Ramsey could see the fear in his brother's eyes and wondered how long it was going to take for the boy to get used to having him around. The child still mourned their father, and Ramsey knew that Michael felt as though he had been abandoned. The boy didn't remember his mother—she had passed away when he was just a year old—but he had been extremely close to their father and still had not recovered from his death. Ramsey hoped that with time and patience Michael would learn to trust him and perhaps even remember how to smile again.

"You won't go near the falls, and you'll be back in this tent before sunset," he ordered quietly.

"I'll be back before sunset," Michael promised. "Can I leave now?"

"Yes," Ramsey answered, then watched in exasperation as his brother tripped over his own feet and knocked a chair over in his haste to join his friend.

"Michael," he called as his brother was rushing out the entrance, "haven't you forgotten something?"

The child looked puzzled until Ramsey nodded to the visitors. Michael immediately ran to the two men, bowed to his waist, and blurted out, "May I take your leave?"

Otis and Brisbane gave their permission, smiling as they watched the child bolt outside.

"The boy resembles you, Laird," Brisbane commented. " 'Tis the truth he's your very image, for I well remember you as a lad. God willing, Michael will also grow into a fine warrior. A leader of men.

"Yes," Otis agreed, "with proper guidance, he could become a great leader, yet I couldn't help but notice that the child fears his brother. Why is that, Laird?"

Ramsey wasn't offended by the question, as the old man spoke the truth and was simply making an observation. I'm a stranger to the boy, but in time he'll learn to trust me."

"And trust that you won't leave him?" Otis asked.

"Yes," he answered, realizing how perceptive the old man was.

"I remember when your father decided to marry again," Brisbane remarked. "I thought Alisdair was too old and set in his ways to take another wife. Your mother had been dead over ten years, but he fooled me, and he seemed very content. Did you ever meet Glynnes, his second wife?"

"I attended their wedding," he said. "Because she was so much younger than my father, he was certain he would die first and he wanted to be sure she was well provided for," he explained.

"And he asked this of you?" Otis inquired, smiling.

"I am his son," Ramsey responded. "I would do whatever he asked."

Otis turned to his friend. "Laird Sinclair would never turn his back on anyone in need."

Ramsey had wasted enough time talking about personal matters and turned the discussion back to the primary subject. "You have said you want my protection, but could you not achieve this with a simple alliance?"

"Your soldiers would have to patrol our borders night and day," Otis said. "And in time they would grow weary of the duty, but if you owned the land…"

"Yes," Brisbane eagerly agreed. "If the Sinclairs owned the land, you would protect it at all cost. We have—" He suddenly stopped, for he was so stunned by the fact that Ramsey had moved forward to pour wine into their empty goblets, he lost his train of thought. "You are laird… yet you serve us as though you are our squire. Do you not know the power you hold?"

Ramsey smiled over their bewilderment. "I know that you are guests in my tent," he answered, "and my elders. It is therefore my duty to see to your comfort."

The men were honored by his words. "You have your father's heart," Otis praised. "It is good to see Alisdair lives on in his son." The laird accepted the compliment with a nod and then gently led the men back to the topic he most wanted to discuss. "You were saying that I would protect your land at all costs if I owned it?"

"Aye," Otis agreed. "And we have much to offer in return for this union. Our land is rich with resources. Our lakes are glutted with fat fish, our soil is rich for planting, and our hills are filled with sheep."

"Which is why we are being constantly attacked on all our borders by the Campbells and the Hamiltons and the Boswells. They all want our land, our water and our women, but the rest of us can go to hell."

Ramsey didn't show any outward reaction to the passionate speech. He began to pace about the tent with his head bowed and his hands clasped behind his back.

"With your permission, Laird, I would ask a few questions," Gideon requested.

"As you wish," Ramsey told his commander. Gideon turned to Otis. "How many soldiers do you count among the MacPhersons?"

"Nearly two hundred," he answered. "But as Brisbane explained, they have not been properly trained."

