A Lass for the Cursed Highlander (Preview)
Muir of Ord, Scotland
“How will ye do this?” a soldier cried out after Douglas as he marched through the camp. “How can ye stop him?”
“Because it must be done. Demons and the devil himself may come to this fight and play their part, but I must do it, for all our sakes,” Douglas called back as he turned away from the tents and faced the soldier’s camp in full. His dark hair flicked around his face with the movements, revealing the sharpness of his features that were scarred from battle. “For our lives too,” he muttered under his breath, so only his own ears could hear the words.
As he walked, his eyes fell upon the camp. Set in a gorge with pine trees flanking them, they had been hidden from the English ahead of the battle, but now blood had reached these tents too.
This camp was not as it should have been. Douglas had seen the English run off.
He’d seen with his own eyes how the MacDuff and Drummond soldiers had beaten the English. It did not explain why so much death and blood was still befalling this camp.
Aye, but there is one who cannae let it end.
Douglas’ eyes flitted across the camp, seeing the danger as it enshrouded them all. The storm clouds hadn’t yet opened with rain, but he knew it would not be long, thanks to the growing darkness in this valley between the mountain tops.
On one side of the camp, tents were cut open. Douglas walked past these tents, looking at them, thinking of how men should have been sat outside these tents, with mead and ale in their hands, toasting their success. Instead, there was not a single smile, no cheer, no battle cry of success. There were merely saddened faces and men with blood splattered on their cheeks and chainmail.
Douglas adjusted the chainmail across his chest, tucking his bascinet helmet deeper under his arm and reaching for the hilt of the sword at his waist. It was pressed into the scabbard for now, but it would not be long before he had to use it.
Voices wailed nearby, urging Douglas to look the other away across the distant side of the camp. Men were crying, wailing over those who had been lost. Above their heads, men swung from lofted tree branches with ropes firmly around their necks. Yet those men were not Sassenachs. No English blood ran in their veins, only Scottish. The horror of friend strung up beside friend made Douglas’ blood pump harder. Some soldiers even grabbed their friends’ feet, trying to raise them up higher to stop them from dying, but it was too late.
Those men had long left this world thanks to the man that had given the order for their death.
This cannae be born. I must end this. Now, before the hand of death finds us again today.
Douglas pushed through the camp, finding his pace growing faster. In the middle, clansmen formed a circle. Some were still wearing their armor. It didn’t seem to matter that the battle had long ended, and the peace treaty was signed. This place was just as dangerous as any battlefield. As Douglas approached them, they all turned to face them, their complexions a mixture of paleness and wounds earned from battling for their lives. One of the men on the outskirts bowed their head to Douglas, a mark of respect.
“Sir, ye must be careful,” the soldier pleaded with Douglas.
Before Douglas could even consider answering, an explosion boomed across the valley. All the men flinched, jerking backward as Douglas stepped forward. In the distance at the bottom of the valley, he saw smoke curl into the air.
“He blew the bridge?” Douglas asked, looking back and forth for confirmation.
“Aye,” the first soldier spoke up again. “Yet he tied men to the bridge first.”
Douglas didn’t wait to speak on the matter any longer. He was too disgusted. He pulled the sword free from his belt and moved through the group. They parted easily like they were standing in a church, creating an aisle for him to walk down, heading to meet his final moments.
This could be it. This could be the end of me.
Douglas’ fingers tightened around the hilt of the longsword at the thought. If he was a man who was concerned with self-preservation, then he could say nothing. He could stay quiet and hide with the others, but that was not in Douglas’ nature. He had to make a stand and stop another speck of blood from falling to the grassy earth beneath his feet.
As he hastened down the valley, he heard the soldiers following him. None of them said a thing. The silence stretched out eerily, with each man looking at another. Their exchanged glances were the only communication they needed.
Douglas turned his attention forward, making his way down the valley as a group of men appeared on his left. These were the men yet to be executed, all sat on the earth with their wrists bound. Sat beneath a canopy of pine trees, their scarred faces were in shadow.; Douglas nodded his head to each of them in turn.
If things went his way, none of them would die. Not today.
At the bottom of the valley, the burning bridge came into view. A few soldiers were standing back from the flames, cowering from the heat with lifted hands. Smoke curled high, mixing with the clouds above their heads so that the darkness grew. Amongst them, standing proudly with his arms across his chainmail-covered chest, a single man didn’t cower back from the fire.
“Robert!” Douglas barked his name. There was a time when Robert’s name was only ever uttered with care and friendship on his lips. This day was the end of that era.
Robert turned his head sharply round. The cropped dark blond hair on his head was speckled with ash from the fire, and his bearded cheeks were stained with dried blood.
“Ye brought yer sword, Douglas?” Robert asked, his lips curling into a smirk.
