Highland Master

By: Hannah Howell

HIGHLAND MASTER

by Hannah Howell



Chapter One

“Six riders at the gate, m’lady.”

Triona looked up from the shirt she was mending and stared at young Angus, her heart pounding with a fear she struggled to control. It had been quiet for weeks, a long span of peace they had all enjoyed. Now she feared it was at an end. Even telling herself that six warriors were no real threat even to her poor garrison did not immediately put to rest the unease that now gripped her. Banuilt was weak. She knew it, and any seasoned warrior who looked around would quickly know it, too.

“The Grants?” she asked as she hastily set aside her sewing, almost hoping it was the neighboring laird and his men, for those men would at least not try to kill them all.

“Nay. One of the riders is a woman. She claims she is your cousin.” Angus scratched at the few thin red hairs on his pointed chin, which he proudly declared his manly beard. “Lady Arianna.”

“Arianna?” Triona frowned as she struggled to recall her cousin by marriage—and a few times removed, if she remembered correctly. “She is in France.”

“Nay, m’lady. She be at the gate.”

Triona fought the urge to rub her temples where the pinch of a headache began to bloom. “Lead me to them then, Angus.”

He shrugged his bony shoulders. “I be willing, though I am surprised ye dinnae ken where the gates are by now.” He strode toward the door leading out of the great hall, waving at her to follow him.

The headache grew a little larger as she followed him, resisting the strong temptation to kick him in his scrawny backside. If she had not known him since he was little more than a child, she would think the violent fever he had survived two years ago had burned away half his wits. Triona then silently scolded herself for those unkind thoughts. Angus was not sharp-witted, never had been, but he was good-hearted and an astonishingly fierce and able fighter. There were too few of those left at Banuilt, all the best having fled to France to fight for coin. Despite how difficult it could be to have a conversation with Angus, she often wished for a few more of his ilk. All the trouble they had been having lately had not cost them any lives yet, but she feared that could all too easily change.

Her attention was swiftly caught by the riders just beyond the gates, all irritation with Angus forgotten. Triona recognized Arianna immediately despite the many years it had been since she had last seen the woman, for there was no forgetting those golden eyes of hers, but her interest was caught firmly by the five men who rode with her. They were all big, strong men and well armed. No matter why her cousin had come to Banuilt, Triona prayed the woman intended to stay for a while and keep her guard with her. If nothing else, she might be able to get Arianna’s men to spend a little time training hers.

“Triona!” cried Arianna. “Tell your men to stand down, please. I desperately need to dismount.”

“All is weel, men,” Triona said. “Let them in and help them with their horses.”

It was hard, but Triona pretended that she did not notice the envy her men displayed over the fine horses and weaponry as they moved to help her guests. All of Banuilt’s best weapons and horses had gone to France with the garrison when it had left, and she did not have the means to replace them. The women who moved out into the bailey, now that it was obvious there was no threat, were overtly interested in the five strong warriors riding with Arianna. Triona was silently preparing a speech to give the women of Banuilt concerning the need to remain chaste if only because they needed no more fatherless bairns to care for, when her cousin reached her side. The moment Arianna hugged her, Triona’s concern about the morals, or lack thereof, of the women of Banuilt fled her mind. Arianna was with child. She prayed that was not why her cousin had suddenly decided to visit, for she did not need some angry man arriving at the gates, demanding his child.

“Cousin?” Triona stepped back a little, grasped Arianna’s hands, and looked at the unmistakable rounding of her cousin’s belly. “Ye are with child.”

“Aye, but I will tell ye all about it later, if I may,” Arianna said. “Right now I truly need to use your garderobe.” She laughed. “Or a bucket in a corner. E’en a bush to squat behind. Anything. Now!”

The only woman near them was Angus’s sister Mary, and Triona sighed. “Mary, love, would you please take Lady Lucette . . .”

“’Tis MacFingal now,” Arianna said, “but we can talk about that later, too.”

“Oh, aye, that we will.”

“My companions will need beds. Most of them are my kin.”

“Mary, take her ladyship to a bedchamber so that she might refresh herself.”

“Which bedchamber?” asked Mary.

“Whichever one is empty and clean. And we shall need water heated so that all our guests may wash away the dust of a long journey.”

“And they are going to be needing bedchambers, too?”

“Aye, just as her ladyship said, but someone else will see to that. Ye will see to her ladyship and call for heated water, please.”

“How do I do both?”

Noticing that her cousin was beginning to look pained, Triona said, “Just tell one of the other lassies as ye take her ladyship to her chambers. Now!”

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