Her Highland Stranger (Preview)

Chapter One

His name was Wal, and he was a stranger. Wal had always known that this was what his name meant, always known that there was something different about him. He knew that it was unusual to grow up with two parents in their forties and no siblings. He knew that neither his Da nor his Ma had his long ginger hair or blue eyes or height.

It shouldnae have surprised me when they told me everything, but it sent me reeling nonetheless.

He’d only turned four-and-twenty three days ago, and it had changed everything. His Da had married his Ma at that age, it transpired, and Wal asked them why they’d never had any other children. He’d never seen such tiredness on their elderly faces as he did at that moment.

“Och, me son,” his Ma, Sadie, had sighed. She only reached midway up his chest, her steel-grey hair and wrinkled face emphasized by her stoop, but she still patted his cheek like he was a boy. “Och, me lad. How have ye so grown already? Have we really gotten so old as all of this?”

Wal’s Da, Joe, had let out a loud sigh of his own. “Sadie, we should have told him long before now, and ye ken it. We’ve been putting it off, son. The truth is, yer Mither’s barren, or maybe I am, we dinnae ken. Bairn after bairn we made, year after year, and each one withered in the womb before it had a chance to breathe yon Highland air.”

“I dinnae understand,” Wal had told them. Though he was a man grown, he still sat on the threadbare rug that decorated the floor while his parents took the two stools before the fireplace. Outside, the weather was gathering. He remembered very clearly thinking that there would be a storm later, not realizing how soon a personal storm would change his life.

Sadie had burst into tears at that. “I was already one-and-forty when ye were born, me love. Yer faither – nae yer da, yer real faither – he brought ye here to me. He begged me to raise ye, said he didnae have a clue what to do with ye otherwise. I told him I was too old and too inexperienced, but he insisted, and I couldnae help but feel bad for him. Plus, I’d always wanted a bairn, and ye were so wee. His wife wouldnae have ye, yer mither was deid…”

Wal had not been so surprised to find out he and his parents did not share blood, but the revelation about his birth parents sent a shiver through him. “His wife wasnae me birth mither?”

“Och, nae,” Joe had said, laying a comforting hand on Sadie’s shoulder. “Nae, yer poor deid mither was a young lass, a maid or something of the sort. Lady MacEwen is as barren as yer Ma.”

Lady MacEwen?” Wal had repeated. His brain was racing at a thousand miles per hour, and he was suddenly beside himself. “What in the blazes do ye mean, Lady MacEwen? Are ye trying to tell me that me birth faither is—”

“The Laird of MacEwen, aye,” Joe agreed, not sounding entirely thrilled about the fact. He got up and went over to the small cupboard at the side of the room, taking out a little box that had been locked for as long as Wal could remember.

Sadie had rubbed at her eyes, then reached around her neck, opening the necklace she always wore – her only piece of jewelry – to withdraw a tiny key. She handed it to her husband, and he unlocked the box.

“He left three things for ye before he rode off into the night,” Sadie explained. “He insisted on yer name, and he gave us these.”

Joe withdrew a shining golden brooch from the box, untouched by the four-and-twenty years since Wal’s own birth. On it was etched a crest – the crest of the neighboring Clan MacEwen.

It’s true then. I am who they say I am.

He reached out with trembling fingers, accepting it as his Da handed it over. He turned it over in his hands, blown away by the weight of it. If they’d wanted, his parents could have sold this brooch and been rich. Instead, they had kept it for him all of these years!

Then Joe had drawn out a bolt of cloth from the box as well, deep green patched with gold. “Ye were wrapped in this when he brought ye,” he said. “It was the third and last thing the Laird left for ye.”

Wal had pinned the brooch to his shirt and accepted the blanket, and spent a long time just staring at it.

His parents had not been surprised when, a few hours after, he declared he would set off as soon as possible for Clan McEwen. Back in the present, he was already halfway there, miles from home. He felt an ache in his heart where they should be.

“Och, are ye gonnae spend the whole journey with yer face like a skelped backside?” a voice teased from beside him, shaking him from his maudlin thoughts.

Wal turned his head to see his best friend, Scott, watching him from his own horse, his green eyes sparkling in the afternoon sunlight. “I dinnae ken why I brought ye along,” Wal responded with a laugh. “Ye’re a nuisance.”

“Aye, well, someone as maudlin as ye needs a nuisance now and again,” Scott told him easily. “And when ye told me where ye were going, I could hardly let ye ride off alone, now could I? Who’d comfort yer poor ma if ye got yerself killed?”