“The battle is over. Ye daenae need it anymore.” As he went to turn back to face the fire, Douglas stepped forward so that the distance between them could be covered in one stride. He took a dirk from his belt and tossed it to the ground, blade first. It buried itself in the earth with the hilt standing proudly upward. Robert froze, his eyes falling on the dirk. “Ye challengin’ me to a duel, friend?”
Friend. We may have been once, but nae at this moment.
“Pick up yer sword, Robert.”
“Daenae be a fool,” Robert ordered, his voice abruptly loud. “Ye brought yer men with ye to a duel?” he asked, noticing the crowd that had gathered behind Douglas. Then he smiled, as if alighting on a new idea. “Perhaps ye want the Drummond lairdship. Bein’ heir to one lairdship nae enough for ye?”
“I am nae discussin’ this again with ye.” Douglas had spent all night pleading with his friend to listen and see reason, but not a single word had mattered. “Where words willnae work, the blade will. Pick up yer sword.”
This time, Robert did not hesitate. He pulled the sword free from his belt and held it aloft, staring Douglas down without blinking.
“I should have kenned me friend would be the betrayer,” Robert said quietly, his voice just a hiss. “Ye should have been the first strung up at the tree.”
Douglas couldn’t argue with him anymore. What was the point? He would not listen!
Behind Robert, what was left of the bridge collapsed under the fire. The wood fractured and fell to the deep ravine below where the river ran. The sound of it made the soldiers run back to safety, just as Robert leaped forward.
Douglas was unprepared for the fierceness of Robert’s attack and barely lifted his sword up to block the blow in time.
The battle was a furious one. Each time Robert attempted to push forward, it was clear he was intending to hurt Douglas. It was a far cry from their old sparring matches, for this time, there was clear intention to maim and injure, maybe even kill.
Douglas did not take long to get the upper hand. He had always been the finer fighter between the two of them, but his fears had made him weak in the opening seconds of this fight.
I cannae be weak now. One wrong moment and those men will be strung up at the tree like the rest of them.
Iron met iron as he pushed Robert’s sword to the side and then elbowed Robert’s nose, forcing him to stumble back down the valley a little. It gave them a momentary breather in their fight. Robert wiped the blood from his nose that was now broken, staring at the blood on his fingers as if it was foreign to him.
“Did ye ken what ye were capable of, Douglas?” Robert asked with a hollow laugh. “Or have ye always kenned it would come to this?”
“Stop talkin’ in this way!” Douglas’ voice boomed across the valley. “I have never been yer enemy.” Somehow, he prayed to shout louder would break through to Robert, but it did nothing. Robert merely raised his sword and ran toward Douglas, charging at him.
“Ye will nae have what ye want, Douglas. Ye will nae have it!”
He tried to strike Douglas in the shoulder, but it was easy to see it coming, and Douglas dodged the blow. As their fight resumed in earnest, with each sword clattering against the other, the sound of ringing metal echoed across the valley.
Douglas saw his opportunity in the fight to win. How he wished he didn’t have to take it.
God, I swear to ye, find a way to end this, but nae like this!
Yet he felt the devil had answered his prayers rather than God, for only one resolution presented itself to him.
Robert still had the same weaknesses in his fighting he’d had when they had grown up together, sparring on Saturday afternoons on the lawns in front of their fathers’ castles. He always moved too quickly on the offensive, trying to attack his opponent, and forgot to defend. This was one such moment, with Robert striding forward yet forgetting to block blows.
Douglas took advantage of it. He pushed Robert’s sword out wide, moving his longsword with such a lunge that Robert was forced to reveal his chest completely, teetering back on the heels of his boots. Douglas pulled back his longsword and thrust forward one last time.
The blade struck Robert squarely in the center of his chest. He buckled a little forward, his face coming so close to Douglas’ that for a minute, Douglas could have sworn he saw something else in Robert’s eyes. Was the man he had once known there again? The blue eyes blinked, then the sword fell from his hand, clattering to the stones along the riverbed.
Douglas tugged the sword free from Robert’s stomach, hearing his heartbeat thud hard in his chest in anger at what he had done. He tossed the sword to the ground and then held out his arms, catching Robert as he tipped forward.
“I have ye. I have ye,” he whispered.
There were no cheers from the soldiers, for no one could rejoice at this moment. There was only a collective sigh of relief.
As Douglas lowered Robert to the ground, he watched the life seep out of his dear friend. On his knees, Douglas held Robert with him, pushing open his friend’s eyes, trying to keep them open, but Robert’s eyes kept closing again.
“Robert…” Douglas murmured, feeling his own strength begin to wither. He lowered Robert completely to the earth, not once releasing him. Life was slipping away now. Those blue eyes blinked a few more times before they fell still, staring glacially up at the storm clouds that were somehow holding off the rain. Douglas felt his own tears come, replacing that rain. They rolled down his cheeks with vigor, so much so that Douglas could have been a child again, crying as only an infant could do, with great gut-wrenching cries that shook his body.
