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The Lies A Lass Tells (Preview)

Chapter 1

England…

“Hello, Angel. Will you and your braid be spending the night against the wall again?”

Olivia’s cool remark prickled at Dabria’s nerves, sending sparks of annoyance down her spine. She knew the name Angel was not meant with any kind of affection. Ignoring her cousin, she finished braiding her long dark hair into a thick plait and placed it over her shoulder.

Turning back to her own reflection in the dresser mirror, Dabria’s wide gray eyes surveyed her waist-length braid. She didn’t dare fix her hair in any other fashion. At nineteen, Dabria Aughton was small and petite, with fair skin resembling that of a porcelain doll. The forest green dress she had chosen for the evening accentuated her fair complexion. Seeing the way Olivia was staring at her in the mirror with pure distaste, she shifted her focus and busied herself with the items on her dresser.

Olivia rolled her dark oak brown eyes and sauntered over to her own dresser. She loved to do her hair in all the latest fashions, and she always made a point of showing Dabria. “I don’t know why you are putting in so much effort when you’re just going to be a wallflower again all evening, Angel,” she said as she glanced over her shoulder to ensure Dabria was paying attention to her. “What do you think I should do with my hair this evening, Angel?”

“Please, call me Dabria,” she responded, giving in to her cousin’s taunting. “I think you should do whatever you please with your hair.”

Olivia had an annoying habit of taunting her until she gave in to her whims and said something back. “I think I might braid it. Do you think that will suit me?” she asked over her shoulder while examining Dabria’s face. “No, braids are your thing. I don’t want to step on your toes.”

Dabria knew better than to provoke her cousin with any kind of response. When her brother or cousin made such remarks, she learned to bite her tongue and suppress her anger.

Olivia Brown had come to stay at the Aughton mansion after her parents succumbed to a terrible illness. Dabria’s brother, Viscount Noah Aughton, had taken pity on her when she begged him to save her from her betrothal to a vile duke with a bad reputation. Narrowly escaping that fate thanks to Noah, Olivia had been a ward in their house for the past three years. Years she had spent mocking and tormenting Dabria, making snide remarks about her looks and the way she braided her hair, knowing full well that Dabria had no choice in the matter.

“Well, are you going to dance?” Olivia asked again, a smirk on her thin lips.

Sighing heavily, Dabria turned back to her mirror and fixed the lacing at the neck of her satin dress. “Are you looking forward to this evening, then?” She asked her cousin, in an attempt to shift the focus away from herself.

“Of course,” Olivia piled her mousy walnut brown hair on top of her head, examining her reflection from every angle. “Rumor has it there’s a new viscount in town. Our hosts have graciously invited him to this evening’s ball.”

Fighting back the urge to reply sarcastically, Dabria picked up her simple diamond earrings.

“Again with those plain diamond earrings,” Olivia said in a droll tone, turning away from her dresser, her light pink dress swinging around her knees.

Ignoring her cousin, Dabria fastened her earrings. They were the only keepsakes she had from her mother since her brother had not allowed her to take anything else from her jewellery box. He blamed her for their parents’ deaths and never let her forget it. He had only let her have the earrings because he thought they were plain and ugly and saw no value in keeping them.

“Here, keep these,” he’d said, throwing the earrings on the table in front of her after she’d asked for a keepsake of their mother’s. “They are plain, so they should suit you.”

Dabria recalled the memory as she looked at her reflection in the mirror, her lips full and rounded in comparison to those of her cousin’s. She had learned a long time ago to keep the peace by being a ‘wallflower’, as Olivia had phrased it, and holding her tongue. “I think the carriage is ready,” she said and pushed herself up from the dresser chair. “Noah will be waiting for us.”

Smirking in her cruel, superior manner, Olivia stood and lifted her shawl from the back of her chair. “Let’s not keep my suitors waiting then, shall we, Angel?” she teased, fixing her elbow-length gloves. Her mousy hair was now pinned back in a tight bun that pulled the skin on her face, making her narrow eyes appear even smaller.

Viscount Noah Aughton stood waiting for them outside by the carriage, just as Dabria had predicted. He was dressed in a pale blue suit that brought out his sky blue eyes. His beard was trimmed and neat, his light brown hair slicked back under his top hat. A dark mahogany cane swung from his arm as he held the carriage door open for Olivia to climb inside, stepping in before Dabria.

“I hope you will remember your place and dance when asked to this evening,” Noah snapped at her as soon as she took her seat. “There will be consequences if you behave like an insipid little wallflower again all evening. It’s high time you were married.”

“Yes, Noah,” Dabria kept her face straight, while Olivia smirked. “I will do my best to be sociable this evening,” she said with a defiant tilt in her chin.

“Insipid Angel of Death,” Noah taunted and clenched his jaw in disgust.

Turning away from her brother and cousin, Dabria rested her chin on her delicate gloved hand and stared out of the carriage window as the horses’ hooves began to clop on the cobbled street, jostling the carriage as it moved away. Her name meant Angel of Death. A name her father had given her as a newborn after her mother had died giving birth to her. Her governess had once told her that her father had held her in his arms, with tears rolling down his cheeks as her mother lay motionless in their bed.

“You are so beautiful, like a little angel, an angel of death, my little Dabria…”

The sentence rang in her head like a church bell tolling when death was announced. Her father had taken his own life a few weeks later, the grief of losing his wife driving him insane. Noah was eight years old at the time, and he’d never forgiven her for killing their parents, telling her every chance he got that she was to blame.

“We are here,” Noah’s cold tone yanking her off her thoughts.

The carriage jostled to a halt in front of a large building adorned with ornate statues. Light and laughter spilled through the brightly illuminated windows. The ball was already in full swing.

Dabria was about to exit the carriage after Olivia when the length of Noah’s cane being placed across the doorway to bar her way made her pause.

“Remember what I said. You are to dance when asked to this evening. No exceptions.’’ His tone was just above a whisper, presumably, she thought, so the footmen would not hear.

“Yes, Noah,” she said and waited as her brother pushed past her and exited the carriage.

Inside the mansion, the ballroom was brightly lit with lanterns and candles. The ladies’ jewellery and ornately beautiful dresses glinted in the light as they chatted away to suitors and chaperones.

Dabria stood next to a tall fern, a glass of punch in her hand, trying her best to seem as small as possible as she surveyed the flying cherubs painted on the high ceiling. The crystal chandelier above held no less than one hundred candles; these were the kinds of things a person noticed when trying their best not to be noticed.

“Excuse me, miss,” a gentle voice asked from just beside her.

Dabria turned slowly while chewing on her bottom lip. She could see Noah from across the hall glaring at her, scrutinizing her reactions.

“How do you do, sir?” she replied, attempting a smile and bobbing a polite curtsey.

The gentleman in question was tall and handsome in a roguish way. His cedar brown eyes matched the neatly combed hair that had been swept to the side in a thick wave. His suit fit perfectly across his muscular build.

“Good evening,” he bowed, his arm across his chest. “Forgive me for startling you, miss. If I may introduce myself, I am Viscount Monroe Wren. I could not help but notice that you look just as out of place as I do this evening.”

Dabria took a step back and tilted her head in mild indignation. She sipped her punch, all the while watching her brother; the last thing she needed that evening was another person insulting her quiet demeanor.

“Forgive me, please,” Viscount Monroe said hurriedly. “I can see I have offended you. I did not mean it in that way. You see, I am new in town and don’t know anyone. I just meant that you seemed to be just as lost as I am this evening. I always find meeting new people rather daunting.”

The sincerity in his eyes and voice relaxed her nerves and made her lower her guard slightly. If she was to make pleasantries all evening, perhaps conversing with the newly arrived viscount would not be so bad after all.

“Good evening, Viscount,” she said, placing her drink on the table behind her and offering her hand. “I am Miss Dabria Aughton. Pleased to meet you.”

Viscount Monroe looked relieved. “I am pleased you did not take offense; it would be just like me to offend one of the most beautiful women in London at my very first ball.”

Dabria laughed lightly despite herself. “Not at all, my lord, I was merely transfixed by the lovely ceiling. You caught me off guard, is all.”

The viscount looked up and seemed about to comment when Olivia appeared and slipped her pink-gloved arm through Dabria’s, holding it tightly.

“Come now Dabria, don’t keep our new guest all to yourself,” she said in a high-pitched tone, batting her eyelids as she smiled at the viscount.

Dabria almost forgot herself then, just managing not to roll her eyes. So, this must be the newcomer Olivia is after. Just my luck to get caught in the middle of the hunt. Knowing she had no choice, she made the necessary introductions.

“Viscount Monroe Wren, may I please introduce my cousin, Miss Olivia Brown?”

“Miss Brown,” Monroe bowed and kissed the hand Olivia thrust in his face. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“The pleasure is all mine, my lord,” Olivia flirted and giggled. “Will you be dancing much this evening? I’m sure you have already filled in many a lady’s dance card.”

Dabria pushed back the nausea growing in her stomach. Her cousin’s obvious flirting was enough to make her want to leave. She was about to do just that when Monroe Wren took her by surprise.

“Actually, I was about to ask Miss Aughton here if she would grant me the honor of the first dance.”

Dabria stopped in her tracks and looked at her cousin’s darkening eyes. She knew that accepting the dance would infuriate Olivia, but her brother’s raised eyebrow and warning expression let her know there would be more than just a sulky cousin to deal with if she declined the offer. Noah’s wrath would be far more severe than anything Olivia could do.

Choosing the lesser of two evils, Dabria braced herself and placed her hand in Viscount Monroe’s, “I would love to.”

Olivia’s face shrouded to match her eyes as Dabria allowed herself to be led into the middle of the dance floor with the other waiting couples.

The violins began to play their lively melodies as the viscount twirled Dabria in expert fashion. “I think we may have a lot in common, Miss Aughton,” he whispered as he placed his hand on her waist. “I much prefer the solitude of the country to all this polite pomp and ceremony of town, don’t you?”

Dabria began to enjoy herself despite everything. The viscount’s friendly demeanor was something she thought she could get used to. She doubted she’d ever feel the affection referred to in popular romance novels as ‘love’ for anyone, but if she needed to make a match so that her brother could get rid of her through a marriage of convenience, the viscount didn’t seem such a bad prospect.

Throughout the dance, she laughed and made polite conversation, briefly forgetting about her brother and cousin. She let him lead her back to the refreshments table, where he poured them both some punch.

“Thank you,” she said, taking it from him gratefully, “dancing makes one thirsty.”

“I must admit, I always dread the small talk one has to make while dancing, but that was quite pleasant. Wouldn’t you say?”

Dabria sipped her punch and nodded. “I don’t usually like to dance, but it was enjoyable, indeed.”

“Care to join me for another when we have had our refreshments? Please, say yes. You would be doing me a great favor. I dread having to approach another lady. I dare say that not everyone would be as polite and understanding as you if I accidentally insulted them.”

Dabria was about to say no; the trouble Olivia would make for her if it seemed she was paying too much attention to the viscount wasn’t worth the extra dance. Not even if the viscount was a pleasant distraction from the evening.

“Please, say yes. Just one more?”

“All right, you have convinced me. Just one more dance,” she said, smiling politely, adding, “You shall save me from being a wallflower for the evening.” Her brother’s stern glances across the room forced her to accept the offer.

“Who is a wallflower?” Olivia cut in. “Not our angel,” she said with a hidden sneer, reminding Dabria of her place, slipping her hand once again through her arm.

The smile on Dabria’s face vanished in an instant.

Monroe frowned but shook his head at the exchange. “I was just asking your cousin for a second dance,” he told Olivia politely.

“Not so hasty, my lord. You shall wear our poor Lady Aughton out.” Her laugh had an icy edge to it that only those closest to her would notice. “I would first like to take a walk with my dear cousin, let her catch her breath, and then you can have her all to yourself again,” she said, looking up at Dabria. “What do you say?” she gently applied pressure to Dabria’s arm, letting her know that declining would be ill-advised. “Meet me in the gardens in five minutes?”

Dabria lifted the corner of her mouth into a polite smile and addressed Monroe. “I would be delighted to accept another dance once I have caught my breath, my lord. Would you please excuse me for a moment?” she said and replaced her glass on the table.

Olivia smiled and curtsied to the viscount before sauntering off.

Weaving through the throng of brightly dressed guests, Dabria headed towards the open doors leading out into the gardens. The cool night air kissed her skin; making her shiver and so she pulled her green shawl around her shoulders.

Olivia was nowhere to be seen.

Dabria picked her way through the bushes, grateful for the opportunity to be alone again, even if Olivia had pulled her out into the cool evening as a distraction.

“Dangerous for a lady to be out here by herself,” a nasty, rattling voice said from behind a nearby bush. “People might think she’s not virtuous.”

Dabria froze in her tracks, the familiar voice sending icy chills of fear and disgust down her spine. Clutching her shawl closer to her body, she took a step back.

The voice belonged to Frederick Williams, the Duke of Marton, a nasty old man with a despicable reputation. Rumor had it that he had killed his previous two wives, both young, healthy women who had succumbed to mysterious illnesses shortly after marrying him. The duke had on many occasions relentlessly pursued Dabria, much to her great revulsion.

“Your Grace,” Dabria greeted him politely, keeping her distance. “I was merely looking for my cousin. She said she would meet me out here.”

The duke was short with a round belly, and a balding head with tufts of grey hair on the sides. His teeth were yellowing from age, and his dark brown eyes reminded her of two stagnant pools.

“I hope her delay lasts a little longer,” he said, advancing on her. “I do so like it when it’s just the two of us.”

Dabria backed up all the way into a giant hedge, her arms defensively clutching her waist. “I should be getting back.”

“Don’t run away so fast, my dear. Don’t you remember how much fun we had at the last ball when you and I danced?” His smile was vile, curving into a mischievous grin that made her sick to her stomach. “I did so love twirling you in my arms.”

Dabria tried to make herself as small as possible. She began to panic as the duke advanced, memories of his hands groping her waist making her pulse race. He reached for her hand, and as she swung away, he caught the tip of her glove, pulling it off as she hurried away.

Her breath caught in her chest as she turned, seeing Olivia standing with Noah and Viscount Monroe in the doorway to the hall. A tiny crowd had gathered behind them to see what the fuss was about. She looked at their shocked faces, then back to the duke, who was standing still holding her glove.

“Noah, it isn’t what it looks like,” she said in a pleading voice when she realized what they must all be thinking. “I was waiting for Olivia when—”

“I beg your pardon, I played no part in your ruin,” snapped her cousin.

“Enough,” Noah barked when the crowd had grown even larger. He hurried down the steps and grabbed Dabria by the wrist. “Come with me,” he growled at the duke before dragging her inside behind him through the onlookers.

Once they were in the study, Noah shut the door. Dabria stood beside Olivia and the duke as Noah paced back and forth. “I will not ask what you were doing alone in the dark with a gentleman who is not your chaperone,” he hissed angrily.

“I was waiting for—”

“Do not bring Olivia into this. Your virtue has been compromised, Dabria, so do not act as if you don’t understand the seriousness of the matter. You will have to wed His Grace now. We will make the arrangements and announce the engagement within a month. That is, if you agree, Your Grace.” He turned to the duke for confirmation.

The duke’s dry lips curled into a nasty grin as he nodded. “I will marry the girl.”

“Brother,” Dabria looked pleadingly at her brother. “Please don’t make me do this.”

Dabria was about to resume her protests when Noah stopped her. She leaned back against the large, wooden desk in the center of the room, as if about to pass out. Olivia and the Duke’s triumphant smiles made her sick to her stomach once more. She couldn’t see a way out of the mess. How had she ended up in such a terrible situation when she had been laughing and minding her own business just moments before?

As it turned out, her marriage really had been just around the corner, as she had thought while dancing with the viscount. But it would be a marriage devoid of kindness.

 

Chapter 2

The jolting of the carriage exacerbated Dabria’s nausea as she clutched her seat. She begged her brother not to force her to marry the vile duke, but an agreement was reached regardless of her wishes. They’d be married in a month, as soon as Noah could make the necessary arrangements.

Dabria couldn’t bear the thought of being a wife to that horrible old man, with his round belly, yellowing teeth, and nasty grin. Why must it be so? She wouldn’t have minded being a spinster if it came to it.

“Don’t you think our angel will make a fetching bride?” Olivia asked Noah, watching Dabria’s face carefully for a reaction.

Noah’s mouth curved into a nasty smile. “Finally, you will be useful to this family,” he said.

“You don’t have to go through with this,” she said quietly. “I can leave and become a governess. I can look after myself. Please, Noah, anything but this. Don’t make me marry the duke. If I am a burden to you, I can make my own way in the world.”

“You have been a burden since the day you were born. You will go through with it.” His tone darkened as he added, “And you will do it without any fuss.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Never forget, you are the Angel of Death. You don’t get a say in the matter. Do I make myself clear?”

Dabria let out a shaky breath before staring back at her brother. “Perfectly,” she said, determination rising inside her. She knew that arguing with her brother would not make him change his mind. To him, she would always be the person who had brought death to their family.

Noah sat back in his seat as the carriage bounced along, his triumphant expression declaring his victory.

She raised her gaze out the window to the full moon hanging above the London skyline. She was determined not to marry the duke. She’d been punished enough for her parents’ deaths. It was past time for her to take matters into her own hands. Marriage to the vile man would be a fate worse than death, and she was not ready to die..

***

The foreboding light of the full moon cast ominous shadows across the carpet in Dabria’s bedroom as she pulled on her riding boots. The clock in the hall outside her chambers struck twelve times, letting the occupants of the house know it was midnight.

Noah would be in his chambers by now, having finished his whiskey an hour ago. If anything, her brother was a creature of habit. She could set her watch by his routine.

Tightening her dark traveling cloak about her, she pulled the hood over her head and reached for the small case she had packed after Olivia had gone to her room. She could hear loud snores coming from across the corridor, even with both doors closed; Olivia was sound asleep.

She did a final check on the contents of the case before snapping the lid shut. Two dresses, a hairbrush, a few toiletries, and the little money she had managed to save over the years for a rainy day. And marrying the duke was a rainy day if ever there was one. Her mother’s diamond earrings were pinned to the inside of her dress for safekeeping.

She went over the plan in her head once more as she looked around her room. The maids would all be asleep at that hour, allowing her the freedom to leave unseen through the front door. She intended to make her way across town to a certain livery stable that stayed open all night to serve the saloon patrons. There, she would purchase a horse and begin her journey to Scotland. Her aunt would know what to do once she arrived at her house.

Taking her case, she stepped out into the hall and quietly pulled the chamber door shut behind her. She waited a moment to see if anyone was around. There was always the possibility of someone summoning a maid during the night, and she couldn’t risk being caught. The maids in the Aughton mansion were terrified of displeasing her brother and would surely give her away.

When Dabria was sure the coast was clear, she made her way as quickly and quietly as she could down the stairs and out of the front door.

A servant’s bell rang in the distance, signalling that someone had indeed summoned a maid. Had Noah or Olivia heard something? Her heart began to race. Hurrying her pace, she closed the front door and made her way down the entrance steps, the heals of her boots clicking softly against the polished stone.

The night air was cool as she stepped out into the dimly lit street with her case in hand. She had done it.

“Who goes there?” a man’s voice called to her from the shadows, making her jump.

Had she been discovered already? The possibilities raced through her mind; perhaps the bell she had heard was Noah summoning a maid because he had heard something. When a man emerged from the shadows, she felt her heart pounding in her ears. He was dressed in the dark garb of the night watchmen who patrolled the streets.

“Where are you off to at this hour, miss?” he asked in a gruff voice.

Dabria kept her head low, not wanting the man to see her face.

“I’m off to catch the early milk cart leaving town. My aunt has taken ill suddenly, and I’m needed back home,” she lied, staring at his shiny black boots.

The officer looked at the mansion behind her. “Are you a maid here?”

“Yes, sir,” she said, relieved the officer seemed to have believed her story. Her quick thinking had always been one of her saving graces, a talent she’d developed over the years to avoid provoking her cousin and brother. You had to be able to think on your feet when you lived with the two of them.

“Be careful out there,” he nodded, and then resumed walking, his shiny boots crunching on the gravel of the deserted street. He would not have let her go alone if he’d discovered she was a lady. But a common maid was of no concern to an officer.

Dabria hurried down the street after thanking the man for his kindness. Her steps echoed in the darkness as she walked away from the duke, her cousin, her brother, and a life of misery.

***

Scotland, four days later . . .

Dabria reined the horse in on the tiny, cobbled walk outside her aunt’s cottage. The journey from England had been long and arduous. She had ridden by night and slept in taverns during the day to ensure no one would recognize her. She was tired to the bone and needed a drink to calm her dry, scratchy throat.

Dismounting the horse, she soothed the beast and made her way to the cottage’s wooden door. However, when she tried the handle, it was locked. It doesn’t look like anyone is home, she thought, dismayed as she peered through the windows to check inside. It seemed her aunt and her husband had gone somewhere. As it wasn’t like them to lock the door just for short absences, she guessed they had gone on a longer trip. Her heart sank at the thought.

Placing her hands on her hips, she looked around the exterior of the small cottage. There was no other entrance to the place, and the surrounding garden was deserted.

She had been to the lovely cottage in Scotland only once before, on the fateful day when Noah had forbidden her from ever wearing her hair loose again. She unconsciously reached for her braid and pushed it back over her shoulder as she recalled the events.

The walls of the cottage were made of solid stone holding up a simple thatched roof. Her aunt had always been a simple woman who didn’t need riches in life to be happy. The garden was small and filled with wild heather that grew untamed. The surrounding forest, with its mature birch trees and towering Scot’s pines, provided the perfect surroundings for the house, which nestled in its own private nook.

Dabria let out a sigh when she remembered how Noah had forced their Aunt Margaret to move to Scotland the previous year. She had married a Scotsman whom her brother deemed beneath him, and before Dabria knew it, her aunt had been sent away for good.

You can take that riffraff back to his country with you. Dabria recalled her brother’s harsh words after Margaret had announced her wedding. I will not have you parading him around London like some kind of oddity to be gawked at.

“I will go, Noah,” her aunt had replied without batting an eyelid. “I will go to Scotland with my husband. But know this, you will always be welcome in my house, even if I am not welcome in yours.” Dabria admired the way her aunt had faced adversity and yet still shown kindness. The woman had a fierceness about her that didn’t change her gentle nature. “I shan’t ask you for money either, so you can keep the family riches. But I will keep what is rightfully mine.”

Noah’s jaw had clenched in anger at her words. He knew exactly what their aunt meant. She would not be giving him the priceless family ring that had been passed down for generations.

Dabria was very fond of her, and the fact she had married a Scot didn’t change that. She was the only member of the family who had ever shown her any kind of affection, and, as her mother’s younger sister, she bore a striking resemblance to Dabria.