They continued to playfully bicker as they rode, and Wal was thankful for it. In truth, he could not have asked for a better travel companion – or a better friend – than Scott. They’d known each other since boyhood, and they balanced each other in a way that Wal had needed his whole life.

People find me height and manner intimidating, but Scott’s always been unafraid to jokingly mock me. It keeps me grounded.

Of course, they were men, and as men, Wal could hardly express such feelings of love and gratitude to his friend. So instead, he said, “Ye ken, many lesser men would have pushed ye off yer horse by now, aye?”

Scott just laughed, clearly at ease, “Well, aye, but many lesser men have nae just discovered that they’re the secret son of a Laird. Are ye gonnae make me bow and scrape now that ye’re nobility?”

Wal hadn’t realized how much tension he’d been carrying in his body until he felt his shoulders relax now. He didn’t know how he felt about this revelation, even now, hours later. “Nobility, is it?” he said, the word tasting strange on his tongue. “Yesterday, I was just a simple farmer’s lad.”

Scott chuckled a little ruefully this time as they guided the horse down one of the rolling hills toward the forest that separated the two clans. “Nay, Wal. Ye’re many things, but ye’ve never been a simple farmer’s lad, nae since we met twenty years ago. I’ve always kent that ye were bound for something bigger. Maybe that’s why I was so eager to befriend ye, eh?” Then his seriousness faded, and he was japing once again. “After all, it couldnae have been yer personality!”

Wal rolled his eyes at his friend’s antics, but Scott’s words stuck somewhere deep inside him.

Bound for something bigger? That’s an awful polite way to say ‘the odd man out.’

Because that’s what he’d been, even then when he’d been four playing a chasing game with three-year-old Scott. That’s what he’d been with all the other lads when he’d gotten older and wanted to play fight with the rest of them.

He’d never fit, not at all, and now he finally knew why. But as he rode toward the next step of his destiny, he could not help but wonder: would he fit there, either?

Probably not.

He was no farmer’s son, but he didn’t feel like a Laird’s son either. When he tried to think about who he was, he only knew two things for sure.

His name was Wal, and he was a stranger.


They were deep in the forest when Wal heard the tell-tale whinny that indicated an angry horse. A desperate cry followed immediately after it: “Woah! Stop! Stop!”

That’s a woman’s voice.

“We’ve got to help,” he told Scott, who nodded, and the two of them turned their mounts in the direction of the noise.

They rode quickly until they reached a clearing, and in the center was a large stallion, neighing and bucking wildly, a young woman clinging to its mane for dear life. “What’s wrong with ye?!” she screamed. “Stop!”

Wal didn’t stop to think. He jumped off of his horse before they’d even stopped moving and ran across the clearing toward the helpless maiden. He got in front of the angry horse, narrowly avoiding its dangerous hooves as they swung near his body.

One kick could mean the end of it for me, but I cannae just leave her to fall.

“Ho there!” he called firmly, grabbing the horse by the tight reins at its nose. It wasn’t a yell – he didn’t want to scare the creature any more – but rather the deep, commanding voice he used with the dogs and horses back home. “Enough of this, you hear? Enough.”

The horse brayed angrily, trying to thrash his head, but Wal held him tightly in place. He saw Scott approaching and nodded, indicating that his friend should help the woman down from the back while he tried to calm the creature.

The stallion was wild-eyed, trying to bite and kick, its anger now focused entirely on Wal, but he continued to speak in that same calm tone. “Woah there, lad,” he said, firm but soothing. “What’s got ye all frightened, eh?”

The woman was still clinging to the horse, but Wal was glad to see that she had a brain enough in her head to let go and slide down when Scott arrived to help her. He wanted to ask if she was all right, but he had to keep his attention on the stallion.

“Hush, now,” he said, a little more soothingly. Wal was thankful that he had grown so tall and strong – the horse could have hurt him severely in his blind panic otherwise by now. “Hush. It isnae as bad as ye think,” he assured the creature. “Och, ye’re a bonny thing, are ye nae? Did ye catch a scent of something ye didnae like, is that it? Dinnae worry, lad, nothing’s coming for ye.”

Wal continued this stream of words, the content not really mattering, soothing, and comforting. Eventually, he let go of the reins with one hand, hesitantly reaching out to pet the stallion’s nose.

There was a frozen moment, then the horse neighed and bucked against his hand, and Wal let out a sigh of relief.

