Morag tugged at the wet neck of Iain’s old leather jerkin that draped loose on her, and peered through the mist that hung heavy around her. She’d managed to adjust his old trews at least, so that she could move with ease in them. She peered again. Nothing. She shifted her highland pony cautiously for a better vantage, wincing at the sound of the hooves. Hopefully the mist would muffle the noise.
She called softly to her ghilly, “Rob.”
A figure came up beside her. “Here, cailín dhu,” he murmured.
“Are they there?”
“Aye. In the field below.”
“Is there anyone attending?”
“At the far end.”
“Davey and Calum, are they in place?”
She nodded. “How many can we manage in this mist? Five, six?”
“Less I’d say in this mist.”
Morag gave a little snort. “Och, no. We’ll go for six.”
She heard the soft sigh. “Aye. Six it is.” He moved away, swallowed by the mist.
She bit off a remark and wished yet again that it was Davey at her side and not Rob. Davey would have agreed with her sudden impulse to take six. Still, it was the point they were making and not the number. The Campbells would be furious that their prize cattle had once again been taken from under their very noses.
Morag started to urge her highland pony forward but a hand took her bridle. A familiar figure appeared out of the mist. Iain. She frowned and started to speak but he cut her off
“Signal them all to leave,” he said in a low voice that left no room for anything but obedience.
She shook her head. She wouldn’t obey him, no matter that he was her older brother and she had solemnly sworn to him three years ago she wouldn’t go reiving again. That he hadn’t caught her until now, she must count herself lucky and owe to the fact that he’d been living somewhere else for the most part, until events had allowed him and his wife to return to Glen Strae.
“I won’t repeat myself,” he said, tone razor edge sharp now.
Morag bit her lip, weighing the consequences against the beauty of this coup. To take the Campbells’ prize cattle right under their noses. Who could resist such a challenge? And to the Campbells, who deserved every last humiliation that could be heaped upon them and more.
Iain clasped her wrist in a vice-like grip. “Will I have to take you away, lass?”
She knew what that meant and the mortification she would feel in front of the men who looked to her, whose respect she’d won over the years, was something he knew she wouldn’t bear. She suppressed a fierce surge of rage and jerked her wrist from his hold.
“You no longer understand these matters, Iain. You’ve been gone too long.”
He gave a snort. “I understand well enough and I’ll not be moved. Will ye give the call or will I?”
His accent came thick and strong and she knew that he was very angry. She pulled in a frustrated breath and gave the faint bird call they used. Iain’s posture eased and she glared at him.
“There. You can go now. It’s done.”
Iain frowned down at her. “We’ll go. Together. Now. The rest can follow when they can.” He reached over to take her reins but she pulled the pony aside before he could.
“No need for that. I’ll come on my own.”
Iain studied her and then relented. “Lead on.”
She pursed her lips, and with a toss of her head and a few muttered words started the journey back to the castle.
The MacGregor stood tall and imposing in the castle hall, despite the stick supporting him and the fur draped on his shoulders for extra warmth, as the fire was only embers at this time of the night. His grey hair hung loose around him, almost obscuring the deep scar to one side of his face. But his eyes were clear and full of fury.
Morag stood before her father and knew that this time there would be no softening, no words that would make him proud of her and her defence of the clan and its proud heritage that traced back to the first ruler of the Scots, MacAlpin. Beside her, Iain shifted his weight slightly, causing her father’s attention to turn to him for a moment. But it was a moment only. His piercing eyes focused on her once again.
“So, you went against your pledge that Iain made you give.” His tone was cold, a knife edge. He spoke in Gaelic, the language common here in the glen. He would want all in the household to know she was being reprimanded.
“I got to her before any harm was done, though,” said Iain.
She glared at Iain, furious at him for betraying her to her father. How long had her father known about the pledge she gave to Iain three years ago? She straightened, determined not to let her father see her anxiety.
“It would have been six cattle at least, Father. Right under their noses.” She made a disdainful noise. “They deserve it for the little care they take.”
MacGregor brushed her comment aside with a wave of his hand. “I don’t care for them, or what they do with their cattle. The point is you broke your pledge. And a MacGregor doesn’t break his pledge. In all your eighteen years, did you not understand that much?”
