Chapter Twenty-Seven

The landscape changed as they entered the Lowlands, and Aislinn looked around her in awe. She couldn't believe how different the lands were, flatter, but just as green.

"Have you ever been here, Michael?" she asked her brother, who was riding beside her. "To the Lowlands," she clarified, as he looked at her strangely.

"Aye," he answered. "When I was seventeen or so, I rode with Father to battle," he said. "We rode here to fight against the English, who were fighting some of their own."

"Really?" Aislinn asked, a little surprised.

"They were infidels," Michael answered. "They were pushing through Scotland only after they had pillaged Northern England as well. It was a hell of a first battle, fighting beside and against the English at the same time."

"Did you make any friends?" she asked, as he looked at her with amusement.

"Of the English?" he asked. "Not really. But, there is a Baron who I helped out of a fix, so I suppose there is one Englishman that I can tolerate."

"What is his name?" she asked, as his look changed to one of slight irritation.

"Baron Nicholas of York," Michael replied.

"That's good to know," she supplied.

"Why?" Michael asked. "What difference does it make, Aislinn?"

"I don't know," she replied. "It's just nice to know that about you."

"You're a fanciful thing, Aislinn," Michael answered, his eyes twinkling. After a moment, he turned to her again. "What do you think? Is it as beautiful here as it is in the Highlands?"

"Oh, no," Aislinn replied. "It's nice, but it doesn't really compare, does it?"

"Not at all," he agreed, winking at her.

After supper that evening, Aislinn was able to learn a lot more about Baron Nicholas and Michael by mentioning it to Ian. She had learned this method years ago, if Michael gave her a little information about something and she wanted to hear more, she merely asked either Ian or her Uncle Niall. They were both more loose lipped than Michael, although more often than not, it was Ian that supplied the rest of the information.

"Michael told me that he knows and Englishman on somewhat… friendly terms," Aislinn started, and she knew that she had picked the right person when Ian's lips turned up into a grin.

"Ah, Baron Nicholas?" he asked. "Aye, well, our brother earned that man's respect on the battlefield."

"Do you know what happened?" she asked, as he eyed her over the fire, his grin still present. "Exactly, I mean, Ian, and please don't leave anything out."

He laughed heartily at her instructions as he opened his arm to her. Once she was settled against her brother's side, he unclasped his plaid at the shoulder and draped it across her shoulders. Warm and thoroughly comfortable, Aislinn sighed contently and waited on her brother to tell the story.

"I was mad as hell," he started. "I was a lad of thirteen, and when Father rode to battle, he took Michael, but not me. He asked me to stay and look after Mother, and he was quite serious about it, making out like I was the only thing that stood between her and certain death, but I was still devastated that I couldn't go along."

Aislinn smiled as her brother talked, she could see her Father trying to make his younger son feel better about staying behind.

"They were gone for a very long time," Ian replied. "When they finally returned and the clan gathered for supper, Father couldn't wait to tell the story of his son and the English Baron."

"Whatever happened, Ian?" she prodded, her voice laced with sleepiness. A yawn even punctuated her question.

"If you're about to fall asleep, Aislinn, perhaps I shouldn't tell you the story," he teased, his words causing her to sit up a little straighter.

"I'm awake, Ian, please carry on," she assured him.

"Father told the story with great enthusiasm, I wish you had seen it," he said. "The entire clan was spellbound as he recounted how Michael mowed down the three Englishmen that had cornered the Baron with one swipe of his sword. His first battle, and he bested soldiers stronger and older, as well as much more experienced. Our brother saw exactly what he needed to do, and he did it."

"Michael saved his life," Aislinn said.

"Aye," Ian replied. "And when they left for home, Baron Nicholas told Michael that he would always have an ally, and he hoped he could return the favor some day."

"How wonderful," Aislinn said. "Why have I never heard this story before?"

"Our brother is the most modest man you'll ever meet. I was so very envious of him, and begged him again and again to tell me the story, but he never would. He said that one should never boast about the battlefield or the bedroom."

Aislinn laughed heartily at that statement, and she could feel Ian shake as he laughed as well.

"I was even more jealous when he said that," Ian said. "I thought… damn it all, he has stories about the battlefield and the bedroom? How unfair. At thirteen, I could only dream of both. Of course, I found out later that those were Father's words, and he had used them just to get out of bringing more attention to himself."

"I see," she replied. "I suppose Father boasted enough for both of them."

