A crowd had gathered in Sloane.
The sight deepened Torin’s worry as he and the guard approached, Moray still bound in the midst of them. The entire ride, Adaira had refused to meet Torin’s gaze. He had glanced sidelong at her occasionally, tracing her profile. Her expression was like steel as they passed the city gates.
The moment the Breccan was seen in the streets, the people’s anger ignited.
Torin drew his horse to a halt, watching as Una Carlow pushed through the crowd.
“Is it true, laird?” Una’s voice cut through the air as she looked at Adaira. “Is it true you’re a daughter of the west? That you’re a Breccan by blood?”
Adaira seemed to blanch. At last, she glanced at Torin, and he was struck by a horrible realization.
He had opened the shutter in Jack’s bedroom during the debriefing, but in his fury, he had forgotten to close it. Moray’s story of Adaira’s origins must have slipped out that small crack, riding the wind. This was not the way Torin envisioned the clan learning the truth, and when more questions were shot at Adaira—questions laced with wariness and devastation—Torin swiftly turned his horse around to face his cousin.
“Escort Moray on to the dungeons,” he told the closest guard. “See to it that no harm comes to him.”
It was a mess as the guards moved forward with Moray, forcing the crowd to part. Adaira remained frozen and mounted on her horse, listening as the din rose around her. Torin wove his way to her side, his stallion nearly trampling a few people in the process.
The Elliott boys had approached her now. Eliza’s older brothers.
“You knew all along the Breccans were taking the lasses!” the younger Elliott boy shouted, veins pulsing in his temples. “You knew and were trading with our enemies in secret!”
“Of course she would!” the other brother snarled. “She was giving away our goods, rewarding them for snatching our sister.”
“That’s not true!” Adaira said, but her voice broke.
“You were fraternizing with our enemies!”
“Why would we believe you, when you’ve played us for fools and lied to us for years?”
“Whose side holds your allegiance?”
The comments and questions rose and spun like a whirlwind. Adaira tried to respond again, to calm the people’s distress and anger, but their voices were overpowering hers.
Spirits below, Torin thought. The clan knew of the trade. Like a fool, Moray had remarked about that private meeting between him and Adaira, and now everyone knew only bits and pieces. Enough for the information to become twisted against Adaira, even as she had only striven for peace and the Tamerlaines’ good.
“Quiet!” Torin shouted.
To his shock, the crowd heeded him. Their eyes shifted from Adaira to him, and he suddenly didn’t know what to say as he felt the weight of their gaze on him.
“We have a culprit in custody for the kidnappings,” Torin continued. “Which he committed on his own, without Adaira’s knowledge or assistance.”
“But what of the illegal trade she was partaking in?” an Elliott shouted. “What of justice for our sister? For the other girls still missing?”
“Justice will be served,” Torin said. “But first, you must let me and your laird pass safely and quickly to the castle, where we can settle the matter and bring home the other lasses.”
The crowd began to step back, clearing a path.
Adaira still seemed frozen, and Torin reached over to grab her reins, urging both of their horses forward. He didn’t relax, not even when they reached the safety of the castle courtyard.
“Adi,” he said, watching her dismount.
“I’m fine, Torin,” she replied, but her face was pale. “Go see to Moray in the dungeons. And then meet me in the library. We have things we need to discuss.”
He nodded, watching her stride into the castle.
His thoughts were roaring as he hurried down to the coldest, dampest cell. Moray was being thoroughly searched, and Torin watched by torchlight as his guards found a hidden dirk in the Breccan’s boot. The blindfold and gag were removed, and Moray took his first look at his new surroundings. Stone, iron, and meager firelight.
His wrists and ankles were shackled to the wall.
“I want to speak to Adaira,” he demanded as his cell was latched and bolted.
“She’ll speak to you when she wants to,” Torin said.
He appointed five guards to keep watch and then ascended to the brighter levels of the castle.
At last, Torin thought. They had found the girls’ kidnapper. He knew Maisie’s exact location. At last, he had imprisoned the guilty Breccan in the dungeons. And yet how heavy his heart was. This day had dawned with hope, with his voice restored and plans coming together. One confession had now altered everything.
There was no triumph within him as he found Adaira sitting at her father’s desk, writing a letter.
Torin watched her intently for a moment, as if she had changed. He tried to find traces of his enemy in the features of her face, in the color of her hair, in the sprawl of her handwriting. But she was his cousin. She was the same Adaira he had grown up protecting and adoring. He didn’t care what blood she hailed from; he loved her and he would fight for her.
“I’m writing Innes Breccan,” she said, dipping her quill into the ink. “I want you to read this letter after I’m done, to approve it.”
Torin shifted his weight. “Very well. But you don’t need my approval, Adi.”
The sound of her nickname made her pause. He waited, hoping she would breathe, that she would look at him and tell him what was cascading through her mind. But Adaira continued with her writing.