"And there are one hundred more of an age to begin training," Otis interjected. "You could make them invincible, Laird," he said. "As invincible as Laird Brodick Buchanan's Spartans. Aye, it's possible, for they already have the minds and hearts of warriors."

"You call Brodick's soldiers Spartans?" Gideon asked, smiling. "We do, for that is what they are," Otis replied. "Haven't you heard the stories about the Spartans of times past from your fathers and grandfathers as we have?"

Gideon nodded. "Most of the stories have been exaggerated."

"Nay, most are true," Otis replied. "The stories were written down by the holy monks and retold countless times. They were a barbaric tribe," he added with a frown. "Sinfully proud but extremely brave. It was said they would rather die by the blade than lose an argument. 'Tis my opinion they were a stubborn lot."

"We wouldn't want our soldiers to be as ruthless as the Buchanan warriors," Brisbane hastily interjected.

Ramsey laughed. "Aye, Brodick's soldiers are ruthless." His smile faded as he added, "Know this, gentlemen. Though we are often at odds, I count Brodick as one of my closest friends. He is like a brother to me. However, I will not take exception to what you have said about him, for I know Brodick would be pleased to know that you think him ruthless."

"The man rules with passion," Otis said.

"Yes, he does," Ramsey agreed. "But he is also fair to a fault."

"You were both trained by Iain Maitland, weren't you?" Brisbane asked.

"We were.

"Laird Maitland rules his clan with wisdom."

Ramsey concurred. "I also count Iain as my friend and brother."

Otis smiled. "Brodick rules with passion, Iain with wisdom, and you, Laird Ramsey, rule with an iron hand of justice. We all know you to be a compassionate man. Show us your mercy now," he pleaded.

"How can you know what kind of leader I am?" he asked. "You call me compassionate, but I've only been laird for six months and I've yet to be tested."

"Look at your commanders," Brisbane said with a nod. "Gideon and Anthony and Faudron led and controlled the Sinclair clan when your father was ill, and after he died and you became laird, you didn't do what others in your position would have done."

"And what would they have done?"

"Replace the commanders with men you know would be loyal to you."

"We are loyal to our laird," Gideon blustered. "You dare to suggest otherwise?"

"Nay," Brisbane countered. "I'm merely saying that other lairds would be less… confident… and would rid themselves of any competitors. That is all. Laird, you showed compassion by allowing them to stay in their important positions."

Ramsey didn't agree or disagree with the old man's judgment. "As I just mentioned, I've been laird for a very short time, and there are problems I must solve within the Sinclair clan. I'm not certain that now is the time to—"

"We can't wait any longer, Laird. The Boswells have declared war and there's talk that they'll align themselves with the Hamiltons. If that happens, the MacPhersons will all be destroyed."

"Would your soldiers willingly pledge themselves to Ramsey?" Gideon asked.

"Aye, they would," Otis insisted.

"All of them?" the Sinclair commander persisted. "There are no dissenters?"

Otis and Brisbane glanced at one another before Otis answered. "There are but a few against this union. Before we came to you with our proposal, we put it to a vote four months ago. Everyone, man and woman, was included."

"You let your women vote?" Gideon asked, incredulous.

Otis smiled. "Aye, we did, for we wanted it to be fair, and our women will also be affected by the union. We wouldn't have thought to include them if Meggan MacPherson, granddaughter of our past laird, hadn't insisted on it."

"She is a most outspoken woman," Brisbane added, though the glint in his eye indicated he didn't see that as a flaw.

"If you voted four months ago, why are you just now making this request to Ramsey?" Gideon asked.

"We've actually voted twice now," Otis explained. "Four months ago we put the vote to the clan and then allowed a period for everyone to consider the matter again. The first vote went in favor of the union, but by a smaller margin."

"We didn't want it to be said that we rushed such an important issue," Brisbane added. "So we gave them time to consider all the ramifications. Then we voted again."

"Yes," Otis said. "Many who were at first against the union changed their minds and voted in favor."

"We shouldn't have waited so long to come to you, Laird, because now our situation has become critical."

