Her Highland Secret (Preview)
Early August, 1689, Carlisle Castle, Cumberland, England
Ella Pearson silently cursed her father as she felt her way along the corridors of Carlisle castle. Her candle wasn’t giving off nearly enough light. Her shadow, normally a bold reflection of her slim frame, looked weak against the cold stone walls. Her long blond hair was starting to loosen from its braids and she thought the shadow of her loose tendrils looked like faint snakes against the aging rock. She was looking for the room where her father had retired with the soldiers after the evening meal. Something warm and furry scurried across her slipper. Ella dropped her candle and moved her hand to her mouth trying to stifle a scream. Her father should have known better than to bring her and her sister to this place.
To hell with father, the military, and the Scots! To hell with the lot of them, she thought.
She may have been on a fool’s errand, but she was too curious and angry to turn back. Her father had said it was love for his children that compelled him to travel with the girls. Ella was beginning to doubt that love. They had not left the castle in almost a fortnight. No parties, no social gatherings, and there were at least three social calls that she knew of that he had passed on in favor of the company of the military garrison that stayed within the castle walls.
Every night for the past month she watched him leave with the soldiers. Her curiosity had finally gotten the better of her. Until now Ella wouldn’t dare question her father on how he spent his time. She’d felt it wasn’t her place to inquire as to her father’s business dealings or nightly pursuits. But lately his disinterest in his daughters and their well-being had reached a fevered pitch. Each morning when they would break their fast, he would reek from the previous night’s whiskey, looking forlorn and apologetic. He didn’t ask about their day or how they spend their time. She was at a loss. There must be something going on, she thought. There seemed to be no good reason for him to ignore her and her sister. Daughter or not, the time had come for her to demand answers from her father, but she needed more information before confronting him.
At first, when she had asked her ladies maid, Gwen, if she had heard anything about father from the other servants, the woman didn’t want to talk; refusing to speak ill of her lord and master. But Ella persisted, finally wearing the woman down. Through tears, Gwen told her everything she knew. Her father had garnered quite the reputation as a foolish man who was more than happy to spend their family’s slight income on lavish clothing, brothels, and gambling. Lord Pearson’s loose purse and losing streak at the tables seemed to be common knowledge to everyone but her; humiliation consumed her. At twenty-two, Ella was already an old-maid, but if her father kept on with his current patterns, they would all end up in debtor’s prison and there would be nothing left to secure her sister’s future.
Proceeding through the corridor, relief flooded through her as she heard the sounds of men talking and cheering. She was on the right path. A shaft of light flickered into the corridor from an open door at the end of the hall. That must be where they are, she thought. As she approached, she was able to make out her father’s voice above the other men.
“Come now, Commander Evans—surely you aren’t afraid to lose another hand. I have the most to lose in this round. I have put my daughter on the pile,” he said. Ella could scarcely believe what she was hearing. She must be mistaken. He put his daughter on the pile? What pile? Realization hit her like a boulder. He was gambling with her as part of his pot. No, she thought, he wouldn’t.
“Afraid to lose?” Commander Evans said. “Hardly, Pearson. I’m simply not interested in looking upon your face when you realize you’ve lost your daughter’s marriage bed to me in a hand of cards.” The other men laughed and clapped at the pronouncement. Commander Evans’s voice sounded full of slime and vinegar. Of all the men her father could be gambling with, why did it have to be the commander, she thought.
The Commander was a tall man, his pale skin and thinning hair made him look sickly. He had a reputation for being odd and willing to do anything to win. Ella had witnessed his odd behavior first hand. At almost every meal since they had arrived at Carlisle, his beady eyes would seek her out. When he was able to corner her in conversation, he only spoke of himself and his accomplishments. And where she expected to find softness in a man who showed her so much interest, instead she saw an empty blackness that made her skin crawl.
“Ahh, my good friend, that is where you are wrong. I feel the luck of the King himself coursing through my veins. Let us have a go.” Ella crept closer to the door’s entrance, her breath caught in her throat as she waited to hear Evans’s answer. Apparently, the rest of the men felt the same as the room fell silent as death. It felt like an eternity before Evans’s responded, giving Ella a slight hope that he would be decent.
“I’m not your friend Pearson. Know this before the cards are dealt, all debts owed to me will be paid, in full. And I am not kind to those who welch. There will be no attack of conscience on my part come the morning. I’m in want of a wife, and your brat will do to warm my bed as well as any other wench. That is…should you lose.”
“I won’t lose. Deal the cards.”
