Chapter 12

Colin MacDonald almost knocked his brother over as he rushed to reach his wife. “Do ye have pain, sweeting?” he asked her, picking her up and walking quickly across the hall to the staircase leading to their chambers. “Ah, Fiona mine, I canna bear to see ye hurting.”

“Then ye should not have gotten a bairn upon me, Nairn,” she said with a small attempt at humor. She winced. “Ohhhhh!”

The castle servants had been galvanized into action. A serving wench had dashed ahead of Nairn to alert Nelly. Another ran off to find the birthing table.

Elizabeth McKay turned before going up the stairs, saying to her husband and brother, “Keep Colin’s spirits up as best ye can when he returns to the hall. And that does not mean getting him drunk, my laddies. Ye’ll both answer to me if ye do!” Then she was gone.

“She did not say we could not get drunk,” the Lord of the Isles said to his brother-in-law. “Is it too early for ye?”

” ‘Tis never too early, Alex,” came the reply, “but I suspect she’d be verra angry with us. She has a fierce temper, yer sister, my wife. I retain a potter in the keep to replace all the crockery she throws at me and anyone else who runs afoul of her ire.”

Alexander MacDonald laughed aloud at this revelation.

In her chamber Fiona struggled to bring forth the life she had been nurturing within her womb. At first she would not cry out when the pains wracked her greatly, but Elizabeth encouraged her, saying, “A woman is expected to shout aloud when her babe is being born, Fiona. Don’t hold back!”

“My mother never shouted,” Fiona said through gritted teeth. “I was the eldest, and I never heard her shout when my five sisters were born alive and ray wee brothers were born dead. My father did all the shouting, screaming at her to give him his son each time, cursing her when the lassies came into the world alive and the laddies were birthed dead and cold as stone.”

“Yer not yer mother. My brother cares not a whit if it is a son or a daughter, do ye, Nairn? We want a healthy baby, lass. That is all. Now, cry out with yer pain, and help the bairn to come.”

She was rewarded when Fiona shrieked and cried out, “I am being torn apart, lady!”

“Nay, nay, lassie, ’tis an easy birth yer having. Another wee push, and I will see the bairn’s head,” Elizabeth MacKay promised. “When the next pain comes, bear down with all yer might.”

“It’s coming!” Fiona shouted, letting out a shrill cry.

“Oh, verra good, dearie, verra good,” Elizabeth MacKay praised her sister-in-law.

Colin MacDonald was visibly white as he let Fiona clutch his hand until he thought she would render it bloodless. Seeing his condition, Fiona said, “Get out, Nairn! I don’t want ye swooning on the floor. There is no time to attend to ye if this child is to be born. Oh! Oh! Oh!” she gasped.

“I’ll not leave ye, sweeting, nor will I swoon like a maiden,” he promised her, although he wasn’t certain he could keep the latter promise. Seeing her in such obvious pain, realizing he was the cause of it, was almost more than he could bear. He swallowed hard.

“I have no more time for ye, Colly,” Fiona told him. “Blessed Mother! Ahhhhhhhhhhh! Lady, what is happening?”

“One, perhaps two more pushes, Fiona, and yer bairn is born,” Elizabeth MacKay said. “The head and shoulders are already out.” She opened the baby’s mouth and yanked out a clot of mucus. The child coughed slightly and began to cry.

“Is it a lad?” Fiona asked her.

“That’s the part usually born last,” Elizabeth MacKay laughed. “Ye’ll have to give me another push if we’re to know. It’s got black hair like yers, though.”

Another fierce pain wracked Fiona, and she pushed with what she thought was her absolute last bit of strength. Suddenly she no longer felt as if she were being torn asunder. Indeed, she could actually feel something sliding out of her body. Then the child was howling in earnest.

” ‘Tis a wee laddie, though not so wee,” Elizabeth MacKay said with a wide smile. “Well, Nairn, ye have a son.” She held the bloody infant up for her brother to see. “Take yer knife, Colin, and cut the cord as I tell ye,” Elizabeth MacKay said, laying the squalling child upon its mother’s belly as she directed her brother, then knotted the remaining cord expertly. She handed the baby to Nelly. “Clean him up lassie, and wrap him well so he may go into the hall with his da to meet his overlord and his uncles.”

Tears of joy pouring down her face, Nelly cleansed the birthing blood from the baby boy. How very much like Angus Gordon he looked, but Colin MacDonald would not realize it, for he had not known the laird particularly well. He would assume the dark hair was an inheritance from Fiona, and no one ever could really decide who babies looked like Nelly swaddled the baby in fresh soft cloth. Then, without waiting for further instructions, she placed him in Fiona’s arms.

