Rebel of Ross
Ebook ISBN: B01JG0O1MW
Print ISBN: 978-1910245156
[ Historical Paranormal Romance, MF ]
Scotland, 1156. Plagued by waking dreams which threaten his sanity and his life, warrior and seer Adam, son of the imprisoned Earl of Ross, uses his prophecies to further his family’s goals. But when he abducts his Norman enemy’s lady, his dreams and desires are suddenly more personal.
All day, the sharp east wind had seemed to hiss that strange name as it sped past Christian’s ears—reminding her that in this country, the elements themselves, the very ground she stood on, belonged to him, Malcolm MacHeth, more properly Malcolm mac Aed, the one-time Earl of Ross. Imprisoning him far south in Roxburgh didn’t change that. And she still harboured the suspicion that every man, woman, and child in Ross, especially the turbulent sons of Malcolm MacHeth, knew that her husband was here to take at least some of it from him.
Christian lifted her face into the wind, letting it blow her hair and veil out behind her in a long stream. With one hand, she held on to the embroidered linen mask that covered the left side of her face and closed her eyes because, just for a moment, she didn’t want to see the land William had come to take. She couldn’t quite rid herself of the idea that she was betraying someone or something, that a hundred unseen eyes watched her with accusation.
But, already glimpsed, the view seemed to cling to the backs of her eyelids. Rugged, wooded slopes rose up under a lowering grey sky, with vast swathes of moorland between. Shallow valleys disappeared into the distant mist, and, half-hidden among them, winked the faint sparkle of silver-grey water, hinting at lochs and rivers and hillside streams.
So far, the journey north from Perth, though arduous, had been surprisingly uneventful, any hopeful bandits presumably being dissuaded from attack by the size and quality of Sir William’s armed force. Inverness had seemed to be a peaceful town, and entering the territory that was once the earldom of Ross had been accomplished without opposition.
She was going home. Home to Tirebeck, to the land and the hall of her father, where she’d lived the first three years of her life.
In light of that wonder, anything seemed possible. William wanted to be an earl, now that the King of Scots had dangled the possibility before him. Christian wanted peace. It wasn’t inconceivable that here in Ross, they could grasp both.
Opening her eyes, she walked back down the hill towards her people, resisting the wind that tried to hurry her on in an undignified scamper. The camp, hidden from most of the country by a ring of hills, was mostly packed up and ready to move on. Apart from the women’s tent.
Some of Christian’s escort—left to guard her and the baggage while her husband took his main company to ambush the recalcitrant MacHeths—stood in clumps, grumbling together, quite unaware of her approach.
“If there’s one thing more stupid than not actually hiding from the MacHeths, it’s chasing them into their own country,” one complained. “Trust me, this will end badly for all of us.”
Henry snorted. “Well, just remember when it does that you’re here to protect the lady, not your own arse.”
“If you ask me, Lanson only brought her to get her killed.”
Henry, catching sight of Christian just a little too late, kicked his underling roughly, and the soldier, inclined at first to protest at such treatment, followed his significant gaze and blanched. Christian smiled serenely and walked on.
So she’d become the butt of soldiers’ jests and gossip. Most of her didn’t care.
Besides, she was fairly sure her pessimistic soldiers were wrong twice over. William had no intention of letting her die, or, at least, not yet. Nor, whatever else he might be, was he a fool in war. Christian would happily have wagered everything she owned on her husband’s ability to defeat and capture any number of wild outlaws. In fact, she already had. And while William baited the trap, she was content, for now, to hide here among the hills.
Unfortunately, William’s prey was not.
They called him a prophet, said he was “simple,” like his ancestor Lulach, King of Scots. That he spoke to the dead and saw his future in waking dreams. According to some, this gave him the advantage in battle, but right now, he didn’t fill Cailean mac Gilleon with confidence. He seemed, in fact, totally indifferent to the mounted soldiers who, bristling with arms, crossed the moorland below their hilly vantage point. He didn’t even look at them.
Adam mac Malcolm, sometimes surnamed MacAed—or MacHeth, since it was easier to say—for his grandfather, gazed everywhere else: up at the sky, then miles behind the column of soldiers to the rough marshland, or miles ahead into the higher hills. Sometimes he even seemed absorbed in the cold, damp grass on which he lay on his stomach. While the bulk of the men stayed well out of sight, Cailean and Findlaech mac Gillechrist sprawled on either side of Adam.
