"I dinnae think our mother was verra pleased about this, Gillyanne."
Gillyanne smiled at the handsome auburn-haired James who rode at her side. He was the brother of her heart, and even he knew that the woman he called his mother was actually his aunt. Soon he would claim his heritage, become laird of Dunncraig, but Gillyanne knew it would be only a distance of miles that would separate them, never one of heart or spirit. She also knew that he did not think she was completely wise in her decision to travel to her dower lands.
"And did ye have to bring those thrice-cursed cats?" he muttered.
"Aye. There may be rats there," she replied calmly.
She reached down to gently scratch the ears of her two cats, Ragged and Dirty. Ragged was a huge dark yellow tom who well fit his name, with one eye gone, one ear missing a bite-sized chunk, and numerous battle scars. Dirty was a sweet, delicate female, a mottled patternless blend of black, grey, orange and white, who had not truly suited her name from the moment she had been rescued and cleaned. They traveled everywhere with her in a special fur-lined leather basket that was firmly attached to her saddle. The three of them had not been separated in three years, not since the day she had found them where they had been cruelly tossed into a rat-infested dungeon cell at a neighboring keep. Both of them had been weak and bloodied, the cell littered with more dead and dying rats than she had had the stomach to count. They had both more than earned their keep since she had brought them home with her.
"Oh, aye." James nodded and reached out to briefly pet both cats, revealing that his harsh words were not heartfelt. " 'Tis nay like home at Dubhlinn. S'truth, Mither and I could gain little knowledge about your tower house save to learn that 'tis nay a ruin. Mither felt that the trouble was that the mon she traded messages with didnae truly understand what she was asking of him or what she wished to hear. The mon thought safe; she thought clean. The mon thought protection; she thought comfort. She finally decided safe and protected would suit us for now, that 'twas clear a woman's eye was needed."
" 'Tis because this used to be MacMillan land and 'tis a MacMillan mon who guards it. Mither doesnae ken him weel, save that my great-uncle MacMillan praises his worth, and the mon doesnae ken Mama. Weel, this visit should mend all of that."
"I but pray it is comfortable."
"If it has a bed, a bath, and food, I will be content for now. The comforts such as exist at Dubhlinn can come later."
"Aye, true enough." James eyed her curiously. "I am nay sure I understand your stubborn need to come here, though."
"I am nay sure I do, either." Gillyanne smiled at her cousin, then sighed and shrugged. " 'Tis mine. I can say no more than that. 'Tis mine and I wished to acquaint myself with it."
"In truth, I think I can understand that. I keep feeling drawn to my lands though I shallnae set my arse in the laird's seat for another year or more."
"Nay too much more," she said encouragingly.
"Nay, I think not. Dinnae think I resent or regret being held back. 'Tis best. I need seasoning, need more training, and have only just gained my spurs. Our cousin holds my place weel and I need to be able to fill his large boots. An untried laird will do my clan no good at all." He frowned a little. "I wonder how those who live upon your dower lands will feel when a wee lass comes to claim the prize."
"Mither wondered as weel and sought some assurances. It appears it willnae matter. 'Tis but a small keep with few people and Mither got the feeling they would welcome just about anyone. The only one they call the leader is an aging steward. They have all been left a wee bit uncertain of their future and would like it settled."
"That is in your favor then," agreed James. "Why do I think that ye are considering staying here?"
Gillyanne shrugged again, not surprised he had guessed her thoughts. She did indeed have the occasional thought about setting up her own household at Ald-dabhach. And, mayhap, she thought with a small smile, changing the name to something more interesting than old measure of land. There was a restlessness inside of her which she did not understand. She loved her family dearly, but they only seemed to make that restlessness worse. Perhaps, if she had her own lands to tend to, she would feel useful and that would sate the hunger gnawing at her insides.
Although she was reluctant to admit it, there was another reason she was finding it difficult at home. It tasted too much like envy, but she was finding it more and more difficult to be around so many happily married couples, to watch her cousins build their own families. Each new birth she attended was, for her, a blend of pleasure and increasing pain. She would be one and twenty soon and no man had ever looked at her with the slightest warmth. Several trips to court had not helped, had in fact been painful proof that men simply did not find her desirable, and all of her family's love and reassurances did not really ease the sting of that.
At times she grew angry with herself. She did not need a man to survive. Deep in her heart she knew she could have a full, happy life with no man at her side. But, right beside that knowledge was the fact that she ached for the passion, the love, and especially the children a husband could give her. Every time she watched one of her cousins with her children, watched the heated glances exchanged between husband and wife, she knew she did not need that to find some sort of happiness, but it did not stop her from wanting it all.
"If ye hide yourself away here, how will ye e'er find a husband?" James asked.
It took a moment but Gillyanne finally quelled the urge to kick her cousin off his horse. "I dinnae think that is a problem I need fret o'er, Cousin. If there is a match for me, and I have seen little proof that there is one, he can find me here as easily as he can at Dubhlinn or the king's court."
James grimaced and dragged his hand through his hair. "Ye sound as if ye are giving up. Elspeth and Avery were about your age when they found their husbands."
"Near, but still younger. I believe they also experienced the occasional twitch of interest from men ere they were married." She smiled at her cousin when he continued to frown. "Dinnae trouble yourself so. My cousins met their mates in unexpected places. Mayhap I will, too." Gillyanne broke through a line of trees and announced, "Ah, and there it looms. My keep and my lands."
Ald-dabhach had obviously consisted of little more than a peel tower at one time. Over the years two small wings had been added to the thick tower and it was now surrounded by a high, sturdy wall. Set upon a steeply inclined hill, it would be easily protected. The tiny village which sat in its shadow looked neat, the fields all around it were well tended or used to graze cattle and sheep. A small creek wound its way behind the keep, the setting sun making its waters sparkle and gleam. It was, Gillyanne decided, a rather pretty place, and she hoped it was as peaceful as it looked as she urged her mount toward its gates.
Copyright © 2002 by Hannah Howell