She blanched under his stare, his words hitting home. “Nineteen years,” she muttered and Iain gave a soft ‘wheest’ to hold her tongue.
“What did you say?” her father demanded.
She lifted her chin. “I said nineteen years. I am nineteen.”
“Is it no wonder I mistake your age when you behave as though you’re a babe?” He struck the heavy stick on the stone floor, the noise resounding in the hall. “You’re my daughter and I expect you to behave like a MacGregor.”
She bit her lip, fighting the tears. She wouldn’t show him her distress. “I am sorry, Father, I did what I thought was best. The pledge to Iain I gave under duress.” She gave her brother a dark look. “He didn’t think I would hold to it, I’m sure.”
Iain gave a nearly imperceptible shake of his head. She sniffed.
“It is clear you didn’t understand my full meaning, daughter.” He frowned and gave Iain a brief nod. “I’ve no choice, it seems. You’re right, Iain. She must leave here and go to the court.”
“What? No!” Morag said, shocked into the protest. “There’s no need for that.”
“There’s every need,” said MacGregor. “Since you clearly don’t know how to behave as a lady of this castle, a daughter of MacGregor, we’ll see if court can make a lady of you.”
She couldn’t leave her home, her Davey. Leave everything that meant anything to her. Morag cast her glance around the hall, noticing Abby, Iain’s wife, seated in a chair by the table, her belly, swollen with child, only partially hidden by the large shawl she clasped around her shoulders. Next to her was crouched, Cú, the dog that had been Iain’s but was clearly Abby’s these days, loyal and protective, especially now. She’d been pregnant once before, but she’d lost that child before it was born, making this one even more special.
“Abby, please. Dinna let them send me away. Tell them I will mind them now. That I didn’t mean to flout Iain. I will honour my pledge now. I promise.”
Abby’s eyes filled with sympathy. “Och, Morag, I know you couldn’t help it.”
Morag couldn’t resist giving a small inward smile, despite the fact that she knew her cause was lost. After three years in Iain’s company the faint trace of French accent that hinted Abby’s years at the French court and her mother’s heritage had disappeared, leaving a decided Scottish burr that gave her hesitant Gaelic a throaty sound that Iain loved. She’d grown to love and admire Iain’s wife and was glad to have her as a sister, though her support was missing now. Morag turned back to her father and frowned.
She lifted her chin further. She wouldn’t flinch or make any further fuss. “I am to go to court, then. When am I to go?”
“As soon as may be,” said her father.
“And will Iain and Abby accompany me?”
She saw the unspoken communication between her father and Iain. Her heart sank further, knowing what was to come.
“Nay,” said Iain. “Abby is too close to her time. It’s not safe. And I won’t leave her.”
“Some of the ghillies will accompany you,” said her father. “And a woman from the household.”
Morag nodded, her face grim but taking care not to show the anxiety that sprang up. She knew no one at court. She’d never had any desire to go there and practise all the courtly manners and skills to negotiate the turbulent waters of the Scottish court. Especially now with John Knox landed on the Scottish shores, stirring up unrest among the troublesome Protestant earls who sought to overthrow the Dowager Queen’s authority as regent.
“What of Mister Knox and his ilk?” asked Morag. “Will it be safe for me there among such people?”
Her father frowned. “Don’t think that using some clever angles will get you out of going, lassie.”
“It will be safe enough,” said Iain. “Better this than have you wreak havoc across the countryside and rouse the Campbells’ire further. Things are bad enough.”
“Don’t fret,” said Abby. “I’ll write to the Dowager Queen and ensure you a warm welcome.”
Morag gave her curt nod. “That is kind of you, sister, but don’t go to any trouble on my account.”
Abby gave a wry smile. “It’s no trouble, Morag. I’ll do it.”
Morag returned her smile with one that didn’t reach her eyes. One letter would make no difference, she was certain. The time ahead would be something to endure. But first she must meet with Davey. Maybe he would have some idea to prevent this.
Iain came up beside her and grabbed her arm just as she was about to enter her chamber. Though she had height enough, he loomed over her and his piercing blue eyes looked into hers, a hint of frustration and anger present.
