|Dunrobin Castle, Scotland 1435
Toes curling over the outer window-ledge, Muren Grey gripped the shutters tight as she stared into the murky depths below. Her mind raced with images of the torment she would soon face if she did not find a way out of the situation in which her brother, Ronan, had placed her. She raised her head to the sky. Perhaps God would send one of his fastest angels down to carry her away from this mess. A light drizzle kissed her face and, yet again, her silent plea went unanswered.
Her demise was surely predestined.
Muren turned back toward her chamber and stepped off the ledge back onto the cold stone floor. She wrapped her arms around herself for comfort, but nothing would help. In less than an hour she would meet, and be betrothed to, one of the cruellest men in all of Scotland, and no amount of prayer or pleading could prevent it.
No matter how hard she tried, she could not find sense in Ronan’s decision. He had always been kind to her, ever since childhood. But to break her betrothal to Rorie MacKenzie, whom she had come to love, and then promise her to the Black Douglas, who was surely Satan’s spawn, brought Ronan’s motives and his sanity into question.
A loud knock sounded at the door causing her to her jump. Her heavy crimson and gold brocade gown lay on the bed. She had not the stomach to don it, and so now stood in the middle of her chamber with her hair unkempt wearing only her shift. How would the Douglas feel if he saw her in such a state? Perhaps he might cancel the entire arrangement if he was not pleased with her. Muren would not credit the man with empathy for she had heard of all the atrocities bestowed upon new brides at the hands of his clan. She swallowed hard.
Her hand shook as she reached for the door’s latch. Lifting it slowly, she whispered, “Who is there?”
“Someone who will give her life to protect you.”
Muren swung the door open and let her breath out slowly when her brother’s wife, Freya, came into view. Her frown shattered any hope Muren possessed for good news.
Freya stepped into the chamber and closed the door behind her. Pulling Muren into an embrace, she said, “He has arrived.”
Icicles of dread clawed at Muren’s insides until she was certain she would lose her wits and her consciousness. “Why is he doing this, Freya? What have I done to vex him so that he must punish me like this?”
“Would you believe me if I told you that it has nothing to do with you?”
Muren pulled back so she could see her sister-in-law’s eyes. “No. Considering my life is the coveted prize in these barterings of his. Does he not realize who this man is?’
“I am on your side in this, Muren. You must believe me when I say that I have ranted and raved at him for days since he told me of this madness.”
“And what did he tell you?”
“He said only that he is caught in a position which does not afford him any other option but to comply with this demand.”
“Demand from whom?”
“From King James.”
“But why?” Muren raised her arms in the air. “How did I manage to become ensnarled in the king’s business? Who am I to him?”
Freya shook her head. “Like so many of us, unfortunately, we are too often used as barter to increase the position of the men around us.”
“But you changed your fate, Freya. I recall it was originally you who were to marry my Rorie.”
“Aye, but mine and Ronan’s need for the other could not be denied. Marrying another surely would have killed me.”
A lump formed in Muren’s throat and she swallowed hard. “That is how I feel.”
Freya frowned. “You’re right. How can I expect you to accept that which I could not?” Freya’s brows knit. “I am certain there must be a logical way out of this.”
“Freya, if there was, do you not think we would have found it by now? I must either present myself to the Douglas or leave, and considering the fact that he is already here, it would not be easy for that to happen, would it?”
Shouts from outside drew Muren’s attention to the window. “Do you think Ronan has refused him entry after all?”
“I do not know, but from the sound of it, someone is vexed.”
From her chamber at the back of the third floor of Dunrobin, Muren could only see the ocean. But the din of men shouting from another side of the castle was unmistakable. “Should we go below to see what passes?”
Freya went to Muren’s chest and pulled out a plain grey woolen gown Muren had not worn since coming to Dunrobin years earlier. Freya threw it at her and then pulled out her old black cloak. “Put these on, and we will use the passageways to get as close as we can.”
Muren slipped the gown over her head and while Freya fastened the ties, straightened up her long braid. Her heart beat wildly in her chest as the shouting from outside grew louder and was now accompanied by the clang of metal on metal. Was Ronan fighting the Douglas? If so, Freya was right. They needed to find out exactly what was going on and the last place she should be was in her chamber. If the Douglas won, she did not want to be anywhere he could find her.