“We were right,” Findlaech said.
“About what?” Cailean demanded with impatience. His first battle was finally in sight, and these supposedly seasoned warriors were lying around talking. “Who are they?”
“That,” said Findlaech, lifting one finger from the ground to point to the head of the column, “is Sir William de Lanson, landless Norman knight and mercenary adventurer. The King of Scots presented him with the lands of Tirebeck, over on the Cromarty Firth. Looks like he’s come to take possession. Come on, let’s tickle him, Adam. We’re all spoiling for a fight.”
At last! Cailean’s heart beat with a heady mixture of longing and fear. At all of eighteen years old, he was still untried in real battle. He’d brought his men all the way from Ross to Adam in Argyll for the purpose, only to meet Adam heading through the Great Glen for Ross and home. Retracing his steps with some frustration, Cailean still yearned for battle, to prove himself to the oddly detached young man he’d sworn to die for, and yet…now that the fight was finally proposed, he took in the reality of what they were up against. Although the Norman force below didn’t outnumber Adam’s men, they wore full armour. It would be a hard fight…and victory all the sweeter.
Everyone looked expectantly at Adam, who still stared into the distance.
“Adam?” Findlaech urged. “Do we attack?”
Adam said, “Where is the lady?”
Simple? Cailean began to think that Adam was merely stupid. Or actually insane. No wonder he’d been sent away to Somerled of the Isles.
Findlaech groaned. “Adam, will you concentrate on the matter in hand?”
And then, with a jolt—and not a little relief—Cailean understood. “He is concentrating. There’s no baggage wain with Lanson, no women.”
It won him a glance from Adam’s strange, intense eyes, and a curt nod that warmed him as extravagant praise would not.
Findlaech grasped it at last. “This is only part of his force. The rest are with the baggage. And his lady, who’s meant to be his claim to Tirebeck. Which we all know is your family’s.”
“By default. He had a daughter,” Adam said, slithering back from the brow of the hill.
“Who did?” Findlaech demanded, as they crawled backward with their leader.
“The late Rhuadri mac Crinan,” Adam said, “of Tirebeck.”
“I won’t fight you over that,” Findlaech said wryly. Adam was famous for remembering everyone’s genealogy back to the mists of time. In fact, some said that he remembered everything he’d ever seen or heard or read.
“Of course, it may not be true.” Adam sprang up in one swift, efficient movement that Cailean, scrambling untidily upright, wished he could imitate.
Even covered in mud and riding rough for several days, there was something physically impressive about Adam MacHeth. Tall and strong, he was also handsome under the tangle of black hair and beard. Or at least if he wasn’t actually good-looking, the fact got lost in the sheer, arresting drama of his face—a thin, longish nose, broad, ridiculously defined cheekbones, an incongruous hint of dimples, and beneath straight, black brows, those dark, tempestuous eyes that never seemed to be still, even when he gazed without blinking.
He looked fierce, and the men who’d been with him in Argyll and the Isles never questioned his orders. Cailean, since meeting up with him, had wavered wildly between something akin to hero worship and a terrible fear that his hero had not just feet of clay, but brains of some similar substance. Some said it was why, lacking a father figure, he’d been sent to his uncle, Somerled of Argyll. And Cailean had harboured the suspicion that it was why he’d been sent home again.
Certainly, there was no doubting that Adam was odd. His boiling eyes would sometimes glaze over for several moments at a time, and sometimes he appeared to laugh or groan or mutter words no one else understood.
Now he said thoughtfully, “Lanson’s wife may be someone else entirely.”
Findlaech jumped to his feet. “He hasn’t come for Tirebeck,” he exclaimed with scorn. “The King of Scots made him ridiculous promises, and now he imagines he can defeat us and make himself Earl of Ross! Let’s squash that pretension at the outset.”
Adam shrugged with impatience. “Lanson will never be Earl of Ross. Findlaech, ride with all speed to Donald, warn him Lanson’s looking for him. With luck, we can trap him between us.”
Donald, Adam’s elder brother, had been the one who’d sent Cailean to Adam in the first place. Their uncle, Somerled, lord of Argyll and the Hebrides, was their chief ally in harrying the King of Scots, but the Isles were constant distractions to Somerled, and Donald had wanted to give his uncle extra help to sort out his other problems as quickly as possible so they could all return to the main task of taking Scotland. Cailean, foolishly proud that he and his few men could make such a difference as Donald implied, had set out intent on glory.
