Bronwyn MacArran stood at the window of the English manor house, looking down at the courtyard below. The mullioned window was open against the warm summer sun. She leaned forward slightly to catch a whiff of fresh air. As she did so, one of the soldiers below grinned up at her suggestively.
She stepped back quickly, grabbed the window, and slammed it shut. She turned away angrily.
"The English pigs!" Bronwyn cursed under her breath. Her voice was soft, full of the heather and mist of the Highlands.
Heavy footsteps sounded outside her door, and she caught her breath, then released it when they went past. She was a prisoner, held captive on England's northernmost border by men she'd always hated, men who now smiled and winked at her as if they were intimate with her most private thoughts.
She walked to a small table in the center of the oak-paneled room. She clutched the edge of it, letting the wood cut into her palms. She'd do anything to keep those men from seeing how she felt inside. The English were her enemies. She'd seen them kill her father, his three chieftains. She'd seen her brother driven nearly insane with his futile attempts to repay the English in their own kind. And all her life she'd helped feed and clothe the members of her clan after the English had destroyed their crops and burned their houses.
A month ago the English had taken her prisoner. Bronwyn smiled in memory of the wounds she and her men had inflicted upon the English soldiers. Later four of them had died.
But in the end she was taken, by the order of the English Henry VII. The man said he wanted peace and therefore would name an Englishman as chief of Clan MacArran. He thought he could do this by marrying one of his knights to Bronwyn.
She smiled at the ignorance of the English king. She was chief of Clan MacArran, and no man would take her power away. The stupid king thought her men would follow a foreigner, an Englishman, rather than their own chief because she was a woman. How little Henry knew of the Scots!
She turned suddenly as Rab growled. He was an Irish wolfhound, the largest dog in the world, rangy, strong, hair like soft steel. Her father had given her the dog four years ago when Jamie'd returned from a trip to Ireland. Jamie had meant to have the dog trained as his daughter's guardian, but there was no need. Rab and Bronwyn took to each other immediately, and Rab had often shown that he'd give his life for his beloved mistress.
Bronwyn's muscles relaxed when Rab's growl stopped -- only a friend produced such a reaction. She looked up expectantly.
It was Morag who entered. Morag was a short, gnarled old woman, looking more like a dark burl of wood than a human being. Her eyes were like black glass, sparkling, penetrating, seeing more of a person than what was on the surface. She used her lithe little body to advantage, often slipping unnoticed amid people, her eyes and ears open.
Morag moved silently across the room and opened the window.
"Well?" Bronwyn demanded impatiently.
"I saw ye slam the window. They laughed and said they'd take over the weddin' night ye'd be missin'."
Bronwyn turned away from the old woman.
"Ye give them too much to speak of. Ye should hold yer head high and ignore them. They're only Englishmen, while ye're a MacArran."
Bronwyn whirled. "I don't need anyone to tell me how to act," she snapped. Rab, aware of his mistress's distress, came to stand beside her. She buried her fingers in his fur.
Morag smiled at her, then watched as the girt moved toward the window seat. She had been placed in Morag's arms when Bronwyn was still wet from her birth. Morag had held the tiny bairn as she watched the mother die. It'd been Morag who'd found a wet nurse for the girl, who'd given her the name of her Welsh grandmother, and who'd cared for her until she was six and her father'd taken over.
It was with pride that Morag looked at her charge now nearly twenty years old. Bronwyn was tall, taller than most men and as straight and supple as a reed. She didn't cover her hair like the Englishwoman, but let it flow down her back in a rich cascade. It was raven-black and so thick and heavy it was a wonder her slender neck could support the weight. She wore a satin dress in the English style. It was the color of the cream from the Highland cattle. The square neck was low and tight, showing Bronwyn's firm young breasts to advantage. It fit like skin to her small waist, then belled out in rich folds. Embroidery entwined with thin gold strands edged both the neck and the waist and fell in an intricate waterfall down the skirt.