"What was the result of the second vote?" Ramsey asked. "How many of your soldiers are still against the union?"

"Sixty-two are still against, and all of them are young, very young," Otis said.

"Pride has colored their judgment," Brisbane volunteered.

"They're led by a stubborn-headed rebel named Proster, but all the others were in favor of the union, and the majority rules."

"Will the dissenters go along with the decision?" Ramsey asked.

"Yes, but grudgingly," Otis admitted. "If Proster can be won over, the others will come with him. There is a simple way to gain their loyalty… a very simple way."

"And what might that be?"

"Marry Meggan MacPherson," Brisbane blurted out. "And unite us by marriage."

"Men have married for far less than what we offer you," Otis interjected.

"And if I choose not to marry Meggan?"

"I would still plead with you if that is what it will take to get your agreement to let our clan unite with yours. Marriage to a MacPherson would only make the union stronger. My clan… my children… need your protection. Just two weeks ago, David and Lucy Douglas were murdered, and their only sin was that they ventured too close to the border. They were newly wed."

"We cannot lose any more of our good people, and if you do not take us in, one by one we will be hunted down. What will happen to our children?" Brisbane asked. "We have boys your brother's age," he added in an attempt to sway the laird.

Ramsey couldn't turn his back on their cry for help. He knew the lengths the Boswells would go to in order to claim more land. None of their soldiers would think twice about killing a child.

"The Boswells are jackals," he muttered.

Gideon knew his laird well and had already guessed what his answer was going to be. "Ramsey, will you put this matter to our clan before you give these men your decision?"

"I will not," he answered. "The matter isn't open for discussion."

Gideon held his frustration. "But will you think about this before you decide?"

Knowing his commander was trying to caution him to wait and was wanting a private discussion before any commitment was made, Ramsey gave Gideon a brisk nod before addressing the MacPhersons again.

"Gentlemen, you will have my answer in three hours' time. Does that suit you?"

Otis nodded as he stood. "With your permission, we will return then to hear your answer."

Brisbane latched onto his friend's arm. "You've forgotten to tell him about the competition," he whispered loudly.

"What competition?" Gideon asked.

Otis visibly colored. "We thought… to save our soldiers' pride, that you would agree to compete in a series of games. We can't possibly win, but it would be easier to give up our name and take the Sinclair name if we were soundly beaten in games of strength."

Gideon stepped forward. "And if you should win?"

"But we wouldn't," Otis insisted.

"But if you did?"

"Then the Sinclairs give up their name. You would still rule as laird, Ramsey, but you would become a MacPherson, and the man who bested you would become your first in command."

Gideon was outraged, but Ramsey had the opposite reaction. So absurd was the request, he felt like laughing. He forced himself to maintain his stern expression as he said, "I have a commander and am well pleased with him."

"But, Laird, we thought only—" Otis began.

Ramsey cut him off. "My commander stands before you, gentlemen, and you insult him mightily with your proposal."

"What if you were to put the question to your clan?" Brisbane asked. "The games have only just started and there are still two full weeks. You could compete at the end of the games."

"Then I, like you, would want every man and woman to have a say, and since most are not attending the festival, I assure you it would take months before everyone had voted. We would have to wait until next year to compete."

"But we cannot wait that long for a decision," Otis said.

"I will be completely honest with you and tell you I wouldn't give the matter to my clan to decide anyway. The mere suggestion is obscene. The Sinclair name is sacred. However, since you say you wish only to save your soldiers' pride, if I decide on this union, then I will also suggest they compete for positions within my ranks under my commander. Those MacPherson soldiers who show strength and courage against my soldiers will be personally trained by Gideon."

Otis nodded. "We'll return then in three hours to hear your answer," he said.

"God guide you in making this momentous decision," Brisbane added as he followed his friend outside.

Ramsey laughed softly. "We've just been led down a crooked path," he remarked. "Otis believes the MacPherson soldiers could beat us and then he would have it all. Our protection and his name."



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