The Chief

“Do you see anything?” Tor asked Lamont, although with his weather-beaten face, beard, and hair thick with ice, and heavy furs draped over his head and shoulders, he was virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the men.

Lamont, or the “Hunter” as MacSorley had dubbed him for his tracking abilities, shook his head, squinting into the heavy mist in the waning hours of daylight. “Nay, captain. Nothing.”

Tor swore, his impatience catching up with him. He was ready for this training exercise to be over. It wasn’t just weariness or the brutal conditions; he couldn’t shake the unease that had followed him since he left Dunvegan. “Keep looking, he didn’t just disappear. He’s out there.”

Lachlan MacRuairi was a slippery bastard, giving proof of his skill of getting in and out without being seen. He was the only one who was yet to be found. Even with Lamont’s tracking skills, he’d eluded capture for four days—nearly a full day beyond MacKay, the only other man who’d made it past two nights in the frigid, unforgiving shadow of the Black Cuillin. Named for the dark garbbo rock that made up their peaks, the Black Cuillins were the highest mountain range on Skye and were considered some of the most formidable in all of Scotland.

In the winter they could be deadly.

Hell wasn’t a pit of fire, Tor knew; it was being cold and wet. Cold that numbed your bones even in the daylight hours. But night—he shivered reflexively—night was pure agony. The cold air penetrated through their heavy furs like icy needles.

Tor knew there was every possibility that MacRuairi was lying somewhere frozen solid, buried under a foot of freshly fallen snow. Last night it had stormed, the thick heavy curtains of white falling in endless waves, leaving the corries at the base of the mountain blanketed in more than a foot of snow, with treacherously deep pockets in some areas. Higher up the mountain the snow depth lessened, due to the narrow ridges and sheer rock faces of the peaks, but there was plenty of ice.

This training exercise was designed for two purposes. Mountains and bad weather were two things the men could count on having to face in the coming days. If they were going to successfully apply their pirate tactics to land, they needed to be able to condition themselves to survive in any conditions. Tor also knew that nothing brought a team together more than shared suffering.

That most of the men had lasted even two days in these harsh surroundings was unusual. The challenge was designed to be nearly impossible: hide anywhere between the three lochs that framed Sgurr an Lagain—“peak of the little hollow,” the highest peak in the range—for seven nights without being found. No small feat given that the barren, rocky terrain provided virtually no cover or shelter. Most of the men he’d brought here before lasted only a few hours—one night at the most. Tor knew all of the caves, and even if you could manage to scavenge enough brush or wood to light a fire, it would be easily spotted.

He’d given the guardsmen an hour’s head start and then hunted them down one by one. Each man found was added to the pack of hunters until, as now, only one remained.

Tor gazed at the fearsome warriors who surrounded him, right now a haggard and miserable-looking group. “Fan out,” he ordered. “We’ll make our way up to the summit from all directions and flush him out that way.” If MacRuairi was alive, they would find him.

And he was alive. Out there, watching them. Tor could feel it. It was almost as if they were waging a private battle of skills—the hunter and the hunted. Chief to chief. Leader to resentful pupil. Normally, it was a challenge he would relish, but right now he just wanted it done.

He positioned most of the men in rough intervals around the base of the mountain. He, Campbell, MacKay, and Lamont would ascend to the main ridge of the summit from all of the possible approaches.

And so they climbed, methodically scrambling their way up the mountain. Tor had taken the most difficult route from the southeast, requiring a steep climb up a craggy cliffside.

A short while later, he stopped to catch his breath on a narrow scree ridge high on the mountainside. Shielding his eyes with his hand, he scanned the peaks above him shrouded in mist, looking for any sign of movement or an incongruity in the landscape.

Nothing. It was eerily still. All he could see through the fog was shards of black rock laced with thin ribbons of white. After taking a fortifying swig of uisge-beatha, he resumed the strenuous climb up the mountain. Moving with the light, sure-footed grace of a mountain lion, nimble and fast, he scaled the treacherous terrain with the ease earned from rigorous training.

