After the nooning meal, Emily was unsure if she was expected to return to her tower, or not. Lachlan left before she had a chance to ask, which might have been for the best. Since he had not expressly ordered her to do so, she could tell him later—if the matter came up—that she had assumed his silence meant it was all right for her to stay in the great hall. She didn't plan to wreak any mayhem anyway, just find something to keep her occupied.
And really, couldn't she assume he meant to allow her the freedom since he had not expressly denied it to her? He was, after all, a man who did not mince his words.
"Emily, Drustan has said it would be all right for you and me to explore the castle grounds." Cait spoke from behind her and Emily spun to face her friend.
"Oh, that would be lovely. I've seen some of it, walking to the loch and all, but honestly my mind was too busy with other things to take it in."
And her courage had not quite extended to making such an exploration on her own without express permission. She didn't want to end up locked in the tower again.
They started by touring the upper and lower bailey. There was a tanner's cottage, a blacksmith and an area where the women of the keep laundered, including a grove of lilac and heather bushes on which to dry the clothes so they would smell sweet. The stable was large, with over a dozen horses all as big as the ones they had ridden the day before.
The priest's cottage was behind the chapel and the two women stopped to chat briefly with him when they saw him sitting outside his door enjoying a little sun.
"Are you worried about the validity of your marriage, lass?" Father Paul asked Cait.
Cait smiled and shook her head.
"I am glad." He patted Emily's shoulder. "It is good to show such genuine caring for your friend's spiritual welfare. It gladdens my heart to see it."
Emily blushed under the praise. "It is no more than she would do for me, Father."
They declined his offer of refreshment and continued on their walk. When they had fully explored the upper and lower bailey, Cait asked Emily to show her the way to the loch. It wasn't within the castle walls, but when Cait explained they had Drustan's permission, the women were let through the gate onto the drawbridge.
The loch was only about a ten-minute walk from the castle and more cottages dotted the landscape along the path. They met several Balmoral clanswomen who seemed pleased to make the acquaintance of the new wife to the laird's first-in-command and her English friend. Some had also seen Emily pass by that morning with Lachlan and were curious about a woman he chose to spend time alone with.
"This clan is certainly friendlier than the Sinclairs," Emily remarked and then wished she'd kept her mouth shut. Her dear friend might be a Balmoral now, but she'd been born a Sinclair.
Cait sighed, her eyes sad. "My brother's clan would have welcomed you more readily under different circumstances. You must believe me on this, Emily."
"I do," Emily hastened to assure her. "I understand better since our chat this morning. I didn't mean to offend you with my remark."
"Are you certain?"
Cait laughed. "Yes. The women did go out of their way to make you feel like an outsider and I am not so easily insulted, trust me."
"Your brother is. Imagine getting so testy over being likened to a goat," Emily teased.
"Well, it is better than a horse's backside."
They were both laughing when they came into the clearing beside the water.
"Oh, it is gorgeous here," Cait exclaimed.
Emily looked at the lake shimmering in the sun and could not believe she had gone out far enough for the water to reach Lachlan's chest and be over her head. The gift he had given her that morning was greater than any she had ever known. Lachlan could be harsh and he was certainly bossy, but he was also gentle and passionate with her. And he cared enough to help her. That made him a hero in her eyes, even if he was an arrogant one.
Thinking out loud, she said, "I have another swimming lesson tomorrow morning."
"With Lachlan?" Cait asked in a strange voice.
"Yes, who else?"
"But I'm sure you won't be alone. There will be other soldiers nearby."
"If there were this morning, I didn't notice them. He has really superior hearing and he heard his brother approaching before he ever broke the cover of trees."
"Still, I'm sure Lachlan had guards with you." There was a strange urgency in Cait's voice and Emily didn't understand it.
"No, really. I don't think so. He's so sure of himself, he probably doesn't think he needs guards. Especially on Balmoral land."
Cait made a sound of distress, her gazed focused on something across the lake.
Emily turned to look and saw a huge gray wolf. He was too far away to leap at them of course, being on the other side of the water, but the aura of menace around him was enough to make her shiver. He didn't have the boney look of a desperate, hungry animal though, and she doubted the wolf would try to harm them. They were shy creatures as long as they weren't hungry… or establishing territory.