Soon, she was finished. She stood and brought the letter to him.
The Heir of the West has trespassed into the east with ill intent. I had no choice but to bring your son to the fortress, where he will be held until we can settle an important matter between our two clans. I would like to meet you tomorrow at sunrise at the northern signpost. I cannot ask you to come alone or unarmed, but all the same, I ask for this exchange between us to be peaceful. I don’t desire to see blood shed or lives lost, even as this matter is one that is driven by the fires of emotion.
I believe we can reach a settlement that will appease both of our clans, face-to-face. I will await you tomorrow at first light.
LAIRD OF THE EAST
Torin sighed. “What is the settlement?”
“I’m not sure yet,” Adaira replied. “I need to see how angry Innes is going to be upon discovering that her son and heir is imprisoned and guilty of stealing children, or relieved upon learning that her lost daughter is indeed very much alive and well.”
Torin studied her face. She was staring at her written words, held in his hands. He whispered, “Look at me, Adi.”
She did. And he saw the fear in her eyes, as if she was waiting for him to reject her.
“I don’t care whose blood you belong to,” he said. “You’re a Tamerlaine, and that’s the end of it.”
She nodded, but he could tell she was struggling to find comfort in his statement. “Whatever comes tomorrow, I think we need to prepare for conflict at the clan line.”
“I’ll send the auxiliary forces,” Torin said, handing her the letter. “And yes, of course I approve your letter.”
Adaira folded and sealed it. She pressed her signet ring into the wax, marking the Tamerlaine crest.
Torin’s breath caught when he saw that Adaira was removing the ring from her hand, still warm from the wax. He felt the blood drain from his face when she approached him, the golden ring cupped in her palm. She extended it out to him, waiting for him to accept.
“What are you doing?” he growled at her. “I don’t want this.”
“I cannot lead this clan in good faith,” she said. “Not knowing who I truly am.”
“You’re a Tamerlaine, Adi. One wild story from the enemy doesn’t change that.”
“No, it doesn’t,” she agreed sadly. “But it has pierced the hearts of the clan, and I no longer have their trust. They will listen to you, Torin. You saw what happened outside. You are their protector. You are of their blood. After I meet with Innes and the settlement is made tomorrow, I will announce that you have replaced me as laird, and hopefully the east will be at peace again.”
Torin glared at her. Her edges were blurring; he blinked away his tears before they could fall. What was this settlement she continued to speak of? Why did the notion of it terrify him?
“Please, Torin,” she whispered. “Take the ring.”
He knew she was right. And he hated it.
He hated that their lives were breaking apart, and he was powerless to stop it.
He hated that she was stepping down.
He hated that he now had to carry this weight.
But he did as she asked. He followed her last order; he slipped the ring onto his finger.
Adaira retreated to her room. She locked the door and melted to the rug, weeping until she felt hollow. She lay there, longing for her parents as she watched the sunlight move across the floor with the passing hours.
Eventually, a rap sounded on her door, and she forced herself to stand.
Answering the knock with a hitch of anxiousness, Adaira was surprised to see two guards stationed at her threshold. She wasn’t sure if they were there by Torin’s orders, to protect her, or had been appointed to keep an eye on her. To prevent her from leaving.
“A letter has arrived for you,” one of them said, extending the parchment.
Adaira knew it was Innes’s reply. She accepted the letter and shut the door, breaking the seal. The Laird of the West’s response was surprisingly terse:
I agree to your terms, Adaira. I will see you at dawn.
Adaira threw the letter into the fire. She watched it turn to ash until her red shawl caught her eye, draped over the back of her reading chair. Lorna had given her this plaid years ago. Her mother had asked Mirin to weave one of her secrets into the pattern.
Adaira was weary of secrets. She was weary of lies. She hated how she had worn one around her shoulders for years.
She gathered her plaid in her hands. It was soft, well worn from years of guarding her against the wind when she roamed the hills. She pulled at it with all the fury and anguish within her. The enchantment was gone, and the plaid tore apart in her hands.
It was late afternoon when auxiliary forces arrived to keep watch over the river in Mirin’s valley. Jack needed to speak with Adaira. He left his mother and Frae under the protection of the East Guard and walked the hills to Sloane, slowly, as his body still felt weak. He had filed down the worn edges of his nails, but there was still a tremor in his hands. He wondered how long it would be before he could play again.
This entire day had been strange, almost dreamlike. As if an entire season had bloomed and died in a matter of hours.
Eventide was on the cusp of surrendering to a dark night and the shadows had grown thick at Jack’s feet by the time he walked into Sloane.