“What am I going to do now?” she murmured to herself. She turned and looked at the horse. “I suppose we might find another inn for the night and come back tomorrow,” she mumbled, chewing on her bottom lip as she considered her situation and stroked the horse’s golden mane. The prospect of riding any further for any distance was not appealing to her or the mare at the time. Four days on the back of a strange horse was more than enough. “Unless…” She turned and looked around the garden again.

Spotting a bucket laying on the ground near some bushes, she lifted it up and peered beneath it.

“Aha,” she said triumphantly. A golden key shone brilliantly in the morning sun.

Aunt Margaret had the habit of always leaving a spare key hidden. You never know when you will need it, she had said when Noah complained about it back in London. Her aunt had insisted on leaving a spare key beneath a bucket at the servants’ entrance. Why a bucket when a stone would be far less conspicuous, Dabria did not know. But at that moment, she was relieved the key was there.

“Thank you, Aunt Margaret, you never know when you will need it, indeed,” she murmured and let herself into the cottage.

The main room, which served as both kitchen and living room, was clean and tidy, but there was a thin layer of dust on the floor and furniture. It looked as if her aunt had been gone for a few days. Dabria walked across the floor, leaving footprints in the dust. She peered into the bedroom and noticed that the doors to the large wooden cupboard were slightly ajar. As she approached it, she noticed that her aunt’s dresses and her husband’s shirts were no longer hanging in their proper places.

She walked back into the living room and sat in the rocking chair near the fireplace, knowing her aunt would not mind if she stayed until they returned. She carefully examined the living space, rocking herself back and forth.

The room featured a stone fireplace for heating and cooking, as well as a large pot hung over the ashes. There were four chairs at the large central table, and a smaller table next to the rocking chair. A quill, an inkpot, and a few scraps of unused parchment were scattered across its varnished top.

Dabria was about to remove her filthy boots when she noticed a letter with her brother’s name written on it on the table. A sinking feeling told her that this could not bode well for her.

Picking up the letter, she began to read.

Dear Aunt Margaret,

I am pleased to inform you that Dabria is set to be married to Frederick Williams, the Duke of Marton. I would like to formally request the family ring that is in your possession. At our last meeting, you said you would not part with the ring unless Dabria was to be married. Well, I am happy to inform you that this is soon to be the case. Kindly use the money enclosed to send us the ring. If I do not hear back from you within the coming week, I will be coming to collect the ring myself. The wedding plans must not be delayed.

Your nephew, Viscount Noah Aughton.

As she read the date on the letter, Dabria felt the blood drain from her face. It had been sent just over a week before she had even attended the ball where she had been caught in a compromising situation with the duke.

She looked down at her lap, letting the letter fall to the table. They had planned everything. The duke had been waiting for her in the garden on purpose. Her knuckles whitened as she gripped the dusty fabric of her dress. That meant Noah, the Duke, and Olivia, who had invited her into the gardens, knowingly luring her into the trap.

Dabria knew Olivia hated her, but she had no idea she hated her that much. She had never done anything to her knowledge to cause her harm. Perhaps, like Noah, she blamed Dabria for her aunt and uncle’s deaths. Dabria, on the other hand, had often noticed how much Olivia hated it when people complimented her beauty.

Dabria had always tried to keep the peace by blending in. She was determined, however, not to be a wallflower for people who would throw her to the wolves simply because it suited them.

Pushing herself up from the rocking chair, she paced back and forth in the tiny cottage. She had to take a few deep breaths to calm the anger rising within her. Everything that had happened in the last few days was all part of Noah’s elaborate plot to marry her off, something he had wanted for years.

Walking back over to the table, her eyes fell on the gold coins peeking out from beneath the envelope in which the letter had come.

Maybe her aunt didn’t send the ring. She had always insisted on giving the ring to Dabria in person when the time came, which had irritated Noah to no end. He didn’t like hearing the word “no”.

The ring was a valuable family heirloom and the only thing her aunt had. And her brother wanted the ring because he feared that Dabria would inherit it. If their aunt sent him the jewellery, he could make sure it was not passed down to his despised sister.

Dabria’s mouth dropped open when she recalled a line from the letter. At our last meeting… That meant Noah had asked their aunt for the ring a year ago when they had visited her here in Scotland. He had been planning these events since then.

Falling back into the chair, she realized what the coins on the table signified. If Aunt Margaret hadn’t sent the ring, then Noah would be coming to Scotland in person. Staying at the cottage would no longer be safe. She needed to find an alternative as soon as possible.

Almost screaming with frustration, Dabria kicked at the small table, narrowly missing one of the legs. The years of pent-up frustration were finally coming home to roost. She vowed never to be small again.

Calm down. She was already out of her brother’s reach. She just needed to wait until her aunt came back; she would explain the situation, and together they could come up with a plan.

Perhaps her aunt knew of a family in Scotland in need of a governess. Or a maid even, since she was unsure how the situation with governesses stood in Scotland. She only knew that Scots were barbarians. Or, at least, that was widely believed in England. She stepped out of the cottage, taking a deep breath to settle her nerves once and for all, and closing the door behind her.

“Great! Lovely ,” she exclaimed as she looked around the empty garden, noting that the horse was no longer standing on the path where she had left it. Her case, which contained all of her belongings, was still tied to the saddlebag.

Looking around, she realized she’d have to find the beast if she wanted to change her clothes. A walk in the woods would also help her relax.

So she set off alone into the unknown forest.

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The Lass He Never Forgot (Preview)

Chapter 1

Scottish Highlands, 1654

Iona awoke dazed to the thick, infernal darkness of the room. A repulsive and foul odor ran through her nostrils as she found herself in such a mysterious place. The heat and anxiety caused her to sweat profusely — its drops trickling into her cuts and wounds, causing a stinging sensation. Her dizziness and fear were only exacerbated by the pain.

As her eyes blinked open, she found herself in a small, unfamiliar room made of grey stone. Torches slanted across it on the left and right, held only by black, rusted steel cases. The torches emitted a small flame, keeping the room dimly lit. As a result, Iona could barely see, which made her feel even more uneasy.

The only opening in the middle wall was the size of a human palm. So she knelt beneath this window, straining her eyes to make out the details of her surroundings but all she could see were steel bars chained shut in front of her.

She crouched down silently for a while, shocked to discover that her hands were bound by thick bronze chains. She used her wrists to pull on her bounds for a while, but her efforts were futile. This beautiful young woman was slender and frail, fighting against chains that even the strongest Highlanders couldn’t break if they tried. Her once pale wrists turned red as she struggled with every ounce of strength she could muster.

After what seemed like an eternity of struggle, she slumped defeatedly onto the ground and rested her back on the hard wall, her fluffy brown hair cushioning her against it. Her thoughts wandered to how she got here.

She propped her head up and spotted two silhouettes outside the room. Even though they were out of sight, their shadows were cast over the doors.

“Who are ye?” she exclaimed authoritatively, but the shadows stood unmoved. “Release me, ye dirty scoundrels!”

But the shadows remained unmoved by her wails.

They appeared to be six-foot-tall guards with pointy hoods over their heads, and although they displayed indifference towards her pleas, she was sure they could hear her. Shortly after, two other figures joined them, all of them standing still across from one another.

“Can ye hear me?” she screamed again fearfully as the stillness sent a chill down her spine.

She began to wonder if they could hear her or if her captors were just ghosts or figments of her imagination. The more she screamed, the more still they seemed to become, and the thought of what men who weren’t even slightly shaken by her anguish could do to her gave her goosebumps.

“I beg thee, let me free, an’ I will dae anything ye ask o’ me!” she said yet again as her feelings of fear rose to the fore.

Fear blasted through her as the shadows suddenly began to close in on her. They moved in unison before standing in front of her, staring her down, yet all she saw was a human-shaped shadow.

“Are ye going tae kill me?” she asked again, about to burst into tears.

She wondered if these silhouettes were human at all, and if so, why did they have such unrecognizable features. The mystery of who these men were fuelled her agony.

She remembered going to her chambers before everything went black. Perhaps she was brought here for protection, or perhaps it was the Laird’s enemies — her husband had many foes who wanted to harm him in some way. That would probably explain why she was being treated so poorly.

Her mind raced and she screamed and yanked on her shackles. It was as if she had emptied herself of all the fear and pain that had accumulated within her onto the clutches. Her efforts paid off this time, and she collapsed panting on the damp dungeon floor.

Iona’s tears streamed down her face, as she had always dreaded the nightmare of captivity, and here she was, facing it out of nowhere. She quickly sprung up at the realization that her entire body was sprawled on the floor and her hands were no longer shackled. She kept her head down, thinking that one of the shadows undid the chains and was now in the room with her.

“Please let me go!” she screamed before raising her head up.

When her cries were heard only by herself, she realized that the shadow figures, like the shackles, had vanished into thin air. She had no idea where they had gone, but she knew she had to leave before they returned. With what little strength her tired and bruised body could muster, she sprung up off the floor and ran towards the door, only to discover that its chains had also vanished.

She leaped hands-first towards the doors before collapsing against hard bricks. She moaned and picked herself up, shakily and confusedly, scanning the room and wondering where they’d gone. She was terrified when she discovered that the doors and window had mysteriously closed.

Her screams resurfaced and only became louder as she hoped for someone to save her from the terror she was in, but to no avail. There was no way in or out of the dungeon, but she felt a chill, as if the heat of the night had turned into a brewing storm.

She dashed towards the dungeon’s only source of illumination, a wooden torch, for warmth, and as she leapt towards it, the torch’s flame began to flicker. Fear and confusion danced around her, as there was no explanation for the fire’s instability.

She stared blankly at the flickering fire when a cold chill went down her spine once again, but this time, the torch behind her went out. She turned around, but as soon as she looked at the unlit torch, the one beside her went out as well.

Now in a totally dark room, crying softly as though she had given up on her screams, she was startled as a strange being appeared. The creature’s fire red eyes were all she could see.

As footsteps approached her, she crawled back into the wall. The figure appeared to be eight feet tall and stood quietly next to her trembling body.

The creature was now lying next to her, staring at her with its beady red eyes and breathing on her shoulder. She was puzzled as to why the creature lay so peacefully next to her without causing her any harm. Her breathing rate quickened as she struggled to remain still, hoping that if she stayed so long enough, nothing bad would happen to her.

As she lay there, contemplating her fate, the torch above her rekindled, and she finally saw the creature. Its shaggy, lumbering figure stood eight feet tall on six brown hairy feet. Its face was obscured by hair that appeared to have never been groomed.

It possessed six knife-like teeth and emitted froth from its mouth. The torch went out yet again, and she heard the animal licking its face before it growled and stood up. She lay there waiting for it to devour her, as she could feel it standing over her limp body. The ground of the dungeon seemed to turn over as she waited to be finished, plunging them both into a deep fall.

Iona awoke screaming in terror, desperately panting and gasping for air. Her dry throat ached as she regained her composure and found solace in the realization that her encounter with her captors and the fiendish beast had all been a dream. She did, however, feel a genuine ache in her wrists and forearms, as if she were still bound by chains, and she gently rubbed her arms for a moment, hoping it would alleviate her discomfort.

Her panting slowed, and she buried her face in her hands. Her red hair was now strewn from her violent turning while asleep, and the crimson silk bedsheets were rumpled and scattered. Even though her nightmares were becoming more frequent, she didn’t attribute them to her husband’s absence. The Laird had been away on business for three weeks.

With a heavy sigh, she managed to sit up and lay her head on the black, luxurious bed frame. Her heavy eyes told of a damsel wallowing in scorn and insurmountable stress. She had been lost in thought when she was interrupted by a loud knock.

“My lady,” a soft voice greeted from behind the doors, “is everything alright?”

“Enter, Aileen,” Iona replied. “I am fine, just these nightmares again.”

“Well, my lady,” Aileen asked concerned, “would ye fancy some chamomile tea?”

“Yes, Aileen. Thank ye,” Iona responded lowly with a grateful look on her face.

“I will as soon as I step out,” Aileen affirmed. “Is the Laird back from his voyage?” She looked around as
though she expected to find him in the room.

“Nae. Is he due tae be back today? I have neither heard from him nae seen any sign o’ him,” Iona replied.

“Yes, miss. I informed ye o’ his return yesterday,” Aileen said worriedly.

She had noticed a strange distance in her eyes, and the despair in her voice had thickened as well.

“Ye must be missing him terribly, I presume,” Aileen said jokingly, assuming that the Laird’s absence was the reason for Iona’s dismay.

“Well…” Aileen said almost sarcastically.

Aileen handed her a cream-colored envelope with beautiful cursive handwriting and a red stamp, which Iona recognized as the English stamp.

“This came in the mail for the Laird this morning,” the girl said.

Iona took a second to fully comprehend what was going on around her, leaving Aileen awkwardly standing there for a few seconds.

“Thank ye, Aileen,” she responded with a light, fake smile. “I will reserve it an’ show it tae him upon his return.”

“Yer welcome, my lady,” the girl replied, clasping her palms and waiting for further orders from Iona.

“I would love tae be alone. If ye could please fetch me some breakfast along with a cup o’ tea in about an hour?” Iona asked in a subtle tone.

“O’ course,” the girl said and turned to leave.

“Aileen?” Iona said, “Thank ye.”

Aileen was the only person she could connect with in the castle. She had found in her not only a maid, but also a right-hand woman and confidante. She was grateful for consistently checking in on her whenever she was in need.

Iona placed the letter on her bedside stool and opened the curtains. The light fell on her blue eyes as she turned away from the sun, and her violet long-sleeved silk nightgown, which matched the curtains, was illuminated by its rays. She sat in the small chair by the window for a few moments, staring out the window, wondering what was in that letter.

Despite the fact that the letter was addressed to Dougal, her curiosity about its contents was nothing new to her. He was a secretive man when it came to official business, and she was always curious because she didn’t have anything else to do. Even though she had promised herself not to pry, the stamp drew her attention. The English rarely sent letters, and when they did, a change was on the horizon. She resolved to open the letter after a few minutes of consideration.

Why in the Laird’s name am I tiptoeing when there is literally nae one here? she questioned as she walked to the stool where she’d placed the letter. She was so overwhelmed with curiosity, she had begun to act like a thief.

She neatly opened it and began to run her eyes through its contents, line by line.

“Oh my!” she said as she sat slowly on the bed, processing what she had just read.
For the first time in a long time, Iona smiled with genuine hope and anticipation. She neatly reinserted the letter into the envelope and sealed it. Her spring in her step was palpable as she skipped over to bathe; this new burst of energy flooding her entire being.

 

Chapter 2

The chestnut brown horses stomped their feet together as they advanced across the green grass of the Highlands. The clouds were a lovely light blue color, and birds soared above them in all their splendor.

The valiant, strong-looking men with the wind in their hair kept their heads held high, savoring their long-awaited freedom as they marched forward, chanting songs of pleasure.

The air was fresh, and the scenery was as delightful as ever. The horses stomped on the green grass, and their liberation cries could be heard for miles. Their excitement made their fingers tingle as they rode past trees and bushes and eventually towards the castle, their joy knowing no reasonable bounds.

Brodie MacClery, their leader, was the epitome of good looks. His hair was long and silky, and his face was perfectly defined. The stunning young man ran his hands through his smooth, thick black hair and couldn’t stop grinning the entire ride. He rode in front of the men, and his relieved, smiling face revealed his eagerness to reach their destination.

Wearing such relief on one’s face told anyone who saw him that the experience he had left behind had been nothing short of dreadful. While incarcerated, imagining his return home every night kept him going. He was fully prepared to take on his responsibilities, despite the fact that he was wary of not seeing his father alive and was curious about his brother’s reign as Laird.

Many events had overtaken his absence, and he knew that adjusting would be difficult. Besides the changes that come with time, like appearance and castle workers, there was one change he dreaded the most: his childhood best friend was now married to his brother, Dougal. Even though they were only friends, Brodie had developed romantic feelings for her before their father announced that she would marry his brother and become Lady.

Despite his desire to leave, he soon realized that no heartbreak or uncertainty could ever outweigh the insurmountable agony of shackles and captivity.

When Brodie and his men spotted the castle in the distance, his eyes lit up. It had grown even more beautiful than he remembered. Cawdor Castle’s gleaming gold gates had been raised and reinforced with bricks towering over the castle, which had turned a lovely faded wine color. A large number of cottages and completed structures appeared to surround the castle, and a large fountain stood tall in the middle of the gardens, where a majestic statue was now erected.

He recalled Dougal being arrogant and conceited, and imagined that as the new leader, he would have to keep his head even higher. His thoughts returned to the defining moment before his journey, when his father had announced Dougal and Iona’s engagement without even informing him beforehand. The memory made him relive his emotions, as he had not left things on good terms with Dougal after that.

The night Brodie was conscripted to fight the English seemed to bury a hatchet the men had wielded weeks before when the engagement was announced. He had been vocal about his displeasure, but Dougal had refused to listen to his repeated complaints because he was determined to do his father’s bidding. Nonetheless, once Brodie was scheduled to go to war, sobriety took over, and Iona was left out of the loop on everything, from the tantrums to the plans, and only saw Brodie ride off into the night without saying goodbye. After weeks of disdain, the men exchanged warm hugs, and he left for England without uttering a word to her.

Uncertainty hung over him as he wondered if Dougal would still pay attention to his reaction, a thought that prompted him to devise a strategy to avoid Iona as if she were infected with the most contagious of plagues. He knew it would be difficult because every time he closed his eyes, he saw her ocean blue eyes glistening in the sun. Even after all that time, nothing could have prepared him to look into those eyes again.

Even though he was nervous, no situation at home would be as cruel to him as the outside world. Despite these uncertainties, he was simply eager to leave this disdainful experience behind.

As they got closer, he felt a sense of warmth and nostalgic memories flooded his mind. Shortly after, he noticed a fleet of horses riding up to them through open gold gates, with soldiers drawing their swords. Brodie came to a halt and raised his hand to stop his men, while the Cawdor castle gates closed behind the soldiers, indicating that they were not welcome.

“What dae ye want here?” the leader of the Cawdor soldiers asked.

Brodie paused for a while in shock and turned to his men, wondering what was happening.

“Who are ye?” Brodie asked back as he wondered if the castle was not alerted of his return.

“Ye come tae our lands uninvited an’ dinnae care tae introduce yerself?” the stranger asked fiercely.

“I am nae stranger here! Why accost me in this disrespectful manner?” Brodie asked, angered.

His men had drawn their weapons as well, ready to defend themselves as tensions rose. They had begun to scream and become agitated, but Brodie held his hand up once more to silence them.

“We shall handle this in a noble manner,” Brodie started. “Answer me, general! Dae ye ken who I am? Dae ye ken who we are?”

“Who are ye?” the general asked.

“I rank much higher than ye in this castle, that is for sure,” Brodie said.

The commanding soldier alighted from his horse and drew his sword, signaling that he was not about to attack Brodie. He then walked carefully towards him, approaching him slowly but steadily and squinting his eyes as if looking for something. Brodie’s officers, who were still holding their swords in defense, looked on as he exclaimed.

“Brodie? Is it ye?” the commanding officer exclaimed.

“And who are ye?” Brodie asked, trying to decipher who this person was.

“Ye dinnae ken?” the man said in a calmer tone than earlier.

Brodie knew that voice anywhere and recognized it immediately.

“Fraser! Men, stand down!” he said as he carelessly dropped his sword and ran towards the commanding officer.

Fraser, a tall man with dark brown eyes and razor-sharp jaw, ran up to Brodie, and the two men poured themselves into a tight hug and screamed joyfully, tears streaming down Fraser’s face. He quickly wiped his face and adjusted his stance to avoid the men witnessing his emotional outburst.

“I was scared they were nae going tae let ye an’ the men free!” Fraser said breaking away from the hug.

“We received a pardon an’ were freed, Fraser. I was scared too,” Brodie said while his voice softened with each word under the pressure.

“I prayed for ye every day. I really did,” he said as he smiled fondly.

“I thought about ye all the time too,” Brodie said.

“I missed ye, short boy,” Fraser joked.

“Are ye still calling me that?” Brodie asked, smiling.

Brodie laughed; the first genuine laugh he’d had in years. The men had grown up together, and Fraser had always made fun of their one-inch height difference since childhood. While his jokes used to irritate him, they were the first thing he heard upon his return, and it felt like home, a place he was truly happy to be, and it brought back memories that they both treasured.

“I apologize for the rude obstruction,” Fraser said humbly. “I am the clan’s general, an’ I dinnae joke around!”

“That’s wonderful to hear!” Brodie exclaimed. “Shall yer men show the troops inside?”

“O’ course! It would be a pleasure.”

“Men, this is Brodie, the Laird’s younger brother, an’ these are his troops who just returned from years’ worth o’ battle. They will be treated with respect. Kindly take them in an’ make arrangements tae accommodate them,” Fraser announced.

“Commander is a tasking job. Ye must be quite the responsible one nowadays!” Brodie said, teasing his friend’s carefree nature.

“I had big shoes tae fill when me father passed,” Fraser responded.

“Sir Wallace passed on? I am so sorry for yer loss,” Brodie said soberly.

“I am a strong man; I handled it well. My old man left me with everything I needed,” he responded in an assuring tone.

Brodie smiled fondly, remembering the times Fraser’s father looked after them, and a rush of nostalgic emotions came pouring in.

“Dougal is away on travels an’ is slated tae return today. We have not yet seen him, but they should arrive any moment now,” Fraser informed.

“Oh Fraser, I have been away for such a long time. Dae ye think everything will be alright?” Brodie asked with a doubtful tone in his voice.

“I believe so, Brodie. Ye belong here, dinnae ye?” Fraser asked rhetorically.

As their horses approached the castle, Brodie smiled hopefully even though uncertainty engulfed him. But he was prepared to face it.

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Snatching the False Sassenach (Preview)

Chapter 1

Lydia hated storms. A loud rumble of thunder filled the air around her and slashed against the roof of her father’s manor. It was a wintry night, and as she stood by her chamber window, ignoring the cold that seeped into her bones, she dragged in a deep breath to quell her fear.

What do I do now? she thought bleakly. Three days had passed since her sister, Jane, had gone missing. They had scoured the town in search of her and then the docks, to no avail. Lydia couldn’t untangle the knots in the pit of her stomach. Every sliver of her intuition told her this was the Duke of Bingham’s doing, but she had no way of proving it.

Lydia recalled the last time she had seen the Duke. Her father was a frequent host of dinners and balls. He always invited the town’s wealthiest men and their wives, and Lydia had met many dukes and earls since she entered society.

Oh, of all the men she had met, why did the Duke of Bingham have to be the one who had asked for her hand?

Even now, she shivered at the memory of his ire when she had refused his rude proposal. The duke had been inconsolable and had vowed to change her mind—one way or another. Simply put, Elijah Bingley scared her. She could not imagine spending an evening with him, let alone a lifetime—let alone a bed. The thought of being his wife made her prickle all over with goosebumps.

