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Authors: Jackie Ivie

Knight Everlasting (22 page)

BOOK: Knight Everlasting
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The bairn.
“'Tis a pure shame . . . you requested a betrothal with the Campbell heiress. You should have seen me afore sending the note.”
“Can—” Aidan had to stop and clear his throat. It sounded like he'd stuffed a hunk of dried bread in his mouth and was choking on it. She found that even more amusing. He couldn't see her clearly, but he had no trouble hearing her laughter.
“Can I alter that? Is this what you ask?” she asked, once she'd ceased the hilarity and gone back to stirring and clanking the object in her pot.
He nodded.
“The Campbell clan is a verra large clan, Aidan Niall. Strong. Rich.”
He nodded again.
“Even more bloodthirsty than MacKetryck clan. With more warriors. More weaponry.”
His head was pounding in rhythm with the red, sending a bloodred hue through him and onto the fog that was billowing about the room . . . before fading back to a light wash. He blinked, but it just kept coming, filling his vision, heating his blood. Dark red. Light wash. Dark red. Light wash. Blood-hued . . .
“Is that a . . . nae?” he asked finally.
“Make certain the child is a MacKetryck, Aidan Niall. Legal and binding. Doona' let it be born a bastard.”
He sucked in a huge breath, held it until it burned his chest, matching the dark red all about him. Then he exhaled. “I risk war with the Campbell clan then.”
Her answer was slow and distinct and said with a hint of laughter. “But Aidan Niall MacKetryck . . . you listen, but you doona' hear. You have . . . two brothers.”
And that was when red washed over everything.
Aidan pulled his sword with his right hand and backed against the wall as a huge swell of red flared right out of the fireplace, filling a fog that was near impenetrable, and then it approached him.
Dame Lileth Fallaine-Dumphat was laughing hard. The sound reeked of ill-will and triumph. Aidan blinked the moisture from his eyes and it just kept coming. Aidan Niall didn't cry. Tears were for the fainthearted, the weak, and for women. They weren't for him. He shoved his left arm across his eyes and the blur hampering his sight and swung his sword out with his right arm, creating havoc and hitting less.
The floor moved, rolling beneath him and sending him to his knees. Aidan rolled and was immediately back on his feet, hitting again at the thick shape in the fog she'd summoned. And moisture just kept blinding him, making it even harder to fight and conquer.
“And it's all your own doing, Aidan Niall . . . yours.”
The moan of voice hampered him, weighing his arms with a sow's bulk and his legs with anchor chains. Still, his body cursed him with sobs. Aidan shoved his arm across his eyes again, reacting blindly to an image to his left, spearing a weightless banshee, before it disappeared, sending him to a full-out fall, which would have been on his front, except he twirled midfall and landed on his side . . . his sword side. Half-winded, he was again right back on his feet, after completing the roll. The move cost him breath and stamina for countless moments, while he pulled for air through vapor that resembled a wall of sodden plaid.
“May the great laird, Grant Niall MacKetryck . . . witness this!”
His father?
The blow caught him full on the back, taking him to his knees, where he bent forward, retching and sobbing, although he'd never admit to the latter. He staggered back to his feet before another one could land, and stumbled backward until he found a stone wall with punishing force.
Aidan did another shove across his eyes, lifting his sword at the same time. Then he was moving along the wall, lashing out at anything that had substance or moved. But there was too much. In the reddish tear-blurred vision the room was alive with
poucah
, peopled with demons, and filled with evil. Everywhere he turned, swinging, and stabbing and moving, there was another red, fog-dense shape. Aidan kept hacking and slicing, and carving a way to the hag, who wouldn't stop her tormenting words.
“Alpin will make a great husband for the lass.”
Alpin?
Aidan's heart pumped anger and rage through him hard and swift, drying his eyes as nothing else had. That gained him vision and clarity with every blink, turning the moisture into bloodred scrape and dust dry. Juliana would wed Alpin over Aidan's dead body.