"I'm married now," Cait was saying. "The wedding was last night… and the claiming."
"Yes, I know," Emily replied, thinking it an odd topic when they were facing down a wild animal.
"There has been a misunderstanding. Susannah did not have the laird's permission to hunt alone. Her brother insists she was taken from the Balmoral's island."
"So you've said." Cait touched her friend's arm. "Are you all right?"
"The Balmoral laird is looking for an apology."
The wolf shook his head at them and snarled, showing his sharp teeth. Emily jumped back even though a whole wide lake separated them.
"Please, I don't want war between our clans," Cait pleaded.
"Well, I don't either, but I don't know what you expect me to do about it."
The wolf turned and disappeared into the forest on the other side of the lake.
Emily turned to Cait. "That was a close call."
"Closer than you know." And tears were trailing down Cait's cheeks. '"Emily, you must not come tomorrow morning for your swimming lesson."
"But I want to learn to swim now."
"It isn't safe."
"I would have agreed with you this morning, but Cait, Lachlan is helping me to conquer my fear."
"Please, Emily. You must not come!"
Something very disturbing was happening with her friend. "Tell me why."
"I can't. Not here. Just accept that it isn't safe. I think Lachlan plans to seduce you."
"I already know what Lachlan wants to do with me, and I want it. I'm sorry if you don't understand, Cait. I don't mean to disappoint you. Your opinion matters to me very much. You are my only friend here and as dear to me as Abigail, but I want this little bit of happiness in my life. I need it. For all the lonely years ahead."
"Talorc will reject you if he believes Lachlan has mated you. Even if it isn't true."
"Talorc has already rejected me."
"He'll send you back to England in disgrace."
"He can't possibly know about my swimming lessons with Lachlan."
Cait did not reply, but started dragging Emily back toward the way they had come. She refused to answer any questions or slow down until they were inside Emily's tower room with the door firmly shut.
"You certainly move quickly for a pregnant woman," Emily said, panting herself from the exertion of climbing the stairs at a near run.
"Femwolves are like that."
"There is something I have to tell you, Emily. So you will understand." Cait rounded on her, her expression desperate.
"So you can help me avoid a war and the death of my brother or Lachlan."
"Do you remember when I told you about the Chrechte people?" Cait asked.
"Yes, of course. It was only this morning. I'm English, not forgetful."
Her jest fell flat as Cait's agitation only seemed to grow. "You are also human and I am not. Not fully."
Concern for her friend had Emily standing and pushing her to sit on the bed. "You are distraught. It has been an eventful time for you and you are pregnant. Let me get you a cup of water to help clear your mind."
"My mind is already clear. Believe me, Emily. You've got to believe me," Cait said with a wild look in her eye. "Sit down and listen. Please."
Emily could not ignore her friend's plea and she sat.
"The Chrechte are shape-changers."
"Shape-changers?" Emily asked faintly.
"They have more than one form, both animal and human."
Oh, no. Last night had been an ordeal and it had broken her friend, only Emily had been too blind to see it. She stared at Cait, unsure what to say to help. If anything.
"Have you ever heard stories of werewolves?" Cait demanded.
"Yes," Emily whispered, her heart breaking.
She could not stand to see her friend like this and in that moment, if either Lachlan or Drustan had been there, she would have attacked them with her eating knife. They had done this to Cait. Damn then: vengeance-loving natures.
"That's what the Chrechte are, a race of werewolves and femwolves. That gray wolf we saw beside the water was my brother Talorc." Oblivious to Emily's tormented thoughts, Cait continued in an urgent tone that pleaded for belief. And even though she knew it was all fantasy, Emily almost did believe, Cait was so earnest. "Some wolves cannot control the change like that until they are mated, but he has been able to since his first full moon in wolf form. I have, too. Our mother was a white wolf and she passed the ability on to us."
"White wolves can control their change?" she asked for lack of anything better to say while her mind tumbled with thoughts of how to react to Cait's words.
Cait clenched her hands into fists, her face contorted with despair. "You don't believe me, do you?"
