Awakened by his Highland Touch (Preview)
It was by far the worst prison in Britain; cold, silent, and repellent. The guards favored extremely harsh discipline and the diet was atrocious. Even for people as hardy as the Scots, the brose was cold, lumpy, and tasteless.
Every morning, the guards led Ailig out into the yard for an hour of exercise. He saw the other prisoners, but he was not allowed to talk to them. It was his only glimpse of other human beings, so Ailig savored it as much as he could.
On the day he got the visitor, they did not take him to the yard. He sat in his dark and dank cell, the chill filtering through to his bones as he wondered why they’d forgotten him.
The man came in, flanked by two guards carrying torches, so Ailig knew he had to be important. He wore a great coat, trimmed with deer fur and carrying a satchel filled with parchment.
He nodded grimly to Ailig.
“I understand you’ve been here a long time, Mr. Douglas. Your case has come under my review.”
He extracted a few papers from the pile. “I understand you were arrested for treason?”
Ailig simply blinked up at him and didn’t say a word. The man turned to his guards. “Leave the torches and go,” he said.
To Ailig’s surprise, they obeyed at once. He looked again at the man, wondering who the hell he was.
Once the guards had slammed the door behind them, the man turned to Ailig again. “My name is Lord William de Clare, and I am the new Commissioner of this prison. If you wish me to help with your case, you would do well to open up to me.”
“How would you help me?” Ailig asked doubtfully.
The man looked around and spotted the stool in the corner. He dragged it over to Ailig–who still sat on his palette–and sat on it. “When you are imprisoned for treason, it is likely that you will swing on the gallows. I can change that. Give me a reason to.”
“Why would you want to reason?”
Lord William shrugged. “Does it matter? Do you not wish to live?”
Ailig sighed deeply. “Where should I start?”
“Try the beginning. How did you end up here?”
Ailig’s mouth twisted. “The only way that matters,” he said. “It was a woman.”
Lord William smiled. “Tell me about her.”
Ailig turned his eyes to meet those of his visitor directly.
Emily shut her eyes tighter as her curtains were drawn and the sunlight hurt her eyes. She groaned in annoyance. “Why must you come so early?” she asked Caitriona.
Her childminder smiled. “Ye’re wasting daylight. Why tis almost noon! Long past time for ye to be out of bed.”
“But I’m sick,” she complained.
“Ach. Ye have nothing but the sniffles. Yer mother awaits ye in the garden.”
Emily pouted. “Why?”
“Perhaps she wishes ye to help her pick some roses. How should I ken?”
Emily gave her an impish grin. “You know everything.”
Catriona smiled. “Ah well I dinna ken this. Now come here and let me wash yer face.”
Emily shuffled over to her, complaining the whole while. Catriona ignored her words and simply scrubbed her face and brushed her hair before dressing her in a woolen gown and sending her on her way.
Emily stopped by the kitchens to grab a slice of bread, knowing that she’d already missed breakfast. She slathered it generously with butter before walking out to the garden eating it thoughtfully.
She found her mother among the roses. Lady Norfolk got to her feet with a smile.
“Emily, I have some good news for you,” she said.
Emily quirked an eyebrow, “And what would that be?”
“Lord Driby has asked for your hand.”
She frowned. “But… why?”
Her mother gave her a look. “What do you mean, why?”
“He is a powerful baron, and I am just an ordinary lady.”
“Doubtless he has discerning taste and does not view you as ordinary.” Her mother gave her a chiding look.
Emily shook her head, turning away. Her brow furrowed with worry. She couldn’t understand what Lord Driby could possibly see in her. He could have his pick of any lady. “And when am I to be married, Mother?”
“That is for your father to decide.”
Emily pouted, giving her mother a pleading look. “I know you know, mother. Please tell me.”
Her mother sighed in resignation. “I heard them saying a year from today. Once they’re done with these politics.”
Emily breathed a little easier. At least she had a year from now before she was confined by marriage and children. She curtsied to her mother. “May I go?” she asked.
“Where to Emily? It is high time you stopped playing with those village urchins. You are a lady now.”
