Highlander’s Dark Pride (Preview)
Emily Caldwell was alighting from the coach, having called on her dear friends, the Carrington’s. She was trying to keep her skirts out of the mud when Edward Cooke, her father’s steward, rode into the yard of Eddingfield Hall, wet to the bone and shivering.
“Edward, what brings you?” she asked shaking the blonde curls out of her face.
“News,” he replied in a grim voice, sliding off the saddle and squelching over to her. They were of a similar height as she was tall for a woman, and they looked each other in the eye.
“Bad news, I’m afraid Miss Caldwell.”
Immediately she turned, her hands twisting nervously as she looked towards the house. Her eight sisters and mother were in there. As was her father, Lord Pritchard Caldwell.
He was still abed, recovering from injuries he had sustained in the just concluded war. She looked back at Edward. “It’s Uncle Lawrence, isn’t it? In God’s name, what has happened now?”
Edward looked away, unable to bear her look. “He has been found guilty of treason. The title of Baron of Eddingfield is officially your father’s.”
Emily gasped, stumbling in the mud as Edward’s hand shot out to steady her.
“G-guilty?” she whispered in horror. “What will happen to him?”
Edward kept his hand on her arm to steady her. “I have said too much – such news might be too much for your delicate ears. I must speak to your father right away. I rode as fast as I could to bring the news. There is much that must be resolved.”
Taking an unsteady step back, she forced him to let go as she wrung her hands. “Papa is still poorly. It has barely been three days since they brought him home. Will he have to leave again so soon?”
“Likely. Your father will decide. I must see him at once.” Edward watched her carefully swaying slightly where she stood, fingers white and shaking.
As the daughter of a cavalier, she was used to the uncertainty that came with war, but knowing that her uncle was guilty of treason unsettled her.
Trying to still her fingers from their trembling, she was glad that the cold gave an excuse for it, although her father’s steward would not look askance even if she should faint dead away.
When they had carried her father from the battlefield, hobbling and with wounds upon his leg, she thought she could not feel more horrified than at the sight of his face twisted in pain.
She had been wrong.
Taking a deep breath, she roused herself to lead Edward into the house.
“Of course, it was unforgivable of me to keep you standing out here in the wet”
Lady Caldwell’s surprised exclamation interrupted Emily, who stepped aside as her mother came forward, surprised to find her daughter talking to the steward.
“Lady Caldwell, I hope I find you well?”
They spoke softly to each other before Lady Caldwell turned to Emily, her face pale. “Go and tell the kitchens to prepare a hot drink and supper for Mr. Cooke. He has news to bring to your father and cannot be delayed any further.”
Emily hurried off obediently, glad of something to do while Edward mounted the stairs to Lord Caldwell’s room. Lady Caldwell remained in the hallway, the full import of events slowly sinking in.
Their situation was extremely precarious if something should happen to the new Baron. With nine daughters and no sons to take over the title, the security of her daughters was in peril.
Her feet moved of their own accord, down the hallway and taking her to the parlor, driven by the need to shake off the cold that beset her spirit and to get warm by the fire.
Her mind remained with her nine vulnerable daughters. Every day they blossomed, learning to be proper young ladies in the hope that a dashing young gentleman would sweep them off their feet and into a happy ever after.
She wanted their dreams to come true, understanding the grim reality of not having a home to call their own in the event of the Baron’s death.
The wars had largely passed them by in their rural safety, but they read the dispatches as well as anyone. They were well aware that the Cavaliers were losing, but they did not yet understand how this might affect their own lives.
She knew just how brutal the war had been.
Lord Caldwell had spoken of it all to her; the rise of the Roundheads, the intolerance and factions that had sullied their so-called Cause, culminating in the battle of Philiphaugh where a Scottish Guardsman had thrown himself between Pritchard and a dirk to his heart.
Lady Caldwell shivered to think how close they had all come to ruination. They needed to marry one of their daughters to an honorable man, and soon.
She had gone to London before the last skirmish, to stock up on essential supplies. The papers had been filled with reports of the horrors at Philiphaugh. The town’s inhabitants, many of them Parliamentarians, were starving alongside the Royalists.
She had heard reports that small boys had been sent – being the only ones who could slip passed the barricades set up by the Roundheads – with messages pleading for help. Some of them, caught doing so, had their fingernails ripped out by covenanter command.