Looking into the face so like Angus Gordon’s, Fiona felt her heart break again. His father’s son, but he was unlikely ever to know his real father. Kissing the damp, downy dark head, she handed the baby to Colin. “Here is yer son, my lord,” she said quietly. “I hope he pleases ye.”

Colin MacDonald accepted the tiny bundle she offered him. He was delighted, and amazed at how sturdy his laddie was. Blue eyes looked up at him. He felt as if he were being scrutinized carefully, and hoped he would not be found wanting. “Welcome to Nairns Craig, Alastair James MacDonald,” he said. Looking down at Fiona, he smiled “Thank ye, Fiona mine. Yer a fine breeder.” Turning, he left his wife’s chamber with the baby.

Alexander MacDonald watched his brother cross the hall cradling the swaddled bundle. From the grin on Colin’s face he knew without asking that the child was a lad. “Congratulations, brother!” he exclaimed, and peering down at the infant he said, “The babe looks strong. He’ll survive.”

“Let me see him! Let me see my grandson!” Moire Rose pushed past the Lord of the Isles and The MacKay. “Give him to me, Colin.” When her son had placed the baby in her outstretched arms, an almost beatific smile lit Moire Rose’s face. “Ah, he’s a braw laddie,” she crooned down at the child. “A verra braw laddie, he is!”

“They say ye would not look upon me when I was born,” Colin said, struggling to keep the bitterness from his voice.

His mother gazed directly at him. “I looked at ye,” she told him. “When they were not there watching me, I looked at ye. I saw yer father in yer face, Colin MacDonald. For all my red hair and blue eyes ye were a MacDonald. I hated him then, for he had deserted me. But I loved him, too. Ye were a reminder of what I had lost. I believe this bairn looks like my father,” she said, “and he is my grandson.” She handed the baby back to him.

“He is also a MacDonald and my son,” he said to his mother.

“Aye,” she answered softly, “but he is not my MacDonald.” Then she left the hall without another word.

“I have never seen her like this,” Nairn said. “It’s as if she has become a different woman. I don’t understand it at all.”

He took his son back to Fiona, telling her of what had transpired in the hall with his mother.

Strangely Fiona understood, for in an odd way she was in a similar position to Moire Rose all those long years ago. “Perhaps the bairn has brought out the good in yer mother, Colly,” she told him. “Don’t question it; just accept it. She is an old woman now.”

***

The Lord of the Isles and the MacKays had decided to remain at Nairns Craig in hopes that Father Ninian would arrive. Nairn sent Roderick Dhu in search of the priest so the baby might be baptized immediately, since his godparents were there. When Alastair MacDonald was three days old, Roderick Dhu returned with the tall, ageless cleric in tow. The baby was baptized in the hall of Nairns Craig, sanctified for the occasion. The Lord of the Isles and Elizabeth MacKay stood as his godparents. Fiona was brought into the hall upon a litter so she might partake in her son’s christening.

The day after the baptism, when the guests had departed, Father Ninian said, “I will hear confessions of any who would come to me.”

As priests were few and far between in remote sections of Scotland, the priest knew he would stay for a week to ten days hearing confessions, marrying, and baptizing, as well as praying over the graves of those who had died since his last visit. Each morning he held a mass in the hall, and it was well attended by the inhabitants of the castle.

When Fiona went to make her confession to him, she passed along the information to Father Ninian that she wanted him to have, telling him in careful detail of the talked-of plot to kill the king. “They will not do it, of course, for both are cowards, but the king should be warned nonetheless, I believe.”

The priest nodded. “Aye, lady, I agree.”

“In the autumn,” Fiona said, “the year will be up that the king asked of me. I want to know when I may take my leave of Nairns Craig and return to my own home. If I don’t leave then, Nairn will badger me into speaking my vows with him before ye, Father, and ye know I canna wed him. Tell the king I have learned all I can here. And ask why has he not called a gathering of the clans in Inverness so these highlanders may swear loyalty to him and be done with it.”

“I will come myself in the autumn before the term of the handfast is up so I may carry the king’s answer to ye, lady, and help ye to extricate yerself from this benign captivity. But will Nairn let the bairn go?”

“When I tell him the truth, he will have no choice,” Fiona said with assurance. “He is every bit as proud as Black Angus.”

“I understand,” the priest replied, his amber eyes sympathetic.

Fiona insisted upon nursing her son, for she treasured the minutes spent with the baby at her breast suckling strongly. And the infant grew quickly, his small limbs rounding and fattening, his cheeks smooth and rosy. His bright eyes missed nothing. His little dark head swiveled at the sound of his mother’s voice and Nairn’s. They had to get away soon, Fiona thought, for Nairn was positively mad for the child he believed was his son. Fiona felt truly guilty-and angrier than ever before at the king.

