Twelfth Knight’s Bride – E. Elizabeth Watson

“A little farther, man,” Aileana encouraged her brother’s horse as she rode hard through the snowy glen. The beastly stallion panted, leaping over drifts with fringed hooves. She leaned over his neck, which lunged and retracted with each bound while his mane blew wildly in her face, her hands close to the bit. Her bundle, wedged between her belly and the saddle pommel, threatened to jostle loose. She pressed her stomach into it to keep the stolen goods in place and glanced over her shoulder, fearful of her pursuer. “Mayhap we’ve lost the cretin.” The snow was falling in thick gusts by the time she thundered across the bridge to Urquhart Castle’s gatehouse, blazing beneath the portcullis. Her brother’s head guardsman came out of the gatehouse to investigate. “’Tis only me, Sir Donegal!” she called, sweating, and pulled the reins back to stop the horse short. “Lady Aileana? Why arrive in such haste? And dressed in trews?” Sir Donegal asked as soldiers craned their necks through the merlons atop the curtain wall to see if danger lurked in the hills beyond. Aye, she wore pants, a tunic, a cloak, and boots. With her hair pulled back tightly and hidden in the neckline of her cloak, she likely looked like a skinny lad. “No reason,” she replied. “I thought to give the horse a good romp considering he’s been cooped up due to our fine weather.” A lie, but Aileana flashed a confident smile as she gestured to the falling snow as dusk darkened the already-gray sky looming over the fabled Loch Ness.

Fine weather indeed. She shrugged nonchalantly for good measure and draped a hand over her bundle of thieved vegetables, holding it steady while she flung her cloak over her shoulder and dismounted, though her heart pumped from the exertion. Fear at being caught trickled through her blood like spring snowmelt down a mountain and was just as icy. This food, pilfered from that bastard Laird James Moidartach MacDonald—the once-outlawed Earl of Ross—would feed Urquhart’s inhabitants for one night, and a thin broth it would make at that. But her people were desperate, thanks to the Devil MacDonald’s aggression toward them, and scant nourishment was better than none. These vegetables are the least the ruthless MacDonald can do for us. Life had been lean since the MacDonalds’ last raid two years ago, which had seen her people evicted. Laird MacDonald had occupied Urquhart, and it had been thanks to the Earl of Huntly himself for demanding the laird relinquish the stronghold back to her brother, Laird Grant. But not before he and his ruffians had depleted their buttery, packed away their livestock, and devastated their seed stock for planting, meaning the last two harvests had been paltry at best, in spite of the meager grains her brother had bartered from the Frasers. And to add insult to injury, this last growing season had been unseasonably wet.

They’d reaped an even worse harvest than before. Their petition for a recompense from the MacDonalds still sat before the Crown, and if it wasn’t awarded soon, they would surely starve this winter. “Are ye sure ye’re being honest, Lady Aileana?” Donegal persisted as she passed off the reins to their lone stable groom, the seneschal’s son. Trepidation ate at her. She’d barely escaped MacDonald’s hunting camp, for his men had made chase as she stole away to the glen at the base of Carn Eige, where she’d stashed her horse for her flight home. She glanced over her shoulder again. The hills that loomed over Urquhart were shrouded in fog from the snowflakes falling down onto the frozen banks of the loch— Her stomach dropped. A shape emerged from the fog, like a death knell, the thudding of hooves growing louder. Bright, tightly woven red plaid, blond hair—in part flowing free, in part braided—and shoulders shielded in fur, rode out of the hills atop a leathery-black destrier. Damn the man! He’d followed her trail.

“Of course I’m being honest,” she croaked to Sir Donegal, who leveled a glare at her. She lifted her chin, having claimed the lie and knowing she must own it. “I, eh, must depart.” She hurried away, clutching the vegetables. “Look lively!” a sentry called while Grant soldiers clattered to positions. “Drop the portcullis!” shouted another, and the chains ground on the winches, the forces of Earth pulling it down to land with a rattling pound. “Ready at arms! It’s Devil MacDonald! Inform the laird! Archers! To the walls!” Aileana jogged through the yard sodden by cart wheels and ducked through the kitchen door. Sakes! Anger at herself nipped at her heels. She’d been so sure she could outsmart the hunting party and get home unscathed! And now she’d brought trouble to their threshold. Her brother, Seamus, didn’t need to fend off the likes of their enemy after all that had passed between their clans.