Ella held her breath, afraid to let any precious air escape her lungs. Even through her fear she wished she could see into the room to truly know what was happening. It had been silent for far too long. Suddenly a groan went up in the room, and the next sound Ella heard was her father’s anguished moan. The door to the parlor crashed open. Evans’s burst through wearing an evil grin. She saw the surprise on his face when confronted by her small, slender form. Before she was able to get one word out, he grabbed her arm. Tears pooled in her ice-blue eyes at his tight grip.
“Well, well, well…it seems my betrothed has paid me a visit,” he snarled, hot stale breath filled her nose. The scent of old cigars and whiskey rolled off him, causing her to gag.
“I’m no such thing, you brute! Let me go,” she spat, turning her head away, disgusted. He laughed and pulled her tightly against him. She squirmed, trying to get away.
“Sneaking around the castle at night, eavesdropping on the men, tisn’t proper for my soon-to-be wife.”
“I’ll never marry you,” she said through angry tears. Her father came into the corridor. His face froze in horror as he realized she had heard what he’d done.
“Father, how could you?” she pleaded, finally wrenching herself free from Evans’s grip and running to her father. He turned away, cold. Shrinking from his rejection, her world turned upside down as she realized her father had abandoned her.
“Ahh, she has spirit, Pearson,” Evans said turning back toward Lord Pearson. “It will be a shame when I break her.”
Ella backed away, horrified. She was on her own. She was to be married to this man, and her father looked as if he didn’t care at all. The commander’s eyes filled with pure evil as he cornered her against the cold stone wall. There was no way to curb her trembling as he raised an arm to either side of her, blocking any hope of escape. She closed her eyes tight as he pulled one golden lock loose from her hair and twirled it around his bony finger.
“Would you like to give your future husband a kiss? A token to hold me over until we meet again?” He sneered. Before she could object, he crushed his mouth against hers. His were lips dry and rough. The more she fought against his assault the harder he pressed himself to her. Ella kept her mouth tight, refusing to give in to the Commander’s aggressive attack. This wretched man is giving me my first kiss, she thought. A tear slid down her cheek as she prayed silently for the moment to be over. There was nothing in his kiss that made her feel safe or loved. Instead she was filled with disgust and anger. She was ruined. She would never agree to be his wife, but no man would have her after this. He pulled away and laughed. “That’s not quite what I had in mind, but you’ll learn.”
Then as suddenly as he had appeared Commander Evans was gone. Ella watched as the other men all filed out of the parlor and away to their own rooms. Not one of them came to her defense. Her father avoided her eyes as he walked away. She slid down the wall, her body wracked with sobs.
“Father did what?” Amelia’s look of shock and horror mirrored Ella’s feelings exactly, as she replayed the disgusting events of the night before to her sister over their morning meal. She would have given anything not to burden Amelia with her plight, but she had no other friends. She had been up most of the night and could tell without seeing her reflection that her face was puffed and red from crying.
“He bet me in a game of cards to Commander Anton Evans and lost,” she repeated.
“Surely you must be joking, Ella. Tis not something father would ever do. It’s unkind to play such a cruel joke on me.”
Joking? Ella would give anything were that true. “My sweet Amelia,” she began, unable to complete the thought. What could she possibly say that would be a comfort to the girl. Amelia was not nearly old enough to be subjected to any of this madness. She should be back at their family home, running through soft grassed meadows, frolicking with her friends, and becoming accomplished enough to one day make a fine wife to a lord or even a duke.
“He can’t do it! Evans is a monster, everyone says so,” Amelia cried. Ella rushed from her seat to comfort her sister. She knew better than anyone what a monster the commander was, the memory of his attack still fresh in her mind. But it was breaking her heart seeing her sister so upset.
“It’s ok, don’t cry pet. It will all be ok, I promise. I’ll run far away before I’ll marry that beast,” Ella rubbed the young girl’s back as she sobbed.
“But where will you go? What will you do? What will happen to me and Gwen?” Amelia barely choked the words out. It pained Ella to see her so distraught.
“Please don’t cry, child. You will be safe, and so will Gwen. I may have to leave you, but before I do, I’ll make sure father is not able to allow you to suffer a similar fate. I swear it!”
“What is all this blubbering about?” Both girls looked up to see their father rubbing his head in pain as he came into the dining room to break his fast. Amelia broke free from her sister’s embrace and ran from the room, her sobs heard long after she left. Ella stood to face her father. None of Ella’s anger had ebbed from the night before and her slight frame shook in rage.
“You know full well what the matter is, father,” she said. His rejection still fresh in her mind. She had never wished so hard that she had been born a man so that she would not be subject to the outcomes of her father’s poor decisions. “You bet my life in a card game, as if I meant nothing more to you than a brood mare, and now I am forced to marry that evil man.”