Nay, it should never have come to this.
He was cursed. As if the devil had walked amongst their camp that day, leaving death, destruction, and grief behind him.
“Robert, I am so sorry,” Douglas whispered to his friend. Long after Robert’s life had left his body, Douglas stayed there, holding onto him, refusing to let him go
Three Years Later
The crack of thunder made Douglas jerk in his chair. The wood creaked beneath him as he opened his eyes, feeling his hands shake. He plastered his hands to the arms of his chair with white knuckles, trying his best to stop that trembling, though it did little good.
Beyond the windows of his circular chamber, the storm raged on. He turned his eyes toward it. There was no need to wonder why he had dreamt of that day all over again. It haunted him, if not daily then nightly, coming to him in his dreams at the slightest provocation. A storm undoubtedly always brought the memory to him, though sometimes it played with him. On occasion, he dreamed Robert’s body had risen from the dead to torment him further.
“Just a dream,” Douglas murmured to himself, slowly peeling his fingers off the chair arms and lifting them in front of his face. They still shook. “A memory, it cannae hurt ye now.” Yet he was not so convinced of such a statement.
He bent over the desk where he had been working when he fell asleep, with one lonely candle lit beside him. Each time the wind buffeted the windows, it seeped through cracks into the room, making that flame quiver back and forth.
The effect had orange light and shadows dancing back and forth across Douglas’ body as he turned his focus on the paperwork in front of him.
The paperwork signaled his orders for the soldiers. He hadn’t wanted to give such orders, but with war brewing with the English again, he’d had no choice. It had to be done.
A tap to the door had Douglas sitting rigid in his chair. He glanced around his chamber, seeing it was rather untidy, with parchments strewn across various tables. Beside him, there was a tankard with a few dregs of whisky at the bottom. Douglas downed what was left of the whisky, hoping it would calm his shakes, and turned to the door.
“Enter,” he called.
The door swung open, and a tall, hulking figure stepped in, revealing a kind face that did not seem to belong with the large body. The childlike features were large and almost pudgy, with gentleness to them.
“Brother,” Douglas said softly with his first small smile that evening, as his eyes landed on Kendrick’s face.
“Ye been up here for hours, Doug,” Kendrick said, using the name he always used for Douglas. “Ye well?”
“Aye, I am well,” Douglas lied and pretended interest in the papers before him. He had decided long ago that what had passed three years before was his demon to deal with. It would not do well to let that demon haunt someone else, too, least of all his brother. “Were the orders sent?”
“Aye, the soldiers have gone to prepare. They are formin’ a bank from Contin to Muir of Ord.”
Hearing the name of the place where he had last faced battle made Douglas’ hands clench around the papers, causing ridges in the parchment and making his knuckles turn white.
“Nay Sassenach soldier will get past us there. If they want to come, let them come by sea,” Kendrick said, his voice fierce.
“Aye, I fear they might.”
Douglas acknowledged with a nod and leaned back in his chair, turning his focus on his brother. Kendrick’s dark hair wasn’t quite as dark as Douglas’ own, and it was cropped very short, so close to the temple that it looked as if a shadow had merely fallen across a bald head. The soft green eyes were often expressive, revealing thoughts without him uttering a word. They looked at Douglas now with something akin to worry or pity.
“Maybe it will do ye good to get out of this chamber, brother,” Kendrick said gently, stepping further into the room.
“Nae tonight. Tomorrow, maybe,” Douglas spoke quickly. “There is much to attend to. In the mornin’, I will meet with the captains, and the generals of the army, there, we will discuss our tactics against the English.”
“Aye, as ye wish. The messenger has been sent too.”
“Good.” Douglas paused with the papers, thinking over what had been sent with the messenger.
What will the Laird of the Drummonds say?
It had been a long time since he had seen Laird Angus Drummond. After the battle three years ago, they had both mutually kept their distance, but that time was coming to an end. Soon, they would have to come face to face. No doubt they would discuss matters that Douglas had hoped would never pass his lips again.
“What are ye doin’, brother?” Kendrick asked, walking to Douglas’ side. “It is late. Surely yer time is best-spent sleepin’ at this moment. We’ll need all the rest we can find if we are to battle again.”
“Let the soldiers rest, ye too,” Douglas said distractedly, drawing papers forward. “As our father’s health willnae allow him to attend to matters, I must.” He gestured down to what he had been reading. There were crop reports, fishing repots too, some little more than scribbled numbers on scraps of paper. The month before, he had sent trusted men to every village in the clan to see how many of his clan were starving thanks to the poor harvests. The answer was a sorry thing to hear indeed. “The English are comin’ up far with their raids. They keep attackin’ the villages, burnin’ crops to the ground. Goin’ to war in this state willnae be easy, and I fear how many will be left alive once the matter is done.”