After the surrender, many Royalist commoners were sent off in chains to the colonies, and commanders executed by firing squad. Baron Eddingfield, Pritchard’s brother, was arrested, held for trial and now found guilty of treason.
No doubt, Pritchard would be forced to demonstrate his loyalty soon. Once his wound was healed, he would be called to stand before Charles the First. They had need to prepare for that day.
She stood, going upstairs to see her husband. Edward should have delivered the news already. It was time to make plans for the future.
Three months had passed since the war of three kingdoms had ended. Cromwell and the Republicans had triumphed but that was neither here nor there for Alexander MacTavish; he had other concerns.
As part of the Scots Guard, he was sworn to fight for the crown. True he was a papist by birth, but religion did not hold much sway over him. He was in this war for a chance to gain land and a title; to make a better life for his remaining family.
Despite Montrose’s defeat at Philiphaugh in the September, the prospects of making good on his aspirations were enhanced by an incident that occurred on the battlefield.
He had gotten between Lord Pritchard Caldwell, down on his knees as a result of a musket ball to the ankle and the decisive swing of a roundhead dirk.
The Lord had insisted that he owed MacTavish a life debt, proposing to pay it by offering to join their two families in matrimony. This was in addition to offering Alexander a parcel of land as he had no male heirs.
Alexander glanced back at his sister, Rebecca, astride a donkey, her face serene as she took in the passing scenery. She merited anything and everything he could give her after all she had endured by his side.
Their parents had died when she was but a bairn. Not much older himself, Alexander had tried his best with the girl, but he was the first to admit that he let her run wild.
Rebecca was in need of a good man to rein her in, but the only chance of attracting the man she deserved was if he was a landed gentleman. No price was too high to pay to make sure that Rebecca was taken care of.
However, the prospect of an English bride curdled his belly.
He had always been tall for his age, which made his acceptance into the guard easier than it would have been. Alexander had no illusions about himself. He had joined the Scots Guard at twelve years of age, had killed his first man at fourteen. His heart had been hardened to the softer emotions long ago. Only his sister was exempt.
“We will stop here for the night,” Lord Caldwell announced, immediately alighting from his horse.
They were in a shaded glen, surrounded by tall poplar trees on a flat piece of land. It was an excellent spot to be ambushed and Alexander could not see any good lookout points. The shrubbery would provide adequate cover for anyone trying to creep up on them.
He opened his mouth to protest, wanting to keep riding but then caught sight of Rebecca stumbling slightly as she alighted her donkey. She sighed with exhaustion and Alexander quickly hurried to her side.
Picking up the roll of blankets folded on the donkey, he sought a place to spread it out so that she could rest.
“Alex!I can do that mysel’. Ye dinna need to watch after me.”
Alexander shrugged, “Its nae trouble,” after spreading out her blankets he went to find his own roll and some bread to give her. He had saved it from their meal at the inn, knowing how hungry riding made her. His own stomach grumbled, their last meal had been hours ago, but he ignored it and dropped the bread onto her blanket.
“I’m off to find some feòil coinneach for dinner.” Taking up his slingshot, he collected the string and wood to make a trap.
Rebecca immediately sprang to her feet
“I shall come with ye?”
Alexander was already shaking his head and pushed her back down onto the blanket.
“Stay here. Watch our things.”
He could see that she wanted to pout and protest but thankfully held her peace as Alexander walked off with relief. He hoped these English woods were as full of game as he had heard. He would rather not rely upon the Baron to feed them if there was any other way.
He had barely taken two steps into the wood when he almost stepped onto a rabbit. Putting his foot down quickly he trapped it under his heel before killing it with one shot from his sling.
Examining it critically he wondered if it would be enough to feed them both until they arrived at Eddingfield Hall. Shaking his head he picked it up, breaking its neck before putting it into his pouch and taking a few more steps into the woods, alert grey eyes narrowed in concentration.
Alexander stepped as lightly as a man of his size could manage; becoming one with the wood as he pricked his ears for any sound that would indicate the presence of whereabouts of their next meal.
He spotted a few mushrooms and bent down to examine them ensuring that they were good to eat before picking and placing them in his satchel. They were indeed fortunate that winter was mild in the south this year, for this journey would have been much harder had they stayed up north.
He sighed, standing up and searching the ground for tracks of small animals. One more rabbit and he would be satisfied. Turning towards a rustling sound,, his nose lifted like a wolf scenting its prey.
A burrow had been made inside a hollow log and inside was a family of squirrels.