The kitchens were hot with dinner’s meager preparations. Flatbreads baked in the ovens from what flour grains they had been able to grow and harvest this past autumn, and leftover venison boiled in a pot to make a broth. “Good day, Lady Aileana.” The head cook curtsied, oblivious to the mounting commotion outside. “A good day it is.” Aileana dumped the bundle onto the scullery table. Dried carrots, onions, leeks, and beans tumbled across the board. “We have a wee blessing for our supper, but ye must cook it with haste—” “Goodness!” the cook exclaimed as the other kitchen maids gathered around the bounty in awe. Aileana smiled, but a pinch of sadness sparked in her chest that these basic foods should be so exciting. “Does God favor us this Christmastide?” the cook continued.

“Ye’ve obviously made some fruitful bartering.” A lie she’d let them believe, for there had certainly been no bartering. “Quick,” Aileana instructed, ignoring the cook’s remark. “Chop and boil it so we might eat it fast, and say no’ a word that I delivered anything.” “Whatever for?” the cook replied. “Such a quantity can be divided in two and shared with tomorrow night’s bread—” “Look no’ a gift horse in the mouth,” Aileana urged, adding a grin in hopes it would put them at ease, but they must eat the evidence. The commotion from outside now echoed within the castle. Seamus’s demands for reinforcements rang through the great hall. She swallowed, then urged, “We— eh—could use a filling meal and, for once, feel satisfied.” The cook bobbed in another curtsy and began doling out orders, and Aileana shook the snow off her cloak onto the rushes, then dashed through the kitchen, out into the corridor, and up the winding stairs to where her bedchamber was located.

She shoved through the door, barred it, and flung her cloak upon a chair, kicked off her boots, stripped the trousers so that she wore only her hose and tunic still damp from her ride, and hastened into a simple brown gown, just as plain as she was. “Mi lady!” came a masculine call at the door, accompanied by a knock. Donegal. That was quick. “Mi lady! Devil MacDonald storms our gates and demands to see ye for his own eyes! He swears a lad stole away with goods from his traveling party and rode to safety here. We’ve sworn the only person to pass our gates this eve is the youngest sister of Laird Grant, but he’ll nay be deterred until he sees ye. Yer brother tries to placate the nàmhaid, but he threatens to return with more men if we do nay comply…or worse, complain to Huntly!” She sucked in hard, then exhaled. Her brother would know it was her who had committed this thievery, for it wasn’t as if she was innocent of such a crime. “One moment, Donegal!” She raced back to the door, having yet to catch her breath, and knew her cheeks were splotched with sunbursts from her exertion. Opening it, she twirled around to the man, giving him her back without greeting.

“Lace me up. Quickly,” she breathed. “God have mercy, lass,” the guardsman muttered with exasperation, but thankfully he was used to her unorthodox mannerisms, for he’d been her dear friend since childhood, her first kiss, and her father’s finest squire. “’Twas ye, was it nay? That bundle on yer saddle? Ye’ve invited trouble of the worst kind—for MacDonald will bring another raiding party if he suspects he was abused.” She snorted. “Oh, him—abused, the misunderstood violet.” Bitterness tainted her tone. “He stole everything from us, and yet we’re no’ entitled to a menial amount of food? We shall die without any, Donegal.” “And yer brother made war on James MacDonald four years ago, aye.” “Because he reaved on us six years ago,” she snapped.

“And yer faither the same to his faither before that.” And so on. The feud between their people had existed since the Grants had established themselves in the Highlands at the request of Huntly. Before the Grants, it had been Huntly himself who had endured raids. Before that, the Crown had fended off renegade MacDonald parties, shoring up the rampart defenses to deflect the lairds of the isles. Urquhart was a strategic stronghold and would consolidate power over the entire region should the Devil acquire it. “The history matters none,” Donegal said, jerking the laces tight, drawing her clammy tunic tightly against her body. “He’ll retaliate.” “Ye’re nay to say another word to my brother until I’ve spoken with him,” she replied. “That matters none, either.