“Aye, we all fear it.” Kendrick rubbed a hand across his face in stress. “The council arenae happy, Douglas. They want stability.”
“I ken how they want stability,” Douglas muttered, finding the familiar sense of anger tinging his tone with venom.
Marriage. Aye, they wish me to marry and produce an heir.
The only issue was that the lady they wished him to wed was the one lady Douglas feared to face.
“Ye are tired. Rest, brother,” Kendrick said kindly, patting Douglas on the shoulder.
“Aye, perhaps ye are right. Thank ye for yer help today, Kendrick. Sleep well.”
“Ye too.” Kendrick smiled in parting, leaving Douglas alone to his thoughts.
The moment the door thudded closed, the thunder erupted outside. The rain lashed against the walls and windows with such vigor that Douglas snapped his head toward the glass, feeling the fear so palpable inside him that he stood.
I am nae in that field. I am here, in me chamber, in the safety of me castle.
When the lightning flashed outside, momentarily throwing the room into a bright white light, Douglas could have sworn something was on his hands. As the room turned dark, with nothing but the orange glow of the candle to light the room, he lifted his hands from the table, watching as they shook once more.
The palms and fingers were drenched with blood. It glistened in the lines of his skin, and dark red drops ran down his fingers.
“Nay. Nay,” he muttered, trying to keep his voice quiet, but it came out loud regardless.
He thrust away from the table, knocking over his chair as he ran across the chamber. He shoved up the sleeves of his tunic and thrust his hands into the washbowl full of water. Yet the action spewed more blood on his sleeves.
Groaning in terror, he pulled the tunic over his head and slung it to the side of the room, pushing his hands back into the bowl again to find the blood stayed there under the water. It wouldn’t come off, no matter how much he scrubbed and scratched at his hands.
He bent over the bowl, trying to get control of his mind.
“Ye are nae there, ye fool,” he said firmly. “Take a hold of yer mind, and yer senses. Robert’s blood is nae here, and his body is dead and buried.”
Another clap of thunder beyond the windows made Douglas stand straight. He looked down at the bowl to find his hands were perfectly clean. There wasn’t a speck of blood on them. Glancing at his discarded tunic, there was no blood on that either.
Keeping his hands in the bowl, he looked up to where a mirror was leaning against the wall above a coffer. Bordered in wood, the fading glass reflected a rather marred image of himself.
His chest was smattered with the scars of his wounds from battle. One he had earned at Robert’s hand. It crossed down his left-hand side, one firm white line, now merely a deep ridge. Lifting his eyes to his face, Douglas found his loose dark hair hanging by his ears. It was wild these days and seemed only to grow wilder in moments like this when he was losing control of his mind.
“It is the guilt,” Douglas whispered to his reflection as if he could truly calm his own mind by speaking to the mirror. “That is all. There is nay blood here tonight.”
“Please try to eat somethin’, Evelyn.”
Evelyn looked up from where she was poking the food around her trencher with her knife. Across the dining table, her mother was staring at her with hope, the same blue eyes as her own staring back at her.
“It will do ye good to eat a little more.”
“I am nae hungry, Maither,” Evelyn said calmly, lowering the knife by the plate.
“Ye are never hungry these days.”
Barabel continued to glare, but Evelyn was unmoved by it. For the last three years, she had struggled to eat. It was not something that came easy to her, and it was hardly something that could change by her mother simply glowering at her.
“Ahem.” Between them, Evelyn’s father cleared his throat. Angus looked to the two of them, his fair hair dancing across his forehead thanks to the vigor with which he turned his head back and forth. “If we have finished discussin’ food, I have news. Good news. Great news, in fact. For which, we shall raise a toast.”
He beckoned forward one of the servants to top up their cups with mead. Evelyn watched her father closely as she took the tankard, marking the difference in his countenance today.
Much like her, he was shrouded in grief these days. It was as if he carried stones on his shoulders, his back always slumped, and his head hung forward.
Aye, nae one of us has been the same since Robert died.
Evelyn thought back to her brother, feeling that familiar sense of love bloom within her chest. She could imagine him sitting at the empty chair at their table. He would no doubt jest that their father was taking too long to make his toast and that he would make one instead. By the end of the toast, he would have them all laughing raucously.
Evelyn missed laughing. She didn’t have much reason to now.
“What is it we are toastin’?” Barabel asked as she too picked up her mead, lifting the tankard higher as she turned her focus on Angus.
“The future. A great future, I hope.” Angus seemed truly happy for a change, his smile growing so widely that Evelyn sat forward, eying him with curiosity. He turned his focus on her. “Yer future, Evelyn.”
“Mine?” she said in surprise, feeling her hand waver with the raised cup.
“Aye, I talk of yer marriage.”
“Me marriage? But… nay one asked to marry me, Faither.” She lowered the tankard to the table, feeling the pewter clunk against the wood.