What was worse, the baby loved Nairn, who could bring an infantile giggle from the child when no one else could. “Ah, there’s my laddie,” he would croon upon spying the baby cooing in his cradle each morning. “There’s his da’s little mankin.”

And if Nairn loved Alastair, Moire Rose was even worse, pouring all the love she had denied her son out upon her grandson. She would sit in the hall for hours on end rocking the infant’s cradle and singing him lullabies in her high, reedy voice.

Alastair James MacDonald was the darling of the household. No servant passed without stopping a moment to speak a word, smile a smile, chuck his chin. And the child responded to it all.

“He’s going to be verra spoiled,” Fiona said ominously.

The baby had been born on June first. In mid-September the priest appeared once more at Nairns Craig. “I’ve come to see how the bairn is doing,” he told Nairn. “I’ll soon be going south, for winter in the highlands is hard for a man on the road.”

“Would ye think of sheltering here for those months?” Colin asked him. “God knows we have use for ye. I’d build ye a church of yer own if ye would but remain, Father Ninian. ‘Twould not be a rich living, but ye’d have plenty to eat and plenty of souls to save, I guarantee ye. Ye could go traveling in the summer months as ye do now, but ye’d have a home to come back to in the cold times.”

” ‘Tis a generous offer, my lord,” the priest said, “but how could I accept ye when I have refused the lord himself a half a dozen times? ‘Tis better I return to my abbey as I am accustomed to doing, but I thank ye.”

Nairn shook his head ruefully. “I want a priest for the castle,” he said. “Now that we have begun a family, Fiona and me, I would be more civilized. There was once a priest at Nairns Craig, but he was as old as my grandsire and died several years before him.”

“I will inquire of my abbot for ye, my lord,” Father Ninian said. Then he smiled. “Tell yer steward to send out the word that I am here for marriages, baptisms, and my other usual duties. I will hear the confessions of the castle folk, for my penances must last ye all until I come again in the springtime,” he finished with a chuckle.

Fiona could barely wait to speak privately with the priest, but as was her custom she made certain that everyone else in the castle saw him first. Only in the evening of the second day he was with them was it her turn to closet herself with Father Ninian in the tiny room off the hall that was set aside for his privacy. She knelt before him, hurrying through a list of minor sins, asking him to shrive her.

Before he did, however, he spoke to her in low tones. “Ye will want to know, my daughter, of the king’s answer to yer questions of several months ago. He sends word that he needs ye to remain here at Nairns Craig for the present. He says he is pleased by the information ye have sent him, for it has been invaluable in helping him to decide just how to deal with the Lord of the Isles and the highlands. The Campbells have sworn their fealty to James Stewart, not waiting for a gathering of the clans at Inverness but going to Perth in midsummer. The final thing I am to impart to ye is that the queen’s cousin, Elizabeth Williams, has married a gentleman of her royal guardians’ choosing, and is already with child. The king wanted ye to know this. Now, my daughter, I will administer yer penance.” He placed his hands upon her head.

Fiona, however, felt nothing. It was as if the blood in her veins had frozen solid. She was numb with shock. Deep within her heart and soul she had dared to hope that Angus Gordon would not marry Elizabeth Williams. That one day, perhaps, they might meet once more and together begin anew. It had been, she knew even as she thought it, a childish dream, but still, she had hoped. Now her silly, secret little wish was naught but cold ashes. Angus had not died from pining away for her. She had disappeared from his heart as surely as she had disappeared on the road to Brae. The laird of Loch Brae had done his royal master’s bidding and wed the English girl. He had even gotten a child upon her. That child would be the heir to Brae, not her son, Alastair, who would now never know his real father.

Fiona felt close to weeping, but she stiffened her spine instead. She mutely accepted the mild penance that Father Ninian gave her, but her outward appearance of meekness belied the anger that was boiling inside her. Had there ever been a man in her life who had not betrayed her? Her father had little use for her, and had used her as a servant to raise her sisters. The king had used her, threatening her sisters, taking Angus Gordon away from her in order that she do his bidding. And Angus! Her beloved Black Angus! His was the greatest betrayal of all. Why had he not sought after her when he returned from York? Why indeed! He had obviously been too busy dancing attendance upon Elizabeth Williams, toadying to the king and queen. No man shall ever use me again, she thought to herself. No man! Then she arose from her knees, leaving the priest.

In the hall that night Fiona looked particularly beautiful. She wore a gold-and-copper surcoat over her orange tawny undergown. When the meal was over, she said, “Nairn, do ye still fancy to keep me as yer wife, or have ye changed yer mind?” She smiled seductively at him, her emerald eyes glittering in the candlelight.

