Siren of the Highlands (Preview)
“How’s she doin’?” Fin asked.
Fin watched Col, his cousin, best friend, and the current Baron of Westmarch Hall, pace the chamber, running his hands through his hair, both fear and rage etched upon his features at the same time. He finally stopped before the large hearth and stared silently into the flames for a long moment. Fin could feel the emotions radiating off his cousin and oldest friend like the heat from the fire. He was scared for Gillian as well. And he was just as angry as Col that somebody had tried to kill her.
Finally, Col turned. “The physician’s seein’ some improvement. He thinks she’ll recover in time.”
“That’s good news,” Fin said, feeling the first spark of hope he’d felt in days.
“Aye,” Col nodded. “Tis good news.”
“Then why dae ye look so grim?”
A wry smile touched Col’s lips. “I suppose I daenae want tae jinx it b’fore she’s back on ‘er feet again.”
Fin nodded. “Aye. I s’pose I can understand that.”
Col dropped down into one of the chairs at the large table near the hearth and poured out a couple glasses of mead for them then motioned for Fin to sit down. Fin walked over and took the seat across from him and raised his mug. They both took a long swallow in silence, the only sound in the room was the crackling and popping of the fire, and the air was thick with tension.
Fin could see the myriad of emotions swirling across his cousin’s face but could only imagine how hard they were hitting him. He set his mug down hard, the hard thump echoing around the hall.
“This is my fault,” he said, his voice choked with emotion.
“Bollocks,” Fin said. “Tis nae yer fault. Tis nae Gillian’s fault. Tis the fault of the bast’rd who done this.”
“Twas my wine she drank,” Col pressed. “And by God, I’d rather twas me layin’ in that bed right now.”
“She drank from yer mug,” Fin told him. “That daenae make it yer fault.”
Col runs a hand over his face. “I ken,” he said. “But it feels like it.”
“Aye. I get it. But tis not.”
They drained the last of their mugs, and Col refilled them immediately.
“The Captain of yer personal guard shouldnae be drinkin’ on duty,” Fin said.
“Then ye watch me drink,” Col said.
They sat at the table mostly in silence as Fin watched his cousin drink, a faraway look of anger and pain etched deeply into his features.
“Ye should get some sleep, Cousin,” Fin said. “When’s the last time ye got some rest?”
“We need tae find who did this,” Col said. “I cannae sleep until we ‘ave that bast’rd’s ‘ead on a pike.”
Fin nodded. “We’ll get ‘im, Col. But ye arenae goin’ tae dae anybody any good if ye’re dead on yer feet.”
Col swallowed down the last of his ale and reached for the pitcher but seemed to think better of it and withdrew his hand. Instead, Col turned and looked at him, pursing his lips.
“I need ye tae look intae it, Fin,” he said.
Fin sat back in his seat. He was good in a fight and could always be counted on to wade into a battle. That’s what made him the perfect bodyguard for Col – he was practically fearless. But when it came to something like Col was asking him to do, Fin felt horribly out of his depth. He did not feel capable of doing what he wanted. He was a man of action, not a man of critical thought. And perhaps that was a flaw in his character, but he was always more comfortable with a sword in his hand.
He knew that, of the two of them, Col was the smarter one. Col was the one who came up with all of their plans and did the thinking. Fin was the one who, when the action started, was always the first one to charge in. As a result, he felt woefully ill-equipped to be the one leading an investigation into who poisoned Gillian – into who had been trying to poison Col.
“Cousin, I daenae ken I’m the right man for that job,” Fin said.
Col cocked his head. “Why nae?”
Fin finally reached for the pitcher and poured himself half a mug of ale. He swallowed it down, quenching his suddenly parched throat. He did not talk about his feelings well, and he certainly did not like admitting to his shortcomings. Not even to his cousin and most trusted friend. But if he could not speak to Col about these things, who could he speak to about them?
Fin cleared his throat. “B’cause I’m nae smart ‘enough tae dae it, Col. I ken we both ken that.”
Col sat back in his seat and looked at him long and hard. He ran a hand over his face, and an expression of sorrow crossed his features. He raised his head and looked at Fin again.
“Is that th’ way I’ve made ye feel all these years?” he asked.
Fin shook his head. “Ye never made me feel that way. Tis not like ye were doin’ nothin’ tae make me feel dumb.”
“Well, ye arenae dumb, Fin,” he said. “And yer a bleedin’ idiot if ye think so.”
