The wall surrounding his castle finally came into view. Lord, it was gigantic. A section looked as though it had been built into the side of the mountain. It was made of brown stone, an innovative break from English tradition, for most of the barons' holdings were built of wood. His wall was much tal er, too. Why the top looked as if it reached the clouds. The structure was new, incomplete, too, as there was a wide breach adjacent to the drawbridge.
The trees had all been clipped away to make a wide margin around the wall . There wasn't a blade of grass along the rocky slope to soften the starkness.
The moat, with water as black as parchment ink, curved around the structure. The wooden drawbridge was down, but they headed through the opening in the wall instead.
His castle was much more grand than her papa's humble home. Alec was a rich man, she decided. The main dwel ing boasted not one but two turrets, and everyone knew how costly just one was to build.
Jamie certainly hadn't expected anything this magnificent. She thought all Scots lived in stone cottages with thatched roofs and earthen floors, like the serfs in England. She realized now she'd made a prejudicial assumption. There were cottages, however—at least fifty of them, she guessed, peeking through the branches of the trees as high up the hil side as the eye could see. Jamie assumed the huts belonged to the Kincaid clansmen and their families.
"Alec, your home is grand," she told him. "When your wall is finished, your lower bailey will enclose half of Scotland, don't you suppose?"
He smiled over the astonishment in her voice. "Do you live alone, then? There isn't a single soldier in evidence."
"My men will be waiting for me atop the hil ," Alec answered. "In the courtyard."
"The women as well ?"
"A few," he answered. "Most of the women and children have gone to Gil ebrid's holding for the spring festival. Half my number of soldiers are with them."
"And that's the reason it's so quiet?" She turned, smiled up at Alec, and then asked, "How many serve under your command?"
Jamie forgot her question as soon as she'd asked it. His smile had captured her full attention. "You're happy to be home again, aren't you?" she said.
Her eagerness pleased him. "There are five, perhaps six hundred men now, when they're all called together, and yes, English, I'm happy to be home."
Jamie let him see her exasperation. "Five or six hundred? Oh, Alec, you do like to jest with me."
"'Tis the truth, Jamie. There are many Kincaid clansmen."
She could tel he believed what he was tel ing her. "By a Scotsman's method of counting. I believe you think you have that many men."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I'm merely suggesting you need help counting, Alec. After all , you did tel me it would take us three days to get to your home, and it took us several added days."
"I slowed the pace because of your condition," Alec explained.
"You were tender, or have you forgotten that fact?"
She immediately blushed, tel ing him she hadn't forgotten at all .
"And you're clearly exhausted."
"I'm not," Jamie replied. "It isn't important," she rushed on when he started frowning. She was about to meet his relatives and wanted to keep him in a cheerful mood. "If you tel me there are seven hundred men under your direction, then I'l believe you."
His smile told her she'd placated him. Yet she couldn't resist pricking his arrogance just a little. "Isn't it strange, though, Alec, that I don't see any men? Could all six hundred be waiting in your courtyard?"
He laughed over the exasperation she tried to hide from him. And then he let out a shril whistle.
His cal was immediately answered. They came from the top of the wall , the cottages, the stables, from the trees and forest surrounding them, these fierce-looking fighting men, until they covered the ground.
He hadn't exaggerated. If anything, she thought he'd understated their number. While she stared at the soldiers, Alec nodded his approval, then raised his hand into the air. When he made a fist, a resounding cheer split the air.
Jamie was so jarred by the noise that she grabbed hold of Alec's other hand where it rested possessively around her waist. She couldn't stop staring at the men, even though she knew it was rude. She'd come to the land of giants, she decided, as most of the soldiers seemed to be as tall as the pine trees she'd heard they liked to throw.
Their size was most impressive, their watchful gazes unnerving, aye, but it was their state of dress that stunned her speechless.
Cholie hadn't been sotted. She'd known what she was talking about. The Scots did wear women's gowns. Half-naked women's gowns, she qualified. Jamie shook her head. No, they weren't gowns; they were blankets, the Gaelic word for their plaid.