“Aye . . . my laird. Alpin. His is a world of game and fish and wine. He may na' even mind that her maidenhead was stolen. Unlike your first wife.” And then she laughed.
She knew about that, too?
Aidan had never told anyone. He was taking it to his grave.
Heat reflected through the red haze, her fire glow glinting off his claymore, and Aidan swiveled toward it, in an arc of motion that had the kettle hooked and flung across the room, while a bit of red coal hung up on his blade.
But she'd moved. Aidan blinked through eyes that burned, swinging his head in an opposing motion to his blade. Waiting. Listening. For the hag to speak again. Just once.
“Or . . . you could choose . . . the Black MacKetryck as her husband. Dugald. He would like that.”
The breath from her insidious whisper touched his right side and Aidan flipped his left hand over his shoulder before she'd finished, swiveling his body to follow, putting his sword out at the ready while gripping her old throat and squeezing. Listening to her choked sigh of breath. Squeezing more. Lifting her from the floor with the pressure of his fingers, and seeing nothing but red. Bloodred.
“Enough!” he hissed, bringing her close enough he could see the fright in her light gray eyes.
And then everything changed. Aidan blinked and watched it. Disbelieved it and still watched. The fog dissipated, turning back into sun-kissed smoke haze. The red faded and then disappeared as if it had never been. The fire was burning merrily in the hearth, and the only sound was a kettle glancing off a wall.
Dame Lileth Fallaine-Dumphat was right in front of him, looking small, frail, elderly, pathetic, and worried. Aidan stood, breathing hard while he looked down at the woman in front of him, wringing her hands and looking up at him with an innocent expression. Aidan stood to his full height, gave two heavy chest breaths, and then looked back down at her.
“You should na' burn so many . . . potions,” he told her through clenched teeth.
She smiled, but this one didn't have much mirth to it.
“It clouds things.”
“Na' enough, sweet laird.” Her voice was raspy-sounding, as if she'd just been choked. Aidan sent a swift glance there, but there was no mark of fingers. Nothing. Just old, pale skin.
He grunted and lifted his sword above his head, while his left hand reached for the tip, to guide it back into the scabbard.
She moved her glance to it. “Your charm, Aidan Niall?”
His fingers didn't find a sword tip. They found a jewel. Aidan pulled the long, slender pendant off his tip and twirled it in the light while his sword lowered again. It was a purplish cast stone, near a thistle in color. And it was wrapped with two bands of etched gold, exactly like serpents, in a like configuration of the ring he'd lost.
“What does this mean?”
She shrugged.
“What does it do, then?”
“Makes everything . . . clear,” she replied.
Aidan lifted a brow, twisted his lips, and looked back at her. Nodding, he flipped the gem into the air with his thumb and caught it easily. Then he was fingering his sporran bag open without looking to slip the little charm into it. He backed up three steps from her while he did so, bowed his head slightly, backed up four more steps. Aidan was at the door before he swiveled to leave. It was a defensive move, and they both knew it.
Heck, Kerr, and Tavish waited for him in the hall, lounging against the walls as if their laird hadn't been in danger. They all stood and stretched when he came around the corner from her door. They looked sheepish. Tavish was the first to speak.
“I see you escaped unscathed,” he remarked.
Aidan shouldered through them and shook his head. “Nae thanks to my honor guard,” he muttered, continuing down the hall.
“We'd have come had we heard screams,” Heck informed him.
“So . . . what happened in there?” Tavish jogged around Aidan to ask it.
“Come with me next time. You'll see.”
He watched the man's face fall and ignored it. “Come, lads! We've wasted enough time. To the loch! I fancy a swim.”
All three groaned.
“Across,” Aidan added.
“But—we've but newly returned. And we've preparations . . .”
“Or the list. I'll meet every man on the list instead. Your choice.”
