A Rogue in a Kilt

 

Birdalane or burdalane. A term of sorrowful endearment, applied to an only child, especially a girl, to signify she is without comrades or companions. ~ The Auld Scots Dictionary


Chapter 1

Lock Ard Forest
Scotland
September, 1410

Angus MacDougall, astride his charger, ducked but not fast enough. The back lashing pine bough caught him firmly on the back of the head. He cursed as he rubbed the welt. “I swear if a fair and fulsome lady isna offered to me at Beal Castle, I’m stealing the first winsome lass that crosses my path.”

But then he couldn’t. He pledged to bring home a lady, a chatelaine.

Worse, he didn’t want a wife. Had never wanted a wife. He liked taking his pleasure when the opportunity presented itself, then kissing the lass goodbye without fashing about her and home. Nor was he fit company for man or beast after battle. So why on earth had he bragged to his liege that he could take to wife any fair lady he chose—in three months time, no less?

His best friend Duncan MacDougall had countered, “Ye braggart, I’ll wager ye canna find such a lass by the Samhain solstice. If ye can, I’ll hand over the keys to Donaliegh. If ye fail, ye forfeit six months’ wages.”

Angus’s heart had stuttered. “Ye’ll make me liege of Donaliegh?” Once a Stewart holding, Donaliegh hadn’t had a true liege lord in years, not since Dumont’s death. Twas by now in serious disrepair, but to be his own man... a laird.

“And Albany has approved this?” With their boy king held in the Tower of London, the lad’s uncle, the Duke of Albany, now held sway over all.

“Aye, he has. But fair warning, yer lady must be a willing one and able to take on the responsibilities of Donaliegh.”

Angus had smiled into his cup. Three long months to find an agreeable lady seemed reasonable, if not excessive.

He held out his hand. “Done!”

But now, with two months gone and himself yet again in enemy territory—there wasn’t a way to get from east to west without going through some rival clan’s holdings—he wasn’t any closer to his goal than he had been when he’d left Castle Blackstone.

He huffed. Did he not stand six feet and a hand high? Was he not brawn from top to bottom with sound teeth and a full head of hair? Was he not a skilled knight, his laird’s confidant and right arm? What wasn’t to like?

But then, he was also known as Angus the Blood, supposedly a man of fearsome bloodthirsty habits—reputed to eat the livers of his enemies. It made him ill thinking his carefully cultivated and totally false reputation should now result in no Donaliegh and the loss of six months wages. Ack!

He’d been traveling for weeks from keep to castle, climbing mountains and slogging through bogs, sleeping on brittle heather most nights, and the only lasses offered to him thus far had been either terrified of him, curt—if not outright nd waited for her company.

Several minutes passed and then, as expected, came the flutter of wings batting air.

Cooing puffs of white and gray landed at her feet. She held her breath, not daring to move, though she dearly wanted to kneel and touch the floating bodies. As the doves pecked at her crumbs she wondered, are doves soft? Softer than Hen?

Poor Hen. The speckled beastie hadn’t survived the winter, had been caught in an ice storm, but she still resided with Birdi in spirit, her flesh having provided sustenance and her feathers a new pillow.

Birdi leaned forward to get a clearer view of the doves she’d been trying to tame all summer, the chair squeaked, and the doves took flight on frenzied wings.

“Ooh...cattle pies.”

She was alone again. Through burgeoning tears she looked about her fuzzy world of green blobs, brown spikes, and great expanses of pale blue; a world she could see only by daylight, and then none too well. She twisted a loose lock around her finger. Another fair day loomed before her. Aye, and she should be thanking Mother of All.

She dashed the wetness from her cheeks with the heels of her hands and gave herself a good shake. She should be harvesting blackberries and grain for the coming winter before all the beasts and vermin ate them, nay sitting here sniveling and feeling forlorn because she hadn’t anyone to talk to.

With luck she might again spy Wolf as she roamed the woods and crept along the outer edges of the villagers’ fields gathering wayward stalks of grain.

The moon had gone from new to full since last she’d seen Wolf, had last felt his soft tongue lick her cheek. It still didn’t seem possible three whole seasons had passed since she’d discovered him in a hollowed log, a skinny pup with an injured leg. Nursed back to health, he’d grown quickly. But one night she’d awakened to howling and then he was gone.

