Chapter OneNorthwest Coast of Scotland-August 1400
"Come, lass, surely my flattery deserves at least a wee smile."
Moira stole a glance at the man speaking to her. He had been watching her since she had boarded the ship three days before. Crooked Annie, her sharp tongued watchdog, had grumbled about the man and sternly warned Moira to avoid him. That was not easy to do on such a small ship.
He made her uneasy. His black hair was heavily streaked with gray, and his middle was very thick, causing his doublet to fit oddly. His black beard was straggly, and he wore his hat so low she could not really see his eyes.
Everything about him indicated an aging, somewhat unclean man, yet she noticed a few things that sharply contradicted that image. The tight sleeves of his elegant black doublet revealed strong, slender arms. His equally black hose fit snugly over long, well-shaped legs. His voice was deep and rich, the voice of a vibrant young man. He moved with a lithe grace that belied his apparent age and overfed condition. Then he smiled at her, and Moira was convinced he was not what he appeared to be. The revelation made her even more nervous. Glancing around for Crooked Annie, she was a little annoyed to see the gnarled old woman cozening up to an equally gnarled old sailor.
"She will be over to scold ye and hurry ye away soon enough," the man said.
"I believe I will go and join her." She uttered a soft gasp of surprise when he caught her by the hand and held her in place.
"Now, lass, ye dinnae wish to ruin the old crone's chance for a wee bit of loving, do ye?"
Moira was shocked by his blunt words. The thought of Annie doing any loving at all was almost as unsettling as being touched by the strange man. He started to grin, then frowned. She realized he could read the fear she was unable to hide. Her guardian had taught her well to fear men. It was unfair, but the moment the man grabbed her by the hand, she tensed for a blow.
"Ah, my poor, sweet, timid bairn, ye have no need to fear old George Fraser."
It stung to hear this man call her a baby, and she quickly regained some of her lost courage, yanking free of his hold. "As I see it, Master Fraser, a 'bairn' ought to be verra concerned when a mon thrice her age cozens up to her."
"Thrice her age?" George gasped then fiddled with the front of his doublet for a moment before shrugging. "Age doesnae stop a mon from appreciating the sight of a bonnie wee lass."
"Then perhaps your wife ought to."
"She would have, save that she is no longer with us." He sighed, slumping against the railing. "My sainted Margaret caught a fever and coughed her last but three years ago."
"Oh, I am so sorry, sir." She patted his arm, her sympathy waning a little when she felt how strong and slender that arm was. "I did not mean to stir any painful memories."
"Here now, ye keep your old eyes off this bairn," snapped Crooked Annie, snatching Moira's hand off his arm just as he was about to cover it with his own.
"We were just discussing his wife," Moira protested, trying to struggle free of Annie's iron grip, but the woman's weathered hand was wrapped around her wrist like a manacle.
"Weel, she ought to box the rogue's ears for being such a lecherous bastard."
"Annie," Moira said with a gasp, blushing a little over Annie's coarse language. "His wife died."
"Humph. He probably sent her to her deathbed with all his philandering about."
"I am sorry, sir." Moira's apology faltered a little, for she was sure the man was suppressing a grin.
"Come on, lass." Annie yanked her away from the man, continuing to pull her along as she headed for the ship's tiny cabins. "Ye dinnae want old Bearnard to catch ye talking to a mon, do ye?"
The mere thought of her guardian sent a chill coursing down Moira's spine, immediately ending her attempts to resist Crooked Annie's insistent tug upon her hand. "Nay, I shouldnae like that at all."
Tavig MacAlpin watched the scowling Crooked Annie drag Moira away and sighed. He leaned against the railing, checking to be sure no one was watching him as he carefully adjusted the thick padding around his middle. Ever since he had set eyes on Moira Robertson his disguise as the graying George Fraser had become a curse, even though he knew it was saving his life. The ransom offered for his capture was big enough to tempt even the most principled of men. There were none of those on the small ship.
It had taken him three long days to grab a chance to speak to Moira, but he wondered why he had been so intent on doing so. He had watched her avidly as she strolled the deck with her bent, gray-haired nurse. Moira's coppery hair was always braided tightly, but soft curls forever slipped free to frame her small oval face. Whenever he was fortunate enough to get a closer look at her, he marveled at how few freckles colored her soft white skin. He could clearly recall how startled he had been when he stole his first look into her eyes. Tavig had expected brown ones or even green ones, but never the rich, clear blue eyes she possessed. And such big eyes, too, he mused, smiling faintly. He admitted to himself with a soft laugh that he did whatever he could to get her to look his way so that he could see those huge eyes with their long, thick dark lashes.