“You were lucky tonight, a cailín. And I know you think being sent to court is the worst thing that could happen to you, but it’s for the best. Father could have been harsher in his punishment.”
She snorted angrily. “Well, I don’t know any harsher one.”
He frowned. “And do you understand that if you’d killed one of the Campbells, a punishment beyond what you could dream would come down on all of us? Campbell is not a man to be trifled with. Did you learn nothing from three years ago?” His voice had risen slightly, his words fierce and filled with anger.
She bit her lip, remembering when Iain was under the threatening shadow of banishment and the clan thrown into disgrace. It had only been by sheer luck and the wiles of Abby and Iain that they had managed to get his good name, and the clan’s, restored.
“Yes, I did. And I’m sorry. But I’ve been careful. I would never kill any one of them. As much as they might deserve it.”
Iain sighed and shook his head. “You could have had the clan put to the horn. We’d be disbanded and banished. Where would we be then? And our tenants?”
She shook herself from his hold, too ashamed, but unwilling to concede the point. “It wouldn’t have happened,” she muttered. “It didn’t happen.”
Morag drew up her pony outside the croft. The mountain was to her back and rose high behind her. The air was clear, but with a distinct bite from the late winter day. She drew her cloak around her as the wind caught it and lifted it from her skirts. After dismounting swiftly, she made her way through the gate to the door until she caught sight of a flash of colour in the stone shed to the right of the croft, across the small cobblestoned yard. It wasn’t a large tenancy, but it provided enough for Davey and his widowed mother.
Morag turned away from the door and made her way to the shed, the penned ewes bleating as she passed. It would soon be lambing time and Davey had brought the ones at risk here, ready for his trusty and capable assistance. He came out of the shed as she approached and his brow furrowed in concern when he saw her. She admired the glint off his auburn hair, hanging in locks about his face. It was a face some might call pretty, with his long lashes, but she only could call it dear.
“Is something amiss, Mor—Mistress?” he asked in Gaelic
She bit her lip at the correction. He’d began to insist on calling her ‘mistress’ this past year or more, since Iain had reminded him after he’d overheard Davey’s banter with Morag. She had scoffed at Iain’s remark, saying Davey was a loyal clansman, a playmate of years and now her closest friend. Iain had just given her a look that spoke volumes.
“Morag, Davey. I’ve told you to call me Morag. Especially when we’re alone.”
Davey shifted on his feet and looked down as she came up beside him. He was little taller than her, with a wiry strength she admired. Perfect for these highland moors and crags. She put her hand on his arm. He blushed.
“Of course, mistress – and we shouldn’t be alone. Ye know that it’s wrong.”
“It isn’t for us, Davey. Never for us.” She squeezed his arm. “Besides, it’s important that we speak.” She took his hand. “They’re sending me away. To court.”
Davey released her hand and stood back, his face full of surprise. “Nay. Why is that?”
“Because of what happened two nights ago. My father is determined that I should be taught a lesson for breaking my pledge to Iain.”
“Pledge? You broke a pledge?”
She nodded. “Yes, well, not really. I mean, Iain never could imagine I would keep to it. He wanted me to give up reiving and taking action against the Campbells.” She emphasised the last phrase, though she was certain he would know how important it was.
“You broke a pledge, though.” His voice was filled with scorn. “To your family.”
She looked into his hazel eyes and frowned to see the disappointment there. “But it was for a higher honour. The honour of the clan! You understand that, Davey, you must.”
He nodded slowly, his eyes clearing. “Yes, for the honour of the clan. Yes, you have it right. As you always do."
She leaned over and kissed his cheek, relieved. He blushed again and looked down. “Mistress, you mustn’t do that. It isn’t seemly.”
She placed a hand on his cheek. “It’s me, Davey. Your playmate of years. Your companion in arms. And now won’t you pledge to me?”
He looked up, startled. “I’m pledged to you already.”
She frowned. “To my family. Nay, I mean pledge to me.” It was her turn to look down, a small blush forming on her face. “Pledge your heart, Davey,” she added softly. “For you have mine.”
She leaned over and kissed him, a soft kiss, full on the lips. It was her first and she’d been long dreaming of how it would be and was glad to find it pleasant and warm. He kissed her back, but only for a moment, then pulled away with a gasp.