The irony of the statement sunk in, and they looked at each other for a moment, then burst into laughter. It was short-lived, though, and the laughter faded, leaving them sitting there staring at one another.
“There isnae anyone I trust more,” Col said, finally breaking the silence between them. “I need tae ken who did this. And I need tae kill ‘em.”
“Aye. Ye need their ‘eads on pikes,” Fin replied. “I ‘ave nae problem with that.”
Col held his gaze for a long moment. “I need you tae find ‘em, Fin. There is nobody I’d trust more tae dae the job and dae it right.”
Fin sighed. “And who’ll watch yer back while I’m runnin’ all over tryin’ tae find a needle in the bleedin’ haystack?
“What ‘bout Hollis?”
“If I’m gonna dae this, I’d prefer tae take Hollis with me.”
Col nodded. “I understand,” he said. “Then I’ll ‘ave Alastair–”
“Alastair?” Fin cut him off. “He’s a whelp.”
“A whelp ye’ve been trainin’,” Col said. “I’ve seen ‘im ‘andle a blade’n he’s good.”
Fin nodded. It was true. He had taken Alastair under his wing and had been training him. He was a good kid and was definitely capable. But he was still green. Raw. He had a long way to go before Fin would be ready to allow Alastair to shadow Col and charge him with keeping his cousin safe.
“Aye. He’s good,” Fin agreed. “But he’s nae ready.”
Col sighed. “I’m not gonna be leavin’ the keep until Gillian is on ‘er feet again,” he argued. “I’ll be safe ‘nough with Alastair at me back.”
Fin leveled his gaze at him. “If that were true, you wouldnae be sendin’ me out tae find the man who tried tae kill ye.”
Col chuckled. “Fair point, ye bleedin’ arse,” he said. “But Alastair’s a good lad’n good with a blade. I’m comfortable ‘nough with him watchin’ me back.”
The way he said it told Fin the matter had been settled, and he was officially tasked with finding the would-be assassin while Alastair watched his cousin’s back. Fin wasn’t comfortable with the arrangement. There was still a lot Fin needed to teach Alastair before he’d be ready for the assignment he was being given.
But Fin knew Col well enough to know that when his mind was made up, there was little he could do to change it. His cousin was more stubborn than a mule when he got his mind set on something.
“All right then,” Fin said. “I s’pose ye’ve got yer mind made up.”
“I dae,” Col said. “Like I told ye, there’s nobody I trust more.”
The doors to the chamber burst open, and one of the household pages came rushing in, his cheeks flushed and out of breath, carrying a sealed letter in his hand.
“My Laird,” the page said. “A message ‘as arrived from York.”
“Thank you,” Col said as he took the letter and broke the seal on the envelope.
York. Gillian’s father was the Duke of York, and there was a time when Col and Fin were on the opposite side of a great divide with the Duke. Fin and his cousin had raided the Duke’s supply carts for more than a year some time back and had eventually gone to war with his brother and son.
Having saved James’ dukedom, he had built this castle for them out on the Western March, halfway between York and their clan lands in Scotland. It was meant to serve as a symbolic bridge between the two lands and their two people. It was not without its detractors, though. Not without its share of controversy. And Col had ended up with enemies on both sides of the border.
But time — and of course, his marriage to Gillian and the children they’d had — had managed to heal the wounds between the Duke and Col. And for that, Fin was grateful. After years of fighting, war, and surviving on the scraps of their criminal endeavors, it was nice to have some stability. Security. It had been nice getting used to a life without war.
“What is it?” Fin asked.
Col’s face darkened. “The Duke was poisoned,” he said, his voice grim.
Ice water flowed through Fin’s veins. That was the last thing he had been expecting to hear. The implications of it were even direr than Fin had thought.
Col shook his head. “Nay. The Duke lives.”
“Thank God in ‘eaven.”
“Aye,” Col said, his voice tight. “But ye need tae get tae York. Ye need tae look in on the Duke’n see if ye can find who did this.”
Fin sighed but nodded his head. “Aye. On me way.”
“How is he doin’?”
“He is alive,” the Duke’s physician Walter told Fin. “His condition is still grave, but there are signs of improvement.”
Because he was usually Col’s shadow whenever he came to York, the people had gotten used to seeing Fin around the castle. Though some of the English were still unsettled by the sight of Scotsmen wandering the halls, because they were part of the Duke’s family now, they did not give him any trouble.
“Tis good news,” Fin replied. “Tis very good news.”
