Highlander’s Broken Love (Preview)
Berwick-upon-Tweed, England 1747
“Ian, don’t you want to escape?”
Ian kept his eyes focused straight ahead, refusing to look at the English prisoner at his side or answer his question. He did periodically shift his attention between the rusting chains around his wrists and the path up ahead.
They were being marched in a chained line up the hill. Some time ago they had left the tall walls that surrounded Berwick. Flanked by English soldiers on horseback, dressed in ruby red and dark green doublets, they were being walked to their new home. The Northumberland prison was situated very close indeed to the border between England and Scotland.
Aye, home will be within sight at last.
“Ian?” the English prisoner muttered again. This time, Ian turned to look at him. Kenny was his name. Short, with a patch of blond hair on his gradually balding head, he had to be a few years younger than Ian, despite balding at such a young age. His face bore the same lines of dirt than Ian knew would be on his own.
“Ye think ye will survive if ye escape now?” Ian scoffed with a whisper, casting a glance around the other prisoners behind him. He and Kenny were at the front of the formation, their hands not only shackled together, but to each other. These same shackles were chained to the men behind them, and so on, so that the entire group of about thirty men were fastened to one another.
The sight was sickening. Each man wore rags rather than clothing. Either the cloth had rotted away from years spent in the cells in Berwick or it had been torn from their bodies when they had been tortured and flogged for information. Even now, some of the men bore as much dried blood on their skin as they did dirt.
Those faces were all looking at Ian expectantly. The whites of their eyes were the only sign of anything brightly colored amongst all that dirt.
Ian looked away from them, hating how their expectations resided on his shoulders. He was far from being the longest held prisoner in that gaol, but he had earned a reputation for himself as the man who feels no pain. When tortured, he never screamed or even murmured, he took it all with gritted teeth and refused to give up any information. He hadn’t even told them his surname or the name of his clan, for he knew that the moment his captors or even fellow prisoners knew who he was, they would try to use it to their advantage.
He was safer with this secrecy.
“Ian, when you go, the rest of us will,” Kenny was whispering to him. The soldier nearest to them turned on his brown steed and stared at them harshly, as though he had caught something of what they were saying. Ian pushed against the shackles on their wrists, urging Kenny to stand straight and step away from him.
He didn’t fancy being flogged today, not when they had so much further to go in their journey.
“What are you two talking of?” the soldier asked; his accent was much more refined than Kenny’s.
“We were remarkin’ on the weather,” Ian said, turning his head to the sky. “Fine day indeed,” he scoffed, for the grey clouds were gathering, threatening to open at any minute and drench them with rain.
“You think I care if you get wet, scum?” the soldier laughed and looked away.
That was Ian’s desired effect as it turned the soldier’s attention away from the men. Behind him, he could hear shackles being rattled. He grimaced, knowing what was afoot even before he was told.
“Tell me they arenae…” he trailed off, whispering to Kenny.
“They are,” Kenny said, glancing back. “It’s a nail; they’re passing it round. Undoing their shackles with it.”
Ian cursed under his breath. He was no fool. There may have been enough prisoners to outnumber the English soldiers easily, yet the soldiers had weapons, something the prisoners did not have. While some carried crossbows, others even had flintlock pistols in their belts, a weapon Ian had not seen before he had arrived at their prison. He had been shocked to the core the first time he saw the weapon used. A prisoner had tried to escape, sprinting across the courtyard with only the shackles around his ankles restricting his movements a little. Rather than chasing after him, an English soldier had lifted one of those pistols. Loaded with gunpowder, he had fired. The shot had been devastating, knocking the man to the ground and killing him instantly. Ian could still recall the sound, and he didn’t fancy being the next man to die on the other end of that pistol.
The nail was passed to Kenny. Ian began to panic, flicking his head as slyly as he could back and forth between the English soldiers.
“If ye are goin’ to do that, at least try and do it without bein’ so obvious,” he whispered to Kenny. Duly admonished, the English prisoner tried not to look at his hands as he fiddled with the shackles on his wrists.
“They’re waiting for your say so, Ian,” Kenny murmured. “Once you go, the rest of us will.”
“In the name of the wee man,” Ian cursed to himself, looking up to the sky in frustration, not knowing how he had had the title of leader thrust in his direction. This had happened more than once in his life—too often for his liking. He knew this could only end in death. The question was: Who would end up dead?