Al wore the same plaid. Alec's colors they were. The men had them wrapped around their waists and belted in place; and the plaids barely reached their knees.
Some of the men wore saffron-yel ow shirts; others went without. Most were barefoot.
"Would you like to count their number?" Alec asked. He nudged his mount forward, then said, "I would guess around two hundred are here now, wife. But if you'd like to—"
"I'd say five hundred," Jamie whispered.
"Now you exaggerate."
Jamie glanced up at Alec and tried to find her voice. A wall of soldiers lined the path they climbed, and she therefore kept her voice low when she said, "You have your own legion, Alec, if this be only half your number."
"Nay. A legion is three thousand, sometimes as many as six thousand men. My number is not so high, Jamie, unless I cal up my all ies, of course."
"You needn't be afraid."
"I'm not afraid. Why would you think I was afraid?"
"I'm not," she denied. "They're all staring at us."
"We didn't catch them unprepared, did we, Alec?" Her voice sounded terribly forlorn.
"What are you talking about?"
She was staring at his chin. He nudged her chin up, saw her wild blush, and became all the more bewildered. "My warriors are always prepared."
"They don't look prepared."
He suddenly understood why she sounded so embarrassed. "We don't cal them gowns."
Her eyes widened in astonishment. "Did Beak tel you—"
"I was there."
"In the stable."
Jamie frantical y tried to remember the conversation she'd had with the stable master. "What else did you overhear?" she asked.
"That Scots have minds of sheep, that we throw pine trees at one another, that we—"
"I was just jesting with my sister when I told her… and I thought Cholie was sotted when she told me…
Alec, do they always dress so indecently? With their knees showing?"
It was sinful for him to laugh right in her face. "You'l get used to our habits once you settle in," he promised.
"You don't dress like your soldiers, do you?"
She sounded appal ed. "I do."
"No, you don't." Jamie sighed when she realized she'd just contradicted him again. He did seem to take offense whenever she corrected him. "I mean to say, you're wearing proper breeches now and for that reason I did assume—"
"I've been in England, Jamie. 'Tis the reason I wear such cumbersome garb."
Jamie glanced around her again, then returned her attention to her husband.
"How do they keep their britches rol ed up above the hem of their plaids?" she asked.
"Then what…" From the devilish look in his eyes, Jamie decided she didn't want to know. "Never mind," she blurted out. "I've changed my mind. I don't want to know what they wear underneath."
"Oh, but I want to tel you."
He was smiling just like a rascal. Jamie had to sigh over his ungentlemanly remarks and her own unladylike reaction. Lord, he was becoming more handsome by the minute. Her heart started fluttering like a butterfly's wings.
"You may tel me later, then," she whispered. "Late at night, Alec, when it's dark and you can't see my embarrassment. Do they wear chain mail when they go into battle?" She added that question to get him to forget about the soldiers' lack of undergarments.
"We never wear armor," Alec explained. "Most of us just wear the plaid. The seasoned warriors prefer the old ways, though."
"What is the old way?" she asked.
"They don't wear anything."
She was certain now he was jesting with her. The picture of na*ed warriors riding their mounts into war made her laugh with delight. "So they just throw off their blankets and—"
"Aye, they do."
"Alec, you must think me naive indeed to believe that fool's story. Do quit your jesting, please. You're being rude by half ignoring your men for so long."
After making that pronouncement, she turned her back on him, leaned against his chest, and forced a serene expression for the soldiers they passed on their way up the hil .
It took a mighty effort, what with the shameful thoughts Alec had just put into her head.
"You must learn not to give orders, wife."
He dropped his chin to rest on the top of her head as he whispered that order. It was a gentle rebuke. A shiver of pleasure rippled through her stomach. "I would like to do the right thing, husband, and so should you. Rudeness is never acceptable by anyone's measure, even a Scotsman's."