“He has asked me. Well, I might have suggested the idea, and fortunately, it has everyone’s blessin’.” He looked to Barabel with a smile. “Aye, love, it is what we hoped for.”
“It is?” she said excitedly, sitting forward in her chair. “Then the clan will be safe too?”
“Aye. It will.” Angus extended his free hand to Barabel’s. She took it with vigor, clinging onto him.
Evelyn was struggling for words at all. Her mind was working quickly, trying to keep up with what they were discussing.
Robert had been the heir to the lairdship, but since his passing, that position would go to the man that Evelyn married. She had often heard Angus and Barabel discuss possible names, but she was not aware any agreement had ever been made as to who her husband would be. Neither had she been consulted about who she should marry.
“With two clans to care for, I daenae doubt Douglas will make a fine laird.” Angus’ words made Evelyn sit forward so sharply that she knocked her cup over. Mead spilled onto the table in a golden puddle.
“Careful, Evelyn,” Angus cried as they all reached forward, trying to mop up the spill. Evelyn hastily dried the mead, though she never once took her eyes off her father.
He wishes me to marry Douglas?
“Ye mean Douglas MacDuff, do ye nae?” she asked, realizing how shaky her voice had become.
“Aye.” Angus clapped his hands together warmly, so delighted that his cheeks could barely contain his smile. “An eligible match, do ye nae agree, Evelyn?”
“Very eligible!” Barabel agreed before Evelyn could have a chance.
On that fact, Evelyn could not argue. He was the son of a laird, set to inherit the lairdship of the MacDuffs, and she was a daughter of the Laird of the Drummonds. So far, they were well matched. Yet the moment she thought of Douglas MacDuff, she thought of the boy he had been.
She pictured herself running around the castle, only a child, with her gown dragging near her ankles, tripping her up every few seconds. She’d race after Robert and Douglas, who played together, pretending to be soldiers and using sticks for swords. As firm friends, Robert and Douglas were constantly at each other’s castles. The dark hair of Douglas had been easy to follow through the castle, as was his laughter. Yet that boy did not exist anymore.
“A toast, then,” Angus said, lifting his cup. “To yer marriage, Evelyn, and to our next laird of the clan. Douglas.”
“To Douglas.” Barabel tapped her cup against Angus’. Evelyn picked up her now empty cup, hastening to do so as a servant stepped forward to refill the tankard. She thanked them, but she could not join in with the toast, not yet.
“Evelyn? Ye daenae look happy at the prospect,” Angus said, all happiness draining away from his face. He leaned on the table, closing the distance between them a little. “What is it that concerns ye? I thought ye were fond of Douglas?”
“Fond?” she repeated in surprise. “Faither, I havenae seen him for years. I daenae ken the man he is now. From what I hear, nay one kens who he is.”
“What do ye mean, child?” Barabel’s use of the word ‘child’ made Evelyn bristle, sitting taller in her chair. Her mother usually used the word when she thought Evelyn was being petulant.
“Have ye nae heard the rumors from the MacDuff clan?” Evelyn asked, looking between her parents. “They say Douglas is a changed man since the war three years ago.” Evelyn noticed the rather odd behavior of her father. He had sat back in his chair and wasn’t uttering a word. He merely stared down at the mead in his tankard instead.
“They are merely rumors,” Barabel said with a wave of her hand, dismissing Evelyn easily. “Many men changed three years ago. War does that to people. He lost his closest friend too. Aye, remember that.”
Evelyn nodded in acknowledgment.
Aye, of course, I ken that.
Robert had not just been her beloved brother but Douglas’ closest friend. The two had grown up together. She wondered if Douglas felt Robert’s loss as keenly as she did as she picked up her knife and poked at the food on her plate again.
“Ye havenae asked me if I am willin’ to marry him.” Evelyn’s words brought silence to the room. She could see Barabel’s outrage at once, her lips parting and her cheeks reddening, but one look from Angus seemed to silence her before she could betray such anger. Angus reached out toward Evelyn’s hand, loosening it from her knife and grasping it in his own.
“Evelyn, please listen to me,” he said, his voice gentler than she could remember it being for some time. “Douglas is the best man I ken. He respects ye, and he will make a fine laird nae only for the MacDuffs, but of the Drummonds too. Give me a reason why ye shouldnae be wed, and I will accept it, but I ken of nay reason ye should nae be. Do ye?”
Evelyn blinked, staring up at her father. His kindness was touching, as was his wish to protect her. Faced with it and the emptiness in her chest, Evelyn shook her head.
“Nay, I ken of nay reason,” she accepted after a few seconds of silence. She knew well enough Douglas was respected, and he would undoubtedly be praised as a fine laird.
Yet a husband? What kind of husband will Douglas be?