He was renowned all over the country; he had amassed a sea of wealth over the years by doing business with the English. Lydia had first met him when he paid a visit to her father for the same reason, and he had made his interest for her clear from the start. He had attempted to speak with her whenever he attended their gatherings. He’d always ask her to dance, and she’d always reluctantly accept.

Her father was aware of the rumors surrounding his misdemeanors, as their kind so often phrase it, and she was glad he had allowed her to refuse his offer of marriage that night. Her father’s compliance had surprised her—he was so rarely supportive of his daughters.

It almost seemed like they were mere assets to him. He had made that clear enough at their debutante ball, then every day that had followed. Lydia could still remember what he had said to her on the eve of her debut: you owe it to our family to find a suitor; do your best to make sure you do not disappoint me.

But she had not found a suitor that season, and his disappointment had indeed been immeasurable. Lydia could feel the disapproval in his gaze every time his eyes fell on her. On the other hand, Jane was left to her own devices. She lived without care or repercussion, her father paying so little attention to her that Lydia feared she might one day fade away… Somehow, she wished she could be more like her.

Now, Jane was gone, and the duke’s proposal still loomed overhead.

As she stared out into the rainy night, she was plagued by fear — wondering where the two of them were. She might have gone for a walk if the skies hadn’t opened wide; she might have entertained her younger brother, Andrew, if her heart hadn’t been pounding with worry.

How could everything be so right in one moment, and so terrible the next?

Lydia sighed. She turned away from the window when a soft knock sounded on her bedroom door.

“Come in,” she murmured.

Her lady’s maid entered the room cautiously. She curtsied before her and extended both hands to Lydia. “A letter has arrived for you, milady,” Daphne said, her head still lowered.

Lydia took the letter and eased her back up. “Thank you, Daphne. You may leave.”

As Daphne closed the door behind her, Lydia looked down at the envelope in her hands. Its familiar red seal made her heart lurch painfully in her chest, and her limbs began to tremble.

It’s the duke, she thought and licked her dry lips. An image of the duke’s cruel smile came to memory again, and she shuddered. She moved to the bed to keep from fainting, sucked in a breath, and opened the letter.

Lady Lydia,

You have three days to make up your mind.

Or your lovely sister never returns.

Yours truly,
Bingley, The Duke of Bingham

Lydia felt her heart stop. So, she had been right all along. Her father would not hear of it, but Lydia had known. Jane was not missing but kidnapped. She supposed she should be relieved to finally have an answer… but who knew what the duke was doing with Jane while he waited? Even Lydia could not surmise the true extent of his malice.

She read over the letter again. Yours truly? she thought sarcastically. There was nothing true about Bingham. He was wealthy and powerful. He was a bully and a man who would crush those around him to get whatever he wanted. She would not let him control her too. She would not play his games. She would find another way to save her sister.

Rising to her feet, trying to push her fear aside, Lydia made her way out of her chamber and headed toward her father’s study. He seemed at long last to be changing his tune. With his help, she could make certain the duke did not get his way.

She knocked once on the door of the study before pushing it open. When she spotted her little brother inside, she immediately masked her horror with a smile. Little Andrew glanced at her over his shoulder; beaming.

“Lili!” he called in a gentle voice. He jumped out of the chair he was sitting in and dashed over to her. Lydia sank to a crouch and snatched him into her arms; hugging him tightly for a brief moment. She drew back, brushed her fingers through his short, blonde hair, and gazed deeply into the green of his eyes. One of hers was of the same shade, the other a murky brown.

“Are you alright, my darling brother?” she asked him, still forcing a smile.

Andrew nodded as he answered, “I am alright.” He grinned. “Will you play with me in the nursery? Nanny is sleeping,” he explained in a light voice.

“Yes but I shall like to speak with father alone first. Go wake Nanny, and I will be with you soon,” she said. When she looked at her brother, she longed desperately to be as joyful and free as he was—to be oblivious to all the pain of adulthood. How she missed the innocence of her youth.

He hasn’t a clue about what’s going on, Lydia thought as Andrew nodded. He flung his arms around her neck and hugged her. She pecked his cheeks before he scurried out of the study, reaching up and closing the door behind him.

Lydia stood at last. She turned to face her father, who was still sat in front of his large, mahogany desk, his eyes glued to the correspondence in front of him.

She sucked in her cheeks and started towards him, holding out the letter she had received. “Father,” Lydia began, but he raised a hand to stop her before she could say anything more.

Lydia pressed her lips together as she watched him scribble, not even glancing up at her. She had always been unnerved by him, for he never smiled. The only time he ever seemed happy was the night Andrew was born—the night her mother died. He had held the babe up high, his eyes filled with pride, and had uttered, “My only heir.”

Oh, he was a stern man indeed, with the coldest set of striking jade eyes she had ever seen. His hair was a mass of whitish, blonde locks that draped down to his neck. His appearance was as formidable as his tempers, and Lydia knew better than to challenge him… but her fear was superseded by something stronger, now.

She needed to rescue her sister.

“I hope you have good reason for bothering me. What is it, Lydia?” he asked her with an arch tone, still refusing to look at her. At last, he raised his head, and she took the chance to speak.

“A letter arrived from the duke.”

He barely seemed to care, though his eyes took on a glint of amusement. “And?”

Lydia bit the inside of her cheek, hardly believing what she was about to say. “He has admitted to taking Jane. He has threatened to kill her if we don’t… if I don’t agree to his proposal. I know it sounds ludicrous, but it’s true. Look.”

She handed him the letter and held her breath as she waited for him to read it. Lydia gauged her father’s expression, and she saw his eyes flicker over the words before his jaw tightened.

“He has dared to threaten us,” he said matter-of-factly, rising to his feet. Lydia gasped when he slammed his palm flat against his desk, luminous with anger. “When did you receive this?”

“Not long ago. Daphe brought it up,” she replied; weeping. She wiped her cheeks with both hands. The rain was still heavy outside, the thunder growling ferociously. “We need to do something. We cannot let the duke hurt Jane,” she pleaded. “We must save her. I’ll do whatever it takes, I swear it. If he hurts her, then…” Lydia whined, and her voice trailed off. She didn’t what to think of what could happen to her sister.

Her father had fallen silent. His jaw was set in stone, his shoulders tense. He would act, he must, without hesitation.

“Father…”

He looked at her then, and the darkness in his eyes made her heart clench. “I need to think,” he said in a raspy voice, and she swallowed back her words. He sat back down in his seat and brought his fingers to a point before his mouth.

Lydia’s ears rang as she waited for his answer, barely keeping her desperation at bay. She was quivering beneath her gown, counting the seconds that passed as the silence festered.

Her father huffed. “There is nothing I can do,” he finally declared, his voice low and full of shame.

“What? What do you mean?” Lydia cried. Her gaze met his again, and the meaning of his words bled into clarity. “You want me to accept his proposal? You want me to marry him?” she croaked and took an involuntary step back. “Father, no. There must be another way! If we contact your peers, the law, anyone—”

“The duke is a powerful man, Lydia. We can try to fight him, but it will be a waste of time. We will never win. Say we do reach out for help—who would believe us? It is in our best interests to choose the winning side. If he is so adamant, marry the Duke and save your sister. That is the only option we have left.”

Lydia’s jaw dropped open, and she tried to mutter words as her tears flowed harder down her cheeks. She shook her head, frowning as she hurriedly said, “You swore it was fine to turn him down. You sided with me and asked him to leave. How can you change your mind so suddenly? How can you lay down your arms before you’ve even tried? This is my sister! This is my life! Father, you are damning me to misery. If the duke is so callous as to use Jane to secure my hand, what makes you believe he will be content to stop his toying there?”

“I don’t know what you expect me to say, Lydia. I cannot challenge a duke. You’re grown enough to know the way of things—your sister’s fate lies in his hands, Lydia. Would you really rather let her die so you can hold onto your childish dreams of marrying for love?”

His words twisted like a knife in her chest. She tried to speak, but she could only sigh, “No.”

“Then you know what must be done. I shall write a missive now if you are so determined. That is all I can do.”

He wriggled in his seat, leaving a dumbfounded Lydia to stare at him. Her mind was spinning, the betrayal so strong she feared it might rip her in two. How could he be so spineless? So unconcerned? She had hated her father’s callousness her entire life—but she wished for retribution, now.

“Father… I can’t believe it. Please, there must be another way. You must fight for Jane—we have the guard, we have friends. If we rally together, we can put an end to this madness tonight.”

“You would send our men, our allies, to slaughter? The duke will have them killed on the grounds of unfair threat. And he would be right,” he interrupted. “We have lost, my daughter. It’s time to face our defeat with a modicum of grace.”

Lydia felt as though she were in a dream. Not a dream, a nightmare. Panic washed over her so strongly she feared she might faint. She felt alone—completely, and utterly alone—and she was the only one who could save Jane. A one-woman army.

So, this is it? He’s won, just like that. I have to wed the man. I was a fool for trusting my father the first time… She had been a fool, had she not? Was she still being a fool, now? It all felt too perfect, too strange. She eyed her father furiously as doubt crept up her spine.

“Are you doing this because you truly believe you cannot win a fight against the duke? Or because you simply do not care about what happens to me? Or—” she hesitated, “because this is exactly what you wanted?”

Her father shot her a dark look, but there was knowing in it. He didn’t care. This was a convenience. For all she knew, he had incited the duke to pursue Lydia, damn all that might come from it.

I was right about him… he has never cared for me or Jane.

Misery enveloped her, and her father did not spare her another glance. He simply licked his finger, plucked a fresh sheet of paper from a pile, and leveled his quill. “So, what shall I write?”

Lydia couldn’t bring herself to speak. She simply shook her head and ran out of his study, dashing up the stairs to the first landing where her room was. Once inside, she dropped on her bed and sobbed.

She emptied her heart for what felt like hours, crying herself dry. Her tears finally subsided when the heavy torrents of rain slowed to a drizzle. When Lydia lifted herself from her bed again, she got up and walked over to the writing-table in her chamber.

She would not trade her sister’s life for her freedom. With heaviness in her heart, she reached for a quill, dipped it in ink and pulled a parchment close.

Dear Elijah, she began, sealing her fate with pleasantries.

 

Chapter 2

Alister rubbed the back of his neck as he entered his study. His shoulders ached, every muscle in his body was on guard, and his nerves were alert. The pounding in his temples only served to aggravate the pain. As he paced around his study, he felt he needed to do more. He couldn’t keep waiting.

I need to find out who these men are and who sent them.

This was his keep. It was his duty to protect it. He had to fight back, not cower like a common coward. Alister ruffled his hair with his fingers before balling his fists. His entire body ached with rage and a desire for war.

They had come in the middle of the night, and they had taken what they wanted. He would not let that stand.

He had spent the entire day riding through the village in pursuit of the invaders, to no avail. They had captured two of the men, but they had been hired and knew nothing of importance—not even their buyer. The others had gotten away. He had ordered Kam, his advisor, to take their captives to the dungeon and interrogate them further. He needed something, anything that would be of use.

The clothing the men wore did not indicate their clan. Still, Alister could not quiet the feeling in his gut. Aye, there was only one clan foolish enough to strike at them; only one clan with reason enough to risk oblivion.

Clan Cambell.

After Alister had rejected Laird Cambell’s senseless proposal weeks back, he had known there would be chaos. The laird never took no for an answer. The beast always swore vengeance on anyone who denied him. Alister had made sure to avoid their ire so far. He never asked them for aid, never drew up any treaties… but Laird Cambell hadn’t taken notice. And now he had crossed his borders and stained Alister’s keep with his passing.

He hadn’t expected the laird to be bold enough to invade his castle in broad daylight. And the fact that it had worked meant someone else was involved—someone who knew the laird would be out accompanied by his men. So far, none of them had reported anything missing in their treasury or armory. Nothing seemed amiss besides—

Alister cut his thoughts short. He dropped on a chair, buried his head in his hands, and dragged in a haggard breath to steady his aching insides. It’s nae possible. They could be hiding somewhere in the stables, or anywhere in the castle. They cannae be missing!

He wouldn’t be able to bear the grief if his suspicions were correct.

You’re all I have left. It must be a coincidence that ye are missing. It must be.

Alister needed hope. No, he needed answers. Only Kam could give him reprieve. When his study door burst open minutes later, he was on his feet immediately.

Kam entered the room and closed the door behind him. When Alister met his gaze, the blank look in his eyes made his stomach coil with fear.

The man’s stature and dark features made him look fierce beyond belief. Not a man, but a beast—and he had a temperament to match. He would never cower away from what needed to be said or done… but, now, something was different.

As he stood before him, Kam rubbed his chin. For a brief moment, his jaw trembled, and he held his breath. In the brief silence that followed, the air around them tensed, and Alister’s panic level rose another notch.

Dear Laird in Heaven…

“Tell me,” he ordered. In some way, he already knew Kam was going to confirm his suspicions, but he did not want to believe it.

Kam grunted. “The men admitted to plannin’ their attack but nothin’ else. The other guards that were sent out came back with more…” Kam paused and his neck bobbed. “I’m sorry, milaird. They found them dead at the border. Yer bride-to-be. Yer sister…”

Alister’s world came to a grinding halt. When he could finally speak, his voice was steady but hoarse. “Did they tell ye who did it?” he graveled, fresh anger coursing through his veins.

Kam’s head hung low as he muttered, “They confessed it was Laird Cambell.”

Alister erupted. He let out a roar as he turned away from Kam. His fury was threatening to consume him. As blinding rage overtook him, he let out another growl. He circled his study, tossing aside whatever he could get his hands on.

Another pained growl exploded from him as he hit the wall, once, and then again, trying to fight back his tears. The tightness in his chest built to a crescendo; it made it difficult for him to breathe. He could not think, he could only feel—and it was fire.

This isn’t happening! Why did it have to be them?

“Milaird,” he heard Kam call, but his friend’s voice sounded far away. “We will make them pay.”

They will pay for this. Kam’s words were all that sounded in his mind. He would rain fire down on the Cambells. He would take from them what they took from him—everything. His grief was too strong. He needed to leave. He needed to leave and think.

Alister stormed out of his study, not caring that he nearly ripped the door off its hinges as it flew to a close behind him. Kam called for him, but he ignored that too. He saw servants scurry away from him as he made his way out of the keep. He was hot and hollow. He was dead inside.

When he arrived at his stables, he mounted the first mare he saw and rode out the gates. Alister galloped away, not knowing where he was going, the heavy wind in the air brushing against his face.

Adrenaline rushed through him, heightened every sense. Even after passing through the main village, he did not slow down. He kept riding, not wanting to stop.

“This was all I had left! They were all I had left!” he thundered as he rode. “I’ll make ye pay, ye bastards! I’ll make ye pay!” His heart grew heavier with each passing second, and the stabbing pain in his chest shifted to his stomach and the rest of his insides.

He approached a valley and slowed to a canter as he drew closer to the hill ahead of him and further away from his land.

His father had died, and now the rest of them were gone too.

He had spent nights floating through the pain of the laird’s demise, suddenly consumed by the reality of having to rule his people alone. With Kam’s help, he had scaled through in the end, and all that had mattered to him, all he had held onto was the rest of his family.

I am alone now.

Gritting his teeth again, Alister dismounted his mare. He was now at the edge of the hill, and once his feet touched the ground, he fell forward, landing on his knees. A gut-wrenching cry escaped his lips and the tears fell in torrents. As he cried, allowing his grief to flow through him, he lifted his head and stared directly into the grey skies overhead. The air smelled of coming rain.

Alister had never felt more alone as he looked up into the heavens.

He had no idea how long he had been on his knees in that patch of nowhere. Even when the rain began to fall, he did not move an inch. The droplets brushed up against his skin and slid down his cheeks, but he just stayed still. He closed his eyes and felt his pain one last time. He knew that once he rose, he would bury everything inside.

Maybe the rain will wash my pain away? Will the wind take away my sorrows?

No, they would not. They had killed his father, three years ago. He had been too young to do anything. Not this time. Laird Cambell had made a mistake, and Alister would not let him live to suffer its consequences.

His clan had already been through so much devastation and now Freya and Kathleen were gone too.

I will never see them again and they must pay.

I willnae stop until I have my pound of flesh.

I will have my revenge, and naething will stop me… naething at all.

A long time had passed, and by the time Alister returned to his castle, the rain had begun to fall heavily. His shirt and kilt were completely soaked, but he felt nothing. He marched into the castle, oblivious to everything around him, to find Kam and a few guards waiting for him.

“Gather the council in the grand hall immediately,” he ordered Kam as he entered the keep. He took long strides towards the grand hall, the chills in his body increasing.

“Aye, milaird,” Kam replied with a nod.

As he walked through the grand, oaken doors, Alister released a deep breath and balled his fists at his side. I will give Laird Cambell the same misery he has delivered unto me. I will rob him of everyone and everything he has ever held dear. I will make sure he pays for this with blood.

That was his new dream. Not happiness, not love, nor family and marriage. There would only ever be revenge. Revenge and a plan.

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Tale of the Deceived Highlander (Preview)

Chapter 1

The glen was filled with the clashing of iron against iron and iron against wood, as well as war cries and bloodcurdling screams. Christopher Ross, of Clan Ross, could hardly move, as his feet kept getting stuck in the mud. He was aware that his father, Chief Wilyam Ross III, had ordered guards to keep an eye on him, but he needed to hold his own. His sword was nearly too heavy to lift over his head, but he was able to deflect blows aimed at it.

He looked around for a moment, catching his breath, and almost vomited at the sight. It was unlike anything he had ever seen. The bodies were stacked on top of one another, and some of them were unrecognizable. This was his father’s fight, and he was the next in line to be laird. Christopher had no choice but to join the rest of the soldiers on the field; he had a duty to fulfill. He was only a few years into his training with real iron when he began to grow hair above his lip and below his waist. In his mind, he had no business taking part in a man’s fight, but he was a man now. At least in his father’s eyes.

He would rather be pestering his cousins or shooting his bow at Hawkhead Castle. He’d never admit it, but he preferred the lazy days around the keep. He could get up whenever he wanted and no one would mind as long as he washed up and attended dinner on time. He was only twelve. He had no desire to kill or witness the killing of a man, let alone be surrounded by such carnage. He’d spent the last few years training hard to make his father proud, not realizing how soon he’d be fighting.

A hard shove snapped Christopher out of his trance as he was pushed down into the mud. He took a deep breath before feeling a foot on the back of his head, forcing his face into the bloody dirt below. He flailed around and tried desperately to get out from under it but he was too small. When he heard a deep voice rumble, panic began to set in, “Aye ye ugly heathen! Tak’ yer foot off ma bairn!”

Christopher felt the force of the foot being ripped away as his father threw the large warrior off him. He lifted his face away from the ground to breathe, but he couldn’t see because of the mud on his face. He could hear his father arguing with his attacker and quickly cleared his eyes to see what was happening. Almost as soon as he opened his eyes, the heathen warrior thrust his sword into his father’s chest. Despite the fact that he was bellowing in his head, Christopher couldn’t even make a sound — he was stunned.

He barely had time to process what had happened before he was hoisted off the ground and into another set of arms. “Get this wee lad tae the wagon. Isnae the place for him.”

Christopher could hear his cousin blathering as he escorted him to the back of the line, where it would be safer. He was still trying to piece together what he had just witnessed in order to understand what his cousin was saying to him. He was thrown to the ground, away from any real fighting, and left to his own devices, his sword laying nearby.

The scene had been far more gruesome than he had anticipated. He knew there would be blood and death, but he had always heard battle stories that seemed to glorify it. He had not anticipated the reality that had unfolded in front of him. Clan Ross appeared to be triumphing over the Norse raiders who refused to renounce their religious practices. His father wished to aid in the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland, particularly in the areas where Scandinavians had settled. Some were content to relinquish their Norse-Pagan Gods, while others fought to the death to maintain their beliefs. One of those fights was this one.

Christopher sat on the ground, his knees against his chest. He could still hear the battle, but he silently thanked his Lord that he couldn’t see it. He had hoped that by being brave, he could make his father proud. Instead of attempting to kill the man who stabbed him in the chest, he had to be carried away like a child — and he was ashamed of it. In those final moments, he had let him down. The realization he was no longer alive was sinking in, and he did everything he could not to cry, even though he desperately wanted to. He refused to allow anyone to see him as weaker than he already was as a result of being taken out of action.

Christopher’s thoughts were interrupted when he heard the cheers of his clan. He looked around and saw many beaten and battered men cheering and clasping arms, while others were chasing down the last of the heathens, taking no prisoners. Sir Caelan Munro, his general and father’s closest friend, approached from the crowd with a dark smile on his face. This made Christopher shudder. Sir Caelan already appeared sinister to him, with a scar running from his forehead, over his left eye, and down his weathered left cheek to his jaw. His hair was white and gray with black streaks, and it was tied back at the nape of his neck. His eyes were so dark that they appeared black. He was one of the most massive men Christopher had ever seen. He had the stature of an ox and towered over most grown men. Some even referred to him as a giant made of fire and brimstone. On the battlefield, he was fierce, feared even. Sir Caelan appeared to have crawled from the pits of Hell, with his evil smile and blood-splattered face.

“Come, lad. I have a gift for ye,” The general yanked him to his feet and dragged him to the center of the forming crowd. One of Clan Ross stood in the center of the crowd, holding a pagan warrior in front of him. The general emerged from the crowd and faced Christopher, motioning toward the captive behind him. “I present to ye, the leader of these disgusting heathens!”

The crowd yelled and cheered.

“He is also the one who ran yer laird through!”

The crowd surrounded him with more yells and boos of disgust and anger. Then there was silence as they waited for their general to continue. He then approached Christopher and handed him his father’s bloody sword. “With yer da’s sword, separate that pagan’s head from his body!”

The crowd yelled and cheered once more. They were all waiting for Christopher to make the move that Caelan had instructed.

Christopher took a shaky step forward after a few moments of standing there, feeling all those eyes on him and the aching sound of dead silence all around. His general’s gaze was like a pair of hot daggers. He knew what was expected of him, but he wasn’t sure if he was capable of carrying it out. He took another step and his throat was filled with hot bile. He took another step, swallowing hard, and this time he couldn’t keep it down. He puked on the ground in front of him. His meekness was mocked by the audience, who laughed and jeered. Tears began to flow from his eyes, both from the force of the vomiting and the humiliation. He hoped the onlookers would all assume the former, but he knew he wasn’t that lucky as his face flushed with embarrassment.

The crowd fell silent. Christopher looked up into the face of the angry general, who was holding up his hand — commanding silence.

“Run him through, lad! Do as yer told!”

After another moment of silence, Christopher decided he couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t. He shook his head and told his general, “No.”

Sir Caelan growled before lunging at him and snatching the sword from his grasp. He snarled at the man next to him, ordering him to hold Christopher’s head up and force him to watch. The general dashed over to the captured pagan and severed his head from his body. Christopher stood there in horror as the head thudded to the ground and rolled into a mudhole. The crowd burst into cheer.