“So long as he continues to improve, it is good news,” Walter said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me. I need to see the Duke.”
Walter walked out of the chamber, leaving Fin alone with Hollis, his second in command. Hollis came from the same village as Fin, and they’d known each other since they were boys. Aside from Col, there was nobody he trusted more than Hollis. When Col had raised him up to Captain of his household guard, Fin had brought Hollis along as well. The man had become his right arm, and Fin didn’t know how he functioned without him.
Fin took a seat at the table in the chamber and poured them both a glass of wine as Hollis took the chair across from him. Hollis picked up his glass and sniffed at it.
“The least they could dae is ‘ave a proper glass of ale,” he said.
Fin chuckled. “The Ainglish arenae known for their strong constitutions,” he said. “Ale might be tae much for ‘em.”
They shared a laugh and sipped at their wine for a moment. Fin was glad to hear the Duke was recovering and knew both Gillian and Col would be too. He scratched at his beard, his mind whirling as he tried to come up with a list of suspects.
“Who’d want tae ‘urt both Gillian and ‘er fither?” Hollis wondered aloud.
“Twas not Gillian they tried tae murder,” Fin said. “Twas Col, they were tryin’ tae poison.”
“Well, the assassin wasnae a very good one,” he replied. “He didnae manage tae kill either target.”
“Thanks be tae God,” Fin said. “I daenae know what would’ve ‘appened if they’d succeeded.”
Hollis nodded and drained the last of his wine and immediately refilled his glass. Fin was not well versed enough in the line of succession to know what would have happened had the assassin succeeded in killing both Col and the Duke. The land would have been leaderless and thrown into chaos. Fin could only imagine that nobles from both sides of the border, Scottish and English, would have fought for the land and titles that went with it. He’d seen it enough in Scotland to know what could happen.
“So, where dae we start?” Hollis asked.
Fin shook his head. “I daenae ken,” he said. “But we ‘ave tae start somewhere.”
“Aye,” Hollis said. “Ye lead the way.”
They drained the last of their wine and got to their feet. As Fin looked down at his wineglass, an idea occurred to him. He set his glass down and looked up.
“We need t’ go t’ thae kitchens,” he said.
“Right b’hind ye.”
* * * * *
Fin walked into the kitchen and felt his stomach rumble, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten in a while. He and Hollis snuck a couple of the roasted chicken legs from a platter, earning them dirty glares from the kitchen staff.
“Where’s the Head Steward?” Fin asked one of the passing scullery maids.
“In the larder,” she replied.
“And ‘is name, lass?”
“Mr. White,” she replied. “Mr. Daniel White.”
Hollis leaned back against one of the counters and munched on his chicken leg, a grin on his face.
“Ye comin’ with me?” Fin asked.
“I ken ye can ‘andle this on yer own,” he replied. “I’m goin’ tae make sure there’s no assassins lurkin’ in here.”
Fin chuckled but could not blame him for wanting to hang out in the kitchens. Not only did it smell wonderful, but the cooks were also pumping out platter after platter of delicious food. If Fin had his way, he’d stay here and eat his fill too. But he had to content himself with the chicken legs in his hand, which he finished and tossed into a bucket.
“All right then,” Fin said. “I’ll be back. Daenae do anythin’ stupid.”
Hollis chuckled as Fin turned and headed for the larder. He moved aside as a pair of liveried servants came bustling out, their arms loaded with burlap sacks of foodstuff bound for the kitchen. Fin stepped in to find a tall man with thinning gray hair in the Duke’s livery counting items on the shelves and making notations on a piece of parchment attached to a writing board. When Fin walked in, the man gave him a once over.
“Who’re you?” he snapped.
“Me name’s Fin, Mr. White,” he introduced himself. “I’m ‘ere on the Duke’s bus’ness.”
The man sighed and set his writing board down, his face pale and drawn as a look of sorrow crept into his eyes.
“And a nasty business, that is,” he said. “The Duke’s a good man. Don’t deserve to have this happen to him.”
“The physician says he should recover,” Fin informed him.
“I’m glad to hear that,” he said. “Thanks be to God.”
“Aye. Me tae,” Fin replied.
“What can I do for you?”
“I need tae know who handled the Duke’s wine b’fore he drank it.”
The man sighed and ran a hand over his face. “Could’ve been anybody in the kitchens, to be honest,” he replied.
“Coulda been but I daenae ken so,” Fin said. “But I want tae start with yer wine stewards and cupbearers.”