Once more, she pictured the child she had known who sprinted across the lawn with Robert as she chased after them. Being younger than them, she never kept up and had fallen, tripping over a log and ending up flat on her face.
“Evie?” Douglas had been the one to call back to her, lifting her from the ground with her hands. When he’d found her knees were scraped and two trickles of blood were escaping down her shins, he had picked her up, carrying her easily in his arms. She could still remember how Robert had called after them, declaring he should be the one to carry his sister. Douglas had born a kind smile back then, but if the rumors were to be believed, he was not a man that smiled now.
“Aye? Ye accept the marriage then?” Angus asked, waiting on her answer.
Evelyn sighed, leaning back in the chair, knowing she could not argue. War was coming with England, and the only thing that could protect them was a united front. Her marriage to the next laird of the MacDuffs could bring them that.
“Aye, faither. I accept.”
I will be married.
The thought kept coursing through Evelyn as she climbed the steps back to her chamber with the brass candle holder, shaped into thistle flowers and leaves, she held the candle higher, trying to cast the stone corridors in a greater light. The closer she got to her chamber, the more unsettled she was about this thought.
I daenae ken what kind of man Douglas is.
The boy she had known as a child was grown up, and if the rumors were true, he was a very different man from the boy she remembered. It was not that she was firmly against the marriage but wary of it. It felt odd to agree to pledge herself to a man she no longer knew.
She was about to thrust the chamber door open, planning a night of hiding beneath the blankets to try and push away her thoughts, when something white caught her eye at the bottom of the door. It was a letter, half pushed under the door jamb and hanging out with blackened scrawl across the front that read, Evelyn.
Glancing up and down the corridor, Evelyn turned her head so fast that her blonde curls whipped her cheeks. There was no one there. Not even her maid accompanied her. Only her own shadow kept her company, with no sign of who could have pushed the letter under her door.
She took it slowly from its hiding place and hastened into the room, placing the candle on a circular table placed in the middle of the room before unfurling the letter. She had to break a plain red wax seal to get into it, noting how there were no marks or other identifiable emblems on the letter to hint at who it was from. Flattening the paper, she found the scrawl must have been written hastily, for it was slanted and messy, almost illegible in parts.
All is nae as it seems with the death of yer brother. They say he died a hero’s death in battle, but it is nae true. Daenae believe the stories, daenae believe yer faither, and daenae believe the next laird of the MacDuffs, Douglas’.
The words caught Evelyn’s interest. Her stomach knotted together as she lifted the letter closer to the flame of the candle, the better to read it. The words glistened in that orange light.
‘Yer brother was murdered by none other than his best friend, Douglas MacDuff. This secret has been kept from ye and the world to protect the MacDuff lairdship, but I cannae stay silent. Me conscience willnae allow it.
Ye should ken the truth of what happened to yer brother, and someday, I pray there will be justice for his untimely death.
God’s blessin’ be with ye, in whatever ye choose to do with this information.
Yers with loyalty,
Evelyn’s hand shook as she lowered the letter. For a minute, she stared into the room’s darkness, marking the shadows that flanked the bed and the corners of the stone tower.
“Nay,” she murmured aloud, not wanting to believe it.
She was ready to call the letter a lie, a mere prank by some guard or soldier that could have left it at her door, trying to cause mischief. She discarded the note on the table and readied herself for bed, but her mind would not settle. When she splashed her face with water, she thought of the last time she had seen Robert. They had embraced warmly and wished each other well, where he had promised to come back to her. When she changed into a long white nightgown, she thought of her father’s face when he had come back from the war and revealed Robert was dead. There had been the signs of tears that day, yet when they had held the memorial, her father had refused to talk much of what had happened at Robert’s death. He had spoken only of his life.
Could it be true?
As Evelyn tried to clamber into bed, she abandoned the endeavor entirely. How could she sleep now, having learned what she had just read? She moved back to the table and pressed the letter firmly into the wooden surface, letting her eyes dance over the words. She read it another three times before she capitulated into a tall high-backed chair behind her, leaning against the stiff wood.
The letter claimed her father had kept the secret. She had often suspected her father had not told her everything about what had really happened that day to Robert. Whenever she and her mother asked about Robert’s death and at whose hand, her father merely repeated it was an English soldier and that he had died heroically in battle. He would say nothing of the particulars. In the past, Evelyn had merely thought he had found it too painful to speak of, but what if it was something else?
Lifting the letter from the table, her hand shook. She was beginning to believe it was just possible what was written there could be true.
“Was me brother murdered?” she whispered into the air. She could almost imagine Robert’s ghost moving to stand beside her, placing his hand on her shoulder in encouragement.
“Robert, what happened to ye?”
Nothing answered her. There was merely silence in the room, and the candle flame flickered back and forth, making the shadows stretch longer.
When her eyes fell on the name of the man accused of the murder, she felt abruptly sickened and sat forward with the flat of her palm pressed to her lips. If the letter were an honest thing, then she was about to marry the very man who had murdered her brother.