He spun around to face Christopher, pointed his father’s sword towards him, and yelled, “That is what a leader does tae his opponents!” His face was flushed with rage and wild titillation, and spit shooting from his lips with each annunciation.

Christopher swallowed his bile once more. He was aware that his actions would have consequences, but he didn’t care. He vowed, right then and there, to be a different kind of leader. Honorable and humble. Someone to be admired rather than feared.

 

Chapter 2

Eight Years Later

The sun warmed Christopher’s army as they spread across the glen. The grass was a lush green with mountains meeting the sky in the distance. The dale opened up in front of them, with trees on both sides and an opposing clan on the horizon. It was midday, and the men were growing impatient. Some leaned on their swords, while others remained mounted on their horses. Some men even took a knee to rest, but they held their ground. Christopher sat on the back of his horse, his mind wandering as he waited for word from the opposing clan across the way.

Since his first battle, he had been working to fulfill his father’s dream of converting the remaining Pagan clans to Christianity. However, as time passed, Christopher began to value peace over conversion. He was carrying out his father’s wishes, as any good son would, but the more death he encountered, the more he questioned everything. Did all of those men deserve to die just because they refused to abandon their faith? Were they not, in essence, fighting for the same cause as Christopher and his followers? What would happen if he simply stopped fighting?

He realized he couldn’t just walk away. There was more at stake than his father’s wishes and his own reputation. He had to do what was right for the clans while also following the King’s wishes but often wondered if he could please both sides while also trying to save as many lives as possible. He also needed to figure out how to deal with Sir Caelan, the general. Until recently, he had allowed the general to continue to be the leader of his clan, even after he had reached the legal age to take over as laird of Hawkhead Castle. And all the while, he found it easier to train and figure out what kind of leader he wanted to be.

The horses dug into the ground and the sun beat down on Clan Ross as they impatiently waited for Christopher to give up on the rider and allow the battle to begin.

“Och! What are we waitin’ fer? Let us get on with it!” one of the clansmen close to Christopher complained. Many agreed with a chorus of “Aye!”

“Keep the heid, men! We will avoid bloodshed if possible. Word will come before long,” Christopher answered loudly for as many men to hear as possible. He knew that some of the Clan didn’t agree with his strategy of sending a letter to back down, but he was willing to go to any length to avoid more lives lost. He then heard his closest friend, Fargus, clear his throat from the horse next to him before speaking. “Dae ye honestly think this chieftain will back down? The general has made it ‘is mission tae strike fear in those who refuse tae convert.”

“Dinnae remind me of that man’s need fer blood. It is as though he is cursed with it an’ instead of fighting it, he bathes in it.” Christopher made a face of disgust while speaking to his friend. “I dinnae ken that I still support getting others tae follow this way. There has been too much death, Fargus. There has tae be a better way.”

Under the general’s command, the clan had taken many pagan lives in the name of the Christian Lord over the years, but much of it had been excessive and unnecessary. That fueled Christopher’s determination to take over as laird and reclaim his army when the time came. He wanted bloodshed to be the last option, not the only one.

Finally, the rider reappeared, handing Christopher small ripped pieces of paper.

“He said little, Christopher. He read what was written, ripped it intae pieces, an’ told me that was ‘is answer,” the rider explained.

“Thank ye. Get back in line,” Christopher instructed.

The fight was about to start. After taking a deep breath, he gave the order to attack. He was at the front of the line this time, swinging his sword as if it were an art form. The day he saw his father die was the day he resolved to be the greatest warrior Scotland had ever seen. He had spent hours practicing every day to perfect his craft — ensuring his body was the ideal vessel for a perfect warrior. Some described him as a marvel on the battlefield; h He was always calm and calculated about his next move — always aware of the enemy’s location and where he was needed.

Clan Ross yelled their battle cry and charged the glen at their chieftain’s signal. The opposing clan followed suit, meeting in the middle. Christopher took as many off their horses as he could before being thrown off his own. He only had a split second to catch his breath before a sword came slashing; he  was able to deflect his attacker and easily handle the enemies surrounding him. He saw the general’s head tower over the shambles of men, wearing that evil grin that made Christopher’s skin crawl.

Christopher was impressed by the other clan’s abilities, but he knew they were no match for his army. The bodies began to fall quickly, revealing their exhaustion. He  was fighting two opponents at once, attempting to knock them out — hoping he woulldn’t have to kill any of them.  He took a look around and realized they were beginning to take over the other clan. His men were fighting with all their might, which filled him with pride and encouraged him to attack even more boldly.

The clan fought valiantly. Christopher was getting tired and wondering how long they could go when he heard the other side call for a retreat. He took a deep breath, relieved that it was coming to an end, until he heard the general order the men not to let them escape. A usual tactic of the horrible man: kill all those who flee, instead of just capturing them. They were only laying down their weapons in order to put an end to the bloodshed; wanting no more of any of it. And it enraged him how their men blindly followed Sir Caelan’s orders. He knew it would take some time for them to follow him, but he needed the general to do the same.

Christopher was saddened by the sight as he walked through the glen in search of his wounded. The glen was a beautiful stretch of open land that had been tainted by their conflict. Men from both sides lay on grass that had turned rusty from blood. While he was relieved that the majority of the dead belonged to the other clan, his heart was broken by the number of lives lost in vain. The injured men were moaning and pleading for help, some pleading with their mothers or God to have mercy and end their agony. He saw his clansmen thrust their swords into wounded men; redeeming them from a slow, painful death. A cruel act of mercy.

He discovered one of his own attempting to stop the bleeding in his thigh caused by a deep sword cut, and immediately knelt to assist. They wrapped cloth from the man’s shirt around the wound and used Christopher’s belt to make a tourniquet. As he helped his clansman to his feet, he noticed a crowd forming. He approached to see what was causing all the commotion, sensing what was going on before he arrived. The crowd parted for him; the general was in the center. And a scene from his past had returned to haunt him. He wanted to turn the clan against him and prove him to be a weak leader.

The general presented the captured chieftain of the opposing clan, just as he had done years before. Christopher stood tall and emotionless, his arms crossed in front of him.

The general yelled, “I present to ye, the leader o’ the filthy pagans! Separate his head from his body!”

The crowd cheered loudly as Sir Caelan looked expectantly at Christopher. When he made no move to unsheathe his sword, the crowd fell silent.

The general ground his teeth and seethed, “Do as yer told, lad!”

Christopher was as still as a statue, never taking his gaze away from Sir Caelan. The general charged towards him, yanked his father’s sword from its sheath, and began stomping toward the captured chieftain. Christopher stepped up and grabbed his arm to stop him before he could get halfway.

The men stood face to face, noses almost touching. He could feel the general’s hot, disgusting breath on his face, but he refused to be the first to back down. Sir Caelan tried to yank his arm away, but Christopher tightened his grip. “This isnae the way. He will remain our prisoner, an’ he will be shown mercy. Dinnae forget these are my men now. I mak’ the orders.”

Christopher could sense a shift in the energy of his clan. They were at a loss for what to do. They’d never seen anyone stand up to Sir Caelan Munro. They were looking at each other, lost, unsure how to react. Some were taken aback, while others stood by, expecting a brawl between the leaders. Christopher could hear the whispers as they spread around the five-man-deep circle of witnesses. Christopher ran his hand down the general’s arm, grabbing the hilt of his father’s sword without looking up. He was displaying his dominance for all to see. He half expected the general to try to kill him, but he also knew it would be a bad idea. Finally, the general growled before brushing hard against Christopher’s shoulder as he pushed his way through the crowd and stalked away.

To keep things moving and make it appear as if nothing had happened, Christopher directed the nearest soldier to bind the chieftain prisoner and prepare to transport him back to Hawkhead Castle. As they passed the pagan, the man stopped before Christopher. He was a stocky man with dark brown hair. He had a round face covered in a thick beard. He appeared to be ten years or more older. As the chieftain approached, he quickly readied himself, not knowing what the prisoner had in mind, and his clan followed suit by drawing their swords. To his surprise, however, the prisoner spoke quietly to him.

“Had I kent what kind o’ leader ye were, I would have made a different choice. We could have saved many lives today.” The chieftain bowed his head and allowed the soldier to lead him to the wagon to be carried away. Christopher stood there, perplexed by his confession.

One thing he knew though: he had to change the way the clan ran its affairs.

As Christopher approached his horse, he felt a large hand clasp his shoulder. He immediately recognized it as belonging to his best friend, Fargus MacLeod. Fargus was built similarly to him, albeit slightly thicker and shorter. He had curly reddish-orange hair and eyes that were a medley of greens. Fargus was loud and rambunctious where he was calm and serious. He knew how to make his friend laugh and enjoy life when it was needed, qualities to be admired for sure.

“Ye better be careful. Caelan will do all he can tae keep this army. He feels it is owed tae him.”

“Och. He will have tae fall in line. I’m his laird and he will soon see what kind o’ leader I am. I’m not a wee lad anymore an’ I’ll be fighting fer ma clan.”

“He may force ye tae fight tae the death.”

“Then let it be so.”

Fargus shook his head as they approached the horses. It was a long trip back to Hawkhead Castle, and they needed to stay alert. They never knew when rogue fighters from a pagan clan would appear in the brush. Due to rumors of Clan Ross’s ferocity, opposing clans rarely attacked, but there were a few who dared to do so now and then. Christopher hoped for a dull ride home. He was tired of fighting and just wanted to get back to his bed. He wanted to start planning how he was going to change his army, knowing that the general would fight him every step of the way.

 

Chapter 3

Brigid MacDougall braided her long, wavy red hair to keep it out of her face. Her sword was stuck in the ground next to her, and her tongue was protruding as she struggled to finish the braid. Aengus MacDougall, her slightly older brother, was leaning against a tree, picking the leaves off a limb he had pulled from the nearest branch.

“We haven’t all day, lass. The announcements are coming soon.”

“Och! I’m about done. There.” She finished braiding her hair and pulled her sword out of the ground to show her brother she was ready.

“Finally!”

“Get on with it, will ye. I’m ready tae kick yer arse!” Brigid smiled sweetly and batted her eyes, knowing it would annoy her brother.

They had been practicing with their swords for many years. Their father despised the fact that she wanted to learn but acknowledged that it was necessary. And, in all honesty, he knew he’d never be able to keep her from learning. When she was set on something, it was difficult to persuade her otherwise.

As they made a slow circle, she took a moment to assess Aengus. He was a foot taller than she was, and his hair, like their father’s, was brown and tied back in a short ponytail with waves like hers. She thought it was amusing how the ladies liked to twirl their fingers through it. Anything to pique his interest. He was quite attractive, with honey brown eyes, while she had bright green eyes, and they both had a healthy amount of freckles dotting their cheeks and nose.

She kept an eye on his feet and his hands around his sword, looking for any tells she’d picked up over the years. They’d both become great fighters, and he was now irritated that his younger sister could outsmart him with the sword. No man wants to be defeated by a woman. He lunged forward, and she twirled out of the way, then launched an instant counter-attack to catch him off guard. They exchanged blows, deflecting each other’s hits with ease. They had split up and resumed their slow circle when they heard fast approaching hooves. When Aengus looked up to see who was approaching, Brigid took advantage of the opportunity to attack, slicing the arm of his shirt. She could see some blood seeping through, but she knew he wasn’t hurt badly.

“Och! Brigid!”

“Never lose focus, Aengus. It’s the difference between life an’ death,” she sang as she walked to the rider.

“Yer father is asking for ye two tae come back tae the castle. He is about tae mak’ the announcement of the new chieftain.”

“Thank you. We are on our way up.”

Brigid and Aengus gathered their things and made their way to the castle. They had been equally anticipating and dreading this day. By birth, Aengus was to be the next laird and chieftain. However, years ago their father had taken in their cousin, James MacLeod, whose parents killed in a road raid during one of their trips into the village. From the moment James moved in with them, their father cherished him.

Brigid enjoyed having another big brother around, but as she got older, she started to see how it was affecting Aengus. He had been cast aside while their father taught James all he could. It was obvious he was being groomed to become the next leader when it was her brother’s birthright. She loved James but wholeheartedly disagreed with her father’s actions. She knew he was sorry that the boy had lost his parents at such a young age, but sitting and watching her brother’s confidence and passion dwindle with each passing year irritated her. She prayed to the gods that her father would make the right decision.

As they got closer to the Dunollie Castle, the hubbub of the event was obvious. Families filed into the hall, mingling, and drinking, waiting for the big announcement. Brigid loved it when they held gatherings of any kind. She enjoyed seeing everyone in one place and relished the excuse to wear her better dresses. Additionally, her father was eager to see her marry, so every event also served as a chance at finding a suitor.

She had to admit, deep down, that she loved the thrill of meeting new people, and the enthralling possibility that one of them might become her husband. Her da had always said he wanted her to choose for herself. That her happiness mattered to him more than making a political statement. But she feared he was getting impatient with her as she had been dragging the process out to her advantage; enjoying the freedom of being unwed. But apart from that, she had not been interested in many of the available men in their clan. She was waiting for that one person to set her soul on fire.

She loved being able to marry whomever she wanted, but given her family’s position, she would be expected to take a husband soon. At times, the weight of being the good daughter and doing what was expected of her became too much. She recalled an argument she had with her father a few months prior.

“Ye need tae pick a husband, Brigid. Yer past the age most women wed and will be expected tae start having bairns soon. The clan is askin’ questions,” her father had expressed.

“I havnae found the one yet, Da. Ye always promised it would be ma choice. Ye promised Ma before she died.”

“Dinnae bring yer ma intae this. I want ye tae be happy, lass, I truly do. But if ye dinnae choose a husband by the year’s end, I may have tae do the choosin’.”

Brigid recalled feeling betrayed when her father walked away. He had promised her and her dying mother that he would always prioritize her happiness. She never understood the weight of being a leader when she was younger — that the weight passed onto the children. From the day her mother died when she was fourteen until the day she had that argument with her father, she clung to that promise. She wondered if he would break his promise and choose her husband for her. What if he became too impatient? What if her father’s choice for her was a monster? What if he never loved her, or she never loved him? Could she really live the rest of her life without ever experiencing true love? She wondered how much she would be expected to give up as the chieftain’s daughter.

The pressure on her to choose someone was increasing, and she added to it by declaring that if her father chose James to be his successor, she would never marry.  “Ye cannae choose James, Da. Aengus is yer son an’ rightful successor. Ye will crush him if ye choose James,” she had pleaded to her father.

“I need tae pick who will be best fer our clan, Brigid. The moment he came tae us as an orphan he became a part o’ this family. He has every right tae that honor as yer brother.”

“Isnae right, Da. If ye choose James as yer successor, I willnae wed. I will remain a lonely spinster until the end of ma days.”

“Och! Enough, lass! I willnae discuss this with ye any further. Ye will honor whomever I choose and ye will honor yer duty as ma daughter an’ find yerself a husband or I will do it fer ye!”

She knew it was a childish declaration, and that if she dragged her heels any longer, she would have no say in the matter, but she wanted to express her feelings about who should be chief as dramatically as possible. When she told her father that Aengus should be his successor, she never felt heard so desperate as she was, she had resorted to manipulating her father with her emotions, only to be left in the dark about his decision. Brigid was determined to keep her word, but she was aware that her father doubted she would ever go against his wishes.

With the pressure of the evening on her, she decided to do her part and listen to the advances of the single men who would come to her. She would mentally narrow down the list of those who stood out as potential husbands. She would put on a good show, but it would all come to an end if her father named James as his successor.

Brigid found her maid, Innis, in her chamber, waiting to help her wash up and change into her new gown.

“Are ye excited fer the evening?” Innis had asked.

“I dinnae know, Innis. I am a mix of nerves an’ excitement. I really hope Da names Aengus as chieftain, but honestly I dinnae know who he will choose.”

“Oh, I’m sure he will do the right thing.”

“The problem is what is right in his mind may not be the same as what is right in mine,” Brigid sighed as she lowered herself into the bath. As Innis washed her hair, she let her thoughts and worries from the night play over and over in her mind. She sat in front of the vanity in her shift after she was clean and dry and began working through the tangles in her hair.

“Let me help ye with that, lass,” Innis said as she walked up behind Brigid and politely took the brush. “What else is eatin’ at ya?”

Brigid’s mind raced with the various reactions her brother could have if he was not named chieftain. “I’m worried about Aengus. He hides it, but he is so fragile. I fear he is losing his place in life an’ will be lost without followin’ in our father’s footsteps.”

 

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A Lass for the Cursed Highlander (Preview)

Prologue


Muir of Ord, Scotland
1328

“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

Chapter 1

Fortrose, Scotland
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.”

Chapter 2

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.

‘Evelyn Drummond,
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,
A friend’.

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.”

“Pack? Why?”

“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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Chapter One

1307

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.

***

1304

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.

***

1304

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.

Ailig nodded.

“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.

Chapter Two

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.”

“Who?”

“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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A Highlander to Remember (Preview)

Prologue

Scottish Highlands
May 12, 1551

Seth’s hands tightened on the reins as he spurred his horse faster. Its heaving pants filled Seth’s ears as he ignored the shouts of riders chasing from behind. Alicia’s head was buried against his back, her fingers digging into his sides, desperately clinging to him to keep from falling. Rain pelted Seth’s face, seeping through his pallid skin and his belted plaid, his body trembling in earnest as he grasped the reins. He clenched his jaw to keep from trembling, focusing all his attentions on the road ahead. The wind whipped his dark hair into his eyes, and the rain blurred his gaze.

Seth swiped his hair with a shaking hand and reclaimed the reins quickly as he felt his body teeter forward. He squinted into the darkness. The storm hid the stars and the moon, offering no light. They were riding through the dark with no sense of direction. Seth only prayed he knew the way. Trees on either side reached for them, clawing at his arms and legs, and tangling themselves in Alicia’s hair.

“Seth!” Alicia cried against the storm.

Seth swallowed the fear crawling its way up his throat. He wiped the droplets from his face, his eyes widening on the blood speckling his fingertips. He ground his teeth at the painful itch in his skin, but he didn’t stop.

“Hold on!” Seth shouted over the rain and the thundering of hooves growing louder from behind.

“Seth!” Alicia shouted, her voice shrill, her arms hugging him tighter. “I’m scared.”

Seth’s brows pinched together, his heart hammering in his throat, his stomach twisting with worry. He didn’t know if they could escape the riders. They were adept at tracking animals and thieves during night and day. They knew these woods better than him. Seth had thought there would be more time, that Alicia’s father would not have noticed their disappearance until the morn. He had thought wrong. Even if they did escape Laird Anderson’s men, Seth did not know who would take them in. Seth and Alicia hadn’t taken much—only the clothes on their backs and enough coin to lodge them for a mere day or two.

He hadn’t planned well, but he knew if they didn’t leave together this night, they would never see each other again. Seth couldn’t bear the thought of it.

He only knew he wanted to be with her, and there was no way he would permit their clans to stand in his way.

“Stop!” a rider called after them. “We command ye to stop!”

Seth turned his horse sharply to the left, moving off the road and deeper into the woods. The horse whinnied and Alicia shrieked as it jumped, barely evading a fallen tree. Seth grasped her hand, his fingers lacing with hers.

“Do not be afraid, my Alicia,” Seth called out against the storm. “I will protect ye; I swear it, I wi-”

The horse shrieked as it tripped over something in the ground, and Seth choked on his words as he felt his body suddenly swing forward. His leg snapped, and his eyes stung. His mouth opened, but no sound escaped as his body hit the ground and continued sliding down. His ears rang, or was it the sound of the horse shrieking as it scrambled to remain afoot?

“Seth!” Alicia screamed, her body sliding further down, towards the edge of nothingness. He could barely make out her figure in the darkness, but the fear in her voice left chills running up and down his spine.

Seth clung to her hand, his whole body quivering with pain as he edged towards the cliff. The sounds of the horse scrambling made him queasy.

“Don’t let go!” Alicia cried, her hand slipping from his hold.

Seth gritted his teeth, his grip tightening. The pain in his leg and his hand sent fire roaring through him. They edged closer. Nothing could stop their descent.

“Seth, I lo-“

They fell over the edge, and her hand slipped from his grasp.

“Alicia!” Seth shouted, hearing her screams over the raging storm.

Seth didn’t understand what was happening, only that one moment he was flying, and the next his body struck something hard and began rolling. He couldn’t stop rolling. His left hand caught onto something, trying to stop his movement. Tears stung his eyes, and pain scorched through his fingertips, making him release whatever it was he was clinging to. His body was like a rock, rolling and rolling, unable to stop. His left hand struck something hard, and he gasped. The pain radiated up his arm and through his shoulder.

He tried to cry out, but all sound escaped him. Darkness filled his vision as his body went numb; until finally, he blinked the pain away and found himself staring up at the dark sky.

“Seth McGill!” someone shouted.

“Lady Anderson!” another called.

Seth groaned as he tried to lift his body, but his muscles ached and pulled, making it difficult for him to move. He couldn’t feel his leg. His right hand grasped at the ground, trying to push his body up, but it was difficult without the use of his other hand.

“Alicia,” he groaned, turning his head towards his injured hand.

His eyes widened, finding it covered in blood. Something was screaming in the distance. A shudder went down his spine as his eyes caught sight of his horse crying not too far from him. It kept trying to stand, yet it couldn’t. The darkness shrouded its injuries.

But where was Alicia?

“Alicia!” Seth shouted, his eyes prickling with tears as he looked to his right, finding a still body not too far from him.

Lightning flashed in the sky, and light fell upon them, followed by a loud rumble from the heavens above. His breath hitched, his eyes prickling with tears at the sight of Alicia, the side of her head covered in blood, her red hair caked with it. Her eyes closed.

“Alicia,” Seth sobbed, tears streaming down his cheeks as he attempted to crawl towards her. She’s asleep, he told himself as he slowly pulled his body towards her.

Another flash of lightning displayed Alicia, closer this time, her body completely still, her green eyes closed off to the world.

“Alicia,” Seth wailed as he reached for her, needing to touch her hair, caress her cheek, feel her lips upon his just one more time.

“Seth McGill,” he heard one of the riders murmur as he felt a touch on his shoulder.

Several other riders approached. Seth could not make out their faces, nor did he care. His eyes remained focused on Alicia. The horse’s shrieks silenced.

The padding of rain permeated through the air as another crack of lightning flashed.

“Alicia,” Seth murmured, his head aching, his eyes finding it difficult to remain open. “Open yer eyes, my darling.”

But she did not open her eyes, and he could no longer bear the pain. His body went limp, his eyes slowly closing.

Chapter One

Scottish Highlands
July 19, 1557

Seth’s eyes snapped open. His cheeks were wet with tears, his throat raw from screaming. He gasped, wiping the tears from his eyes while quickly sitting up and looking around the room. He was not lying in the grass. Alicia was not next to him. He was back at McGill Castle, in his own room. His blanket rested on the ground, and his pillows were strewn around the mattress as if heavy winds had entered while he slept.

