bothered by Osgard’s comment.

Osgard harrumphed and Barr kept his own council, but Talorc nodded. “No doubt. I had no intention of marrying the Englishwoman Emily, and ’tis clear my overlord realized that after the fact.”

“You did not go to war when the Balmoral took and kept her,” Barr said.

“A Chrechte does not go to war over the loss of a Sassenach,” Osgard spit out, disgust lacing every word.

Guaire frowned. “The Balmoral would.”

Talorc’s seneschal was right. The leader of the Balmoral clan, now married to the Englishwoman his king had first bid him wed, would no doubt go to war over her. As impossible as it might be for Talorc to understand, all indications led him to believe the other Chrechte laird loved his outspoken wife.

Osgard spun to face the younger warrior and would have knocked him to the ground, but another warrior’s hand stayed him. The big, battle-scarred Chrechte stared impassively at the old man. As big as Talorc’s second-in- command, Barr’s twin, Niall, could intimidate without effort. His hard features were made more imposing by the scars that marred the left side of his face.

Killing a Chrechte was no easy task, but Niall had almost died in the same battle that had claimed his older brother Sean, Talorc’s former second-in-command and brother-in-law.

Osgard flinched, even though no threat had been spoken from the massive warrior.

Talorc had to bite back amusement. Little intimidated the old Scot, but Niall did it without effort. In fact, besides himself, the only other member of the Sinclair clan that did not tremble in Niall’s presence was his twin, Barr.

Opening and closing his mouth like a fish, Guaire stared with wide eyes at Niall and Osgard.

“I see you decided to join us,” Barr said to his twin.

“I heard a messenger from the king had arrived.”

“You heard correctly,” Talorc replied.

“What did he want this time?” Niall asked, as if demands from Scotland’s monarch came frequently.

“You can release my arm,” Osgard groused.

“You will not hit the boy.”

“He insulted our laird,” Osgard said.

“I am not a boy,” Guaire said at the same time, and then when he realized what Osgard had said, he puffed up with offense. “I did no such thing.”

Niall released Osgard’s arm but stepped between the old man and the young redheaded warrior. “Our Guaire would no more insult our laird than betray him.”

“He said our leader was not as strong as the Balmoral.”

“I didn’t!” Guaire’s face flushed with his own fury.

Niall looked inquiringly at Talorc. “Were you offended, laird?”


“There. See?” Guaire crossed his arms, edging away from Niall toward Barr.

The lines around Niall’s mouth tightened, but he said nothing at the telling action.

Guaire said, “I merely referred to the fact that the Balmoral had found benefit in his English wife and our laird could as well. After all, she is Emily’s sister.”

Aye, the Balmoral had found a mate to his wolf in the English human. She had recently given birth to their first child. A daughter. Talorc actually felt pleasure for them, though he could not imagine why. The Balmoral was a pain in the ass. But a strong Chrechte warrior all the same.

“Our laird will not be stepping foot onto English soil to be wed,” Osgard said with pure conviction.

“Nay, I won’t.” Talorc turned to Guaire. “You will write a message to the king for me.”

“Yes, laird.”

“Tell him I will wed the Sassenach as requested, but will do so on the soil of our homeland. I will travel south through MacDonald land; they are our allies.”

“Yes, laird. Anything else?”

“I will accept the land bordering the Donegal clan that has been in dispute these years past and the other dowry items he offered to provide, but will require an additional twenty drums of mead and twenty shields, twenty helmets, ten swords, and ten poleaxes in payment for taking the English bride.”

“What need have we of shields and helmets?” Osgard asked, though it was clear he approved of Talorc requiring a bigger dowry of his king to marry the Sassenach.

“Not all our warriors are Chrechte,” Talorc reminded his aged advisor.

Some, indeed the majority of their clan, were human. They did not have the power of the wolf to protect them in battle, or the ability to change into the beast.

Only the Chrechte had those abilities, and their dual nature was a closely guarded secret. Though they made no secret of the truth, they saw themselves as superior warriors.

Human treachery could undermine Chrechte strength though. MacAlpin’s betrayal of the Chrechte people was still fresh in most of their minds, though it had taken place in the last century. Other wounds were more fresh, like the treachery of Talorc’s stepmother, the human Tamara. She had betrayed his father and the entire Sinclair clan. Her machinations had resulted in many deaths, both human and Chrechte alike, Talorc’s father and brother among them.

The fact that she had brought about her own death as well did not assuage Talorc’s fury or his grief.

’Twas not a thing Talorc was likely to forget. Ever.

He could almost pity the human Englishwoman chosen as his bride because of it.

Abigail snuck into the room her stepfather used mostly for meetings with his steward and the captain of his guard. It was also where he stored written correspondence and kept the few books that comprised the Hamilton library. No one but Sir Reuben and his lady, Abigail’s mother, were allowed in the room without an invitation.

Abigail’s clenched hands perspired with nerves at the prospect of being discovered, but she had no choice.

Not after the argument she had witnessed between her lady mother and her younger sister, Jolenta. She wasn’t supposed to have seen that, either, but needs must.

And she needed to know more than others about what occurred in the keep. If for no other reason than to protect her own secret.

So, without hesitation, she had watched her mother and sister’s disagreement from her hiding place on the other side of the bailey. She had seen only her sister’s face so knew only one side of the argument, but Jolenta’s words had caused deep disquiet within Abigail, and she had come looking for answers.

Among other, more alarming things, Jolenta had mentioned a message from the king. She had accused their mother, Sybil, of favoritism toward Abigail. Which had been so absurd, Abigail had laughed with silent, bitter mirth even as the argument continued.

Her watching had resulted in more questions than answers. Abigail was hoping the message from the king had been written and that she would find it here.

Before going to the Highlands to marry a laird there, her stepsister, Emily, had once said that she would never know what was going on if she did not eavesdrop. Abigail did not have the option of listening in on conversations, but she had her own methods of discovering that which her mother would keep hidden.

Like reading her sister’s lips from a distance.

Abigail had lost her hearing and her mother’s love six years ago to a fever that had almost taken her life. When she’d woken from the fever and her affliction was discovered, her mother had refused to return to Abigail’s sick-room. It was left to Emily, her stepsister only a couple of years older than she, to nurse Abigail back to health.

It had taken only one visit with her mother and stepfather after Abigail was well enough to leave her room for the girls to realize Abigail no longer held status as a precious daughter. Indeed, Sir and Lady Hamilton did their best to pretend Abigail did not exist at all.

Once the girls realized the effect her deafness had on their parents’ affections, they had known they could not let others know about it.

Emily had been worried Abigail would not only be rejected, but be seen as cursed. The older girl had taken on

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