WHEN A LAIRD FINDS A LASS
Malcolm MacDonald's lodgings were cramped with unexpected visitors.
He knew the three Highlanders felt it too. They were more used to the wide-open spaces of their MacDonald homeland, perhaps, where there was naught to contain their big bodies but peaks, sea, and sky. They looked unhappily around the wee closet Malcolm called home. He followed their gaze. There was a narrow bed with a small table beside it. His clothes hung on pegs along the wall and his books were stacked in teetering piles under the window. Writs, wills, and deeds covered the surface of the table like a fall of new snow, deep, crisp, and legal.
He could smell the salt that clung to the damp wool of their plaids, the smoky tang of peat fires, and the whisky on their breath, though they were neither dirty nor drunk.
It made Malcolm aware of his own smells—the leather binding of his books, the sharp gall of ink, and the burned oat smell of his neighbor's breakfast, seeping through the thin walls. He went to the narrow window and opened it, letting in a few inches of air. Now the stench of the city drifted in, gutters, livestock, and cookshops, borne on the sluggish wind that came from the docks. The Highlanders wrinkled their noses, and Malcolm resisted the urge to lower the warped sash again.
He stood back and let them see the view instead. His fifth-floor lodgings looked down upon the Royal Mile. If one leaned out the window and looked to the left, the Palace of Holyroodhouse stood golden and grim against the startling green of the hills. If one looked straight down, there were pigs blocking traffic, and merchants with their wares spilling out of crowded shop fronts into the street. The fifth floor was a fine, middling place to live for an unmarried junior lawyer of modest means. Richer folk lived on the floors below him, and the people who made their homes above Malcolm's meager room were ever-so-slightly less respectable than he was. There was a widowed seamstress upstairs, and a one-eyed poet above her. The poet was nearly as old as Malcolm's three visitors, who had introduced themselves as the elders of the MacDonalds of Dunbronach, his kinsmen.
Dougal MacDonald was bent and bandy legged, and his green eyes flitted about the room like trapped birds.
William MacDonald was as tall as a tree and twice as broad. He stood ramrod straight and nodded silently when Dougal introduced him. He kept his eyes on Malcolm and his hand on the hilt of the sword belted to his hip.
Fergus MacDonald sat in the only chair, his hands clasped on his bony knees, his face was a mask of cold disapproval.
"Will you take a drop of sherry?" Malcolm asked his guests, since no one immediately gave a reason for their visit. He poured out three delicate glasses of amber liquid, Spanish and expensive, and they squinted and frowned at it. William quaffed his in a single gulp, then made a face and declared, "It's no' whisky, is it?"
Dougal sipped and pursed his lips, and Fergus set his glass on the edge of the table, untouched.
"Ye look like yer da, Malcolm Ban," Dougal said for the second time, leaning on the gnarled root that served him as a walking stick.
Malcolm folded his arms over his chest and leaned back on the edge of the table. "So you've said. Is he well?" Malcolm had not seen his father in nearly fifteen years, and to a lad of nine, Archie MacDonald, the laird of Dunbronach, had been the biggest, broadest, loudest man he'd ever seen. He'd been in rude health then and somewhat drunk as he sat in his uncle's elegant Edinburgh parlor. He'd looked as out of place there as—well, as these Highlanders looked here.
Malcolm still recalled how Archie's face had fallen when his mother introduced him. "Who's this weedy lad?"
"Malcolm, of course. Your son," his mother had assured her estranged husband.
His mother's eyes had flared. "Ye can see that he is, Archie. He's as much a MacDonald as you are. He has your eyes, your height—or he will have. He's smart. He'll make a fine lawyer someday, like his uncle."
"A lawyer." Malcolm still remembered how his father's mouth had twisted bitterly around the word.
"Like his uncle," his mother had repeated. "He's not cut out to be a Highlander, Archie. Is that why you've come?"
His father was silent for a moment. He looked Malcolm over once again, then turned away with a sigh. "Nay," he muttered. "Nay, I suppose not." He left the tea in the fancy china cup, rose, and departed from his brother-in-law's house. He did not returned again. Even when Malcolm's mother died he'd not bothered to send condolences. His uncle had taken Malcolm as his protégé, and he'd almost forgotten he even had kin in the Highlands, at Dunbronach, a place he barely remembered.
Dougal's eyes shifted to the worn rug that covered the floor. "Er, nay, lad, I wouldn't say yer father's well. In fact, he's dead."
Malcolm's brows rose. "Dead?"
"Aye, and a good many other folk," Fergus growled from his chair.
"There was a terrible sickness," Dougal said. "It carried off fifty-four MacDonalds."
"Ye could say we're half the clan we were," William put in.
His father was dead. He tried to feel some pity, to picture his father's face, but he'd barely known Archie MacDonald. It was like being informed that a stranger had died and his heirs needed a lawyer. "I see—then you've come for legal advice, I assume. Is there a will that needs executing, or funds to invest?"
