Golspie, Scotland, 1432
A writ of bastardy.
For all his efforts and all he had put up with from his monster of a father, it had come to this. Ronan Sutherland stared hard at the unfolded parchment in his hand. Someone behind him coughed; another sniffed.
He should walk away, say to hell with Dunrobin Castle, the earl’s title, all the evil he had seen within these walls, and be done with it. What kept him here was beyond his comprehension.
“My lord, ’tis been validated.” Robert de Strathbrook, Bishop of Caithness fidgeted.
“By whom?” Ronan turned to see if the man would look him in the eye.
The bishop had been formidable in his day. Now instead, his robes dwarfed him, his cheeks hollowed by age. He would not have the stamina to travel to Edinburgh and engage the king’s council.
“My priests took it upon themselves to conduct the act in my stead. Sutherland is one of the oldest earldoms in the country. It was not easy, but their diligence was properly paid, I assure you.”
Ronan’s guts burned.
“The letter says the rightful earl will arrive in a sennight to claim the title. He said you should be out of the master chamber by then.”
Ronan shook his head. “And I am to wait until he arrives before I learn of his identity?”
“Aye, lad.” Lad? “He wants no one to speak of it until he arrives.”
“So be it.” Ronan turned to leave Dunrobin’s great hall. A scurrying sound in the corner caught his attention and he paused. Be damned if he would tolerate eavesdropping while he still ruled.
Ronan crossed the hall in three strides and whipped the large tapestry aside. John Sutherland. He might have known. The man slithered in and out of rooms unbidden. He was the last person Ronan wanted privy to his conversation with the bishop.
“What the Hell are you doing in here?”
John’s lips curled into a greasy smirk. “Watching your demise.”
Ronan grasped his face in one hand and squeezed. “If you breathe a word of this to anyone, I shall drive my blade through your gullet so fast you will not even feel it.”
John laughed. “I will not have to tell anyone. They already know. And you, bastard, will no longer prance around here undoing all the good your father did.”
Christ’s blood. This was worse than he thought. He had suspected some mutiny from those loyal to his father’s madness two years ago after his death. When they quietly fell in line to Ronan’s new and more tempered methods, he had accepted it. What a daft, green lad he had been. Was no one loyal to him at Dunrobin now? Allain surely still was. Always had been.
Ronan released John’s face and left the great hall in search of his captain. If there was one person he could rely on to help unravel this mess, it was Allain.
“We have trouble,” Ronan said, when he found Allain in the stable.
“Do we not always?” Allain grinned. “What now?”
Little ruffled the man, a trait for which Ronan was most grateful. He handed over the letter the bishop had delivered. His only ally at Dunrobin scanned the missive. A more legitimate heir to the Sutherland Earl’s title and clan chiefship had presented himself and was bent on tossing Ronan out on his ear. He had so many questions he did not know where to begin and thoughts of waiting around for a sennight to meet his usurper did not sit well. Still, he had to find out who this man was.
“There are only so many possibilities as to who this person can be.” It was as though Allain guessed Ronan’s train of thought.
“Aye. A brother or another son. And since another son would also be a bastard like me, it can only mean my father’s brother has returned from the continent.”
Bile rose in Ronan’s throat as he said the words. Alexander Sutherland made his older brother, Artair, look like a spring lamb. He had been banished years ago for his cruelty by Ronan’s grandfather and no one had heard from him in more than a decade.
Now, it seemed the prodigal son was set to return and claim that which Ronan had worked hard to reform. His own father had been a cruel, hard man who enjoyed the pain of others. If the truth of Alexander Sutherland’s own evil was half of the legend, Ronan feared the entire Highlands would be laid waste by fire and steel.
Allain folded the letter and passed it back. “What do you want to do?”
Ronan paced. He did not know. The news had come so suddenly he hardly had time to wrap his mind around it let alone formulate a plan.
“I will be here when he arrives. I have no intention of abandoning the people here to another madman. But, I cannot help them in the long run if my head is on a pike.”
Allain scraped his hand over his beard. “What do we know? I mean, did your father put anything into writing when he named you as heir?”
“Unfortunately, no. And I did not think to ask him as I slid my blade across his neck.”
“You know as well as I do, he deserved it. But as I told you that day, say those words where the wrong ears can hear, and you shall have more to worry about than a challenge to your title.”
Allain was right. Ronan had not spoken the words since the day he killed his own father. Thinking back brought Fergus MacKay to his mind; he had not thought of him in a long time. The man owed him a debt for releasing him from his father’s torture chamber. Those two had been bitter enemies for years. Surely, the people Ronan was responsible for, were grateful for the two years’ peace that had since followed.
A second vision passed before his eyes as he thought back to that day. The only woman he had ever loved had walked away from him. Ronan shook his head. He would not let himself dwell on her beauty, for the yearning in his soul was too much to bear. No, he would focus on this current problem and find a way to solve it.
“The letter says he will be here in a sennight,” Ronan said.
Allain’s brows knit together as he frowned. “Ronan, did you look at the date on the letter?”
His guts lurched. The bishop had led him to believe he had seven days from this day. Unfolding the parchment, Ronan glanced at the top corner. His heartbeat kicked up. It was dated eight days ago. His replacement would be on his doorstep at any moment.