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Plaid to the Bone
Scottish Highlands, 1521
“That’s the ugliest castle I’ve ever seen.”
Cait Grant pulled her sturdy Highland pony up short and cast Morgan MacRath a poisonous glare. She hated agreeing with her father’s advisor on anything, but the man had a point.
Bonniebroch’s gray stone was the exact color of the lowering sky. Perhaps if the sun were shining, the granite would glimmer a bit, but now the castle brooded between two sloping hills like a squat toad, all warty and freckled.
“May I remind ye I will shortly be the chatelaine of yon ugly castle?” Cait said.
“Perhaps it merely lacks a woman’s touch,” Morgan said with a sniff, his tone slick as always.
She didn’t know if he was taunting her or not. Word about the highlands was that it was hard to tell when her father was talking because Morgan MacRath’s lips moved at the same time. Wallace Grant trusted Morgan’s judgment so implicitly it was as if he’d been ensorcelled, folk said.
But they didn’t say it very loud.
“Appears there’s a passel o’ people here to welcome ye, milady.” Grizel drew her mule even with Cait’s mount. A long strand of the woman’s iron gray hair escaped from her kerchief, reminding Cait that her maid was not as young as she used to be. But Grizel wasn’t one to complain, even when Cait’s father insisted they travel overland, taking game trails in a circuitous route through the Highlands instead of sailing around to the Firth of Forth and up the River Tay. “Mind how many are coming and going over the drawbridge.”
Despite the castle’s dour appearance, the squeal of festive pipes floated up to their overlook.
“I doubt they’re here to welcome me, Grizel,” Cait said. “They didna know when we’d arrive.”
“We’ll never arrive if we tarry here, milady,” said Barclay, one of the two clansmen her father had sent to protect her on the journey. He tugged at his forelock in respect, then turned to the other guard. “Fife, take the lead.”
Fife, a barrel-chested one-eyed fellow, kneed his horse down the steep track without a backward glance, expecting the rest of Cait’s party to follow as if he towed them with invisible tendrils. Barclay formed their rearguard.
Of course, there was no need for a guard, either before or behind. Cait expected no trouble. They were a small party so as not to attract much notice as they traveled. Their mounts were sound, but not showy enough to excite envy. No highwaymen would suspect Cait’s dowry was secreted in the battered leather pouch draped over Morgan’s saddle. Barclay and Fife were old enough not to appear as dangerous as they really were. Cait’s clothing was so travel-stained and worn, no one would believe she was the wellborn daughter of a clan chieftain on her way to meet her bridegroom. No, they’d encountered no trouble on the road.
The real trouble will start once we arrive.
Fife halted when they reached the castle drawbridge. “Shall I ride on alone, milady, and leave the laird know ye’re waiting without?”
“No,” Morgan answered for her. “We dinna want him to see her for the first time looking like something the cat dragged back to the stoop. We’ll blend in with the rest of the folk in the bailey till we find the steward. Then he can whisk the lady away to her quarters where she can be made presentable.”
Irritation sizzled along Cait’s spine. She might as well have been a prize heifer to be groomed for judging at a fair. Unfortunately, Morgan’s logic was sound. The success of the plan, which only she and he were privy to, depended upon her bridegroom being pleased with her.
They rode through the portcullis and handed over their mounts to the stable lads who led them away to stalls butting the tall curtain wall. They were asked politely, but firmly, to leave their weapons on the stack by the barbican. The castle was under the bond of peace this day.
“See to milady,” Morgan told the others. “I’ll find the steward.”
“I’m hopin’ he takes his time,” Grizel said.
Cait hoped so too. There were rows of makeshift booths set up all around the bailey for them to explore. Tinkers mended pots and pans and offered new tin gewgaws for sale. Drapers displayed lengths of linen in saffron yellow, vibrant green and snowy white. Sweet-meat sellers and puppeteers had all the children in thrall, their sticky faces alight with wonder at the exploits of the glove puppets.
“Milady,” Barclay said, a gruff warning in his tone. “Dinna wander off.”
“There’s no harm here,” Cait said as she continued to stroll by the booths, stopping to admire a cunningly wrought necklace of amber set in silver. “All weapons are forbidden, remember.”
Barclay and Fife exchanged a guilty look. Somewhere on their disreputable persons they’d secreted a blade or two. Maybe even a small mace.
She couldn’t really scold them. There was a four-inch dagger hidden in the busk of her bodice which she would never think of surrendering, whether the castle was under the bond of peace or not. Not only did she wear it almost constantly, she knew how to use it.
But before she could ask what small arsenals their plaids concealed, a clattering uproar erupted on the other side of the bailey. A tall, skeletal man was dragging a much smaller one to the pillory in the center of the open space. Cait was swept along with the other fair-goers as they crowded toward this new spectacle. She and Grizel were separated from Barclay and Fife by the press of people.
“But I didna do anything,” the little fellow wailed.
“Ye’ve been cheating people all day.”
“I . . . I demand to see the laird to lay my case before him.”
Clearly the miscreant was grasping at anything to avoid time in the pillory. Cait’s father had often expounded on the character qualities of the laird of Bonniebroch. The list didn’t include mercy.
Mia hopes you’ll drop by each week to follow her progress on Plaid to the Bone. This story will be released by Kensington in September 2013.