Being conditioned, however, did not mean he was impervious to nature’s weapons. He could barely feel his fingertips beneath the thick leather gauntlets, or his toes in the leather boots he’d wrapped with fur. The exposed skin of his mouth and cheeks beneath his helm were burned red with cold, his unshaven jaw was heavy with ice, and his muscles ached with the exertion of four days of climbing up and down these mountains trying to find a ghost.

If it were anyone else, Tor would have put an end to the challenge. But if a man could survive out here it would be the cold-blooded bastard MacRuairi—the devil took care of his own.

But grudgingly—very grudgingly—Tor had to admit that his enemy turned temporary brother-in-arms had impressed him over the past weeks. Lachlan MacRuairi was a skilled and fearless warrior who tackled whatever obstacle Tor threw in his path—and he threw plenty of them—with unwavering determination and grit. MacRuairi epitomized the only code Tor admired: Never give up, never surrender.

But no matter how skilled a warrior or how cooperative he appeared, Tor did not trust him. MacRuairi was like a sleeping snake waiting to strike. He had a mercenary heart; his only loyalty was to himself. He could never fully become part of a team. So why had he agreed to fight for Bruce? Money? Revenge? A death wish, or a complicated plan to go out in a blaze of glory?

Tor could read most men, but MacRuairi was an utterly impenetrable hole of blackness. Maybe that’s what bothered him. It was hard to understand your enemy—brother, he reminded himself—when you didn’t know what motivated him.

Where the hell was he?

Tor’s uncharacteristic impatience did not stem solely from the cold or even from the desire to best MacRuairi, but from the desire to finish the job he’d set out to do so that he could return to Dunvegan. Not to his castle, but to his wife.

Damnation, he missed her. He couldn’t stop seeing her face. Even high in the rocky peaks of the mighty Cuillin she haunted him. Maybe it was the very desolation of his surroundings—the harsh, bitter isolation—that made him think of her. She was warmth and light to a man who’d been living in a barren wasteland for too long. Hell, he was starting to sound like one of those bard’s tales she loved.

Reaching the top of the narrow ridge just below the summit, he scanned the mountain again in the fading daylight, catching sight of Campbell opposite him, who’d climbed the “easier” route up the great stone shoot. Tor motioned with hand signals to check the other side of the peak before heading down, making sure there wasn’t an opening they’d missed.

He wasn’t looking forward to another night on this mountain, but time was running out. It would be dark soon.

Christina would be sitting by the fire with her needlework …

He had to stop this. He couldn’t focus. His thoughts kept shifting back to his wife. She had him all twisted up in uncertain knots. He couldn’t stop replaying in his mind the scene in the solar with her before he’d left. Her excitement. His initial shock over her learning, and then the fear that made him lash out in anger when he learned she’d read his private correspondence. He couldn’t shake the memories of her crestfallen expression and her hurt, tear-filled eyes.

For some reason the accounts were important to her and his reaction had disappointed her—badly. Fear had made him react harshly. He realized it now. Misguided though it might have been, she’d only been trying to help him. She’d been so eager to surprise him, and all he’d been able to think about was how her attempt to help might put her in danger.

Worse, he’d been too damned close to telling her why. And if he’d stayed, he knew he might have done so. Restraint. Resistance. It seemed he had neither when it came to his lovely wife. The spurious good-bye kiss had proved that well enough.

Under his skin? Hell, she was in his blood—his bones— and he didn’t know what to do about it. If he wasn’t careful, he was going to turn into just as big of a fool as his brother—acting on emotion, and not on what was best for the clan. What kind of leader would he be to dance to a woman’s whims.

It was almost dark by the time he started back down. Not concentrating as he should, he took an ill-placed step, causing his foot to slide out from under him and sending a slab of ice tumbling down the steep hillside below him, setting off a small avalanche of rock and snow. He caught his balance without difficulty but berated himself for the lapse. He’d better focus on what he was doing or he was going to end up dead.

Then he saw it.

At the base of the steep cliff below him, perhaps five hundred feet straight down, nearly buried by the snow, was the carcass of a deer. Not in the corrie as it should be if it had fallen to its death, but on a narrow ridge.