"Do I meet your approval?" Bronwyn asked sharply, still irritated over their quarrel about the English attire. She bad preferred Highland clothes, but Morag persuaded her to wear English garb, telling her to give the enemy no reason to laugh at her in what they referred to as "barbaric dress."
Morag chuckled dryly. "I was thinkin' it was a shame no man would be takin' that gown from ye tonight."
"An Englishman!" Bronwyn hissed. "Do you forget that so soon? Has the red of my father's blood faded before your eyes?"
"Ye know it hasn't," Morag said quietly.
Bronwyn sat down heavily on the window seat, the satin of the dress flowing about her. She ran her finger along the heavy embroidery. The dress had cost her a great deal, money that could have been spent on her clan. But she knew they would not have wanted to be shamed before the Englishmen, so she bought dresses that would have been the pride of any queen.
Only this gown was to have been her wedding dress.
She plucked violently at a piece of gold thread.
"Here!" Morag commanded. "Don't destroy the dress because ye're mad at one Englishman. Perhaps the man had a reason to be late and miss his own weddin'."
Bronwyn stood up quickly, causing Rab to move protectively to her side. "What do I care if the man never appears? I hope he had his throat cut and lies rotting in some ditch."
Morag shrugged. "They'll only find ye a new husband, so what does it matter if this one dies or not? The sooner ye have yer English husband, the sooner we can go back to the Highlands."
"It's easy for you to say!" Bronwyn snapped. "It's not you who must wed him and...and..."
Morag's little black eyes danced. "And bed him? Is that what's worryin' ye? I'd gladly trade with ye if I could. Think this Stephen Montgomery would notice 'twere I to slip into his bed?"
"What do I know of Stephen Montgomery except that he has no more respect for me than to leave me waiting in my wedding dress? You say the men laugh at me. The man who is to be my husband holds me up for their ridicule." She squinted at the door. "Were he to come through there now, I'd gladly take a knife to him."
Morag smiled. Jamie MacArran would have been proud of his daughter. Even when she was still held prisoner she kept her pride and her spirit. Now she held her chin high, her eyes flashing with daggers of crystal-blue ice.
Bronwyn was startlingly beautiful. Her hair was as black as a moonless midnight in the Scots mountains, her eyes as deep blue as the water of a sunlit loch. The contrast was arresting. It wasn't unusual for people, especially men, to be struck speechless the first time they saw her. Her lashes were thick and dark, her skin fine and creamy. Her lips of dark red were set above her father's chin, strong, square on the tip, and slightly cleft.
"They'll think ye're a coward if ye hide in this room. What Scot is afraid of the smirks of an Englishman?"
Bronwyn stiffened her back and looked down at the cream-colored gown. When she'd dressed that morning, she thought to be wed in the dress. Now it was hours past time for the marriage ceremony, and her bridegroom had not shown himself, nor had he sent any message of excuse or apology.
"Help me unfasten this thing," Bronwyn said. The gown would have to be kept fresh until she did marry. If not today, then at another time. And perhaps to another man. The thought made her smile.
"What are ye plannin'?" Morag asked, her hands at the back of Bronwyn's dress. "Ye've a look of the cat that got the cream."
"You ask too many questions. Fetch me that green brocade gown. The Englishmen may think I'm a bride in tears at being snubbed, but they'll soon find the Scots are made of sterner stuff."
Even though she was a prisoner and had been for over a month, Bronwyn was allowed the freedom of Sir Thomas Crichton's manor. She could walk about the house and, with an escort, on the grounds. The estate was heavily guarded, watched constantly. King Henry had told Bronwyn's clan that if a rescue attempt were made, she would be executed. No harm would come to her, but he meant to put an Englishman in the chiefship. The clan had recently seen the death of Jamie MacArran as well as of his three chieftains. The Scots retreated to watch their new laird held captive and planned what they'd do when the king's men dared to try to command them.
