Never love a highlander, p.14
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       Never Love a Highlander, p.14
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         Part #3 of McCabe Trilogy series by Maya Banks
Page 14

 

  Simon blinked in surprise but didn’t dare move lest he cut himself.

  “You will address me as Laird,” Caelen said. “You may not like the fact that a McCabe has replaced a McDonald, but you’ll show the respect that’s due or you’ll find yourself on the ground. ”

  “You can bloody well try,” Simon bit out.

  Caelen had to hand it to the man. He might be older and he might be speaking from a clear disadvantage of having a sword to his throat, but he showed no fear or lack of courage.

  Caelen slowly lowered the sword and then tossed it in the air toward Gannon. He smiled slow and his lip curled as he stared at Simon. “I’ll do more than try, old man. ”

  Without warning, Simon charged. A shout went up through the courtyard and the men pressed forward, eager to see the impending clash.

  Simon drove his shoulder into Caelen’s abdomen, knocking him back several feet. But Caelen stood his ground and didn’t go down under the onslaught.

  The McDonald men quickly circled Caelen and Simon and began shouting encouragement to Simon. Shouts of “Take him down” and “Show him what we think of our new laird” filled the air.

  Caelen rotated, wrapping his arms around Simon’s waist. The movement coupled with Simon’s forward momentum unbalanced the man. Caelen picked him up and swung, slamming him into the ground as he came down on top of him.

  They rolled, snow kicking up amid the flurry of arms and legs. Simon landed a punch to Caelen’s jaw, knocking him back enough that he could scramble from Caelen’s hold.

  The two warriors stood and circled warily, feinting left and right as they waited for the other to make a move.

  Caelen punched, landing a forceful blow to Simon’s chin and knocking him back a few paces. Simon wiped at a trickle of blood at his mouth and then curled his lip into a snarl.

  “Now to see your measure, McCabe. ”

  He lunged forward, wrapping his beefy arms around Caelen’s waist and drove them both into the snow. The impact drove the breath from Caelen. He rolled then dodged the fist that flew at his face. He wasn’t quick enough to avoid the full impact, though. He tasted blood on his tongue.

  He drove his knee into Simon’s midsection and then flipped the man over his head to land in the snow several feet away. Caelen was quick to his feet and he stood back as Simon picked himself out of the drift.

  “What is your issue?” Caelen barked. “Your laird was a waste of good, clean air. He left your clan in dire circumstances. He acted without honor. He has brought shame to all of you. ”

  Simon spat blood onto the snow. “You are not our choice. Aye, the old man was not a good laird. He didn’t deserve the mantle of leadership. But you haven’t proved yourself worthy of it either. You walk onto our land, shouting orders by writ of the king who hasn’t shown himself to us to make this decree. ”

  “You treat Rionna without respect,” James called from the crowd.

  “Aye,” several others chorused.

  Simon nodded. “Rionna is a good lass who cares only for her clan. She fights alongside us. She goes without when we go without. She is loyal to her bones,” Simon said. “She deserves a husband who will see her for the treasure she is. ”

  Caelen took advantage of the older man’s momentary distraction and charged. They went down again and Caelen used his momentum to flip Simon over his back.

  The man landed facedown in the snow and Caelen pressed his knee into Simon’s back. He gripped Simon’s hair and pulled until his face was clear of the snow.

  “Is that the way of things in the McDonald clan? You allow your women to do your fighting for you? Rionna is a laird’s daughter. She is now wife to your new laird. Think you she should be gadding about as a man, putting herself at risk? She could be killed or grievously injured. If you want her treated as the treasure you say she is, doesn’t it make more sense for her to remain inside the keep where she can be protected? How can you speak of respect when it’s apparent none of you have any for her and her station?”

  Caelen dropped his hold and eased back to stand over Simon.

  “Women are to be protected, taken care of, and provided for. The day I need a woman to do those things for me is the day they’ll put me in the ground and no longer call me a warrior. ”

  Simon grimaced as he got to his feet and brushed the snow from his tunic. “Aye, you have the right of it. Rionna … she’s a different lass, Laird. ”

  Caelen grunted in satisfaction at the manner of address Simon issued. “Aye, I know it. She’s a strange lass to be sure. But ’tis not too late to instruct her on the proper ways of a lass. Soon she’ll carry my child and your next laird. Would you have her risking her safety and that of her child by taking up a sword and fighting as a man?”

  “Nay. ”

  The murmur went up through the crowd as each man shook his head. Not all were convinced, though. They may agree that Rionna was in need of protecting, but they weren’t accepting of him as laird.

  It would take time. Time that Caelen didn’t have if he was going to transform this meager army into a fighting force as good as the McCabes’.

  “Where do we go this day, Laird?” Simon asked.

  The fact that Simon addressed Caelen as laird didn’t meet with approval by many. The men scowled and shook their heads before turning away in a show of blatant disrespect.

  “We go hunting,” Caelen said. “Our larders are empty. Our women and young go hungry while we stand out here acting as children. We have much training to do in the coming weeks. Our men will have need of adequate sustenance in order to keep their strength up. I’m going to work you hard and without mercy. I’ll make warriors of you if it kills me. ”

  “My son James is a good shot with a bow. He’s our best hunter. ”

  “Then I’ll welcome him along. Gather your best. I want you and Arlen and whomever you choose to accompany us. We leave immediately. ”

  Simon nodded and started to turn away but then paused. He took a breath as if he debated what he wanted to say.

  “Speak,” Caelen ordered. “ ’Tis obvious you have something you want to get off your chest. ”

  “Try to have patience with the lass. Her ways are all she’s ever known. She has a good and fierce heart. ”

  Caelen frowned. It irritated him to receive advice at every turn for how to handle his wife. Even his brother had offered his opinion on the matter after marrying another woman. But then Alaric fancied himself an expert on women.