“We do not play, Mother. We read books.”
Lady Norfolk snorted. “You mean you read books? They simply sit around and watch you, since they cannot read.”
“Sometimes I read to them,” Emily said.
“Yes, and while that is very kind, it is not the best use of your time. Your embroidery needs work. And I am not satisfied with your progress with a knitting needle, nor a sewing needle.”
Emily flung out her arms dismissively. “Oh mother. I have Catriona for that.”
Lady Norfolk’s eyes narrowed in warning. “You may not always have her.”
“Don’t be silly, Mother. Where would she go?”
Her mother just sighed. “Run along you, since you won’t listen to me.”
Emily immediately leapt away. “Goodbye, Mother, I shall see you later.” She ran off immediately, making her way to the village square where she knew her friends would be waiting, having finished their morning chores. There really was no need for Emily to wake up before noon, because she was not required to muck out the stables, cook breakfast, or wash the floors.
The castle had servants for that.
She did what she wanted and what she wanted to do was read stories, watch the puppet shows, and hear what news was coming in from other towns.
She passed by John, the baker’s boy, as he was delivering loaves to the crofts in the village. She waved cheerily at him and kept walking. She knew he would find them later, a warm piece of bread in hand–it was his daily offering to her, a sign of his devotion. She knew she ought to snap this tendenrness he had for her in the bud, but she enjoyed the attention too much. Furthermore, it was completely harmless. After all, he should know that a baker’s boy had no chance with the daughter of an earl.
She reached the village square, lounging against the market cross as she waited for her friends to arrive. They probably had an hour or two before they had to go back to complete their evening chores.
Emily rather envied their life. It was a lot more structured than hers.
Rose was the first to arrive brimming with excitement. “I have some news,” she exclaimed.
Emily clapped her hands. She loved to hear new things. “What is it?” she said.
“My father has made a match for me. I am to be married!”
Emily frowned; not seeing what there was to be excited about. “To whom?”
“He hails from the next village. His father is a farmer and has offered to give us an eighth of his land for our own. Isn’t it exciting?”
Emily wasn’t so sure, but she was happy if her friend was happy. “Of course, that is wonderful news, congratulations.”
Rose hugged her. “Never fear. I’m sure someone will come to beg for your hand in marriage soon.”
That reminded Emily. “Oh, that has already happened. I am to be married in a year.” Her voice was much more subdued than her friend’s.
Rose squealed and clapped her hands. “Oh, we shall soon be wives together.”
Emily did not quite share Rose’s excitement, but she smiled anyway in agreement. “Yes, we shall. I suppose we won’t be able to meet anymore and spend our time together,” she said sadly.
Rose waved that away. “I’m sure we’ll find a way. After all, our mothers will not be able to control us anymore, and tell us when we can and cannot see each other.”
Emily smiled and nodded, “That’s true.” She kept to herself the fact that she had an inkling that Lord John would not approve of her, spending her time in the company of villagers.
I don’t have to think about that now.
She put it out of her mind and focused on spending a pleasant half hour with her friends.
She was making her way home along the cobbled road when she heard the steady clip-clop of a group of horses behind her. She turned to see a large contingent of men headed in her direction. From their dress, she could tell that they were not locals.
She hastened to move to the side of the road, staring at them as they passed. They were grim-faced men laden with weapons. She concluded that they must be soldiers returning from the war. She watched them go, knowing they could be headed nowhere else but for her home.
I wonder what they’re after.
She hastened her footsteps, skipping a little as she hurried home.
Ailig stood behind his chieftain, refraining heroically from gawping like a novice at the grandeur of the earl’s compound. Being an envoy for King Edward seemed to be a profitable undertaking. Several grooms milled about, come to take charge of the visitors’ horses while they waited for Lord Norfolk to appear and welcome them.
It did not take long for the man and his wife to appear, his face grim and unsmiling.
His eyes met the thane’s and he bowed. “I welcome the chieftain of Clan Douglas to my home under the white flag of peace. You and your men are welcome and safe here. Make yourselves at home.”
