In 1589, Alastair MacGregor of Glenstrae becomes clan chief and faces the difficult task of controlling his people while maintaining peace with the powerful Campbell of Argyll and the vexatious Clan Colquhoun. The first hint of trouble arrives on Alastair's doorstep with the arrival of Black Duncan of the Cowl whose father beheaded Alastair's father in the name of justice and acquired the forfeited land nineteen years earlier. Uncertain of Duncan's motives, Alastair decides to visit the king, who is Ard Righ, chief of all chiefs. Alastair befriends several influential men of the court and meets the king, but leaves without knowing whether James VI will aid him or not. Circumstances unfold that require him to seek out the Earl of Argyll, and while Alastair never trusts him, he must accept his assistance. It is an uneasy alliance that portends tragic results for Alastair and his clan.
From the opening chapter Nigel Tranter transports the reader back in time to the wild and treacherous Highlands of Scotland. He elicits anger and frustration, hope and heartache while he unravels the intrigues brought about by an English queen without heirs, a Scottish king who covets her crown, and a cunning earl who manipulates and betrays a na´ve and illiterate Alastair Macgregor to gain the power behind the throne.