That’s how MacRuairi had done it. The mini-avalanche had uncovered his hiding place.

Tor’s blood heated with the rush of the hunter who’d finally sighted his prey. With a burst of renewed energy, he made his way swiftly down. There was just enough light to navigate.

Nearing a narrow scree ledge, he slowed his step, landing each footfall with care, all of his senses honed on his surroundings.

He was about halfway along when disaster struck.

The ground gave way beneath his foot. He slipped. His body slammed hard on the rock, face first, and he began to slide over the ledge. He fought to grab onto something, but the snow and rock fell along with him as he careened sharply toward the edge of the cliff.

He was going too fast. Wind roared in his ears. He clawed with his hands and kicked with his feet. Momentum was starting to take him backward into the air when he slammed into a jagged rock, slowing him down just enough to dig his fingers into a crack in the rock face.

He kicked at the wall, finding nothing for his feet to latch on to. Heart racing, he tried to pull himself up, but it was useless. The sheer wall of rock and ice gave no mercy.

He was dangling by his fingertips at a dead hang, his body battered by the fall and weighed down by the pack and heavy cache of weapons strapped to his back. He dare not let go his grip to attempt to release them, or to reach the rope he had tied to his side—if he moved, he was dead.

Which, unless he found a miracle, was probably how he was going to end up in a few minutes anyway.

His fingers were slipping. The leather gauntlets he wore were as slick as the skin of an eel, providing little traction.

With as little movement as possible, he turned his head in the direction he’d last seen Campbell. He shouted out in the darkness, hearing only the dull echo of his own voice reverberating in his ears.

Hell. He’d always thought he’d die on a battlefield, not dropping off a cliff.

His arms were burning, the weight of his body pulling him down. He gritted his teeth, fighting to hold on. He did not fear death, but neither would he welcome it.

All of a sudden he felt something hit his hand from above. At first he thought it was a rock, but then he realized what it was: a rope.

A disembodied voice called out from above. “Grab it, I’ll pull you up.”

MacRuairi. If the situation weren’t so dire he would laugh. Lachlan MacRuairi would sooner send him to the devil than save him. “How do I know you won’t let the rope go as soon as I grab it?”

For a moment there was only silence. “You don’t. But from where I stand, it doesn’t look like you have much choice.”

Tor swore. MacRuairi was right. It went against every instinct, every bone in his body, but he had to trust the black-hearted viper. “Are you ready?” Tor shouted.

“Aye.”

Taking a deep breath, he released one hand and grabbed for the rope.

It held.

Still expecting to be grabbing air, he released the other hand and latched his fingers around the rope. It took about a quarter of an hour, but slowly and with considerable agony, Tor was pulled up the side of the cliff. A few feet from the ridge, MacRuairi tied the rope around the rock that he’d used to lever him up and reached down his hand.

In the darkness, their eyes met. Without hesitating, Tor let go of the lifeline with his right hand and clasped him around the arm and forearm. Seconds later his feet were on solid ground.

He bent over, catching his breath and letting the blood pool back into his arms. His mind was spinning in a thousand different directions. Straightening, he met his rescuer’s gaze. Malevolent. Ruthless. With the morals of a snake. More likely to cut his throat than save his neck. They’d faced each other too many times in battle for Tor to doubt that MacRuairi wanted him dead. “Why?” he asked.

MacRuairi shrugged as if the answer wasn’t important to him. “Now we’re even.”

For sparing his life at Finlaggan. Tor nodded, but he knew it wasn’t that simple. Lachlan MacRuairi’s reasons for being here just might be more complicated than he’d realized. MacRuairi might be more complicated than he’d realized. It jarred him. He’d been seeing black for so long, the sliver of gray was a shock.

But one thing he knew with certainty: Tor owed Lachlan MacRuairi his life.

    With the days beings so short—the sun (such as it was) not rising until almost nine, only to set a scant seven hours later—time should have gone by fast. But the hours passed by like a dirge: slow, monotonous, and droning.

Not even a week had passed, and yet it seemed like a month since Tor had left. Though he’d spent time away before, this was the longest Christina had gone without seeing him, and patience was proving an elusive virtue.

