Her Highlander’s Heart (Preview)
Late August, 1689. Dunkeld, Scotland
The crush of men clamoring down the cobblestone slowed Gavin down. His father had rushed ahead, the old fool. They were Highlanders not used to battle in town. His strategies worked best in the open fields and light forests of their homeland. He raced forward, dodging fence posts and hay bales, losing sight of both the old man and his brother, Lucas, in the massive movement of men. Always wanting to be at the center of the action, Gavin knew he couldn’t dissuade his father, but he at least hoped to keep up with him to help protect him and to fight alongside him. Everywhere around him men fell, crying out in pain and rage. The Battle of Dunkeld was well underway and as far as Gavin could tell, they were losing.
Gavin could feel it in his bones. The battle would soon be over. In order to survive, the Scots would need to retreat and retrench. The English snakes would hold the town. The Kirk was at the center of the battle where the English commanders kept their watch. Wizened beyond his twenty- two years in the art of battle, Gavin knew he had to cut the head off the snake in order to end the battle. He also knew that the church is where his father would be headed.
“Gavin! Where ye at !?” He turned to see his clansman, Thomas Graham, running through a throng of men headed in the opposite direction to meet him.
“Tis no place for ye, Thomas!” he shouted. “Go on! Head back to the men! Save yer hide!”
“I’ll not leave ye tae go intae the Kirk on yer own, Gav.” He knew he couldn’t force his friend back, but he cursed the lad’s foolishness. He had no reason to join Gavin in the search for his father.
“Stay back and when I give ye th’ order tae run, do it!” he snapped. He couldn’t see his father anywhere, but noticed in the distance the tall, familiar muscular build and dark black hair of neighboring clansman and good friend of his da, Laird Hammish MacKenzie. Another foolish old man. Both Hammish and his da should be enjoying their waning years; sitting at the heads of their clans drinking fine ale and whisky, awaiting young grandchildren to bounce at their knees. Not as they were, out here fighting like mad men for a lost Jacobite cause. The English held the crown and Gavin knew it was only a matter of time before their Highland way of life was changed for good. He swung his broad sword wide, taking out two English soldiers running toward he and Thomas, killing with ease. The only purpose the English soldiers serving currently was to slow him down as he headed toward Hammish.
The crowd behind them began to thin, and the smells of death and blood began to ebb. As he drew closer to the church, he saw Hammish was surrounded by at least ten English soldiers, swords drawn. He was a grand warrior, but even Gavin knew ten against one were bad odds. He increased his pace. Another haggard soldier ran at him, slowing him down and Gavin groaned.
“Come on, man, th’ fight is over! Ye won, ye bastard!” Gavin growled as he knocked the man on the head with the hilt of his sword, temporarily losing sight of Hammish. If he couldn’t help his own da in the fight, the least he could do was help Hammish. Between himself and Thomas, they should be able to fight ten men off.
He rounded the corner coming the church yard, Thomas tightly on his heels. Both men stopping short to avoid colliding with the wooden fence that separated them from Hammish. For a brief moment relief washed over Gavin. Coming out of the Kirk was the unmistakable lanky, tall form of Elias MacKenzie, the Laird’s nephew. At least Hammish had kin closer than Gavin able to help in the fight. But before the thought completed he watched in horror as Elias took a small metal pistol from under his plaid, aiming it right at the back of his uncle’s head.
“Noooooo…” Gavin let out a long scream, hopping over the fence to try his best to stop Elias, unable to think what the man was doing. In the haze of the fight, Elias must have mistook his uncle for English. A shot rang out, and Gavin saw Hammish slump forward and fall to the ground. The ball went too fast and was at too close a range for the old man to have survived it.
“What th’ devil…” he heard Thomas mutter behind him. Realization dawned on Gavin as Elias met his eyes. A glimmer of something vicious passed through the Mackenzie man’s gaze. There was no mistake, Elias was a traitor and now a murderer of his own kin. Turning quickly to Thomas, Gavin had just enough time to yell, “RUN!” and watch as the lad hopped back over the fence before he heard Elias yell, “Seize him, but DO NOT KILL HIM!”
Gavin fought hard, trying desperately to give Thomas enough time to escape. He may go down, but he would die giving his clansman as much room as possible to get away. Arms and legs kicking and pulling at his body from all directions caused him to lose footing and fall to the ground. Somehow in the melee he had lost his sword, the shock of what he had just witnessed giving Elias and the English soldiers the upper hand to much for him to bear. If Thomas were lucky, Elias, the fool traitor, would have only seen Gavin, and the lad would have enough of a lead to get back to Lucas or Magnus, or any part of the line away from the Kirk. His vision blurred, and Gavin knew he wasn’t going to be able to remain awake for much longer against the onslaught. He threw out a punch, his knuckles hitting hard English armor, pain radiating up his arm.