Adam, however, had already left his uncle and was returning to the province of Ross when Cailean had found him. And now they were here, ready to face a force sent against them by the King of Scots.
Adam appeared to know his brother’s location fairly exactly. Perhaps he did. Messengers caught up with them all the time, in unlikely places and from improbable directions. Since everyone else appeared to take this in their stride, Cailean had never dared to ask what was going on. Their silent trust in Adam alternately appalled and comforted him.
Findlaech scowled, unhappy with his orders for the first time since Cailean had joined them. But before he could open his mouth, Adam simply pushed him towards his horse. “Lanson obviously knows where Donald is—he’s riding directly for him. Go.”
With an angry huff, Findlaech leapt onto his waiting horse. “And what exactly will you be doing while I’m warning Donald about Lanson?”
Adam threw himself into the saddle of his own, larger, grey horse. “I’ll be taking Lanson’s lady.”
When the attack came, sudden, ferocious, and at first terrifyingly silent, Christian had no doubt who was responsible. There was something inevitable about it. These were the MacHeths’ men.
Christian stood well back, almost in the doorway of the collapsing tent, and adjusted the embroidered linen mask so that it fitted perfectly around her left eye and didn’t impede her vision. Desperately, she looked for a way out.
The bare-legged warriors had swarmed down the hills surrounding the camp, taking her own lounging escort by complete surprise. Brutal, merciless, they fought in bloody tunics, with only a scattering of armour among them, just a few bright, ragged wrappings around their pounding legs and slashing arms. Pale skin under grey skies.
One of them caught her particular attention. One who, although in the thick of the fighting, seemed to look directly at her. He was a grubby specimen, no better dressed than the rest of them. Long, badly tangled black hair flailed about his face and shoulders. Two combatants lunged in front of him, blocking her view as well as his, but instantly his shield came up, knocking the obstacles aside indiscriminately. At the same time, he felled his own opponent with less attention than he apparently gave to the huddle of women around Christian. He wrenched his sword free, scarlet with Gavin’s blood.
This was real. Men were dying for her. Men she knew by name.
“He’s their leader,” Alys hissed, as if afraid of being heard over the din of battle. She stood with the other women around Christian at the tent entrance. “And he’s seen us! If he knows who we are…”
Christian said, “I think we can assume that.”
“Show no fear,” Alys commanded, drawing herself up to her full height. “We must not let Sir William down. Remember who we are!”
Christian had grown used to ignoring her pronouncements. With foreboding, she watched the enemy leader. He shouted something in his own language, running into the midst of another affray, hacking ferociously with sword and shield, kicking out with his foot to bring Henry down. Christian winced.
No longer even glancing at the women, the barbarian appeared to give his full attention to finishing what he’d begun.
Several of Christian’s men lay dead, their throats slit as they’d lounged at ease in the lee of the wind. Others had been cut down as they’d reached for their weapons. Most hadn’t even been wearing armour. Only minutes could have passed since the first enemy men had poured over the hills that should have protected the camp, but already it was over.
Christian raised her eyes from the slaughter, scanning the other low, wooded slopes which ringed the camp. In the end, they’d provided more cover for the attackers than for the women, but at the time, this had seemed the perfect place to camp, to wait safely for Sir William’s main party to attack and defeat the sons of Malcolm MacHeth.
There was no sign of her husband’s soldiers looming over the hills to rescue them, to turn the tables at the last possible moment. Christian’s ears rang only with the clashing of steel, the barbarous war cries of the natives, and the screaming of the wounded soldiers. Those of them still left alive.
Turning, Christian glanced up at the hill behind her. There too they had left it too late to escape. The women had been seen, and their only possible escape route was being cut off. Two men loped along the ridge from either side.
“We should run, escape,” Alys said. Her voice shook.
“No point,” Christian replied.
“You would say that.” Even now, the contempt dripped from her lips like sour milk. “In the name of Christ, don’t disgrace him any further. They mustn’t take you, remember? Sir William says I should pretend…”
Even in her terror, Alys remembered that. Christian felt vaguely irritated by the fact. William hadn’t truly bargained for this and neither had she.
