Affair with the Highland Enemy (Preview)
The night was mild, comfortable, and far too loud. Effie Stewart rolled over in the small cot she slept in, and cursed the fact that she shared the room with three other women.
Who would have thought that a small, soft-spoken lass like Muira could snore loudly enough to rival the sound of a flock of geese? She’d had an easier time sleeping through feasting evenings and a whole regiment of warriors practicing than she did trying to drown out Muira’s deep, rattling inhalations, or her whistling breaths out.
There was a grunt, and a thud, and the sounds cut off briefly. Effie closed her eyes more tightly, hoping against hope…
And then there was another rattling, wheezing breath, and Effie stuffed her fingers in her ears and bit her lip to stifle the urge to scream.
By all the gods… I’d throw a pillow at her, if it werenae a waste of the only pillow I’ve tae me name! And I’d smother her with it, if she werenae such an amiable lass when she’s awake! How can one person make so much noise, and why dae I have tae share a room with her? I’d almost rather sleep in the stables, or outside during the rainy season, and there’s the truth o’ it! I’d rather share a hearth with the cooks, fer all the kitchen is never quiet.
Her jaw ached from gritting her teeth, and her head ached with the lack of sleep. She was considering the merits of slamming her head into the wall, then staggering her way to the healer’s cottage. Waking up Cora had its own risk, but at least it would be quieter.
Without warning, the door to the small garret room opened. A masculine figure stood silhouetted in the door. The man slipped into the room on stealthy feet. Effie reached into the edge of her cot and gripped the handle of a small blade she kept with her at all times. A man coming into the maid’s quarters at this hour likely meant nothing good.
She held still as he moved closer to her cot, and then a hoarse voice broke the silence with a low whisper. “I ken yer awake lass.”
Effie relaxed as she recognized the voice of Darach, one of the guards she counted as a friend. She let go of the dagger and sat up, the blanket around her shoulders. “Aye, I am, but what are ye doing here? And at this hour?”
“Wasnae me idea, lass. Laird Stewart wants tae see ye.”
Effie blinked at him in surprise. “Now?”
“Aye. Now. And nae, I dinnae ken why, nor what’s so urgent. But if the laird wants ye, then the laird wants ye, and ‘tis nae wise to keep him waiting.”
There was wisdom in that. Effie waved him back, then rose and wrapped a simple skirt from the small chest where she kept her clothing. She slid her feet into the soft shoes she wore around the Keep and followed him to the door, shutting it softly behind them.
Her roommates never stirred. Effie felt a brief moment of amusement. If lasses could sleep through Muira’s snoring, they could of course sleep through almost anything.
The darkened halls were deserted at this time of night, and slightly chilled. Early spring was no time to brave the cold stone in the darkest hours before dawn. Effie shivered as she followed Darach, wishing she’d had a chance to wrap up in something warmer. Or that she had clothing more suited to the night air.
Darach led her into the laird’s study and bowed, whilst Effie curtsied to Laird Stewart, grateful for fire sending waves of warmth through the room. It was a welcome comfort after the colder air of the halls.
Far less comforting was the broad smile on Laird Stewart’s face. Alistair Stewart was usually never happy to see her. And why would he be?
She was the living, breathing reminder of the previous infidelity that had cost him the relationship with his first wife. An unwanted bastard child who served in his keep as a servant because he could not banish her as he had her mother.
She waited for the door to close before she addressed him. “Ye were wanting tae see me?” Weariness and frustration made her tongue looser than usual. “What is it that couldnae wait fer a more decent hour?”
“Dinnae speak unless yer spoken tae, wench.” The smile disappeared in an instant. “I’ll take nae disrespect from ye, and best ye remember that afore ye open yer mouth again.”
Effie felt her anger ignite, but she kept her mouth shut. After so many years under Laird Stewart’s thumb, she knew how to pick her battles.
Alistair Stewart turned away from her. “I’ve word from me allies among the McIntosh clan that me bride, Norah, has been found again, and is tae be shortly in her father’s company. Aye, and under watch so she cannae run from me again. I paid a fair price fer the lass, and I’ll be having her as me wife.”
Effie waited, still wondering why he’d called for her.
Laird Stewart continued. “Her father and I have agreed that the lass has too many allies among her own clansmen and escaped because one o’ her former servants gave her warning, or aid. So, this time, I’ll be taking ye with me, tae serve as her maid until the wedding. Ye’re tae keep her under control, and make certain sure that there’s nae one tae spirit her away again.”
