A Bride for the Highland Beast (Preview)
“Curses be, we never should have come on this ill-fated expedition!”
Iron clashed against iron, and the rusty smell of blood filled the air. Numerous soldiers bearing the crest of the Maxwell Viscountcy, an eagle’s head on a shield, surrounded the small group of Douglas clansmen. In the midst of this madness, Beiste Douglas could not even spare the time to respond to his cousin’s comment. His hands were full, pulling one blade from the shoulder of one attacker while parrying a blow with another. Although he could not respond, he certainly shared the sentiment.
It was a foolhardy decision to come here into the forest, and they should have known better.
Ever since the English viscountcy of House Maxwell had expanded their borders into the no-man’s-land that separated their territories, the skirmishes had been unending. It had been very sudden. One, moment all was right with the world, and then the next, the English had built themselves a base in the plains. Since the land had belonged to no one, the Douglas clan had chosen to ignore them, hoping that if they minded their own business, the English would do the same.
Unfortunately, they had been too optimistic, and it became clear that the English had set their sights on the Douglas lands. It was nothing to worry too much about; after all, the men of the Douglas clan were naturally strong. They had beaten up numerous English soldiers who encroached their borders, and when they were attacked, they always won. Beiste himself had killed several of the trespassers.
Perhaps it was because they wrote the English off as weak, but they had continued on with the normal state of things in the clan, despite being at war. That was why Beiste had come with his father and cousin for some hunting in the forest. They had ended up meeting English soldiers and having a scuffle, but that was within their expectations. What they had not expected, though, was for there to be many more soldiers than usual. Beiste had killed thirty men already, but more just kept replacing them.
The English soldiers were attacking them as one would a strong wild beast, by surrounding them and continually attacking until they were worn out. Beiste was already beginning to feel the weariness of the battle. His heart was pounding hard, working to pump blood through his gigantic frame as he continued to power through their numbers with brute force. He gritted his teeth as he spun around and slashed the neck of an enemy.
This is becoming annoying.
The enemy had long spears that they continued to attempt to prod him with. He was doing way too many gymnastics to block or avoid their attacks and had to put in twice the effort to kill them. What made it so annoying was the fact that for each soldier he killed, another was quick to replace him. His father and his cousin were in the same situation, and the three of them had only just managed to stand with their backs to each other so that they would not be individually surrounded.
“Beiste! Leave the bastards on this side to me! There are a lot more of them attacking Uncle!” his cousin Alpin shouted. Beiste had his back to his father so he could not see, but Alpin, who was adjacent to them both, could. In a smooth movement, Beiste turned to his father’s side, trusting Alpin’s advice. Meanwhile, Alpin had pulled on the spear of an attacker and swung him off it as though he were a child. The muscles in Alpin’s arm bunched from the exertion of swinging off a full-grown man, and with that same strength, he threw the spear, impaling two soldiers at once.
Beiste smiled at the sight. His cousin was capable, the only other warrior in the clan who could even attempt to rival him. Beiste was known as a beast even in their clan full of strong men. He had turned a mistake by his cousin into a new record of being the first in the clan to hunt a boar at the age of twelve all by himself. It was a story the members of his clan told so much that every child knew it like folklore and respected him, even though he got the scar that ran down his cheek for it. He was lucky he managed to keep his eye. Ever since then, he had only gotten stronger, and by the time he was eighteen, no one in the clan could best him anymore.
Taking inspiration from his cousin’s action, he made it to his father’s side just in time to grab unto the spear of an attacker after dodging it. He pulled it from the enemy’s grasp and swung it, like one would an axe against a tree, into the side of his neck. The soldier’s head lopped to the side with the audible shattering of his neck, and he crumpled to the ground the next moment. The soldiers around were stunned for a moment, and Beiste rode the momentum, swinging the spear over and over, smashing a skull here, piercing through a throat there, until bodies surrounded him.
“Are ye alright, Faither?” he called out once he’d killed enough of the enemy soldiers to give them some breathing space. Caspain Douglas pulled his axe out of the split head of an enemy and gave him a tired sigh.
“I…am gettin’ too old for this,” his father said. In a less tense situation, Beiste might have laughed, but from the heavy rise and fall of Caspain’s chest and the slight sluggishness in his arm which looked like it might falter at any moment, Beiste could tell that his father was serious. Any words of encouragement he might have wanted to say vanished in his throat as the next moment he managed to dodge, only by a stroke of luck, an arrow aimed for his head.