The early morning rays seeped into the room displaying a desk resting near the window and a trunk setting across from his bed. Across the room, the wall glittered under the light, and the McGill crest of the Phoenix in flames caught Seth’s eye. Every morning since returning to this castle, Seth had gazed upon the clan’s crest, trying to decide where the fire ended and the phoenix’s wings began. And every morning he gave up, reminding himself he had better things to do than stare at a bird that meant nothing to him and everything to the McGill clan.

“The phoenix is a sacred bird, Seth,” he recalled his father once saying, long ago when he was a boy of eight summers. “Because when it emerges from the ash, it is more powerful than ever before. Remember that, lad.”

Seth groaned, tearing his gaze away from the crest and running a hand over his face, his head aching from waking so suddenly. Father was a fool, he thought darkly. The McGills are naething like a phoenix, nor am I. His foolishness is the reason why we were so blindsided by the Andersons’ betrayal in the first place. Seth clenched his jaw, remembering the day his father stalked inside his room, his hands fisted, his gaze set in a deep scowl.

“We are leaving,” Seth remembered him announcing. “Now.”

Seth’s body shook, his mind still tormented by memories of that dreadful night—the night he lost Alicia. Even now, six years later, the guilt still tore at him. She would still be alive now if he hadn’t been so foolish—if he hadn’t gone to her rooms and begged her to leave with him. How young he had been, and naive about the world. Of course, one way or another, they would have been found and torn away from each other. At least, if he had listened to his father, Alicia would be alive, rather than lying in the ground.

They had been close. Their fathers had been allies, serving in a war to defeat a greater evil—the Campbells. However, everything changed after they had won. Laird Anderson refused to give Seth’s father the lands promised to him, and so, within a fortnight, their clans had become enemies.

Seth sighed as he rose from his bed, his jaw clenching at the slight pain in his right foot. He had broken his leg that night, and even after regaining most of his movement back, there were still aches in the morning. The healer had thought he would never be able to walk again, but Seth had proved him wrong, practicing day and night with a walking stick, focusing mostly on standing and then hobbling short distances.

“Aye, but he will never walk without the use of that stick,” the healer had said begrudgingly.

And, of course, Seth proved him wrong again, working hard every day so that he could be of use to the McGill clan once again. His leg indeed healed, but there were days Seth wanted to give up, days when the pain was so insufferable he wished to remain in bed. And once he could walk, he had to learn once more how to ride a horse, how to step while holding a sword—things he had learned as a young boy, he had to relearn again all because of that foolish night.

Seth’s gaze drifted to his left hand, a grimace settling on his face as he stared down at the puckered scars staring back at him. He clenched and unclenched it, biting back a gasp as the tendons ached at the slight movement. It would never be the same ever again, but at least he fought well with his right.

Seth turned at the knock on the door. “Enter,” he called, watching as a young servant girl entered, her gaze on the floor as she moved swiftly inside.

“Is there anything ye need?” she asked softly. “I heard yer cries and worried yer hand-“

“Nae,” Seth rushed out, forcing a smile when he noticed the servant girl’s flinch. “I am quite well.”

She nodded, her head lifting. Her face flushed as their gazes met, and he watched the way she fidgeted back and forth. “Would ye care to have breakfast in yer rooms again?”

Seth shook his head. “Nae, that is quite all right. I will gather my provisions from the kitchens.”

“Aye, of course.”

Seth watched her leave, wondering if he would later hear of gossip spread on his wails in the morn. He tried not to let it get to him, but it was difficult. With his elder brother now laird, Seth felt as if he was wasting away in this castle. If his father were still alive, he would have found him a good match by now, and he would be laird of his own fortress. However, shortly after Seth’s tumble, his father died from consumption, and his mother was so distraught over nearly losing her youngest son, no arrangements were made.

Not that Seth wanted them. He didn’t think he could ever love another. Not after losing Alicia. Not many highland women would be interested in a deformed wretch such as himself. He could walk now, but his hand looked perverse, and even when he wore his glove to hide the hideous thing, it still did nothing to stop gossip.

Seth crouched low in front of his trunk, opening it and taking out his tartan dyed in the McGill clan colors of yellow, green, and red. He dressed quickly, belting his plaid and tucking in his leine. He grabbed his black glove, sliding it over his scarred hand, feeling as if by wearing the flimsy fabric he could be renewed. Renewed, however, his pain and guilt still lurked within him, shadowing his eyes.

Seth strode towards the washbasin, splashing the cold water onto his face.

His attention was caught by his reflection, and he stared at himself through the looking glass, taking in his broad shoulders and his muscled chest. He had filled out since his boyhood years. His dark hair hung down around his shoulders, and his jawline was speckled with morning stubble. He was no longer that skinny, lanky boy running away in the woods.

A knock at the door made him flinch, and he turned, finding the same servant girl quickly entering. “Apologies,” she rushed out. “The elder Lady McGill has required yer presence in her chambers.”

Seth frowned at the tremble in the servant girl’s hands, the hunch in her shoulders. Has Mother worsened overnight? Seth wondered while striding towards the door. Ever since his father died, his mother had grown to hysterics, her nights plagued with dreams, and the nights filled with her screams and cries, yet no one, not even the healer, knew what ailed her. Many thought the death of her husband and the ailment of her youngest son had simply been too much for her. Others worried witches had tainted her mind and soon she would turn against them all.

Seth placed a hand on the servant girl’s shoulders, his frown deepening at her shaky sigh. “Is Mother well?” Seth asked, already knowing the answer.

Tears glimmered back at him as the servant girl met his gaze. She offered a curt nod, yet he believed she was merely saving face. He straightened himself and strode out of his chambers and down the shadowed halls lit with candelabras. The flames flickered as he walked. The sounds of swords clanging and women gossiping reached his ears. His lips twitched at the sound of children laughing, and his thoughts went to his niece and nephew, wondering if they had greeted their grandmother this morn. Sorrow filled him, knowing his niece and nephew would never get to meet the woman his mother used to be.

Seth turned down a corridor, stopping briefly at a window overlooking the courtyard below. Men were training. His elder brother, Calum, was standing at the front with crossed arms and a deep scowl. Calum looked just as their father did: tall and broad with a severe look to his face and hair that hung limply around his shoulders. His nose was bent wrong, due to Seth accidentally breaking it during a dual when they were young boys. Calum was rarely severe when they were children; he was always laughing and causing mischief.

Seth leaned against the window, his expression pained as he stared down at Calum. It had been too much for him to take on, Seth thought while he watched Calum shout his commands. First, my injuries, then Father’s death. Now Mother’s ailment. Of course it changes a man.

He turned away from the window and continued through the hall, his shoulders tensing with each and every step as he drew closer to the staircase awaiting him. When their mother’s wails had become too much for Calum, he had her placed in the highest tower, worried the rumors were true—that a witch had enchanted her. Seth hated it. With his mother trapped inside the highest tower, she could hardly see her grandchildren, hardly be with her family. He truly believed her ailment was due to a broken heart, but Calum had to do something to calm his people. And so, this was his answer.

Seth stopped in front of the large black door, his left-hand clenching and unclenching nervously, wondering what his mother would do when he entered.

This was not the first time he was summoned to her rooms. It had become a common occurrence. Shortly after his father died, his mother had called upon him nearly every morning. Yet, as the years went by, the summonings had lessened. Now, Seth figured they happened only a few times every season, and each time he came to her chambers, she acted differently, leaving him to wonder what he would receive this morn.

His right hand fisted, and he lightly knocked on the door. He swallowed the lump in his throat when he received no answer, and slowly turned the handle, ignoring the nausea swimming through him and the twisting of his insides as the door creaked open.

“Mother?” Seth called softly so as not to scare her.

His mother did not answer, and for a moment, he worried she had done something foul. He stepped quickly inside the room, looking around. A sharp breath escaped him as he found his mother, dressed in black as if still in mourning, sitting on a cushioned chair near the window. Her head was bent, her arms resting on the windowsill while the light glimmered down upon her, reminding him of the women he had seen in the abbey.

Seth stilled as his mother’s whispers reached him. “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” she continued on, her head tilting towards the sun.

Seth bit his tongue to keep himself from interrupting. He glanced over his shoulder, ensuring they were alone. His mother was whispering the prayers of the Catholic faith, a conflict to the Protestant worship his clan had reformed to. It was not uncommon for him to hear the Catholic prayer from her lips. However, with the gossip circling the lands about the elder Lady McGill becoming ever darker, he worried what would come of her if any outsiders from other clans heard her prayers during Calum’s seasonal meetings. Perhaps, that was another reason why Calum kept her in this tower.

“Mother,” he called again, hoping she heard him this time.

Her prayer stopped, and she glanced over her shoulder, her eyes swollen from crying, her face flushed. Shadows circled her eyes and heavy bags hung under them. Slowly, she straightened her body from the windowsill, her eyes glimmering with fresh tears.

Had she been crying the whole night? Seth wondered as he strode towards her.

He kneeled in front of her, taking her hand in his. Her skin was so cold. Her hand dangled within his, feeling limp, like a dead fish floating on the surface of a dark loch. She smiled sadly down at him, her other hand stroking the side of his face.

“My son,” she rasped.

“Are ye well, dearest Mother?” Seth asked, unable to hide the worry in his tone. “Have ye not slept? Ye look as if ye have seen a ghost.”

She did not answer him as she stroked his hair away from his face. “I have prayed every night and day,” she whispered, “that God would make ye walk again, fight again. Tis a miracle yer able to now.”

Seth nodded. “He has answered yer prayers, Mother.” He clenched his jaw, trying very hard to keep the worry from his face as he gazed up at his mother. It had been at least a year if not more since he regained full movement of his leg. Did she not remember? Was her mind so frail that she simply could not remember? Or, perhaps, he did not visit her as much as he should?

His mother’s gaze fell on his gloved left hand, and her smile dissipated as if she could see through the cloth—see the scarred and puckered skin. Her hand slipped from his grasp. “Not all,” she whispered with a slight shake of her head. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” She looked up at the ceiling as if she was gazing into the heavens. “I thought I was doing right by ye all these years, biding by yer father’s last wishes. These years have tormented me night and day, and I can no longer bear the guilt of keeping this secret. Please,” she gasped. “Forgive me.”

“Forgive ye?” Seth whispered while rising from the floor. “Mother, what is wrong?”

His mother sobbed, her hand coming over her mouth while she looked away from him.

“Please, ye must tell me.”

His mother’s eyes closed, and tears streamed down her cheeks. Her face had become abnormally pale.

“Mother-”

“Sit, my dearest son,” she whispered while gesturing towards a chair resting near a small table in the middle of the room. “Sit with me and hear what I must tell. Pray, have patience with me. I do not know if I can even say the words, but they must be said. I can no longer keep silent.”

Seth nodded and grabbed the chair, moving it so he could sit across from his mother. He leaned towards her, watching as her eyes opened and closed. Her mouth moved in silent prayer, and he wondered if she would tell him anything at all, or if she would ignore him as she used to—captured by her thoughts once more and no longer able to perceive the world around her.

“Mother,” he whispered, grabbing her hand, hoping to pull her back from her thoughts, hoping he could keep her with him at least until he left. He didn’t think he could bear it if she did not tell him this secret eating away at her. Perhaps, if she finally confessed her sins, she would be free of this sorcery. Perhaps her mind would return, and she could be with her family once more. “Please, ye must tell me.”

Her eyes snapped open, and she stared back at him with wide, bloodshot eyes that made his skin prickle as if the air had suddenly become chilled. She leaned towards him, her hand grasping his tightly as she whispered, “Yer father and I lied to ye, my dearest son. We did it to protect ye. Ye must understand, we did it for ye. We would never wish any pain upon ye. We thought this was for the best.”

“What was for the best?” Seth whispered as he forced himself to remain still, to not flee from his mad mother. Whatever it was she wished to tell him, he would remain, even if that meant her ailment spread to him. “Protect me from what?”

A witch? he wondered.

“Yer father was adamant I not tell ye. I wanted to, but he made me promise due to the agreement between him and Laird Anderson.”

Seth’s brows tented, and he craned his neck, not understanding how or why Laird Anderson would be involved, given their clans were enemies.

His mother shook her head. “How can I keep a secret from my own son? How could yer father expect me to keep an agreement struck between lairds? I am a mother first before I am a lady.” His mother whimpered, her free hand touching her brow lightly. “And now, it is all too late. I have waited too long.”

“What is this secret, Mother?” Seth asked harshly. “And why is Laird Anderson involved? How could he be after everything he did to us? After what he did to Father?”

His mother gasped, more tears falling from her eyes. She shook her head, her mouth opening, and closing.

“Mother, tell me at once,” Seth said, trying desperately to hold back his frustrations. He hated the turmoil on his mother’s face, the pain in her eyes, how she looked so frail and broken by the secrets weighing her down.

“It’s Alicia,” his mother breathed. “She’s alive.”

Seth stilled, his breath leaving him. He couldn’t feel his feet, let alone the rest of his body, as he stared back at his mother. Alicia? he thought, recalling the way her eyes glimmered in the sunlight when she laughed, and how she would plait flowers in her hair.

“Do not lie to me,” Seth whispered, his hand pulling from her grasp. “That cannot be true.”

Tears slipped from his mother’s gaze. “Tis the truth,” she whispered.

Seth stood, the chair nearly toppling behind him, but he caught it quickly with his good hand. He knew he should stay. His mother was not well. However, he could not bear to hear anymore. He would call for the healer. Surely, there was something he could do.

“Seth!” his mother called as he made his way towards the door. “She did not die that night. She still lives. I promise ye, I speak the truth. I swear it on yer father’s grave!”

Seth inhaled deeply, struggling to control his own tears. It cannot be true, he told himself. Mother has truly gone mad. She does not speak the truth.

“I have a letter.”

Seth paused mid-step. He glanced over his shoulder at his mother, wondering if she was lying to keep him there, or if she was speaking the truth. A part of him told him to leave, go find the healer, but his feet had a mind of their own, and they returned him to his mother. He slowly lowered himself in the seat before her. His hands trembled as he tried to grasp what his mother had just told him.

Alicia? Alive? he swallowed a sob as he shook his head. How can that be?

“Show me this letter,” Seth said, watching as his mother’s hand went to the pocket of her skirts.

Chapter Two

Scottish Highlands
July 14, 1557

Alicia stared out the large window, her hand pushing the crimson curtains from the glass. She jutted out her chin as she watched Laird MacDonald and his son, Andrew MacDonald, mount their steeds. The sun gleamed down upon their golden heads, making them appear angelic compared to the arrogance and crude demeanor they exuded in the great hall.

Good riddance, Alicia thought as she watched them ride out beyond the walls of her clan’s fortress. She had counted down the days until the MacDonalds’ departure, but it was only a matter of time until her father brought another suitor to the castle. Alicia grimaced at the mere thought of it. How can Father be so devoted to having me married when I can hardly remember my own upbringing?

Alicia groaned and pressed fingers into her temples, feeling her mind growing foggy as she tried to push herself to remember. She recalled waking up in bed several years ago, her head aching as if someone had slammed the hilt of their sword against the back of it. She remembered being surrounded by people she knew but could not place. Now, she knew them as her father, her mother, and the clan’s healer, Murdoch. However, at the time, fear had seized her heart at the fog clouding her memories. She recalled the way Murdoch had stroked his long white beard, the worry in his grey eyes.

“Oh, my darling,” her mother had sobbed, throwing herself at Alicia and wrapping her arms around her. Alicia had stilled herself, her heart pounding in her chest as she tried to place the woman who held her. “My sweet darling, yer alive. How is it yer alive?”

“Who are ye?” Alicia had rasped while pushing her mother away. “What happened? Where am I?”

Her mother had jerked up, her eyes wide in horror. “What do ye mean? I am yer mother.” Her mother’s eyes had glimmered, her bottom lip had trembled. “Do ye not know me?”

With a curt shake of Alicia’s head, her mother had burst into a fit of tears.

“Raibert!” her mother had wailed, clinging to a man hovering nearby—her father. Her father’s gaze had remained on her, his face looking both stoic and grim. Alicia remembered thinking him familiar, and yet terrifying.

“Raibert, do something! She does not remember me. She does not remember us!”

Her father had grabbed her mother’s hands and tenderly pushed her away. He had knelt before Alicia’s bedside, taking her hand gently into his large grasp. “Do ye not remember last night? The accident?”

Alicia had blinked back at him. She recalled the fog setting over her as she tried to remember, but there was nothing. “What accident?”

No one had told her what happened, and every time she asked, she was told not to worry her pretty little head over the matter. Alicia’s hand tightened on the drapes. Anger burned within her—anger at herself for her inability to remember what happened so long ago, anger at her father for wishing to sell her off, anger at Murdoch for keeping her father’s secrets.

Alicia wished there was something she could do to stop herself from feeling this way. She wanted her memories returned to her, but she didn’t know how.

No matter how much she tried to push past the walls surrounding that dark day, her head would ache and her body would grow limp. It was as if she was lost in a fog within the realm of the fae, unable to escape, forever trapped within this shell of a person.

And she did feel trapped. Her father never let her out of his sight. Whether she was within the castle or out in the fields, she was always being followed, either by the servants or by the guards. She could only be alone in her rooms. It was both her sanctuary and her prison.

A knock sounded at the door, but Alicia didn’t say anything, nor did she turn. She knew exactly who waited on the other side of that door, and knew that whatever she said, it would not matter.

The door creaked open, followed by steps drawing closer to her. They stopped in the middle of the room, and she steeled herself against the words soon to follow.

“Yer laird has entered the room, Daughter,” her father’s stern voice permeated her chamber. “Must ye keep yer back to me?”

Alicia dropped the drapes and slowly turned around. Her father frowned at her, his hands behind his back while he regarded her. She was nearly the spitting image of him, with hair like fire and eyes like the fields after the morning rain. Alicia looked very little like her mother, except for the narrowness of her nose and the sharpness of her jaw. She wondered what her father thought as he stared at her. If he was disappointed in her for denying another potential suitor.

“Is this better, Father?” she asked, forcing a smile.

Laird Anderson pursed his lips, his eyes narrowing at the bite in her tone. “I heard Laird MacDonald’s son asked for yer hand.”

“Aye, he did,” Alicia said with a curt nod.

Laird Anderson took a step towards her, his gaze growing dark. “And ye turned him away?”

Alicia’s lips curled into a genuine smile, and she nodded her head once more as she said sweetly, “Indeed, I did.”

Laird Anderson looked heavenward as if asking the holy father for advice. He inhaled deeply, his shoulders shaking with what Alicia assumed was his frustration. Her father always had a fiery temperament.

“I do not understand, Daughter,” he finally said. “First it was the Dunbars, which I understand; he was a wee bit old for ye.”

Alicia tried not to gag, recalling Laird Dunbar and the way he struggled to walk inside the great hall and the way his beard was littered with food from days past.

“But then there was the Mackay lad, who seemed kind and well-mannered.”
Alicia clenched her jaw to keep from scoffing. Laird Mackay’s son was a foolish, talkative boy who frequently wished to tell her of all his most accomplished deeds. He was always boasting about how much better he was compared to others. Alicia liked him even less when he yelled at a servant girl for accidentally spilling his ale all over the great hall’s floor.

Well-mannered, Father says, Alicia thought with disdain. There was nothing well-mannered about that lad.

“And then there was Laird Gunn.”
Alicia groaned, her eyes rolling as she heard her father say, “Strong, capable, with lands we could use and an army of men to follow him.”

Alicia couldn’t stand Laird Gunn. She grimaced as she recalled him during the nightly feasts, licking his fork as he stared at her, his tongue curling around the silver like an adder. She had tried to stay as far away from him as she possibly could, but he always found her. Even on his last day at the Anderson castle, he had pulled her into a tight hug, his hands sliding too far down her back to be considered proper. Laird Gunn was lucky she hadn’t smacked him in front of his many men, and so was her father.

“What was wrong with Laird Gunn?” her father asked, his tone nearly shrill as he looked her up and down.

Alicia sighed and her gaze fell to the stone floor. “Naething, Father,” she murmured.

“All these years,” her father continued as he paced back and forth, “searching and preparing, all so ye may marry a well-off man, a worthy man, who will care for ye. All of it wasted!” He threw his hands up, his voice growing louder, his gaze darker. Alicia flinched as she watched her father turn on his heel, his scowl darkening on her.

“I apologize, Father,” Alicia said, her body shriveling before him as he stalked towards her.

Laird Anderson sighed, his body slumping forward, his gaze softening. His hand rested on her shoulder, and all the anger in his gaze left, quickly replaced by worry. “All I want for ye is to marry a worthy man.”

“Why must I marry at all?” Alicia asked, her voice a mere whisper.

“Because, my dearest daughter, believe it or nae, but I will not live forever, and I must know that my dearest will be well cared for.” Laird Anderson ran a hair through his ginger hair. “And not only ye, but the clan, as well. Whoever takes yer hand will also have our people to consider.”

Alicia nodded. She understood where her father was coming from. The clan needed an heir, and given her father only had Alicia, she must marry for the people’s benefit. It made sense, yet it didn’t mean Alicia liked it any more than she did. She wanted to marry for love, as foolish as it sounded, and she also wanted to marry when she felt she could be herself, not this person she had become due to her inability to remember.

“I understand, Father,” Alicia forced out, hoping she sounded like the dutiful daughter her father wanted her to be.

Laird Anderson smiled, yet there was no joy in his gaze. He looked like the same disheartened man she had met all those years ago when she woke up in her bed without any of her memories.

“Good,” he said gruffly. “I knew ye would.”

Alicia frowned as her father’s hand slipped from her shoulders. She watched him turn towards the door, his hands moving to grasp each other behind his back. There was something off. She could feel it. There was a reason he had come to her after the MacDonalds had left.

“I have sent ravens to the other clans,” her father started, his back still facing her. “To our allies. We have received many positive responses.”

“Ravens?” Alicia repeated, stepping away from the window. “Whatever for?”
Laird Anderson glanced over his shoulder, his expression looking stern yet pained. “There will be a festival in two weeks’ time. Lairds and their sons from all over will come to our lands, dine at our table, drink from our cups.”

Alicia felt dizzy.

Lairds and their sons, she repeated in her head. She grasped her hands together to keep them from shaking, but she couldn’t stop picking at her fingernails.

Why would Father invite lairds and their sons to a festival?

As if her father had mystical powers and could read her mind, he answered her with, “We will hold a challenge for yer hand in marriage.”

Alicia’s heart dropped to her stomach. She wavered where she stood, feeling as if at any moment she might faint. Her father had sent ravens, he had conspired to marry her off without previously discussing it with her.

Although, how could she expect him to? Something like this was bound to happen eventually, given she sent every suitor who asked for her hand away.