“Ye know I will never let ye go, Fiona mine,” he said seriously.

“Then we had best let Father Ninian bless our union while he is here. Our handfast time will be up in another few weeks, but the priest will long be gone by then. If ye would wed me in God’s eyes, then let us do it and be done with it so we may get on with our lives.”

“Ye have but to name the day!” Nairn said enthusiastically.

“On the morrow, love, before the mass, with all the castle folk as our witnesses,” Fiona told him boldly.

“Agreed!” he cried, his eyes overflowing with his happiness. “Then ye do love me, Fiona mine! I knew ye would one day.”

“I must love ye,” she lied to him, “or I should not wed ye properly within the sanctity of the church. Now, Nairn, I would be alone tonight. Take a bath before the ceremony, and don’t come drunk to yer marriage, my lord. ‘Twould not please me at all.” She then stood up and departed the hall.

To her surprise Moire Rose came to her chambers shortly afterward. “Why are ye doing this?” she asked Fiona in a quiet voice.

“Because it is time,” Fiona said. “Ye know that sooner than later he’ll get another bairn on me, and without a marriage the poor wee mite will be bastard-born. Did ye like bearing a bastard?”

The older woman looked directly at Fiona, her blue eyes serious. “Be warned, Fiona Hay, that if ye should ever shame him-“

“Madam, I will not shame him, nor bring shame upon Nairn. On that ye have my word. The word of the Hay of the Ben.”

Moire Rose nodded. “I believe ye,” she said, and left.

“Why?” Nelly asked her, near to weeping.

Fiona told her of the priest’s words and then said, “Do ye want to go home to Brae, Nelly? It makes no difference now if he knows where 1 am. I will send ye back if ye truly desire it.”

Nelly shook her head. “No, my lady. My place is with ye.”

The two women embraced, and Fiona instructed her serving woman, “Go and fetch the priest to me. If my lord or his mother asks why, say I wish to speak to him about the wedding.”

When Nelly returned with Father Ninian, they crowded into the servant’s little chamber, where they might speak in privacy. Nelly remained outside the door to guard them.

The priest wasted no time demanding an explanation. “Why have ye instigated this marriage, lady? Is it wise?”

“Today,” Fiona said, “part of the king’s message, a part that seemed innocent to ye but that ye did not understand, although the words were straightforward enough, told me something I did not want to hear. The queen’s cousin has been wed to the man I love. The true father of my bairn. There is no going back now for me, good Father. I must therefore do what is best for me and for my son. Colin MacDonald loves me, and he adores his son, Alastair.

“The king has used me like a common whore with not a thought for my heart. He claims that my sacrifice is for Scotland. Well, I will sacrifice no more. Why should I? If I canna wed the man I love, then I will wed the man who loves me, and who loves our son. Tell James Stewart that I will spy no more for him. He thinks to make the clans quail or crawl to him by not calling a gathering at Inverness. Well, some like the Campbells may do his bidding, but the Lord of the Isles will not give the Stewart king loyalty until he is ready to do so-and the majority of the clans will wait for the MacDonalds before going on their knees before James Stewart.

“Ye may tell the king that he can frighten me no longer with threats against my kin. I no longer care. Am I not entitled to some happiness, too? Besides, what excuse could he possibly use now for persecuting innocent young women and two little girls? I have done his bidding, and I will tell the world I have done it if he presses me further. Does he think Brae will remain loyal knowing what he has done to us? Knowing that his son bears the name MacDonald and not Gordon? I will be used no more by this Stewart king. Tell him I do not break my oath of fealty to him, but that I am a woman and can bear no more.”

The priest could hear the raw pain in Fiona’s voice. There was nothing he could say that would comfort her. Her assessment of the situation was correct. She had been used. He could not blame her for washing her hands of the situation and marrying Nairn. She was a softhearted female. The king should have realized that she could take only so much. The poor lass had reached her limit, and so he would say when he saw the king in Perth this winter. Fiona was no threat to James Stewart. She was simply a woman.

“I believe ye have chosen the right road, my daughter,” he told her. “Marriage or the church is the best route for a woman to take. Ye have a fine son and the hope of other children. This difficulty between the king and the MacDonalds will eventually sort itself out. As the king gains firmer control of the rest of Scotland, Alexander MacDonald and his ilk will seem less important and will rub less against James Stewart’s pride. Time is a great healer of all wounds.”

“Is it, good Father?” Fiona’s voice cracked slightly. “I pray God and his Blessed Mother that ye are right.”

Then, giving her his blessing, Father Ninian left her.

“I have not gathered enough of yer special seeds, my lady,” Nelly fretted. “The summer has been wet, and the flowers are slow to bloom, and many of the flower heads have rotted before going to seed. I have barely enough for two months’ use.”