“There’s a good lad,” he said, petting him affectionately. “I kent ye were, really. All calm now, aye?”

Only when he was absolutely certain that the stallion had calmed entirely did he turn away, one hand loosely on his guiding rein, and turn to where Scott stood a little further back with the woman they’d saved.

When he got his first proper look at her, the world changed entirely.

She was the most beautiful woman that he had ever seen, even in his own imagination, and he could not believe that she stood right there before him now. She was well-built, with good shoulders and hips under her fine dress, gentle curves that drew the eye modestly covered by her clothing. Any man of Wal’s age would have taken notice, but that wasn’t what so distracted him now.

Her skin was fair and soft, with light freckling on her nose, and her hair, though tied back, looked like tresses of brown silk curled near her head. But the thing that drew Wal in most were her eyes. They were the strangest color he had ever seen, and he could not stop staring.

It’s like those eyes have trapped me soul, and I’m nae even sure I want it back.

Wal’s own eyes were blue, and people often commented on the dark depths of the color they held, but they were nothing to this maiden’s eyes as they focused on him now. They were bright, but not quite blue – they were the color of the wood violets that grew wild in the spring, a mix of blue and purple that shone in the daylight.

She opened her mouth – and she had good lips, curved just right, perfect for kissing. Wal hadn’t kissed all that many maidens, but he knew that those he had would all fall away from his mind if he was to taste those lips. He waited for her words, sure she would whisper gentle thanks in a bell-like voice to go with her beauty.

“That,” she said softly, “Was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.” Then her tone changed, and suddenly her lovely face turned to exasperation. “And the most foolish! Are ye quite daft, man? The horse could have killed ye where ye stood!”

Beside her, Scott glanced at her in surprise. “Me friend just saved yer life, Miss.”

“Aye, he did at that and nearly lost his own in the process,” the woman replied, shaking her head. “Honestly, ye men and yer braveries! Well, thank ye, but dinnae go risking yer life like that for every damsel ye happen to come across, ye hear me?”

Wal knew he should be shocked, but all he felt was a mixture of surprise and amusement, if he was honest. That a woman should speak in such a way to him! He couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s quite a mouth ye’ve got on ye, lass,” he told her. “Do ye speak to everyone who rescues ye like this?”

She folded her arms, one delicate chestnut eyebrow raised in an arch. “Aye, is that what ye think? And tell me, do ye think I look like a maid in need of saving by a man every five minutes?”

Wal snorted, and Scott said, “Well, ye ken, we did just have to rescue ye from a rogue horse.”

The woman shook her head, tutting. “Rionnag wouldnae have hurt me,” she said. “He just got a bit frightened, is all. Now ye, Sir Redhead, he would have knocked yer heid clean off yer shoulders if ye’d given him half a chance.”

“He had more than half a chance,” Wal told her. “And me name is Wal. That’s Scott. And Rionnag may be a fair steed, but if ye’d have fallen, ye’d be just as deid as anyone else, whether he wanted it or not.”

Something flashed in her eyes, but it wasn’t anger. She gave a very small smile, and Wal’s heart leaped in joy that he’d pleased her. “Well,” she allowed, “Ye may have a point there. Thank ye, sir. Can I give ye a favor in return?”

“I’ll have yer name,” Wal replied instantly. Scott looked at him in clear exasperation, but Wal ignored him, his mind focused entirely on this beautiful woman. “I dinnae need anything else.”

“Ye’re a strange one, Wal,” she said after a moment. “Aye, all right, then. Me name is Yvaine. A pleasure to meet ye and all that.”

“And ye,” Wal told her.

“Clearly,” Scott replied, looking between the pair of them with a long-suffering expression on his face. “Come, Wal. Ye’ve got yer noble faither to meet, ye cannae be dallying with every pretty lassie we come across.”

Wal nodded, the spell broken by the reminder. “Aye,” he said apologetically. “Aye. Well, Miss Yvaine…”

“Dinnae worry. Me traveling party will be here soon. Off ye go,” she said, still looking amused.

And so Wal and Scott said their goodbyes and rode off to change Wal’s life. Though, as he thought of those violet eyes, he could not help but think it had unwittingly been changed already.


Chapter Two

“He told me his name was Wal, and his friend was Scott,” Yvaine told her father as she finished explaining exactly what had happened when Rionnag had gotten frightened and ran ahead of the party.