“Nay, nay, it cannae be.” She dropped the letter and thrust her hands into her hair. She knew as well as anyone that Douglas and Robert had grown up as the closest of friends. Why on earth would Douglas throw that friendship away and commit murder? It did not make sense!
Evelyn didn’t try to sleep for some time. She paced the room, fetched herself a drink of mead from a hidden cabinet, and drained it completely before she returned to the letter. She didn’t want to believe what was written there, but each time she tried to push the accusation away, something niggled in her gut.
Why else has Douglas nae come to this castle since the war? Why has me faither been so reluctant to talk of what happened the day Robert left us?
Yet something wasn’t right. Her father loved Robert; she knew it to be true. Would her father really make her marry the very man who had killed his son?
“I willnae believe it, nae outright,” Evelyn muttered to herself after she had drained the second mead cup. She hovered over the letter at the table, deciding a course of action. This wasn’t something she could ignore, but neither was she going to believe it readily without proof.
She had heard in the rumors that Douglas had practically become a hermit, keeping to himself and rarely smiling. That did not necessarily mean he was a killer, but it showed he was no longer the boy he had been. It left her suspicious.
Placing the empty pewter cup down on the table beside her, Evelyn made a plan. She would be sent soon to Douglas’ castle in preparation for the wedding.
Before they could be wed, Evelyn would discern everything she could about Douglas and what had happened all those years ago. If it were true, if Douglas really were Robert’s killer, then she had to know it.
“Ye have poisoned me life, Douglas,” she whispered into the air, wishing there was someone there to hear her resolve. She imagined Robert’s ghost was there again. He was sitting in the corner of the room, staring at her firmly, with his fair hair pushed back from his forehead and that ever-present smile on his face. “If ye did do this, then ye must be punished for it.”
She turned to face the empty chair where she imagined Robert to be. Seeing it so sparse, with no one there, only the wood staring back at her, she felt those tears come again. They came twice or three times a week these days, constantly pulling her back into her grief. She turned her chin up to the ceiling, trying to stop those tears by pleading to the heavens above for help, but they could not be stopped. The tears fell still, streaking lines down her cheeks and falling onto her white nightgown, making it damp.
I am resolved. She made a promise to herself, one so great that it would not be broken. If Douglas did this, if he truly did murder me brother, then he will pay the price for what he has done.
“An eye for an eye.” She took the letter, folding it up into small pieces, and hid it in a coffer, far away from prying eyes. The lid closed firmly with a thud.
Evelyn had tossed and turned for most of the night, unable to settle. Sometimes she imagined murder of her own, wondering how she could repay the debt of her brother’s death. Could she poison Douglas? Could she use a weapon to wound him? Each time she considered the idea, she thought of the boy’s face she had known.
Could he really be a killer?
She only found sleep when the sun began to rise in the sky beyond the windows, filtering yellow light onto her face. She turned her head away from that light, aware that it seemed to follow her into her dreams.
Evelyn was walking through a vast great hall. It wasn’t one she recognized. Far from being the great hall in her father’s castle, this one was wider and taller. Carvings and pillars made into creatures flanked the stone walls.
Either side of her were the familiar shapes of the Scottish unicorns, then two dragons with their faces angled downward and their wings spread wide. Between these stone pillars were the faces of soldiers.
They stared at her impassively with no words passing their lips. As Evelyn walked through the middle of the hall, down the aisle they had created for her by standing to the sides of the room, she longed for one of them to talk. Maybe some of the soldiers would whisper and gossip about her approach, but no such thing happened. They all stared blankly back at her, their silence eerie and stretching out as she continued her walk.
The hall seemed never-ending, meaning she had to walk far. It gave her a long time to examine the soldiers in detail, and that’s when she noticed that their clothes were not clean. Some wore blood-splattered chainmail, the crimson droplets glinting as much as the metal in the sunlight. Others held helmets under their arms with the visors dented as if by battleaxes and swords.
She looked away from the signs of battle, hating the idea of what bloodshed and death must have passed. She turned her focus to the far end of the room instead, where she saw a throne. At first, she thought no one sat on the throne. Much like her father’s chair, this one was tall, with the back so high and wide that it was like a wooden tapestry carved with figures. Across the chair, a battle took place. Men fought men, throwing pikes at one another and lifting swords high overheads clad in steel.
Evelyn blinked, wanting to look away from the sight of the death. When she opened her eyes again, the chair was no longer empty.
“Robert?” she murmured. Her pace picked up. She walked swiftly between the crowds of soldiers, heading for him. “Is that ye?” She could scarcely allow herself to hope. How long had it been since she had seen him? Years!
She stopped in front of him, standing before a wooden platform that had been erected to hold his chair. He didn’t smile at her in the way he used to, he merely stared at her before he slowly sat back, relaxing in his chair with his hands hung loosely over the arms of the seat.