“Don’t you want to go home?” Kenny asked, his brown eyes narrowed as though Ian had taken leave of his senses.
He wasn’t really sure where that was. Scotland, yes. Beyond that, perhaps it was his clan, although he hadn’t been back there for many years—long before he was taken prisoner. Perhaps it was the MacPherson Clan. He had lived among this clan for years, working as the right-hand man to his friend, Laird Alexander MacPherson. Yet after being so long away, Alex undoubtedly thought he was dead.
I doubt I have anywhere to go back to.
“There,” Kenny said at last. Ian heard the chink of the shackles being released and looked to the nearest soldier. He didn’t turn his head their way, engrossed as he was in conversation with another soldier. “Here, Ian.” Kenny passed him the nail.
Ian seriously considered refusing to take it.
“If we break free now, we all end up dead,” he snapped quietly at Kenny. “I daenae fancy seein’ the grim reaper today. Do ye?”
“What choice do we have?” Kenny asked a little helplessly. Ian took the nail, but he didn’t use it right away. His mind was working quickly, trying to figure a way out of this predicament. The nail between his fingers was rusty and slightly bent, scraping uncomfortably at the worn pads of his fingers.
He looked down at his hands briefly, trying to see the nail, but what stood out were the scars accumulated during the years in prison. The flogging marks could be seen clearly across the backs of both of his hands; some had barely healed from the last torture he had endured. His left hand was still a little misshapen from where they had broken his fingers once. That was over a year ago, though, and it had healed in its own rather deformed way.
“It is time!” a prisoner roared out. Ian stopped walking, bringing others around him to a halt.
Damn these bampots!
“Run!” the prisoner ordered. At once, the prisoners abandoned their effort to appear chained up. Ian glanced back, seeing the way they dropped their chains and sprinted off in all directions. Even Kenny at his side fled. Soon, Ian was the only prisoner left, holding up one side of the chains. He hadn’t released his hands.
His fears came true, for around him the soldiers pulled out their guns and crossbows and began to fire. Ian wouldn’t flinch though his heart sank with every man they took down. It was sickening, watching the prisoners being shot in the back one after another and falling to the ground.
“Some are getting away!” an English soldier barked at the others. “You four with me, the rest stay here and guard who’s left.” Five soldiers rode after the escaped prisoners that had gotten the farthest.
Around Ian, there was just one other prisoner being held by the soldiers that stayed behind.
“Let me go! Please!” it was an old man pleading for his life as one of the English soldiers jumped down and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck.
“Get back in line,” the soldier tossed him toward the chains.
Kenny had also been caught. He was being dragged back toward them now, away from the pine trees that bordered the path up the hill. He had blood pouring from his nose, evidently having felt the soldier’s wrath at his escape.
“Please, just let me go,” the old man was begging, down on his knees as he reached up to the nearest soldier. “My wife cannot support herself and the children without me. They’ll die of hunger if I do not go to them.” The soldier merely grabbed the old man by the throat.
“Be silent, or I shoot,” the soldier ordered.
He wouldnae. Surely.
The man was his kinsmen, both English. Surely the older man’s tale of woe would be enough to halt the soldier’s pistol; Ian prayed that it would. As the soldier released the old man, though, he made a second attempt to break free. Ian was tempted to call out after him to stop, but it was too late. The soldier lifted the pistol and pulled the trigger.
The boom that echoed through the trees made Ian’s ears practically tremble. He stumbled forward, just as the old man was struck. He clutched at the wound in his back for a moment that was bleeding profusely; then he fell down. His face in the dirt, he did not move again.
“Ye killed yer kinsmen,” Ian found his voice. “Ye didnae have to kill him.” As the three soldiers around him turned their attention his way, Ian used the nail. He couldn’t hold back any longer. Things had gotten too far out of control, and he was backed into a corner. Even if he did nothing, he was most likely going to end up like that old man.
“We didn’t ask your opinion, Scot,” one soldier spat in his face. Ian didn’t even bother wiping the spittle away, he just concentrated on using the nail. “Take him,” the soldier pointed at him.