She hadn’t been able to admit it in front of her rescuers, of course. Still, it had been a rather terrifying experience. One minute, she’d been riding quite happily alongside her father and her attendant. Then there was a loud banging noise from somewhere in the forest, and suddenly Rionnag was bolting ahead, barely aware of his mistress on his back.

I fair thought I’d met me death until those two farm lads came from the trees to save me.

“The way he handled Rionnag, Faither!” she said, still scarcely able to believe it. “It was like he was dealing with a newborn foal rather than a grown stallion!”

Though Yvaine had teased him, watching Wal tame the horse after Scott helped her slip off Rionnag’s back had been a sight to behold. Scott was pleasant enough to look at, a little taller than Yvaine with bright green eyes and shining blond hair, but if she was honest, she’d hardly looked at him at all.

When I saw them emerge from the forest, I thought one of the Sith had come to save me life or spirit me away to Faerie.

Wal looked like no man she had ever seen. He was taller than anyone she knew, except maybe the Laird. His hair was long and red like fire, his eyes the bright blue of the sky. His clothes strained at his well-toned chest and arms, and she felt herself blushing slightly at the memory. She’d never noticed someone so physically before, and she wasn’t sure what it meant.

“It sounds like ye had quite the adventure, daughter,” said her father, shaking his head. He was a stocky man, with ink-black hair that looked almost blue and her own strange purplish-blue eyes. He was a handsome man, yet he’d never taken another woman after Yvaine’s mother Maggie’s death some years before.

Even after all of these years, though, Yvaine could still remember her mother’s last conversation about her father. “Torquil works too hard,” Maggie had said. “And if I’m to go and leave the two of ye alone, I need ye to help him as much as ye can.”

Her father did work hard, Yvaine knew, but there was no wonder about why. He was the right-hand man to the Laird of their clan and the presumed heir since Laird McEwen lacked children. Yvaine was aware she’d grown up in a world of advantage, and she was grateful for it. It had given her freedom that many other women lacked.

“I did at that,” she admitted. “But I could have handled Rionnag even without a man and his fine muscles.”

Torquil chuckled.  “Ye’re as wild as yer mither was. Caught yer eye, this savior lad, did he?”

Yvaine snorted in response. “Hardly. He thought himself quite clever, I think. He kept trying to spar with me in our words – as if any lad could pull off such a thing when Mither trained me so well!”

“Ye should have kept him back so I could thank him,” Torquil told her. “For me stubborn daughter’s life, I mean. Both him and his friend.”

“Nay, they were in quite a hurry,” Yvaine told him, petting Rionnag’s neck now that he was calm. “Scott said something about them being due to meet Wal’s noble faither, whatever that meant.”

A strange look shot across Torquil’s face, filled with a whole host of emotions, but it vanished before Yvaine had time to understand any of them. Torquil had never been an expressive man, even less so since Maggie had tied, and Yvaine often found herself wishing that she could understand her father just a little more.

“Is everything all right, Faither?” she pressed. “Ye look concerned.”

“Just grand, lass,” he replied. “Come, mount that beast. It’s time we got back to McEwen Castle. Put this lad out of your mind.”

But though had she teased and criticized him, as Yvaine did as she was bid, she wasn’t sure that forgetting Wal was going to be possible at all.


“Laird McEwen will see ye now,” said the castle guard who had kept them waiting in the front hall for over an hour. He was a thin, short man with a look of snobby pride about him that Wal disliked instantly.

Scott grinned. “Told ye so,” he said, supremely pleased with himself. The guard had rudely informed them several times that the Laird had no time for them and even gone so far as to accuse Wal of carrying a false crest.

Wal had been ready to fight his way in, even reaching for the old sword his Da had gifted him the day he turned one-and-twenty, but Scott had intervened first. Scott had waved a bag of coin in front of the guard’s face – Lord knew where he’d discovered it – and said, “Well? Ye think ye can at least go and check?”

And now they were to see the Laird.

Me Faither.

Wal took a breath. He wasn’t nervous, not exactly, but he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to expect. How did a man of four-and-twenty greet his true father for the first time in his life?

There was something else, too. Wal knew his whole mind should be focused on the meeting to come, but instead, he found it traveling back to the clearing in the forest and those strange eyes.

Scott pushed lightly at his elbow as they followed the stuck-up guard along the corridor. “What’s that face?” he whispered. “Are ye thinking of that lassie again? Get yer priorities in order, man.”

Wal scowled but conceded the point as they reached a large set of wooden double doors. The scowling guard pushed them open and gestured that he should go inside.

