the smallest of the three red-haired demons. “I be Finn,” the boy said in a quivering voice barely above a whisper. He looked neither as brave nor as pleased to be there as his brothers. He twitched his freckled nose as though it itched. “I be the least of us, but I be nine, sir.” “Well, then.” Ian rested his hands on the older brothers’ shoulders. “Evander.

Rory. Finn. Do the three of ye feel this matter needs airing in the great hall?” “Aye,” Evander belted out. “Let the chieftain rule it.” Tamson snorted out a laugh, then sneered at the boy. “The MacCoinnich’ll have the three of ye stripped to the waist and whipped in front of all and sundry! Ye want the entire clan seeing ye cry for yer mam?” “We’re not afeared!” Evander touted with a threatening step toward the peddler. “Aye!” Rory chimed in, while meek Finn shuffled back a step. “The boys shall ride with me and my kin,” Ian said. He took a step toward Tamson. “Gather yer team and meet us at the keep, or I’ll send the MacCoinnich guards to fetch ye.

” The scowling peddler swallowed hard, then rolled his shoulders. He dared to fist both hands as though readying for a fight. “Who be ye to claim such control of the MacCoinnich guards?” “I be Ian Cameron, cousin to the MacCoinnich, and a man weary from a long journey and in no mood for liars or cheats, ye ken?” Tamsin’s hands relaxed, and he made a nervous swiping of his palms against his coat. “Aye, then. I see. Reckon I’ll get my team now and follow soon as I can.” The man took off at a fast gait, arms pumping at his sides. Ian herded the boys over to the horses, pointing Rory to ride behind Sutherland and Finn to ride with Magnus. “Evander, ride with me. I wish to hear yer side of this day’s events.

” He mounted, then reached down for the lad. Evander took his hand without hesitation and scrambled up behind him. “That thieving man tricks the poor with smooth words and wares that he’s made sure will fall apart by the next time he passes through the glen. Then, when he returns, they have to buy more or pay him to mend them.” Evander thumped his small fist atop his knee. “Heard more than one folk say it’s so. And Mam Hattie swears to it, even.” “Then why has no one brought it to the chief before now?” Ian halted his mount and checked the lane behind them. Duff Tamson was still in the process of hitching his team to the wagon. The man moved as slow as tree sap in the dead of winter.

“Mam Hattie says it’s ’cause the old bastard finds out things about folk and uses it to make them afeared of saying anything. Says he’s sly and mean as an egg-sucking stoat. Says she wouldna put any evil past him.” “What things?” Ian found it a little hard to believe the man possessed the ability to blackmail every patron. A belated sense of his mother’s long-ago teachings nudged his conscience. “And dinna use the word bastard, ye ken? Especially not around women.” “I dinna ken what things he finds out for certain, but Mam Hattie knows. Ask her. She’ll tell ye.” Evander fidgeted behind him.

“Mam Hattie says those who know better and have enough coin get their goods from Master MacElroy’s shop. Those who dinna have the money are left to deal with Tamson and his thievery.” “Ye’re telling me that no one, neither the poor he’s robbed nor anyone else, thought to bring such a matter to the chieftain?” “The poor are afeared. Not just ’cause he threatens them, but ’cause without him, they’d have to do without.” Evander shifted again, seemingly unable to sit still while they waited for the peddler to join them. “The others dinna care. Mam Hattie says they gots their own fish to fry.” For the life of him, Ian couldn’t remember this Mam Hattie, but from the sound of it, the woman was Evander’s main source of information. In other words, the village gossip. “Why did ye not tell yer mother? She wouldha told Lady Mercy or brought it to the chief.

She has Alexander’s ear.” He knew Gretna. If folk were being mistreated, she’d never stay quiet or look the other way. She always helped those in need. “My brothers and me hardly ever see Mama,” Evander’s bravado weakened considerably, and his voice grew quieter. “If she’s no’ helping Lady Mercy, she’s out with healing or getting bairns into the world.” The lad shrugged. “Everybody needs Mama, and they dinna be shy about asking. She says we must nay be selfish ’bout never seeing her ’cause we’re old enough to understand that it’s her duty to help folk.” He sniffed.

“So, the boys and me dinna bother her about nothing. We handle what needs taking care of ourselves. But daren’t ye say any ill about her. She’s the best mam in all the Highlands and loves us fierce. Tells us all the time how she loves us. And she’s nay had an easy time of it either, ye ken?” He pointed down the street. “That ole baw bag’s finally caught up with us.” Ian urged his horse into motion. He should probably tell the boy not to call an elder an old baw bag but decided to let it pass. At least the boy hadn’t said bastard again.

It sounded as though Gretna truly did need help with the lads, although Evander spoke with the conviction of a man grown. They definitely needed more guidance than their Mam Hattie. God’s beard, what a mess. He felt the MacCoinnich marriage snare cinch a notch tighter. Shaking away the stifling thought, he focused on the task at hand. His cousin Alexander was a fair and patient chieftain, but patience was easily spent—especially if today’s gathering in great hall happened to involve an excess of petty grievances. As they passed beneath the portcullis, he tossed back a bit of advice to Evander, “When ye get in front of the chief, be respectful. Quiet. No outbursts. Answer what ye are asked.

Nothing else, aye?” He thought back to the scene in the street. “And dinna be calling Tamson names. Understand? It shows yer arse.” “This isna our first time before the chief,” Evander bragged as though such a thing were a badge of honor. “Happens a lot ’cause of our sacred oath.” The boy’s words gave Ian pause, while at the same time, triggering a deeper level of uneasiness. Upon reaching the bailey, he helped the lad down but stopped him from proceeding a step farther. “Sacred oath?” “Ye’re no’ supposed to tell,” Rory warned as he and Finn joined them. “’Tis a secret oath, too, Evander. Ye know that!” “A secret, sacred oath?” Magnus repeated as he herded the two younger boys to stand beside their brother.