Ailig’s chieftain stepped forward and bowed as well. “Thomas Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, we thank you and we accept your gesture of hospitality.”
There was more bowing before the earl invited them to take their ease and refresh themselves before dinner. Ailig followed his chieftain to the guest wing, impressed at the sheer size of the castle. The accommodations were spacious and luxurious with thick furry blankets to keep them warm, as well as a fireplace in each chamber.
Ailig was tired. The chieftain rode straight from Scotland through the Southlands and down to Norfolk with nary a break.
He put his bag down with a sigh of relief and yawned. Sitting down carefully on the bed, he took a deep breath, wondering where to start. He jumped as the door opened and a serving girl came in carrying a basin of steaming water. He shot to his feet not sure what he should do while she was in the room. She set the basin down on a stool and then removed a bar of soap and a washcloth from her apron, putting them down beside it. She curtsied to him without looking in his direction and then left the room.
He took off his heavy coat, his shirt, shoes, and his breeches, before walking naked to the basin and splashing water on his body. It felt luxuriantly good not to be bathing in the icy waters of whatever glen they happened to pass. He gave himself a thorough wash and then dried himself by the fire before putting his clothes back on. Just in time, he heard a bell summoning them for dinner. His door swung open and Lachlan, one of the other guards stuck his head in. “Are ye comin?” he asked.
“Well, then, hurry up. I’m hungry.”
Ailig left his warm place by the fire and followed Lachlan down to dinner.
The dining room was packed with castle inhabitants as well as guests. Ailig took his place at the end of a bench toward the back of the room. He spotted his chieftain sitting next to the earl, deep in conversation.
He wondered when the king was to arrive and what would happen to them all when he did.
He knew these talks could go awry with the turn of a phrase. He truly did not want to be here. He was a soldier, not a diplomat. And he certainly had no desire to bend the knee to King Edward. But the fighting was over, and the king said he wanted to make a treaty. Someone had to talk to him on behalf of the Scots. It was an honor to be chosen, really – an honor Ailig could have lived without. If his father were not the chieftain’s taxman and needed at his right hand, Ailig might have bowed out of this duty. He much preferred fighting to diplomacy.
“Who are you?”
He turned in startled to see a gaily dressed young lady staring at him, eyes shining with curiosity in the candlelight. He blinked a few times in an effort to compose himself. “I am Ailig Douglas of Loch Lomond.”
She grinned widely. “Oh! You’re a Scot? My childminder is Scots too!”
Ailig hardly knew what to say to that.
“Why are you here?” The girl asked with bright interest, surprising Ailig yet again. He thought everyone in England knew why they were here.
“For the peace talks.” He cocked an eyebrow at her.
Her brow furrowed in puzzlement. “Peace talks?”
“Aye, between the Scots and the British.”
She cocked her head to the side, staring at him curiously. “And you? Are you a diplomat or a soldier?”
He laughed, “Do I look like a diplomat to ye?”
You look lost,” she said, shaking her head.
He gaped at her, “I beg yer pardon?”
She grinned, “You’re looking around you as if you don’t recognize anything. Have you never been to a dining hall before?”
He threw back his head and laughed, unable to believe her audacity. He laughed long and hard before stopping to look at her again. “I have been in a dining hall before; admittedly, not one sae big. Tell me lass, who are ye?”
She shrugged. “I am nobody. Just the daughter of the house. Nobody tells me anything.”
Ailig stiffened. “Should ye be here? Speaking wi’ me? I’m sure there’s a place for ye at the high table.”
She snorted with derision. “As if I would be interested in their dreary conversation. I’d rather sit here with you. Tell me stories of your plundering and pillaging, or skirmishes and suchlike. I understand the Scots are a hardy bunch. How did the English beat you?”
He drew himself up to his full height. “Scots are hardy and they fight to the last man. But the English are endless.”
The girl laughed. “That we are. Forgive me, I didn’t introduce myself. I am Lady Emily Bigod, daughter of the earl.”
He nodded. “Yer servant, Madam.”
The serving girl came around with a tree brimming with meat. She put it in front of Ailig while looking at Emily askance. “Your mother is looking for you, my lady,” she said.