The man shook his head. “All of them have been with us for years,” he said. “They’re good lads. Loyal to the Duke. All of them.”
“Ye’ve nae ‘ad any new lads come tae work for ye?”
The steward screwed up his face for a moment as if thinking and then turned to Fin.
“Now that you mention it, we did take on a new cupbearer a few weeks back,” he said. “He is the son of one the household smithies.”
“What’s ‘is name?”
“Marcus,” he replied. “Marcus Long.”
“And where can I find Marcus Long?” Fin pressed.
“He is in the grand hall. I have him polishing the formal goblets,” he said. “You don’t really believe he could have something to do with this, do you?”
“I daenae,” Fin said. “But I’ve some questions I need tae ask ‘im.”
“He is a good lad,” he argued. “I can’t see–”
“I’m nae sayin’ he’s involved,” Fin cut him off. “Nae yet. But I need tae ask ‘im some questions.”
White seemed genuinely stricken by the idea that one of his charges could have been involved with the Duke’s poisoning. Though he seemed like he could be a harsh man to Fin, he seemed to genuinely care about the men who worked under him.
“Tell me, what dae ye know about monkshood?” Fin asked.
“Other than to say, I know it isn’t a plant that can be used in cooking, not much I fear. My expertise is in baking and running an organized, disciplined kitchen,” he replied. “But there is an apothecary in the village outside the castle walls you can speak with. She will know far more than I.”
Fin nodded. “I’ll dae that.”
He studied Mr. White for a moment longer. He seemed an honest and forthright man. But did that mean he was not a man capable of slipping a dose of poison into the Duke’s wine? Or ordering somebody else to do it? Fin wasn’t sure, and though he did not detect any sort of deception, Mr. White would bear further scrutiny. But he wanted to question the cupbearer next as this Marcus had the most direct line to the Duke’s wine.
“Thank ye,” Fin said. “I’ll go’n find Marcus now.”
As Fin marched through the kitchen, Hollis fell into step beside him, munching on what looked like a sweet cake. Crumbs were stuck in the man’s beard, and Fin just shook his head.
“Get yer fill did ye?” he asked.
Hollis shrugged. “Nay. Ye werenae gone long ‘nough for that,” he said. “But it’ll tide me over for now.”
The doors groaned, and the hinges squealed as they pushed through the doors and stepped into the grand hall. A young man of about eighteen or nineteen years was standing at the far end of the table and looked up as they approached, a nervous tremor passing across his face.
Marcus was older than Fin had expected but still had a youthful air about him. He was tall and thin with narrow shoulders, long arms, and long, spindly fingers. He had dark eyes, a mop of shaggy, dark hair, and pale skin. He was antsy and shifted from foot to foot, doing his best to avoid looking at Fin, which put him on edge immediately.
Fin stopped in front of Marcus and looked up him up and down, sizing him up. Hollis stood behind Fin, his arms folded over his chest, a fearsome look on his face, doing his best to silently intimidate the cupbearer.
“Are ye Marcus Long?” Fin asked.
“Y – yes, sir,” he replied.
Fin narrowed his eyes and glared at him and took a step back. He looked nervous as if he was going to bolt from the hall.
“Little old tae be a cupbearer, are yet not?” Fin asked.
Marcus shrugged. “I used to work in the smithy with my father, sir,” he said. “But I am not cut out for that sort of work. I’m not strong enough, I fear.”
Fin looked him up and down for a moment and nodded. He could see that. Smiths were big, brawny men, and Marcus was definitely not that. He probably was better suited to working in the household.
“And how long’ve ye been workin’ in the Duke’s house?”
“I’ve been a cupbearer for several months now, sir,” he replied.
Better suited to be working in the house than the smithy or not, it seemed to Fin that it was a mighty big coincidence that shortly after Marcus started to work as a cupbearer, the Duke winds up poisoned. Fin had never been big on believing in coincidences. He didn’t think there was much that could not be explained by a more rational reason.
He looked at Marcus closely and could see how twitchy the younger man was. He looked like a rabbit staring up at a hungry hawk that was circling above him. Fin thought the best approach would be straight forward and blunt. He thought he could rattle Marcus enough that he would trip over a lie and unintentionally reveal something to him…
“What dae ye know ‘bout what ‘appened tae the Duke?” Fin asked.
“I – I do not know anything, sir,” he replied.
The young man looked ready to cry or run. Sweat beaded on his brow, and Fin thought he looked more nervous than he should have if he had nothing to do with the Duke’s poisoning.
