Healing the Mad Highlander (Preview)
Dougal felt himself sway as he walked through the doorway of the tavern. He reached out to steady himself on the doorframe as he passed through and headed immediately for the bar.
He couldn’t even remember why he’d left the last tavern; it had been warm enough there, and the whiskey was good. But something must have happened to make him get up and leave. Try as he might, though, he couldn’t recall. He slung his sack onto the floor and slumped down at a table, then motioned to the man behind the bar.
“Whiskey,” he said gruffly, then dropped his eyes to the table in front of him. His glance fell onto his hands, which were filthy with grime. There was mud underneath his nails and some cuts and bruising across his knuckles that he didn’t remember sustaining.
The innkeeper approached his table and looked at him scathingly. “No more fer ye tonight,” he said. “Ye’ve had enough, and ye look like a wreck! Come now, be off wi’ ye!”
Dougal looked up at him, his green eyes flashing under his furrowed brow, and let out a growl. He was not in the mood to be denied another drink.
“I said whiskey,” he repeated, his voice low and dangerous. He felt that uncontrollable rage beginning to rise in him, a feeling that was so familiar to him these days. Sometimes the whiskey stemmed the rage, but sometimes it just made it worse.
“Nay, I willnae serve ye!” the innkeeper insisted, reaching out to grab Dougal’s arm and drag him to his feet and out of the tavern.
Dougal stood up abruptly, his stool falling over behind him with a crash. The tavern went silent as all the other drinkers halted their conversations to turn and watch what would happen next. The buzz of anticipation in the air was palpable.
Just as Dougal was raising his arm to strike the man, he felt a firm hand on his shoulder.
“Nay, lad, dinnae lose yer temper,” a voice said.
He wheeled round to see a man in a black cloak behind him, his face partially hidden by its hood. Dougal looked up at him in surprise, mumbling something incomprehensible.
The man steered him into a chair. “Sit ye down now,” he murmured, then turned to the innkeeper. “I’ll pay for this man’s whiskey, my good man,” he said firmly.
The innkeeper shrugged. “He’s had tae much!” he said. “I shouldnae serve him!”
“Nay, but ye will serve me, will ye not? And I will be responsible fer his behavior,” the mysterious stranger said, then sat down at the table opposite Dougal.
Dougal leaned back in his chair and sighed, waiting for his whiskey to appear in front of him. He didn’t much care where he was or who was paying, just so long as the drink kept coming.
A few moments later, two glasses of whiskey appeared on the table. Dougal grabbed one and drank half of it down in one gulp, his throat burning as the liquid coursed through his body. He felt momentarily revived, and he looked up curiously at the stranger, whose face was still half covered by his hood.
“Thank ye, sir, fer the drink,” he mumbled.
“Ye are most welcome, my friend,” came the stranger’s honeyed tones. “I think ye have been through a rough time, by the looks o’ ye. Are ye a soldier?”
“Aye,” Dougal replied, taking another swig of whiskey. “I was at Culloden. Lucky tae be alive, but some days I wish I were dead.” The liquor had loosened his tongue, and now he felt ready to talk, even though he was slurring his words slightly, and his vision was beginning to swim a little.
“I heard ‘twas a bitter battle,” the stranger said, sipping slowly from his own glass.
“Bitter? Nay. ‘Twas quick. We dinnae stand a chance against their cannon and their horses. We should never ha’ fought on that boggy ground. The men got stuck in the mud and couldnae fight, couldnae flee.Just had tae stand there and be trampled by the horses or run through wi’ swords.” He winced at the memory of it and drained his glass, returning it to the table with a bang.
The hooded stranger motioned to the innkeeper to bring him another glass. Dougal smiled wryly to himself; he’d landed on his feet here, with this stranger willing to keep him in his cups all night.
“And now,” the stranger went on. “What do ye do now? Since the fightin’ is over?”
“Ach, the fighting’s never over. It will never be finished. There’s always someone wants tae pay a ruffian tae fight,” he replied with a grunt.
“Ye are a sell sword then?”
“Aye,” Dougal replied. “There’s always some laird or other needing men tae fight against another clan. Where there are people, there’ll always be war. And where there’s fightin’, there’s coin fer the likes o’ me.”
“Where do ye come from though? Where is yer home?” the stranger went on, his voice taking on an intense tone as he continued his questioning.
“All gone, ‘tis all gone,” Dougal murmured, looking behind the stranger into the distance. He took another gulp of whisky and allowed its heat to warm through him again. “The village is gone. My family is gone. All gone,” he repeated quietly, more to himself than to the man in front of him.
