Robert drew her attention when he remarked, "Gideon is Ramsey's commander. Is he not then Dylan's equal?"
"No one is my equal," Dylan answered as he swung down from his mount. "But I will placate Gideon by lowering myself to speak to him. If you'll excuse me, milady?" Dylan asked as he took the reins in preparation to lead the horse away.
"Of course," she answered. "I, too, would like to dismount, Robert. Would you please move your horse so that I may have room?"
"You must wait for your laird," he answered.
"Aye, you must," Liam agreed as he reined his horse forward to take Dylan's place. "Milady, you could make it easier for us if you would wear our plaid."
"Make what easier?" she asked.
"Letting them know that you are…"
He suddenly stopped. She prodded, "That I am what?" she asked.
"With us," Robert said.
He was saved from having to give further explanation when Ramsey motioned for him to move his horse so that he could get to Gillian's side.
He lifted her to the ground. "Do not judge my clan by a handful of boys," he cautioned.
"Her feet are on the ground now," Brodick said from behind his friend. "You can let go."
Ramsey ignored him and continued to hold Gillian. "Come inside. It's nearly noon, and you must surely be hungry."
Brodick shoved Ramsey's hand away from Gillian and gestured for her to come to him. Annoyed with his behavior, she stood her ground and made him come to her.
"I'm not hungry," she told Ramsey.
"Then tonight we will have a fine feast," he promised. "But before then, you'll have met every one of my soldiers in the holding. If the man you saw isn't among them, then tomorrow we'll head out to look over the others. It will take time, Gillian," he warned. "Now that the Sinclairs and the MacPhersons have joined, there's a vast amount of land to cover."
"What about her sister?" Brodick asked.
"I would like to meet all the women as well," she said, slipping her hand into Brodick's. "I know the importance of pointing out the man who betrayed you, and I will do all that I can to help you find him, but I implore you to do the same for me. I must find Christen."
Ramsey nodded. "You have told us that she was taken in by the MacPhersons, and as Iain suggested, the elders will have surely heard about her."
"Then why were the requests for information ignored? King John sent emissaries to all the clans, and no one responded."
Ramsey smiled. "Why would they?"
"I don't understand."
"We don't like King John," Brodick bluntly explained.
"No, we don't," Ramsey agreed.
They continued to walk toward the chiseled stone steps that led up to the broad timbered doors of the castle, the crowd giving them a wide path. Gillian noticed two elderly men hovering near the steps. One was tall and as thin as a walking stick, and the other was but half his size and as round as a full moon. Both men bowed to Ramsey as he strode forward.
After presenting them to her, Ramsey turned to Gillian, "It's my hope that Brisbane and Otis will be able to help you find Christen. Both are MacPhersons."
Ramsey filled the men in on the necessary details about Gillian's sister. "With your memories, I'm sure you'll be able to recall a family taking in a young girl. She would have been around six years old."
"But if the family came to us from the Lowlands with the child, how would we know the lass wasn't actually theirs?" Brisbane said.
"You'd know. You know everything that goes on here. You both would have heard the gossip."
"Perhaps we can be of service to the lady," Otis said. "But I'm wondering why you're helping her, Laird. Has the lady come to mean more to you than she should?"
"She has come to mean a great deal to me," Ramsey said, his voice curt now.
"But she's English." Brisbane pointed out the obvious. "And that is why Otis is concerned, Laird."
"I know what she is," Ramsey said. "Lady Gillian is Brodick's woman, and Brodick is my friend."
The announcement cheered both men. Otis looked vastly relieved. "Then you are not—"
"No," Ramsey interrupted. "Her heart belongs to Brodick."
Brisbane turned to Brodick. "Even though she's English… you still claim her?"
Annoyed by the turn in the conversation, Gillian said, "I'm happy to be English."
Otis gave her a sympathetic look. "Ah, lass, you cannot possibly be happy being English, but it's courageous of you to pretend. Come along with me," he added as he motioned Ramsey out of his way so that he could latch onto her arm, "and we will talk about your sister."