And again, she couldn’t seem to keep hold of her tongue, though prudence would have suggested she keep her silence. “And ye dinnae think less o’ yerself, or that it might nae be right, tae be taking a wife the same age – or near enough – as yer own daughter? And what’s the purpose o’ it, when ye’ve already sired an heir?”
Laird Stewart might be a larger man, and older than she was, but he was far from slow. Before she had time to move out of the way or defend herself, his hand cracked across her cheek. The impact snapped her head to the side and made the right side of her face burn with pain. Effie felt her eyes watering and blinked back the tears, determined not to give him the satisfaction of making her cry, even if it was almost involuntary.
“Ye watch yer tongue, girl. And remember I dinnae need a dungeon tae make yer life nay more worth living. Yer tae keep yer mouth shut and dae yer duty tae yer clan, or I’ll see tae it that ye regret the day ye were born, never mind the day yer worthless mother left ye on me doorstep. Do ye understand?”
The anger already burning sullenly within her sparked and flared at the insult to her mother. “Aye, I dae.” She paused for a moment. “What I dinnae ken is why ye could nae wait tae tell me this until morning? Or are ye afraid that Isobel and Teigue will disapprove ye taking another wife? Especially one so near tae Isobel’s age?”
“Dinnae speak of things ye dinnae ken, lass. And get off tae bed with ye. There’s a road tae travel and work tae be done when the sun rises.” He turned away.
Effie scowled at his back, but she knew there was no point to arguing. “As ye will… Father.” She couldn’t help adding the last word, though she knew it would only anger him.
Sure enough, Laird Stewart whirled around and seized her shoulders in an iron grip, hands digging in painfully. “Ye willnae call me that again, and never in the hearing o’ any other person, or ye’ll sore regret it, lass. Dinnae mistake me or cross me on that, or I’ll make ye wish ye were in the shoes o’ me worst enemies.” His voice was soft and dangerous, and she had no doubt he was completely serious.
Effie didn’t answer, but she dropped her eyes and let her silence speak for her. After a moment, he released her with a small shove. “Get out o’ me sight.”
Effie turned and left the room without any further words. Darach was still waiting in the corridor, and he grimaced in sympathy at the redness of her cheek. “Och, lass…” He trailed off.
Effie nodded to him, then made her way to her rooms. The cold air felt good on the burning flesh of her cheek and her aching shoulders. However, she knew she’d never be able to sleep now.
She had to decide what she was going to do. Was she going to obey her father, and help imprison Norah McIntosh until she was wedded against her will to the Stewart Laird? Or was she going to stand up to her birth father’s tyranny?
She supposed it depended on what kind of person Norah McIntosh was. She wouldn’t risk her neck for a weak-willed or broken lass who had no fight of her own left in her. But if she was the type of lass she seemed to be – she’d escaped Laird Stewart and her own father’s commands and attempts to ensnare her once before – then she might be a good lass to ally with.
Norah McIntosh… she might be her father’s latest conquest or, gods above willing, the opportunity to escape that Effie had spent much of her life looking for.
One year later,
A small forest hut
Laurence scowled at the sound of cursing from behind him and set down the bowl of medicinal ointment he was finishing. It was almost complete and ready to be applied, but that wouldn’t matter much if he couldn’t get his uncooperative patient to stay still while it was applied.
He turned back to the single bed in the cabin, and its heavily bandaged occupant. The man was attempting to rise and grab his sword belt, and failing. “Och, Duncan… if I’ve told ye once, I’ve told ye a hundred times. Yer in nay shape tae be rising and getting about fer more than taking a leak, let alone wielding yer sword.”
“Shut yer mouth, Laurence MacGregor. I dinnae have time tae be lying about and sleeping the days away. There’s work tae be done.”
Laurence stepped up to the bed and shoved gently at the warrior’s unwounded shoulder, mindful of the bandages wound around the burly frame. Duncan wavered and almost toppled over before settling with a thump onto the bed with a grunt.
“Ye can get about yer business and wielding a sword when ye can withstand more than a light tap from me. Right now, ye’d nae even make it tae the nearest village tae look fer work, let alone actually complete a job.”
“Ye’re a right bastard, ye are.” Duncan subsided with a grumble. “Dinnae ken why in the Morrigan’s name ye keep coming out here.”
Laurence swallowed hard against a lump in his throat and a faint squirming of guilt in his gut. “Och, yer me friend, Duncan. I promised ye I’d help ye. ‘Tis the least I owe ye, after ye saved me life.”
