Peace had come to the highlands. The land whispered softly of its gratitude for a brief respite from violence, rebellion, and bloodshed. Spring had come, bringing with it lush green grass among the rock outcroppings and boulders that were so predominant over the terrain.
The winter snows had fled, chased by the warmth of longer days. All was well. King Alexander II could focus on other matters, but for one thing.
One very big thing.
His two most powerful allies, the two most powerful clans in his kingdom, loathed the very sight of each other.
The Montgomerys and the Armstrongs were at war. This was no simple feud. The king had not the time, nor the desire, to lose such valuable supporters to infighting.
Now that the winter snows had thawed and the long nights had come to an end, battle would resume. Clansmen would be lost.
And so the king devised a plan to force peace between two bitter enemies.
Early one morning, before the sun had fully risen over the horizon, he sent two messengers on horseback, each to deliver the royal decree to Laird Armstrong and Laird Montgomery.
He only hoped to hell that they didn’t kill each other at the wedding.
“ ’Tis madness!” Bowen Montgomery exclaimed. “He cannot tie you to the wee daft daughter of our most hated foe.”
Graeme Montgomery stared grimly back at his brother, unable to formulate a response for the growing rage in his chest. The king’s messenger had departed and was even now riding beyond the Montgomery border. Graeme had made sure of it. He felt deeply betrayed by his king and wanted no representative of the crown on his lands for a second longer.
“She’s but a child,” Bowen said in disgust. “And she’s … she’s … well, everyone knows she isn’t right. What the hell are you supposed to do with her, Graeme?”
Graeme held up his hand for silence and his fingers trembled, betraying his fury. He turned and stalked away from his brother, needing the distance and solitude to take in the magnitude of what had just been done to him. To his clan.
His king hadn’t just made a simple decree of marriage in an effort to halt hostilities between two feuding clans. He’d effectively chosen to end Graeme’s chance to pass the mantle of leadership on to his heirs.
Because there wouldn’t be any.
It would all end with Graeme.
With no sons to become laird, it would be up to one of his brothers—Bowen or Teague—to assume the role and provide heirs so that the Montgomery name would be carried into the future. His clan might even decide that one of his brothers would be a better choice for laird simply because he would be in a position of having a wife who couldn’t assume her role in the clan and he wouldn’t be able to sire children.
What a damnable mess the whole thing was.
How could his liege have done this? Surely he understood the future he was consigning Graeme to.
He paced into the small antechamber down the narrow hallway from the great hall. The room was darkened, the furs not yet thrown back from the windows. He chose to leave them covered and instead lit a candle from one of the wall sconces in the hallway.
The glow from the candle did little to illuminate the room, but he found his way to the sturdy table where his da had sat many a night scratching his quill over ledgers. The old laird had been a tightfisted, scrutinizing man who held into account every thing of value owned by the clan.
But he had a heart the size of a mountain and he was fair and equal with his clan. He made sure everyone had what they needed. All were clothed and no one went hungry even if it meant he, himself, went without.
Graeme missed him every single day.
He sank heavily into the gnarled chair and ran his hands over the aged wood, almost as if he could feel the essence of his father in this very room.
Marriage. To an Armstrong. It didn’t bear thinking about.
And then there was Bowen with all his babbling about the girl being daft. Graeme hadn’t ever paid much heed to the rumors about the lass being touched. It hadn’t concerned him. Not until now. It was widely known that something was off about the girl and that the Armstrong clan had closed ranks around her.
She’d even been betrothed before, to the McHugh whelp. The McHugh chieftain coveted an alliance with the Armstrongs, because once allied with them, he became a force to be reckoned with. There was no love lost between the Montgomerys and McHughs. The McHughs were every bit as culpable in the death of Graeme’s father, but Graeme knew who’d been directly responsible. And so it was the Armstrongs who were most deserving of his hatred.