Brisbane wasn't about to be left out. "My memory's much stronger than yours, Otis," he said as he took hold of Gillian's other arm, rudely nudging Brodick out of his way. "Why don't we take a stroll around the lake and put our heads together. I do recall one family in particular. They have a lass about your age, and they did come to us from the Lowlands."
Because both men were holding on to her, she couldn't curtsy and beg permission to be excused from her host. She glanced back at Brodick, caught his nod of approval, and then gave her full attention to her escorts as they led her away.
Ramsey and Brodick watched her leave. "She'll be all right?" Brodick asked, though he was already motioning to Robert and Liam to follow.
"Of course she'll be all right," Ramsey replied. "Let your men relax their guard."
"Very well," Brodick agreed, and quickly rescinded his command to his men. He followed Ramsey inside, where a crowd had gathered to speak to their laird.
"Do you think Otis and Brisbane will be able to help Gillian?" he asked.
"The question isn't if they can help, but rather, will they help." Ramsey poured a cup of wine and handed it to his friend and then poured one for himself. "They probably have a good idea where Christen is," he explained. "But they'll talk to her family before telling Gillian anything. If Christen wants to meet her sister, then they'll arrange it. If not…"
"You'll command it."
"Yes," he agreed. "But it will be difficult. The old men will be stubborn."
"They would seek to protect her because she's a MacPherson?"
"Why would they think they have to protect her from her own sister?"
"Her English sister," Ramsey said. "Stop worrying, Brodick. If Christen is here, we'll find her. Ah, there's Gideon with Dylan. Let me take care of any pressing business, and then we, too, will put our heads together and decide our plans."
An hour passed quickly as Ramsey first listened to the concerns of his clan, then heard Gideon's report on the problems that had arisen while he was away from the holding. He wasn't surprised to hear that the majority of those problems involved the MacPherson soldiers. Ramsey held his patience while Gideon recounted incident after incident on the training fields.
By the time the Sinclair commander was finished listing the grievances, his face was bright red. "You've ordered me to be tolerant," Gideon reminded his laird. "But I tell you this: It's dangerous to allow such insubordination. The leader of this group of misfits grows more powerful with each passing day. When I give an order, the majority of MacPhersons look to him first, and if he gives his nod of approval, then they follow my command. It's unacceptable," he added in a voice shaking with anger.
Ramsey stood calmly in front of the hearth and watched his commander pace about the hall. Brodick leaned against the table as he, too, listened to the tirade against the MacPhersons. Dylan stood beside him.
When Ramsey had heard enough, he raised his hand for silence. "And what would you have me do, Gideon?" he asked softly.
The commander whirled to face his laird. "Throw the bastard out."
"Does the bastard have a name?" Dylan asked.
"Proster," Gideon replied.
"And you want me to banish him?" Ramsey demanded.
"I would rather you let me kill him, Laird, but I would be content if he were cast out."
"What about his followers? What would you have me do to them?"
Gideon sighed. "I would have you throw them all out. You know I was against this union of clans, Laird, and I do recall telling you that it wouldn't work."
"And you believe your prophecy has been fulfilled?"
"You knew there were going to be problems, Gideon. It is your duty to find a way to solve them, but not by casting the misfits out," he added curtly. "Find Proster and send him to me," he commanded then. "I'll deal with him and his cohorts."
Gideon seemed relieved to be rid of the problem and eagerly nodded. "I welcome your interference, Laird, for I swear the troublemakers have pushed me to the wall. I do not have your patience."
No one had Ramsey's patience, Brodick thought to himself. Gideon obviously didn't know his laird well, for if he did, he would have known that under that thin layer of civility and diplomacy beat the heart of a savage warrior whose temper put Brodick's to shame. Unlike Brodick, Ramsey was slow to ignite, but once he had reached his limit or had been prodded too far, his reaction was explosive and most impressive. He could be far more brutal than Brodick, and perhaps that was one of the reasons they had become such good friends. They trusted each other. Aye, Brodick trusted and admired Ramsey as much as he trusted and admired the man who had trained them to be leaders, Iain Maitland.