So it was over. Slowly, Christian turned back to face reality. The mask she’d taken to wearing at the king’s court to hide the disfigurement of one side of her face hadn’t brought her much luck after all.
Those of her husband’s men left alive, swords drawn but wavering, were herded inexorably back into the huddle of fearful women outside the now fully collapsed tent. Their attackers advanced menacingly.
One man moved faster, pushing his way through to the enemy’s front. Their leader, the man who’d observed them so closely from the thick of battle. At his gesture, everyone halted. He strode on alone, giving an impression of a young, incongruously calm face streaked with dirt and yet of dark eyes, even at that distance, not calm at all but deeply troubled, swirling like whirlpools.
“Drop your weapons,” he said in passable French. “Or we’ll kill all of you.”
It might have been worth it to die, just to spite William, who had still no real idea how useful, not to say necessary, Christian was to him in this venture. However, luck seemed to have sent her the local berserker. Judging by those violent eyes, he was too unstable to rely on his mercy for her people.
She opened her mouth to command the men, but before she could speak, she heard the thud of weapons hitting the ground, the clash of steel as others landed on top, and she closed her lips again in silence. The MacHeth legend had won.
As if those wild, unworldly eyes had caught her tiny gestures, the berserker glanced at her, then almost immediately away as Henry formally offered him the hilt of his sword.
His mouth twisted slightly. Christian’s stomach gave a sudden wrench as he took the sword. Almost, she expected him to cut Henry down with it. Instead, he inclined his head rather graciously, like a knight accepting victory at a tournament.
Maybe he could be reasoned with after all.
His men began collecting the surrendered weapons. Others were already stripping the armour from the fallen.
The berserker stepped through the chaos towards the women. This time he had no need to push. The men left standing parted for him without a quibble.
“Which of you,” he asked in the same soft, casual voice, “is the lady de Lanson?”
Close-to, he was no more comforting. Different shades of blood stained his clothes and forearms, his hands and face. Remote yet wild dark brown eyes scanned everyone impartially and still somehow gave the alarming impression of seeing something else entirely—no doubt his recent kills or his plans for the next ones.
Beside Christian, Alys cleared her throat. Christian could feel the other woman’s tension, the failing of her courage, and yet Alys still meant to do it. Her loyalty would have humbled most women. Christian, it angered.
She would not let William do this. These people were in her charge, her care.
She caught Alys’s arm, roughly enough to surprise her into silence. And to disguise her own trembling. “I am Christian de Lanson.”
His gaze crashed into hers. Now that she had his full attention at last, she’d have welcomed the remoteness back with enthusiasm. Dear God, unstable was an understatement. They were the most dangerous eyes she had ever encountered: the eyes of a man who has seen and done terrible things and not yet learned how to live with them.
If he noticed the oddity of her mask, his gaze didn’t linger on it. Turning away, he spoke only three words in the same quiet voice he had used before. “Come with me.”
“No, thank you,” Christian said clearly, and he paused without turning. Now Alys clutched her arm, convulsively. The other women drew back into the wreckage of the tent again, as if afraid his wrath would consume them as well. “There’s no point,” Christian said brazenly. “I am a useless hostage, being worth nothing to my husband.”
“You are William de Lanson’s wife?” The young berserker turned back to her abruptly, impatience clear in his face for the first time.
“I am. But disgraced and barren, my value is not high.”
She actually laughed at his shock. “Ask them,” she added, nodding at her husband’s soldiers. The one whose unflattering opinion she’d overheard earlier stood bleeding among them.
The young barbarian before her looked as if he had no idea what she was talking about. Without warning, he reached out and seized her wrist. His touch shocked her; perhaps it was the rough strength of his bare fingers or their unexpected warmth. But before she could properly register it, let alone object, he dropped her wrist as if it had burned him.
He actually spun away from her so that she couldn’t see his face. It struck her that he was wounded or ill, and the watchful way a few of his men regarded him seemed to bear this out. And yet they never moved to enquire or to help him. In any case, the moment passed before it was properly begun.
He glanced back at her. “Let’s talk,” he invited. This time he didn’t touch her, merely gestured with his arm in a fashion almost courtly. She couldn’t hesitate; she could only pray he wouldn’t perceive the shaking of her legs. She stepped forward, and Alys, reluctantly, released her arm.
“I am Adam,” he said, “son of Malcolm.”
Of course he was. Christian closed her eyes. “MacHeth.”