What a fool she’d been. Life married to a knight wasn’t about days filled with thrilling tournaments, watching him joust with her veil on his sleeve and long nights spent cuddled before the hearth while he composed verse about his love for her. It was about months, maybe even years, of war and loneliness.

There was nothing romantic about being left alone to fret and worry.

Was he in danger? Because he’d refused to tell her where he was going, she didn’t know. But because he’d left his entire personal guard at the castle, she suspected he’d not gone off to fight and had instead gone somewhere with the men she’d seen him training.

Who were those men?

She pushed the curiosity from her mind, recalling only too well his admonition. Not her concern. Not her business. Not her place.

So she attended to her duties as the lady of the castle and helped Brother John when Rhuairi was not around, having care not to read any of what passed before her. But even with the preparations for the Yule celebration, there was surprisingly little for her to do behind the dungeon like walls of the castle. The barmkin she walked around in the morning had started to feel like a cage.

And now she didn’t even have the ledgers to keep her busy. She’d been so certain that it would work, that organizing his accounts would be the way to show him that she could be an important part of his life. Perhaps it was that certainty that made the disappointment so much more acute.

Admiration … respect … pride? Hardly. Her attempt to impress him with her skills had failed as resoundingly as it had with her father.

She was furious with the way that he’d reacted—at first patronizing and then lashing out in anger. Perhaps she’d overstepped by reading the missives, but what else was she to do? How else could she possibly break through to him? She’d shown him everything she had to offer and it still wasn’t enough.

She had no place here. Not in his life, not in his heart. If this was the rest of her life, she couldn’t bear it.

For a moment she’d thought about leaving. But she still had hope. She’d pinned her happiness on a kiss, holding on by that one glimpse of tenderness, the first crack in his stony façade.

Was she a fool to ascribe so much meaning to a kiss?

Fastening her cloak around her neck, Christina closed the door behind her and started down the corridor, nearly bumping into Brother John as he was coming out of the solar.

She’d startled him, and it took him a moment to compose himself. Noticing her cloak, he asked, “Where are you off to this morning, my lady?”

“I thought I would go to the village. The tanner’s youngest bairn has fallen ill and the cook has prepared some poulet broth for me to take to him.” Seeing that he was dressed for the cold weather as well, she asked, “And what about you?”

“To the village as well.” He frowned. “Are you sure it is wise to leave the castle, my lady? The fever seems to be spreading. Perhaps it would be best if you waited for the chief to return; he’s due back any day.”

Her foolish heart jumped. “Have you heard from him then?”

He shook his head. “Nay, but given that he was supposed to be gone for only a few days—”

“Not a few days,” she said morosely, “two weeks.”

His eyes widened. “Oh, I see. Perhaps I misunderstood the seneschal.” Christina was not surprised; Rhuairi had seemed less than forthcoming of late. He’d been watching her with an odd look in his eye. When he did not forbid her from helping Brother John, she realized Tor had not spoken to him, but she wondered if he knew what she had done. Brother John was watching her intently. “I do not think the chief would wish for you to put yourself in danger.”

Christina pressed her lips together. Let “the chief” try to object. Attending to the villagers was her duty as Lady of the Castle. He’d reminded her of her place enough. “I appreciate your concern, but the risk is small. The fever seems to be mild.” She gave him a conspiratorial grin. “Besides, if I have to stay another day locked behind these walls, I believe I shall go mad.”

He returned her smile. “I understand completely. Perhaps you would not mind company? If you will wait a moment, there is something I forgot in the solar.”

“I would love the company. Why don’t I meet you by the gate; I have to fetch the pot of broth from the cook.”

She was glad for the company. If Brother John seemed oddly anxious at first, by the time he returned from his errand the anxiety was gone. He spent the rest of the day with her visiting not just the tanner’s son, but a few of the other stricken children as well. The cook had given her enough broth to feed an army, and it did not go to waste. She also slid the children the last of her cherished figs for when they were better.