A chuckle escaped him. It was possible he remembered her face so well because there was not much else of her to see. She was a tiny, too-thin lass. She had a woman's soft curves, but they were also tiny. She was certainly not his usual fare, yet Tavig had to concede that she had captured his full attention.
He cursed as he recalled the fear that had flashed in her beautiful eyes when he had touched her. That fear had returned in force when Crooked Annie had mentioned Moira's guardian's name. Even some of the color in Moira's high-boned cheeks had faded. Moira's guardian Sir Bearnard Robertson was a bully. Tavig had seen that from the start. Although Bearnard had not yet struck Moira, Tavig was certain that the possibility existed. He prayed Bearnard would not touch the girl, at least not until Tavig was within running distance of his cousin Mungan's keep and safety. He knew that if Bearnard Robertson raised a hand against Moira, he would rush to her rescue. A good tussle with a man the size of Robertson could easily ruin his disguise. Tavig knew that would mean being dragged back to his treacherous cousin Iver. And there awaited a hangman's noose for murders he had not committed.
A sudden chill wind swept over him. Tavig cursed again and shivered, pulling his heavy black cloak fighter around himself. He scowled up at the sky. Mixed in with the usual evening clouds that forecast the approaching night were some very ominous black clouds. Another chill wind blew over the deck with far more force than the first. Tavig cursed. A late summer storm was nearly upon them. He would soon have to return to the small cabin he shared with three other men and he dreaded it. Such close confinement with others only increased his chances of being discovered. The rain the storm would bring was far more threatening to his tenuous disguise, however, so he promised himself he would seek shelter at the first hint of rain.
A heavy weight across Moira's chest slowly pulled her out of her dreams. She opened her eyes and hastily swallowed a scream. By the dim light of a lantern dangerously left lit and swinging wildly on its ceiling hook, Moira saw that it was not Crooked Annie sprawled on top of her but Connor, her guardian's man-at-arms. For one long moment she lay still, barely breathing, until she realized Connor was far too drunk to be a threat. Irritation quickly banished her panic.
Moira muttered a curse as she hastily untangled herself from the snoring man. Briefly she considered sleeping on the floor of the crowded cabin, but one look revealed that the wine-soaked people already sprawled there had left little room for her. Pressing against the wall in the hope of keeping away from Connor, who smelled strongly of drink and sweat, Moira cursed the ship. She wondered for the hundredth time why they had not allowed themselves enough time to travel by horse and cart. The ransom demand for her cousin Una had arrived weeks ago. Her guardian could easily have taken a longer, more comfortable route to rescue her. Even the poor roads would not have caused them to suffer such a rough journey. Nor, she thought crossly, would she have had to suffer sleeping in such close quarters with her kinsmen and as many retainers as they could stuff into the tiny cabin.
The ship tossed roughly from side to side again. Moira frowned, listening closely as she gripped the edge of the straw mattress to hold herself away from the loudly snoring Connor. Something was wrong. The tiny ship careened over some very rough seas. Her eyes widened as she heard the wind and rain battering the outer walls of their cabin. They had sailed into a storm and a very fierce one, too, if she was any judge of such things. The rain hit the outside of the ship so hard it sounded like drumbeats. The fierce wind howled as it slammed into the ship's wood, wailing as it tore around the ship.
Annie. Moira felt her heart skip with fear for her aging companion. The old woman was not in the cabin. She suspected Annie had crept off to see the sailor she had flirted with earlier and was now trapped out in the storm. She had to go see if Annie was safe.
Holding her breath, Moira carefully crept to the foot of the bed. She grabbed her cloak, which swung from a nail on the bedpost, and slipped it on. The moment she got out of bed she dropped to her hands and knees. The way the ship was beginning to rock it would be impossible to maneuver on foot through the people cluttering the cabin floor. Although everyone appeared to be deep in a drink-ladened sleep, Moira inched toward the door, tense with fear that someone would wake up and see her. Discovery would mean confronting her guardian Bearnard.
Once outside of the cabin she paused, bracing herself against the wall of the narrow passage. What should she do next? Annie could be safe and dry in some cabin. Moira shook her head. The man Annie had been cozening up to only hours ago was a mere deckhand, a poor lowly sailor of no rank. He would have no private place to take Annie except up on the deck. She simply had to look and assure herself that her old nursemaid was safe.
Her first attempt almost proved to be her last. Moira edged onto the first step leading up to the deck. The ship lurched, the violent motion knocking her off her feet. She slammed into the hard wall. For several moments she clung to the wall, gasping for breath. Her body still aching, she tried again.
