"There is some truth in what you say," he agreed.

Judith took a breath, then blurted out, "I would like to speak directly to the council."

A loud murmur of approval sounded behind Judith. Graham looked as though she had just asked him to slit his throat. He was rendered speechless.

"And what would you say to the council?" Iain asked.

She kept her gaze on Graham while she gave her husband her answer. "I would begin by telling the council how remiss they've been in their duties to the most important members of this clan. They've left out the women and the children. Yes, that is just how I would begin."

Graham had to wait until the women standing with Judith had quit cheering. "How have they been left out?"

"You don't allow any of us to come to you for advice," Judith answered. "Our problems should be every bit as important to you as your warrior's problems. We should also be able to voice our opinions concerning significant matters."

"Judith, every woman is important here."

"Then why can't we come before the council?"

Graham had never had anyone challenge him like this before. He rubbed his jaw while he considered his answer. "When you have a problem you wish to discuss, you should go to your husband," he finally advised.

He looked pleased with himself for coming up with his solution. He even managed a smile.

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"That is all good and well," Judith countered. "Husbands and wives should always discuss their problems with each other. But what about the women who don't have husbands? Who can they turn to for advice? Do these women cease to matter? If Helen had had a problem with her son, she should have been able to come to you or Gelfrid, or any of the other elders to seek your counsel, but that opportunity wasn't available to her. When her husband died, she became an outsider."

"I would have been happy to solve her problems," Graham returned.

Judith tried to hide her exasperation. "Helen doesn't need you to solve her problems for her," she argued. "None of us do. We only want to be able to discuss these concerns, to gain another point of view… we want to be included in this clan, Graham. Helen has a sound mind. She can solve her own problems. Now do you understand?"

"There's Dorothy, too," Helen reminded Judith. "Mention her while you're telling him the way things are around here."

"Yes, Dorothy," Judith agreed. Helen had only just told her about the expectant mother. "Dorothy's due to have her baby in another month. Her husband died on a hunting raid just weeks after they were wed. The council should be her family now. She shouldn't be alone. Surely the elders will wish to make some changes… for the sake of the women and the children."

Graham couldn't help but be swayed by the valid argument. The elders had ignored the women. "We have been remiss," he admitted.

It was all he was willing to give now. It was enough. Judith turned back to Iain. It was his turn to do a little conceding. "My mother's English, my father's Laird Maclean, and I can't change that. You're laird here, Iain, and I don't believe you can change that, either."

Iain frowned. "Judith, I didn't press for the alliance simply because Maclean was your father. 'Tis the truth my men could take on a legion of Macleans and come out winners. They're better trained than any other unit in all of Scotland. However," he added with a meaningful glance in Graham's direction, "the Dunbars united with the Macleans would overwhelm us in sheer numbers alone. As laird, it is my duty to protect each and every member of this clan. I simply cannot accomplish this as advisor. The position is empty without power. And that, wife, is no longer acceptable to me."

"Unacceptable as it is now," she qualified.

"As it has always been," he corrected.

"Until you change it."

Iain walked over to stand directly in front of Graham. "I will not remain advisor. I want the power to act."

A long minute passed while Graham once again mulled over Iain's demand. He turned to look at the elders before giving his attention back to Iain.

And still he hedged. "Absolute power…"

Judith started to interrupt, then stopped herself. Men were far more delicate to deal with than women were, she thought to herself. Their pride made the most reasonable solutions difficult.

"You have to be accountable for your actions, son," Graham said. He looked haggard. Judith thought he had already decided against the change and was struggling to accept the inevitable.

And then the solution came to her. "What a fine idea, Graham," she cried out. She smiled at the elder, nodded when he gave her such a puzzled look, and then rushed over to stand next to Iain. She nudged him in his side. "Isn't it a fine plan, husband?"

He didn't know what she was talking about. "Judith, if my every decision is questioned—"

"Probably just once a year," she interrupted. "Or does your plan include giving your laird your vote of confidence more often?" she asked the elder.

Graham's surprise was evident. He finally understood what she was suggesting. He quickly nodded. He smiled, too. "Yes, once a year would do. Your actions will be accountable then, by God. You could be voted out, Iain."

He left the empty threat hanging in the air. Everyone knew that would never happen. The power had just been given to the laird. Everyone understood that, too.

"It will be a firm balance of power," Graham announced, his voice strong now with conviction. "The council will meet once a month to hear petitions from the members, of course. We'll also be giving you advice, Iain, whenever the mood strikes us."

"Will the council hear petitions from all the members? The women, too?" Judith pressed.

Graham nodded. "Aye, lass," he agreed. "Especially the women. We've kept them silent too long. It's time their voice was heard."

