Rory MacKenzie wiped the icy rain from his face and limped into yet another tavern. His injured leg was throbbing, his belly was empty, and he had no money, but these were not the worst of his problems.
He waited for his eyes to adjust to the murky light, then swept his gaze over the occupants. Damn. No one but a serving woman and some old men who had the settled look of regular customers. Hunching over to avoid banging his head on the blackened wooden beams of the low ceiling, he crossed the room. Out of habit, he chose an empty bench where he could sit with his back to the wall and watch the door. He gritted his teeth against a hot blade of pain that shot through his leg as he eased himself onto the bench, then took a couple of slow, deep breaths.
“Good evening to ye,” he said, speaking in Scots to the old men, who were local merchants, judging by their soft bellies and Lowlander clothes. “I’m a MacKenzie, and I’m hoping to find some of my clansmen in the city.”
“Haven’t seen any lately,” one of the men said around the pipe clenched between his teeth, and the others shook their heads.
Rory doubted these men could tell a MacKenzie from another Highlander, but he had already looked all over the city with no luck. He knew most of the taverns where his clansmen were likely to gather from the year he had been forced to study at the university.
What in the hell was he going to do? He had walked for days just to get as far as Edinburgh. He needed to get home to Kintail to protect his brother.
“Looks as if you’ve had a rough time of it, lad,” the man with the pipe said.
“The English took me captive after Flodden,” Rory said, his thoughts skittering back to the disastrous battle. The English had kept the highborn prisoners for ransom and killed the rest. “I escaped a few days ago.”
Rory had known better than to wait for his uncle to pay for his release.
“Escaped?” One of the old men gave a low whistle. “Tell us your tale, and I’ll buy ye a cup of ale.”
Rory had the full attention of everyone in the tavern now, including the serving maid, a woman of impressive size with strands of greasy hair falling out of her filthy head covering.
“Add a bowl of stew,” he said with a grin, “and I’ll give ye a story that will curl your hair.”
“Just looking at him is making my hair curl,” the serving woman said to the others. She gave Rory a broad wink and a nudge when she brought his stew and ale. “I like my men young.”
Rory did not bother embellishing his tale, as would be expected at home. These old merchants had never fought themselves, so they were wide-eyed at the bare truth. They cringed and made faces when he mentioned the number of lashes he received after being caught the first time he tried to escape. A whipping was a small matter, but the damned English had taken his horse and all his weapons—his claymore, axe, and several dirks.
“I need a horse and a blade to go home,” he said, presenting his problem to the old men. The journey would take too long on foot, and only a fool would travel in the Highlands without a weapon, and preferably several.
“Ye can’t buy those with a tale or your good looks,” one of the old men said, and the others guffawed.
Rory had considered stealing a horse, but the city was on edge in the wake of Flodden, fearing an attack by the English, and armed men were everywhere. He could not take the risk of getting caught and failing to get home.
“I’m good at cards.” He had done little else while held hostage. “Do ye know of a game where I’d have a chance of winning that kind of money?”
“Enough to buy a horse and a sword?” a baldheaded man with red cheeks asked in a high voice.
Everyone laughed, except for the man with the pipe, who said, “Mattie, aren’t those fancy-dressed nobles having one of their games in your back room tonight?”
“Hush!” She swatted the man with a filthy rag. “They give me good money to guarantee them privacy and clean lasses, and they don’t like to mix with us lowly folk.”
“I’m a Highland chieftain’s son, so I’m as good as any of these Lowland nobles.” Better, in fact. When the woman still hesitated, Rory spread his arms out and gave her his best smile. “Come, Mattie, help a lad out.”
“What woman could say nay to that pretty face?” she said. “All right, ye young devil.”
Pretty face? Ach. Now he just needed something to start the game with. “If one of ye will lend me a silver coin, I’ll return it doubled.”
When his request was met by another round of guffaws, desperation clawed at his gut. He never should have left his brother Brian this long. When he answered the king’s call to fight, Rory had not anticipated being held prisoner for two months after the battle.
He reminded himself that his half-brother was sixteen, same as he was, and should be able to take care of himself. Although Rory was six months younger than Brian, he’d always felt older. Brian was too goodhearted. He didn’t see people for what they were, but as he wanted them to be. That was dangerous for any man, but especially for one who would soon take on the duties of clan chieftain.
Rory was reconsidering stealing a horse when the serving maid plopped down next to him with a heavy thump and wrapped an arm as beefy as a blacksmith’s around his neck.
“I’ll lend ye a bit of money for the game,” she said, her sour breath in his face. With her free hand, she reached inside her bodice, pulled a silver coin from between her ample breasts, and held it up between her thumb and forefinger.
“Isn’t that the coin I gave ye, Mattie?” the red-cheeked man complained.
“Believe me, lads,” she said, turning to the others, “I earned it.”
“Ye won’t regret this,” Rory said over the men’s laughter. But when he tried to take the coin, she held it just out of his reach.
“Promise, on your mother’s grave, that if ye can’t repay me in coin”—Mattie paused and grinned at him, showing her brown and broken teeth—“you’ll repay me in a manner of my choosing.”
Rory’s stomach clutched. In addition to her many unappealing attributes, Mattie probably was not clean of the pox, like the lasses she provided the men in the back room. But he could not shake the feeling that his brother was in trouble, so he had no choice.
“On my mother’s grave.” He jumped when Mattie reached behind him and squeezed his arse with her ham-sized hand. He closed his eyes briefly and thanked God that none of his clansmen were here to see it.
Ignoring the throbbing in his leg, he got up and followed Mattie behind a curtain into a dark corridor. At the far end, candlelight spilled through a partially closed door.
“Have a care, handsome. These are powerful men,” Mattie whispered as they paused outside the door. Then she poked his chest. “You’ll be no use to me dead.”
Holding his breath against her overpowering smell, Rory leaned closer to see the men inside. There were five, all young and well-dressed, sitting around a table with cards and small piles of coins.
“Who are they?” he asked in a whisper.
“That one is the new Douglas chieftain, and the one next to him is his brother,” she said, pointing a thick finger at two black-haired men, neither of which looked much over twenty. “Their father was killed with the king at Flodden, and their grandfather, old Bell the Cat, died last week, making young Archibald here the earl.”
Rory had never met Archibald Douglas, but he had once caught a glimpse of the beautiful Douglas sisters riding through Edinburgh. He smiled to himself, remembering a giggling young lass with flashing blue eyes and hair as black as a moonless night.
“They say this young Douglas chieftain is ‘comforting’ our grieving queen,” Mattie said, drawing Rory’s attention back to the present. “I believe the other men at the table are Boyds and Drummonds, close kin of the Douglases.”
Archibald Douglas must have heard her speak this time, for he shifted his gaze to the doorway and called out, “Who’ve ye brought us, Mattie?”
Rory stepped into the room with no notion of how this night would change his fate.