Emily's eyes filled with tears as she shook her head. "How can I? You are talking about children's fairy tales, not reality. Please, Cait, stop and think. What you are saying is impossible."
Cait shook her head. "It isn't. Please, don't cry, Emily. I have proof."
"Yes. I can't make the change right now because I'm pregnant, but I want you to think about some things."
"Remember in the forest yesterday, when I heard things you couldn't and how Lachlan heard the approaching soldier earlier today when you couldn't?"
"That is a werewolf trait."
"Superior hearing?" No, it couldn't be, but in both cases they had heard things she hadn't and she knew her hearing was good.
Only, was she trying to believe the unfathomable because the alternative, that her friend had gone daft, was too untenable to accept?
"That isn't all," Cait said sincerely. "We are stronger and faster than humans, too."
Without warning, Cait surged from the bed. Emily blinked, saw a blur of movement, and then the other woman was on the far side of the room.
"Do you see?" Cait demanded.
Emily shook her head. It couldn't be true, but hadn't Lachlan played this trick, too? And according to both Lachlan and Cait, he was Chrechte. It was too much to take in. Perhaps she was the one going daft.
Cait did it again and she was in front of the entrance to the garderobe without Emily seeing how she got there excerpt for a blur of color shifting across the room. She rubbed her eyes.
Cait laughed, the sound lacking any real amusement. "You are not seeing things. We move that quickly. I'm not supposed to be running like this right now. It upsets Drustan. He thinks I could hurt the babe if I fell."
"Could you?" Emily asked stupidly, her mind refusing to take in the evidence of what her eyes had seen.
"Yes, I suppose. If I fell, but I don't plan to fall." Cait came back over to Emily and sat down again, taking Emily's arm in a near bruising grip. "You've got to believe me. That wolf we saw was Talorc. Didn't you see him shake his head when I told him Lachlan wanted an apology? He didn't like hearing that. But he heard everything else we said, too. He heard about Lachlan's plan to take you swimming in the morning. Alone. You can't go, Emily. Talorc will challenge Lachlan and then one of them will end up dead."
"How can Talorc be on the island without Lachlan knowing?"
"He swam over in his wolf form and he's good at masking his scent. Far better than I ever suspected and much better than I am at it."
"This is impossible," she said again, but part of her was starting to believe. No matter how unlikely it all seemed, she had seen or heard so many inexplicable things since coming to the Highlands and these strange claims Cait made would explain most of them.
"I know it seems that way, but it's not. Chrechte have been around as long as every other race of humanity, but we have always kept ourselves hidden."
"Why? And how could MacAlpin have betrayed the Picts… Chrechte I mean, if they are stronger than normal humans?"
"Strength isn't everything. MacAlpin was of the Chrechte, but not a shape-changer. It happens sometimes when a human mates with a shape-changer. His mother was a femwolf, but his father was a Scott. He had the animal cunning, but not all the other traits of the Chrechte. He also had werewolves on his side, those that were willing to betray their people for the power he represented. For hundreds of years, war was the only life we knew, but it took its toll on our numbers. MacAlpin's betrayal decimated what was left of the Chrechte. When we became part of the Celtic clans, we were protecting the future of our people. It was our only hope."
"But you're saying not all the clans have werewolves among them?"
"No. Not even close. Our numbers have risen, but less than one in ten clansmen are Chrechte. When a pack does exist within a clan, you can be assured the laird is Chrechte. We do not tolerate being led by any other."
"This is all so fantastic." But the sheer scope of Cait's story made it more credible somehow.
"You've got to believe me." Cait dropped to her knees in front of Emily, that Chrechte pride she'd spoken of earlier humbled and that was as convincing to Emily as anything Cait had said so far. "I'm begging you. You have to keep the Balmoral away from the lake tomorrow."
"I can't," Emily whispered, feeling like the worst friend in the world. "I tried today and he wouldn't take no for an answer. He's incredibly arrogant and very good at getting his own way."
"But you must." Cait pounded the thresh-covered floor with her fist. "I know you can do it, Emily. He wants you. He staked his claim on you. That has to mean something. He'll listen to you. He has to," she said frantically.
