Authors: Laurin Wittig
ALSO BY LAURIN WITTIG
Guardians of the Targe series
The Legacy of MacLeod series
Charming the Shrew
Daring the Highlander
The Kilmartin Glen series
The Devil of Kilmartin
MacAlister’s Hope, a novella
The Winter Stone
Jewels of Historical Romance
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 Laurin Wittig
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake are trademarks of
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Cover design by Regina Wamba
For all the amazing, strong, talented women in my life—each one of you inspires me!
Southwestern Scottish Highlands, 1307
her dark hair out of her face with the back of her water-wrinkled hand, then looked up from the huge iron pot she was scouring as she had every morning and every evening for what seemed her entire lifetime, though it had only been a fortnight or a little more. The sun was barely peeking over the ben into the Glen of Caves as she glanced down the length of the narrow clearing outside the caves that for weeks now had been home to the MacAlpins of Dunlairig. Mud puddles from last night’s rain had collected in those places her kinsmen trod most—around the cookfire, on the path to the privies, and here, where she squatted, as she did twice a day, scouring pots.
A breeze, soft with damp and scented with the earthy aromas of the forest floor and the sharp freshness of pine and balsam, drifted across her face, shoving away the less pleasant odors of too many people living in too close quarters for too long. She gave thanks for the momentary respite and tried to ignore the beckoning of the forest that had of late become her refuge, her sanctuary.
She closed her eyes and tried to remember her life before this place. Before her mother died, before the castle’s curtain wall had fallen and the great hall burned, before her entire life had been ripped from her, leaving her alone amidst her clan—bitterly, silently, alone.
Scotia fisted her hands, ignoring the sting where the sand had scoured them as well as it did the pots, and reminded herself that this was war, as she did many, many times each day.
She opened her eyes and forced herself to look at the women huddled over their tasks, worried expressions drawing down every face she saw. Even the bairns and weans were unnaturally quiet. The few warriors about seemed to sag, as if the very ground pulled too hard upon them and they had not the strength to resist it much longer. If she was tired, she knew they were fatigued beyond measure from constant rounds of training, scouting, watching, planning, and back to training. Most of the warriors were deployed outside this glen, searching and watching for the next wave of English to arrive—her sister, Jeanette, the newest Guardian of the Highland Targe, had seen the arrival in a vision. Everyone was touchy, snapping at each other, the caves filled each night with the echoes of uncomfortable dreams.
Waiting was far worse than fighting.
This was war.
She kept saying that to herself, trying to make sense of the words. She had known war raged in Scotland most of her life, sometimes with the English, sometimes between factions of Scots, or even clan against clan, but never had it been this close, this personal. And this was personal. The English king had sent spies into her home—one had killed her mother, the other was now their chief and the husband of her cousin Rowan, also a Guardian of the Targe.
“Pay attention to those pots, Scotia,” Peigi, the elder who acted as chatelaine in this terrible excuse for a home, chided her, as she did every day of late. At least Peigi spoke to her . . . sometimes.
Scotia drifted through her kinsmen these days like a ghost everyone knew lived amongst them but no one wanted to acknowledge. After the clan’s success at the Battle of the Story Stone, a brief euphoria had swept through everyone but her. At first she had been too shocked at how close she had come to losing her life to join in the celebration—she ran her fingers along the healed, but
still raised line along her throat where the gap-toothed soldier had cut her before she could free herself—but then the clan’s mood had swiftly changed to anger at Scotia. They blamed her for causing both the battle and the death of the young warrior, Myles. Once the shouting stopped, she was left with averted gazes and silence even from her sister, Jeanette, and her cousin, Rowan. Her father scowled at her and said nothing. Even Duncan, who always seemed to champion her, often at the same time he chided her for whatever scrape she had gotten herself into, refused to look at her.
“Scotia, the pots!” Peigi barked at her. “They do not clean themselves.”
“Aye, Peigi, I ken that all too well. Leave me be.” She scowled at the old woman and scooped up a fresh handful of sand from the battered bucket at her side, and returned to scouring the large iron pot that was still crusted with bits of porridge from the morning meal.