“Knock the bastard out!” he heard Elias yell. What th’ devil was right, was the last thought Gavin MacGille had before everything went black.
January 1690, Cadney, Scotland
Milly watched the snow out of her chamber window. It gently fell outside the keep walls onto the soft meadow below. Everything was so peaceful and silent she swore she could hear each flake as it hit the ground. Wrapping her cloak tightly around herself, she willed her mind to go blank, thinking of nothing and everything all at once. She had almost achieved the peace she sought when the door to her chamber opened violently and her maid Violet came crashing in, clearly distraught.
“The MacKenzie willnae give Thomas back, Milly. He is a mean, nasty Laird,” Violet sobbed, her head dramatically hitting the pillow of Milly’s bed. Milly’s peaceful reflection now broken. She stood and moved over to the bed in an effort to try and to soothe the girl.
“Violet, but there must be some misunderstanding,” she cooed to the crying woman, draped across her bed linens. “The old Laird is a kindly man. He would never keep Thomas against his will.” Milly could not believe the audacity of the MacKenzie.
“If he is so kindly, as ye say, why have we not heard back?” It was a fair point. She had written over a month ago asking for the release of her clansman Thomas Graham. She received no response. Violet’s despair was growing worse and worse with each passing day. She hated to see her friend in such sadness. “We’ll never be married. He’ll be kept in that blasted dungeon for all time. Och, he must be so cold and alone. Milly…it’s…it’s just wretched! We must get him out, Milly. We must!”
Milly tried to think. Violet was right. It wouldn’t do at all to keep waiting, idle, no response from the Laird. She certainly didn’t understand why he had not responded. She couldn’t help but think of her own brother, Gavin. He and Thomas had been great friends before Gavin disappeared during the Battle of Dunkeld. Gavin would want Milly to help Thomas in any way she could. Was a mere letter enough? Now, Thomas sat rotting in a dungeon. Well, rotting might be a strong word. He had only been in the dungeon for a few weeks. Still, such a harsh punishment for an ally was out of character for the old man. A MacKenzie would have never locked up a MacGille without good reason and first going through her older brother, Lucas, Laird of the MacGille clan. There would have been council meetings and treaties. “It just doesn’t make any sense!”
“Claire Tavish told Lolly Gash in our kitchens that Edina told the Laird that Thomas made a suggestion toward her in the kitchens that was compromising. The Laird would not stand for the women under his protection to be used in such a way, but ye ken Edina was a mad woman and a liar. None of it about Thomas is true. Not a word!” Violet’s words came out in a huffed rush. Milly could barely keep up. Of course, it wasn’t true. Och, Edina that evil witch still making trouble, even from the grave. At least now they knew why Thomas had been sent to the dungeon. He wouldn’t have even been in the witch’s line of sight had he not been sent by Lucas in an effort to keep an eye on a wretched clanswoman who had tried to kill his bride.
Violet’s ramblings gave Milly a touch more information than they’d had when they’d first heard of the lad’s plight. She could always count on kitchen maids to learn everything about the inner workings of a keep. Knowing Edina as she did, the woman would have said anything to get rid of her guards. What Milly couldn’t figure out was why would the Laird believe her. Surely Lucas or Magnus explained the situation fully? And Edina was long dead. Why then still keep Thomas in chains? It really didn’t make any sense. Were Gavin here, he would have not wasted a moment worrying about what to do. He would’ve saddled a horse and ridden for the MacKenzie keep post haste.
“Violet, dear, please dinnae fash,” Milly said, determination etched across her brow. “We’ll gae tae the MacKenzie keep and I’ll speak with the old Laird. He always had a soft spot for me when I was a wee lass, I’m sure he will give Thomas back.”
Violet jumped up from the bed, embracing Milly so violently that both women fell to the ground. “Oh, bless ye! Ye are truly so kind. I cannae thank ye enough!” Milly was winded from the fall but couldn’t help but smile at her friend. At least a trip to the MacKenzie keep would help keep Milly’s mind occupied. She had been so consumed as of late of thoughts of her missing twin brother. Helping Violet and Thomas would be a welcomed distraction.
“Now, go pack our things, we’ll leave right away… before this snow turns into a blizzard!”