“Each man will be tested in battle and must prove himself worthy,” her father continued, clearly not noticing her distress. “And once yer husband has deemed himself worthy, we will hold a grand feast in his and yer honor.”

Alicia closed her eyes, clenching her jaw as she felt an uneasy shudder ripple down her spine. “It will be a grand sight to be sure.” She hated the joy in his tone, hated the way he sounded so sure of himself. “Ye will marry the most honorable and worthy man of the clans.”

Alicia opened her eyes then, a giggle escaping her, yet it had nothing to do with the merriment of planning an upcoming wedding. She was being sold—offered as a trophy to men wielding swords and arrows. It was all a game to them. Her life meant nothing to the lairds and their sons. This competition her father spoke of wasn’t about her at all. It was about gloating and boasting who was the best of all. She was disgusted. Why couldn’t her father understand she wasn’t ready?

“Father-” she started, hoping she could plead her case, but Laird Anderson raised his hand, silencing her immediately.

“I will see ye for dinner, Daughter,” he said while striding towards her door. “Yer mother wishes to speak to ye about yer attire. Yer to have new dresses made for the occasion.”

Alicia grimaced as she watched her father leave, her hands fisting at her sides. If she could, she would fight all the lairds and their men. She would do anything to keep herself from their clutches, but she did not know how to wield a sword nor shoot a bow and arrow. A tear slipped down her cheek as she turned around, her hands pushing the drapes away. She stared out the window, watching the MacDonalds leave, wishing she could hide amongst them and leave this prison. She swallowed a sob, knowing she must remain strong.

Tears will not help me, she thought while quickly wiping them away. I must think of something.

Her gaze drifted to her right hand still holding the drapes, focusing on the small birthmark on her thumb. The lines were faint, but they were there. Most birthmarks were dark and ugly, and yet, this one reminded Alicia of the flowers growing in her mother’s garden—like a rose blooming. Alicia turned away from the window. Her fingertips traced the lines of her birthmark, and as she did, she felt a sense of calm seep through her. She did not know why, but every time she looked at this small flower on her thumb, her sorrow would float away.

Alicia sighed and leaned against the windowsill. Father may have his challenge, she thought while tracing the flower.

He may have his lairds, his swords, his battle for my hand. But I will not accept any suitor, no matter who wins. Alicia’s gaze lifted, and she scowled at the door her father had left through moments before.

I may be just a flower to be won, but some flowers have thorns. I will not go easily with any man.

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The Haunted Highland Tale (Preview)

Chapter One

France
1574

In the dead of night, in a Parisian inn, young Reed McNeil stood stone still in the middle of the room, hands jittering at his sides. He stared at the dead man slumped over at the table, his horror building with each second that passed.

The body lay face-down, fingers still resting on the stem of an overturned chalice—wine soaked into the light wood grain of the table, staining it crimson. The motionless form was slouched over, one hand dangling loosely at his side. Red frothed at the man’s lips, wicked bubbles of spittle-flecked with blood.

The wicked mark of poison.

A harsh knock sounded from the other side of the wooden door causing Reed to jolt in shock. Orange candlelight spilled beneath the crack in the door, and a shadow shifted on the other side. When Reed’s fear prevented him from moving, the fist pounded the wood again, booming on the thick oak. There was much more force this time, and the power of the blow rattled the heavy door on its hinges. Breath whooshed out from his lungs in a great rush, and he inhaled the strong scent of red wine.

He turned to search the room for some escape, freezing again when his gaze fell upon the motionless figure…

Bile rose up in his throat as his eyes fell on the wine on the table. He brushed one trembling hand roughly through his red hair, baffled and frightened. The maid who’d brought them their bottle and chalices hadn’t had any hint of malice in her eyes, nor had the innkeeper or his wife. They’d given him a room, showing him kindness. Reed couldn’t imagine any reason they would want to hurt him or the stranger who’d taken residence in the room’s second bed.

Who could have done this?

Only moments ago, he and his older roommate had been sharing stories and laughter, drinking merrily, and enjoying each other’s company. Reed had been listening intently to the stranger’s tales and told him about his plan to study literature in Paris, an endeavor the man had applauded, when a knock at the door had revealed a smiling maid, with two chalices of red wine in hand. She set them down before them without a word, shutting the door behind her. Reed had taken a swig of his wine, then laughed, adding that his taste was more towards whisky. He was about to call the maid back and ask her to bring more whiskey, when his new friend dropped his chalice from shaking hands, the metal clattering against the wooden table.

In another minute, the stranger was clutching his throat, rasping for breath. He gripped the edge of his wooden chair, his body contorting with pain. Then his last breath rattled his body, and then he moved no more.

As he stood frozen in the room, now, just minutes later, Reed saw the scene over and over in his mind, unable to block it out of his thoughts. The dying man’s cry echoed in his mind.

The guards are goin’ tae think this was my doin!

His heart pounded in his chest, trembling fingers knotting into fists. There were no windows in the room, only four walls that threatening to close in on him as his mind rushed in a whirlwind of thoughts.

Another thunderous knock came, this time accompanied by angry voices. The words were spoken in swift French that Reed couldn’t understand. He heard men grumbling in low tones, their shadows shifting, growing more and more agitated as the seconds slunk on.

Reed held his breath, praying for them to leave. For a moment, it seemed like they were doing just that. The candlelight faded softly, as did the voices, and soon there was only darkness beneath the crack in Reed’s door. He exhaled, his knees weakening in gratitude.

He turned to grab his bag from the foot of his bed. Before he could do so, a mighty blow struck the door again, as though a man or several men were ramming into it with all of their weight. They hadn’t been leaving at all, merely making room to bust the door down. Reed stumbled backward, his eyes wide, but his body stiffening in anticipation of a fight…

Again, the men charged the door, their feet pounding the inn’s wooden floorboards. This time, to Reed’s horror, the door gave way.

Three guards stood crammed in the hall, the first two breathing heavily and rubbing at their shoulders. They pushed forward, seizing Reed by his upper arms as the third man rushed forward to inspect the body at the table. He bent low next to the man’s face, sniffed the chalice, and turned back with an expression muddled with rage.

“C’et homme est mort!” the guard cried. The man stood and turned to Reed. He could already see the accusation in the man’s eyes. “Poisoned by the hand of a coward!”

“Please, listen —”

“Meurtrier!” the man shouted. “You Scots think we won’t check a room when we hear someone screaming for help in the middle of the night? Or did you think your draught would be quick enough to end his life before we could notice?”

“No, I —”

“Silence!” another guard cried, shaking Reed roughly. “It’s clear what’s been done.”

Reed struggled in the men’s iron grip, desperately trying to reason with them, but it was as though he was speaking to statues. They dragged him down the hallway as the innkeeper and his wife looked on in horror. Reed twisted, trying to catch their eye, hoping they would help him, but a tight grip on his long hair forced him forward.

“Brute,” the guard snapped. “ You’ll be lucky if you do not hang.”

“No,” Reed shouted, his voice rising. “Ye cannae do this. I didnae do anythin’ wrong! Let go o’ me!”

“Tell it to the rest of the dogs in the dungeon,” the guard said, his thick accent contorting the words. “That’s the only company you’ll have from now on.”

Nothing Reed said or did seemed to make any difference. His reasoning passed through the guards as though he were speaking to his shadow. When it became apparent that they would not hear him, he tried to twist away, but the men’s hold on his arms was too strong. He couldn’t wrench himself away, no matter how he tried. Reed’s anger flared even through his fear, and he bared his teeth at his captors. He’d almost loosened one arm out of the men’s grip when he was struck with a heavy blow to the side of the head. Colors burst before his eyes, and he felt blood trickling down the side of his face in a slow stream.

With that, Reed was forced through the threshold of the door and out into the night, friendless and alone. He lifted his pounding head and turned back towards the inn, desperately wondering why anyone could want to frame him for a murder that he had no hand in. As he was led away, images of his family flashed in his mind. He could see his mother and father’s serene and encouraging expressions, hear his brothers and sisters laughing in their orchard together.

As Reed was dragged away, he wondered if he would ever see them again or if he would take his last breath in a country he barely knew, far away from home and everyone he’d ever loved.

*****

Scotland
1577

If Reed knew one thing, it was that the sunset on the moors of his home country was unrivaled anywhere else in the world. Although, he supposed that a man who’d been imprisoned for three years would think just that very thing.

He leaned forward on the back of Atlas, the black horse he’d stolen during his escape, and spurred the sleek beast onward over the white terrain. Scarlet sunlight broke through the clouds, settling on the sloping hills and reflecting the brilliant colors in the snow. Silhouettes of the hawthorn trees reached their arms up high, while the willows bowed and swayed their naked branches in the wind. Reed inhaled, breathing in the crisp scent of home. He couldn’t help the smile that brushed across his face. It only widened the closer he got to Eilean Donan Castle.

His dark red hair flew about him as he pressed on toward home. Atlas kicked up a wave of white slush as the creature jumped over a fallen oak log. Reed laughed, adrenaline coursing through his body. The flurry of horse and rider upset a family of quails, the little birds fluttering in the icy powder.

Memories of his youth began to flood back. He and his brothers had loved to hunt in this area for deer and duck, bringing back the game for great feasts for the entire clan. The memories were so vivid that he could almost hear Laurence and Allan’s voices ringing through the wintery landscape as he raced on.

His escape from his captors hadn’t been easy, but it had been worth it to be once again surrounded by the comforting landscape of home. The long trek back had been nearly as unbearable as the prison itself. Every step felt as though it were a mile. He’d worn out his shoes running through the French woodlands, stolen a horse, and stowed away on a ship, but now the journey was coming to a close.

Reed smiled. The castle wasn’t far. He only had to round this clump of snow-dusted pine trees, and then he’d be home, to be greeted by his mother and father, a cozy fire and the warm embrace of his siblings.

Safety. Security. The comfort of family.

All just within his grasp.

Atlas picked up speed, bolting beneath two craggy boulders, towards the loch that Eilean Donan overlooked, nestled in the mountains. He could see the sunlight reflecting the water in the distance, glinting off the ice like diamonds. He sat up tall, his heart racing, but something wasn’t quite right.

The tips of the castle peaks should be visible… but they weren’t.

His dark brows dipped down. He straightened, pushing up on his saddle with the toes of his boots, but still nothing. Reed shook his head at himself. It had been some time since he’d clapped eyes on this place; perhaps his memory wasn’t entirely accurate.

Still, the longer he rode, the clearer it became that something was wrong. Terribly wrong.

Reed rounded a snowbank, worry eating away at his heart. As he rushed down a steep hill towards the loch that lay cupped between the mountains, his grip tightened on the reins.

When Reed finally reached the top of the slope, his breath caught in his throat, choking him like a stone.

There lay only ruins where his once beautiful home stood. The stone walls were crumbling, smashed as if a battering ram had slammed into them with ruthless force. The plentiful orchard, too, seemed to have been ravaged. Instead of mature trees stretching up towards the sky with their thick branches, only stumps and blackened trunks remained. As Reed drew closer, he saw that the castle gates were splintered and cracked, and the bridge across the loch was near collapse.

“How could this have happened?” Reed whispered, slowing to a halt outside of the gates. “Who could have done this?”

Two guards stood at the entrance, eyeing him suspiciously. They were young men, and he didn’t recognize their faces. One of their hands twitched towards the hilt of the blade slung across his back as Reed approached.

“Who are ye an’ what d’ye want wi’ the McNeil clan?” the young man called out. His voice dripped with distrust, hostility coloring his words. “I warn ye if ye mean us any harm —”

“No need fer tha’,” Reed said, holding out his hands to show he held no weapon. H“ I’m the Laird’s son, Reed McNeil. This is my home. Now tell me, who did this? What happened?”

The young guards shared a glance, Then the first man stepped forward, looking up at him on his horse, with eyes glinting dangerously.

“Ye think we’re goin’ tae let ye in, jus’ like tha’?” he asked. “There is no proof tae yer words, an’ we willnae be tricked. Ye have no place here, traveler. The McNeils are dead, an’ the rest o’ us have enough problems without a suspicious stranger skulkin’ aroun’ the keep.”

Reed froze. His stomach tightened like a clenched fist at the man’s words.

Dead?

“What?” he asked, his voice thin and his throat burning. “But… how can tha’ be?”

Reeds slid down from his horse, taking long, urgent steps towards the splintered castle gates. His gaze darted up towards the broad spire at his parent’s window. There was no light coming from within.

“Leave, stranger,” the guard said again, his words steely this time. The man’s stance shifted as he advanced towards the castle.

“No,” Reed said again. Grief stung his eyes, his throat. “Not until I’ve seen fer myself. I’m enterin’ this castle, my home. I dinnae want tae fight wi’ ye, especially if ye’re from my own clan. Now lay down yer arms. I need tae know who did this.”

The guards shared another dark, suspicious look, both silent. Reed steadied himself as he waited for them to make the first move. His blood pounded in grief and rage, but he didn’t want to fight these men if he didn’t have to.

He had nothing to defend himself but the small blade at his side, but he had to see within the castle walls. His heart pounded as he stole another glance up toward the crumbling tower. He could hear nothing on the other side of the gate; no voices, no laughter, no life.

Reed looked back towards the two men before him. It was clear that they didn’t trust him; their hands were twitching, ready to draw their blades. Reed was just about to open his mouth again to try and dissuade them from doing anything foolish when the first young guard reached back for his weapon.

Just as the first deadly flash of steel peeked out from within the guards’ scabbards, the gate swung open with a heavy creak.

Out stepped an older man, his face weathered from years of grief and worry. The straggled red strands of hair were streaked with white. The man squinted at Reed, his fingers tugging at the long beard at his chin.

“What’s all this, eh?” the man asked. “Who are ye tae come wanderin’ aroun’ our castle? We’ve ‘ad enough o’ strangers. Begone!”

But as the old man came closer, Reed’s eyes widened.

“Travis?” he asked. “Travis McMahon? Ye were my father’s advisor! Can ye no’ recognize me?”

The elderly man blinked and rubbed his eyes for a moment. He took another step forward, disbelief draining the color from his face.

“It cannae be nothin’ bu’ a miracle,” the man said. “Reed McNeil? Bu’ where ‘ave ye been all these years? Yer father sent out search parties throughout Scotland and France when ye never wrote home. We thought ye were dead!”

“No’ dead,” Reed said. “I’m still livin’, even if at times I thought I was in Hell. I was imprisoned in France, framed fer a deed I had no part in. Murder by the way o’ poison. I finally made my escape after years o’ plannin’, but I expected anythin’ else other than this.”

Travis motioned the two guards to sheath their blades and reached out for Reed’s shoulder, squeezing hard. Reed wondered whether the old man did so to comfort him or assure himself that he wasn’t truly looking at a ghost.

“I know ye have questions, but this isnae the right place,” Travis said softly. “Come inside where it’s warm, or as warm as we’re likely tae be, then I’ll tell ye everythin’. I’ll warn ye though; the castle is in no more of a better state inside than it is out. But four walls and a decent fire is better than the wind an’ snow. Lads, one o’ ye take the horse tae the stables an’ I’ll send fer yer relief shortly.” He directed these last words to the guards, who nodded at him gratefully.

The old man pushed the thick oak gates open wider, struggling with the weight of the wood for a moment, and then waved for Reed to follow. The two guards stepped aside and let him pass, mumbling their apologies and looking sheepish. Reed followed behind Travis, and the gates shut with a heavy thud.

Reed closed his eyes before looking up at the interior of the castle walls, telling himself that he would accept whatever he saw. He would listen to Travis with a level head — or as much as he could manage — and then he would decide what to do. Reed’s lips felt impossibly dry, and his head was swimming, but he steadied his shoulders, lifted his chin, and then opened his eyes again.

But there was not enough will in the world that could have prepared Reed for what he saw.

As he gazed around at the ravaged courtyard, the air rushed out of his lungs in an agonized breath. His hands wandered up to cover his mouth, to rub at the stubble of his chin, anything to feel a sensation that wasn’t the terrible aching in his heart. He wanted to look away from the singed trees and the decaying ramparts but found it impossible. Wherever he turned his attention, memories melded with the cruel reality, blurring his vision. Ghosts of his tender youth blended with the despair and desolation that blanketed the grounds.

The old man led him across the courtyard, through the main doors that lead into the entrance hall. Reed could see a few people in the distance, bending low to pluck meager amounts of blackberries from the plants that were growing along the walls of the castle. They straightened up as they caught sight of him.

“How many o’ us are left?” Reed asked.

Travis shook his head.

“Wait until we’re more comfortable, lad,” he said. “Take the time tae adjust tae all this. I know it cannae be easy tae take in. We’ll have a dram, an’ I’ll tell ye everythin’.”

With that, the two made their way indoors. Reed dropped his head as he tried not to let the grief take hold of him, though his heart was as shattered as the castle that had been his home since his earliest memories. He made a silent oath to himself as a single tear fell to the crumbling stone floor.

He would find whoever did this, and they would pay with their life.

Chapter 2

Freya Cameron clutched her white cloak around her, her eyes on the tree line that surrounded her small cabin. She’d heard something out in the forest this time, she was sure of it. It sounded like footsteps, as though someone had stepped on a branch and snapped it. Freya’s grip on her cloak tightened in excitement, and she fought the urge to smile.

Please let it be him, she thought to herself. It has tae be this time. It jus’ has tae be.

She leaned forward earnestly, trying to stop herself from bolting into the forest in anticipation, and waited.

Another crack, closer this time.

“Father?” Freya called into the night. “Is tha’ ye?”

Silence.

She took a step forward, her breath coming out in frosty puffs of air. Snow crunched beneath her shoes as she braved another step.

The brush crackled and the bushes parted before her. Freya couldn’t keep the smile from whisking itself across her face, but as branches dipped further, the excitement dropped from her expression. A fox came skittering out of the underbrush, hopping through the snow playfully. It caught sight of her, froze, and then bounded off over the hilltop. The little creature left dark footprints in the slush behind it as it ran.

Disappointment flooded through her. She let her cloak slide from her shoulders as her grip on the white wool loosened. She turned back to the cabin, plodding through the snow, and tried not to let her heartache win. Freya shut the door behind her as she toyed with a strand of her raven black hair.

“Another lonely night,” she murmured to herself. “Jus’ like they all have been.”

She leaned down, picked up her mug of whisky from the table, and sloshed the contents around, sighing. She sipped what was left of it, the liquid burning her throat all the way down.

Freya’s heart ached terribly. She’d been so certain this time. The sounds in the forest had been almost identical to footsteps; she wasn’t sure how she hadn’t realized it was a fox. She gazed around at the little cabin, her chest tightening in disappointment. It had been three long years since she’d seen her father, and the grief had become heavier and heavier by the day. She knew that his journey had been important to him, that her aunt had been gravely ill, but Freya wished more than anything to see him again.

Before she knew what she was doing, she swooped down and snatched up her bag.

I think tonight mus’ be a prayin’ night. I cannae think o’ any other way tae help my father, but maybe my words will reach God’s ears.

Within moments, her sack was stuffed with a bottle of wine, a thick blanket, and a few morsels of salted venison and cheese. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to hold her over and keep her warm for a few hours. She smiled, telling herself she was doing as much good as she was able. Freya slipped her cloak back on, fastening it at the collar, and threw her bag over her shoulder. She scribbled a note on a piece of parchment and slid it in the crack of the door. It was the same words she wrote every time she went praying.

Father,
If you’ve come home while I’m gone, stay put. I’ll be back soon. At the old church.
Your daughter,
Freya

She’d written these words countless times, faithfully sliding the parchment somewhere that her father would see if he did happen to return. Each time, she would come back to see that the parchment remained untouched.

Even so, Freya herself had suspected this trip would be a lengthy one. When the letter came detailing how ill her aunt truly was, she’d seen all the color drain from her father’s face. He’d looked so grief-stricken when he’d read about his sister’s sickness that Freya had insisted he visit for as long as needed. She knew that if anyone could heal her aunt, it was her father. The man was knowledgeable on so many subjects. He’d seemed to Freya like an expert on countless subjects, from healing and herbology all the way to pagan rituals.

Aunt Aisla needs Father right now, she told herself, not for the first time. He’ll come home as soon as he can. He made a promise an’ I know he willnae break it.

But it had been three years of disappointment. Three years of heartbreak without even a letter to show for it.

What if he never comes home?

She shoved that thought aside, turning to lock the door behind her as she stepped out into the chill. Freya found that she immediately felt better upon her first few steps into the silent night, as if she was leaving her sorrow behind her. There was a familiarity within the forest. There, she wasn’t alone, or at least not completely. She enjoyed the sounds of deer as they leapt through the wintery forest landscape and smiled when a large brown owl passed through the branches above her head. There was no path to the church, but Freya needed none. She made her way through the trees, feeling the differences in the bark’s texture as she passed each one.

Here, an oak tree. And there, an old hawthorn. She knew if she continued further north, there would be a prickly blackberry bush and just beyond it, the church.

I suppose it’s a good thing Father made sure I can take care o’ myself.

She had been alone in the world now since she was just twenty-one, but she knew how to survive.

She kept going, pulling her white cloak over her pale gown, and continued onward. Soon, the abandoned church was in sight. The moon rose up high behind it, creating a black silhouette of the dilapidated structure. Freya trudged on, creating a trench in the snow as she went. She gathered the skirts of her dress in her arms, not wanting to dirty it. It had been the last gift that her father had given her before his departure, and she had taken great pains to keep it clean.

When Freya came upon the courtyard just outside of the ancient building, she bent to brush the fluffy white powder from an old stone bench. Sitting down chilled her body straight through, but the view of the stars was worth it. She gazed up at the winking lights in the sky, brushing a lock of black hair behind her ear.

Freya wondered if her father was looking at those same stars somewhere. She shivered the cold breaking through her thick cloak.

“Suppose I should pra,y if tha’s what I came here tae do,” she said. “I jus’ wish I wasnae doin’ it alone.”

Memories of her and her father flooded her; how many times had they prayed together at this very spot? She let a bittersweet smile brush across her face, her eyes shining with emotion as her childhood played out in her mind. She saw her father teaching her how to hunt, how to build a fire, how to combine just the right herbs to create a life-saving poultice. The man had told the best stories and had all the answers to every question her curious younger self could think to ask. There were so many little moments, so many ways in which he showed her he loved her, but her memories of praying together with her father in the church were by far her most precious.

Her hands wound together, and she squeezed tightly. With a sigh, she let the hood of her cloak fall back around her shoulders. She kneeled on the stone floor, thinking that perhaps God might hear her better outdoors than within the walls of the church. After all, Freya always felt closer to the Lord when surrounded by nature anyway. She clasped her hands, eyes on the glittering indigo sky, and prayed.