The laird kens ye must have done it but has demanded ye come to the gates so MacDonald can see for himself that ye cannae possibly be a lad.” The guard braced his knee against her rear and cinched the strings, causing her to lurch. “I’ll nay ask”—she gasped as the dress was put into place—“how ye became so deft with a lady’s garments, my friend,” she teased. He leaned around her face as he now tied the laces, a grin softening his jaw and brow. “Ah, well, I’ve been known to make the lasses swoon. Ye being the first, eh?” She batted his face away, and he chuckled. “Indeed I was young and misguided, aye? My faither’s boot to yer rear and a sennight of hard labor taught ye never to take such liberties, I recall.” The chuckle rumbling in his throat intensified. “Nay, lass, on the contrary. It taught me never to get caught.

” “Ye’re insufferable!” she jested, smirking and scurrying away to grab her shawl. She fixed the tunic, which protruded from her dress sleeves, for she hadn’t had time to don a proper chemise. With her proud Grant tartan cast about her torso, she looked the picture of plain and proper. “Ah, but now ye’ve done it, mi lady, aye?” “I fear I have,” she mumbled under her breath, exhaling. “I’m sorry, Donegal. It’s just…we’re desperate.” “I ken that,” he replied soberly. “Let down yer auburn hair, mi lady. It’s one of yer beauties and the most un-lad-like thing about ye.” She blushed—of all the ridiculous reactions—at his compliment for he meant it purely in the spirit of friendship these days.

But her hair, in truth, was her one vanity, for compared to her older sister, she’d always felt plain. Her gown in place, she slipped her feet into a pair of ankle boots made of soft lambskin but, like all her things, were worn through. A hole had abraded the outside toe on one, and they needed resoling desperately. Still, all in the castle had made concessions, and she wouldn’t complain. It wasn’t her brother’s fault that this sorry poverty had been thrust upon them due to the MacDonald bastard’s relentless greed. She let down her wavy curls from the utilitarian bun she’d concealed within her cloak and tried to run a comb through the ends. No use. The prongs snagged in the hopeless tangles, and there was no time to wet it and make it manageable. Instead, she fluffed it down her back, where it tumbled to her waist, and hastened to tie it back in a plain ribbon as she accompanied Donegal downstairs, through the hall, and out into the bailey. Servants scrambled across the slush, pushing carts to safety in a shed, and took shelter in case the enemy laird had returned for a rematch, while guardsmen lined the curtain wall to assess the threat, arrows trained upon their guest.

“There’s my sister now,” she heard Seamus say. She stalled in her tracks, her throat constricting, and a leaden anchor sank in her stomach. Although they’d never been introduced, she knew it was the Devil MacDonald himself perched in the saddle on the opposite side of the portcullis grate. “Ye were just out riding, were ye no’, Aileana?” Seamus demanded as his wife, Elizabeth, and their sister, Peigi, flanked him demurely, watching her, ever the beautiful ladies that she had never been and would never be. Her gaze flitted from her sister-in-law to Peigi, then to Seamus once more, so regal in his deepblue plaid draped over his shoulder, his heavy belts, and—she noted—his claymore sheathed across his back. Dagger hilts protruded from his waist, and his sgian dubh was lodged strategically in his boot. He’d prepared himself to greet James MacDonald as a proud, stoic warrior and their parents’ only son to survive infancy. But as her eyes returned to the laird atop his glossy stallion, she didn’t see the disgusting cretin she’d expected. She saw striking blue eyes, dark-blond hair waving wildly around his face and neck with those ever-present braids which she could see, now that she was close to him, were knotted with wooden beads—not bones, as he’d been rumored to don—and he was obviously disheveled from his chase. His jaw was scruffy in dark whiskers, those of a young man filling into his prime.

His cheekbones were cut high; his nose, long, but firm and proud. Around his shoulders hung a heavy pelt of deerskin over his doublet coat, and a bright red tartan draped across his chest, held in place at the shoulder by a bejeweled badge denoting the clan’s symbol. His thighs, partly visible due to his kilt splaying about him, were powerful and bulged with bands of long muscle, and his boots, deerskin insulated in fleece tufting out of the tops, were fine quality— and certainly not wearing through the toes or soles like hers were. She nearly scoffed at the thought and instinctively wiggled her little toe rubbing through her lambskin as a chill shivered through her. She should have changed into a fresh chemise. He was magnificent, not the beast she’d always conjured to mind when reliving the horrible day they had last been besieged, even if his face was filled with fury now. Her stomach twisted nervously as he managed the reins of his cavorting destrier puffing steam into the air. Blast it, but she hadn’t expected handsome. Nor had she expected his gaze to hold hers as if she’d surprised him, too. Memories swirled to life of clenching sweet Peigi’s hand and ferrying her to safety as Urquhart was attacked by men whose faces were muddied and painted in blue woad.