How wonderful it would be to stroke his soft underbelly, to have him tugging at her skirt in play again. Aye.

Heart lightened by the prospect of finding him again, she went back into her croft and reached for her gathering basket beneath the table. As she picked it up, her fingers began to itch and tingle.

Ack! Twas the need returned.

She cursed and pushed the basket back under the table.

She no longer fought the need—the urge to create or help—as she had as a bairn; she now kenned it would only grow into a formidable distraction.

She plopped down onto her three-legged cuttie stool, took a deep settling breath, and opened her mind. After a moment she reached above the water worn stones that formed her ingle-side—her hearth—for the basket containing her collection of woolen threads, scraps of cloth, and trinkets. She pulled out her bone needle and squinting, threaded it. Setting to work she muttered, “Tis a wonder I get anything done.”

An hour later, she studied her creation: a doll with wood-button eyes and combed fleece hair dressed in a kirtle made from a scrap of linen. Now why had she made this? She wasn’t a bairn nor had she one. She heaved a sigh and added a blue ribbon to the doll’s yellow hair.

Doll and gathering basket in hand, she headed for the path that separated her world from that of the Macarthurs. As the sun broke over the treetops, she caught the sweet tang of decaying apples on the wind. Were there still enough apples on branches to make the fight through the brambles worthwhile? Mayhap. If not, she could still gather windfalls, carve out what she could for herself and dry the rest for Deer’s winter.

Finally spying light green and gold flashing between the lean black lines of shadowed tree trunks, a sure sign the glen with its rutted path—to where she dinna ken—and its old oak stump lay, she hurried on.

At the roadway’s edge she hunkered down behind a dense hedge and listened.

Hearing only the twitter of birds, the whisper of wind in the long-needled pines above her, she gathered her courage and scampered across the clearing to the stump.

Wider than her arms could span, the ancient stump had served as a depository for gifts since her mother’s time; for those Birdi left when the need struck and for the tributes she rarely received.

She placed the doll on the stump and retreated into the woods. To wait for the one who would come.

Before long she heard a whistled tune and then footfalls before hearing a lad’s voice say, “’Tis only one birthday, Meg. Ye’ll have more, many more, and come ye twelfth, Ma and Da will give ye sweet cakes and mayhap, the dolly.”

She heard a sniff and a wee lass whine, “’Tis a long way away...that day. What if I dinna want a dolly then? What if I’m too auld? I’d so lusted...”

The footsteps and sniffles grew louder before the lad said, “I ken ‘tis hard lustin’ and nay gettin’, but Ma did make bread pudding.”

The lass sniffed loudly. “Aye, ‘twas that.” The footsteps stopped and the lass gasped. “Oh, Jamie, Mama saw me greeting, saw my tears! What if she now thinks I’m ungrateful? Am I bound for hell?”

Birdi frowned. Hell? Where was Hell?

The lad mumbled what sounded like a curse and told the lass, “Ye willna be going anywhere but home with me, ye wee imp.”

He must have tickled her because she giggled, “Stop that!” Birdi heard the patter of running feet and a moment later a squeal.

“Jamie, come quick. Look!”

Running footsteps followed. The lass exclaimed, “’Tis a dolly, just as I lusted for, Jamie, with big brown eyes and hair of gold. And see, she even has a blue ribbon in her hair. But who could have—Jamie, do you think...?” The lass’s voice dropped to an awe-filled whisper, “Could the spae have placed it here?”

The spae—the wise healer. ‘Twas better than some names Birdi had been called. Grinning—she now kenned why she’d made the doll; she backed farther into the trees. There wasn’t a reason to stay and every reason to flee.

Birdi hoped the lass’s parents would let her keep her gift, as she traveled deeper into the forest following the scent of apples.

Her skirt caught and pain pierced her knee. She rubbed her leg and squinted at the dark mass at her side. She’d found the thorny hedge protecting the apple tree. Or rather, it had found her.

Since there wasn’t a chance of her climbing over it, she dropped to her knees. The beasties of the forest also wanted apples, and with luck she’d again find their trail through the brambles.

It took a while, but she found their path, an opening tall enough for her to travel through but only on her belly. Pushing her basket in before her, she crawled into the tunnel and prayed she wouldn’t meet a boar coming the other way. Boars were the only beasts within the forest she feared. One, a great rutting bull, had gored her mother.