“Oh, Heavenly Lord,” she whispered. “I hope ye can hear me. I know ye prob’ly have a lot tae attend tae, and there’s a lot more people out there who have it well worse than I do… But please, if ye’re listenin’… Please bring my father home. I’ve been so terribly lonely, an’ I miss him verra much. I know I’ve asked this o’ ye before, but if ye could —”

She stopped speaking as a crash sounded from within the forest. Freya stood, whirling around. Her hands flew up to pull her cloak up beneath her chin, her eyes wide with fear. There came another loud, woody crack. This time, though, it came from her far right, on the opposite side of where the first noise came from. Something, or someone, was watching her. No – it was more than one. The sound of feet crunching snow came upon her from several different sides. She looked left and right, searching for movement, desperately trying to see what it was that was approaching her. There came a flash of something dark against the white frost, but she could not tell what it was.

Freya slowly slid her hand into her bag, trying her best to be as subtle as she could. She felt around, cursing when she realized she hadn’t brought a blade.

Instead, her hand gripped the neck of the wine bottle. She would gladly sacrifice the wine if she had to break the bottle over something’s head to save her life. She tightened her hold on it, narrowing her eyes, and waited for the stalkers to make the first move, whoever they may be.

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A Bride for the Highland Beast (Preview)

Chapter One

“Curses be, we never should have come on this ill-fated expedition!”

Iron clashed against iron, and the rusty smell of blood filled the air. Numerous soldiers bearing the crest of the Maxwell Viscountcy, an eagle’s head on a shield, surrounded the small group of Douglas clansmen. In the midst of this madness, Beiste Douglas could not even spare the time to respond to his cousin’s comment. His hands were full, pulling one blade from the shoulder of one attacker while parrying a blow with another. Although he could not respond, he certainly shared the sentiment.
It was a foolhardy decision to come here into the forest, and they should have known better.

Ever since the English viscountcy of House Maxwell had expanded their borders into the no-man’s-land that separated their territories, the skirmishes had been unending. It had been very sudden. One, moment all was right with the world, and then the next, the English had built themselves a base in the plains. Since the land had belonged to no one, the Douglas clan had chosen to ignore them, hoping that if they minded their own business, the English would do the same.

Unfortunately, they had been too optimistic, and it became clear that the English had set their sights on the Douglas lands. It was nothing to worry too much about; after all, the men of the Douglas clan were naturally strong. They had beaten up numerous English soldiers who encroached their borders, and when they were attacked, they always won. Beiste himself had killed several of the trespassers.

Perhaps it was because they wrote the English off as weak, but they had continued on with the normal state of things in the clan, despite being at war. That was why Beiste had come with his father and cousin for some hunting in the forest. They had ended up meeting English soldiers and having a scuffle, but that was within their expectations. What they had not expected, though, was for there to be many more soldiers than usual. Beiste had killed thirty men already, but more just kept replacing them.

The English soldiers were attacking them as one would a strong wild beast, by surrounding them and continually attacking until they were worn out. Beiste was already beginning to feel the weariness of the battle. His heart was pounding hard, working to pump blood through his gigantic frame as he continued to power through their numbers with brute force. He gritted his teeth as he spun around and slashed the neck of an enemy.

This is becoming annoying.

The enemy had long spears that they continued to attempt to prod him with. He was doing way too many gymnastics to block or avoid their attacks and had to put in twice the effort to kill them. What made it so annoying was the fact that for each soldier he killed, another was quick to replace him. His father and his cousin were in the same situation, and the three of them had only just managed to stand with their backs to each other so that they would not be individually surrounded.

“Beiste! Leave the bastards on this side to me! There are a lot more of them attacking Uncle!” his cousin Alpin shouted. Beiste had his back to his father so he could not see, but Alpin, who was adjacent to them both, could. In a smooth movement, Beiste turned to his father’s side, trusting Alpin’s advice. Meanwhile, Alpin had pulled on the spear of an attacker and swung him off it as though he were a child. The muscles in Alpin’s arm bunched from the exertion of swinging off a full-grown man, and with that same strength, he threw the spear, impaling two soldiers at once.

Beiste smiled at the sight. His cousin was capable, the only other warrior in the clan who could even attempt to rival him. Beiste was known as a beast even in their clan full of strong men. He had turned a mistake by his cousin into a new record of being the first in the clan to hunt a boar at the age of twelve all by himself. It was a story the members of his clan told so much that every child knew it like folklore and respected him, even though he got the scar that ran down his cheek for it. He was lucky he managed to keep his eye. Ever since then, he had only gotten stronger, and by the time he was eighteen, no one in the clan could best him anymore.

Taking inspiration from his cousin’s action, he made it to his father’s side just in time to grab unto the spear of an attacker after dodging it. He pulled it from the enemy’s grasp and swung it, like one would an axe against a tree, into the side of his neck. The soldier’s head lopped to the side with the audible shattering of his neck, and he crumpled to the ground the next moment. The soldiers around were stunned for a moment, and Beiste rode the momentum, swinging the spear over and over, smashing a skull here, piercing through a throat there, until bodies surrounded him.

“Are ye alright, Faither?” he called out once he’d killed enough of the enemy soldiers to give them some breathing space. Caspain Douglas pulled his axe out of the split head of an enemy and gave him a tired sigh.

“I…am gettin’ too old for this,” his father said. In a less tense situation, Beiste might have laughed, but from the heavy rise and fall of Caspain’s chest and the slight sluggishness in his arm which looked like it might falter at any moment, Beiste could tell that his father was serious. Any words of encouragement he might have wanted to say vanished in his throat as the next moment he managed to dodge, only by a stroke of luck, an arrow aimed for his head.

“Surely ye jest! Archers?!” he heard Alpin screech furiously at the same time. In the trees all around them, English archers had appeared and were aiming at them. The Douglas men’s strong formation was broken in an instant as they were forced to jump in different directions as they avoided the arrows that came their way. Just like that, what they had been trying to avoid came to be. They were swarmed by even more soldiers who came into the clearing, and the three of them were separated, with enemies all around.

He heard his father shout out in pain, but no matter how much he struggled against the enemies, there were just too many. Soldiers charged at him, tackling his legs from behind and forcing him to his knees. He could tell that it was hopeless as he was swarmed by the enemies, and a solid hit to the back of his head made him collapse into the dirt.

“Grab them!” he heard a soldier yell.

Is this how me life is goin’ to end?

With that final thought, he was enveloped by the darkness of a faint.

Chapter Two

Louisa Maxwell sat by the window in her chambers, watching swallows fly by and wishing she could be one of them. The gentle breeze blew her blonde hair softly, creating a calm aura, but her heart was all but calm. There were many things worrying her. First was the war with the Scottish clan that her father had started. She did not know much, as she was shielded from all important information and was little more than a doll to her father, but she knew how strong that clan was.

Almost every day, the number of Maxwell soldiers that died by their hands increased. Her father had sent a great number of forces into battle against the Scots. He had gone to the border post himself a few days ago to try and take control of the situation. She did not have a good relationship with him, but she knew that if anything happened to him, she would be ruined.

She was also worried about her engagement. She had been of marriageable age for a few years now, but her father had ignored all talk of her marriage, saying that he would need proper consideration before sending her off. She did not consider herself too bright, since her father always emphasized that she was not smart enough to handle anything on her own, but she knew that was just a fancy way of saying that he would sell her off to whoever offered him the most benefits in exchange for her hand. She would have no say in the decision, so naturally, she was losing sleep over the issue.

Her bedroom door opened as she heaved a deep sigh, and turning to look, she found her sister Sophia at the door. Sophia was sixteen now and turning into a beautiful young woman. She and her sister looked very much alike, sharing the same blonde hair that ran in the Maxwell family, but while Louisa had her mother’s green eyes, Sophia’s eyes were blue just like their father’s. She still had a few years before she would be considered a chattel to their father like Louisa currently was, but it was inevitable. Louisa’s heart throbbed at the thought of her sister needing to go through the same thing she was.

“Louisa, Father has returned,” Sophia said in a small voice. Louisa got to her feet immediately. As the eldest daughter, she was expected to go and greet him upon his return, as well as instruct the servants how to serve him. Since their mother had died years ago, she had taken up the position of the lady of the house, and it was her duty to direct the servants on how to tend to him when he was around.

She hurried to his study and was just about to knock when voices from within stopped her in her tracks. She was not one to snoop, but she was sure she had heard her name. Surely that would give anyone pause. She leaned slightly closer to the door, so that she could clearly hear the conversation going on inside the room.

“Indeed, the Baron has shown his sincerity with this. Thanks to you, we have been able to subdue those wretched Scotsmen. With our powers joined together, it is only a matter of time before we can destroy the clan, which will be in disarray with their leaders gone,” she heard her father say.

“Certainly, you do not need to thank me, Lord Maxwell. I am but an aide to Baron Smith. It is I who should thank you for accepting my offer and agreeing to wed the young miss Louisa to my master,” an unfamiliar voice responded. Louisa felt her blood run cold.

Father had become involved with Baron Smith?

The Baron was a very powerful man because, during his first few years after inheriting the barony, he had discovered iron in his lands. He had grown wealthy from his rights over the mine. He also had a lot of able-bodied young men in his territory, so naturally, the local knightage was full. There was no problem with any of these things, but the issue with the Baron was his temperament. He was known by all to be quick to anger and merciless when provoked.

He was also about twenty years older than Louisa and had been married once before. It was rumored that his wife’s untimely death was the result of his anger over something trivial. From his behavior, it was easy for Louisa to believe it. He had once pulled his sword on a commoner because her child ran in front of his carriage and his coachman had been forced to stop. It had become a huge issue that a Marquess passing by only barely managed to diffuse. Afterwards, he turned his anger on his coachman for stopping because of the girl and causing him to be jolted in the carriage.

The coachman was fired after being whipped and thrown out. Louisa’s hands were shaking at the thought of possibly being married to such a horrible man. Unable to bring herself to go in there and act like she was alright after what she had heard, she turned around and stumbled away instead. Tears sprang up in her eyes, and she fought to wipe them away. She knew her father did not care about her, but she thought he would at least try to find her a good man to marry, even if he was using her for a profit. This situation, however, proved to her that her interests were never even under consideration. Her father only wanted what suited him, nothing less.

Suddenly feeling ill, she returned to her chambers and confined herself to her bed, where she lay crying for several hours.

……

A bucket of freezing water being tossed over his head was how Beiste returned to consciousness. He blinked slowly, water dripping from his lashes, as he tried to gather his bearings. He was constrained by chains holding his arms up and binding his feet together. In this way, he was strung up like meat hung to dry.

“Is he awake? Slap the bastard to make sure he’s awake for this,” someone was saying. He instinctively moved his head, dodging the slap before it could connect with his face. This meant that, as his vision cleared, he could see what was going on behind the man in front of him.

“Faither!” he gasped. The Englishmen had his father on his knees in front of a man who looked like he was their Lord from the fancy clothes he was wearing. Like him, his father had been stripped down to his kilt, but unlike him, he was covered in injuries from head to toe. Beiste was appalled at the sight. He had never seen his father in such a broken state before.

Caspain raised his head to look at his son and gave him a weak smile. Blood was pouring from his lips, telling Beiste that he probably had a lot of internal injuries. His pupils shook with the shock and horror of the situation.

“I love ye, me son. Make sure that ye dae nae fall here,” his father shouted to him even as the English Lord unsheathed his sword.

“As Lord of House Maxwell, I mete out the punishment of execution to the barbarian leader for the blood of all Maxwell soldiers shed in this war,” the man said, and the next moment, blood splattered on Beiste’s face as his father’s head was lopped off.

“Nay!” he screamed, straining against his restraints and thrashing about. Sadly, this action only served to cause an ache in his shoulders and his wrists to chafe against the iron cuffs. But the men around him were taken aback because although he could not break the chains, he was strong enough to cause dust to fall from the walls where the chains were attached. The English Lord looked at him like he was a disgusting monster.

“Give that one the punishment of his life. Do not kill him yet, but make sure that he wishes he were dead instead,” the Lord spat, waving his sword around to try to get rid of the blood on it before wiping it with a handkerchief that he then discarded carelessly on the floor. As the Lord turned to leave, an ugly man with eyes as black as soot approached Beiste, smiling with perverse joy and holding a thick whip. In the blink of an eye, the whip went flying, and Beiste felt excruciating pain explode across his abdomen where the whip hit him.

It was only one hit, yet his skin was already red like he had been doused with hot water. He cried out in pain, both from the sudden and senseless loss of his father and the torture he was forced to endure. When his skin was red all over from the whip, the torture master brought in a heated iron and began to sear his irritated flesh. Beiste grit his teeth, powering through the pain even though it rendered his brain a muddled mess.

Why are they doin’ this? What did we ever dae to them? We were livin’ peacefully, and they began attackin’ us for nay reason!

Faither, how could ye be gone just like that? I did nae even get to say anythin’ to ye.

Tears of anguish slid down his face as he remembered the last conversation he had with his father. They had been draining the blood of the boar they caught so that they could carry it home, and his father was nagging him about getting married.

“When are ye goin’ to find a lass and settle down, Beiste? Are ye waitin’ until me bones turn to ashes?” Caspain had asked, causing Beiste to groan. “Look at ye, ye are already past due to find a wife. Dae ye nae want me to see me grandchildren? I am gettin’ old. Can ye hear the creak of me bones? I want to leave things to ye and go somewhere quiet, so that yer maither will be the only thing causin’ me trouble in life.”

Alpin had thrown back his head laughing at that, while Beiste narrowed his eyes at his father. “What? I am goin’ to tell Maither what ye just said for sure,” he threatened. His father gasped, clutching his mouth.

“Ah! Whose son are ye, ye traitor? It was but a slip of the tongue; I did nae mean it that way!” his father had quipped, slapping Beiste’s arm and causing it to sting.

“Ow!” Beiste complained, rubbing the affected area. “I am definitely tellin’ Maither!”

It had been a carefree moment of laughter, one like any other, the usual way he related to his father. Who could have thought that their playful banter would end in such a horrifying way? They were supposed to return home with their catch. He knew his mother would be worried. He was finally able to breathe as the torture master stopped for a moment to admire his work, smiling at his sizzling flesh.

His father’s last words echoed in his head as the torture started again. No matter what, he needed to escape this place. He would not die here.

Chapter Three

As Louisa had stayed in bed all day, the maids had reported to her father that she had fallen slightly ill, which was why she had not gone out to greet him. That was the only reason she did not get into trouble and was able to avoid seeing her father. However, it had caused unnecessary worry to her sister and personal maid, Martha, who had known that she was perfectly fine mere hours before. She felt bad for lying to them, but she was too distressed to worry about it too much.

She heard her bedroom door open and glanced out from underneath her covers. Sophia and Martha approached her with solemn expressions. Her sister sat on the bed beside her while Martha put down the bowl of water and washcloth she had brought and stood over her.

“Miss, I beg of you, tell us what is wrong. Sophia and I know that there is no way you are ill. You were perfectly fine a while ago, and you even left to greet the Lord. Something definitely happened for you to return to your room like this. Please tell us,” Martha said, soaking the washcloth and wiping Louisa’s tear-streaked face.

These two were the people Louisa trusted the most in her life. Martha was only about seven years older than her, but the maid had taken up the space left by her mother in her heart over the years. Martha took care of Louisa and Sophia as though they were her own blood, and the three of them had formed a tight bond, as they were all each of them had.

Louisa sat up, sniffling and leaning against Sophia when she put her arms around her. Although there was nothing they could do, she wanted to share her pain. Martha joined them on the bed and clasped her hand over Louisa’s.

“I overheard Father talking to someone in his study when I went to greet him. It seems that person was an aide to Baron Smith, and they were talking about how father had agreed to marry me off to the Baron in exchange for help in the war against the Scotsmen,” she confessed.

Their reactions were just as she expected, full of horror. Both women gasped audibly, and Martha dropped the washcloth in her hand from the sheer shock. Their faces were pale, and they both looked like they might faint. Sophie took a shaky breath, and then tears began to pool in her eyes.

“What? Baron Smith? The same Baron Smith that is notorious in society?” her sister exclaimed. “Was he not rumored to have killed his wife? It was no secret that he was violent and abusive to her while she was alive. And he’s more than twice your age! What is Father thinking?!” Sophia began to break down as she spoke, while Martha was deathly quiet, staring at the bed as though if she looked hard enough, the words she had heard would stop being true.

“Sophia…Soph…I beg ye, calm down,” Louisa was forced to say, as she could feel her younger sister physically shaking, her eyes wild with panic. Louisa could somewhat understand what Sophia was feeling. If she were to hear that Sophia was fated with such a marriage, she had no idea how she would react, but she imagined it would be very similar.

“No! No, Father cannot do this!” Sophia said.

Louisa smiled sadly. “What can we do? He will not listen, no matter what we say. You know this too. Father…Father cares nothing for us,” she said, tears pooling in her eyes again.

“You should run away!” Sophia blurted out, clearly without thinking, but she caught their attention immediately. They all exchanged a look. It was clearly not something that had not crossed any of their minds before.

“Yes…yes, you should run away!” Sophia repeated, more strongly this time. She seemed to be becoming more and more convinced that this was a viable method for Louisa to escape from this awful predicament. Louisa herself was still reeling as she considered it.

Indeed, if she escaped somehow, she would be free from her fate, but what about her sister? What about Martha? In fact, all of these were questions that would become worth asking only if it were even possible for her to escape. Her father kept a very close guard over them, so how would she escape first the castle and then their territory? She was also a woman, and it was dangerous out there. Where would she even run to? She didn’t know the area, and any noble houses she went to would simply return her to her father. She could not burden any commoners with hiding her, as that would only be causing them unnecessary troubles.

“Sophia, that is much harder than it seems, and there are too many uncertainties. How will I get out of here? How will I survive out there? Where will I head to? How can I leave you and Martha behind here?” she asked. Sophia did not seem fazed at all and had seemingly already made up her mind.

“You don’t have to worry about me right now,” her sister retorted. “I’m still young. I still have some time before I have to worry about being sold off by Father. I will not be in any danger here for now. You, however, need to go!”

“I…I actually think this might work, Louisa,” Martha said in a small voice, making both sisters quieten and turn to her questioningly. The maid let out a shaky breath and picked up the washcloth she had dropped.

“I only know this because the Lady told me when she was alive, and I only say it now because I realize that she must have told me in case a time like this comes. Even while she was ill, her biggest worry was how you two would fare alone with the Lord. Perhaps she foresaw this,” Martha said. “There are secret passages that lead from the dungeon out into the woods, so you can escape from there without being discovered by any soldiers.”

Louisa could see the raw sorrow on Martha’s face as she mentioned their mother. Unlike their father, their mother had been a wonderful and loving person, not just to them but to Martha as well. She had taken care of Martha, who had lost both her parents and come to work as a maid to provide for herself and her little brother who was sick.

“As for where you should run to, when you get out there, you just have to head deeper into the woods,” Martha continued. “There is an old cottage where a very old lady lives. It has been a few years, but even if she is no longer there, the cottage will be. You can hide there. If she is still alive, she will take care of you. She is a healer, but back then, since she was so old and strange, some called her a witch. I can assure you she is not, though. She was the one who nursed my brother back to health. She is really kind, despite being strange, so you do not have to worry about that,”

Louisa was not worrying about it at all. In fact, she was just surprised and overwhelmed. A few seconds ago, the idea of escape had seemed like a futile and meaningless one, but now all of a sudden, it was a feasible plan. It felt like everything was spinning too fast around her, and she could not catch anything.

“Oh good! That is so wonderful, Martha!” Sophia said happily. “I was thinking we could cart her out in some hay or disguise her as a maid or a man, but that plan is so much better and safer. We should begin to prepare right away. Since Father thinks she is ill, he will not come looking for her for a while, so she can get further away before he sends men out to find her.” Sophia was already carrying the plan and running with it.

“You are correct, young Miss. I will prepare everything so that she can leave tonight,” Martha agreed, nodding. Louisa could only look at them with an incredulous expression.

“Is this really happening?” she muttered in shock, her tears long dried up.

“Indeed, Miss, this is happening,” Martha said. “You do not have to worry; I will take care of everything. I will pack all that you will need, and I’ll even draw out detailed instructions so that you can make your way to the cottage safely,”

……

Beiste had been sure he had pushed his body to the limits before, but never in his life had he endured such unnecessary pain as was inflicted on him that day. After completely scarring the entirety of his abdomen, the torture master had left him alone, claiming that doing too much at once might dull the pain and make things easier for his victim. He did not forget to mention that he would be back later the next day to complete the job and cover Beiste’s back with sears from the heated iron.

His body was covered in cold sweat from the pain he endured, and that only served to put him in even more pain as the salt in the sweat irritated his injuries. He gave himself an hour to rest and catch his breath, before he began plotting his escape. He knew that if he was going to leave he needed to do it that very night because not only did they plan to kill him eventually, but the longer he stayed in captivity, the more dangerous it would be for him.

Although he was tired and injured at the moment, he knew that this was probably the best condition he would be in going forward. If he stayed, he would only sustain more injuries at the hands of the torturer. In fact, it was possible that the next day, after burning the skin off his back, they would decide to slice off his limbs. It was in his best interest to escape immediately.

His eyes had adjusted to the near pitch darkness enough that he was able to see around him somewhat. He knew just where the keys to his cell were. They were hung from the wall right across from his cell. He sighed to himself. The torture master was just a sadistic bastard, having put the keys right out there to make mockery of him, so that he would know that freedom was just out of reach. He would make them regret it, though.

He remembered that when he had thrashed about before it had upset the walls where the chains were connected. If he used just enough strength, he would probably be able to pull the chains from the wall. The only problem was that pulling added a lot of strain to his wrists. The cuffs of the chains were particularly biting. Too much and he would either rub his wrists raw or slice them open on the cuffs. Still, he needed to do it. He would just have to see which would give out first, the chains or his wrists.

Wrapping his hands around the body of the chain to remove some of the stress from his wrists, he pulled. It was a tough process, but he could feel the dust rising from the wall. He could hear the creaking of the chain’s fastenings every time he pulled, and he convinced himself to keep trying. His wrists felt as raw as his seared skin by the time he finally succeeded. Both of the chains came free and ricocheted forward from the force, and he dropped down to his feet.

He took a moment to catch himself, breathing heavily. His left wrist was bleeding, but he ignored it and bent to pull out the chains that held his legs fastened one by one. Finally, he was free, although four chains were still attached to him by the cuffs. He was not too upset by it, although it clanked with every step he took. All he needed to do now was figure out how to get to the keys. He was pondering on this when he suddenly heard footsteps. Startled, he went quiet and waited to ambush whoever was approaching.

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An Angel for the Highlander (Preview)

Chapter 1

Glencoe, Scotland 1768

“Ye heard of the latest attack?”

“Aye, brutal it was. Those Maguires willnae be happy until the entire MacLaren clan is dead, ye mark me words.”

Elliot stopped walking abruptly, turning his head to listen to the conversation, hoping he wasn’t too obvious. The men who were gossiping about the raiding Maguires didn’t seem to notice Elliot’s presence. He walked past their table in the main part of the ale house and then turned to stand nearby, looking out of the window into the town, hoping no one would pay him any attention.