“Dinnae ken why ye keep bringing that up, either.”
Duncan gave him a half-hearted glare as he retrieved the finished salve and brought it back, so he could begin the process of tending to the other man’s wounds. “Ye and I, we’ve been shield brothers fer a good long while. We fought a war taegether, ye ken, and that forms bonds that – devil take ye that hurts! – cannae be broken so easy.”
Laurence grimaced as he continued peeling back the bandages that covered Duncan’s face, arms, hands, and much of his chest. “Ye ken I dinnae like thinking about the war.”
“I ken. But fact is, me bonny lad – Morrigan’s blade, I dinnae have enough skin there fer ye tae be taking more – that the war was what it was. And ye werenae the only Highlander and clansman on either side.” Duncan coughed roughly.
Laurence handed him a cup of strong mead to ease his thirst and his pain. “Aye, but I wasnae standing with the majority o’ the clan. And I ken well enough me brother and his clan were nae on the side I was.” He sighed. “All else aside, ‘tis a shameful thing tae think I might have raised blade tae any of me kinsman and clan.”
“Ye wouldnae be the first, and ye’ll nae be the last.” Duncan coughed again as a bandage tugged on the seared skin, and the unexpected pain caused him to inhale mead instead of swallowing.
“Ye can keep saying it if ye like.” Laurence finished peeling away the last of the bandages, and began applying a new layer of salve to the burned and blistered flesh. “It doesnae mean yer right. Especially since ‘tis fair clear ye dinnae have a copper’s worth o’ sense. I’m a failure, Duncan.”
Duncan scowled, as much as he could with the red burns that licked an uneven trail up the side of his jaw and across his nose and cheeks. “Dinnae ken what yer on about…”
Laurence snorted and continued applying the new salve. After weeks of practice, there was no difficulty applying it in a thick, even layer. “Ye took a fire arrow tae the face, or near enough, tae defend me. I may be fair grateful, but the fact still remains it was a fool thing tae dae.”
Duncan growled at him and took another heavy swig of mead. “Ye’d dae the same fer me.”
“I wouldnae. I’d nae jump in front o’ a fire arrow fer me own brother, and that’s a fact. I may nae be a coward – although ‘tis up fer debate, I’m thinking – but I’m certainly nae fool enough tae take flames tae the face. I’d do something else.”
“Then ye’d take it tae the back and think it better?” Duncan huffed.
“Nae. I’d nae take it at all, thank ye. In yer shoes, I would have tripped me, or knocked me tae the ground, rather than leaping in front o’ the danger.”
“I didnae have time tae be thinking o’ things like that!” Duncan winced as Laurence swiped the last of the salve into the wounds and reached for the first length of clean, soft linen he was using for bandages. There was a lass in the village that would wash the old bandages for him to use again.
“If ye had any sense, ye’d nae need time tae be thinking. That’s the point I’m trying tae make. Now stay still while I’m working, ye fool. Unless ye want tae mess up the bandaging and make me redo it.”
That got Duncan to subside, though he grumbled under his breath as Laurence worked. Finally, the bandages were in place, and Laurence stepped back.
A second later, he had to step forward again and press the larger warrior back into the bedding, cursing as he tried to keep Duncan from rising. “Ye daft, hard-headed, feeble-minded lump of a Highlander! Did I nae just tell ye that ye were in nae shape tae be moving around trying tae leave yer sickbed?”
Duncan fell back, grimacing and breathing heavily with pain. “I dinnae need coddling MacGregor! I’m nae an infant!” He shook his head in frustration. “And it doesnae matter if I’m well enough tae be getting about – I’ve debts tae pay, and I cannae pay them if I’m laying about like a babe in swaddling.”
“Well, ye willnae pay them if ye collapse from pain, or if yer wounds get infected!” Laurence scowled as he mixed a pain potion in another tankard of mead.
“Well, then mayhap I ought tae be falling on me sword, then!”
“Dinnae speak such foolishness!” Laurence thrust the mug roughly into Duncan’s hands. “Ye’ll be well enough tae attend tae yer own business in two moons, mayhap.”
“Two moons! Ye cannae be serious!”
“Two moons is what the healer said, when first I took ye tae see her.” Laurence sighed. “And dinnae fuss yerself – I’ll take care o’ yer debts, and ye, while yer healing. ‘Tis the least I can dae.”
“Yer nae a mercenary man, Laurence MacGregor…” Duncan frowned.