“Don’t fret yerself, Nelly,” Fiona told the girl. “I owe Nairn a child, do I not?”

Poor Nelly’s eyes threatened to spill over again with her misery. If the laird of Loch Brae had repudiated her, she could not have felt worse than she did. Her kindly heart ached for Fiona.

Fiona put her arms about her servant, comforting her. “Ohh, Nelly, I was a bairn to believe that it would all work out as I wanted it to despite everything that has happened. I must try to be more practical from now on, Nelly. We are hardly in a wretched situation, are we? Nairn loves me even if I don’t love him. I will be a good wife to him, Nelly, for he is good to me. I owe him that much, do I not? He has been hoodwinked by the Stewart king every bit as much as I have been. I will not tell him, though. Let him believe that he has won me over.” She laughed ruefully, but then, looking at her companion, she said, “Ye, too, have a reason for remaining, do ye not, my little Nelly? Roderick Dhu would court ye in earnest, I believe.”

Nelly’s tears had quickly passed with her mistress’s comforting words. She actually blushed at the mention of Roderick Dhu.

“Aye,” she admitted. “The skinny creature seems to have honorable intentions toward me now, my lady. Do ye disapprove?”

“Nay,” said Fiona. “If ye love him, then ye will not want to go back to Brae. I am selfish and want ye happy, too.”

“I have always been happy to be in yer service, my lady,” Nelly replied sweetly. “Now,” she said briskly, “what will ye wear on the morrow for yer wedding? I will need to see the gown is fresh.”

Fiona thought a moment, then said, “I will wear the dark green velvet houppelande with my husband’s plaid across the front and my own clan badge holding it. I would do Colin MacDonald honor.”

***

In the morning while Fiona was dressing, Moire Rose came again to Fiona’s chamber.

“I have seen to a wee feast this morning,” she said.

Fiona thanked her. “Today we all begin anew with each other. There is dissension in the world all about us, but here at Nairns Craig, ye and I will make a place of peace for our family, for when my sons must go to war, they will understand how truly valuable peace is, and fight all the more for it.”

“I was verra bitter when my Donald left me,” Moire Rose told Fiona frankly. “I knew he was wed to another. I knew he would not leave her, and yet I foolishly thought I might hold him with his son. But he had other sons.” She sighed deeply. “I was a verra foolish lassie. I would not listen to my father, and I rejected my own son until finally my Donald took the boy from me, allowing him to visit only my father each summer. Seeing my own bairn return from Islay so happy and thriving only compounded my bitterness. And after my father died, I continued my intemperate behavior.”

“But since Alastair was born ye have changed, Moire Rose,” Fiona said.

“Aye, yer coming at first angered me, and then my wee grandson came into this world. I looked at him, Fiona, and realized then that I could not waste any more time in anger. I let myself lose my only child even before he was born. I have no one to blame but myself. Donald MacDonald was honest with me. I accept yer proposal that we all begin anew today. Ye have brought happiness into this house, although I realize it has not been easy for ye. Ye loved another once, I believe, but I will ask ye no questions. I already have yer word that ye will not bring shame to my son, and I believe ye.”

To Fiona’s surprise her mother-in-law enfolded her in a bony embrace. “Thank ye, my child, for what ye have done for all of us and for the gift of love ye have brought us all.”

Fiona gently hugged Moire Rose back, kissing her on the cheek before breaking off the embrace. “I had best finish dressing,” she said softly.

The older woman nodded. “Aye. They’re already waiting on ye in the hall. Nairn is so nervous, ye’d think this was the first time he was marrying ye.” She chuckled. “I offered him a wee dram of wine, but he refused me, saying that ye had bid him come sober to his marriage.”

Fiona could not help but smile at the woman’s words. “I also bid him bathe himself,” she said mischievously.

“He smells like a bouquet of flowers,” Moire Rose assured her. Then with a nod she left.

Fiona pulled on her clean white stockings and a pair of soft leather ankle boots. Nelly tipped a soft cotton chemise over her mistress, followed by the forest-green velvet houppelande. Next the servant brushed her mistress’s long black hair, fitting it into the silver caul. She affixed over it a silver brocade and green velvet fillet with a single green stone in its center that rested in the middle of Fiona’s forehead. Lastly, Nelly carefully draped the length of plaid called Hunting MacDonald, which Colin MacDonald favored. It was a leaf green with both narrow and wide white stripes, and here and there within the pattern were woven blocks of a darker green. At her mistress’s shoulder Nelly pinned the silver brooch of the Hay chieftain. The badge was circular with a falcon rising out of a crest coronet. Engraved upon the badge was the clan motto: Serva Lugum, Keep the Yoke. Fiona smiled. She had, it seemed, been yoked since birth. There was little chance she would ever be unyoked.