“Robert?” she called to him again. In the cavernous room, her voice echoed off the stonework.
She glanced behind her, hoping that the soldiers would say something and come to life. She flinched when she found their eyes had tracked her across the room. They didn’t blink or murmur, they merely stared at her position.
“What is happenin’?” she whispered, turning to face her brother.
This time, he smiled. That familiar sight made her spine soften a little. Surely all would be well now that Robert was here again.
“Sister, come,” he begged of her softly, lifting a hand from the arm of the chair and stretching it out toward her. The fingers curled in a beckoning motion.
At once, she went to him, hastening up the platform’s steps, aware that the gown she was wearing had a long train and was trailing behind her. It was much like the gown she had worn the night of the feast before he had gone away to war. That was where they had had their last goodbye.
Robert’s smile faltered as her hand got close to his. She felt something was wrong, very wrong indeed. Something in her gut knotted, desiring to be away, and she snatched her hand back from him. He reached out to her, grabbing her arm and jerking her forward.
She yelped as she fell to her knees in front of him, startled by the power and vice-like grip that Robert had on her arm.
“Robert, ye are hurtin’ me!” she called to him, but he didn’t care. He merely curled her arm back further, forcing her to stare up at him.
“Listen, sister.” he pressed his face near to hers. “For it is comin’ for ye.”
“What is?” she asked.
“Cannae ye hear it?” He jerked his head upward, angling his head to the side, as if he could hear something, like the buzz of a bee flying about his ears.
“Aye, it is here. It is comin’ for ye. Death on swift wings will take ye, as it took me.”
“Robert, stop speakin’ like this, ye are scarin’ me.” She tried to prize her arm out of his, but he wouldn’t let her go. He merely gripped her harder, making the pain worse.
“I warn ye, sister. Ye will soon be joinin’ me here. Ye’ll be joinin’ us all here.” He flung her to the ground, and she fell. It was as if the floorboards weren’t there anymore. There was only a black abyss through which she was falling.
Evelyn felt the scream tear through her throat as she scrambled with the covers, trying to pull them from her face.
“Lady Evelyn!” a familiar voice was calling to her, but Evelyn couldn’t be calmed. She kept screaming until the blanket was tugged free from her mouth and eyes. Evelyn sat up in her bedchamber, panting and looking about the room in alarm. “Lady Evelyn, calm yerself, all is well.” The maid’s face appeared before her.
Evelyn grabbed the maid’s arms, finding she needed to anchor herself to someone that was truly human and alive.
“A dream?” she murmured, with her eyes wide on the maid. “Murdina, I was dreamin’, wasnae I?”
“Aye, of course, ye were, me lady.” Murdina knelt on the bed beside her, clinging back to her arms. “Shh, all is well. There is nay need to fear, the dream is gone now.”
Evelyn nodded, trying to persuade herself it was true, yet the darkness and the fear from the dream still clung to her. She thought it to be rather like a cloak about her shoulders, which she could not shed, for it swathed her body in that fear.
“Aye, just a dream,” Evelyn murmured, at last releasing the strong grip she had on her friend.
“That’s better, me lady.” Murdina sat down beside her, offering a smile. Evelyn couldn’t return that smile, not yet, as she gazed at the bright hazel eyes of her friend and the mad red hair that was doing its best to escape its updo at the back of her head. “I’ve heard them called mares.”
“A mare?” Evelyn repeated. “Aye, it sounds apt enough.”
“Me grandma says they are a warnin’.”
“What kind of warnin’?” Evelyn asked as she sat back on the bed, letting her body relax at last. She could feel a sheen of sweat across her body, with the beads still running down her forehead and to the very tip of her nose. She wiped them away, trying to cast thoughts of the dream out of her mind, though it did little use. Robert’s warning echoed in her ears.
“They are a sign of difficult times to come,” Murdina said, wrinkling her nose in disgust.
“Aye, Murdina, I can always rely on ye to cheer me spirits, can I nae?”
“Have nay fear, me grandma isnae always right about these things.” Murdina jumped to her feet.
How reassurin’, Evelyn thought to herself. The woman is only right some of the time.
“Right, I am to pack yer coffers, Lady Evelyn.”
“The laird tells me ye are goin’ to see Douglas MacDuff today.”
Evelyn sat up so sharply on the bed that she nearly fell off it. She had not known she was to see Douglas so soon. The mere memory of what she had read in the letter the night before had her tense but also determined with her hands curling into fists.
I must ken the truth about what happened three years ago.
She knew well enough if she asked her father, he would not tell her the truth. He had kept this secret for so long and never said anymore when she had asked after Robert’s death. It was time to ask another – she would ask the very man accused of Robert’s murder. Douglas.
“When do we leave?” she asked, standing to her feet.
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