“Nae point in waiting,” Scott whispered encouragingly. Wal nodded, took a breath, and walked through the door to his new life with his faithful friend behind him.

The man waiting inside was the only person that Wal had ever seen who, even sitting, was obviously as tall as Wal himself. He had cold grey eyes but his hair, cut short to his ears, was as red as Wal’s own where it wasn’t salted with white. Those stony eyes focused on him now as he entered.

A woman sat next to him, and Wal could not tell if she was ugly or beautiful due to her face’s pinched expression. She had blonde-brown hair, much darker than Scott’s, though Wal could not see her eyes since they were roving everywhere except in his direction.

That must be Lady McEwen. Nae exactly welcoming.

Scott coughed awkwardly and stepped back, standing by the door beside the Laird’s men there and allowing Wal to walk forward to meet his father alone.

Wal paused halfway between the door and the table where the Laird and Lady sat, feeling half a boy again. “Er. Thank ye for seeing me, Me Laird,” he said, though he had no idea how to address nobility beyond this. He hoped he hadn’t insulted him inadvertently.

“You are Wal?” the Laird asked him, sounding almost bored. “Me guard brought me the items I left with the bairn all those years ago, it’s true, but how am I to ken that ye’re nae just some opportunist who robbed them from the poor old family I left the lad with?”

Wal blinked. He had not been expecting instant affection like he felt with his own parents, but this was harsh. “Erm…I dinnae ken how to prove to ye otherwise, Me Laird. I just ken what me Ma and Da – er, me foster parents – told me just this morning.”

The Lady shifted uncomfortably, saying nothing. Beside her, the Laird just looked at Wal like he would look at a cow in a field – a temporary distraction from the scenery, nothing more.

“Hmph,” Laird McEwen said, obviously unimpressed. “That doesnae prove much. I have nae—”

“Och, he’s yer son, Craig,” the Lady snapped. Her voice was high and strained like she was struggling to hold herself together. “Can ye nae see it’s like a looking-glass for ye? His height, face, his hair…the only difference is those accursed eyes he’s looking at ye with. Those are her eyes.”

Wal blinked rapidly, his stomach rapidly dropping at the coldness of his greeting both from the woman and the man who was supposed to be his father. The bile in her voice when she spoke of her – Wal could only imagine that she meant his late birth mother – made it clear that, at least in her eyes, he was not welcome here.

Laird McEwen huffed. “Aye. Aye, all right. There’s nae need to be so fussy. Lad, what were ye expecting in coming here?” His eyes traveled to Scott in the background with marked distaste, then back to Wal. “Ye and yer…servant.”

“Scott is me friend,” Wal corrected, mildly but firmly. “And I came here because I’m a man grown, and I wanted to meet me Faither. I thought he might want to meet me as well.”

The Laird didn’t even react to that, just tilted his head and continued to observe him. “Very well. Then stay if ye must, but it will nae be in me castle. I dinnae have time to be looking after a bairn, especially nae an overgrown one like ye seem to be. Find yerself and yer friend a house and stay in the clan if ye must, but dinnae be putting on airs. Ye’re nae heir to anything yet. Ye’re nae special just because ye carry me blood.”

I didnae claim to be special or ask to be an heir! I just wanted to meet me Faither!

But, out loud, all he said was, “Aye, of course, Me Laird.” He bowed his head again and said, “Thank ye for being kind enough to let me stay. If there’s any way I can prove meself to you and how much I’d like to get to ken ye—”

“Ye will prove yerself,” the Laird told him. “Or ye’ll leave. This isnae some country retreat. Now go. Yer presence is distressing me wife.”

Wal wanted to argue, but he wasn’t even sure where to start. He was hurt, angry, and confused all at once, and he really couldn’t tell which of the emotions clamoring for attention in his head was strongest. Instead, closing his mouth tight, he nodded silently and turned to leave.

Scott moved to be beside him without a word, and together they walked out of the Laird’s room.

When the heavy wooden doors swung closed, Scott said, “So…do ye want to talk about what just happened there?”

“Nay,” Wal said shortly. “I dinnae. Come, we must find somewhere to lay our heads for the night, at least.”

“Will we stay, then?” Scott asked. His eyebrows raised so high in his forehead that Wal was sure they’d disappear into his hairline. “Even when he behaved so awfully to you?”

Wal looked at him, every muscle in his body tightening. “He will acknowledge me, Scott,” he told his friend as they passed the smug, smirking guard once more. “I dinnae care what I have to do. I will get recognition from me own Faither.”