She descended into the hall with Nelly by her side, Nairn’s piper leading them as he played. To her surprise the sun was shining through the high windows. It was a good portent, she thought. There were branches of colored leaves decorating the room, and all the castle folk were assembled. She heard Alastair whimper from the arms of the girl chosen to watch over him. Upon the high board were Father Ninian’s traveling crucifix and a pair of silver candlesticks, and in them burned good beeswax tapers. The piper ceased.

“Are ye ready to proceed, my daughter?” the priest asked her.

Fiona nodded, reached out to take Colin’s hand, and drew him before Father Ninian. The priest began, but Fiona heard little of what he said. The man by her side should have been Angus Gordon, but Angus Gordon had so easily given her up for dead, or lost, and taken a milk-and-water English wife to please his king. Damn him for it! No, she told herself fiercely, she had to put her anger behind her. She could not, would not, start this real marriage to Nairn with a heart filled with bitterness. Colin was a good man, and he loved her. He deserved a wife who was faithful not only in body but also in mind.

Farewell, my Black Angus. She would think of him no more.

They were wed. Nairn kissed her heartily, then turned about and declared a holiday for the castle folk and all his clansmen.

“What will ye have of me, Fiona mine? For this day I will give ye anything it is in my power to give ye. I love ye that much,” he declared loudly before everyone in the entire hall. “Ye have but to name yer gift, and it is yers!”

“Make peace with yer mam,” Fiona said quietly, but everyone heard her and looked in surprise from the bride to Moire Rose. Fiona beckoned her mother-in-law to them. “I will have peace in my house, Colin MacDonald. Yer mam and I have made our peace, but we will have no true peace until ye make it, too. That is the gift I would have of ye, my lord and husband.”

Mother and son looked at each other, neither certain of what to say, but then Moire Rose said softly, “Fiona had said this would be a new beginning for us all, Nairn.” Tears filled her blue eyes. “Ye look so much like him, my son.”

“Now there is something we already have in common, madam,” Nairn told her gently. “We both loved Donald MacDonald.” He enfolded her in his big embrace while those in the hall erupted into cheers.

“Ye have performed a miracle, my lady,” the priest told Fiona sincerely. “God will bless ye for it. It was surely fated that ye come to Nairns Craig.”

“Be certain ye tell the king that when ye see him,” Fiona whispered. Hearing her son howling, she started to leave the high board to go and feed him. “I will be back after I have let yer son drink his fill,” she told her bridegroom, who, she had to admit, looked very handsome in his kilt and white shirt.

He grinned, calling after her, “He will need a playmate shortly, sweeting. We must think on it.”

Fiona turned, saying, “A puppy, perhaps, Colly?” Then, laughing, she hurried to fetch the child.

“Ye are a fortunate young man, Colin MacDonald,” the priest said. “Many cases of handfast, or bride-stealing, don’t end as happily as yers has. Remember the tragedy of yer wife’s parents. Don’t forget to thank our good Lord when ye pray this night. I shall say compline before ye seek yer beds. And tomorrow after the mass I shall be on my way. I will not return until the spring.”

“Are ye certain,” Nairn asked Father Ninian, “that ye will not stay with us, good Father? Ye would be more than welcome.”

“Nay, my son,” the priest replied. “I will renew myself at Glenkirk Abbey this winter, immersing myself once more in the religious life of my house. But come the first wind from the south, the sight of the snow melting on the bens, a violet beneath my foot, and I shall be on my way once more to bring what Christian comfort I can to these highlands. Perhaps when I am older I will settle in one place, but not now, my lord, although I thank ye for the offer.”

The remainder of the day was spent in feasting and dancing. When the afternoon came, they went outside into the castle’s big grassy courtyard, where the men stripped their shirts off and hurled javelins and heavy round stone balls to see who could gain the greatest distance. Kegs of ale were set up, and shortly the men’s aim was less than accurate. The piper began to play, following them back into the hall as the day waned. Fiona once again danced the bridal dance with her husband, after which the men began to dance, and Roderick Dhu was suddenly prancing boldly before Nelly, holding out his hand to her.

For a long moment Nelly hesitated, but finally she accepted his invitation, and they danced together. Everyone in the hall knew what it meant. In his invitation to the dance Roderick Dhu had made plain his intentions to court Nelly formally. Until she either accepted him or rejected him, no other man would seriously seek the girl’s company. The look upon Nelly’s face made clear there was no happier lass in the hall that night.

“Do ye approve?” Nairn asked Fiona.

Fiona nodded. ” ‘Tis her choice. I offered to return her to Brae, but she insisted upon staying with me, and not alone for yon laddie. She is my servant, but she is also my friend, Colly. Nelly will have her own will in this matter.”