“Don’t be so dramatic child,” he said his eyes hollow and cold. “We both know you are beyond the proper age for marriage. No offers are coming for you. I simply secured you a solid future, as the wife of a commander in His Majesty’s army.”
“You mean to tell me you did this to me on purpose?”
“You know our income is meager. I cannot support you and have a solid dowry for your sister. She is the better catch. And if you ask me, you have made out quite well in the deal. We all have. This is your duty. And you are well past ready to be a wife.”
A sick shock filled her stomach. Her father didn’t love her at all, he saw her as a burden. She could scarcely believe what she was hearing. Had her father lost the game on purpose? He wanted her to marry Evans; to be rid of her.
“I won’t do it,” she said, jutting out her chin in defiance. She would not be a pawn in her father’s games.
“You will. You’ve no choice. It’s what is best for you, and ultimately your sister,” he replied. “Now be a good girl and go see to your needs. I’ve planned to have you leave in a sennight. That should be just enough time for you to secure new gowns and say goodbye to your sister.”
“A sennight?” It was…it was ludicrous.
“Yes, the Commander left with his garrison for Dunkeld before dawn. Those damn Jacobites are making quick work of our troops. It’s a long journey into Scotland and you’ll need time to settle once you arrive. You will meet him there and are expected in three weeks’s time.”
“And if I refuse?” she asked.
“You no doubt heard the commander last night, he is a man who expects his debts paid. If you refuse, then I’ll have no choice but to offer Amelia in your place,” he replied, devoid of any emotion.
“She’s but a child, you wouldn’t dare,” she said.
“My sweet child,” he said, grabbing a piece of toast and adding jam as if their discussion was regular breakfast chatter and Ella’s life didn’t hang in the balance. “You know nothing of what I would dare. You will marry the commander. Now leave me in peace to break my fast. This discussion is over.”
There was no affection in his tone. There was no softness in his eyes. His decision was final. He was no better than the commander. Words and pleas would not change his mind. If she wanted to avoid a marriage to Commander Evans she would be on her own and have to use her wits.
A chill ran down Ella’s back. She looked intently at her father. His refusal to meet her gaze told her everything she needed to know. As soon as the opportunity arose, she would be forced to run, and if she were caught, she would kill herself before she would submit to be the commander’s wife.
Late August, 1689 Dunkeld, Scotland
Lucas MacGille pulled his spare plaid from his horse bag, wrapping it around his broad shoulders to ward off the pre-dawn chill. He was a large man, and usually the cold didn’t bother him, but he had been living on the land, battle to battle for some three odd months, and it was beginning to wear on him. The wind had kicked up and his fire-red hair, which was longer than he liked it kept, whipped around his face, stinging his eyes. It was still summer, but Autumn was finding her way into the Scottish air early this year. He closed his emerald-green eyes and took a deep breath, scratching the battle-weary growth on his chin.
He knew back at Cadney Castle it would be time to start bringing in the harvest to secure food for the clan for the long harsh winter to come. He missed his mother and sister, but he sorely missed the smells of baking bread, and the sounds of the keep waking up to begin the day’s work. Those sounds and smells he cherished were replaced these last three months with the smells of campfire, musket balls, and the filth of warrior and horse alike. Along with the snores of his father and brother cutting through the early morning mist.
After the Jacobite victory at Killiecrankie he thought they would be able to return home, and this madness would end. He was wrong. The Viscount of Dundee didn’t make it out of the battle, and as a valued ally to all Scots, his death needed to be avenged. John Graham was his father’s longtime friend and Angus MacGille, Laird of Clan MacGille, wished to personally avenge his friend’s death by driving the English out of Scotland forever. As his eldest son and the heir to the lairdship, Lucas couldn’t allow his father to continue the fight alone. His brother Gavin was lusty for battle and had been fighting along with them. But Lucas feared if he left the two men alone they would kill themselves or each other before they’d even set eyes on the enemy. So here they were out in the wilderness, with clansmen and friends alike, leading the charge into Dunkeld. The Jacobites would fight again.
In the distance a horn sounded, calling the men to arms. Lucas kicked his brother in the leg to wake him, before gently shaking his father out of his slumber.
“Och, why did ye kick me?” Gavin asked rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Gavin was a benefit in any battle, and Lucas would trust his brother with his life. Two years younger, and a head taller than he was, his brother had always been an adept fighter. But as he grew into a man, Lucas also found Gavin had a head for strategy. He also envied the younger man, he could sleep soundly through the end times on a bumpy log.
“Did ye nae hear th’horn?”