Bronwyn slowly descended the stairs to the hall below. She knew her clansmen waited patiently just outside the grounds, hiding in the forest on the constantly turbulent border between England and Scotland.
For herself she did not care if she died rather than accept the English dog she was to marry, but her death would cause strife within the clan. Jamie MacArran had designated his daughter as his successor, and she was to have married one of the chieftains who had died with her father. If Bronwyn were to die without issue, there would no doubt be a bloody battle over who would be the next laird.
"I always knew the Montgomerys were smart men," laughed a man standing a few feet from Bronwyn. A thick tapestry hid her from his view. "Look at the way the eldest married that Revedoune heiress. He'd hardly got out of his marriage bed when her father was killed and he inherited the earldom."
"And now Stephen is following in his brother's footsteps. Not only is this Bronwyn beautiful, but she owns hundreds of acres of land."
"You can say what you like," said a third man. His sleeve was empty, his left arm missing. "But I don't envy Stephen. The woman is magnificent, but how long will he be able to enjoy her? I lost this fighting those devils in Scotland. They're only half human, I tell you. They grow up learning nothing but plunder and robbery. And they fight more like animals than men. They're a crude, savage lot."
"And I heard their women stink to high heaven," the first man said.
"For that black-haired Bronwyn I'd learn to hold my nose."
Bronwyn took a step forward, a feral snarl on her lips. When a hand caught her arm, she looked up into a young man's face. He was handsome, with dark eyes, a firm mouth. Her eyes were on a level with his.
"Allow me, my lady," he said quietly.
He stepped forward to the group of men. His strong legs were encased in tight hose, his velvet jacket emphasizing the width of his shoulders. "Have you nothing better to do than gossip like old women? You talk of things you know nothing about." His voice was commanding.
The three men looked startled. "Why, Roger, what's wrong with you?" one asked, then stared over Roger's shoulder and saw Bronwyn, her eyes glittering in stormy anger.
"I think Stephen had better come soon and guard his property," one of the other men laughed.
"Get out of here!" Roger ordered. "Or shall I draw my sword to get your attention?"
"Deliver me from the hot blood of youth," one man said wearily. "Go to her. Come, the outside is cooler. The passions have more room to expand in the out-of-doors."
When the men were gone, Roger turned back to Bronwyn. "May I apologize for my countrymen? Their rudeness is based on ignorance. They meant no harm."
Bronwyn glared at him. "I fear it is you who are ignorant. They meant great harm, or do you consider murdering Scots no sin?"
"I protest! You're unfair to me. I have killed few men in my life and no Scots." He paused. "May I introduce myself? I am Roger Chatworth." He swept his velvet cap from his head and bowed low before her.
"And I, sir, am Bronwyn MacArran, prisoner to the English and, of late, discarded bride."
"Lady Bronwyn, will you walk with me in the garden? Perhaps the sunshine will take away some of the misery Stephen has foisted upon you."
She turned and walked beside him. At least he might keep the guards from tossing rude jests at her. Once they were outside, she spoke again. "You speak Montgomery's name as if you know him."
"Have you not met him yourself?"
Bronwyn whirled on him. "Since when have I been afforded any courtesy by your English king? My father thought enough of me to name me laird of Clan MacArran, but your king thinks I have too little sense to even choose my own husband. No, I have not seen this Stephen Montgomery, nor do I know anything about him. I was told one morning I was to marry him. Since then he has not so much as acknowledged my presence. "
Roger lifted a handsome eyebrow at her. Her hostility made her eyes sparkle like blue diamonds. "I'm sure there must be an excuse for his tardiness."
"Perhaps his excuse is that he means to assert his authority over all the Scots. He will show us who is master."
Roger was silent for a moment as if he were considering her words. "There are those who consider the Montgomerys arrogant."