He didn’t know what to expect, but he was surprised by the animosity in the city. He walked through gossip and whispers, and most of it was about Adaira, about who she was and what the clan wanted to do about her. Some thought she had known who she was all along and had willingly fooled them. Some were sympathetic to her plight. Some thought she had been fraternizing with the enemy, beneath the guise of a trade, and should face a trial. Others thought she should abdicate her lairdship by sundown, but not before she ensured the safe return of the three girls.
Disconcerted, Jack went straight to Adaira’s quarters by way of the main corridor, only to discover that guards were stationed there. He didn’t know if they were present to protect her or keep her locked within. So Jack slipped into his chamber and used the secret passage to approach Adaira’s room.
He stood in the cobwebbed shadows, gently knocking on the panel.
There was silence. Jack’s hand was seeking the latch in the darkness when he heard the panel pop open. A thread of light spilled over him as Adaira opened the door.
She was wearing nothing more than a thin robe, and her hair was loose and damp, spilling across her shoulders. Jack stiffened; he could smell the fragrance of lavender and honey on her skin, and he glanced beyond her, to where a copper tub sat in the corner of the room.
“Am I interrupting you?” he whispered, lamenting his poor timing.
“I just finished. Come in, Jack.” Adaira shifted, welcoming him inside, and Jack stepped over the threshold.
As a moment of silence passed between them, Jack found himself unable to look away from her. There were many things he wanted to share with her tonight, yet the sight of her so undressed had surprised him. She stole his attention entirely as she walked to the fire. Her feet were bare, her face was flushed, and her wet hair had left diaphanous patches on the front of her robe. Adaira had yet to truly look at him, to speak to him. It was as though she was alone as she reached for the bottle of wine on a hearthside table and poured herself a glass.
She broke the silence before he could. “I suppose you want our handfast revoked. I’ll see to it first thing tomorrow.”
“And why would I want that?” Jack countered.
His sharp tone drew her eyes. She stared at him, at last noticing how nice he looked. He had come to her wearing his best. His wedding raiment. “You didn’t know you were marrying a Breccan,” she drawled.
“No,” he said gently. “I didn’t know.”
She narrowed her eyes at him and drained her wine. “What I know is that the people are talking about me. And it isn’t good talk. You should distance yourself from me immediately, Jack. This cannot end well.”
Jack stepped forward to catch her hand. Her fingers were hot in his, as if she were burning from within. He noticed the signet ring was gone, and he was swarmed with unspeakable sadness, sensing she had willingly removed it. He raised his eyes to meet hers. She was rigid, guarded. As if she was waiting to hear him reject her.
“Let them,” he said. “Let them talk. All that matters in this moment is you and me and what we know is true.”
She was surprised. He watched her remember, the memory flickering across her face. She had once said similar words to him, on the night she had bent a knee and proposed.
“You’re scaring me, Jack.”
“Have I smiled too much then?”
That drew a slight grin from her. But it swiftly faded. “Your reaction to this revelation … you should revile me. You should call me your enemy. You shouldn’t want to hold my hand.”
He only laced his fingers with hers, tugging her closer to him. “Do you think it matters to me where you were born, Adaira?”
“Would it matter to you if I had been born in the west?”
She sighed. “Maybe once, long ago, I would have cared. But I’ve changed in a way I hardly recognize. I don’t know who I am anymore.”
Jack traced her cheek, tilting her chin up so she would look at him. “There are pieces missing from Moray Breccan’s story. Vital pieces that I want you to know.”
She was silent, expectant. Waiting for him to speak.
“The Keeper of the Aithwood could have returned you to your blood parents that fateful night,” Jack began. “But to do so would mean he had broken a law, because he was given an order not to bring you back. He feared his life would be forfeit, as would yours.
“He found the river and stepped into it, disoriented from bleeding as he was, with you in his arms. He was going to take you home with him, to think about what he should do. The tree boughs danced above him, and the water guided him downstream, and it would seem all the spirits, even the stars that burned distantly in the sky, were leading him to the east. When he made the crossing, he stood in a valley and looked upward and saw a cottage on a hill, the firelight seeping through the shutters. Little did he know that a weaver lived there alone, young and lonely and married to secrets, and that she often remained awake, deep into the night, weaving at her loom.
“He chose to knock on her door, and she welcomed him inside, despite the fact that he wore a blue plaid at his shoulder and woad tattoos on his skin. She swiftly realized he held a babe, and he asked for the weaver’s help. Mirin assisted him, and she said the moment she cradled you, her heart leapt in joy. She could scarcely understand it, but she said it was like finding a piece of herself that had been missing. And the keeper thought, here is a good woman who will love this lass as her own and give her the tender care she needs to survive. He left you with my mum, and they both swore to hold this secret between them, and he believed he would never cross through the river again.
“But he returned not a day later, to check on you and the dark-eyed weaver. He had learned the secret flaw of the clan line, that if he gave his blood to the river and walked in the water, he could pass undetected. And so he visited frequently, as if there were a cord tying him to that cottage on the hill, pulling him to the east. He was concerned, for you were still very small, and my mum didn’t know much about newborn babes. She had no choice but to bring Senga Campbell into the arrangement, and the healer did all she could to help you grow.