"Come, sit back on the bed. This upset cannot be good for the baby," Emily said, tugging Cait off of her knees. "You must regain your composure."
"I know you are right, but I'm so frightened, Emily. I love my brother. I do not want war between my new clan and my birth clan."
"Neither do I." Emily bit her lip, trying to think, but it was hard with so many new ideas vying for attention in her mind. "You said Lachlan staked his claim. What did you mean?"
"He did it at the nooning meal. He growled. You couldn't hear it. The pitch was set for the werewolves of the pack. For Angus because you were touching him. And then Lachlan insisted you sit beside him at the table. You cannot think that is normal for a captive and a laird."
"I thought it was a Highland idiosyncrasy," Emily admitted. She'd dismissed many things as unique to Highlanders when in fact they might well be related to the fantastical tale Cait had told her.
Cait shook her head.
"I don't understand this claiming. He ignored me all the way through the meal."
"I do not think he is happy about wanting you, but he has made it clear no other wolf is to have you."
"Because I'm promised to Talorc?"
"That wouldn't matter if he meant to keep you."
"But he doesn't."
"No. I don't think he does."
Emily knew he didn't. "He promised that no other soldier could keep me. Maybe this growling business was his way of making sure the others knew that."
Cait shook her head. "All he would have to do is to decree it and none of his soldiers would dare defy him. A clan chief stays chief by being stronger than all the other warriors and they know it."
"I don't understand."
"I don't either entirely," Cait said, sounding calm for the first time since they'd seen the wolf across the lake. "The Balmoral pack does things differently than what I am used to. For example, a physical mating does not bring with it a lifetime commitment unless pregnancy results."
"Can I get pregnant by him?"
"If you are true-mated, yes."
"What does that mean?"
"When a shape-changer and a human mate, if they are true or sacred mates, they can sometimes hear each others' voices in their heads and the union will result in children."
They could hear voices in their heads? She had heard of magicians claiming such a thing, but Sybil had always dismissed them as charlatans. Though Emily supposed the ability to hear someone's voice in her head was no more incredible than the idea that humans really could turn into wolves. "What about werewolves?"
"If a werewolf and a femwolf mate when she is in heat, there is almost always a pregnancy. In fact, I've never heard of a time that did not happen. The problem is that femwolves do not go into heat very often and we are independent by nature. Before joining the clans, Chrechte females would sometimes go their whole lives without mating."
That was interesting. No wonder the Chrechte had found it so hard to survive. "But werewolves do not have to be true-mated to make babies?"
"No, but they can be and if they are, they can mind-speak, too. They also suffer the other consequence of a true-mating."
"What is that?"
"When the Chrechte find their true mate, they are incapable of mating with anyone else until the death of that mate."
"Yes, you know…" Cait bit her lip and then continued in almost a whisper, "The males cannot achieve erection with anyone but their true mate and a femwolf's body will not accept penetration from anyone else either."
"What about the human in a true-mating?"
"They are human. They can mindspeak, but as for the other, I don't think they are so limited, but I cannot be entirely sure. I never asked my mother when she explained about the bond between true mates."
"I don't believe this." But even as she said the words, she realized they weren't entirely true. Cait's claims were becoming more and more plausible by the minute.
"Mindspeak is strange," Cait said as if that were the only element of this conversation that was even slightly odd. "I've never experienced it myself. My parents were not true-mated either. I have heard of family members that could hear each other, too, but I cannot hear Talorc and he cannot hear me. I couldn't even smell his scent until he unmasked it briefly at the loch. He was giving me a message."
"That he is here to save you?"
"Not me. He respects the laws of mating too much to dismiss Drustan's claim on me, but he could be scouting for war, though his actions do not suggest that at least. I think he wants my bairn. Another Chrechte warrior for his clan."
"But that is barbaric. He cannot take your baby away from you."
"Not until it is born, no."
"I do not know what will happen then. I cannot bear to give up the babe. I love it already, but he may well go to war over the child even if he does not over our kidnapping."
"What if it is a girl, will he be less insistent on her return to the Sinclairs?"