He hadn’t been sorry that the betrothal had been dissolved and that the two clans weren’t formally bound by marriage. The Armstrongs weren’t quick to ally themselves with neighboring clans. They didn’t need to. They were a powerful enough force that unless many other clans stood against them, they would be assured a victory in battle.
Tavis Armstrong was just as his father was before him. Mistrustful of treaties and promises. He gave no one opportunity to betray him and he trusted his clan’s welfare to no one save himself.
If they weren’t such bitter enemies, Graeme could almost respect the vigor with which Tavis wielded his power and the fact that he relied on no one for support.
Once the betrothal had been dissolved between the Armstrong daughter and McHugh’s son, not much else was said, other than the occasional murmurs that called into question the lass’s state of mind. Since the Armstrongs weren’t exactly a social clan, and they most definitely held to their own, not much escaped about the only daughter.
No, Graeme wasn’t sorry that the marriage hadn’t taken place. He knew that McHugh would use his position with Armstrong to feed the fury against the Montgomerys. McHugh wanted more land, more power, and the Montgomery holding was a thorn in his side because they had him boxed in to the north.
But now he was going to be saddled with a woman he knew next to nothing about? It was bad enough she was addled and couldn’t perform as a wife, but she was an Armstrong, which meant no matter if she was the most perfect woman in all of the highlands, Graeme wanted nothing to do with her.
When he married, it would be to a lass of his own clan. He’d never marry someone who would bring danger, anger, and dissension to his people. And Eveline Armstrong would certainly do just that.
The small whisper came from the doorway, and some of his anger and tension fled as his sister, Rorie, peered in, her expression anxious.
“What is it, sweeting?” he asked, motioning her forward.
Rorie was fifteen winters, but she was behind most other lasses her age. While most had found their womanly shapes and had grown br**sts, Rorie was still thin and slight, and were it not for her startling beautiful green eyes and the delicate femininity of her face, she could well pass for a lad.
With three older brothers, one would think she would have grown up able to take on anything, but she was extremely shy, quieter than any lass of his acquaintance. Except around him and his brothers. With them she was bossy, demanding, and impish. She mostly avoided the rest of the clan and preferred to go her own way.
“Is it true what Bowen said?”
She was but a few feet away now, standing in front of the table where he sat, his hands still clenched into fists as they rested on the wooden surface.
“Are you marrying an Armstrong?”
He searched her expression for fear because he’d do anything to soothe her worries. Losing their father had been especially difficult for her because she had been his da’s treasure. She more than any of them viewed the Armstrongs as monsters.
But all he saw was a troubled, worried look in her expressive eyes.
“ ’Tis what the king has decreed.”
She frowned. “But why? Why would he do such a thing?”
“It’s not your place to question his dictates,” he said with no heat. He couldn’t reprimand her for such a lack of respect when he himself questioned the very thing.
“They killed Da,” she said emphatically. “How can there ever be peace between us? How could the king believe that forcing a marriage between you and one of them would solve anything?”
“Shhh,” he said gently. “Enough, Rorie. We’ve been summoned to the Armstrongs and there we’ll go.”
Her look of horror was instantaneous. “Go there? To their lands? Where they could kill us all? Why can’t they come here? Why are we the ones who must sacrifice everything? Have they done something to gain the king’s favor?”
For a moment Graeme smiled, finding amusement in her statement. “It’s not likely they feel that handing their daughter over to me in marriage is the result of gaining his favor. I doubt they have any more liking for the matter than we do.”
“ ’Tis said she’s touched,” Rorie asserted.
Graeme sighed. “I guess we’ll find out at the wedding, now won’t we?”
Just then, Teague’s bellow could be heard down the hallway. “Graeme! God’s teeth, where are you?”
Graeme sighed again. Rorie spared a slight smile and turned just as Teague burst through the door, sweat and blood caked on his body.
“Tell me it isn’t true,” Teague spat.