“There are enough honest and honorable jobs in the world.” Laurence rolled his shoulders and wrists, flexing out the strain of grinding the herbs for the salve and hunching over the bowl as he prepared the medicine. “I can work them and earn enough coin fer ye and fer me.”
“And what kind o’ jobs would ye be taking?”
“Och, I’m a hunter, and I dse well enough at it. ‘Tis nae issue tae be hunting criminals and whatnot. A few bounties in the lowlands, or even across the border, and I’ll be well set tae fix yer debts and give us both a better life, aye?” He gave Duncan his best smirk, but the man only frowned at him.
Despite the mead and the pain potion, there was an entirely too-knowing gleam in his eyes. “Och lad… if ye were looking fer a better life, ye’d dae better tae return tae yer clan.”
“Ye ken why I cannae dae that.” Laurence shook his head. “Kai would never forgive me fer fighting against the clan nae matter what me reasons were.”
“Ye dinnae ken…”
“And I dinnae wish tae argue the matter. I have nae clan now.” Laurence sighed, then buckled on his sword. “Ye need tae rest. I’ve asked the healer in the nearby village tae look in on ye, fer I’ve a job tae be doing.”
Duncan blinked at him. “What sort o’ job?”
“Naething ye need tae worry about. Rest. There’s another pain draught, and a sleeping draft, as well as more mead next tae the bed if ye need it, and some bread and meat near the hearth when the hunger strikes ye.”
He turned and left before Duncan could ask him another question, or make another protest.
Duncan was a good man, but he’d never understand what it was like, to be the younger brother of Kai MacGregor.
Kai was a warrior, strong and brave and honorable. Laurence had hoped to be like him, until one fateful day on the field of combat, a few years prior. His first battle. Just thinking of it made his stomach churn, and the memory scorched him with shame.
He was on the field, amid the blood and the smoke and the screams. The world was a confused tangle of men fighting, screaming, and dying, and he was caught in the thick of it. He never knew if it was battle fever, or a blow to his head that had muddled his wits, but it didn’t matter.
He’d been lost in a haze of fighting and trying to survive, too lost to realize when one of his foes stopped attacking him and tried to speak to him. He only saw a man with a drawn sword, two other men coming to help him. And he’d lashed out at all three, ending their lives in quick, efficient movements.
The haze had cleared, and he’d realized the men were wearing the tartans of Clan MacGregor and Clan Cabduh. His own clan and that of his laird. He’d been so blinded by the fog in his head he’d never realized he was fighting his own comrades.
He’d been too ashamed to face Kai, or anyone else from his clan. He’d disappeared into the smoke in the aftermath of battle, and never stopped moving – until he’d found a friend in Duncan Cameron.
Duncan had saved him from himself, and become almost like a brother to him in the years that followed, teaching him the way of the sell-sword, and the bounty hunter, as well as the differences between honorable jobs and those that ought to be avoided if one had any integrity.
It wasn’t always easy or profitable work, but it was honest, and it kept food in his belly and his weapons in good condition, along with his horse.
Then Duncan had gotten injured, protecting him. And now it was his turn to care for and aid the warrior. To that end, for all he’d said he’d only take honest work, he was willing to do whatever needed to be done.
He reached into his sporran and drew out the missive that he’d received before he went to visit Duncan.
Tae Laurence MacGregor,
I dinnae ken much o’ ye, but I ken that yer considered a skilled hunter, and an honorable man. Some time ago, me daughter Effie went missing, and I fear she was taken by a clan I am in a feud with. I need a man such as yerself tae find her, rescue her if she needs rescuing, and bring her home, nae matter what the obstacle or circumstance. I’m prepared tae reward ye well fer the work.
Laird o’ Clan Stewart,
There were phrases in there that made him curious and wary – namely the words about the girl being taken by a rival highland clan and the necessity of bringing her home by ‘any’ circumstance. What if the lass had gone with a suitor? What if she’d chosen a paramour from the rival clan?
Such situations were uncommon, but not unheard of. But then, it wasn’t his place to ask questions.
In the end, it didn’t seem like such a bad job. The pay was potentially good, and what could be so wrong about trying to find a laird’s daughter and bring her home. After all, what if the lass was truly a prisoner of a rival clan?
With a sigh, he went to collect his horse and make his way to Castle Stewart to meet with the laird of the clan. He’d know more about the job when he arrived, including what the laird considered adequate payment, and what he’d have to be doing.
With any luck, this job would be enough to help him pay Duncan’s debts and, perhaps, make a new life for both of them.
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