The cold winter air burned Nathan’s lungs as he rode through the familiar landscape. Snow flurried down around him, gathering in light tufts on his horse’s mane. He had been gone too long, and his body wasn’t used to being assaulted by the iced chill of the December Scottish air. He couldn’t wait to see his father and tell him of his latest bounty. The Laird of MacKenzie loved hearing about insolent, idiotic criminals. Nathan had shared many a late night with his da over a fine whisky, making the old man laugh about one scrape or another Nathan had gotten into with a bandit. This last trip had taken him all the way to the South of France. Being gone from MacKenzie lands even for a year, let alone the three he had been away, was too much for any Highland man to bear. Especially Nathan. He relished adventure, but more than that he needed the thistle and heather of the mountains of his home. He craved the crystal-ice cold of Cadney Loch. In winter, the snow that blanketed the soft rising meadow that lead to where MacKenzie lands took over from their neighboring clan, the MacGilles in a white sheath that made Nathan think it must be what heaven looked like. No matter where his adventures took him, Nathan always found himself longing for home. There was nowhere in the world with the same pull on his heart.
Looking at the gates to the castle as he broke through the meadow, he was surprised to see no guard towers lit. The banners that usually waved even throughout the long winter nights were also missing. Something was wrong. Spurring his horse to speed up, he rode faster, entering the keep. It had been years since any guards were stationed at the tower, no current disagreements between clans making it necessary, but his father still made a habit of leaving the towers lit.
Leaving his horse tied to a post in the stable, close to hay and water, he patted the steed gently on its muzzle. “I’ll be back for ye, beastie. Once I see that all is well inside.” The steam rising from the horse’s deep whine wet Nathan’s cheeks, the droplets immediately turning to ice on his chapped skin.
He entered the castle through the main hall. Tables lined the stone floors in neat rows leading up to the high table where he and his family sat for all clan meals and meetings. The blue, red and yellow of the MacKenzie plaid still hung behind his father’s chair. All was quiet and nothing looked changed since he was last home. Candles burned down past half-way, indicating hours had passed since the evening meal. Maybe Nathan was wrong, maybe everything was well. It could simply be the cold winter air prevented his da from having the tower candles lit. Perhaps in an effort to conserve resources for the upcoming colder months. But Nathan still couldn’t shake the feeling that something was not quite right.
He made his way to the council room. That is where he would find the answers he needed. His father spent many long nights in the room going over clan treaties and other necessary business of the Laird. It held no interest for Nathan. He loved his clan, and he loved his family, but he had no desire to be Laird. Knowing his da was young, and full of fight, he had time before the role would be thrust upon him.
The council room was behind the main hall of the keep. The room was small, and Nathan had always liked the cozy feel of it. It reminded him more of a study, or a library, than the large, hollow great council rooms of other, larger clans. There was a roaring fire in the small hearth. Books and ledgers lined the wall. A brilliant red and blue carpet covered the cold stone floor, a source of pride for Nathan. It was a gift he had brought his father. He had the rug made in Edinburgh, by a Turkish merchant in exchange for information about a young lowland lass who had stolen the immigrant’s gold and tried to make her way back north for safe harbor. He walked across the rug toward his father’s large wooden desk. Interesting, Da wouldnae keep such a disorganized mess, Nathan thought as he thumbed through the stack of papers, haphazardly strewn about.
“Ahh, the prodigal son returns. Nathan. I trust ye are well?” Nathan turned to see his uncle, William Mackenzie moving into the room. The man’s shoulder-length black hair, much like Nathan’s own, except laced throughout with the silver and grey showing his age, was loose
“Aye, Uncle. Well indeed. I hope I dinnae disturb yer sleep?” His uncle’s eyes were rimmed in dark circles, and Nathan swore in places on the man’s face where skin had once been smooth, deep lines now threatened to take over. He didn’t look well.
“Och, I dinnae sleep anymore. Sit lad, we have much to discuss.” Nathan took the chair behind his father’s desk, leaving his da’s chair empty. Where William was, his father soon followed. The brothers were thick as thieves. “Where is Da?”
His uncle took the chair behind his father’s desk, and looked at Nathan with vacant, sad eyes. The small round pit that had formed in Nathan’s stomach when he saw the darkened guard towers, now grew to the size of cannonball.
An anguished grunt was the only sound Nathan was able to produce as he placed his head in his hands.
“Six months ago, there abouts. The Battle of Dunkeld, nae one kens for sure,” William continued. “We lost a good many good fighters when the Jacobites took up against th’ English. A good many men. Th’ ones that made it out started tae return only three months back, and worse for it. Naeone kens when it was they saw yer da fall, but Magnus MacGille and some of his men brought back his body. We gave him a proper burial, even though he wasnae able tae bring back his own Laird’s.”