“Are ya sure ‘bout that?” Fin asked.
“Y – yes, sir,” he stammered. “Very sure.”
Fin wasn’t so sure about it, though. He knew he could be imposing and intimidating. He had scared more than a few lads in his day with nothing more than a hard gaze. But there was something about the kid’s behavior that wasn’t ringing true to him. He was too nervous, and it made Fin think he was hiding something.
“Did ye dae it?” Fin asked. “Did ye poison the Duke?”
“No, sir,” Marcus said. “I told you, I had nothing–”
“Aye. I ken that’s what ye told me,” Fin cut him off. “But I ken ye know somethin’ ‘bout it. I can see it in yer eyes, boy.”
Marcus looked around, his eyes sweeping the hall as if he was looking for the nearest exit. He seemed to be trying to decide whether or not to make a run for it while weighing the odds of whether or not he could get to the door before being brought down by Fin or Hollis.
“What is it yer nae tellin’ me?” Fin pressed.
He shook his head and would not meet Fin’s eyes. “There is nothing for me to tell you, sir. I swear it.”
“I ken there is,” Fin pressed.
Marcus paled before Fin’s eyes, and the fear on his face was palpable. There was something he was not telling Fin, and he got the idea that there was more happening than he was aware of. Marcus was afraid of something, but he knew it was not him. Oh, Fin thought he scared the boy plenty, but something else was going on, and Marcus knew what it was. Fin could practically smell it on him.
“Did somebody make ye do it?”
“I did nothing, sir.”
His voice was trembling, and he swallowed hard again, which made Fin look at him harder. He was certain the boy wasn’t truthful. He had no proof of it, and it was nothing more than his instincts whispering to him. But his instincts had never led him astray before, and he had learned to rely on them. And, at the moment, Fin’s instincts were telling him that whoever it was that had put him up to slipping the poison to the Duke scared the boy more than he did.
Fin stepped closer until he loomed over the boy. “I ken ye’re lyin’, lad,” he said. “Ye can either tell me who put ye up tae it or ye’re goin’ tae find yerself swingin’ at the end of a rope.”
The boy licked his lips nervously and still refused to meet Fin’s eyes. “I – I don’t know anything, sir. Please, I don’t know anything.”
“Enough!” Fin roared.
Fin slammed his fist down on the table, making the goblets he’d been polishing tumble over. They rolled off the table and hit the ground with a resounding clatter that echoed around the hall.
“Ye’re lyin’. I can see it in yer eyes,” Fin growled. “I’ll give ye this one last chance tae tell me the truth.”
He shook his head, “Sir I–”
He reached out and grabbed Marcus by the back of the neck and stared down into his eyes, letting the full weight of his looming presence sink in. The cupbearer just stared back at him, wide-eyed, lips quavering, his entire body trembling. Disgusted, Fin pushed the young man over to Hollis, who snatched him up by the back of the neck as Fin had.
“Take ‘im out of ‘ere,” Fin growled. “Put ‘em in the keep’s dark cells ‘til we can figure out whether we want tae ‘ang ‘im or cut ‘is bleedin’ ‘ead off.”
The boy squeaked as Hollis heled him fast, but said nothing. Fin called out for a pair of the Duke’s personal guards to come in and take the boy to the cells. As they waited, Fin glared hard at him, and Marcus turned away, refusing to meet his eyes. The guards took him by the arms and started to escort him away.
“Last chance tae save yer life, Marcus,” Fin called after them. “Who put ye up tae poisonin’ the Duke?
He shook his head and remained silent. Not even the threat of death was enough to make the boy speak. That told Fin whoever had threatened him had threatened to take more than just his life – perhaps the lives of his loved ones. And the boy knew whoever had put him up to it well enough to know that he could make good on his threat too.
“Ye’re nae actually goin’ tae have the lad executed are ye?” Hollis asked.
Fin chuckled. “Nay. But it’ll be good for ‘im tae think so for a while,” he replied. “Maybe a night in the dark cells’ll loosen the lad’s tongue.”
“I don’t know about that one,” Hollis observed. “He’s terrified of somethin’, and it ain’t us. Or at least, there’s somethin’ that terrifies ‘im more than us.”
Fin nodded. “Aye. Had the same thought.”
There was definitely something going on. Some bigger plan in motion, and it involved somebody that was truly frightening. At least to Marcus. It was intriguing and a good start. But nowhere near good enough. At least he had a direction to begin running in, though. He thought it was better than nothing.
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