A shout echoed through the trees when they reached the second clearing. Alec jerked on Wildfire's reins as soon as she started fussing, then dismounted. He left Jamie on his stal ion and led both horses toward the throng of waiting soldiers.
My, but she was nervous. She folded her hands together so his men wouldn't see how much they shook.
A blond man about Alec's size separated himself from the others and walked over to give greeting to his laird. The man's good looks made her think he was related to Alec. She assumed, too, that he was Alec's second-in-command and a friend as well , for he actually embraced his leader and slapped him mightily on the back.
The loud whack would have fel ed her to the ground, but Alec didn't even shrug. The burr in the soldier's voice was so thick Jamie couldn't catch every word. She heard enough, though, to blush in reaction. The two giants were taking turns insulting each other. It was yet another odd habit, she supposed.
The talk turned serious then. She could tel it wasn't good news the man was giving her husband. Alec's voice had taken on a hard edge, and a scowl had settled on his face. He looked furious. The soldier looked worried.
He didn't pay any attention to Jamie until they'd reached the inner courtyard. Then he tossed Wildfire's reins toward the men circling them and turned to lift Jamie to the ground.
He didn't even glance at her. Jamie stood at his side while he continued his conversation with the soldier.
Alec's men seemed to be divided in their curiosity. Half the number stared intently at her, their scowls suggested they didn't like what they were seeing. The other half circled Wildfire. They were smiling. And just what was she to think about that?
Wildfire didn't like the attention she was getting any more than Jamie did. The nervous horse reared up, snorted her displeasure, and rudely tried to trample the men trying to catch hold of her reins.
Jamie instinctively reacted. Like a mother whose child was being naughty, she immediately sought to stop the budding temper tantrum.
She moved too quickly for Alec to catch hold of her. Without a thought to her audience, Jamie skirted her way around her husband and his stal ion, nudged two big soldiers apart, and rushed forward to soothe her baby.
She stopped when she was just a few feet away from her pet. Jamie didn't have to say a harsh word. She simply held out her hand and waited.
Wildfire immediately ceased her tantrum. The wild look left her eyes. While the warriors watched in open fascination, the proud white beauty trotted forward to receive a touch from her mistress.
Alec suddenly appeared at Jamie's side. He put his arm around her shoulders and pul ed her up against his side.
"She's usual y very docile," Jamie told her husband. "But she's tired, Alec, and hungry, too. Perhaps I should take her—"
"Donald will see to that task."
She didn't want to argue with him in front of his men. Alec took Wildfire's reins, spoke in rapid Gaelic as he gave instructions to the young man who'd just rushed over to him.
Donald was a mite young to be stable master in Jamie's opinion. Yet as soon as he announced that Wildfire was a fine horse indeed, Jamie decided to trust his capabilities. He obviously knew good horseflesh when he saw it. He had a gentle voice, too, at great odds with his flaming red hair and complexion, and an easy smile that made her want to smile back.
Wildfire hated him. The fussy horse tried to push her way between Jamie and Alec. Donald proved determined, however. When Alec added a harsh command, the stable master was able to gain complete control. He led Wildfire across the yard. Jamie watched, feeling like an anxious mother being separated from her baby.
"She'll settle in."
Alec's remark irritated her. So she and her mare were the same in his eyes, were they? He'd said the same thing to her. Horse and wife. "She might," Jamie answered, stressing the word "she."
They started walking toward the steps leading to his castle doors. Alec stil hadn't introduced her to his men. She wondered about that oversight a long minute, then decided he was waiting for the right moment to do it properly.
They reached the top of the steps before he finally paused. He turned around, forcing her to fol ow with his arm stil anchored around her shoulders.
He let go of her then, accepted a plaid from one of his soldiers, and draped it over Jamie's right shoulder.
As soon as that action was accomplished, silence fil ed the courtyard. The soldiers placed their hands over their hearts. Their heads were bowed.
The moment had arrived. Jamie stood as straight as a lance, her hands at her sides, waiting to hear the wonderful speech Alec would give his men.