A handful of her husband’s guardsmen insisted on accompanying her as well. At first she did not think it necessary, but later she was grateful for their protection. The moment she walked outside the castle gates, she felt her husband’s absence sharply. She hadn’t realized how safe he made her feel. Without the shield of his presence, the world suddenly seemed more ominous. Silly, she knew. She did not fear an attack—not during the day at least—but the memory of MacDougall’s visit was fresh in her mind.

Tor had taken precautions, however, and a permanent guard was positioned in the village.

In any event, the satisfaction of doing something useful more than made up for any apprehension she might feel. As she sat on the birlinn beside Brother John to return to the castle, she was glad she’d gone and vowed to do so again in the coming days.

The light was fading and the mist sinking as they neared the jetty to the sea-gate. It wasn’t until they were a few lengths away that she realized another boat was moored on the jetty.

The fearsome-looking hawk carved in the prow sent a shiver running down her spine. “Do you recognize the boat?” she asked the clerk.

He shook his head. “Nay, I’ve never seen it before.”

Tor’s guardsmen didn’t seem concerned.

The other boat appeared to be about ready to depart. Two men were standing on the dock. She recognized one as Rhuairi. She thought the other man handed him something before he quickly jumped in the boat and removed the rope moorings. Brother John had noticed it as well. “Perhaps it’s just a messenger,” he said.

She relaxed a little, realizing he was probably right. It wasn’t until the other boat had pulled away, however, that she heaved a sigh of relief.

Rhuairi greeted them as they disembarked, holding his hand out to help her from the boat. “Did you have a pleasant day, my lady?”

“Aye,” she said. “I did. Was that a messenger we saw leaving?”

His expression went blank. “Nay, my lady. Just some local clansmen wishing to see the chief.”

She exchanged a look with Brother John. Local clansmen? Those had been warriors.

She didn’t think much about the strange exchange until later.

    Hours after he’d nearly slid off the mountain, Tor sat back against a low boulder, his legs stretched out toward the glowing embers of the fire, listening to the guardsmen argue. It was strangely relaxing. Comfortable in its predictability. Not unlike the squabbling he’d done with his siblings around the dais when they were young. As usual, the talk was of the looming war with England and when—and if—Bruce would make his move.

It had to be near midnight, and with the day he had planned for them tomorrow, he should be abed. But he was still too restless from what had happened earlier to sleep.

When the others had seen him and MacRuairi coming down the hill, they’d assumed that Tor had found him. MacRuairi—full of more surprises—made no effort to correct them, but Tor quickly explained what had happened. The men seemed just as surprised as he’d been—with the possible exception of Gordon. MacRuairi kept to himself, and for the most part the rest of them were happy to keep it that way. But Gordon, the gregarious young alchemist, seemed not to notice the menacing cloud surrounding MacRuairi, and the two had formed a friendship of sorts—if you called Gordon talking and MacRuairi listening a friendship.

MacLean’s deep voice broke through the din of his thoughts. “Wallace’s mistake was thinking he could repeat his success at Stirling Bridge and best Edward in a pitched battle—army to army. He should have stuck to raids; that was his strength in leadership. After the loss at Falkirk he was done. Only his scorched-earth tactics prevented Edward from taking Scotland right then.”

The more Tor listened to him, the more he recognized MacLean’s keen mind for battle tactics and strategy. Something he had every intention of taking advantage of later. Or rather, he corrected himself, something MacSorley would take advantage of.

“You weren’t there,” Boyd argued angrily. The fierce patriot tolerated no criticism of Wallace, whom he’d fought beside for years. “It wasn’t Wallace, but the traitorous Comyns who caused the defeat at Falkirk when they retreated and left the spearmen in their schiltron formations open to Edward’s longbows.”

MacRuairi usually avoided any talk of politics, but he liked to stir up trouble between Seton and Boyd—not that they needed his help. “Sir Dragon, you look like you have something to say,” he said, the nickname referring to the coat of arms on the tabard Seton insisted on wearing.

Seton’s jaw clenched. “It’s not a Dragon, it’s a Wyvern, you damned barbarian,” he gritted out. MacRuairi knew full well what it was. “Wallace lost because he couldn’t control his men in a pitched battle. He knew how to set fires and attack at night. Falkirk proved that unorganized and undisciplined foot soldiers—no matter how brave—are no match against trained knights.”