“I can’t do this. It’s madness. You’re my lady, Morag.”
She tugged him forward again. “Nay, Davey. I’m Morag and you are Davey.” She took his hand. “And I am pledging myself to you, Davey.”
He shook his head. “You don’t mean it.”
She smiled at him, her eyes twinkling. “I do of course and you must do as I say, for am I not your Lady Morag?”
He groaned. “How can I refuse you anything? You know I’ll do whatever you ask of me.”
“And I request we plight our troth. Here. Now. Before they send me away. So you know that it will always be you. And nothing they do will change that.”
He gave her a puzzled look and then nodded. “Aye, I’ll do it. But if at any time you wish to be released from it, I will do so.”
“Of course. But that will never happen.” She beamed at him and took his hands. “For you are such a grand companion and have always been in all the times we’ve had together. Better than any brother of mine.”
He gave her a rueful look. “Only because you can bully me better than your own brothers.”
She laughed. “Nay. That may be true, but I do care for you, Davey.” She pressed a kiss on his lips again, fierce and long. Davey put a tentative arm around her. She sighed. Two kisses in one day. Her heart gave a leap. She was becoming a woman indeed. No courtier could gainsay her as a backwards highland lass.
She pulled away. “Now, we must say the words to each other. I’ll go first and then you can repeat them back.”
He bit his lip and then nodded. She took up his right arm and clasped it hard, then pulled out the bit of ribbon she had tucked in her kirtle and wrapped it around their clasped wrists.
“I Morag Elizabeth, daughter of Gregor MacGregor, descendant of MacAlpin, do pledge my troth to you, Davey of Glen Strae of clan Gregor until such time as we decide to release each other. Or,” her eyes twinkled, “we bed each other as husband and wife, as custom dictates, and become truly wed.”
Davey opened his mouth in surprise but closed it after a moment. He cleared his throat and at her nod he repeated the words.
“There,” she said when he had finished. “It’s done. We’re pledged to each other.” She released the ribbon and reached up to hug him tightly. His arms went tentatively around her waist. “I shall keep this ribbon with me always, Davey. So I know that no matter where I am, I will always have a part of us with me.”
He nodded. “Of course. As you like.” He released her and stepped back, shifting uncomfortably. “What’s to do now?”
“Now we must create a secret code and manner in which we communicate while I am at court. So we’ll know how we go on. And in case I might need you. For I don’t intend to let them stop me from discovering a way we might revenge upon the Campbells.”
“You still intend tae go reiving?”
“No, of course not. At least I don’t think it could be managed so far away.” She looked at him, a hopeful expression on her face. “Unless you have devised a manner in which it may be done?”
“What? Nothing of the sort. It seems more than impossible.”
She sighed. “Yes, just so. But I won’t give up. There might be some way, as I said. And I will tell you when I find it, so you can help me. You will help me, Davey?”
He smiled at her. “Yes, you know I will. Have I ever done anything but do as you wish?”
She grinned broadly. “Never. Is it any wonder I care for you so much?”
She hugged him again. “Now, I will have some of the ghillies with me. Rob, probably and a few others. I can send him to you with a note or something of that nature to tell you what I discover, or if I need you. My family will doubtless send me word from time to time and I will endeavour to send them messages for you in my replies.”
He nodded slowly taking in her words. “Fine. I’ll await your word.”
She squeezed his arm. “Good. Now I must away. Someone is bound to be looking for me by now.”
She put her arms around him and drew him closer once again. “Now give me a kiss again Davey,” she said softly. “Forbye I don’t know when I’ll see you next and I want something to remember you by.”
She pressed her lips to his and he returned the kiss hesitantly. She pressed tighter, wanting to feel as much as possible before she let him go. She felt him gasp, his mouth opening slightly and she pulled away, grinning. “Have you ever been kissed so well, Davey?”
He flushed deeply. “Never.”
She gave him a smug smile. “Yes, well, be sure you remember that.”
Morag drew away and headed towards her pony. She grasped the reins and pulled herself up on its back, blew him a kiss and trotted away. She’d done what she could to make experience at court bearable. She had her pledge with Davey and thoughts of revenge on the Campbells to help bolster her among the cruel and ruthless courtiers she was certain she would encounter.