“Wait!” Ian backed away with the now unlocked shackles still around his arms. “Be reasonable. I havenae tried to escape.” He could see his attempt at reason was getting him nowhere, for the soldier who had shot the old man was reloading the weapon, pushing the shot down the barrel with wadding. He had clearly developed a taste for blood.
“Our commander will want to know that we gave our prisoners what they deserved for trying to escape,” the first soldier said. “Shoot the Scot.”
Ian glanced briefly to his side. The fourth soldier had his arm around Kenny’s neck, holding him down on the ground on his knees. He was lifting his own pistol out of his belt.
“Now!” the soldier ordered. The pistol was raised and pointed at Ian.
Ian dropped the illusion of holding the shackles in place. He didn’t have time to note the shock on their faces. He grabbed hold of the gun pointed at him and pointed it down at the ground, allowing him the freedom to elbow the soldier in the face. He stumbled away, his head rearing back as he clutched his nose.
Ian now had the pistol, though he didn’t use it. He knew that he had no wadding or powder to reload, so his one shot must be saved for a shoot-or-die situation.
As the second soldier barreled toward him, Ian dodged the first blow, making the soldier’s body swing round. Then he used the pistol to hit the soldier’s head twice, knocking him down to the ground, unconscious.
The soldier that had been giving the orders came forward, with a sword in his hand. Ian jumped back, putting distance between them.
“Never ran a Scot through before. Maybe King George will thank me for it. What do you think?” he said tauntingly and swiped the air, forcing Ian to jump back again. When he next lunged forward, Ian knew he had but one chance to get the weapon. He dodged the blow and reached out, grabbing the blade itself.
He winced, just as he always did, and never let out a single audible sound of pain. They began a tug of war over the weapon. The soldier’s clutch on the handle gave Ian the opportunity to swing his leg round, delivering a blow to the soldier’s chest. He stumbled away, releasing the sword. Ian’s hand was badly wounded, the palm bleeding from the cut, but he had the sword.
Ian tossed the weapon to his good hand, taking the pistol in his injured hand, and held out the sword, ready for the next challenge. The slice on his hand would need binding later, but he first had to live through this fight. The soldier barreled forward, running at such speed with a dagger raised in the air that, when Ian moved the sword out in front of himself for protection, he couldn’t stop quickly enough.
The soldier ran onto the point.
They both froze and looked down, before Ian pulled the blade free. The soldier dropped to his knees, clutching his abdomen. Ian walked back a little. The man would either die soon from his own foolishness in battle, or another soldier might recover enough to get him to the safety of a physician before that happened.
“Enough!” The barked word surprised Ian. He turned slowly around, seeing that Kenny was still on his knees with one last soldier behind him, now holding his pistol to the side of Kenny’s temple.
The English prisoner’s face was contorted with shock and fear, even his cheeks were trembling and turned crimson red.
“Put the weapons down, or I shoot,” the soldier ordered. Ian considered telling him to shoot. Wasn’t the prisoner English? Wasn’t he his natural enemy? Yet looking at Kenny’s face, he couldn’t do it. They had brushed shoulders enough in the prison for him to know that Kenny might be a thief, but he was not a cruel man.
He doesnae deserve to die.
“Put the sword and the pistol down,” the soldier ordered once more.
Ian held out the weapons, showing that he was going to follow the orders. Very slowly, he began to place them on the ground. The sword went first, but just as he was going to release the pistol, he tightened his hold. He knew the pistol was ready for firing and that he couldn’t miss the soldier at this distance. There was only one chance at this. He made it appear he was going to drop the pistol. What he actually did was to place his finger on the trigger, just as the soldier was beginning to relax his hold on Kenny.
He aimed upward and fired.
The soldier roared out in pain, the bullet lodged somewhere in his cheek as he fell back and dropped his own weapon.
Ian stood up as Kenny scrambled away on his knees.
“You…you…,” Kenny pointed at the weapon as he moved to his feet. The two of them were standing amongst the carnage for a minute, with four soldiers wounded on the ground. “You saved me,” Kenny said at last. “You know how to use one of those things?” he pointed at the weapon.
“Aye,” Ian said honestly, tossing the weapon to the ground for he had no more use or understanding of it. “I think that’s what ye English call luck, though, shootin’ from that angle.” He saw Kenny’s face blanch before he picked up the sword and ran.