"You say you know this Stephen Montgomery. What is he like? I don't know if he's short or tall, old or young. "
Roger shrugged as if his mind were elsewhere. "He is an ordinary man." He seemed reluctant to continue. "Lady Bronwyn, tomorrow would you do me the honor of riding into the park with me? There's a stream running across Sir Thomas's land, and perhaps we could carry a meal there."
"Aren't you afraid that I'll make an attempt on your life? I have not been allowed off these grounds for over a month."
He smiled at her. "I would like you to know there are Englishmen with more manners than to, as you say, discard a woman on her wedding day."
Bronwyn stiffened as she was reminded of the humiliation Stephen Montgomery had caused her. "I would very much like to ride out with you."
Roger Chatworth smiled and nodded to a man passing them on the narrow garden path. His mind was working quickly.
Three hours later Roger returned to his apartments in the east wing of Sir Thomas Crichton's house. He'd come there two weeks ago to talk to Sir Thomas about recruiting young men from the area. Sir Thomas had been too busy with the problems of the Scots heiress to talk of anything else. Now Roger was beginning to think fate had brought him here.
He kicked the stool out from under his sleeping squire's feet. "I have something for you to do," he commanded as he removed his velvet jacket and slung it across the bed. "There's an old Scotsman named Angus lying about somewhere. Look for him and bring him to me. You'll probably find him wherever the drink is flowing freely. And then bring me half a hogshead of ale. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, my lord," the boy said, backing out of the doorway, rubbing his drowsy eyes.
When Angus appeared in the doorway, he was already half drunk. He worked for Sir Thomas in some sort of capacity, but generally he did little except drink. His hair was dirty and tangled, hanging well past his shoulders in the Scots manner. He wore a long linen shirt, belted at the waist, his knees and legs bare.
Roger glanced at the man and his heathen attire with a brief look of disgust.
"You wanted me, my lord?" Angus said, his voice a soft burr. His eyes followed the small cask of ale that Roger's squire was carrying into the room.
Chatworth dismissed the boy, poured himself an ale, sat down, and motioned Angus to do likewise. When the filthy man was seated, Roger began. "I'd like to know about Scotland."
Angus raised his shaggy brows. "You mean where the gold is hidden? We're a poor country, my lord, and -- "
"I want none of your sermons! Save your lies for someone else. I want to know what a man who is to marry the chief of a clan should know."
Angus stared hard for a moment, then he closed his mouth with his mug of ale. "An eponymus, eh?" he mumbled in Gaelic. "'Tisn't easy to be accepted by the clan members."
Roger took one long step across the room and grabbed the mug of ale from the man. "I didn't ask for your judgments. Will you answer my questions, or do I kick you down the stairs?"
Angus looked at the cold mug with desperate eyes. "Ye must become a MacArran." He looked up at Roger. "Takin' that you mean that particular clan."
Roger gave a brief, curt nod.
"Ye must take the name of the laird of the clan, or the men can't accept ye. Ye must dress as the Scots or they'll laugh at ye. Ye must love the land and the Scots."
Roger lowered the ale. "What about the woman? What must I do to own her?"
"Bronwyn cares about little else except her people. She would have killed herself before she married an Englishman, but she knew her death would cause war within her clan. If ye make the woman know ye mean well for her people, ye'll have her."
Roger gave the man the ale. "I want to know more. What is a clan? Why was a woman made chief? Who are the enemies of Clan MacArran?"
"Talking is thirsty work."
"You'll have all you can hold, just as long as you tell me what I want to know."
Bronwyn met Roger Chatworth early the next morning. In spite of her good intentions, she'd been so excited about the prospect of a ride in the woods that she'd hardly been able to sleep. Morag had helped her dress in a soft brown velvet gown, all the while issuing dire warnings about Englishmen bearing gifts.
"I merely want the ride," Bronwyn said stubbornly.
"Aye, and what mere trifle does this Chatworth want? He knows ye're to marry another."