“Good luck,” the guard sneered. Wal considered punching him but figured that would hardly go over well with his father, and so said nothing as the guard pushed the front door open.

Scott and Wal left the Castle behind, walking down the steps to head into the Castle town, but as they turned a corner, he stopped short.

He’d almost walked straight into someone, and suddenly it was very hard not to believe in destiny.


“Wal,” Yvaine exclaimed in surprise after she’d steadied herself from the near-collision. She’d only been walking into the Castle to attend her aunt, the Lady of the Castle – this was the last thing she’d expected. “What—why—”

“You!” Scott cried, obviously as surprised as Yvaine felt. “What are ye doing here?”

Wal blinked at her with those deep blue eyes. “Yvaine,” he said slowly. “Well, I’ll be. Ye didnae tell me that ye were from Clan McEwen.”

Yvaine frowned thoughtfully. “Well, ye didnae tell me either,” she said, a little shaken at his sudden appearance. “And what are ye doing in the Castle of all places? The town—”

She stopped, catching the smirk on Scott’s face. She glanced between the pair of them, then gasped. “That’s what ye meant by his noble faither?” she demanded of Scott. “The Laird?

“Aye,” Scott said, grinning. “We only found out this morning, but apparently Laird McEwen is Wal’s very own faither. And who, exactly, are ye to be swanning into the Castle so?”

Yvaine didn’t answer his question, staring at Wal in disbelief. “So the rumors of a hidden bastard are true. Have ye come to claim yer heirship then?” she asked.

Me Faither will be furious, everything he’s worked for overturned by some stranger!

And yet, neither could Yvaine deny the resemblance now that she thought of it. She hadn’t realized in the forest, but Wal looked incredibly like Laird McEwen.

“I’m nae claiming any heirship,” Wal said, a little darkly. “Me faither apparently wasnae thrilled by what he saw. He says I’m to prove meself before he’s willing to even acknowledge me. Scott and I are looking for somewhere to stay.”

He spoke airily, but there was a sadness hidden in his voice that pulled at Yvaine’s heart. That simply wouldn’t do. This man had saved her life not a few hours before, and she simply couldn’t let him wallow here in misery.

Besides, it wouldnae be so bad to have him around a wee bit longer.

“Well, ye’ll obviously have to work a lot to prove yerself,” she teased. “I mean, just look at ye.”

“Sassy lass, are ye nae?” Scott asked, looking and sounding annoyed, but Yvaine was pleased to see amusement in Wal’s expression.

Yvaine smiled at Scott a little too angelically. “That’s a problem for ye, is it?”

“Nae for me,” Wal replied with a chuckle, the darkness in his eyes clearing a little. “I can handle a wee bit of fire, lass, though I dinnae ken what I did to deserve such teasing except saving you from a raging horse.”

“Ah, I can tell by the flames on yer head that ye can handle fire,” she replied, very pleased she’d teased a smile from him. “All right. If ye wish to banter more, then ye simply must stay. Go and ask Farmer Joseph in the south of the village if he’s still loaning out his old cottages. If ye need some coin…”

What am I saying! How inappropriate am I gonnae be?

Scott raised an eyebrow. “Does yer Faither ken ye’re offering to lend strange men money, Miss Yvaine?”

“Hush,” Wal told him, putting a warning hand on Scott’s shoulder. Yvaine was surprised and impressed by how quickly Scott obeyed, as though Wal’s very word was his bond. “She’s only trying to help. Thank ye kindly, Yvaine. If ye must tell us the way, I’m sure we’ll manage from there.”

Yvaine coughed and nodded, then took out some of the scrap paper she always carried around with her. She paused, her pen above it. “Can ye read?” she asked uncertainly.

Scott huffed, but Wal smiled at her. “Aye, both of us can. We were lucky enough that our parents, poor as they were, made sure we got an education. I’m fair certain me Faither left some money for the purpose, too.”

There was something very fanciful about that image in Yvaine’s mind – two young farmer’s sons learning their letters and rising above everything the world could ever have expected from them.

This Wal, especially, he’s got a story that’s yet to be told.

She scribbled down the address and handed it to him, and then both gentlemen bid their farewells. When they were gone, Yvaine stared after them for a moment, a little disconcerted about what had just happened. She was used to having the upper hand in conversations – man or woman.

But when Wal speaks, I lose my tongue’s edge.

What did it mean? Had she finally found an opponent worthy of her banter? Or, given the revelation of his identity, was it something much more worrying than that?

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