“Do ye ken what happened?” the stranger asked.
“Nay, although I think it must ha’ been the Government soldiers looking fer us fleeing Highlanders. They wanted tae make sure all the rebels were dead, so we couldnae flee into the hills and plot another rebellion.”
“But ye survived…?” The hooded man looked up with interest. “Ye survived when all yer friends are gone? And yer family gone too? Ye poor man.”
Dougal took yet another gulp of his drink. He was beginning to feel a little woozy now; he had been drinking for many hours, and it was getting late. “My wife is gone, and my bairn too,” he whispered, tears beginning to form in his eyes. “I cannae bear tae think o’ it, so I drink, and fight, then drink some more.”
There was silence between them for a while. Dougal drained his glass, and once again another appeared before him without him even having to think about it. He would fall into a stupor soon, he knew, but at least he would not feel any pain while he was out cold. He could always numb the pain in his head and his heart with more drink on the morrow. And the pattern would continue, on and on for the rest of his miserable life. For what else did he have to live for now? Then he remembered about the nightmares with a shudder.
“What is it, lad?” the stranger asked kindly.
“Ach, I was just remembering the dreams,” Dougal replied. “I was lookin’ forward tae being asleep, then I remembered the dreams.”
“Ye have bad dreams?”
“Aye, the most terrible…” He trailed off, unable to find the words to describe the horror of his nightmares. He dreamed of blood and mud and screaming. He dreamed of swords clashing together and the noise of cannon fire. And in his dreams, he was always running, running towards home, fighting his way through the hordes of enemy soldiers, desperate to get back to his wife and child. And then, when he arrived at the croft, covered in mud and blood from the battle, there they were lying dead outside. He relived the horror night after night, even when he had drunk himself almost into oblivion.
“Ye have suffered many hardships,” the stranger said. I’m not surprised ye feel like ye want to drink. Here, let me get ye one last glass.” He waved a cloaked hand towards the innkeeper, who let out a groan and returned to the table with another glass.
“I dinnae like this,” he muttered, as he retreated behind the bar. “I dinnae like this one bit.”
Dougal looked up and glared at him, then drained his glass in one draught, coughing as his throat burned once more. He stood up, then swayed and almost fell.
“What dinnae ye like, my friend?” he slurred, leaning on the table to keep himself upright, rubbing his hands together and preparing for a fight.
“Now, lad, come on, let’s get ye outside fer some air,” the stranger said “We dinnae want any trouble.”
“I always want trouble,” Dougal growled, but allowed himself to be led outside none the less. He picked his way gingerly through the bar, holding onto anything he could reach to stop himself from falling over. As he moved, waves of nausea began to rise in him, and he felt dizzy and confused. He gulped at the cool night air as soon as they were outside, then leaned forward with his head between his knees, retching from his gut.
At that moment, as he tried to steady himself to stand up again, he felt a dull thud on the back of his head, and everything went black.
Dougal awoke to find that he had a pounding headache, the worst he had ever had in his life. It was so bad that he could not even bear to open his eyes, let alone move his head. The pain was a throbbing ache in his temples, and his forehead felt like it was being held in a vice. His mouth felt dry too, and he lay completely still for a while, trying to work out if he was injured somewhere on his body, or if the pain was just a terrible hangover.
After he had been awake for a few moments, he became aware of the softness of the sheets and the plumped-up pillows that his head was resting on. He was warm and dry, and the room he was in was quiet and peaceful. There was barely any noise about him, and as he returned to his senses, he realized he was in a very comfortable bed.
Curiously, he opened his eyes and looked around, wincing with pain as he moved his head just a fraction higher on the pillows. To his amazement, he saw that he was lying in an opulent chamber. The bed was enormous, and he lay underneath the softest animal furs he had ever experienced. He reached out and stroked the fur in wonder as he surveyed his surroundings. There was a huge window with heavy curtains drawn tightly closed. No daylight was shining through, but the room was lit softly by a candle in a candlestick on a grand dresser on the other side of the room. On the dresser also, was a jug of water and a basin.
Where on earth was he? He was baffled. From the look of the stone walls of the room and the arched window that reached to a point, he guessed that he was in a castle, but how could that be? He racked his brains to recall what had happened the night before, but try as he might, he could not remember a thing.