"No, women are prized for their ability to have more Chrechte warriors and men for their ability to fight."
"It's the same with humans." Goodness, was she really ready to accept this fantastic tale?
Cait seemed so serious, so very certain of her facts. If she wasn't telling the truth, she was doing an admirable job of acting sane and honest.
"To an extent, yes," Cait agreed sadly.
"What are we going to do?"
"I don't know, but I don't want either laird killed."
"Do you think Talorc was there earlier this morning?" The thought that the Sinclair laird had seen her naked with Lachlan sent waves of revulsion and mortification rolling over Emily.
"He may have been. He would have waited to challenge Lachlan until he knew where I was and what had happened to me."
"Now he knows."
"Are you sure he will come to the lake tomorrow morning?"
"No, but it's highly likely. If he can kill the Balmoral, the clan would think twice about keeping my babe for its own."
"That is brutal."
"It is the way of life here."
Emily shivered. "Why doesn't have to be so hard?"
Cait sighed, but didn't answer.
Emily bit her lip and thought furiously. "Maybe I could keep Lachlan from the water by offering myself to him."
Cait shook her head. "Oh, no. You cannot do that. I know I said to use his desire for you, tut it is not fair to you. It was very wrong of me to suggest it."
"You don't understand. I want his desire. I've spent my whole life living in the shadows of my father's new family. When I'm with Lachlan I feel like I'm in the sun. It won't last. I know it. It can't, for so many reasons, but I want to experience as much of this newfound passion as I can. Do you think I am terrible for feeling that way?"
"No. I think you are brave, but Lachlan could marry you, if he wanted to."
"According to what you said, there would be the risk of my not having children. No man would embrace such a future willingly, but most especially not a laird."
Cait nodded sadly. "I think you are right. Many Chrechte discourage human matings because of that very thing and the possibility of having human offspring instead of shape-changers."
"You mean that can happen?"
"Yes. Lachlan's mother must have been human because Ulf is."
"Ulf isn't Chrechte?"
"He has no wolf. I'm certain of it."
"Oh, but how can you be sure it was their mother that was human?"
"Because their father was laird and he would not have been if he had been human."
"So no clans with Chrechte have human lairds at all?"
"None that I know of. It's possible I suppose, but I cannot imagine it."
Emily didn't know what to think. "Will you go to the lake and try to talk to Talorc tomorrow?"
"No. I can't be sure why he is here. Maybe he's only checking on me, but I'm afraid he would take me back until he receives a formal request for my hand or the babe is born and then the Balmoral would declare war. Maybe Talorc wants to declare war. Maybe he won't respect the mating bond in this instance. I just don't know." Cait sounded increasingly distressed with each possibility she listed off. "I should not withhold news of his presence from Drustan, but I cannot betray my brother—especially when I am not sure of his motives."
Emily understood Cait's dilemma and sympathized. "If I can keep Lachlan from the lake tomorrow then you have nothing to worry about. Your small deception will hurt no one."
"Do you think that is true?"
"Does this mean you believe me now?"
"I'm not sure," Emily admitted honestly, "but it's impossible to dismiss all that you have said and I believe you believe it. Which is halfway to believing it myself, really." She sighed. "I know you are frightened and I want to do whatever I can to hold that fear at bay."
Cait's eyes filled with tears. "Thank you."
"I will do everything I can to keep Lachlan away from the lake tomorrow."
Cait nodded. "There is one thing."
"What is that?"
"Please do not let anyone know you are aware of the Chrechte's true natures."
"Few humans within the clans know and those that do, guard the secret with their lives. If they betray it, the punishment is death."
Emily felt her face leach of color. "I see," she said faintly.
"As your betrothed, Talorc had the right to tell you, but I did not."
"You mean you could be killed for telling me?"
Cait grasped her hand and squeezed it. "I do not think it would come to that since you are betrothed to Talorc."
"But you are not certain. You risked your life to tell me this."
"I did not know what else to do."
"I will not betray you, Cait."
Her friend gave her a tremulous smile. "I know."
Cait left a short time later after a servant had come to tell her that her husband wished her return to their quarters.