Unlike the other prisoners that had run down the hill to escape, Ian ran up the hill in the direction of the border with Scotland.
“Wait, wait for me!” Kenny called after him.
“Go yer way, Kenny, and I’ll go mine,” Ian said, not looking back.
“You’re kidding, right? Behind you is clearly the safest place to be.”
“I’m nae yer protector.” Ian reached the top of the hill quickly; there was a stream there. He rushed toward it and splashed his face with water, enjoying the cool feeling on his face as he began to get rid of some of the dirt. He bound a strip of cloth around his palm, quickly trying to staunch the flow of blood.
“No, but I’ll be yours,” Kenny dropped down to his side.
“What?” Ian asked, flummoxed.
“You saved my life,” Kenny gestured back down the hill. “I will stay with you until I repay the debt.”
“I daenae need the debt repaid. Go home, Kenny.” Ian looked back down into the water. In the murky, grey reflection, he could see himself. It was a reflection he hadn’t seen for the two years he had been in that prison. He was still tall and broad shouldered, but his chestnut brown hair was longer now, coming down around his ears and curling. As he cleaned the dirt from his face, his eyes became more visible, an even darker brown than his hair.
“No,” Kenny said again. “I will repay this debt. You cannot change my mind on that.” Ian sat back on his haunches, looking at the fair-haired prisoner in surprise.
“A thief with honor?” Ian smiled at the idea. “I daenae ken many that do.”
“You were in the same prison that I was in. You must have done something equally as bad, if not worse.” At Kenny’s words, Ian’s smile vanished. He would not talk about the reason he had been taken to the prison. “I’m coming with you. You cannot change my mind.”
“Aye, very well,” Ian sighed, knowing a lost cause when he saw one. He stood to his feet and stared down the other side of the hill. In the distance, he could see the mountains that indicated Scotland was just beyond.
“Where is it we are going, then?” Kenny asked.
“I guess, I have to go back to me clan,” Ian tensed at the thought, though he had no other choice. As he ran down the hill toward Scotland, he sighed, feeling the flood of relief as the rain began to fall.
At least, I am free again.
Chirnside, England & Scottish Border
“Daenae move, Sassenach.”
The order made Elisabeth freeze. She had only just recovered from the fall from her horse when she heard the voice.
That is a Scottish accent.
She swallowed dryly and slowly turned around.
She had been riding through her father’s estate, that these days straddled the English and Scottish border. Here though, she was supposed to be safe; that had clearly been an illusion. She was standing in the pine tree forest, flanked by Scots pines and Sitka spruces. It made the shadows fall across the three men’s faces before her.
“I said, daenae move,” the man said again. She held her body still as the three men stepped out of the shadows. She almost shivered at their barbarian-like appearance. Dressed in plaid and dark trews, they moved toward her. The one at the front had a crossbow in his hands that was trained on her, while a second had a rope in his grasp. Backing away, her feet moved through the undergrowth and snapped a twig. “Och! Stop!” he ordered, lifting the crossbow higher.
She closed her eyes, trying to tamp down on the spike of fear that had erupted in her chest.
“Now,” he ordered to the man at his side. Another conversation passed between the three men, prompting Elisabeth to open their eyes. They spoke in Gaelic, and she could not understand a word that was said.
What she could understand was the way her wrists were being bound together. She looked around and considered screaming for help. Yet the house itself was too far away for anyone to hear her, and, even if someone happened to be walking the grounds the moment she called out, the Scotsman might well put the bolt of that crossbow in her chest.
More words were uttered in Gaelic. Then, one man took the rope around her wrists, using it to pull her forward; another pushed her back, shoving her further forward. With each push, she stumbled through the undergrowth, so that her feet sometimes slipped on the moss and wet rocks from the recent rain.
They took her through the forest until they came out onto a track road where three horses were waiting for them.
“Up,” one of the men ordered her. He had long, red hair in plaits extending down to his waist.
I don’t intend to make it easy for you.
She just stood there, refusing to move. If this was an abduction, then there could only be one of two reasons for them to have taken her. One was that they took her because she was a woman, the second was that they took her because they intended to hold her for ransom. With her father’s wealth and position, she didn’t doubt the second reason was the likelier motivation.
“I said, up,” the man ordered again, his Scottish accent thick.