Boyd looked like he wanted to tear off the young Englishman’s head, but after the near disaster at the loch he’d kept a tight rein on his anger toward his partner. “If that’s what you think, then why the hell are you here?”

Seton gave him a look of haughty disdain. “Bruce is my liege lord.”

“And his liege lord is King Edward,” Boyd pointed out. “So shouldn’t you be fighting for him?”

Seton’s face flushed angrily. “Why are you here? It wasn’t that long ago that you were fighting alongside Comyn.”

“I fought for the Lion,” Boyd said through clenched teeth, referring to Scotland’s symbol of kingship. “Always for Scotland, and right now that means Robert Bruce. I’d sooner see you on the throne than Comyn. He lost his claim to the crown when he deserted us on the battlefield.”

Seeking to defuse the tension, MacLean said, “Bruce has learned from Wallace’s mistakes. The very fact that we are here attests to that. He will not meet Edward army-to-army until he is ready. And Bruce is a knight—one of the best in Christendom. When the time comes, he will know how to command an army.”

Seton turned to MacRuairi, proving he knew exactly what he’d done to instigate the argument. “And what about you. Why are you here? Something as noble as lining your coffers?” he sneered, not bothering to hide his disdain.

MacRuairi’s expression was unreadable. “Of course I wouldn’t risk my head for something as fleeting as patriotism or duty. What better reason than wealth?”

He spoke matter-of-factly, but Tor knew it wasn’t the truth. Not all of it anyway.

“How about a lass?” MacSorley said with a grin aimed at Tor. “I can think of no better reason to lose my neck than the promise of a sweet lass in my bed.”

“Getting tired of your hand, MacSorley?” Lamont said dryly.

The big Norseman shook his head woefully. “Many more weeks of this and I’ll have to propose.” The men chuckled. Practicality borne of necessity. War and moving around so much sometimes made women scarce for weeks. “As soon as we finish here, I’ll be making a quick stop on Mull where I’ve got a lusty, wee lass with the biggest, sweetest pair of breasts just waiting for me. Creamy, flawless skin. Nipples the lightest pink and the size of two tiny pearls.” He sighed longingly. “A strong wind, a full belly, and a comely lass. It doesn’t take much to make me a happy man.”

MacSorley wore his devil-may-care attitude well—it was part of what made him so popular and good at defusing tension in the ranks. It even followed him on the battlefield. Tor remembered how shocked he’d been to see the big Viking smiling as he wielded his fearsome battle-axe in the heat of battle.

But Tor didn’t mistake MacSorley’s affability for weakness or softness. Beneath that smile was a core of steel. Only once had Tor seen him lose that roguish grin, but it had been a memorable sight. And people said he was cold and ruthless.

“You going to marry this lass, MacSorley?” Seton asked.

The Viking practically choked on his cuirm. “God’s blood! Why the hell would I do that, lad? Unlike our patron saint over there,” he motioned to MacKay, “one pair of breasts, no matter how fine, for the rest of my life?” He shuddered. “Besides, wouldn’t want to deprive the rest of the lasses of my expertise.”

“Bugger off, MacSorley,” the surly Highlander growled.

MacKay never talked about women, not like the rest of them. This earned him MacSorley’s curiosity, which when he failed to satisfy, inevitably led to more prodding.

“That’s the most romantic thing I’ve heard you say the entire time you’ve been here,” MacSorley mocked. “Between you and MacLean, it’s hard to say who’s more of a monk.”

MacLean was newly married, though he became silent when the subject arose. For good reason: He’d married a MacDowell—kin to the MacDougalls and Comyns.

“You don’t talk much about your betrothed, Gordon,” Seton said, diverting the attention from MacLean.

Gordon shrugged. “Not much to say, I barely know her.”

“Who is she?” Seton asked.

Gordon hesitated. “Helen, the daughter of William of Moray, Earl of Sutherland.”

Tor happened to be looking at MacKay when Gordon made his pronouncement and saw the flicker of shock and pain that was quickly masked. Gordon must have caught the look in his friend’s face, too, because Tor saw the look of silent apology that he shot him.