She lifted her chin to push away the unwanted thought. Rolled back her shoulders. This MacDonald bastard, no matter how handsome, was a nàmhaid—an enemy—if there ever was one. She wouldn’t allow him the pleasure of watching her shrink from his hard gaze. Instead, she walked up close to the portcullis as if to taunt him, folding her arms and examining his features for herself. His piercing blue stare followed her, evoking shivers across her skin. She could feel her brother’s glare upon her, too, though she ignored it. She might feel guilty about bringing trouble, but she wouldn’t apologize for stealing a wee bit of food. She was a noble-born Grant. It was as much her duty as Seamus’s to look after the folk who supported this home with their labors, and they could no longer afford to await word from the Crown as to whether or not their recompense would be awarded.

Seamus leaned into her ear as she felt Laird McDonald’s gaze still scrutinizing her, perusing her figure with his devilish eyes. His moniker was proving to be true. Devil indeed. “Pray tell,” Seamus whispered so softly she could barely make out his words, “why I must face down this bastard and his accusations of thievery.” She remained high-chinned and gave the MacDonald a searing perusal of her own, as he was doing to her, causing his eyes to narrow curiously. He was probably conjuring some nefarious plot, for he looked as if he contemplated something. “Sakes, brother, but I can barely stand to be so close to him. Breathing the same air as him will surely bring about a case of hives.” A nearby guardsman snorted at her jest, and she smiled sweetly at her adversary, knowing by the tightening of his brow that he had heard her. Then his gaze dipped to her lips, then back to her eyes again.

“Sister…” Seamus rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Were ye outside the gates today?” “I was. ’Tis a lovely day for a country ride, one of the few pleasures we still have, since all other pleasures have been stolen from us,” she replied, making no effort to hide her flippant tongue as her gaze bore into James MacDonald’s. The MacDonald harrumphed, grumbling, “Yer sister has a disagreeable tongue. Nay a wonder why she’s no’ married yet.” The nerve! Anger flared in her chest at his insult, even if it had been delivered by a deep, husky voice, inducing more shivers across her skin than she should be proud of. What did he expect from the Grants? Kindness and benevolence? “Too bad ye’ll never ken a whit about my tongue,” she snapped in return. James’s brows shot up in surprise at her lewdness, and she smirked, crossing her arms with satisfaction and popping her hip. “That’s enough, Aileana,” Seamus admonished her. “God in heaven, why must ye be so brash?” She scoffed.

“And why must we pretend to offer this man salutary kindness? He rushes to our gates, accusing us of…of what, this time?” “Of a lad thieving food from their camp,” her brother replied, his head turned toward her and away from Laird MacDonald as he raised a knowing eyebrow. “Oh, a lad thieving, eh?” Aileana scoffed, then addressed MacDonald still perched in his saddle, seething. “An eye for an eye, then.” A twinkle glinted in his too-handsome eyes, as if he wished to return her insults with delightfully accurate precision. “Nay, lass. Yer clan reaved us first, remember?” James argued. “Because who reaved us before?” She tapped her chin, feigning to ponder. “Oh, that’s right. Yer faither.” James groaned, raising his eyes heavenward with barely leashed composure.

“But what does this have to do with us?” she asked. “Or more specifically, me?” “The lad rode here. Through these very gates, nay more than ten minutes ago,” MacDonald said. “And they say ye’re the only one to enter this afternoon. Coincidence?” “Ach, do I look like a lad?” she asked, though she regretted her question the moment she asked it. His smile lifted dangerously. Good God above, she’d opened herself to an insult of the worst sort. “Ask no’ a question ye wish no’ to be answered,” he quipped. She balled her fists. “Produce the culprit, and we’ll have nary a problem,” the MacDonald said, holding her glare as he resituated his grip on his reins with a creaking of leather, clearly annoyed that this questioning was taking so long.