When she saw sunlight and a hint of bright green, she thanked Goddess and quickened her pace.

The apple tree stood alone in a patch of knee high grass, its gnarled branches so weighted with fruit they touched the ground. She took a deep breath of sweet tangy air and laughed. Tonight she would feast on apples and porridge.

A short time later—her basket and pockets full—she crawled back into the tunnel. Out the other end, she turned toward her croft. With her thoughts on coring and drying the fruit, and gathering and hulling wheat, she startled, hearing a branch break on her left. She froze and tipped her head, strained to catch further discordant sounds.

Squish, squish, squish.

The fine hairs on her arms stood. Was that the sound of pine needles cracking under a heavy foot? She spun, heart in her throat. No villager, surely, would dare enter her world.

They—adults and bairns alike—kenned the rules laid down long before she was born; if she was needed—if a villager was injured or ill—a family member need only stand at the edge of the forest and wish for her. She would, in due course, find her way to the one in need. Her healing done—often with barely a word exchanged—they would give her eggs or mayhap even a bag of fleece in tribute and she would take her leave.

She would then lie abed—often racked with fever or pain for days—always thankful she wouldn’t have bairns. For no babe, no matter how loved, should be cursed with her gift of healing.

For with it not only came pain, but this awful blindness.

A branch snapped to her right. She spun and sniffed the air. Was it man or beast? She cursed the too-still air. Were there two or only one moving quickly? Which way should she run?

Goddess, help me!

The memory of her mother’s tale—of once being caught out in the open—caused her heart to hammer. Birdi had been the result, a constant reminder of that painful day.

Never having had a father or brother—she had, in fact, been thankful she hadn’t one trying to marry her off—she now fervently lusted for a protector, someone who could see where she could not, who could warn her of danger where she sensed it not.

A firm hand clasped Birdi’s shoulder.

She shrieked and lashed out. Fingers curled like talons, she swung wildly at her assailant as apples rolled beneath her feet, threatening to topple her.

The hand fell away as suddenly as it had landed. “Hush, Birdi, hush! ‘Tis only I, Tinker.”

“Tinker?” She wanted to smite him for startling her so. Short of breath, with her heart still skipping and thudding she demanded, “What on earth were ye thinking...skulking up on me? I could have clawed yer eyes out.” My word!

“Beggin’ yer pardon, dear lady. ‘Twasna my intent.” Tinker’s face suddenly loomed before her, scruffy and as dark as saddle leather. Buried within a myriad of comical folds sat two grass-green eyes, a bulbous nose, and a toothless grin. She tapped the tip of his nose. “Ah, ‘tis ye.”

“Aye, and I’ve a gift for ye.”

“A gift?” She knelt, pulled her basket onto her lap, and started gathering her spilled apples. Tinker knelt to help. “Now why would ye bring me a gift, Tinker?”

“For saving me life is why.” He looked about and told her, “That’s the lot, lass. All yer apples are in the basket.”

They stood and she laced her free arm through his. His coat, the one she’d patched and aired in the sun, once again smelled of wood-smoke and male sweat. “Taking care of ye was the least I could do after falling on ye.” In truth she’d tripped over him—found him more dead than alive, his tools and trinkets gone—last Beltane. “Did the sheriff capture the curs who waylaid ye?”

Tinker snorted. “Nay, and I dinna expect he ever will, what with the number of ruffians about. Nettles all. ‘Tis good that ye keep to the woods, lass.”

“I havena a choice. ‘Tis all I ken and trust.” She’d been told the world beyond her woods held castles, princes, and miraculous colored glass, but that it also held untold horrors. Like priests in black gowns, her mother had warned, who burned the likes of her on pyres.

“Tell me,” he said, pulling a thick twig from her hair, “what have ye been about that ye’re covered in mud?”

She held a flawless red globe out to him. “They hide behind a bramble hedge.”

“Ah.” Grinning, he snatched the apple from her hand. “Thank ye.”

“Come.” She waved in the direction of her croft. “Sup with me. I want to hear about yer travels. Were ye in time for Sterling Fair?” He’d been on his way there when he’d been waylaid. As Tinker had mended, he’d filled her head with tales of fire-eaters, fearless knights, and elegant ladies dressed in gold. “Was there a puppet show and jugglers? Was there pork pies and music? Was there—“

“Whoa, lass.” Around a bite of apple, he mumbled, “I would love to sup and answer yer questions, truly, but I canna take the time.” He held out a large leather pouch. “I only came by to give ye this.”