He moved across the bed slowly, preparing to get up. He sat up gingerly and was astonished to see that he was wearing a white nightgown of the finest linen with delicate embroidery around the edges. He had never seen the garment before, and it felt strange against his skin, despite its exquisite softness. But he could not for the life of him remember what clothing he had been wearing last time he was awake. The whole situation was completely bizarre, and he was beginning to feel a more than a little uneasy.
He stood up and made his way towards the window with a vague plan of looking outside and trying to work out where he was. But his legs were weaker than he had expected, and he swayed and lurched towards the dresser, knocking the basin to the floor with an almighty crash. The noise made him flinch with shock and pain as his arm flew out to try to catch it, far too late.
He sat back down on the bed, his hands shaking. The noise would have been heard by someone else in the castle, he was sure of it. And now all he could do was wait and see what happened next. His heart was in his mouth as he strained his ears to see if he could hear footsteps approaching the room.
The door opened and a man entered, wearing a plaid which was unfamiliar to Dougal. His hair was greying at the temples, and much to Dougal’s astonishment, he bowed as he entered the room.
“My Laird, are ye quite well? I heard a crash,” the man said, looking at him with concern in his warm brown eyes.
Dougal blinked in surprise. Had he heard the man correctly? He said nothing, utterly dumbfounded. He wondered if perhaps he was still asleep and having some sort of drunken dream which was making him hallucinate this insane situation.
“My Laird,” the man said again, crossing the room towards him. “Are ye hurt?”
Dougal cleared his throat. “Why do ye keep calling me ‘my Laird’” he asked eventually.
The man looked at him curiously but said nothing.
“Do ye ken who I am? What my name is?” Dougal continued, his heart in his mouth. There was something extremely odd going on here, but he felt so weak and wretched that he wasn’t sure he had the energy to try to get to the bottom of it.
“Why, yes, my Laird, of course I ken who ye are!” the man replied with a smile.
Dougal looked at him blanky, waiting for him to go on.
The man frowned, then looked him in the eye. “Yer name is James, and ye are the Laird of the MacNab clan.”
Dougal gasped and tried to stand. He felt a surge of panic sweeping over him.
“Nay, my Laird, ye must rest,” the man commanded.
Dougal sat back down on the bed, his mind reeling. “But I’m not a laird,” he insisted. “This is insanity! I am…” he paused. He felt sick when he realized that he could not remember his own name. But he was certain that he was not a laird. It was a ridiculous idea. “And who are ye?” he demanded, looking closely at the older man. He seemed kind, but Dougal had no idea whether he was trustworthy. There was no way he could possibly know who he could trust in this strange castle.
“My name is Robert, my Laird. I am your Chief Counselor. I’ve been sitting outside keeping watch while you’ve been unwell,” he said mildly.
“Unwell?” Dougal asked hesitantly. “How long have I been unwell?”
“A few days, my Laird. That may be why ye are feeling a wee bit confused.”
“’Tis more than confusion!” Dougal cried, suddenly feeling overwhelmed. “Here ye are telling me I’m a laird, and I cannae even remember my own name!” He sighed, a deep crease appearing on his brow, and ran a hand through his dark hair. He let out a groan as he felt the pain in his head pulsating.
“Ye must rest, my Laird,” Robert said gently. “Please, I beg ye, lie down and try tae sleep some more. I will send fer the healer tae come tae see ye, and we can see if we can help ye tae feel better. There’s a clan tae be run, so ye must try tae regain yer strength as soon as possible.”
Dougal did as he was told; it seemed the simplest thing to do in the moment. There was nothing to be gained from further protest, and his head still ached fearsomely.
Robert left the room, closing the door quietly behind him, leaving Dougal alone. He lay back down in bed, his mind racing. He simply could not comprehend what was happening to him. He was sure that he was not a laird, but the problem was that, no matter how hard he tried, he could not remember anything else. When he thought back to the moment when he had woken up in this plush bed chamber, and then tried to turn his thoughts to what had happened the previous evening, all he saw was blackness.
Lorena stared out of the window of the carriage as they made their way along the wide road. The sun was shining brightly in the sky and the first blooms of spring were beginning to flower in the hedgerows and on the moorland beyond. But the beautiful scenery around her did not match the blackness of her mood. She let out a deep sigh and closed her eyes, shutting out the sunshine.
Bluebell, her maid, was sitting next to her in the carriage. She squeezed her hand. “My lady,” she whispered. “We will be there soon. Do ye need anything? Are ye quite well?
Lorena’s green eyes snapped open. “Ach, Bluebell, aye, I am well enough,” she snapped pettishly. “Well enough to know that I’m being sold short by my brother here!”