“And have bruises to sport for the fest?” Tavish asked.
“A swim it is. Right,” Kerr piped in. “It's a challenge.”
“A challenge? If we try to match the laird, we'll be worthless to the wenches this eve,” Tavish replied.
“Aye,” Kerr responded. “Weak as bairns.”
They'd reached the spiral steps and Aidan had to consciously keep from tripping on the first one as his knees involuntarily flexed. Flinched. Betraying a weakness he'd never known.
“Just get to the loch. And any others you can rouse. That's an order.”
Aidan was jogging down the steps as he said it, and then he took two at a time, then three, doing anything to block the thinking. Anything.
Chapter 18
The view was truly awe-inspiring. Juliana was on her knees, shoved into the narrowest portion of one window, staring at it and blinking and listening to a heartbeat that matched the gentle ripple of wave far below her. Just . . . existing.
“Now . . . wait! I never said—”
“Y-Y-You can-can-canna' go!”
Juliana pushed back from the window point, carved so narrow an archer would have difficulty fitting, before turning her head. Alpin was being shoved into the chamber surrounded by women. His ruffled hair, plaid that was askew, and red face gave mute witness to how amenable he'd been to their attention. Until now. Arran was flailing his arms and stuttering.
“N-N-N-Nae! You m-m-must go! A-A-All of you! Alpin . . . stop them!”
“They say he's installed her in his chamber, Arran . . . lad.” That voice and the way she said his name had Arran standing open-mouthed and turning red. It was attached to a beautiful dark-haired woman.
“We just want a small look, Alpin.” That voice had a throaty charm, especially when she lowered it for Aidan's brother's name. Juliana couldn't spot the speaker.
“Aye. We doona' wish to disturb anyone.”
“Just a wee look, Alpin? Please?” The throaty one again.
“But—I never said you could—nae! Aidan will kill me!”
Juliana stood to her full height, watched the general melee as it looked to be more than a dozen women pushing their way through the two young men. She spent a few moments looking at them and swallowing the reaction. She'd never seen such a varied assemblage of women, each vying with lush curves, lengthy hair, and pleasant features. She gulped, put her head back, and whistled. Just like she'd seen Aidan do. And surprisingly it worked. Loudly.
Everything stopped. Juliana put words in the space.
“Alpin? You may explain, please.”
Juliana used her haughtiest voice. She watched as most of the women in front of her pulled back slightly, with raised brows and pulled-in breaths.
“My lady, uh . . . these women! I—”
“Had a bit of trouble holding the door. So I see,” she finished for him. “And I well see your problem. All of it.”
Juliana started walking among them, feeling insignificant and dowdy and unkempt, as well as small where she should be large and short where she should be taller. She didn't let any of it show on her face. She met each woman's look and waited until the other dropped her eyes. Except for three of them. She nodded at them before moving on. Those would be the tougher ones. She already knew it.
“So . . . is there a . . . favorite amongst you?” Juliana asked, coming full circle and arriving back at the windows, where the fresh late-day breeze at her back gave her an odd sense of courage. She asked the question to the space above them, wondering if that was correct etiquette, before discarding that stupidity. She'd never been in this situation before. She didn't know where and from whom she was supposed to learn proper behavior.
“A . . . favorite?” One of the three she'd already tagged as trouble spoke up. It was a blond woman, possessing a very large bosom and hips, which were then complemented by a very small waist. She knew how to walk to make certain all noted these features first, and demonstrated it as she pushed through the throng.
Juliana sighed heavily and drew out each word. “A favorite. Of Aidan Niall MacKetryck. The laird.”
“My lady! I truly think you should—”
“Oh hush, Alpin. You're the one who allowed them entrance.”
“I never allowed—” he began.
“Are you saying they . . . forced their way in?”
“Na' truly . . . forced. More of . . .”
“Are these the women Aidan favors, Alpin?”
“Well, they . . . uh . . .”