"Nothing has been decided until the others on the council agree," Iain reminded Graham.

"I'll go and put the question to them now," the elder said. "You'll have your vote for or against these changes within the hour."

It only took half that amount of time before the elders came outside again and announced their unanimous agreement to embrace Graham's innovative plan.

A resounding cheer echoed throughout the hills. Iain was surrounded by his supporters. There was quite a bit of pounding on his shoulder. A keg of wine was carried outside, goblets passed around and toasts given.

The elders didn't isolate themselves. They strolled through the crowd and participated in the spontaneous celebration.

When Iain was finally able to separate himself from the well-wishers, he tried to find his wife. He wanted to take her to a secluded spot and privately celebrate with her.

He spotted her walking toward the path leading down the hill and tried to get to her. Vincent and Owen intercepted him. Both men wanted to talk about Graham's clever plan. They proved to be long-winded, and Iain wasn't able to go after his wife for a good twenty minutes.

Then Ramsey and Brodick caught him just as he was starting down the hill.

"Have you seen Judith?"

"She's with Frances Catherine and Patrick," Ramsey answered. "Iain, you aren't still angry I refused to become laird in your stead, are you?"

"No," Iain answered.

"We have something to discuss with you," Brodick interjected. "It shouldn't take more than a minute of your time."

Brodick's minute turned into a full hour. Iain did quite a bit of laughing over the bizarre request, too. In the end, however, he finally agreed. He even wished them good luck.

By the time Iain made it to his brother's cottage, Judith had already left. Frances Catherine and both babies were sleeping soundly and Patrick looked in dire need of a nap as well. He was yawning when he pointed the direction Judith had taken.

He found her a few minutes later. She'd hidden herself in a cluster of trees next to the shallow stream.

She looked relaxed. She'd taken her shoes off and sat on the ground with her back against the tree. Her eyes were closed and her hands were demurely folded in her lap.

Iain sat down beside her. "Did you leave the celebration because of the drinking?"

She didn't open her eyes. She smiled though. "No. I just wanted to spend a few minutes with Frances Catherine and then find a quiet spot to rest… and think. It's most difficult to find privacy around here, isn't it?"

"Aye, it is," he agreed with a laugh. "You did insist on staying here."

"Yes, I did," she agreed. "Still, the lack of privacy can be irritating."

"You could go to the chapel when you want to be alone."

She did open her eyes then. "Iain, we don't have a chapel," she reminded him."

"We will have one," he explained. "By next summer at the very latest. It has to be ready on the day of our first wedding anniversary."

"Why?"

"So we can have a proper mass inside to celebrate our union," he explained. He smiled over the startle his announcement caused her, and gently nudged her away from the tree. He took her place, and as soon as he was comfortable, lifted her onto his lap. He leaned down and kissed her brow. "With flowers, Judith," he told her in a husky whisper. "They'll fill the chapel. I promise."

Her smile was radiant. "I'm married to a very thoughtful man. I don't need flowers, Iain. I have everything I could ever want."

"There will be flowers," he grumbled, pleased with her fervent words of praise.

"Why did you leave the celebration?" she asked.

"I wanted to be alone with you."

"Why?"

He cupped the sides of her face and leaned forward. His mouth covered hers. The kiss was sweet, undemanding, filled with love.

He was slow to pull away. Judith let out a sigh and collapsed against him. She didn't think she had ever known such contentment, such bliss.

Long minutes passed in silence. "Iain?"

"Yes, love?"

"What are we going to do about my father?"

"Put up with him, I suppose."

They continued to talk about her family for a long while. Judith decided she really wanted to see her father again, her brother as well, and Iain promised to take her to the Maclean holding the following afternoon.

The talk turned to the events of the day. It was a lazy discussion. Judith's eyes were closed and she was barely paying attention to what Iain was saying until he mentioned that Brodick and Ramsey were leaving on a hunt.

She heard the amusement in his voice. Her curiosity was caught. "Why are you amused?" she asked.

"They're going hunting in England," he answered with a chuckle.

"Why?" she asked, thoroughly confused.

"They haven't been able to find what they're looking for here. They're following my example."

"Iain, what are you talking about? Exactly what are they hunting?"

"Brides."

She burst into laughter. She thought her husband was jesting with her. She cuddled up against him again and thought about his bizarre sense of humor.

Iain didn't bother to explain he hadn't been jesting. Judith would find out he'd been telling her the truth when Ramsey and Brodick returned with wives.

He wrapped his arms around his sweet wife and closed his eyes.

The wind, sweet with the scent of summer, floated across the creek to swirl around the couple.

Judith snuggled closer to her husband and contemplated with wonder the blessing God had given her. She was part of a family now. She was loved, and cherished, and valued.

She was home at last.



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