Tor understood why Gordon hadn’t said anything before. The MacKays’ bitter feud with the Sutherland clan was well known. But he wondered whether there was more to it.

The talk returned to politics and the speculation on when they would be called to arms. He was grateful for the change of subject, knowing it wouldn’t be long before the Viking turned his prodding in his direction. The last thing Tor wanted to talk about was his wife. He had a job to do, and only when it was complete could he set things right. It would do no good to brood over things he could not change. But the way he’d left her bothered him. He vowed to make it up to her when he returned.

His thoughts turned back to what had happened earlier on the mountain. MacRuairi was seated at the edge of the group, shrouded in darkness, running a sharpening stone over the blade of one of his swords.

Tor got to his feet and walked over to sit beside him. After a moment he said, “It wasn’t you—the recent raids on Skye.”

MacRuairi didn’t bother to look up, but continued running the stone along the blade. “I was under the impression we’d agreed to a truce.”

“I’ve been on the other side of one of your ‘truces’ before.”

If MacRuairi took offense he didn’t show it, but he did set aside his stone. “Aye, but now we are family.” He smiled at Tor’s scowl. “Who else do you think it might be?”

Tor’s expression was grim. “I don’t know. Perhaps Nicolson, but MacDonald assures me he’s been appeased.”

“Perhaps they were not aimed at you, but you were merely a convenient target.”

Tor frowned. “Aye, it’s possible.”

But the attacks didn’t feel opportunistic; they felt personal. It hadn’t just been reiving cattle and stealing crops; his people had been targeted as well. That was one of the reasons he’d suspected MacRuairi.

“When did the last one occur?”

“While I was at Finlaggan.”

“And the one before? Were you gone for that as well?”

Tor shook his head but then remembered. “I was supposed to be, but at the last minute I changed my plans.”

MacRuairi eyed him thoughtfully. “Without time for someone to receive word of the change?”

“Nay,” Tor agreed, realizing what he was suggesting. “You think there might be someone spying on me,” he said flatly. Every instinct rebelled at the idea. He knew his men.

MacRuairi shrugged. “It’s a possibility.”

As much as Tor didn’t like to think that one of his people could have betrayed him, MacRuairi was right. He had to consider it. Who had he angered enough to go to all the trouble? Nicolson certainly. For the attacks that were recent, he would have to add MacDougall to the list.

If someone was spying on him …

He swore. His first thought was of Christina. He forced back the spike of what could only be termed panic. She was safe. No one could get to her in the castle; Dunvegan was impenetrable.

“Who knows how long you will be gone?” MacRuairi asked, reading his mind.

“Too many people,” Tor answered, jumping to his feet, his earlier exhaustion forgotten. “If we leave now, we can be there by midday.”

Brother John was turning into an overprotective nursemaid. “Not today, my lady. Tomorrow will be soon enough. The children are improving and you, forgive me for saying, are looking tired.”

She was tired. Her menses were about to start, and as always, she had cramps and a headache. But she could hardly explain that to a churchman. “I’m fine, and I’m not going to miss this beautiful day. I’ve forgotten what the sun looks like. Come, we won’t be gone long.”

But she was wrong. The children had indeed improved and had decided to entertain her with a special song and dance. It wasn’t until near midday that she and Brother John started to make their way back to the boat for the return ride to the castle.

“Slow down, Brother John,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve never seen you walking so fast.”

He smiled. “Was I? I’m sorry, my lady. I must be hungry.”

“After all those tarts that you ate?”

He blushed. “I have a fondness for plums.”

“As do I. What a wonderful treat this late in the season.”

All of a sudden Brother John jerked to a stop. “Did you hear that?”

“Hear wh—”

But her question was cut off by the far-off sound of a horn. The blood drained from her face. She looked to the clerk and could see her panic reflected in his gaze. “What is that?” she asked Colyne, one of the guardsmen who’d accompanied them.

She suspected the answer, but it didn’t lessen the shock when it came.

“It’s a warning from the castle, my lady.” His face looked grim. “We’re under attack.”