“Surely ye jest! Archers?!” he heard Alpin screech furiously at the same time. In the trees all around them, English archers had appeared and were aiming at them. The Douglas men’s strong formation was broken in an instant as they were forced to jump in different directions as they avoided the arrows that came their way. Just like that, what they had been trying to avoid came to be. They were swarmed by even more soldiers who came into the clearing, and the three of them were separated, with enemies all around.
He heard his father shout out in pain, but no matter how much he struggled against the enemies, there were just too many. Soldiers charged at him, tackling his legs from behind and forcing him to his knees. He could tell that it was hopeless as he was swarmed by the enemies, and a solid hit to the back of his head made him collapse into the dirt.
“Grab them!” he heard a soldier yell.
Is this how me life is goin’ to end?
With that final thought, he was enveloped by the darkness of a faint.
Louisa Maxwell sat by the window in her chambers, watching swallows fly by and wishing she could be one of them. The gentle breeze blew her blonde hair softly, creating a calm aura, but her heart was all but calm. There were many things worrying her. First was the war with the Scottish clan that her father had started. She did not know much, as she was shielded from all important information and was little more than a doll to her father, but she knew how strong that clan was.
Almost every day, the number of Maxwell soldiers that died by their hands increased. Her father had sent a great number of forces into battle against the Scots. He had gone to the border post himself a few days ago to try and take control of the situation. She did not have a good relationship with him, but she knew that if anything happened to him, she would be ruined.
She was also worried about her engagement. She had been of marriageable age for a few years now, but her father had ignored all talk of her marriage, saying that he would need proper consideration before sending her off. She did not consider herself too bright, since her father always emphasized that she was not smart enough to handle anything on her own, but she knew that was just a fancy way of saying that he would sell her off to whoever offered him the most benefits in exchange for her hand. She would have no say in the decision, so naturally, she was losing sleep over the issue.
Her bedroom door opened as she heaved a deep sigh, and turning to look, she found her sister Sophia at the door. Sophia was sixteen now and turning into a beautiful young woman. She and her sister looked very much alike, sharing the same blonde hair that ran in the Maxwell family, but while Louisa had her mother’s green eyes, Sophia’s eyes were blue just like their father’s. She still had a few years before she would be considered a chattel to their father like Louisa currently was, but it was inevitable. Louisa’s heart throbbed at the thought of her sister needing to go through the same thing she was.
“Louisa, Father has returned,” Sophia said in a small voice. Louisa got to her feet immediately. As the eldest daughter, she was expected to go and greet him upon his return, as well as instruct the servants how to serve him. Since their mother had died years ago, she had taken up the position of the lady of the house, and it was her duty to direct the servants on how to tend to him when he was around.
She hurried to his study and was just about to knock when voices from within stopped her in her tracks. She was not one to snoop, but she was sure she had heard her name. Surely that would give anyone pause. She leaned slightly closer to the door, so that she could clearly hear the conversation going on inside the room.
“Indeed, the Baron has shown his sincerity with this. Thanks to you, we have been able to subdue those wretched Scotsmen. With our powers joined together, it is only a matter of time before we can destroy the clan, which will be in disarray with their leaders gone,” she heard her father say.
“Certainly, you do not need to thank me, Lord Maxwell. I am but an aide to Baron Smith. It is I who should thank you for accepting my offer and agreeing to wed the young miss Louisa to my master,” an unfamiliar voice responded. Louisa felt her blood run cold.
Father had become involved with Baron Smith?
The Baron was a very powerful man because, during his first few years after inheriting the barony, he had discovered iron in his lands. He had grown wealthy from his rights over the mine. He also had a lot of able-bodied young men in his territory, so naturally, the local knightage was full. There was no problem with any of these things, but the issue with the Baron was his temperament. He was known by all to be quick to anger and merciless when provoked.
He was also about twenty years older than Louisa and had been married once before. It was rumored that his wife’s untimely death was the result of his anger over something trivial. From his behavior, it was easy for Louisa to believe it. He had once pulled his sword on a commoner because her child ran in front of his carriage and his coachman had been forced to stop. It had become a huge issue that a Marquess passing by only barely managed to diffuse. Afterwards, he turned his anger on his coachman for stopping because of the girl and causing him to be jolted in the carriage.