“Swear us in,” Sutherland said with a conspiratorial wink. He squatted down in front of Finn. “We three be verra trustworthy.” He thumped his chest. “I swear it.” “Dinna mock us,” Evander said with the surliness of a snarling dog. He shrugged out from under Ian’s grasp and pulled his little brother away from Sutherland. With an angry side-eyed glance at Ian, he made it clear that any modicum of trust between them had just been lost. “Just because we be lads, doesna mean we dinna ken what goes on and what shouldna be ignored.” “Why we’d never mock such brave lads,” Sutherland said in the placating tone often used with children.

Magnus groaned and rolled his eyes. “Shut your maw, Sutherland.” Ian stepped between the boys and Sutherland before the man opened his mouth again and worsened the situation. “If I didna believe the three of ye had valid reasons for what ye did, I wouldha left ye back in the street to sort this out yerselves.” He held out a hand to Evander as though the boy were a man. “But I can best help if I know all the reasons for yer actions, aye? I havena been here for nigh on three years. I’ve a bit a catching up to do about the goings-on.” All three of them looked like cornered strays ready to fight for their lives. Hand still extended, Ian widened his stance. “What say ye, Evander? Tell me about this secret oath.

I’ll do my best to keep it secret unless the chieftain needs to hear of it, aye? I willna lie to ye. If this oath is dangerous, both yer mother and the chief must be told. Ye have my word on it, and the sacred bond of my handshake.” Evander shared a look with his brothers. Rory gave an almost imperceptible nod, and Finn trembled with a shrug. With a step forward, Evander cleared his throat. “We be the guardians of Ruadh. We tend to the wrongs that go ignored and help folk who go unheard.” He lifted his chin. “We know well enough what it’s like when no one listens, and people look through ye as though ye’re nay even standing in front of them.

” “Evander Shaw Neal!” “Dinna tell her of the oath, aye? We do it for her sake, too.” Desperation and something akin to a plea for understanding flickered in the boy’s eyes. A certainty filled Ian. The certainty that he’d not betray the lads’ trust if at all possible. He shot a stern look over at Magnus, then Sutherland. “Not a word—aye?” Both men gave silent assent, then ducked back a step as Gretna Neal raced down the keep’s front steps and flew across the cobblestone courtyard faster than a storm overtaking the land. “How did she find out so fast?” Ian asked under his breath. “She always knows,” Evander answered with a heavy sigh. “What in heaven’s name have the three of ye done this time?” Gretna came to a halt in front of her eldest son. Before Evander could begin his defense, Ian stepped next to him and rested a hand on his shoulder.

He had to give the boy credit. The child didn’t cower nor shake as he stood prepared to endure his mother’s wrath. Ian smiled his most charming smile, made all the easier by the high coloring across Gretna’s lovely features. Magnus had spoken true. The lass was still a fiery beauty. Twice widowed, three children, and the passage of time hadn’t touched her. If anything, she’d blossomed even more with the full curviness of womanhood and held herself with strength and grace. Damn, she was bonnie. “’Tis good to see ye again, Gretna.” Blue eyes clearer than any Highland sky cut over to him.

“’Twould be a fair sight better under different circumstances.” Her focus immediately shifted back to her son. “Well?” “We’re in the right this time, Mama,” Evander said with the barest lift of his chin. “I swear it.” Her mouth tightened, then she shifted the interrogation to her youngest. “Finn?” “’Member what we said,” Rory whispered entirely too loud. Snatching hold of Rory’s chin, she bent until the tip of her nose nearly touched his. “Dinna threaten yer brother, or I’ll take a switch to yer backside, ye ken?” “Gretna…” Words fled Ian as her angry glare shot back to him. A distant memory of her temper returned with sudden clarity. He cleared his throat.

“I dinna ken about the other times the lads have been participants in great hall, but I believe them to be in the right this time. Somewhat,” he added as an afterthought. The boys had vandalized the man’s cart when they should’ve taken the matter to an adult—if they could’ve gotten an adult to listen. “Somewhat?” she repeated as a clanging bell signaled the beginning of the chieftain’s hearing of his peoples’ grievances. Never fight a battle ye’re no’ armed to win. Mercenary wisdom also applied to arguing with women. He’d learned that early on. He motioned to Magnus and Sutherland. “Find the smithy quick as ye can. Have him look over that cart and tell ye what he finds.

” Movement near the gate behind them caught his eye. “And keep close watch of Duff Tamson, aye?” He pointed to the peddler angling his team back toward the bailey’s exit. “The bastard’s looking to make a run for it once we all get inside. He has no intention of joining us in the hall if he can keep from it.” “Ye told me I couldna call him a bastard,” Evander said. “Dinna sass yer elders, and dinna ye dare use that word again. Ye know better.” Gretna yanked her eldest from Ian’s side and gave him a shake. “Now, tell me why Master Cameron is bringing ye to the chieftain. What did ye do? Have ye been nettling the peddler again?” “I brought him here to keep him from getting shot,” Ian interrupted while watching Magnus and Sutherland take their posts on either side of Tamson and escort the man into the keep.

As soon as he heard Gretna’s gasp, he cringed. Perhaps, he could’ve worded that better. “Shot?” She snatched the rest of her brood closer, herding them up the steps while alternately swatting each of their backsides hard enough to make them yelp and step livelier. “The death of me! The lot of ye shall be the death of me. D’ye hear? Are ye set on sending me to an early grave? Are ye?”


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