When she still didn’t move beyond lifting her chin a little higher in defiance, he took hold of her waist and tossed her into the saddle. She yelped in surprise at the force of the throw and struggled to sit up straight. Her expensive, blue, silk dress made moving about rather difficult. She was still maneuvering when he pulled her bound hands forward and tied them to the front of the saddle. She pulled against his tug, but, with his strength, her effort was practically futile.
She whimpered as she gave up and then swallowed any further sound. He was staring at her as she made those sounds, and she didn’t like the menace in those eyes. They were too lightly colored, almost unnaturally so, practically milky.
More words were exchanged between the three men in Gaelic before he pulled himself up onto the horse behind her. She panicked, moving as far forward in the saddle as she possibly could.
This was not just improper but revolting to her. With his hands taking the reins around her, she was disgusted. She could feel his breath on the back of her neck as he urged the horse to gallop forward, with the other two following them.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked, having found her voice at last. He said nothing, so she tried again. “I demand to know.”
“Och, ye demand, do ye?” he chuckled. She tried to rear away from his breath, which she could smell since, even at her back, he was that close. It stank. “Well, ye arenae in yer father’s big house now, lass. Ye are at the mercy of lowland soldiers now. Yer demands mean as much to me as the push of the wind. Ye understand?”
She shivered, though she did not reply, and looked away from him. He said something in Gaelic to the others, and they all laughed. She wished desperately to understand what they said, though she could guess very well when the soldier reached around her and patted her thigh through the silken material of her dress. She flinched away and tried to elbow his arm off her, which only made him laugh some more.
The ride was long and continuous. No matter how many times she asked to know why they had taken her or where they were going, they did not answer. Yet clearly there was some kind of agenda, or they wouldn’t have taken her. Whatever destination she was moving toward had to be a part of this plan.
It seems I am a prisoner now.
She shuddered at the idea, just as her captors began to speak between one another. This time, they were gesturing ahead, looking toward something. She followed their gaze, trying to make out what they were looking at.
Between mountains, there was a lowland valley. From the hill they were on, she could see that there were several rivers trailing through the green and purple-gauze land.
“Aye, there it is,” the Scotsman behind her said, pointing out something in the landscape and making her move away from him again. “Yer new home.” She could think of many tart retorts, but seeing they would do her no good, she bit her tongue and followed his gesture with her eyes.
There appeared to be a dilapidated castle, somewhat in ruins, between the two rivers.
Surely, no one lives in such a place as that.
Yet as the horses set off, galloping down the valley, it became abundantly clear that the ruins really were the destination they were hurrying toward. When they were so close that the towering, old wall stretched far up above her head, they rode through a dense thicket of trees and into a clearing.
Elisabeth gasped at the sight that greeted her and held tighter to the ropes around her wrists and fingers, for this did not appear to be like any settlement she had seen before. The people here did not live in a town. They had built an encampment that began in part of the ruins and extended to one of the rivers at the other end. It was flanked by the border wall of the fortification on one side
Some of the tents were great towering things, having been built with a lofty height, that stretched between trees. There were circular tents and pyramid shapes, too—some smaller than others. There were even ropes and ladders that led up to the tops of trees. Elisabeth craned her neck, trying to take a better look above. Between the trunks were a series of ropes and platforms that had been built out of wood, some supporting tents among the branches and others supporting wood huts.
It was a makeshift settlement, with the tents lain out on either side of a long, clear space that created the illusion of a street.
As the horses walked down this appearance of a road, heads began to pop out of tent flaps. At first there were just children and women; then men and soldiers pushed to the forefront, stepping out and bordering the road. Under their intense gaze, Elisabeth could not see a smile among them.
They see me as their enemy.
It made her fingers tremble as she clutched the rope. They continued to make their way through the camp, and she was shocked at the sheer size of it. The hard work that had been put into building each wooden, hut-like structure or making and setting up the larger cloth tents must have been years in the making.
“Laird Grier!” the man behind her called out. It was so loud that it hurt her eardrums and made her cower away from him.