Now there was a ruthless leader, Brodick thought. Iain rarely showed mercy, and was known for his impatience, which was why in the past he had relied on Ramsey to speak on his behalf at council meetings. Whereas Iain would have killed anyone who disagreed with him, Ramsey used persuasion to get what he wanted, and only if and when that didn't work, did he, like Iain and Brodick, resort to brute force.
Once Gideon had aired his complaints, his disposition improved dramatically. "There's one more matter to attend to before you rest," he announced with a grin.
Ramsey raised an eyebrow. "The matter amuses you?"
"Aye, it does," Gideon replied.
Ramsey sighed. "Let me guess," he said. "Does the matter involve our Bridgid KirkConnell?"
Gideon laughed. "You're most perceptive, Laird, for it does indeed involve our Bridgid. There has been yet another request for her hand in marriage."
A resigned look on his face, Ramsey asked, "Who is it this time?"
"The soldier's name is Matthias," Gideon said. "He's a MacPherson and I would warn you that if Bridgid agrees to marry him after turning down so many of our worthy and proud Sinclair soldiers, there will be hell to pay."
Now Ramsey laughed. "If Bridgid is anything, she's predictable. We both know she isn't going to agree to have this Matthias, so you needn't worry about the repercussions. Send her in, and I'll put the question to her. I'd like Brodick to meet her."
"Why? "Brodick asked.
"She's… intriguing," Ramsey explained.
"Begging your indulgence, but her mother requests an audience first, Laird. She wishes to speak to you before Bridgid is summoned."
"Is she waiting now?"
"No," Gideon answered. "I'll send someone to fetch her."
"When we're finished," Ramsey said. "I want you to give the order for all the men to gather in the courtyard at sunset. Every single man must attend," he added.
"Accept no excuses," Brodick interjected.
Gideon immediately nodded. "As you wish," he said. He studied Ramsey for several seconds and then asked, "Are you planning to make an announcement then? Do I congratulate you?"
"No," Ramsey replied.
Curious about Gideon's remark, Brodick asked, "Congratulate you on what?"
"I've been asked by the elders to consider marriage to Meggan MacPherson. I still haven't decided what I'm going to do. 'Tis the truth I haven't had time to think about it. I'll admit it would make my life easier if the two clans were joined by marriage."
"You'll break a lot of hearts," Dylan couldn't help remarking. "There were quite a few pretty young ladies following after you, but I noticed none had the courage to come forward and speak to you."
"They usually hound him," Gideon said. "Today, however, they were most timid. I believe I know the reason why they stayed away."
"And what would that reason be?" Brodick asked.
Gideon decided to be blunt. "You, Laird. You were standing with Ramsey, and that's why the women didn't come forward. Though they're clearly besotted with their laird, they're more frightened by you."
Dylan grinned. " 'Tis good to know that you can still make the ladies fainthearted, Brodick."
"We don't have time for foolish banter," Ramsey muttered, clearly uncomfortable with the talk about the young ladies' behavior. Brodick knew it embarrassed Ramsey to be chased after because of the way he looked, and as his friend, Brodick used that knowledge to his advantage. Whenever he could increase Ramsey's discomfort, he did exactly that.
"It must be sheer hell for you to be cursed with such a pretty boy's face," he drawled. "The agony of finding a different woman in your bed every night must wear you thin. I don't know where you get your stamina with this terrible burden you bear."
The muscle in Ramsey's jaw flexed, which pleased Brodick considerably.
"We know you've had as many women in your bed as I have," Ramsey snapped. "But I meant what I said. There are more important matters to discuss."
Weary now, he walked to the table, deliberately shoving Brodick out of his way when he tried to block him and gaining a good laugh from his friend. Motioning to Dylan and Gideon to take their seats, Ramsey sat down at the head of the table, grabbed a pitcher of cold water, poured another drink, and asked the young squire waiting by the doorway to fetch them some warm bread and cheese to ease their hunger until supper was ready.
As soon as the boy left the hall, Ramsey suggested that Brodick fill Gideon in on all that had transpired. "Our commanders are going to have to coordinate their efforts for the attack," he said. "Iain wants Winslow and Dylan and you to handpick the soldiers who'll ride with us into England."