“Ya, I heard it, but you could hae woke me gently, like ye did da.”
“Ya, I could hae, but I dinnea,” Lucas said. “We need tae get up tae th’ front ay th’ line brother.”
“Yes ye dae lads,” Angus MacGille said as he stepped from behind a tree. Even in his later years the tall red-headed laird never failed to impress his son. Lucas was sure he had been taking care of his morning needs, yet still he managed to have one ear on his two sons. “Th’ world doesnae wait for the English an’ neither dae we!”
Lucas knew his father would love nothing more than to kill an Englishman before breakfast. Knowing today was the day they would ambush the government forces at Dunkeld, there was no way his father wanted to be anywhere, save the front of the charge. It was a miracle the old laird hadn’t gotten himself killed yet, and Lucas was unsure how he would manage to keep him alive if the fighting got bad. They walked up together to meet with the other clans. Lucas had a bad feeling about the day. He pulled Gavin aside. “Nae matter what happens in th’ battle, bide on dad. Ye unnerstaun?”
“Don’t fash yerself brother, ye ken I will,” Gavin said. Lucas clapped him on the back and Gavin returned the affection. He longed for the days of their youth, when their worries were not life and death. Hopefully when this day was over, the Jacobites would prove victorious again, and they could all go home.
Highlanders were built and trained to fight in the lands of their youth, and not made for town fighting. Lucas tried to plead with the chieftain to turn back, retreat. There was no way for the clansmen to get ahead in the fight. The roads and stone kept them at a disadvantage. His pleas fell on deaf ears. The Jacobite cause was renewed with vigor after recent wins, and the doubts of a single clansman would deter the cause.
In the heat of battle, his worst fears were coming to fruition, and they were losing. The dead and wounded could be found in every corner, moans and screams of pain punctuated with the crack of musket balls were the only sounds that found their way through the thick smoke of battle.
He preferred sword combat but was wise enough to know he couldn’t beat the English by bringing a metal to a fight with fire. When Lucas had run out of his own ammunition and had no choice but to resort to wielding his broadsword, he feared he too would be felled by the government forces. A cold rain began to fall, and Lucas moaned. They were truly at a disadvantage on this day. His powerful arms tired from swinging, and blocking, but he searched wildly for any sign of his father or Gavin. He had lost sight of them early in the battle when the Laird had rushed forward ahead of the line. His sword held high, and a terrifying battle cry on his lips that would strike fear in the heart of any man who got in his way. Gavin and Lucas both rushed in to follow and protect their Laird, but in the crush of bodies it was near impossible to keep together.
He rushed past a group of men laying in the crook where two stone walls connected. He moved fast and almost missed one of the men, Magnus MacGille. His cousin, friend, and able warrior, was lying on the road, injured. Lucas doubled back, leaning down to check the man. The usually large and jovial man was moaning, holding his side, and covered in soot and blood.
“Magnus, are ye hurt, man?” Lucas asked, shaking the man to keep him conscious. His eyes flashed open as he recognized Lucas.
“It’s only a scratch, I’ll be fine in nae time, Luc,” he said, flashing a toothless smile.
“Good to hear lad, hae ye seen yer laird or Gavin?” he asked.
“I saw them runnin’ toward the kirk,” he said before falling back hard against the wall.
“Can ye move man? Can ye walk?” he asked Magnus.
“Och, aye,” he replied, trying to stand. “Got tae git back to th’ battle.”
“Forget th’ battle, Magnus, get yerself tae safety, and any other men ye see on th’ way. That’s an order,” Lucas replied, he could not risk the loss of more good men in this fight. Magnus had a wife and a young son back home. How could he face the woman knowing he didn’t do everything in his power to save her husband?
Lucas was maybe a house or two away from the cathedral. It was where the fighting was the heaviest. He needed to get there, and quickly. He wouldn’t leave his brother and father to fight alone, but he couldn’t leave his clansman alone wounded and exposed.
“Aye,” the man said. “I will dae as ye say, Luc.”
“Thank ye,” he replied clapping the man on the back. Once he was confident Magnus would follow orders he headed in the way of the church.
The fighting was thickest the closer Lucas got closer to where the cathedral sat. It was hard to miss—everything around the area appeared to be on fire. Not for the first time since he’d left the keep, Lucas reflected on what a tragedy war was. The energy and resources that would be needed to rebuild all that was lost would surely put a strain on good people in the lowlands and highlands alike, and for what? It would be easy to hate the English, but he was not able to bring himself to judge a whole nation based on the acts of so few. He didn’t hate the English, but he did hate what the idea of English rule over Scotland represented.