When she first emerged onto the deck the wind and the pelting rain nearly drove her back. Moira gritted her teeth and, using anything at hand to hang on to and steady herself, started on her search for Annie. She could not believe Annie was still outside, yet the woman was not in her bed where she belonged, either. The storm had not completely dimmed the light of dawn, but it would still be difficult to find one thin old woman on the rain-washed deck. Moira heartily cursed Annie as she struggled over the pitching deck.
Tavig saw the small figure, bent against the wind and rain, edging her way, along the deck, and cursed. He had spent the last hour trying to get back to his own cabin but, since the crew was a man short, the captain had forced him to help. Tavig knew that missing man was off with Annie. He also knew that his disguise was melting away with every drop of rain, but if he left he could easily be putting everyone's life in danger.
And now Moira was there. He had also spent the last hour praying that he was wrong, that she would not come searching for her randy old nursemaid. This was one time when he desperately wanted his accursed foresight to be proven wrong. The girl was stumbling her way toward a great deal of trouble, and he hated knowing that. He especially hated knowing that somehow he would be the cause. She fell to her knees, gripping the railing but a few feet away from him, and he sighed as he stumbled over to her. Now there was only one life he was concerned with.
"What are ye doing here, lass?" he shouted, fighting to be heard over the fury of the storm. "What few sailors are on deck are all lashed to their posts. The others will soon be wisely huddled below decks. 'Tis where ye should be."
"'Tis where ye should be as weel."
"I had to help batten down the hatches." He frowned, looking up at the sky as the wind suddenly eased and the rain grew almost gentle. "It seems the storm needs to catch its breath."
"Good. Now I can find Annie."
"Annie is off rutting with her sailor." He shook his head when she blushed so brightly even the dark could not hide it.
"That may be true, but she could be in trouble now. Once the storm started she should have returned to the cabin." A gust of wind slapped her, forcing her to cling more tightly to the ship's railing.
Tavig looked at Moira, trying to think of a way to convince her to go back inside, and froze. The cold familiar feeling that he was caught up in circumstances he could not control or change oozed over him. He tried to keep his frustration and fear out of his voice, but knew he was failing even as he spoke.
"Get away from that railing, lass."
Moira frowned. There was an odd, strained note to his voice. She tensed, wondering if Master Fraser was something more dangerous than the aging lecher she had thought him to be.
"I will as soon as the wind eases some more," she replied, trying to decide if she should scurry out of his reach.
"It willnae ease any more," he snapped. "'Tis a cursed gale. This lull willnae last much longer, and the storm will probably come back stronger than before. Now move away from that twice-cursed railing."
Even as she decided to do so in an effort to placate him, she suddenly noticed something that halted her. Master Fraser's hair was no longer the dull color it had been. The gray was seeping out of his shoulder-length hair to settle at the tips in sticky clumps. She stared at him, watching closely as another of the few remaining streaks of gray slithered down his hair. Master Fraser was definitely not what he appeared to be. Curiosity overwhelmed her, and she reached out to touch his hair.
"Your age is washing away in the rain," she murmured, her eyes widening at the curse he spat.
"I kenned that would happen. I have to get out of this rain." He grabbed her so forcefully she fell against him.
"So this is where ye disappeared to-out whoring!"
Moira cried out in surprise and fear as her guardian, Sir Bearnard Robertson, grabbed her by the arm, roughly yanking her to her feet. "Nay, sir, I swear I just came out to look for Crooked Annie."
"In this rogue's arms?" he bellowed, vigorously shaking her. "Dinnae add lying to your sins, ye little slut."
As Bearnard raised his meaty hand to strike her, Moira quickly turned to prepare for the blow. She fought to relax, to banish all tension and resistance from her body. Over the years she had learned that such limpness robbed his blows of some of their strength. She made no sound when he backhanded her across the face, sending her slamming onto the rough wooden deck. Landing on her hands and knees, Moira quickly bowed her head, all the while keeping a covert eye on her guardian. She wanted to be ready to avoid the worst of the pain if he decided to add a few kicks to his brutal reprimand.
An odd sound abruptly interrupted her concentration. She shook her head, but it was not a roar from inside her head, caused by the force of her guardian's blow. A soft, low roar of pure fury erupted from the man calling himself George Fraser. Moira spun around, sitting on the deck to stare at hum. She gaped when he lunged at Bearnard, punching the bigger, heavier man and sending him sprawling onto the deck.
"Such a brave mon ye are, Robertson," he spat. "It takes such courage to strike down a wee, skinny lass."
"'Ware, sir," Bearnard yelled, scrambling to his feet. "A man who scurries after a lass half his age has little right to speak so self-righteously of others. Ye are naught but an old lecher trying to seduce a foolish young lass."
"Even if that charge were true, 'twould still make me a better mon than some slinking cur who beats a wee lass."