“Exactly as I suspected. So I ask again. Is there a favorite among you?”
“The laird doesn't have a favorite. That way there's no trouble. We're all his favorite . . . my
lady
.”
Juliana narrowed her eyes at the new speaker, easily tagged as the throaty-voiced one. It belonged to a striking woman with darker blond hair flowing freely all about her, and a more willowy form than the previous woman. Juliana waited several moments before moving her vision above them again in a dismissive fashion. “Very well. Is there a leader amongst you then?”
“Leader?” the first blond woman asked.
“Someone willing to speak on behalf of all. That type of leader.”
There was a bit of whispering. And then the beautiful, dark-haired woman stepped through the crowd to the front.
“Aye. I'll speak,” she said.
“And you are?”
“Sorcha. And this here is Una. And Siniag, Robena, Maisie, Lorna—”
“I prefer the others stay nameless, Sorcha. Otherwise, I have to specify punishment . . . by name.”
There was a collective indrawn breath.
“Pun . . . ishment?” Sorcha had lost a bit of her aggressive behavior.
“For accosting me in the laird's chamber.”
“Accosting you?”
“Aye. You . . . accosted me. The woman installed in his chamber. As his favorite. His only . . . favorite.” Juliana spaced out the words, giving them a threatening quality she didn't know she could wield. She watched the others' eyes widen.
“But, my lady—”
The second blonde shoved the words out. She'd lost her sarcastic bent. Juliana looked over their heads again.
“You're dismissed,” she announced.
“Dismissed?”
“From my presence. And if any among you have chores to return to . . . I would allow it. This once,” Juliana continued. There was some shuffling of feet, and then she watched as they started leaving, from the back where she couldn't see. She could feel the tension relax just a bit, until Sorcha came close. Juliana hooded her eyes and tipped her chin up to meet the other's eye, while tightening her back as if to withstand a blow.
“He'll tire of you.” The girl had lush eyelashes about very dark eyes that flashed with her emotion. It heightened her appearance, which was unnecessary. She was already beautiful.
“You truly seek punishment, don't you?” Juliana asked.
“He calls you ‘lass' . . . does na' he? Always. He never uses a name. 'Tis for a reason . . .
lass
.”
It was a blow Sorcha gave and she didn't even have a weapon. There wasn't a stiff enough spine to take it. Juliana spun before the woman saw how deeply it had affected her.
“Alpin?” She cleared her throat to rid it of the weak sound. “See this woman from the chamber. And alert Aidan that she may need duties assigned to her . . . outside the keep.”
Sorcha's reply was in language no woman should use. That made it worse for some reason. Juliana kept her eyes on the view, which wasn't as beautiful or serene or awe-inspiring anymore. It had been fouled. She slid a glance to the immense, three-sided bed sprouting from the far wall. It was also fouled.
She'd rather watch the sun-speckled loch. The view blurred, but she wasn't truly looking at it. She was reliving Sorcha's parting statement and experiencing the unpleasant gooseflesh running across her frame, over and over. And over. And then she was joined by Arran.
“Hasn't she . . . left yet?”
“Al-Al-Alpin just took her. Hear the door?”
Juliana glanced toward him, saw the worry on his face, and tried what was probably as sick a smile as it felt to give it. “Oh, Arran . . . did he have one for every day of the month?” she asked.
Arran wrinkled his forehead. “N-N-Nae,” he finally replied, as if he'd actually been counting and she'd been serious.
“I tease, Arran.”
“Oh,” he replied. He shuffled his feet, and looked at her again, with one eye partially closed. “Wi-Wi-Will you . . . t-t-tell—”
“Your big bad brother, Aidan?” she interrupted his stutter. “What will I tell him, Arran? What? That he has such a large unruly batch of loose women that his brothers couldn't keep them away from me? Why would I do that, Arran? I'm one of them!”
He looked like she'd slapped him, and Juliana burst into tears.