Fergus flashed a sharp look at William, then raised his chin. "Not a will. More a dying wish."
"A command," William said.
"And there are no funds," Dougal added.
"Not a penny," Fergus growled, glaring at Malcolm from under the tangled thatch of his gray brows.
"I see," Malcolm said, though he didn't.
"Do ye?" Fergus asked gruffly. His eyes slid over Malcolm and flicked away, as if he'd found him as wanting as Archie himself had.
"We should kneel as tradition demands," William said. He lowered himself to the floor, his joints creaking. Dougal joined him.
Fergus rose to his feet, but did not kneel. He raised his chin instead, fixed Malcolm with another dark glare. "It was yer father's wish that ye be the next laird of Dunbronach." He said it through gritted teeth as if it pained him. "Archie named ye so on his deathbed."
Laird? The wee sherry glass in Malcolm's hand fell to the floor and shattered. The elders of Dunbronach stared at the shards of glass for a moment in silence, then Dougal spoke.
"Never mind, lad—Laird—you won't be needing those wee cups at Dunbronach. We have good sturdy ones carved of horn." He took a flask from his sporran, and held it out. "Here."
Malcolm took it and sipped. He nearly choked. His throat burned, and something exploded in his belly, sent shock waves through his limbs. "What the devil is that?"
William rose, slapped him on the back. "Finest Highland whisky, Laird. Don't worry, ye'll grow used to drinking it every day, and it will soon flow through your veins like liquid honey."
"Warm and sweet as a lover's kiss," Dougal added with a grin.
"But I can't be the next laird," Malcolm said. "I have a brother—half brother—Cormag..."
"Dead," Fergus said.
"Dead," Malcolm repeated. He looked around at the faces of the elders, as weather-beaten, gray, and seamed as the Highlands themselves, as if they'd been hewn from the very rock of Dunbronach.
He shook his head. He wasn't one of these men, a Highlander. He had a life in Edinburgh, a career in his uncle's law firm, and a fiancée...well, almost. He was about to make an offer for the hand of the lovely and wealthy Miss Nancy Martin. Once he was married, his uncle had promised to make him a partner in the firm. He could not picture Nancy making a life in—or even a visit to—the Highlands.
Dougal frowned. "Did I see that aright? He shook his head, said no? I can't have—to do so would be to reject his birthright, go against the wishes of his sire and laird—"
"Is there no other candidate?" Malcolm asked. "A man who was raised at Dunbronach, who knows the people, the land—"
"No," William and Dougal said quickly in unison.
"There's Maccus," Fergus said.
"Maccus?" Malcolm asked hopefully.
"He's your third cousin," Dougal said. "He's one of the sons of the chief of the MacDonalds of Sleat—his bastard son. He willna do as laird."
"Maccus MacDonald is not a good man, or a kind one. I've doubts he's a man at all—more a bear crossed with the trunk of a tree and a wolf, but less pleasant. He has a certain dark reputation. Our women wouldn't be safe around him," William said.
"Nor would our sheep," Dougal added. Fergus frowned at him.
"Och, ye've heard all the same stories about Maccus that I have," Dougal said.
Fergus clapped his bonnet back onto his head and strode toward the door. "We've done our duty as the laird wanted. He's said no. We'll take our leave."
The other two didn't move.
"Can ye no' be convinced, lad?" Dougal pleaded.
"But I'm a lawyer—" Malcolm began, but Dougal interrupted with a grin.
"Ach, is that what's worrying ye? We can forgive that."
Malcolm regarded the hope in Dougal's gray eyes, the determination in William's, and the fierce anger in Fergus's. "You don't understand. I have a career, a fiancée. I have—" He paused. He recalled the day he'd sailed away from Dunbronach as a wee lad, so small he had to hold tight to his mother's hand in case he tripped and fell into the water. He remembered the castle, a gray and forbidding place perched high on a rocky knoll above the sea. There'd been people on the beach watching them go—no doubt these men were among them, and his father and half brother too. Someone had been playing a sad tune on the pipes, and there were seals in the water, regarding him with dark eyes. His mother had buttoned his coat against the chill wind off the sea, and told him it was better to forget Dunbronach, that she was a gentleman's daughter of fine education and delicate sensibilities. She wasn't meant to be a Highlander, and neither was he.
He looked at the elders in their threadbare kilts and scuffed deerskin boots. They believed they were doing him a great honor. There was pride in every line of their bodies, despite their age and the long journey they'd endured.
"We'd best tell him the rest of it, Fergus," Dougal said.
"If he's not going to be laird, it hardly matters," Fergus replied, still standing by the door, his hand like an eagle's talon on the latch.
William folded his arms across his broad chest. "It was the laird's dying wish, Fergus." The glare that passed between them could cut iron.
"There's a certain duty ye must fulfill..." Dougal began, then paused. "Did I mention how much ye look like your father?"
"And all the fine MacDonald lairds before him, all the way back to the first one, who was also named Malcolm—Malcolm the Bold," William added.