"That he did," Ian replied. "But I had my day in battle, right before you were born, and Father said something to me that I'll never forget."

"What did he say?" she asked, as his arm tightened around her shoulders.

"He told me to try to never be envious of Michael," he replied. "That family should always fight side by side, and only with each other when necessary. He also said that he was proud of both of his sons, and how he couldn't wait to meet his daughter."

"He knew that I was a girl?" she asked, surprised.

"He hoped you were," he answered. "And so did Mother."

Aislinn felt that strange sensation of her throat closing up again, like always when she thought of her Mother.

"Thank you for telling me the story, Ian," she said, tilting her head up so she could kiss him on the cheek.

"Don't tell Michael I told you," he said. "I doubt he would be very happy if he knew that I spilled his secret."

"Not a word, I promise," she replied, yawning again.

"Oh, I almost forgot," Ian said. "Before you fall dead asleep, sister, your husband wanted to bring you to him on watch."

"Really?" she replied, sitting up and handing Ian the end of his plaid back. He fastened it back onto his shoulder and stood, hauling her to her feet as he did so. "Do you know why?"

"I believe that he has a late wedding present to give you," Ian said, taking her hand as he led her towards Alistair's watch. "Something you asked for, I think."

"Oh," Aislinn replied, racking her brain to no avail. "I can't think of what that would be."

"I suppose you'll find out soon enough," he answered, and Aislinn looked up at him, hoping his face would betray something. No such luck. He didn't say another word until he told her goodnight after delivering her to Alistair, who looked at her and smiled. Her heart did a flip-flop in her chest and she was once again struck with how she grew to love him a bit more with every passing day.

"Ian said that you wanted to see me," she said, sighing as he bent down and gave her a quick kiss.

"I have something to give you," he said, and she smiled at the look on his face. He seemed so excited about the gift, that Aislinn was becoming more excited by the second.

"What is it?" she asked, unable to keep from hopping a little on her feet as he reached behind him and pulled something out of his belt. Aislinn gasped as he presented the gift to her, it was a beautiful sword.

"Oh, Alistair, it's a sword," she said, reaching out and touching the intricately etched hilt. "It's beautiful."

"A short sword," he explained. "So you can lift it." She hesitated for a moment, the only time she had ever touched a sword was when she tugged one out of the way, only reaching for it when he encouraged her. "Go ahead," he said. "Hold it close to you."

She did as he instructed, holding it up a bit so she could see it in the moonlight. It was then that she noticed for the first time that the blade was engraved, in Latin. She smiled.

"The Buchanan motto," she said. "Brighter the honor hence."

"Look at the other side," he instructed, and her heart swelled in her chest as she saw what was inscribed.

"Forget not," she translated.

"Your sword was made for a new time," he said. "One where the Buchanans and Campbells fight side by side…"

"Like family," she finished for him, recalling her recent conversation with Ian.

"Like family," he repeated, grasping her wrist and gently lowering her arm. "Be careful, there, love," he teased. "You don't know how to use it yet."

"You're going to show me, right?" she asked, lowering her arm as he pushed it down gently, his strong fingers lingering around her wrist for a long moment.

"Aye," he answered. "But don't get any outlandish ideas…"

"I know, I know," she said. "You won't willingly take me into battle with you."

"Does that upset you?" he asked, seemingly amused that she was able to finish his sentence for him.

"No," she replied, smiling. "Although I wouldn't mind going everywhere with you, I understand why you won't take me into battle. Some places, I shouldn't go, I would probably bring all kinds of terror in my wake…"

"I've been holding a sword since I was eight, Aislinn," he said. "And a toy one before that. I've been trained to wield a weapon with my right hand, my left hand, and both hands at once. All that training was for the day that I would have to fight, I would have to stand up for something, that one day, I would have to take a life." He paused for a long moment as if he was gathering his thoughts, and Aislinn's stomach began to burn slightly. It seemed that she had been entirely too flippant about asking him to train her to fight, it was as if she hadn't really known what she was asking. When he spoke again, she appreciated the fact that he was trying to accommodate her every wish, even if it was difficult for him to digest.

"By taking this sword in your hands, love, you're doing a great deal more than holding a piece of metal. The moment you hold it against some one, you have to be sure of your commitment to use it. Answer a question for me honestly, when would you draw your sword?"

"If my life were in danger," she replied. "Or someone I loved. While it would be unlikely that I would be in a position to defend you, Alistair, I would if I had to. My brothers, of course, Colleen, Una, Bridget…"

"When you asked me to get you a sword, the reason you said you wanted one was so that you wouldn't look weak. You were afraid of what people would think of you if they thought you soft. That is not a good enough reason to hold a sword."

