They barely spoke, hadn’t said much after Iain had convinced them
that it was only begging for their own deaths if they charged after Alpin and the Sutherlands now. They needed to get home to Berriedale and regroup, call up the McEwen army, send notice of Alpin’s identity to Donald Mackay, and make a plan first.
Iain wrestled with his thoughts regarding Maggie Bryce for quite some
time, vacillating between believing her as innocent as she appeared and
truly intent upon escape, and wondering if there was any possibility that she might be working with Alpin. Did she lay traps with her bewitching smile and winsome personality? He wondered if any of his men also grappled with the same irrational thought that because of her falsehoods she had somehow betrayed them, that it was personal.
However, by the time he rode through the gates of Berriedale, Iain had
settled all the disquiet in his mind, had categorized each component of the
day and all this new information. He’d exonerated Maggie of any complicity in Alpin’s crimes. He excused her lies and her flight as selfpreservation. And he knew he must somehow save her from Alpin even while he destroyed the monster. All of this was considered and decided with some back-of-the-mind certainty that if they’d not discovered that her betrothed were Alpin, he’d have purposefully wiped his memory clean of her, unable to completely exonerate her of her falsehoods, even as he was able to justify the reason behind them.
They did not reach Berriedale until just before midnight, pushing on
when the sun set, rather than wisely hunkering down somewhere as they
had the previous three nights. The hour precluded any great reception, for
which they were all privately thankful. The men went off in different
directions, the twins and Hew to their mams in the village, the others to the soldiers’ barracks, and Iain to the keep.
Artair was the first person Iain saw in the morning. The old man had
served as both bailiff and steward to Berriedale for longer than Iain had
been alive. Iain did not ever recall a look upon the man’s weathered face
that was not tranquil, and this was no exception, as Artair showed no
surprise to see his laird returned and breaking his fast quietly and
contemplatively within the hall.
Folding his hands into the voluminous sleeves of his customary gray
robe with the wide cowl, the perpetual ledger within his arms, Artair only
shifted his direction upon spying his master and came to stand before Iain atthe family’s table. Iain acknowledged the steward with a nod, taking a swig of the ale to chase down the sweetbreads, which seemed a veritable feast to him after so many months on the road.
“Your mother will be pleased for your return, Chief,” the old man
intoned gently, “as will all.”
“Aye, and I’m sure you’ll be wanting some time with me, Artair, but
I’ll beg a few days to set some other matters to rights first.”
“As you wish, lad.”
Only Duncan, Archie, and Artair could get away with calling their
chief lad. Ian thought only Archie’s age, almost double his own, granted
that man leave to use so informal an address; Duncan’s permission came
nobly and hard fought, mostly at Iain’s side; Artair’s use of the label had
been earned by way of his steadfast loyalty to any McEwen and the
constant poise in the face of so many challenges to Berriedale and its family over the years.
“You are solemn today, lad,” Artair commented. “I take it your quest
did not end well.”
Iain considered Artair with a big sigh. There was something reassuring
in the man’s quiet presence, the very familiar gray eyes and thinning hair.
The top of Artair’s balding head was wider and rounder than his cheeks and chin, which narrowed to a square point. There wasn’t anything about the man that did not suggest patience and an aged wisdom, in which Iain
normally found great comfort.
“It did no’ end well at all, truth be told,” was all that Iain said just now.
He wasn’t of a mind to discuss the entire disastrous news, the identity of
Alpin, and the ramifications that must follow. Not yet.
His mother shrieked when she saw him as she entered the hall a short
time later. Iain smiled at her and allowed himself to be engulfed in her
embrace, acknowledging how truly wonderful it felt, this time returned.
When she was done squeezing him, she took his cheeks in her hands and
looked him over with misty eyes.
“Too long gone, my darling,” she cooed.
Iain covered his mother’s hands with his own. “You dinna know the
half of it, Mother.”
She was an amazing woman, who still had the uncanny ability to make
him feel five years old even while she mostly championed and applauded
his decision-making and ruling style.
Glenna McEwen, sister to the great Donald Mackay, was tall and
willowy and shared the same blue eyes as her son. She somehow managed
to look a full ten years younger than her half a century of years, improbable for the harsh life she’d known thus far; her husband had been gone for more than ten years; she’d buried two children, one a babe, another a sister Iain barely recalled as he’d been naught but a child himself when Anna had been taken by a fever; and Glenna herself had suffered some misfortune years ago, which she never discussed, but that had left her with a pronounced limp and a brutal scar across her left cheek.
He spent some time then with both Glenna and Artair, mostly listening
to their updates of Berriedale, pleased that no specific issue called his
attention immediately, as his mind was yet occupied with retrieving Maggie
Bryce and apprehending the criminal, Alpin. When his mother departed,
intent on some business in the kitchens, Artair brought other news to Iain.
“I’ve since burned it to preserve security,” Artair said, “but there was a
missive from the king.”
This captured all of Iain’s attention.
“He will return, as we suspected, and hopes the McEwens will be
available to him. Our king will arrive further south but plans to set his
brothers down at Loch Ryan with eighteen galleys. Bruce will reach out
once he’s landed.”
“Do you have any sense of timing?”
Artair consulted the topmost sheepskin parchment in his file of papers.
“The missive is now fourteen days old. Of course, there was no date given
for his arrival, but my sense was that it would have been within the month.”
Iain nodded. “And that was all?”
“That was all, lad. Needs only waiting further instruction.”
“We have identified Alpin and will want to have a go at him.”
This seemed to impress Artair, who lifted one gray brow. “Can it be
done inside a week?”
Iain shook his head. “I’m no’ sure.”
“Thus, you must qualify: your king or the serpent, Alpin.”
“Always king,” Iain believed.
Artair nodded. “And yet Alpin has wreaked havoc here in Caithness to
rival that of what the English have done in the south.”
Iain considered this. “Alpin is but half a day away. If we go and are
delayed, we might quickly be summoned if the king reaches out for us. But
aye, my only advantage over Alpin just now is that he dinna ken that I am
aware of his identity.”
“An advantage that will be lost if you are called away in the midst of
“It’s a risk worth taking, I’m thinking,” Iain deliberated aloud. “The
Bruce might no’ call for a month and how many others would die by
Alpin’s hand in that time?”
There was some comfort in the old man’s accord, though it would
prove meaningless if what they feared—the king summoning the McEwens while they hunted Alpin directly—came to pass.
He asked Artair to stay when Duncan and the others joined him in the
hall shortly thereafter. This family table, at which Iain and Artair now sat,
had seen its share of military and political discussions over the years.
Iain was surprised when Daimh—not Hew—pressed almost instantly,
“We’re going to retrieve the lass, aye?”
Iain nodded, but made it very clear, “Presently, we have three
priorities.” He ticked off on his fingers. “Robert Bruce. Alpin. Maggie
“The king?” Archie asked.