Emily waved her hands, airily. “I’m sure it’s not urgent. I am entertaining our guests.”
“Oh, I dinna mind if ye go,” Ailig hastily cut in.
Emily narrowed her eyes at him. “Nobody asked you.”
The serving girl snorted even as she walked away. Ailig shook his head and tucked into the food in front of him. He would not get involved in the House politics; not if he could possibly help it.
He focused on ignoring the girl and eating his food. She was not deterred and continued to talk at him telling him all about the castle and her day. He really had no choice but to listen. He just hoped that the earl would not misunderstand his motives.
The peace talks were too important.
The house had even more bustle and noise than usual. Normally Emily was one to revel in the presence of strangers. But she was locked out of everything, and everybody ignored her.
She occasionally caught a glimpse of the soldier she’d spoken to on the first night. But even he was occupied with his duties and barely said a word to her. She spent most of her time in her room reading or out of the compound with her friends in the village.
They were all agog with the news that the king was present in their district, but were rather disappointed that there wasn’t much that Emily could tell them about what was going on in the castle.
“They lock themselves in my father’s den for hours. They even have their meals in there. I don’t know a thing about what’s going on.”
“I suppose you can’t eavesdrop at the door?” Rose asked, hopefully.
“Sadly no. The doors are guarded both by English and Scots guards. They would chase me away if I even walked down the corridor toward them.”
“Do you think they will agree to give the Scots independence?” Willard, the blacksmith’s son, asked.
“I suppose that is why they are here,” Emily said with a shrug.
“Why would they come all this way if they thought the king would say no?”
Robert, who was eager to join the castle staff as a groomsman, nodded thoughtfully. “You’re right. They’ll probably give them their independence.”
Rose pushed him irritably, “You just want to agree with everything that Emily says so she’ll put in a good word for you at the castle.”
Emily leaned forward. “I shall put in a good word in any case. Robert knows that; don’t you?”
Robert nodded eagerly. “Of course, I do.”
Rose rolled her eyes.
Dark clouds had been gathering for a while and a large raindrop fell on Emily’s nose. “I’d best be getting back. I do not want to get drenched.”
Rose stood up as well. “I hung my clothes out to dry. I best go and get them.”
The whole group scattered after that; each going their own way.
Emily was grateful that she rode a horse into the village so she could get back to the castle quickly. The drops of rain were already beginning to come faster and heavier. She hoped she wouldn’t be soaked through by the time she got home. Catriona had not been feeling well that morning and she didn’t want to bother her for help with a change of clothes.
She arrived home when it was getting dark. Her heart sank when she saw her mother speaking intently with a woman in a dark cloak. She could only assume they were speaking about her and her tardiness. She was always disappointing her mother in one way or another. Mentally, she began to prepare excuses for why she was late. There was no way she could have known how quickly darkness would fall. The rain had come upon them so suddenly…
Slowly, she walked her horse to the stable, handing it over to a groom before making her way slowly back to her mother.
“Good evening,” she said softly.
Her mother turned to her and to Emily surprise, her face fell. “Oh darling, I’m so sorry.”
Emily frowned. “You’re sorry?”
Lady Norfolk nodded. “Yes, we have some bad news. It’s your childminder. It’s Catriona. She’s not doing well.”
Emily frowned, “What do you mean? She simply had the sniffles.”
Her mother shook her head sadly. “I’m afraid not. You should go and see her. Say your goodbyes.”
She stared bleakly at her mother, unable to believe her words.
“Are you practicing upon my mother? Surely this cannot be true.”
“I’m sorry,” her mother said again softly while cupping her cheek and that confirmed it for Emily. Her mother rarely used those words. She pushed past them and run up the stairs to Catriona’s rooms.
She found her childminder sitting up in bed gasping for air in a room full of camphor and mint scented steam.
She dashed to her side, kneeling by the bed. “Oh Cat, what has happened?” she asked bleakly as she looked around and noted everything: the sweat on Catriona’s brow, her lips turning blue, the servants tending the fire to make the room hot, and the water boiling in the cauldron producing more camphor-scented steam. Catriona’s hands trembled as she tried to grasp Emily’s.
