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Highland Flame (Highland Weddings #4)
Author: Mary Wine


One


   Gordon land

   They were waiting for him to bless the meal.

   He was laird, and it was his place to begin the evening supper with a prayer. Somehow, in all the times his mother had spoken of that moment with longing in her eyes, she had never mentioned to him just how much it would remind him of facing down his enemies.

   More than one man was giving him a glare that made it plain they felt they were as entitled to the position at the high table as Diocail was.

   Diocail Gordon eyed the bread his staff delivered, and hesitated. It was misshapen, and when he did grasp it, his fingers sank in because it was wet, the top part soaked with water as though it had been sitting out in the rain. He cleared his throat and said the prayer before ripping the bread to indicate everyone might eat.

   The hall was only half full, which surprised him. The laird provided supper for his retainers, yet it appeared a good number of them were choosing to find their meals elsewhere. The clumps of wet bread glued to his fingertips might be one reason—if a man had a wife to turn him better bread—but that didn’t account for the number of retainers missing.

   Diocail sat down and watched, seeking more clues. Maids were entering the hall now, and they carried several large trays toward his table. While the bread might have been lacking, these platters were full of roasted meats that looked very good to his eyes. It was a bounty to be sure, and his predecessor’s captains began to help themselves.

   Along the table that sat on the high ground were men who had served Colum, the last laird of the Gordons. Diocail had given them all a chance to challenge him, and none had. Instead, they maintained their high positions. At the moment, that entitled them to a good supper, served in front of the rest of the clan to make their position clear. There wasn’t an empty chair, and each man had a gilly behind him to take care of his needs. Some of the older captains had two young men standing at the ready, which made Diocail narrow his eyes. When a man was young, he often became a gilly to learn focus, but there was a gleam in these young men’s eyes that didn’t make sense.

   Diocail didn’t suffer in ignorance for long.

   Supper began to make its way into the hall, but it was far from sufficient. Men fought over what was brought, elbowing each other as they grabbed it from maids, who tossed their trays down because of the fray, afraid to get too close to the tables. There were clear pockets of friends who clustered together to defend whatever they had managed to grab from the frightened kitchen staff. Any man who tried to break into their ranks was tossed aside like a runt.

   Diocail never started eating. He watched the squabbling and then realized exactly why his men were fighting when no more food came from the kitchen. Whatever a man had managed to grab was all there was, and the lucky ones devoured their fare quickly before someone else managed to rip it from their grasp.

   “Colum was a miser,” Muir told him. Diocail’s newly appointed captain was making a face as he tried to chew the bread. “Dismissed the Head of House in favor of one who would be willing to serve less food without complaint. There is nary a rabbit within a mile of this keep because so many take to hunting to fill their bellies.”

   Muir was disgusted too, looking at the piece of meat in his hands as though the taste had gone sour. Diocail realized it was because a young boy was looking at it as well, his eyes glistening with hunger. Muir lifted the food toward the boy, and the lad scampered up the three steps to the high ground to snatch it.

   “Even though I am no’ in the habit of questioning the Lord’s will,” Muir growled out between them, “I confess, I wonder why that man was graced with such a long life when he sat at this table feasting while his own men starved.”

   “It makes me see why no one else was willing to defend him,” Diocail answered. “Seems it was justice that saw him stabbed in his own bedchamber.”

   “A justice ye did yer best to shield him from.” Muir sent him a hard look.

   “He was me laird,” Diocail answered. “A man I had sworn to protect. His lack of character did no’ release me from the bonds of honor. Yet I confess, I am grateful I lost that battle, and I am no’ sorry to say so. The bastard needed to die for what he’s allowed the Gordons to become.”

   “Aye,” Muir agreed, looking out at the hall once more. There was now a cluster of children in front of the high table, all silently begging for scraps. All of them were thin, telling him that they weren’t just intent on being gluttons.

   No, they were starving.

   And that was a shame.

   A shame on the Gordon name and Diocail’s duty to rectify. He waved them forward. They came in a stumbling stampede, muttering words of gratitude as they reached for the platter sitting in front of him and Muir.

   The platter was picked clean in moments.

   Diocail stood up. The hall quieted as his men turned to listen to him. “I will address the shortage of food.”

   A cheer went up as Diocail made his way down the steps from the high ground and into the kitchen. Muir fell into step beside him. The kitchen was down a passageway and built alongside the hall. Inside, the kitchen was a smoke-filled hell that made Diocail’s eyes smart and the back of his throat itch. He fought the urge to cough and hack. It was hardly the way to begin a conversation with his staff.

   “The weather is fine and warm,” he declared. “Open the shutters.”

   Instead of acting, all the women working at the long tables stood frozen, staring at him. Their faces were covered in soot from the conditions of the kitchen. Many of them had fabric wrapped around their heads, covering every last hair in an effort to keep the smoke from it. Muir opened a set of doors to try and clear the air. Diocail looked at the hearths and realized the smoke wasn’t rising up the chimneys. No, it was pouring into the kitchen, and the closed shutters kept it there.

   The staff suddenly scurried into a line to face him. They lined up shoulder to shoulder, looking at the ground, their hands worrying the folds of their stained skirts.

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