Dougal puffed out his chest. "I'll tell him, since I'm the seanchaidh, the keeper of the history of the MacDonalds of Dunbronach."
"Do ye believe in magic, Malcolm Ban MacDonald?" Fergus interrupted.
Malcolm smiled slightly. "Of course not." He watched the light dim in Dougal's eyes.
Fergus sniffed. "There, ye see? He's not the right man to be the next laird of Dunbronach, even with Archie's blood in his veins." He opened the door, but Dougal used his stick to block his exit.
"Archie's blood is what makes him right." He turned to Malcolm. "D'ye recall the wee island just off shore in Dunbronach's bay?" Malcolm remembered a windswept hump of rock surrounded by fierce currents and worse winds. There was a standing stone on it. He nodded.
"We call it the Sea Maiden's Isle, Eilean Maighdeann Mhara," Dougal went on. "The great standing stone upon it was raised by the king o' the sea nearly three hundred years ago in thanks for a kindness done by the first Malcolm MacDonald—the ancestor ye're named for."
"We haven't time for the whole tale now," Fergus snapped.
Dougal rolled his eyes. "Well then, to cut a long story to kindling wood, the maighdeann mhara herself, the sea king's youngest daughter, granted Malcolm and his descendants three wishes. Each wish was to be spoken every hundred years, on Beltane night."
He picked up Fergus's abandoned glass of sherry and swallowed the contents. "A man could get used to the sweetness," he said to William.
"Get on with it," Fergus said.
Dougal set the glass down and looked at Malcolm again. "The point is that Malcolm claimed the first wish when it was granted, and a hundred years later, his great-grandson claimed the second."
"And the third?" Malcolm asked, his mind turning to thoughts of contracts and legal definitions. A promise was a contract, but this was magic. Surely there was no precedent for challenging an agreement made with a mythical creature that didn't exist...
Dougal looked at him without speaking for a long minute, and his curling white brows rose expectantly. William had the same look in his eyes. Fergus's expression remained cold and flat.
Realization hit Malcolm in the belly. "You want me to come to Dunbronach and—make a wish, based on a legend?"
Dougal stiffened. "It isn't a legend, lad. It's our history, and yours. It's why ye were born, your destiny. You are the last of Malcolm the Bold's line." He shut his eyes for a moment. "It's been a terrible winter for our kin. The Sickness took our farmers and craftsmen—even our piper. The young folk who remain are talking of leaving Dunbronach." He twisted his bonnet in his hands. "That wish is our only hope—"
"Will ye no' honor yer father's dying wish and come?" William asked gruffly.
Malcolm was tongue-tied. He never thought he'd see Dunbronach again, never mind to rule over his father's—his—clan. They clearly needed help, but a magic wish?
He'd read of new farming methods, improved ways to raise sheep, build mills, weave and sell cloth... The prospect of using his mind and his hands for that tempted him. And if Malcolm became a man of property and status, with a fine income from a prosperous, well-run Highland estate, then Major Martin would have no further reason to deny Malcolm's suit for his daughter's hand. He imagined the admiration in his uncle's eyes, the prestige a lairdly lawyer would bring to the firm. He could convince these superstitious men that magic didn't exist, that it was science and modern thinking that would lead them forward, and make them strong.
Not a wish.
Perhaps a short visit was in order. He needn't stay long. He could take things in hand and order improvements. How long could that possibly take? Then he'd hire an overseer to manage things while he returned to Edinburgh.
"All right," he said. "I'll come in the summer." The early days of February were upon them now. It was not a time when sensible folk traveled—especially to the cold, windswept Highlands. He'd take time to study his books, speak to engineers and scientists, meet experts in crop rotation, animal husbandry, and the wool trade. He'd call on geologists, even, and—
But Dougal frowned, and his brows dropped over his eyes like storm clouds. "That will be too late. Perhaps I haven't made myself clear. The wish must be made on Beltane night—in May."
"So will ye come or no?" Fergus demanded, still hovering in the open doorway, ready to leave.
Malcolm looked around the tiny room, at the piles of books and papers, and considered the problem of leaving Nancy Martin. He thought again of the day he'd left Dunbronach, of the peaks and skies and the sea.
"I'll need time to get things my affairs in order."
Fergus shut the door and returned to the chair. He crossed his legs and folded his arms. "Then we'll wait."
"There's no need for that—" Malcolm began, but William shook his head.
"We're your tail, Laird—your escort. Ye can't travel anywhere without us. 'Tisn't decent."
Dougal filled the remaining sherry glasses with whisky from his flask and passed them around. "Here's to Malcolm Ban MacDonald, our new laird." He quaffed his drink in a single swallow, poured again, and handed the glass to Malcolm.
Malcolm sipped the whisky, and felt it burn and sing in his veins. Or was it the enormity of the decision he'd just made that buzzed through him? Then the warm glow of the whisky washed over him, softened his doubts and fears, and made the world bright with possibility.
© Lecia Cornwall
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