"I understand," she answered. "Can I ask you something, Alistair?"

"Of course," he confirmed.

"Why did you get me a sword, then?" she asked. "If my reasons were wrong."

"Because mine were once wrong as well," he answered. "It wasn't until your brothers and Uncle took over my training did I really understand what battle was all about. I will train you because we don't know what we're going to be facing in our future. It might be necessary for you to wield this sword one day. Do you think you can do that?"

"Only if I know how to properly," she answered.

"You will," he replied. "In time. We're staying in camp tomorrow so Lady Campbell can rest, so we'll start your training tomorrow. I even have a belt for you, so you can wear it around your waist."

"Thank you, Alistair," she replied, handing him the sword so he could place it in the belt. "I don't think I'll wear it just yet."

"Very well," he replied. "What are you planning to do with the rest of the evening?"

"I thought I'd check on Colleen again," she answered. "I'll stay up and wait for you, will you come get me when your watch is over?"

"Check on Lady Campbell," he said. "Then lie down for a while, near Ian or your Uncle, please, and I'll wake you when I'm finished."

"All right," she replied, eagerly kissing him as he bent his head down to hers. He walked her back towards camp, and she made her way over to Colleen, carefully carrying her sword. She was wondering how Colleen was faring, and she hoped that she wasn't ill.

Colleen wasn't ill, Aislinn was glad to find out, but she was in a foul mood. Usually so sweet and agreeable, her temper had Aislinn a bit concerned.

"That damned Claire," Colleen cursed just as soon as Aislinn sat down, "is on my very last nerve."

"What has happened, Colleen?" Aislinn asked, pulling her knees up and wrapping her arms around her legs.

"She's been gallivanting around with William Buchanan," she said, news that caused Aislinn's eyebrow to rise slightly. "And when she's not with him, she's got her eyes fixed on your brother."

"On Michael?" Aislinn asked, shocked to her toes. "Not even Claire is capable of seducing a married man, is she?"

"On Ian," Colleen corrected. "But capable she is, Aislinn. She was my Father's mistress, you know."

"I didn't," Aislinn answered. "Dear God."

"Exactly," Colleen answered. "And when she became too much of a burden, he pawned her off on me. God help me, what in the hell am I supposed to do with a maid that doesn't even sew?"

Aislinn couldn't help but giggle at her sister-in-law's statement, but Colleen wasn't in the least amused. She continued her rant, oblivious to Aislinn's amusement.

"You'd better watch her closely, Aislinn," she said. "I know that she's fancied your Alistair for a while now, you see, it's the power she wants. The only reason why she stays away from Michael is that she knows that I'll send her to her family if she puts one toe out of line."

"Alistair would never," Aislinn said. "She could run around naked in front of him and he would never touch her."

"Alistair, however much he loves you, and however honorable he is, Aislinn, is still a man," Colleen replied. "And men have been known to do funny things…"

"Colleen, please," Aislinn cut her off, holding her hand in the air. "Don't think ill of him just because he's a man. You act as if Michael has… oh God, Colleen, has Michael been unfaithful to you?"

"Of course not," Colleen answered. "I know because of my Father, that's all. Claire is poison, Aislinn, watch her, even if you do trust your man."

"Why don't you send her away?" Aislinn asked. "Send her to live with her family, then we'll all be rid of her."

"That would just make her your problem," Colleen replied.

"Whatever are you talking about?" Aislinn asked, genuinely confused.

"Her family… they're Buchanans," Colleen said, her voice flat. "The only other thing I could do is send her back to my Father, or kill her. Frankly, I would, but I do worry about the damnation of my immortal soul." With those words, Colleen did giggle a bit, and after Aislinn got over the shock of the statement, she did as well.

"It's too early," Aislinn said, as she felt herself being tugged out of her bedroll. "Can't we train a little later?"

"The life of a warrior is a hard one," he quipped, kneeling on the ground in front of where she was laying, unable to help himself as he encircled her ankles with his fingers. "But you are the softest warrior I've ever seen."

Aislinn laughed despite herself, lightly kicking her feet to disengage his hands. She didn't protest, however, when he lay down next to her and pulled her body up next to him and nuzzled the side of her face. She sighed as his whiskers tickled her face and held his arm close to her.