The coachman was fired after being whipped and thrown out. Louisa’s hands were shaking at the thought of possibly being married to such a horrible man. Unable to bring herself to go in there and act like she was alright after what she had heard, she turned around and stumbled away instead. Tears sprang up in her eyes, and she fought to wipe them away. She knew her father did not care about her, but she thought he would at least try to find her a good man to marry, even if he was using her for a profit. This situation, however, proved to her that her interests were never even under consideration. Her father only wanted what suited him, nothing less.
Suddenly feeling ill, she returned to her chambers and confined herself to her bed, where she lay crying for several hours.
A bucket of freezing water being tossed over his head was how Beiste returned to consciousness. He blinked slowly, water dripping from his lashes, as he tried to gather his bearings. He was constrained by chains holding his arms up and binding his feet together. In this way, he was strung up like meat hung to dry.
“Is he awake? Slap the bastard to make sure he’s awake for this,” someone was saying. He instinctively moved his head, dodging the slap before it could connect with his face. This meant that, as his vision cleared, he could see what was going on behind the man in front of him.
“Faither!” he gasped. The Englishmen had his father on his knees in front of a man who looked like he was their Lord from the fancy clothes he was wearing. Like him, his father had been stripped down to his kilt, but unlike him, he was covered in injuries from head to toe. Beiste was appalled at the sight. He had never seen his father in such a broken state before.
Caspain raised his head to look at his son and gave him a weak smile. Blood was pouring from his lips, telling Beiste that he probably had a lot of internal injuries. His pupils shook with the shock and horror of the situation.
“I love ye, me son. Make sure that ye dae nae fall here,” his father shouted to him even as the English Lord unsheathed his sword.
“As Lord of House Maxwell, I mete out the punishment of execution to the barbarian leader for the blood of all Maxwell soldiers shed in this war,” the man said, and the next moment, blood splattered on Beiste’s face as his father’s head was lopped off.
“Nay!” he screamed, straining against his restraints and thrashing about. Sadly, this action only served to cause an ache in his shoulders and his wrists to chafe against the iron cuffs. But the men around him were taken aback because although he could not break the chains, he was strong enough to cause dust to fall from the walls where the chains were attached. The English Lord looked at him like he was a disgusting monster.
“Give that one the punishment of his life. Do not kill him yet, but make sure that he wishes he were dead instead,” the Lord spat, waving his sword around to try to get rid of the blood on it before wiping it with a handkerchief that he then discarded carelessly on the floor. As the Lord turned to leave, an ugly man with eyes as black as soot approached Beiste, smiling with perverse joy and holding a thick whip. In the blink of an eye, the whip went flying, and Beiste felt excruciating pain explode across his abdomen where the whip hit him.
It was only one hit, yet his skin was already red like he had been doused with hot water. He cried out in pain, both from the sudden and senseless loss of his father and the torture he was forced to endure. When his skin was red all over from the whip, the torture master brought in a heated iron and began to sear his irritated flesh. Beiste grit his teeth, powering through the pain even though it rendered his brain a muddled mess.
Why are they doin’ this? What did we ever dae to them? We were livin’ peacefully, and they began attackin’ us for nay reason!
Faither, how could ye be gone just like that? I did nae even get to say anythin’ to ye.
Tears of anguish slid down his face as he remembered the last conversation he had with his father. They had been draining the blood of the boar they caught so that they could carry it home, and his father was nagging him about getting married.
“When are ye goin’ to find a lass and settle down, Beiste? Are ye waitin’ until me bones turn to ashes?” Caspain had asked, causing Beiste to groan. “Look at ye, ye are already past due to find a wife. Dae ye nae want me to see me grandchildren? I am gettin’ old. Can ye hear the creak of me bones? I want to leave things to ye and go somewhere quiet, so that yer maither will be the only thing causin’ me trouble in life.”
Alpin had thrown back his head laughing at that, while Beiste narrowed his eyes at his father. “What? I am goin’ to tell Maither what ye just said for sure,” he threatened. His father gasped, clutching his mouth.
“Ah! Whose son are ye, ye traitor? It was but a slip of the tongue; I did nae mean it that way!” his father had quipped, slapping Beiste’s arm and causing it to sting.
“Ow!” Beiste complained, rubbing the affected area. “I am definitely tellin’ Maither!”
It had been a carefree moment of laughter, one like any other, the usual way he related to his father. Who could have thought that their playful banter would end in such a horrifying way? They were supposed to return home with their catch. He knew his mother would be worried. He was finally able to breathe as the torture master stopped for a moment to admire his work, smiling at his sizzling flesh.