“Yer thief didnae come here,” she replied. “I’m the only one who’s been out riding. Our lads must labor overmuch to compensate for all that has been stolen from us and havenae time for countryside leisure, and if ye must ken, in sooth, I was out hunting.” That much was true. She’d been pursuing hares when she’d left Urquhart and had merely happened upon the MacDonald camp. “Unsuccessfully, I might add. Which means, once more, we’ll go hungry.” She folded her arms, unable to tame her tongue. She wanted to needle this bastard who had made life difficult, made her and her sister’s marriage prospects sink as deep as Loch Ness, for with their poverty came the lovely benefit of no dowry. Hers had been stolen, complete with the beautiful pearl earrings inlaid in gold that their mother had gifted both Peigi and herself.

Aileana had kept hers in her jewelry chest, which MacDonald had stolen. No one would wish to marry a lady who brought no wealth to the table, except maybe a lowly baron. But her attempt to thwart his curiosity backfired. The anger in his brow softened as his eyes drew together to search her face, traveling over the ridges of her cheekbones and nose, her earlobes that sat empty of adornments—unlike Peigi’s, for Peigi still had the earrings their mother had given her. She’d been wearing them that fateful day. I suppose there is merit in decorating myself like a lady. His assessment traveled over her wild red-brown hair tumbling over her shoulder from her ribbon, over her figure again, making her squirm while fluttering ravaged her belly. What was he looking at? She’d never been the bonny sister that the men enjoyed glimpsing. Peigi was comely, with soft, tantalizing cleavage; flared hips that she’d heard men mutter were good for birthing; pink cheeks; pillowy lips; and rich brown eyes like their brother, while Aileana had been blessed with plain hazel eyes and a faint speckling of freckles across her nose. And yet not once had James MacDonald turned his head toward her older sister who always turned a man’s head.

“On second thought…perhaps it was a lass who stole from me,” James finally concluded, a satisfied smirk darkening his face once again as he sat upright in the saddle. “Tell me, do ye wear trousers, my lady? I can see ye looking like a lad.” She gasped. As did Elizabeth and Peigi. Shocked at his rudeness, she saw the corner of his mouth tip up. He knew he’d gotten under her skin. So he hadn’t been intrigued by her femininity, as she’d dared to think he might be—and why on God’s green earth did she want the animal to be interested? “Mind yerself, James,” her brother growled, straightening his belts and filling his chest with a deep breath to broaden his already-broad torso. “There’s no need to be insulting. She’s lady-born and bred and will be treated so.” “My sister doesnae see her beauty like we do,” Peigi spoke up.

“Yer arrow, sir, was aimed to hurt.” Bless her siblings for defending her. Still, the remark stung, reminding her that even with a dowry, she’d likely remain an untouched spinster, for what man wanted a woman with freckles? “I ken nay who yer thief was,” Aileana began, her throat scratchy with emotion. “But I commend the lad for delivering justice, no matter how menial as a pile of vegetables, to a thief like ye,” she replied, and though she tried to bolster her confidence again, she knew the sting of his remark tainted her words now. “I never said the thief stole vegetables.” Laird MacDonald’s smirk rose into a dastardly grin. Her mouth dropped open to launch a rebuttal, when her words froze in her throat. Seamus exhaled long and low and perched his hands on his hips, his gaze flitting sidelong at her with increasing frustration. “Aileana?” Seamus said, his voice gruff. “He speaks honestly—this time.

He didnae say vegetables. Only food.” Dammit! She’d ensnared herself in her own lie! MacDonald, his handsome face, littered with scars, brightened with amusement as he leaned his forearm on the pommel like a spectator at a tourney. “Seamus Grant, have ye sunk so low as to send yer sister out reaving?” Seamus’s frown deepened as he turned back to James. “I would never ask such a thing of a sister!” he erupted, then took a deep breath and turned to Aileana once again. “Ye conceived of this plot yerself, did ye nay?” Aileana gaped at Seamus, gesturing to James like her brother was blind to the truth. “Because they have starved us out. They have left us with naught, and the king takes his sweet time deciding to award yer complaint. We have nothing. Am I supposed to let my people go hungry because this greedy cretin wishes to amass all our lands, all our cattle, and own all of the Highlands for himself?” “This land was my birthright,” James growled.

“It was stolen from the MacDonalds and parceled off to the king’s favorite men.” “That was two centuries ago,” Aileana snapped. “Why continue to battle for something ye never had?” “And why continue to aggress against me?” the devil rumbled. “For ye act like an innocent, but yer brother took up arms with our enemies and evicted me, declaring me an outlaw when I’m my faither’s direct and rightful heir.”

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