“You’re going to be alright.” Emily tried to comfort her.
Catriona shook her head. “No, I willna. I ask only one thing of ye, me dear. Please make sure that me ashes are returned to Scotland and scattered at me village. I dinna wish to rest forever in foreign soil.”
“I promise,” Emily said, tears falling from her eyes.
Catriona became mock stern. “Ye better keep yer promise or else I shall come back and haunt ye.”
“If you think that would scare me, you are sadly mistaken. I should be very glad of the company.” She sniffed and tried to wipe her eye.
Catriona smiled weakly, cupping Emily’s cheek. “Ye have been a dear child. I have loved ye like my own.”
“I love you, too,” Emily said, the tears trickling down her face.
“Then take me home.” Catriona laid back and closed her eyes.
Emily leaned in to peer at her. “Cat?” she called.
There was no response.
One of the maids came and put her hand against Catriona’s mouth.
She kept it there for over a minute before turning somber eyes on Emily and shaking her head.
Emily wailed. “Nooo! This is not happening.”
She collapsed against Catriona’s bed and burst into tears.
There was an announcement at dinner that a member of the household was dead. Ailig was unsure about how that would affect the talks seeing as it was not a member of the family. He did not see any reason why the summit should be halted. He stopped one of the serving girls to ask who exactly had died.
“Tis the childminder, Sir,” the girl said.
Ailig nodded in understanding and relief. A mere childminder was unlikely to disrupt anything. No doubt the girl would be upset. But that had nothing to do with what they were here for.
He tucked into his food after reassuring himself, feeling happier.
Lachlan leaned into him and whispered, “I hear say she was a Scotswoman.”
“The lass that died!”
“It is none of our business,” Ailig said without looking up.
“Is it no? She’s a fellow countrywoman.”
“Ah, weel, she chose to work among the Sassenachs.”
Lachlan sighed, shaking his head. “Ye’ve no fellow feeling, Ailig.”
“Oh, I have plenty,” Ailig protested. “But not for some stranger I dinna ken.”
Lachlan just shook his head.
Since it was Lady Norfolk who asked, the vicar agreed to come to the castle to say final blessings over Catriona’s body. Her last words were ringing in Emily’s mind even as they built a pyre and burned her body. She knew she had to find a way to take Catriona’s ashes home.
I am to be married in a year. I can look upon this as my last pilgrimage – one more adventure before I put my childhood away and become a wife and mother. Surely Father must agree.
She sat by the pyre until Catriona’s body had burned to ash and then she herself lovingly collected the ashes and placed them in an urn.
“Do not fear my dear Cat. I shall make sure you go home.”
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath before squaring her shoulders and marching up to her father’s study. She’d barely seen her father since the visitors arrived. She could not rely on a chance meeting or wait until he had some free time. She had to interrupt their meeting and speak to him.
She marched up to the soldiers guarding the door and looked them both in the eye.
“Excuse me; I need to speak to my father.”
They exchanged glances. “Your father is busy, little girl, he has no time for–.”
She pushed past them both while they were still talking.
“Oy!” one of them shouted but she ignored them, opening the door.
The room was musty with the odor of several men who had been there for quite some time. They were sitting at a round table looking solemn and serious.
She marched straight up to her father. “I need to take Catriona home Papa,” she said.
He blinked at her in puzzlement. “Who is Catriona?”
“My childminder, Papa,” she said, almost stamping her foot.
“Ah.” Lord Norfolk’s face cleared. “You mean the one who died recently?”
Emily glared at her father, gritting her teeth. “Yes,” she hissed, “that one.”
“I thought you already had a funeral pyre for her.”
“I did, Papa, and now I need to go and lay her remains to rest according to her final wishes.”
“I see.” He frowned. “And where exactly do you wish to do that?”
“Scotland,” Emily declared.
There was a burst of laughter from the men in the room.
Her father frowned. “Do not be ridiculous. You cannot go to Scotland.”