“That I cannot do, lest you hare off after some new scheme that will get more of us killed without cause.”
“I did not—”
“You did.” Her voice quavered, but was still strong enough to carry to all who worked near them. “We all ken it, as you should.”
Scotia sighed, scooped up another handful of sand, hardening herself against the humiliation she knew the old woman was going to throw at her again, railing at Scotia for something that was not her fault though Scotia seemed to be the only one who understood that.
“You went against your chief’s orders and forced Myles into a position he should not have been in, and for that he paid with his life.” Peigi glared at Scotia, something she had never done before Myles’s death. “We have all coddled you too long. ’Tis beyond time for you to grow up and take responsibility for your actions.” Peigi banged a long wooden spoon against the rim of another iron pot that hung over the cookfire, then replaced the lid and turned her full attention back to Scotia, her gnarled hands fisted on her hips, one still clenching the spoon. “You are a woman now, Scotia, but
still you act a child. It is unbecoming of the daughter of a chief, the daughter of anyone, to be so thoughtless with the lives of others.”
Scotia peeked through her lashes as several other women working near the cook circle stared up at her. The momentary acknowledgment that she still existed among them almost made up for the glints of distrust and disappointment she saw in their eyes. She looked away from them all. It was not her fault that the English had killed Myles. Aye, he would not have left his perch high in a tree for the ground if she had not passed by his lookout position, but she was not the one to pull the blade and kill him.
She turned her attention back to her task, blocking out the sideways looks, the shaking heads, and the heat on her cheeks that she knew gave away her humiliation at Peigi’s groundless blame. She could shun them just as much as they shunned her. Besides, if the clan had taken up the task to fight the English who had made their way into the MacAlpins’ glen, rather than just watch for them, she never would have taken it upon herself to search them out to deliver justice. If the clan had attacked, she never would have been taken hostage, never would have had a knife held at her throat. It was not her fault they had a chief who did not ken how to lead. ’Twas Rowan’s fault for falling in love with the spy, then declaring him her Protector, displacing Scotia’s da from a position he had held with honor for many years.
But then again, if the clan had attacked, as it should have, she never would have had reason to train herself in the art of weaponry so she would never again be at the mercy, if one could call it that, of the English bastards.
A bloodthirstiness she had not thought herself capable of until recently took over her mind, loosing all the hatred she had for the English to burn through her veins, gathering all the grief she had endured at their hands into a writhing ball of pain where her heart used to beat, and in her belly . . . she did not ken what that sensation was, but it roiled, dark and oily, demanding release. She had to be ready when this new and larger invasion of English soldiers
arrived, and she did not have long if Jeanette’s visions were correct—and they had been so far.
She kept scrubbing at the already clean pot while glancing around the clearing again, taking note that once more no one was looking at her. The council was huddled in their circle on the far end of the clearing arguing, though they kept their voices low enough she could not make out what the topic of dissension was today. She feared Nicholas would allow them to argue forever without ever stepping up and declaring what they would do, as was his right as chief and Protector of the Guardians. The women were all busy at their tasks, preparing food for the evening meal, spinning the wool that had been shorn from a few sheep before sending them off to hide with some of the older lads in the bens, or minding the wee ones. Peigi had sent the lads to gather wood, and the lasses to haul water. The warriors had disappeared to whatever duty they had for this day. Peigi was muttering to herself as she laid more fuel on the fire. She looked over at Scotia and wagged a finger at her, which Scotia knew was the woman’s admonishment to stay put, then she stomped off toward the main cave as if she marched into battle.
The forest ran right up the benside to the edge of this narrow clearing. The sweet scented breeze once more washed over her. The trills of small birds and the rustle of leaves called to her to slip into the cool, welcoming quiet of its arms, an enticing escape from all the averted eyes and thunderous silence that was her only company amongst her kin. She was tired of pretending she didn’t care how they treated her. She was tired of Peigi’s constant barrage of blame. She could not bear to waste another minute doing things that did not matter.
This was war
, she reminded herself again, and she was not about to be left behind scrubbing pots when the next battle was engaged. Next time, one way or another, it would be she who cut down their foes.