His father’s last words echoed in his head as the torture started again. No matter what, he needed to escape this place. He would not die here.
As Louisa had stayed in bed all day, the maids had reported to her father that she had fallen slightly ill, which was why she had not gone out to greet him. That was the only reason she did not get into trouble and was able to avoid seeing her father. However, it had caused unnecessary worry to her sister and personal maid, Martha, who had known that she was perfectly fine mere hours before. She felt bad for lying to them, but she was too distressed to worry about it too much.
She heard her bedroom door open and glanced out from underneath her covers. Sophia and Martha approached her with solemn expressions. Her sister sat on the bed beside her while Martha put down the bowl of water and washcloth she had brought and stood over her.
“Miss, I beg of you, tell us what is wrong. Sophia and I know that there is no way you are ill. You were perfectly fine a while ago, and you even left to greet the Lord. Something definitely happened for you to return to your room like this. Please tell us,” Martha said, soaking the washcloth and wiping Louisa’s tear-streaked face.
These two were the people Louisa trusted the most in her life. Martha was only about seven years older than her, but the maid had taken up the space left by her mother in her heart over the years. Martha took care of Louisa and Sophia as though they were her own blood, and the three of them had formed a tight bond, as they were all each of them had.
Louisa sat up, sniffling and leaning against Sophia when she put her arms around her. Although there was nothing they could do, she wanted to share her pain. Martha joined them on the bed and clasped her hand over Louisa’s.
“I overheard Father talking to someone in his study when I went to greet him. It seems that person was an aide to Baron Smith, and they were talking about how father had agreed to marry me off to the Baron in exchange for help in the war against the Scotsmen,” she confessed.
Their reactions were just as she expected, full of horror. Both women gasped audibly, and Martha dropped the washcloth in her hand from the sheer shock. Their faces were pale, and they both looked like they might faint. Sophie took a shaky breath, and then tears began to pool in her eyes.
“What? Baron Smith? The same Baron Smith that is notorious in society?” her sister exclaimed. “Was he not rumored to have killed his wife? It was no secret that he was violent and abusive to her while she was alive. And he’s more than twice your age! What is Father thinking?!” Sophia began to break down as she spoke, while Martha was deathly quiet, staring at the bed as though if she looked hard enough, the words she had heard would stop being true.
“Sophia…Soph…I beg ye, calm down,” Louisa was forced to say, as she could feel her younger sister physically shaking, her eyes wild with panic. Louisa could somewhat understand what Sophia was feeling. If she were to hear that Sophia was fated with such a marriage, she had no idea how she would react, but she imagined it would be very similar.
“No! No, Father cannot do this!” Sophia said.
Louisa smiled sadly. “What can we do? He will not listen, no matter what we say. You know this too. Father…Father cares nothing for us,” she said, tears pooling in her eyes again.
“You should run away!” Sophia blurted out, clearly without thinking, but she caught their attention immediately. They all exchanged a look. It was clearly not something that had not crossed any of their minds before.
“Yes…yes, you should run away!” Sophia repeated, more strongly this time. She seemed to be becoming more and more convinced that this was a viable method for Louisa to escape from this awful predicament. Louisa herself was still reeling as she considered it.
Indeed, if she escaped somehow, she would be free from her fate, but what about her sister? What about Martha? In fact, all of these were questions that would become worth asking only if it were even possible for her to escape. Her father kept a very close guard over them, so how would she escape first the castle and then their territory? She was also a woman, and it was dangerous out there. Where would she even run to? She didn’t know the area, and any noble houses she went to would simply return her to her father. She could not burden any commoners with hiding her, as that would only be causing them unnecessary troubles.
“Sophia, that is much harder than it seems, and there are too many uncertainties. How will I get out of here? How will I survive out there? Where will I head to? How can I leave you and Martha behind here?” she asked. Sophia did not seem fazed at all and had seemingly already made up her mind.
“You don’t have to worry about me right now,” her sister retorted. “I’m still young. I still have some time before I have to worry about being sold off by Father. I will not be in any danger here for now. You, however, need to go!”
“I…I actually think this might work, Louisa,” Martha said in a small voice, making both sisters quieten and turn to her questioningly. The maid let out a shaky breath and picked up the washcloth she had dropped.