Aye, nay one will recognize me. They daenae ken what their Laird looks like.

His choice of garb certainly helped the illusion of him being just like any other man that walked into the place from the grey cobbled street. He was wearing a pauper’s frock coat, thin and tatty with patchworked sections; beneath was a white linen shirt that smelled, making his nose curl. It was not like the posies of lavender and bergamot he was used to finding amongst his clothes; this smell distinctly reminded him of the farms and the horses’ stables. His buckskins were worn too, and the boots so torn that they were practically falling off his feet.

I certainly daenae look like a Laird now!

“I am tellin’ ye, the Maguires will see us all dead.” The first man spoke again, whipping his hand across the front of his neck in demonstration of what he thought. “They’ll cut yer throat as soon as look at ye.”

“Ye exaggerate, ye old fool,” the younger man beside him said as he sipped from his ale. It was the middle of the day, yet the alehouse had drawn quite a crowd from visitors to the market in the center of town. Out of the window, Elliot could see the few trees that bordered the town square bristling in the breeze—orange leaves falling with each rustle of the branches.

“Aye, ye think so? Pah! What do ye ken, laddie? Ye are nae one of the men that have to go and fight these Maguires each time they come callin’.”

“Is that nae the soldiers’ job? They that work for our Laird?”

“Ye think our Laird worries himself with such small towns like ours? Naïve, that’s what ye are. Our Laird notices the people of this town nay more than he does the ants beneath his boots.”

Elliot froze, his body flinching at the words, and looked down. To his horror, there were indeed ants running between the floorboards of the building and under his boots. He consciously adjusted his feet, doing his best not to stand on the ants anymore.

“Ye talkin’ of the Maguires, Ken?” a third man called.

Elliot looked away from the window, peering toward the gossiping men another time, doing his best to watch and listen without being seen. When one man looked his way, he was forced to turn his gaze back to the view from the window. They were in the very center of Glencoe town, set within a valley between three mountains and to the side of a river that meandered into the blue ocean beyond. The town was well constructed and had grown considerably since Elliot had last visited it as a child. Each tall building was a narrow townhouse, some white with sash windows, others red and bordered in white brick. The town hall, the most important building in Glencoe with a white-pillared frontage and grand steps leading up to the doors, was set opposite the alehouse. In front of the town hall, the market was set up. Busy today, it was full of farmers and fishmongers trying to sell their wares.

“Aye, ye dragged yerself away from the market long enough for a drink?” Ken, the first man, said to the approaching incomer.

“Perhaps for a wee one,” the third man laughed, taking a proffered tankard from Ken’s hand and downing it as quickly as he could. “Ye heard of what happened only two days ago? Thanks to the Maguires.”

“What?” Ken and the young man asked together.

“They attacked a wee village on the edge of the clan in the shadow of old Ben Nevis; there was nae a soul to help them. The village was burned to the ground. The women and children turned up here two days later lookin’ for shelter.”

“What of the men?” Ken asked.

“They didnae come. The Maguires didnae let them.”

There was a collective gasp followed by curses, prompting Elliot to lean against the window of the alehouse and ruffle his hands through his brown hair.

Is this possible?

He hadn’t long taken over the lairdship, barely two months, if that. Yet he’d had enough council meetings to bore many a man into sleep, and at none of these meetings had anyone mentioned attacks by the Maguire clan. He’d even had a council meeting that morning before he had managed to persuade Andrew, one of his captains, to give him some old clothes to go out secretly in Glencoe.

“I am glad I did,” he muttered to himself, wondering why it seemed the council was intent on hiding the troubles with the Maguires from him. Had it not been for his outing that day, he would have had no idea about these attacks.

Elliot looked back, seeing that the three men were talking of yet more tales of the Maguires. He was debating whether to approach them and ask to hear more stories when something caught his eye through the window.

In the market over the way, there was a commotion. What had been stall holders catcalling to promote their wares had abruptly come to a halt.

“Fresh ham! From the butcher’s this mornin’!”

“Haddock, smoked, aye, one bob a fish.”

“Marchpane – goin’ fast!”

“Eh – what’s goin’ on there?”

Elliot tried to see what all the other stallholders were staring at. There was one particularly small stall in the middle of the market, standing in the shadow of the clocktower in the center of the square. There had been apples and herbs strewn across a clothed table, but a hand had pushed them away, scattering them all over the ground.

“I said nay.” A woman’s voice came strongly. It was husky, deep, yet lyrical and inviting, rather like listening to some fine instrument. It made Elliot want to see her face, but she was hidden by the gathering crowd.

“Why say nay? I warrant a lass like ye doesnae have many offers.” The man’s voice made something in Elliot’s stomach curdle.

His eyes flicked to the man who had spoken. He was a hulking brute of a figure, with short red hair and a nose that resembled the snout of a pig. He moved around the stall toward the woman, forcing the spectators back and revealing her face at last.

She was a dark beauty, with long, dark-brown hair that was braided and hanging over her shoulder, skin that looked like caramel, and dark eyes with strong eyebrows. Elliot found his feet walking away from the alehouse window, heading through the oak door and straight toward the stall as if he was being drawn by something.

“I said nay, Travis. Do ye nae speak English?” she asked, walking the other way around the stall. “I am tellin’ ye nay, and ye will listen to me.”

Travis went back the other way around the stall, cutting her off and stamping over all her fresh herbs, dirtying and crushing them so they were no longer sellable.

“Let me teach ye how to say aye, lass.” The words were an implicit threat as he reached for her, grabbing her wrist.

Why is nay one helpin’ her?

Elliot looked around at the other stall holders who were still much closer to her than he was, and in a position to help, yet none of them did. Some busied themselves with their own stalls, firmly looking away, and others just gawked, their eyes wide.

What is wrong with them all!?

“Let go of me!” the dark beauty cried, trying to be free of the man, yet he wouldn’t let her go. As she tried to escape the other way around the stall, he took her other wrist too and backed her up to the tabletop, trapping her in.

Elliot picked up his speed, running toward the table. Before he could reach them, the woman acted. She brought her knee up firmly between Travis’ legs, making him howl in pain, like a wounded sow. As he released one of her wrists, she brought her hand up and slapped him across the face.

Aye, maybe the lass doesnae need help. Elliot smiled at the idea and slowed his speed, though he still walked toward the two of them.

Travis looked down at her again, lowering his hand from his face which was smarting and bright red.

“Ye want to feel somethin’ rough, do ye, lass?”

The words must have filled her with terror because she tried to push past him to run around the stall, only for him to grab her waist and pull her back again.

“That is enough!” Elliot roared, getting closer to the two of them. The dark-haired beauty flicked her head toward him as she fought with Travis, but Travis didn’t seem to notice.

Elliot took hold of the scruff of Travis’ jacket and jerked him back, yet he didn’t let go of the woman, causing her to yelp and fall forward.

“Release her,” Elliot warned, reaching for something in his belt, hidden beneath the patchworked frock coat.

“Step away, stranger. What I do with her is nae yer matter.”

“It is now.” Elliot pulled the pistol from his belt and pointed it straight at Travis’ chest. “Release. Her.” He slowed his words, uttering the syllables clearly. He didn’t care if not many peasants carried a flintlock pistol; at this point, he was willing to blow his disguise just to keep this woman safe.

He could hear her breathing heavily as Travis’ eyes flicked down to the pistol, clearly trying to decide whether he could beat a bullet. He must have thought better of it, for he released the woman’s wrist and backed off. Elliot took the opportunity to move between the two of them, blocking off Travis’ access to the woman again.

“Leave. Now. Or I take ye to the nearest constable and have ye locked up for assault.” Elliot’s threat seemed to be enough as Travis began to back away, slipping between the other market goers. Around them, the stallholders and their customers watched on, all wide-eyed and staring at the pistol as if Elliot had waved the hand of God in the air. “Shameful,” Elliot muttered, looking at them all, thinking how strange it was that they wouldn’t help the woman.

Only when he was certain that Travis was gone, exiting the courtyard and running down a street near the alehouse, did Elliot turn around to see the woman. She was leaning on the stall behind her for support, breathing heavily, her braid swung over her shoulder, and her dark eyes fixed on the pistol Elliot had now lowered down to his side.

Those eyes…the color of chestnuts.

“Are ye all right, lass?” he asked, stepping toward her. She flinched, clearly still scared after what had happened. Elliot hurried to replace the pistol in his belt and held up his hands, showing he meant no harm. “I will nae hurt ye, ye have me word. I…” He paused and looked around the stalls, still shaking his head in bemusement. “I daenae understand why nay one would help ye.”

Her dark lips turned up in the smallest of smiles.

“Ye daenae?” she asked. “Nay one here would ever do that. That’s why I am so baffled.”

“Baffled?” he asked, watching as she tilted her head to the side, clearly examining him.

“Why did ye help me?” she asked.

“What kind of monster would leave ye to be hurt by that man?” he asked, being careful to raise his voice so that others around could hear him. Plenty of men abruptly busied themselves with tidying up their stalls, looking dutifully ashamed.

“A monster ye find everywhere ye look,” she said wryly and walked around the stall. She bent down to the cobblestones and tried to collect the herbs and apples from where they had fallen. Elliot went to help her, bending down and collecting the wares too, returning them to her table. She paused in her work, looking at him, those chestnut-colored eyes shining in the bright sun.

“I rather think I have surprised ye again,” he pointed out, earning another flicker of a smile from her.

“Thank ye,” she said, moving toward him and reaching for his hand. The touch was soft, and then he felt the warmth of her hand sliding against his palm. “I’m sorry. I should have thanked ye right away, but I was too…”

“Ye daenae need to apologize for that,” he assured her, lifting his other hand. Warily, he took her shoulder, patting it in comfort but with restraint. “Anyone would be in shock. Ye are surely in need of a wee dram of somethin’ to calm yer nerves.” He released her shoulder and looked to the alehouse nearby, aware that she hadn’t removed her hand from his yet. He glanced back to her, seeing her chew her lip as she looked down at their connected hands.

“Thank ye,” she said again, rather breathless. He patted her hand in his.

“I am only sorry I couldnae reach yer side sooner. Though I have to say, ye have a good slap on ye, lass. Many a man would have quivered at that.” His praise worked to bring a smile to her face, and she released her hand from his. He instantly missed that warmth from his palm as he went back to picking up her wares.

“Please, daenae trouble yerself. They are ruined now anyway; I cannae sell them.”

“That man should pay for the damage he has done to yer day’s business.”

“It is nay matter.” She slowly stood to her feet, and Elliot followed her, using the minute that he had to admire her figure. She was wearing a long-sleeved white shirt with a belted arisaid over the top; it was a dark sapphire blue and emerald-green plaid that complemented her perfectly. Elliot found himself standing slowly, finding it mightily difficult to stop himself from admiring the curve of her waist belted by the are said or the slenderness of her fingers as she flicked her dark braid over her shoulder.

Be a gentleman, ye fool! He snapped his gaze back to her face.

“I think ye are right,” she said, lowering her hands and gazing at them, showing her fingers were trembling. “A tot of somethin’ might do me some good.”

“How about the alehouse?” he said, pointing across the courtyard.

“Aye, if…ye let me buy ye an ale or somethin’? As me way of sayin’ thank ye.”

“Ye daenae need to thank me for anythin’,” he said hurriedly, but she was shaking her head rather animatedly as she walked toward him. Feeling her so close, he abruptly stopped talking, thinking of how close those dark eyes were and taking in the intoxicating scent of bilberries and cowslips that came with her.

“Please,” she said, her tone truly pleading. “As ye can see…” She gestured around the market. “Nay one else would have done what ye did. I’d like to show me gratitude.” She collected the apples and herbs from the table into two bundles and threw them over her shoulder—wares that could no longer be sold. Elliot took one to carry it for her, but she took the bundle out of his hand and added it to her own shoulder.

“If ye wish,” he said, following her toward the alehouse, watching the curve of her dress as it swayed in the autumnal breeze.

Why can I nae stop lookin’ at her? I am a betrothed man!

Yet it didn’t seem to stop him, and he followed her regardless.

 

Chapter 2

“What is yer name?” the handsome stranger asked as Keira brought back the two tankards to the table. They sat in the corner of the alehouse, under dark timbers and on settle benches with high backs that hid them from the other customers.

“Keira,” she said, hanging her head over the tankards as she sat down opposite him. She pushed the ale toward the stranger and picked up the small cup that held the tot of whisky, taking a big gulp indeed. It burned her throat as she tipped her head back, causing her to close her eyes and indulge in the taste before she opened her eyes once again to look at the stranger.

“I havenae seen many women enjoy a whisky quite like that,” he said with a humored smile.

“I am told me faither could drink more whisky than any other man.”

“Ye daenae ken yerself?”

“Nay,” she said quickly, unwilling to tell a man she had just met that her father had died shortly after she was born. “Yet as he was an English man, it isnae a boast many men around here like to hear.”

“Ha! I can well imagine,” the handsome stranger said as he sipped his ale. The silence as they drank allowed Keira to admire the man before her.

He was rather unusual for these parts. Glencoe was filled with fishermen, farmers, the occasional soldier, clerks, and one or two loftier merchants, who styled themselves wealthy and liked to wear white wigs beneath their caps. The man before her didn’t fit into any of those roles. Yes, he was certainly dressed like any other peasant with his tatty frock coat and shirt sleeves that were torn, hanging down from the cuffs of the coat, but there was something about the man beneath the clothes that didn’t fit.

The light brown hair was coiffed and cut well, with teasing locks that Keira could imagine running her fingers through, feeling their softness. He was well groomed too, with his beard cropped so short it was basically stubble, lining the square jaw of his handsome features. The eyes were what fascinated her most—dark green, rather like the ocean on a stormy day.

“Thank ye. Again,” she said, lowering her whisky to look at him over the brim of the pewter cup. He smiled a little, holding his tankard in one hand and staring back at her.

“Ye have already thanked me more than once. With words and this drink. Ye daenae need to thank me again, Keira.” There was something in the way he said her name that made her sit forward on the paneled settle bench. He didn’t say her name with disgust or fear as some did. It was as though he liked her name, indulging in saying the syllables. “I still daenae understand why nay one else would help ye.” He grimaced as he sipped from his ale again.

Keira rolled her eyes, deciding it was high time to point out the elephant in the room.

“Look at me,” she said, quite firmly. The stranger did as she asked, with a smile on his face.

“Quite happily,” he said softly. The words made her laugh, cracking her firmness instantly.

“I wasnae expectin’ ye to say that.”

“I suppose I shouldnae say such a thing, but it came out anyway,” he admitted, still smiling at her.

“Nay, strangers really look at me,” she said, making her tone gentle indeed. “For to people in these parts I bear two curses. Me faither was English, that is one curse. The other was the color of me faither’s skin. A lass like me doesnae belong here, or anywhere, in truth. What man would risk himself tryin’ to save an outcast like me? Well, except ye, stranger.”

“I see nay outcast before me.” His voice was deep, much deeper than she had been expecting. She had first noticed it when he had roared at Travis to let her go, but now, sitting quite alone on this settle bench in a dark corner of the ale house, it was even deeper.

“Then ye may have some trouble with yer eyes,” she said playfully. “Care to tell me how many fingers I am holdin’ up?” He laughed warmly at her jest.

“Three,” he confirmed as she lowered her hand back to her pewter cup. “Still, I see nay outcast. I see a beautiful woman who feels she has to hide in public. That…well, I cannae describe quite how that makes me feel.” His fist had clenched around his tankard though, a physical demonstration of exactly what he did feel.

Keira paused with her lips on her cup, thinking about the man before her. He was kind, that was the immediate word for him, and kindness was not something she was used to meeting. Look at Travis! She didn’t doubt he would be back to try his luck again.

The stranger may nae be there to help me next time.

“Why are ye nae runnin’ from me?” she whispered into the air. Her words struck the stranger like a bullet, and he sat upright on the bench.

“Why would I run from ye?”

“Even children have run before, sayin’ I was a dark witch or a blackened demon.” She chewed her lip, pausing after the words.

“I am nay child that believes tall tales.”

“Old men have run from me too, well, hobbled as much as their old legs will carry them away; some women have pointed their sticks at me, sayin’ I am cursed and will bring darkness on them all.”

“Good Lord, ye have met some vile people in yer time, havenae ye?” he said, shaking his head with apparent earnestness.

“I have met good people too, present company included, I’d say.” At her words, he smiled another time.

“In me experience, Keira, how one looks doesnae say who they really are. I have kenned people who are adored for their looks, and they turn out to have the evilest of hearts. I once saw a man who was ostracized for a deformity on his face, sleepin’ on the street with only a dog for company, and yet he would give up his blanket to keep the dog warm rather than himself.” He paused with his tale and lowered the tankard back down to the table, leaning a little toward Keira over the tabletop. She found she matched the position, leaning toward him too. “It’s the heart that matters, Keira, and nay one can see that at first glance.”

She smiled softly as she downed the last of her whisky, enjoying the burn. Her trembling hands were slowly becoming steady, but she wasn’t sure it had so much to do with the whisky.

More because of the company.

“Ye daenae think like many people around here, stranger.”

“Then I am glad ye and I met today, so I can show ye we are nae all the same. Now, can I get ye another drink?” he asked, standing to his feet.

“Oh, nay,” she said hurriedly, marking the poor state of his clothes, as poor as her own. “I couldnae ask –”

“It is nay trouble,” he assured her, already stepping out from their table. “Yer cup is empty, and an empty whisky cup is a sad thing indeed.”

He wandered off to purchase the whisky, leaving Keira to sit alone on the settle bench. After a minute, she grew aware of the eyes looking at her and turned her head. A table nearby was staring at her, as people were wont to do, some with curious looks, others with glares. When they saw they had been caught, they flicked their heads away, talking quickly again, pretending they had not been staring at all.

“Here ye are,” the stranger said as he sat down opposite Keira once more and pushed the whisky toward her. “Aye, two whiskies, that will settle anyone’s nerves.”

“Thank ye,” she said, taking the whisky and drinking it eagerly.

“If ye daenae mind me askin’, Keira.” He paused and leaned on the table again. “Why is everyone in this alehouse speakin’ of the Maguires? They talk of them like they are minions of the devil.”

“Ha! Are ye in earnest?” Keira asked in surprise.

“What?”

“Ye must be new to Glencoe, that can be the only explanation for it.”

“Ye could say I am new,” he admitted with a slow nod. “Spent many years in Edinburgh before comin’ back home. What have I missed?”

“Stranger, this clan’s way of life is soon to be over!” she said with such drama that the stranger froze, his hand hovering over his tankard and his green eyes fixed on her.

“What do ye mean?” he asked, his voice quieter than it had been before.

“Ye will soon see it for yerself now ye are here.” She leaned her elbow on the table and rested her chin in her hand, deciding it was best to tell the newcomer the story. “Ye should be prepared for what ye will find and what ye will hear. Any village on the border with the Maguires is bein’ attacked at present. They burn the houses down, take the women, and the cattle too. Farmers on the outskirts of the villages are raided; cattle rustlers take their livelihood, unafraid to hurt the farmers in the process.”

“Is it truly so bad?” he asked, still not picking up his ale.

“Aye, Glencoe is busier these days than it used to be. Those who live in the villages near the border have come here for safety.”

“It surely cannot be…” He was muttering something, leaning forward and pulling on his light brown locks with frustration. Keira grew distracted, thinking once again what it would be like to entwine her own fingers in those locks.

What am I doin’!?

It seemed she was developing a fancy for the man who had saved her from Travis.

“What of the Laird and the soldiers?” he asked, so warily it was as if he was afraid to find out the answer.

“Pah! A Laird? What Laird?”

“Ye have a Laird.”

“Aye, but some Laird he is,” she scoffed. “His faither was too ill toward the end to do much about the Maguires. It’s whispered in these streets that the Maguires took advantage of that weakness. As for the new Laird, well, I havenae heard much about him. What I have heard suggests he keeps to himself in his castle, busyin’ himself with what will be on his table for his next meal rather than the state of his people. Perhaps if we were served up as food, he would care more about us.”

She smiled at her own jest, then noticed the stranger did not smile too. He was staring down at his tankard as if glaring at a growing storm.

“Ye all right, stranger?”

“I…” He couldn’t quite form a sentence. He repeated the stressed action, tangling his hand in his hair. “Is that what everyone thinks of their Laird? That he’s so entitled and does nothin’ for them?”

“People in Glencoe and the villages nearby, aye,” she nodded with her words, for there wasn’t a doubt in her mind. Silence descended between the two of them. The more she watched the stranger, the less she could understand what was on his mind. He seemed unable to settle himself, fidgeting and restless. “Are ye sure ye are well?”

“Aye,” he said, though it was obviously a lie.

“Well, there is clearly somethin’ botherin’ ye. I would like to cheer ye up. After the service ye have done me this afternoon, I owe ye a lot.”

“Ye owe me nothin’,” he said with feeling, leaning over the table again. “It is merely that me heart is troubled at this moment. That is all.”

“What troubles it?”

“Well, perhaps I am sorry I will have to leave ye soon.” He revealed another smile.

“Ha! Now, I ken ye must be lyin’.”

“I am nae.”

“Truly?” She was still laughing at him. “Many people run from me, stranger.”

“I am nae runnin’ anywhere.” The deepness of his voice made her look to him over her whisky cup another time. “I am only sorry that I must go soon.”

“Will I see ye again?” she asked. She was uncertain why she had asked the question; it came from somewhere deep inside her, a part that longed to see him another time.

“I wish it could be so, but…” He didn’t say anymore. She frowned, not understanding him.

“I thought ye said ye were new to the area?”

“In a way.”

He said no more, his body going rigid as a figure entered the ale house. The man was hooded with a black cloak pulled over his face. As he turned to scan the crowd, Keira caught a glimpse of something in the light that filtered through the window—the image of a silver brooch fastened to a dark blue coat.

“I must go.”

“Now?” she asked, not wanting the stranger to part. She stood as he moved to his feet. He was the first person in a long time to sit down and talk to her as though she didn’t have barnacles growing on her face; she didn’t want the experience to end.

The stranger abruptly turned his back on the hooded figure and walked around the table, reaching her side where he took her hand. It was warm, sending off a spark in her stomach before he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it. She was painfully aware of how coarse her hand was in his, but he didn’t seem to notice it. As he kissed her hand, he held her gaze. In that kiss, it was as if something passed between them. Something Keira could not put into words.

“I…” She could say no more.

“Goodbye, Keira.” He lowered her hand. “I truly wish I could see ye again.”

With that, he turned away, holding her hand for as long as possible before his fingers slipped from hers. Keira watched him leave, holding her hands to her stomach as if by touch she could quell the churning beneath that had been caused by his parting.

He walked out with the hooded figure and glanced back at her just once through the alehouse door, his handsome features offering her one last smile.

Who was he? I never asked him his name!


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