Knight in Highland Armor

By: Amy Jarecki

“Honestly, I’m surprised your mason hasn’t moved along faster. How long has it been since you commissioned him?”

“I was fighting for Rome—we both were when my father made the appointment.”

“Four years, then?”

Colin shrugged. “Near enough.”

Argyll arched a single brow. “Four years and only the curtain wall finished? What are you paying him?”

“Too much.” The mist now hung above the loch and refused to budge, just like the grey stone walls that surrounded…nothing. Colin growled. “’Tis time to reestablish Mr. Elliot’s priorities.”

Speaking of the master mason, Tom Elliot marched their way, tools swinging from a sturdy leather belt. “Lord Glenorchy.” He bowed and nodded to Argyll. “M’lord. When did you arrive?”

“Last eve, of course.” Colin fisted his hips. He never traveled without a contingent of men. Surely Elliot would have heard them arrive, the horses clomping into the wooden stable he used on his infrequent trips to Glen Orchy. “I must express my concern at your lack of progress on my tower house. How is a man to direct the affairs of his lands if he has no castle from which to do so?”

Elliot flushed red above his scraggly brown beard. “Forgive me, m’lord. But the labor situation has been most disagreeable.”

“Labor? With people starving in Scotland’s cities, you mean to tell me you cannot find a decent hand?”

“No, m’lord. With every step forward, we take a step back—sometimes we arise in the morning to see our work vandalized.”

The back of Colin’s neck burned. “Vandals? And why am I only hearing of this now?”

“I’ve sent repeated missives, m’lord.”

Colin grimaced. The situation became direr with Elliot’s every word. Not a single missive had reached him. “And who are these vandals?”

Elliot’s eyes darted around the site. He stepped closer. “The MacGregors, m’lord.”

Ballocks. Colin thought he’d appeased the squatting clan, paying them off years ago. For the love of God, they’d even sworn fealty to him. “Have you hanged anyone—made an example of a slippery cur?”

“No, m’lord. No one has been caught in the act. I think they’re all conspiring between themselves.” Elliot shook his head. “Besides, they believe these lands belong to them.”

Argyll crossed his arms. “The king would differ with that. These are chartered Campbell lands.”

Colin held up a palm to silence his nephew. There would be no question of his rightful ownership. “All rebellious actions must cease immediately. Elliot, in appointing you master mason, you have my seal of approval to deal with any lawlessness with a firm hand.” Colin shook his finger under the mason’s nose. “I will increase the guard at once. However, if I do not see progress by my next visit, I’ll have no choice but to seek out another, more enterprising mason. I want my keep completed within the year.”

“But sir, winter’s near upon us.”

“And I expect you work through the winter.”

“’Tis madness. Do you want the mortar to crack? I was just about to say we need to start mudding up the walls in preparation for the freeze. One cannot build with frozen ground and mortar. Your castle will crumble to the ground.”

Colin ground his back molars. Must everything be difficult? “It is your responsibility to see the castle is completed within the year—two at most—without structural issues. I will see to it you have the men and materials you need to take the project to completion. You, sir, will work day and night come spring if necessary.”

Mr. Elliot’s lips formed a thin line. If Colin had another option, he’d fire the mason on the spot, but skilled stonemasons were scarce in the Highlands.

Horses approached at a rapid trot.

“King’s men,” Argyll said.

Colin didn’t miss the relief that crossed Tom Elliot’s face. Yes, the approach of soldiers was a distraction, but Colin would not forget his threats. He grasped Tom’s arm and squeezed. “You shall continue building until All Hallows Day. I will see marked progress, or you shall not return to Kilchurn come spring.”

With a nod, Elliot tugged his arm away and headed toward his laborers.

The king’s man-at-arms dismounted and marched up to Colin with purpose. “Lord Campbell?”

“Aye?” Colin and Argyll said simultaneously.

The soldier’s flustered gaze darted between them. “Black Colin of Rome?”

It wasn’t always a bad thing to have an unsavory reputation. At the very least, it commanded respect. Colin dipped his head. “’Tis I.”

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