“It was her dying wish, father; and I promised her.”
“Well, you are just going to have to break that promise.”
“I cannot, father. Why can I not go?”
“Because it’s not safe.”
“I can take her,” a deep baritone spoke up from across the room.
They both turned toward the new voice. Emily’s eyes lit up when she saw the soldier she had talked to the night the Scots arrived. She pointed dramatically at him, smiling at her father. “He can take me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Actually, I don’t see why not.” King Edward interjected. “Such a gesture of goodwill cannot be overlooked by either the people of Scotland or England. Our two nations joined together to carry this woman home.”
Her father gaped at the king in shock. “You wish this Scotsman to accompany my daughter?”
The king nodded. “Yes. Of course, she shall be well chaperoned. It will be a symbol of our unity as two countries bound by treaty – keeping a promise to a Scotswoman who nurtured an Englishwoman with such loving care that she inspired all this devotion.” King Edward pointed at Emily while speaking to everyone in the room.
Some men were nodding their heads, others were looking at him incredulously, including Emily’s father.
“I cannot let my daughter go off with a strange man. She is betrothed.”
The King raised his hands. “This is a royal decree. The girl will accompany Mr. Douglas to Scotland; she will be properly chaperoned. Her childminder’s ashes shall be returned to their homeland, as she promised.”
Lord Norfolk sat down in defeat. “Yes, your majesty,” he said.
Ailig did not know why he had volunteered himself. He heard the girl begging her father to allow her to take the woman’s ashes home, and Lachlan’s words were ringing in his ears.
She is a countrywoman.
He had simply felt compelled to do everything he could to help her go home. Indeed, he could not imagine being buried forever in a foreign land. But now he was saddled with a spoiled brat and the King’s decree. This was not what he had meant at all.
His father came to his rooms after the day’s negotiations were done and squeezed his shoulders. “Well done, my boy. Ye have brought our family to prominence. But please tell me ye dinna do it for the sake of that Sassenach girl.”
Ailig shook his head. “No, da. I was simply moved to help a fellow countrywoman be interred in the soil of her homeland.”
His father nodded. “Good, good. Ye will make preparations to travel. Ye will leave two days hence.”
“Is that not a bit soon?”
“The king wants ye to go and return as soon as possible.”
“I see. Will we get letters of safe passage?”
“O’ course, not only that, but an escort to the border as well.”
“Very well, then. I will do my best to complete this task to yer satisfaction.”
His father nodded and left. Ailig lay down on the bed and sighed. He was not looking forward to this at all.
“Well, ye brought it on yerself.”
He turned to his side and closed his eyes, determined to fall asleep.
Emily fluctuated between excitement and sadness. She was excited for this trip but saddened by what had made it necessary. If she was to be shackled to Lord Driby for the rest of her life, at least she could have one adventure before the doors were closed behind her for the rest of her life. She packed the urn securely in a wooden box so she could carry it with her on her horse. She packed a few dresses and warm coats, as well as a cloak, remembering how Catriona had told that Scotland could get very cold, windy, and rainy. She did not intend to be caught unaware.
Thinking about her designated escort, she wondered why he felt compelled to volunteer.
I shall have plenty of time to ask him on the road.
She wanted to go to the village and tell her friends that she was off on an adventure, but her mother kept her close. There were apparently an awful lot of things she needed to know or pack before she could go. Her mother was determined that she learned them all.
“You must know your simples. If you fall ill there might be nobody to tend you. So, you must know what to do. Repeat after me, what do you use the camphor for?”
Emily rolled her eyes but repeated the lesson her mother had been drumming into her brain. She did not think Scotland was as backward as her parents seemed to think. But she did not want to start a fight and so she just did everything she was told.
She did not see the soldier again until it was time to leave. His horse drew up beside hers in the courtyard as they prepared to leave, and she offered him a tentative smile. He looked her up and down skeptically. “Are ye certain ye will be able to make this journey?” he asked. “Yer coat seems to be very light.”
“My gown is made of wool. I shall be fine.”
He shrugged. “Verra well then. Let us go.”
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