Nathan heard every word his uncle was saying, but nothing was sinking in. He stood and turned to leave. He needed to get out of the tight room, needed to move, to think, anything but face the reality before him. His da was dead. He shouldn’t have been abroad. Nathan should’ve been at the fight alongside his da. He could’ve stopped it.
“There was naethin’ ye could’ve done, lad,” William said, reading Nathan’s thoughts. “Yer da was proud of ye. He wouldnae hae wanted tae see ye in a battle like that. It’s what ye dae now th’ matters.”
“He’s dead, Uncle,” Nathan said, turning toward the door.
“An’ where dae ye think yer goin’, lad?”
“I have to tend to my horse.”
“There is more ye need tae ken. Sit, lad! Ye are the heir, the presumed Laird of Clan Mackenzie, no that ye’ve returned. Elias will be forced tae step down, but he willnae be pleased. And takin’ over ‘tisn’t as easy as signin’ a piece of parchment.”
“Elias is back?”
“Aye, just this past month. He heard of yer da’s death and has come back tae make his claim. He’s been actin’ in yer place. The council allowed it, only until ye returned, unless ye can’t make a viable claim.”
“I don’t want it, Uncle! You can take it from Elias, ye will be a fine Laird!” Nathan shot back. He was trying to keep his grief down, but the shock of losing his father, the guilt, the rage was bubbling to the surface.
“Och, boy!” William shouted. “Ye ken I cannae be Laird. I’m old, I cannae marry and give the clan an heir. Rules are rules. I ken ye are filled with shock an’ grief. Mayhap I shouldnae’ve told ye this way, but ye are tae be Laird. Will ye turn yer back on yer kin, lad?”
“I’ve never wanted this, Uncle!” He ran his hands up and down his cheeks and into his jet-black hair. He disliked arguing with his uncle, but the information was coming at him too fast. He wasn’t ready. He needed more time.
“Aye, but I also ken, when the time came tae step into your birthright ye would do what is right.”
“I cannae,” he said, defeat quieting his tone. “And if I refuse?”
“Then yer cousin will be successful in his claim, and as much as it pains me tae say, there will be little the council could dae about it. The MacKenzie clan will be destroyed,” his uncle said calmly with the sadness returning to his eyes. Nathan sat back down with what remained him of the fight leaving him in a rush of air as he let out the breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding.
“He has no claim.”
“He has men, clansmen who will help him. Not many, but enough. He’s been acting as Laird for the last month. If he marries a Highland born lady, there will be naught the council can dae.”
“Why was I not informed!? Can’t we change the rules? Surely the council will agree tae prevent Elias from becoming Laird?”
“For God’s sake Nathan, it’s been discussed! But he has enough support to stop it from happening. Ye have support tae, lad, a slight bit more than Elias because of yer da! But ye need tae stand up. Ye need tae find a bride. Ye need tae do it fast.”
“Uncle, why fight Elias? Why dae ye not want yer own son tae be Laird?” Nathan knew Elias had a dark heart. He trusted that his uncle’s assessment of his cousin was true, and if Elias rose to Laird it would signal the end of the Mackenzie clan as they knew it. But he needed to hear it from the old man’s lips himself. William was the closest thing Nathan had to a father now, and he needed to trust that if he were to stand up for his clan, he had the man’s full backing and support. Asking his uncle to turn his back on Elias, his only son, wasn’t something that Nathan could bring himself to do. It needed to come from William, on his own.
“Ye ken as well as I dae lad, we lost Elias when his mother died. It pains me deeper than ye’ll ever ken tae say it, but my son is a traitor to his people. The man he has become is nae good for the MacKenzies and is nae good for Scotland,” William said, a single tear falling down the stoic man’s cheek. “Ye are our only hope, boy.”
Nathan collapsed to his knees in front of his uncle, taking his head into his hands; no longer able to stand with the weight of his grief, and his clan resting firmly on his shoulders. This wasn’t the homecoming he had expected. His father was gone. He had no choice, for the sake of his people and in the memory of his da. Nathan would have to do whatever necessary to secure the Lairdship of the MacKenzie clan.
“Aye, Uncle,” he said, his voice filled with gravel and guilt. Had he only been there, he could have prevented all of this; his father’s death, Elias, all of it. The weight of his own selfishness came crashing down around him. He looked up at his uncle, his pewter gaze heavy. “Tis the only way, but how?”
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