 
 
“Oh nae. Nae. This will na' do. Arran. What have you done?”
Juliana had subsided into a ball in one of the window alcoves, feeling worn and used, and especially down-spirited and contrite at how she'd treated Arran. She heard yet another woman speaking the words and turned her face away to look at the gray stone, since the view outside had lost every bit of its luster.
“Arran MacKetryck, I spoke to you.”
“I-I-I-It was na' me!”
“Then who?”
“The w-w-w-women.”
“What women?”
“Don't answer that, Arran!” Juliana was on her feet and moving into the room. He wasn't capable of handling yet another of Aidan's women. “I can't keep quiet about it if you tell it.”
“Oh,” Arran replied.
“So . . . who am I dealing with now?”
“'Tis the Lady Reina.”
Arran moved toward the slender, tall woman standing just inside the chamber door, waiting. Lady Reina didn't have the same look about her as the others. As she came farther into the chamber, getting touched by the light, it was obvious. She was dressed too richly, clearly indicating her status at the castle. Juliana wondered how Lady Reina felt about attending one of Aidan's women.
She didn't ask. She didn't have to. She tipped her head up, and tried to look self-confident and poised and refined despite her surroundings and status, and unkempt appearance. It wasn't entirely her fault that she'd been given no correct clothing, or decent bathing facilities, but it was her fault that she'd been weeping, leaving telltale signs on her cheeks, although the red and black plaid wrapped about her covered over any dark spots. She ignored all of that to look over this lady with the same reserve she was facing. It was especially galling in contrast to the other.
Aidan's Lady Reina was dressed in a rich samite fabric of pale rose, with elaborate stitching all about the hem and bodice. The underdress looked to be of bleached woven flax, and it was fashioned to cover her bosom and throat with pleats that shadowed and covered. She was another blonde, with golden hair braided in long strands that were then fastened in loops and attached to a headdress fashioned of real gold filigree and set with a multitude of colored jewels. She had a heavy cream-colored veil pulled to one side, shadowing half of a face possessing clear blue eyes, pale flawless skin, and lips the same rose shade as her gown. Juliana recognized the material, the expense, and the craftsmanship that had gone into such an ensemble. At one time, she'd had clothing just as rich and just as elaborate.
“Juliana?” the vision in rose asked.
Juliana nodded.
The woman clapped her hands as if entertained and delighted at the information. “Hand me your plaid.”
Juliana looked at Arran. He shrugged. She looked back at the woman.
“Why?”
The blonde laughed slightly. “Because I am Lady Reina . . . and my laird, Aidan, has put you in my care.” The woman turned to Aidan's brother. “Arran? Order a tub. And hot water to fill it. Hurry! Assist them. We've little enough time.”
Arran turned with a jog. Juliana didn't watch as he went through the chamber door. The woman had moved and was nearing her and then circling her.
“The plaid, Juliana.” She motioned with her fingers. “And quickly!”
Juliana unfastened the brooch clip with trembling digits and then slid it from her shoulders. Before she dropped it to the floor, the blond woman gave a cry, startling her.
“'Tis exactly as they said! Exactly.”
Lady Reina came nearer and Juliana backed up, but there wasn't anywhere to go once her shoulders reached rock. But she'd brought the blanket wrap with her and clasped it again with both hands.
“You needn't fear me, Juliana. I'll na' do more than . . . take a snip or two of this hair . . . just so.”
A small blade had appeared in the woman's hand and she had snipped a coil of hair from Juliana's shoulder before Juliana could free a hand to slap at her.
“It is as foretold!”
The blonde gave a joy-filled cry again and danced her way back to the center of the room, the movement making her veil flutter. Juliana slid along the wall toward the door. And Arran. And safety. Softly sliding her boots against old rushes so the woman wouldn't know what she planned. She was near the door before the woman spoke again, stopping her in place.
BOOK: Knight Everlasting
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