Taking the bag from his hand, Birdi struggled to keep her face placid. So many months had passed since last she’d supped with him, had spoken with someone who wasn’t fearful of her.

Grinning, Tinker waved an impatient hand. “Open it, lass.”

Masking her disappointment behind an understanding smile, she did as he bid and found a treasure trove: a yard of scarlet ribbon, a shiny silver buckle, a skein of deep green wool, and a foot-long length of palm-wide lace.

“Oh my.” Such prizes left her at a loss for further words.

Tinker’s gnarled finger traced the raised stitches surrounding a delicate lace petal. “’Tis from Italia. The ladies of Edinburgh don such. Thought ye might find some use for it.” He shrugged. “‘Tisna something most about these parts find useful.”

Tears welled behind Birdi’s lashes, clouding what little vision she had. He lied. Anyone would treasure what she held in her hands. She reached out and stroked his whiskered cheek. “Thank ye.”

Tinker ducked his chin and mumbled, “’Tis the least I can do.”

“’Twas a favor ye did me.” She treasured their brief time together. She hadn’t had a friend before or since.

He patted her arm. “Be that as it may, I still thank ye.” He craned his neck to look through the treetops. “‘Tis close to mid morning. I must take leave or I willna make Aberfoyle by gloaming.” He took a final bite of apple, tossed the core, and then took her hands in his. “I truly wish ye well, lass.”

“I wish ye the same.” As he turned away, she asked, “When will ye be back?”

“Next summer, lass. I’ll look for ye then.”

Next summer? Her heart sank. Need a whole year pass before she could again stand close to someone, converse, or be touched? She heaved a sigh as her tears took shape. Apparently so.

She looked up to find him beyond sight and called “Take care, Tinker John.”

When silence answered back, her tears spilled.

Birdi turned toward the heat of the sun and therefore her pool. Mayhap a bath would wash off not only the dirt coating her, but the melancholy now weighing her spirit down.

Angus rousted from a dreamless sleep when something wet brushed his ear. He lashed out with a clenched left fist, his dirk at the ready in his right.

Heart hammering, he rolled to his feet and found Rampage, legs splayed and ears pinned, staring at him as if he’d never seen a man before in his life. “God’s teeth, horse! What the hell were ye thinking?”

Angus sheathed his dirk, shoved his hair out of his face, and settled on his haunches. His mount—head down, eyes still wary—stepped back. Angus held out his hand. “I didna mean to scare ye, ye big brute. Come.”

Rampage twitched his bruised nose and blew out a derisive snort.

“Ah, come on, lad, I didna mean to clout ye.” Realizing he’d best make amends quickly or he’d be playing catch-me-if-ye-can with his charger, Angus plucked a few tender shoots from the base of the nearest tree and held them out on an open palm. “Peace?”

Rampage, lips twitching, cautiously stretched out his neck to sniff the peace offering. Before Angus could catch his halter, Rampage’s head jerked up and his ears angled toward the glen. As his nares flared trying to catch a scent, Angus heard a splash.

He jerked to his feet and yanked his claymore from its sheath. Hopefully, there were no more than three or four Macarthurs in the glen. Rampage nickered and pawed the earth, and Angus hushed him.

Until he kenned his enemy’s number, he didn’t need a hundred stone of charger tromping and snorting announcing his presence. A handful of Macarthurs he could handle. Fighting more would put his and Rampage’s lives at risk.

Heart hammering, blood surging into tensed muscles, Angus crept to the forest edge aware Rampage slowly but quietly followed.

Finding only ripples rolling across the wee pool’s surface, Angus’s gaze raked the glen for intruders. It stood empty but for a few birds and butterflies. He blew out a breath. “’Twas only a fish, ye bloody igot.” Feeling the fool, he also felt less guilt over accidentally clouting his idiot mount, who’d started his blood racing for naught.

As Angus sheathed his claymore, the surface of the pool rippled again, this time with far larger waves. Blessed Mother! What manner of fish could possibly make such a wake? Before he could ponder further a dark shape broke the surface on the far side of the pool.

A woman—naked as the day she was born, as pale as a winter moon—rose like a phoenix to stand thigh deep in the water on the far shore.