Up ahead, in what appeared to be the center of the encampment, there was a large circular tent, much bigger than anybody else’s. The tent flaps quivered and then opened completely. A man stepped out, flanked by soldiers in tartan uniforms. This had to be Laird Grier, for others were looking at him with bows of their heads and other marks of respect. He was a tall and slender presence; his body gave the impression that he had been stretched. He had long, dark hair, greying slightly, that would have reached past his shoulders had he not tied it up. The full beard masked half his face, but his eyes were the thing that Elisabeth noticed first, for though he was clearly becoming advanced in age, there was a lot of youth and animation in those eyes.
“Ye found her,” he smiled suddenly, the beard quivering with the movement.
Elisabeth felt her hands being quickly untied. She was about to climb down from the saddle when the man behind her shoved her. She toppled to the ground and landed face first among the grass and earth. It was painful. She moved to her knees, lifting a hand to the jaw that would no doubt earn a purple bruise from the fall. She felt hands behind her again; they pulled her to her feet and urged her to stumble forward in Laird Grier’s direction.
She looked anywhere but at him. Around her, she struggled to read the faces. Most seemed to be smiling, pleased with having a prisoner, yet there were others, too. The more she looked, the more she could see them. Some women held back, talking amongst themselves and shaking their heads. There were a few men, too, who couldn’t even raise their eyes to her.
“Well, well,” Laird Grier said, walking toward her. She tried to back up, but, as he reached her, he grabbed her wrist and yanked her forward, stumbling into his chest. He was much taller than her. “Miss Elizabeth Rolfe. So kind of ye to join us.”
“I would have preferred an invitation,” she scoffed at him, lifting her chin.
“Och, we have spirit in the lass!” Laird Grier laughed and looked away. “Has the cage been prepared?” he called.
“Aye, me Laird,” a soldier replied. He pointed behind him to where a wooden cage had been constructed.
“You do not mean to…” she trailed off, uncertain how to ask. Before she could think of anymore to say, Laird Grier dragged her forward. “No! Wait, who are you?” she cried out, but he was stronger. No matter how much she dug her heels into the earth, she merely made grooves in the soil and grass, for she could not fight him. “What do you want with me? Let me go!”
“Open it up!” Laird Grier ordered, as they reached the side of the cage. A barred, wooden door was opened, and though she clung to the laird’s arms, desperate not to be locked up, she lost the fight when he struck her across the cheek.
She backed away, lifting a hand to her already bruised jaw and the cheek that would soon sport a fresh bruise. Another shove to her shoulder sent her flying backward, and she landed on her rear in the center of the cage.
“Lock it tight,” Laird Grier ordered. The lock was set in place. When the solider stepped away, Elisabeth looked up to see Laird Grier staring at her, a great victorious smile on his face, with his arms folded.
“What do you intend to do with me?” she lowered her hand, determined not to show this man any weakness, as she scrambled to her feet.
“That ye will have to wait and see. Ye are the daughter of General Rolfe, are ye nae?” His words made her grasp the bars of the cage and pull at them, though they didn’t yield an inch under her tug. She realized how right she had been. She had been taken by the Scottish for what had to be a ransom. They were expecting her father to pay for her safe release.
Laird Grier looked away from her and spread his arms wide. “A feast, I think! We must celebrate our new guest.”
Elisabeth scoffed, for she felt more like an animal than a guest in the wooden cage.
“Someone’s comin’!” a cry went up from above them in the trees. “To yer positions.” As the men around her began to pull out weapons such as crossbows, swords, and bows and arrows, she craned her neck to look above. What she had not seen before was that in the wooden structures they had built in the trees, there were men keeping a look out.
“Over there!” one cried.
As one, the group around her turned their heads to the side of the camp that her captors had ridden into. There were two figures in the distance, one much taller than the other.
“Wait, lower yer weapons,” one of the men called from the trees.
“Why? Who is it?” Laird Grier barked the words, stepping forward.
“He’s home, me Laird. He’s back.” The words were spoken with a kind of awe.
Elisabeth flicked her head back to the two men. They were close enough now that she could make out their faces. They were both covered in dirt, almost like prisoners wearing rags that once had been clothing. One was short and beginning to bald, despite his young age.
The other made Elisabeth cling a little harder to the bars in surprise. He had less dirt on his face, and it made discerning his features so much easier. He had strong features that were particularly handsome indeed, even though his expression seemed stern. He had chestnut brown hair that curled around his ears with a little length to it, and his dark eyes were trained on Laird Grier.
Be still my heart…who is that?
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