From the seat opposite, John looked up and glared at her. “I willnae hear any more o’ this, Lorena. We have been through it many times already,” he said flatly, resigned that they were likely to go through it all again at least one more time before they reached the MacNab castle.
“But brother, ‘tis not fair! Ye are tae be the laird. Ye are the heir o’ the clan Campbell, and I have tae be sent off tae a castle in th’ middle o’ nowhere to marry a man who everyone says is strange and unfriendly!” She grimaced. “I dinnae ken why ye couldnae ha’ found me a better match. We could hae waited a little longer before making the decision. I’m only twenty-two; there is plenty of time yet before I must be married!” She tossed her long red hair over her shoulder in annoyance as she spoke.
“Twenty-two, aye! ‘Tis high time ye were wed!” her brother replied. “Ye need a husband tae keep ye in line, sister!”
“In line!” she retorted. “What do ye mean by that?”
“Ye ken fine well what I mean, Lorena. Ye must learn tae accept yer place in life. Ye are tae be wed fer the benefit o’ the clan, not tae suit yer own heart. Have ye not always known that this would be yer destiny? ‘Twill be the same for me when the time comes.”
“Aye,” she sighed. “But between now and then, ye are free. Ye can see the world, travel where ye want, do anything that ye like. But just because I’m a girl, I have tae do what ye and Father tell me!” She turned away and fixed her gaze on the hillside in the distance. She knew that there was not much point in raging, not now, when they were nearly at the castle. But it was so unfair! Everything she had heard about James MacNab convinced her that they would not be a good match at all. Everyone said that he was a recluse, spending days at a time locked up in a turret of his castle alone. He never visited the people of the clan and never held feasts or celebrations. It was said that some of his servants had never even seen him in the flesh. He spent so much time hidden away in his private quarters. Lorena knew that, as his wife, she would end up spending many hours and days alone and that was not the life she wanted.
And yet her brother was adamant that she must marry him, to secure an alliance between their clans. Since the crushing of the Jacobite rebellion, many clans were in a delicate and vulnerable position. They had lost many men in the battles, and she knew how important it was that they secured powerful allies, so they could work together to defeat their enemies. But she simply wished that her own happiness did not have to be sacrificed in the bargain.
Her brother interrupted her reverie. “Look at me, Lorena,” he demanded.
She did as she was bidden, but with a rebellious look on her face. She knew that it would annoy her brother, and that only made her more determined.
“Sister, please. We are nearly at the castle. Ye must try tae act more appropriately. I know ye wished fer a better match, but this is the best we can manage. And ‘tis a good match, really. He is a laird, after all, and ye are the daughter of a laird. Did ye set yer sights so high as tae think ye might marry a King?”
“Nay!” she replied. “Of course not. I just hoped that I might marry a laird who is not so determined tae hide away. Ye cannae think I’ll be happy wi’ him, John?”
John shrugged. “Ye will just have tae do what ye can, Lorena, tae make the best o’ the situation. Things are not as they used tae be for the clans, not since the uprising. We must take what we can get tae keep ourselves safe and protect our way of life.”
Lorena sighed. She had heard John’s lecture many times before, and she knew that in some ways he was right. But still, she had a plan. There was no guarantee that their betrothal would end in marriage. All the way here in the carriage, she had been thinking of ways she could put the laird off. If he didn’t like her, then he would not marry her. And then she would be free to return home to her father’s castle and wait until another more suitable match came along. She intended to do everything she could to prevent this marriage. She valued her own happiness too highly to give up everything for the clan.
She fixed her mouth into a smile and turned to her brother. “John, I do understand,” she said as sweetly as she could manage. “I will try tae be a dutiful daughter and sister and do as ye tell me I must, fer the sake o’ the clan.”
John looked at her and narrowed his eyes suspiciously. He knew his sister well enough to know that she was not going to give up that easily. She was definitely plotting something. He was determined to bring this marriage to fruition, as his father had ordered. He would have to keep a close eye on her once they got to the castle.
The carriage began to slow as they turned off the main road and down the track that led to the castle. Lorena felt a surge of nerves begin to take her over. She was anxious about being introduced to her betrothed, despite her bravado and all her plans to unravel the match. Bluebell squeezed her hand, and she looked up at her maid gratefully with a weak smile.
“I think we are here,” she whispered, craning her neck through the open window to see the squat grey brick keep of the MacNab castle appearing before them. Despite herself, her heart was pounding, and her stomach was taut with anxiety. She knew that whether she liked it or not, her whole future hung in the balance.
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