“As ye didn’t,” he said softly.

“Oh, in the end I have gotten my own way, Colin MacDonald. I would not have wed ye in the church if 1 didn’t want to. Now, let me go, for the bairn needs his nourishment before he is put to bed.”

“We must find a wet nurse for the laddie.”

“Not yet.”

“Soon,” he said through gritted teeth. “My son encroaches upon our time together. I find I am growing jealous.”

“In a few months we will choose a healthy lass to nurture our laddie. By then I will undoubtedly be with bairn again, my lord, if ye can but do yer duty by me.” With a mischievous wink she rushed off.

He watched her go to their son, her sudden change in attitude making him intensely curious. Turning to the priest, he said, “Since yer arrival she has turned about. What did ye say to her, Father?”

The priest looked up reluctantly, for his plate was filled with the sort of fine foods he would not see once he had reentered his abbey for the winter, contemplating how he should answer.

“From the beginning I have counseled marriage within the precincts of the holy church, my lord. Yer wife was angered at ye when we first met almost a year ago, for she was newly stolen. But in that time the bairn has come and suckled at her breast. She is content at last. She has made her peace with herself. Do not question yer good fortune. She is a fine woman and has brought calm to yer house.”

“I suppose ye are right, Father,” Nairn replied, thinking that the priestly counsel was good. Fiona’s heart seemed to be turning toward him, as he had wanted all along. Yet, suddenly, in the midst of his happiness, a tiny worm of doubt began to writhe within him.

“In yer regular travels ye pass near Brae,” he said. “What news of the laird? Did he seek after Fiona?”

“Aye, he did,” Father Ninian replied, “but you covered your tracks well, my lord, and he found no trace of her.”

“So he simply gave up? I’d not have thought it of him.”

“The king gave him a wife,” the priest said, remembering what Fiona had told him-and wishing to turn Nairn’s thoughts. “The laird’s wife is with child.”

“Is she? Then may she have a son as fine as mine.”

***

Colin remained in the hall after it emptied, watching his wife go about her evening duties. The trestles had been cleared and put back against the walls. She went from candle to lamp, snuffing them out. She banked the fires in the fireplaces neatly, then called to him. Colin rose and accompanied his wife up the stairs to their bedchamber.

“I have sent Nelly to bed,” she said softly as he barred the door behind them. “We can help each other to undress, can we not?” She sat down and, holding out her foot, said, “Unboot me, my lord.”

He drew the boots off and followed with her knitted stockings. He sat down so that she might do the same for him.

“Stand up,” he said.

Fiona obeyed the command, facing him and unlacing his shirt as he unlaced her gown. Her hands smoothed across and up his chest, pushing the garment off his shoulders. He pulled the houppelande from her, letting it puddle about her ankles. Swiftly Fiona stripped her chemise off, then unbuckled the wide leather belt he wore. His kilt fell to the ground. His fingers were clumsy as they undid her fillet, then her caul, which he put aside upon a table.

“Tell me, Nairn,” she said in a low, seductive voice, “have ye ever made love to a woman slowly?” She drew the word out so that it sounded like slooowly.

“Aye,” he told her, fascinated by this new woman she had suddenly become.

“Ye have not made love to me slowly,” she told him. “It has always been a battle between us. Ye were always quick.”

“I feared if I didn’t take what I could of ye quickly,” he said honestly, “I would not get anything of ye, Fiona mine.”

She slid her arms up about his neck, pressing her nakedness into his nakedness. “I told yer mam that we would all make a new beginning, Nairn.” She pulled his head down so that their lips were almost touching. “Wouldn’t ye like to have a new beginning with me?” The tip of her tongue ran across his mouth as she reached around him and squeezed his buttock.

“Jesu, yer brazen!” He groaned, feeling the heat of her thighs pushing against him. “I want ye, Fiona mine!”

“Slowly, Nairn, go slowly with me.” Her lips brushed teasingly against his lips. “I would spend the night in pure pleasure within yer strong arms. ‘Tis our wedding night.”

She was driving him wild with her seductive bedevilment. He drew a long, deep breath to clear his head, to regain control of this situation. Her faint smile mocked him. “I didn’t know ye could be such a witch,” he finally said with a chuckle. “Ye have been most restrained until now, sweeting. If ye loose the beast in me, ye must pay the consequences. Are ye prepared to do so, Fiona mine?”

She laughed low. It was a smoky sound. “I will tame the beast in ye, Colin MacDonald,” she told him boldly. “But can ye truly tame the beast in me is more to the point.” Arms about his neck, she vaulted herself lightly, wrapping her slender, strong legs about his waist.