He knew one day he would be laird of his clan, and as such he would be responsible to not only his family but all the clan. The job was large, and his father had been training him for it since he was less than knee high. He knew his responsibilities and he knew he would need to wed and produce an heir. But how could he find love and raise children in a world that could so easily lay waste to all that people worked so hard to build. And for no good reason other than God and the whims of man. It was such a waste.
The familiar battle cry of the MacGille clan pulled Lucas from his lonely thoughts. He rushed forward toward the noise. He was stopped short by a government soldier rushing toward him, musket up and aimed. Lucas ran with all his might and jumped, high, bringing his sword down swiftly upon the man’s shoulder, knocking him to the ground with a wound that would likely cause the loss of the soldier’s arm. He could think of nothing else but to get to his father.
There was no mistaking the shock of red hair he saw at the entrance of the cathedral, it was Angus MacGille locked in battle with what looked like a government soldier of rank, a commander or lieutenant-colonel. Lucas was too far away to make out exact features, but the dress of the man gave away his rank. He looked around, where was Gavin? His father was strong, but age gave him the disadvantage against his opponent who appeared younger than his father by a decade, maybe more. The fighting between the two was fierce and Lucas rushed to cross the distance between them and get to his father’s defense. Government soldiers closed in around him, but he did his best to cut through them. Determined to get to his father, and he would not allow anything to block his way.
A crack broke through the thick air, Lucas felt something tear through his right side. He let out a rush of breath. Warm liquid spread through his middle, but he pushed forward. He was closer to the cathedral entrance now, he pushed through the pain. His father needed him. The clank of metal against metal rang in his ears. He looked up to see his father lose his sword. Lucas let out a scream, and dropped to his knees, just as the commander’s sword felled his father, splitting his head in two. Adrenaline surged through Lucas and he charged toward the man. Turning to face his new opponent the commander looked spent and terrified as the giant, muscular highlander charged. He turned and fled into the cathedral, but not before Lucas was able to get a look at his small beady eyes. He would not rest until he saw the life leave those eyes, he swore it. Another crack broke through the air and he felt his leg give way. He dropped to his father’s body, ignoring his own pain, he checked for any hope of life. There was none. The Laird was dead.
Lucas opened his eyes, the rain felt cool on his face. He looked up, he was laying down? Where was he? He heard men moving above him. He was no longer in Dunkeld, that he knew by the soft, meadow grass that was underneath him. He groaned and tried to sit with no luck. Pain swirled through his body. There was a massive, hulking man standing above him covered in filth, dirt, and blood, but the man was familiar, a clansman. Was it Magnus?
“Dinnae fash yerself, Laird we hae a cart, we’re gettin’ ye tae a safe place,” Magnus said quietly, running a cloth over Lucas’s face. Why was Magnus calling him laird? The memory of his father’s gruesome end came rushing back. His breathing became rushed, he had to get to the cathedral. He had to kill the commander. Where was Gavin?
“Gavin?” he croaked out, frantically grabbing Magnus’s arm. “Where’s Gavin?”
“I dinnae ken my laird. Th’ last time he was seen he was runnin’ intae th’ kirk,” Magnus said apologetically.
“Magnus, I told ye tae retreat,” he whispered, pain shooting up his leg.
“An’ allow my laird tae suffer a worse fate than his poor father? I dinnae think sae. Now hush man,” Magnus said. Lucas thought he was a fool to have come back for him. He wanted to suffer the same fate of his father. He failed him. He failed everyone. The only hope he had was that Gavin was able to find and murder the commander who killed their father. Revenge was the last thought on his mind before the blackness overtook him.
When Lucas woke again it was dark. He didn’t know how much time had passed, but he knew it wasn’t night. He could see shafts of light peeking through holes along the walls. He was indoors. He hadn’t slept indoors in months. The bed he was on was soft straw. The plaids and wools covering him made him warm, but he was too weak to move the coverings. He tried to sit up and failed.
He couldn’t see where he was, but he heard rustling. Why was he so tired? He felt like he could sleep through ages. What did he smell? Was it horses? No, not horses, but sheep. He smelled sheep and hay. He was not in the keep at Cadney. If he had been, he was confident he would not be in a barn but rather in his own bed chamber. So, where was he? His skin felt hot. He tried to move but found he was too weak to even lift an arm. His mouth was dryer than the bottom of a stew pan left to smolder and crust. He wanted water, but he couldn’t speak. Pain caused him to groan.
“Hush now, tak’ some water,” an elderly man was leaning over him gently holding a cup filled with fresh water. A cool cloth came down on his forehead. Relief washed over him as he faded into blackness once again.
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