“I only know this because the Lady told me when she was alive, and I only say it now because I realize that she must have told me in case a time like this comes. Even while she was ill, her biggest worry was how you two would fare alone with the Lord. Perhaps she foresaw this,” Martha said. “There are secret passages that lead from the dungeon out into the woods, so you can escape from there without being discovered by any soldiers.”
Louisa could see the raw sorrow on Martha’s face as she mentioned their mother. Unlike their father, their mother had been a wonderful and loving person, not just to them but to Martha as well. She had taken care of Martha, who had lost both her parents and come to work as a maid to provide for herself and her little brother who was sick.
“As for where you should run to, when you get out there, you just have to head deeper into the woods,” Martha continued. “There is an old cottage where a very old lady lives. It has been a few years, but even if she is no longer there, the cottage will be. You can hide there. If she is still alive, she will take care of you. She is a healer, but back then, since she was so old and strange, some called her a witch. I can assure you she is not, though. She was the one who nursed my brother back to health. She is really kind, despite being strange, so you do not have to worry about that,”
Louisa was not worrying about it at all. In fact, she was just surprised and overwhelmed. A few seconds ago, the idea of escape had seemed like a futile and meaningless one, but now all of a sudden, it was a feasible plan. It felt like everything was spinning too fast around her, and she could not catch anything.
“Oh good! That is so wonderful, Martha!” Sophia said happily. “I was thinking we could cart her out in some hay or disguise her as a maid or a man, but that plan is so much better and safer. We should begin to prepare right away. Since Father thinks she is ill, he will not come looking for her for a while, so she can get further away before he sends men out to find her.” Sophia was already carrying the plan and running with it.
“You are correct, young Miss. I will prepare everything so that she can leave tonight,” Martha agreed, nodding. Louisa could only look at them with an incredulous expression.
“Is this really happening?” she muttered in shock, her tears long dried up.
“Indeed, Miss, this is happening,” Martha said. “You do not have to worry; I will take care of everything. I will pack all that you will need, and I’ll even draw out detailed instructions so that you can make your way to the cottage safely,”
Beiste had been sure he had pushed his body to the limits before, but never in his life had he endured such unnecessary pain as was inflicted on him that day. After completely scarring the entirety of his abdomen, the torture master had left him alone, claiming that doing too much at once might dull the pain and make things easier for his victim. He did not forget to mention that he would be back later the next day to complete the job and cover Beiste’s back with sears from the heated iron.
His body was covered in cold sweat from the pain he endured, and that only served to put him in even more pain as the salt in the sweat irritated his injuries. He gave himself an hour to rest and catch his breath, before he began plotting his escape. He knew that if he was going to leave he needed to do it that very night because not only did they plan to kill him eventually, but the longer he stayed in captivity, the more dangerous it would be for him.
Although he was tired and injured at the moment, he knew that this was probably the best condition he would be in going forward. If he stayed, he would only sustain more injuries at the hands of the torturer. In fact, it was possible that the next day, after burning the skin off his back, they would decide to slice off his limbs. It was in his best interest to escape immediately.
His eyes had adjusted to the near pitch darkness enough that he was able to see around him somewhat. He knew just where the keys to his cell were. They were hung from the wall right across from his cell. He sighed to himself. The torture master was just a sadistic bastard, having put the keys right out there to make mockery of him, so that he would know that freedom was just out of reach. He would make them regret it, though.
He remembered that when he had thrashed about before it had upset the walls where the chains were connected. If he used just enough strength, he would probably be able to pull the chains from the wall. The only problem was that pulling added a lot of strain to his wrists. The cuffs of the chains were particularly biting. Too much and he would either rub his wrists raw or slice them open on the cuffs. Still, he needed to do it. He would just have to see which would give out first, the chains or his wrists.
Wrapping his hands around the body of the chain to remove some of the stress from his wrists, he pulled. It was a tough process, but he could feel the dust rising from the wall. He could hear the creaking of the chain’s fastenings every time he pulled, and he convinced himself to keep trying. His wrists felt as raw as his seared skin by the time he finally succeeded. Both of the chains came free and ricocheted forward from the force, and he dropped down to his feet.
He took a moment to catch himself, breathing heavily. His left wrist was bleeding, but he ignored it and bent to pull out the chains that held his legs fastened one by one. Finally, he was free, although four chains were still attached to him by the cuffs. He was not too upset by it, although it clanked with every step he took. All he needed to do now was figure out how to get to the keys. He was pondering on this when he suddenly heard footsteps. Startled, he went quiet and waited to ambush whoever was approaching.
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