"Couldn’t we just give them to him in return for his support?" she volunteered desperately, ready—willing—to sacrifice a splendid demesne without hesitation, for the good of her people.
"He’d not agree to that!" her father said angrily. "There’s honor in fighting for kin, but he could no’ send his people into a fight that’s no’ their own, and then take your lands in payment to him."
"But, surely, if he wants my lands badly enough, there’s some way—"
"He wants you. He sent word to me in Cornwall." His gaze drifted over Jenny’s face, registering the startling changes that had altered her face from its thin, freckled, girlish plainness into a face of almost exotic beauty. "Ye’ve your mother’s look about ye now, lass, and it’s whetted the appetites of an old man. I’d no’ ask this of you if there was any other way." Gruffly, he reminded her, "You used to plead wi’ me to name you laird. Ye said there was naught you wouldna’ do fer yer clan…"
Jenny’s stomach twisted into sick knots at the thought of committing her body, her entire life, into the hands of a man she instinctively recoiled from, but she lifted her head and bravely met her father’s gaze. "Aye, father," she said quietly. "Shall I come with you now?"
The look of pride and relief on his face almost made the sacrifice worthwhile. He shook his head. " ‘Tis best you stay here with Brenna. We’ve no horses to spare and we’re anxious to reach Merrick and begin preparations for battle. I’ll send word to the MacPherson that the marriage is agreed upon, and then send someone here to fetch you to him."
When he turned to remount his horse, Jenny gave into the temptation she’d been fighting all along: Instead of standing aside, she moved into the rows of mounted clansmen who had once been her friends and playmates. Hoping that some of them had perhaps heard her agree to marry the MacPherson and that this might neutralize their contempt of her, she paused beside the horse of a ruddy, red-headed man. "Good day to you, Renald Garvin," she said, smiling hesitantly into his hooded gaze. "How fares your lady wife?"
His jaw hardened, his cold eyes flickering over her. "Well enough, I imagine," he snapped.
Jenny swallowed at the unmistakable rejection from the man who had once taught her to fish and laughed with her when she fell into the stream.
She turned around and looked beseechingly at the man in the column beside Renald. "And you, Michael MacCleod? Has your leg been causing you any pain?"
Cold blue eyes met hers, then looked straight ahead.
She went to the rider behind him whose face was filled with hatred and she held out her hand beseechingly, her voice choked with pleading. "Garrick Carmichael, it has been four years since your Becky drowned. I swear to you now, as I swore to you then, I did not shove her into the river. We were not quarreling—’twas a lie invented by Alexander to—"
His face as hard as granite, Garrick Carmichael spurred his horse forward, and without ever looking at her, the men began passing her by.
Only old Josh, the clan’s armorer, pulled his ancient horse to a halt, letting the others go on ahead. Leaning down, he laid his callused palm atop her bare head. "I know you speak truly, lassie," he said, and his unceasing loyalty brought the sting of tears to her eyes as she gazed up into his soft brown ones. "Ye have a temper, there’s no denyin’ it, but even when ye were but a wee thing, ye kept it bridled. Garrick Carmichael and the others might o’ been fooled by Alexander’s angelic looks, but not ol’ Josh. You’ll no’ see me grievin’ o’er the loss o’ him! The clan’ll be better by far wit’ young William leadin’ it. Carmichael and the others—" he added reassuringly, "they’ll come about in their thinkin’ o’ you, once they ken yer marrying the MacPherson for their sake as well as your sire’s."
"Where are my stepbrothers?" Jenny asked hoarsely, changing the subject lest she burst into tears.
"They’re comin’ home by a different route. We couldn’t be sure the Wolf wouldn’t try to attack us while we marched, so we split up after leavin’ Cornwall." With another pat on her head, he spurred his horse forward.
As if in a daze, Jenny stood stock-still in the middle of the road, watching her clan ride off and disappear around the bend.
"It grows dark," Brenna said beside her, her gentle voice filled with sympathy. "We should go back to the abbey now."
The abbey. Three short hours ago, Jenny had walked away from the abbey feeling cheery and alive. Now she felt—dead. "Go ahead without me. I—I can’t go back there. Not yet. I think I’ll walk up the hill and sit for a while."
"The abbess will be annoyed if we aren’t back before dusk, and it’s near that now," Brenna said apprehensively. It had always been thus between the two girls, with Jenny breaking a rule and Brenna terrified of bending one. Brenna was gentle, biddable, and beautiful, with blond hair, hazel eyes, and a sweet disposition that made her, in Jenny’s eyes, the embodiment of womanhood at its best. She was also as meek and timid as Jenny was impulsive and courageous. Without Jenny, she’d not have had a single adventure—nor ever gotten a scolding. Without Brenna to worry about and protect, Jenny would have had many more adventures—and many more scoldings. As a result, the two girls were entirely devoted to each other, and tried to protect one another as much as possible from the inevitable results of each other’s shortcomings.
Brenna hesitated and then volunteered with only a tiny tremor in her voice, "I’ll stay with you. If you remain alone, you’ll forget about time and likely be pounced upon by a—a bear in the darkness."
At the moment, the prospect of being killed by a bear seemed rather inviting to Jenny, whose entire life stretched before her, shrouded in gloom and foreboding. Despite the fact that she truly wanted, needed, to stay outdoors and try to reassemble her thoughts, Jenny shook her head, knowing that if they stayed, Brenna would be drowning in fear at the thought of facing the abbess. "No, we’ll go back."
Ignoring Jenny’s words, Brenna clasped Jenny’s hand and turned to the left, toward the slope of the hill that overlooked the abbey, and for the first time it was Brenna who led and Jenny who followed.
In the woods beside the road, two shadows moved stealthily, staying parallel with the girls’ path up the hill.
By the time they were partway up the steep incline, Jenny had already grown impatient with her own self-pity, and she made a Herculean effort to shore up her flagging spirits. "When you think on it," she offered slowly, directing a glance at Brenna, " ’tis actually a grand and noble thing I’ve been given the opportunity to do—marrying the MacPherson for the sake of my people."