"It's going to be warm today, like yesterday," Aislinn said. "It's already just a little muggy outside."

"We should reach Edinburgh in three days time," Alistair said. "I'd wager that the Laird is planning on riding straight through, perhaps only camping one more time, since we're not traveling today."

"I'm glad," Aislinn replied. "I'm a little tired of being grimy."

"After we train, you can have a bath, if you'd like," he answered, placing a kiss on her neck. Aislinn sighed and thought to herself how terrible it was that there were about twenty people, only a stone's throw away.

"I suppose we should get to it," she suggested, as his simple kiss on her neck turned into a tantalizing nibble. If she laid here much longer with him, she had the feeling that she wouldn't give a damn that there were that many people around.

"Trying to get away from me so soon?" he asked, nipping her earlobe lightly with his teeth.

Aislinn sucked in a breath of air and closed her eyes against the sensation. "No," she said with difficulty. "We have little privacy here, Alistair, and if you keep that up…"

"All right, we'll go train," he replied, his voice husky and strained. Aislinn understood his frustration, it had been weeks since they had enjoyed any privacy at all, there were too many people around all the time. "Later, though, I'm going to make sure that we have some privacy."

"That sounds wonderful," she said, turning over so she could kiss her husband properly. "We'll have our own chamber, at court, won't we?"

"Aye," he answered. "I'll make sure of it."

"Oh good," she answered, as he stood, pulling her up with him.

Alistair watched Aislinn with amusement as they began her training. She wore her sword, but looked at him as if he were daft when he told her that there was no reason to draw it.

"How am I supposed to learn if I leave it in my belt?" she asked, crossing her arms across her chest ant eyeing him with supreme irritation.

Alistair smiled in response to her observation. "There's a few thing we must cover first," he answered. "Are you ready to learn?"

"I am yours to mold, my love," she replied, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. Alistair resisted the temptation to pick her up, throw her over his shoulder and take her into the trees to have his way with her. Instead, he winked at her.

"You must always be alert," he started. "Being aware of one's surroundings is important in a fight, so physical surroundings can be used to your benefit and not contribute to your downfall." So far, so good, Alistair thought, just now she had paid attention longer than she ever had before when any kind of lessons were involved. His lovely wife had never had much of an attention span. "The next lesson is to always watch your opponent closely, to the point of being able to anticipate his movements."

"How am I supposed to watch my surroundings and my opponent at the same time?" she asked.

"You have to train yourself to be able to do both," he answered. "You life will no doubt depend on it."

"All right," she answered. "Watch my surroundings, watch my opponent."

"Now, I'm going to move towards you," he said. "You should watch my movements and try to anticipate what I'm going to do. You should try to avoid me."

"I don't want to avoid you," she argued. "Feel free to catch me."

"Aislinn," he warned. "I happen to remember you promising to be a dutiful student."

"I did," she replied, smiling sweetly. "I'll try to avoid you."

There was a good reason why women didn't generally train to fight, Alistair concluded, a few minutes later. Aislinn was having difficulties taking the training seriously, or so he thought. Just as he was becoming more irritated, her demeanor changed.

She was finally trying to avoid him whole-heartedly; her movements were fluid and quick. Being much smaller than he was gave her an advantage, one of speed, even if her strength would be much less. She soon saw that she could continue to move out of his way if she did so quickly, and as he lunged for her, she skirted him again and again. Finally, however, it was all over when she tripped on something on the ground and went down on her backside, accompanied with an un-ladylike curse and grunt.

He helped her up quickly, hauling her to her feet and steadying her with an arm around her waist.

"Are you all right, love?" he asked, as she dusted off her backside with her free arm.

"I was doing all right there for a moment, wasn't I?" she asked.

"Once you decided to take me seriously," he answered.

"Well, I apologize, Alistair," she replied. "It's a little hard to imagine that you would actually try to harm me."

He answered her with a grin. "Should I call that Buchanan back?" he asked. "Perhaps you would take him seriously."

Her mouth twitched into a reluctant smile. "That's not necessary," she replied. "If it hadn't been for that damned root, I would have been doing wonderfully."

"Which is another reason why you should always be aware of your surroundings," he answered her comment.

"Point taken," she said. "Now, do I get to use my sword?"

"Not even close," he replied, as she shrugged.

"Oh, well, I thought I'd try," she replied.

"Time to move to stage two," he announced, smiling as she took on a look of compliance, well, slight compliance, that is. This was Aislinn, after all, so he knew not to expect too much in the way of conformity.