He met the challenge, his mouth fusing against hers with a fierce passion. Tongues intertwined sensuously. Her flesh against his was afire. Fiona threw her head back, and, bending, he plunged his tongue between her breasts, drawing it slowly upward between the twin hillocks, across the flat of her chest, sliding over the pulsing flesh of her straining throat to the tip of her chin. She vibrated beneath his touch, and he mocked her, “Yer already hot to be sheathed, sweeting, but we shall go slowly, as ye have requested of me.” Then, walking across the floor with her, he set her upon the edge of the bed, drawing her legs up and over his broad shoulders, spreading her to his view.

Fiona was shocked, but she did not protest. She would meet his every desire openly and honestly. Still, she was hardly prepared when his fiery head disappeared between her thighs. She felt just the very tip of his tongue touch her little sugar button and begin to flick voluptuously back and forth over it. So acutely foreign yet thrilling was the sensation, that for a moment she lost her breath. To her surprise she felt a small flame of excitement beginning to lick at her awareness. She gasped, and the feeling spread until she was engulfed, almost suffocating with the pleasure he was giving her.

“Colin! Oh, holy Mother, yer killing me!” She tried to writhe away from him, for it was becoming too much to bear, but his big hands gripped her hips in an iron grasp, holding her firmly.

“Give yerself to me, Fiona mine.” He groaned, then his mouth and tongue were working upon her sentient flesh again.

She had never really allowed herself to trust so completely. She had never truly given up total control of herself. But now he tempted her, dared her, enticed her to entrust herself to him completely, as she had never before trusted anyone, even Angus Gordon. For a moment her body stiffened with guilt, but then she relaxed once again. Colin MacDonald was her husband. Fiona inhaled, and when she exhaled she gave herself over totally to this passionate man. Almost instantly she was rewarded as wave after wave of delight poured over her until she was mindless with pure, unadulterated enjoyment.

Raising his head, Colin saw upon her lovely face the satisfaction that he had given her. His manhood was hard as iron and quite ready to be equally satisfied. Drawing her up upon their bed, he lay next to her, pulling her into his arms and kissing her deeply, his tongue pushing into her mouth so that she might taste herself on it. Fiona shuddered, and her eyes fluttered open. He moved to fondle her breasts. The twin orbs were firm, the nipples thrusting forth defiantly. His mouth closed over one of those nipples, drawing hard upon it, his mouth filling with her milk, which he swallowed eagerly.

“Colly!’‘ Her tone was half shocked.

Slowly he lifted up his head, saying, “Why should our son have one of the best parts of ye, and I be denied, Fiona mine? By morning yer breasts will be full enough again for the bairn.” He moved to her other breast.

Her fingers entwined themselves within his red-gold hair. His actions somehow made them more a part of each other than they had ever been. She caressed the nape of his neck.

Once again he raised his head, his blue eyes meeting her green ones. “I canna go slowly any longer, sweeting,” he said in a thick voice. Then he covered her body with his, entering her with great restraint.

“Ah, my lord, I want ye deep within me, Colly. Fill me full with yer loving!”

Pushing her legs up and back, he plunged further within her than she could ever remember taking a man inside her. Finding a rhythm, he moved upon her until both of them were almost demented with their passion, and at its pinnacle both cried aloud with release.

Afterward he cradled her within the circle of his arms, stroking her dark hair, crooning aimlessly to her. “Never have I known such a lass as ye, Fiona MacDonald,” he said admiringly.

She chuckled weakly, exhausted by their bout of eros. “In the battle of love,” she told him, “I think we are more than well matched, my lord husband. I have never been loved before as ye loved me tonight.” She sighed happily and nestled against his chest.

Colin smiled in the darkness of the room. He had, he firmly believed, finally eradicated the ghost of Black Angus Gordon. “I love ye, sweeting.”

“I know.”

He waited for the words he so longed to hear from her. Would she finally say them tonight? Or did he have to wait?

Fiona debated with herself. Did she love him? She didn’t know. He was certainly a magnificent lover, but he was also a romantic at heart. He needed to hear her declare herself. “I feel differently about ye than I have in the past,” she said. “I think I could love ye, Colin MacDonald. Mayhap I already do, but when I finally have the courage to speak those words, my lord, ye will have no doubt that I mean them with all my heart and with all my soul.”

“Then I will wait, sweeting, for I know ye to be an honest woman who would not deceive me.” He kissed the top of her head.

For the briefest moment Fiona was flooded with guilt, but she overcame it. She had done nothing to harm the MacDonalds. She had told Father Ninian before she spoke her church vows that she was through spying for James Stewart. In the morning she would return to the priest the king’s coin. She was the lady of Nairn now, and would have no further use for it.

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