"Am I" Bronwyn snapped. "Then where is my bridegroom? Should I sit in my wedding gown for another full day and wait for him?"
"It might be better than chasing after some hot-blooded young earl."
"An earl? Roger Chatworth is an English earl?"
Morag refused to answer, but gave the gown a final straightening before pushing her from the room.
Now, as Bronwyn sat atop the horse, Rab running beside her, she felt alive for the first time in many weeks.
"The roses have returned to your cheeks," Roger said, laughing.
She smiled in return, and the smile softened her chin and lit her eyes. She spurred the horse to a faster pace. Rab with his long, loping strides kept pace with the horse.
Roger turned for a moment to glance at the men following them. There were three of his personal guards, two squires, and a packhorse loaded with food and plate. He turned and looked ahead at Bronwyn. He frowned when she glanced over her shoulder and spurred her mount even faster. She was an excellent horsewoman, and no doubt the woods were full of men from her clan, all eager and willing to help her escape.
He threw up his hand and motioned his men forward as he set spurs to his own mount.
Bronwyn made her horse come close to flying. The wind in her hair, the sense of freedom, were exhilarating. When she came to the stream, she was going full speed. She had no idea if the horse had ever taken a jump before, but she urged it on regardless of the risk. It sailed over the water as if it had wings. On the far side she pulled the animal to a halt and turned to look back.
Roger and his men were just approaching the stream.
"Lady Bronwyn!" Roger shouted. "Are you all right?"
"Of course," she laughed, then led her horse through the water to where Roger waited for her. She bent forward and patted the horse's neck. "He's a good animal. He took the jump well."
Roger dismounted and walked to her side. "You gave me a terrible fright. You could have been injured."
She laughed happily. "A Scotswoman is not likely to be injured while atop a horse."
Roger put his arms up to help her dismount.
Suddenly Rab jumped between them, his lips drawn back showing long, sharp teeth. He growled deeply, menacingly. Roger instinctively retreated.
"Rab!" The dog obeyed Bronwyn immediately. He moved away but his eyes, with a warning gleam, never left Roger. "He means to protect me," she said. "He doesn't like anyone touching me."
"I'll remember that in future," Roger said warily as he aided Bronwyn off her horse. "Perhaps you'd like to rest after your ride," he suggested. He snapped his fingers, and his squires brought two chairs upholstered in red velvet. "My lady," Roger offered.
She smiled in wonder at the chairs set in the woods. The grass under their feet was like a velvet carpet. The stream played its music, and even as she thought that, one of Roger's men began to strum a lute. She closed her eyes for a moment.
"Are you homesick, my lady?" Roger asked.
She sighed. "You could not know. No one not of the Highlands could know what it means to a Scot."
"My grandmother was a Scot, so perhaps that qualifies me to have some understanding of your ways."
Her head came up abruptly. "Your grandmother! What was her name?"
"A MacPherson of MacAlpin."
Bronwyn smiled. It was good to even hear the familiar names once again. "MacAlpin. 'Tis a good clan."
"Yes. I spent many evenings listening to stories at my grandmother's knee."
"And what sort of stories did she tell you?" Bronwyn asked cautiously.
"She was married to an Englishman, and she often compared the cultures of the two countries. She said the Scots were more hospitable, that the men didn't shove the women into a room and pretend they had no sense as the English do. She said the Scots treated women as equals."
"Yes," Bronwyn agreed quietly. "My father named me laird." She paused. "How did your English grandfather treat his Scots wife?"
Roger chuckled as if at some private joke. "My grandfather lived in Scotland for a while, and he knew my grandmother to be a woman of intelligence. He valued her all his life. There was never a decision made that was not made by both of them."
"And you spent some time with your grandparents?"
"Most of my life. My parents died when I was very young."
"And what did you think of this non-English way of treating women? Surely, now that you are older, you've learned that women are only of use in the bed, in creating and delivering children."