  “What the lass needs is a firm hand. She’s been allowed to run wild for far too long. ”

  A few snickers went up from the crowd. Even Simon grinned as if they all shared some secret amusement.

  “Then I’ll wish you luck, Laird. Something tells me you’re going to need it. ”

  CHAPTER 14

  Rionna stood in the window of the guard tower and stared over the snowy landscape. It had been three days since the hunting party had departed and there was still no sign of their return.

  On the first evening, one of the younger warriors had returned with a fine stag. He bore Caelen’s instructions for the meat to be dressed, stored, and properly cured with a generous portion to be prepared immediately for the women and children to eat.

  The rest of the party was remaining on the hunt until they killed enough game to refill the larders.

  She watched the men below training to Caelen’s specifications. For three days she’d held out against the temptation to join in the exercises. Instead she’d remained indoors and listened to endless instructions about the preservation of meat, how to properly stock a larder, cleaning schedules, not to mention sleep-inducing lectures on proper etiquette for ladies and how to greet and be hospitable to important guests.

  As if they ever had important guests at McDonald keep.

  It was apparent that her husband wasn’t returning this day, and there were several hours of daylight yet. She fairly itched to be down in the co
urtyard where she could vent her frustration with a good sword fight.

  The problem was Sarah would have no compunction about ratting her out to her husband. Which meant she’d have to sneak to the courtyard after telling Sarah that she was retiring to her chamber.

  She turned, wrapping her cloak tighter around her as she began the descent from the tower. At the bottom, she was met by one of the serving women that Sarah had no doubt set to monitor her whereabouts.

  “I’m going to retire to my chamber,” Rionna said in a low voice.

  “Are you not feeling well, my lady?”

  Rionna smiled at the woman not much older than herself. “I’m fine, Beatrice. I’m just a little tired. ”

  Beatrice smiled knowingly. “You’re not sleeping well since the laird’s departure. He’ll be home soon, my lady, and with meat to take us through the winter. ”

  Rionna smiled faintly as she turned toward the stairs up to the chamber she shared with Caelen. While the men were not as accepting yet of Caelen as their laird, the women of the keep suffered no such hesitancy. Whatever he’d done, he’d inspired confidence in the female members of her clan. They all accepted that he’d see them through their difficulties and restore their larders and their might.

  Rionna supposed that if he did, indeed, accomplish all that, she should be well content with her marriage.

  Should be.

  When she entered the chamber where she’d slept alone three nights past, she marveled at the mark her husband had already left on the room. It wasn’t as though he had a lot of things. Indeed, he’d packed very sparsely for his journey from his former home.

  But whereas the chamber had been barren and nondescript before, it now felt masculine, as if he’d breathed his very essence into the small space.

  The furs he’d brought from McCabe keep covered the bed. Luxurious, thick furs that she’d already grown accustomed to sleeping beneath at night. Even the furs covering the windows had been replaced by his own.

  There was a small table with a chair by the fire that housed his scrolls and quill and ink. They roused her curiosity. She’d love to know what was contained in the scrolls, but she hadn’t the ability to read. The fact that her husband was so learned surprised and intrigued her.

  Caelen had many hidden depths, which she hadn’t even begun to plumb. He’d certainly shut himself off from others, only allowing people to see what he so chose. It was frustrating for her because she desperately wanted to know everything there was to know about the man she’d married.

  She went to the chest that housed the dresses the women had fashioned for her. She stretched her hand behind it, in the small space between it and the wall, and pulled out the tunic and trews she’d hidden there.

  The material slid lovingly over her fingers. Worn but comfortable. Familiar. Anticipation tugged relentlessly at her until she hurriedly stripped the dress from her body and began pulling on the tunic.

  When she was dressed, she pulled her boots from the corner where they’d rested ever since they’re arrived back on McDonald land. First she pulled on her precious stockings and then the boots over them.

  The stockings made the boots a bit snug, but they weren’t uncomfortable. More important, her feet were warm.

  She practically danced to the wall where Caelen had hung her sword. She was grateful he hadn’t had it melted down for armor. ’Twas a sin to abuse so fine a weapon.

  She slid her fingers over the hilt and carefully lifted it from its perch. It felt glorious in her hand. The weight. The grooves, fashioned just so for her grasp. Light enough that she could wield it with a deft hand but heavy enough to inflict a mortal wound.

  She tested the sharpness of the blade, satisfied when the hair she brushed across fell neatly into two.

  Now to brave the stairwell and hope she didn’t run into Sarah.

  A few moments later, she burst into the courtyard and hurried through the line of men so she could position herself at the fartherest point away from the entrance to the keep. If Sarah came looking, she wanted to be well out of sight.

  The mixed greeting from the men bewildered her. A few looked genuinely glad to see her and called out a greeting. Others seemed more reserved and exchanged uneasy glances. A few were more bold and stepped in front of her, though their stance wasn’t in the least aggressive.

  No, they looked concerned. And protective.

  Hugh McDonald frowned and then swallowed uncomfortably. “Rionna, perhaps ’tis better if you remain indoors. ’Tis cold today. You shouldn’t be indulging in a man’s training. ”

  Rionna’s mouth gaped open as she stared back at the burly warrior. Hugh was directly responsible for most of her skill. Aye, he’d taught her almost everything she knew. He’d knocked her on her arse more times than she could count and always taunted her to get up and try again.

  “He’s gotten to you, hasn’t he?” she demanded. “He’s not been here a week and already he’s turned you against me!”

  Hugh put out a placating hand. “Now, Rionna. ’Tis not what’s happened at all. The laird has made us see that ’tis not the best course for you to be fighting. ’Tis not a seemly pursuit for a woman. ”

 
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