“You left training to ask if what Bowen told you was truth?” Graeme asked. “Are you suggesting he would lie to you and that you should leave your duties to question me on such a thing?”
Teague scowled and started to say something, but stopped, only just now realizing Rorie was in attendance. He clamped his lips shut, then glanced down at the blood covering him.
Rorie was … well, she was different. To most of the women of their clan, blood, violence, battle … It was all a way of life. As normal as eating and sleeping. But Rorie was sensitive to such things. The sight of blood made her go pale, and she hated to hear any sounds of pain or violence.
“Damn it all, Graeme, quit playing the laird for once and just tell me if ’tis true so I can depart from Rorie’s presence before I upset her more.”
“She’s already upset,” Graeme pointed out. “Obviously, for the same reason you’re stomping down the hallway bellowing my name.”
Teague went deathly silent. His body was tense and his jaw bulged. “So ’tis true, then.”
“Aye, ’tis true.”
Teague bit back an oath before storming out of the room, his footsteps pounding all the way down the hall.
“Well,” Rorie breathed. “That went well, didn’t it?”
Tavis Armstrong’s roar could be heard throughout the keep and well into the courtyard where his men were training. Many dropped their swords while others were quick to raise theirs in defense, wary of what danger had presented itself.
Eveline didn’t hear her father, but she felt the vibrations against the stone in the floor and knew that something was amiss in the great hall. Too much movement. Too much force. It was as if a herd of sheep had suddenly run roughshod through the keep.
Her expression unchanging, she peered around the corner just at the stairwell, her curiosity piqued by whatever it was that had the keep in such uproar.
Her father stood, face flushed with rage, a crumpled missive held tightly in his fist. Beside him stood her two brothers, Brodie and Aiden, arms folded over their chests, but even from this distance, Eveline could tell they fair bristled with the same anger demonstrated by her father.
Her gaze drifted to the man standing in front of the laird, a man who looked as though he wanted to be anywhere but here. The evident bearer of whatever ill tidings had been brought by the missive her father held.
She cocked her head to the side as she studied him. He was the king’s man. He bore the royal crest and on his right hand, he wore a ruby ring that signified his status as the king’s messenger.
It greatly chagrined her that her father was angled so that she couldn’t see his lips, but she could readily see the mouth of the messenger—when it finally snapped closed.
When he opened it again to speak, she focused intently, determined to see what it was he would say to her father.
“His Majesty’s will be done. He has decreed the wedding take place within the fortnight. You have until then to prepare. ’Tis here that the wedding will take place and the king is sending a representative to see that all is as it should be.”
Wedding? Eveline perked up at that. Surely a wedding couldn’t be what had her father so upset. And whose wedding? The king was sending a representative? It all sounded terribly important and exciting. Certainly it would provide her new and interesting people to watch.
But then her mother, who’d evidently been eavesdropping, rushed into the room, and Eveline winced at her daring. Her father was always reprimanding her mother about inserting herself into situations where she didn’t belong. Not that it did any good and not that her father would every truly remain angry with her mother for long, but this was different. This was the king’s representative and an offense to him was an offense to the king.
“Tavis, you can’t allow this!”
Eveline could barely make out the words as they passed her mother’s lips. Her face was tear-stained. All over a wedding? Eveline frowned. None of this made sense.
Tavis put a restraining hand on his wife’s arm and then turned just enough that Eveline could see him angrily bite out to her brother Aiden, “Take your mother away from here.”
Robina Armstrong shook her head fiercely, resisting Aiden’s grip. “This is madness. He can’t feed her to the wolves that way. ’Tis not right! She’s not able to perform her marriage duties. This is a travesty, Tavis. It cannot be allowed to stand.”
An uneasy sensation prickled down Eveline’s spine. She was starting to have a very bad feeling about just what had her family in such an uproar. Wedding? Her mother in tears? Unable to perform marriage duties? Feeding to the wolves? Who were the wolves?