“Senga told Mirin that the Laird and Lady of the East longed for a bairn, but she feared that Lorna Tamerlaine would have complications in her imminent delivery. The healer asked Mirin if she would give you up to them. And while my mum never wanted to surrender you—she had kept you a secret for several weeks—she agreed.
“Soon, Lorna’s labor began. It was long and difficult, and the babe was stillborn. Senga said they all wept in the birthing chamber. They wept and mourned in that hour, and Senga thought the grief would crush them. But then Mirin brought in a bundle of blankets. You wailed until my mother set you in Lorna’s weary arms. You fell silent and content, and my mum says that’s when she knew that you were supposed to belong to them. Those who were gathered in that chamber decided they would hold this secret of your origins and let the clan believe you were Alastair and Lorna’s blood-born daughter.
“You belonged to them, in love and in vows. They didn’t care if your ancestry was of the west. You healed this clan and gave them joy. You brought laughter and life into the once dismal corridors of the castle. You brought hope to the east.
“And my mum … she was at peace, even though she missed you fiercely in the beginning. But little did she know that she would have her own son only eight months later.”
He paused, surprised by how his voice wavered. Adaira raised her hand and laid it against the arch of his cheek, and he knew she was beginning to see him as he saw her. The threads that held them together.
“My father was the Keeper of the Aithwood. It was he who brought you into the east, where he knew you would be safe and loved,” said Jack. It was liberating to speak those forbidden words aloud. The weight slipped from his chest like a stone, and he shivered to feel the space it left behind, waiting to be filled. “From your life came mine. I would not exist if you had been born in the east. I am but a verse inspired by your chorus, and I will follow you until the end, when the isle takes my bones and my name is nothing more than a remembrance on a headstone, next to yours.”
Adaira smiled, tears shining in her eyes. Jack waited for her to break the silence that welled, a bright and heady moment that could morph into anything. He waited, knowing they could claim this day as their own. Fully and unapologetically, with all of its blood, agony, and windswept secrets. The wounds and the scars and the uncertainty of the future.
“Jack,” she said at last, drawing him into her embrace.
Jack breathed her in, hiding his face in the soft, quicksilver waves of her hair.
Adaira invited him to remain with her that night. She sensed no expectations within Jack, only his contentment. Contentment to be in her company, shut away from the spinning world beyond the chamber, if only for a span of a few starlit hours.
She still marveled over his words, words that bound them closer than spoken vows had done.
She opened one of the windows, welcoming a warm summer night into the chamber. For a moment, she could fool herself. Gazing out over the darkened isle, she believed her father still lived, that he could be found in the library by the fire, her mother close beside him with her harp, plucking a waterfall of notes. For a moment, she was Adaira Tamerlaine and she had always belonged to the east.
But the imagining faded into ash when she realized she didn’t want such a life anymore. She wanted the truth. She wanted to feel it brush against her skin, wanted to claim it with her hands. She wanted honesty, even if it felt like claws raking across her soul.
When she turned around, Jack was watching her. A sultry breeze slipped into the chamber, stirring Adaira’s long, unbound hair.
“It feels strange,” she whispered. “To not know which side I belong to.”
“You belong to both,” he replied. “You are the east as you are the west. You are mine as I am yours.”
She walked to meet him in the heart of the room, where the shadows danced on the floor.
Jack eased the knot holding her robe. His deft hand slipped beneath it, touching her faintly at first, reverence in his eyes. His thumb left a trail of gooseflesh on her skin. And then he kissed her with an intensity that shook all holiness from her, sparking a passion she had been longing for, and she knew she had found her match in him as they edged toward the bed. They followed an urgent beat at first, one punctuated with gasps and shed garments and their names tangling together, as if time would expire on them. But then Jack drew slightly away so he could fully behold her on the bed beneath him, his hand fanning over her ribs. His half of the coin caught the light, hanging from a long chain about his neck.
“Whatever comes in the days ahead, I am with you,” he said. “If you want to go to the mainland, I will take you there. If you want to remain in the east, so will I. And if you want to venture into the west, let me be at your side.”
She could hardly find the breath to speak. She nodded, and Jack kissed her palm, the cold scar from his truth blade. He slowed their pace, as if he wanted to savor each moment of their joining. His gaze lingered on hers as he found a new rhythm between them, a song they could lose themselves within, and Adaira felt as if he were drawing music from her bones.
The candles burned down into wax remnants; the fire crackled into blue embers. Soon it was just the constellations, the moon, and a gentle wind blowing through the window. The wings of a western spirit. Adaira and Jack, wholly consumed and gleaming, fell asleep entwined in her sheets.