Roger laughed out loud. "If I even had such a thought, my grandmother's ghost would box my ears. No," he said more seriously, "she meant for me to marry the daughter of a cousin of hers, but the child died before our marriage. I grew up calling myself MacAlpin."
"What?" She was startled.
Roger looked surprised. "It was in the marriage contract that I'd become a MacAlpin to please her clan."
"And you'd do that? I mentioned to Sir Thomas that my husband must become a MacArran, but he said that was impossible, that no Englishman would give up his fine old name for a heathen Scots name."
Roger's eyes flashed angrily. "They don't understand! Damn the English! They think only their ways are right. Why, even the French -- "
"The French are our friends," Bronwyn interrupted. "They visit our country as we do theirs. They don't destroy our crops or steal our cattle as the English do."
"Cattle." Roger smiled. "Now there's an interesting subject. Tell me, do the MacGregors still raise such fat beasts?"
Bronwyn drew her breath in sharply. "Clan MacGregor is our enemy."
"True," he smiled, "but don't you find that a roast of MacGregor beef is more succulent than any other?"
She could only stare at him. The MacGregors had been the enemies of the MacArrans for centuries.
"Of course, things may have changed since my grandmother was a Highland lass," Roger continued. "Then the favorite sport of the young men was a swift moonlight cattle raid."
Bronwyn smiled at him. "Nothing's changed."
Roger turned and snapped his fingers. "Would you like something to eat, my lady? Sir Thomas has a French chef, and he has prepared us a feast. Tell me, have you ever eaten a pomegranate?"
She could only shake her head and took at him in wonder as the baskets were unloaded and Roger's squire served the meal on silver plates. For the first time in her life she had the thought that an Englishman could be human, that he could learn, and desired to learn, the Scots' ways. She picked up a piece of pâté, molded into the shape of a rose and placed on a cracker. The events of the day were a revelation to her.
"Tell me, Lord Roger, what do you think of our clan system?"
Roger brushed crumbs from his doublet of gold brocade and smiled to himself. He was well prepared for all her questions.
Bronwyn stood in the room where she'd spent too much time in the last month. Her cheeks were still flushed and her eyes still bright from the morning's fast ride.
"He's not like other men," she said to Morag. "I tell you, we spent hours together and we never once stopped talking. He even knows some Gaelic words."
"'Tisn't hard to pick up a few hereabouts. Even some of the Lowlanders, know Gaelic." It was Morag's worst insult. To her the Lowlanders were traitorous Scots, more English than Scot.
"Then how do you explain the other things he said? His grandmother was a Scot. You should have heard his ideas! He said he'd petition King Henry to stop the English from raiding us, that that would bring more peace than this practice of capturing Scotswomen and forcing them to marry against their will."
Morag screwed her dark wrinkled face into walnut-shell ugliness. "Ye leave here this mornin' hatin' all English and come back bowin' at one's feet. All ye've heard from him are words. Ye've seen no action. What has the man done to make ye trust him?"
Bronwyn sat down heavily on the window seat. "Can't you see that I want only what is best for my people? I am forced to marry an Englishman, so why not one who is part Scot, in mind as well as in blood?"
"Ye have no choice of husbands!" Morag said fiercely. "Can't ye see that ye are a great prize? Young men will say anything to get under a pretty woman's skirts. And if those skirts are covered with pearls, they'll kill themselves to have them."
"Are you saying he's lying?"
"How would I know? I've only just seen the man. But I have not seen Stephen Montgomery. For all ye know, his mother could have been a Scot. Perhaps he'll appear with a tartan across his shoulder and a dirk in his belt."
"I could not hope for so much," Bronwyn sighed. "If I met a thousand Englishmen, not one of them would understand my clan as Roger Chatworth does." She stood. "But you are right. I will be patient. Perhaps this man Montgomery is unique, an understanding man who believes in the Scots."
"I hope ye do not expect too much," Morag said. "I hope Chatworth has not made ye expect too much."
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