Alexander hesitated for a moment; he was bound to find other prey. There was no need to take away parents from their young.
A few yards on he knelt down to set his trap; hands calloused and scarred from musket fire, used to hardship and hard work. He stood examining his handiwork with satisfaction before making his way back to camp. He would check his trap in the morning and see if he had caught anything.
Rebecca looked relieved as he stepped back into the glen, and he lifted his eyebrow in query. She shook her head slightly, which was not at all reassuring to Alexander.
Something had happened and he looked around suspiciously at the Baron’s men, wondering if one of them had tried to interfere with her. Despite her rotund, soft looking figure, Rebecca was quite capable of taking care of herself.
That did not mean that he would stand for any disrespect to his sister. He dropped the rabbit and mushrooms at her side.
“I found us dinner.”
Rebecca nodded, not saying anything about the cauldron of soup that someone was stirring in the middle of the camp. She had started a small fire of her own and proceeded to skin the rabbit while Alexander unpacked the little iron skillet and went in search of water.
Alexander and Rebecca lay back-to-back, each taking a turn to sleep while the other kept watch. For sure, all the men in camp had fought for the king. That did not make the English any more trustworthy in the eyes of the Scots. It would have been too foolhardy to drop their guard completely.
In the morning, Alexander went to check his trap while Rebecca broke camp and packed their goods onto the horse and the donkey. He was gratified to find another rabbit, this one much fatter than the day before.
He skinned it quickly, leaving the entrails on the ground as he stored the meat. It would do very well for their evening meal. They were to arrive at Eddingfield Hall on the morrow and he was satisfied that they would not starve until then.
Stepping back into the glen he stopped short as he caught sight of his sister trapped between his horse and a man he had grown to dislike immensely.
Phillip Bristol of Eden Hall was everything he disliked about the English – arrogant, entitled, a duine meadhanach. He was currently pressing himself against Rebecca, trying to make it appear as though he were helping her with the packing. Alexander could see the discomfort in her face, and the tremble in her hands. At that moment he wanted to unsheathe his dirk and bury it deep into Phillip’s back.
Alexander still had some sense of self-control, and instead of following his instincts, strode towards his sister, his hands free of weapons. Grabbing Phillip by the back of his collar he yanked the man away. “What d’ye think ye’re doin’?”
Phillip, whose jerkin was squeezed tight around his neck, could only make choking sounds. The men around them stopped what they were doing to watch.
“Ye dinna touch my sister!” Alexander squeezed harder and Phillip began to turn blue.
“Alright alright, that’s enough.”
Lord Caldwell Stepped forward to make the peace.
Reluctantly Alexander let go. “I willna have your men interfering wi’ my piuthar leanabh. They are to stay away from her!”
Lord Caldwell’s lips were pinched, displeased at being spoken to in such a manner by a Scottish commoner, even one who had saved his life.
“Tis the price you pay for bringing your sister along to war.” He held his hands high n a placating gesture as Alexander reached for his dirk, his face like thunder.
“ I give you my word Alex that none of my men will touch her.”
Alexander turned away, his movements short and sharp; temper barely held in check. Rebecca reached out her hand, slowly running it up and down his arm letting him know that she was okay.
“Dinna fash. I’m fine,” she nudged at him trying to get him to smile. He merely glared at her before transferring his gaze back to Phillip, grey eyes almost black with annoyance.
Phillip looked back with a smirk on his face.
Without hesitation, Alexander lunged forward, hands poised to strangle Phillip until he was dead. Rebecca sprang between them shaking her head at Alexander.
“Sandy stad e!” she whispered sharply, clutching at his arm.
Alexander stopped, his eyes sliding back to his sister, “Mac na galla! Death is too good for him anyway.”
Grinding his teeth, he stomped away to wrap the rabbit and hang it behind his horse, knowing that the cold weather would keep it fresh.
He could feel Phillip’s eyes upon him the entire time; could feel the contempt directed towards him. This was not over.
It was time to go. In a day, he would meet his future bride – one of the Baron’s daughters. Soon he would have the land that he needed, and at last he would find his sister a husband, and remove her forever from the clutches of chreachadair like Phillip.
He rode looking straight ahead, his mind churning between Rebecca behind him and his bride before him.
English women were so soft, so gently bred. He was nothing but a soldier, bred for war and violence. They were doomed almost before they even met.
It was a good thing he was not looking to make a love match. Of course, he would make sure she was well provided for, just as he had done for his sister, and she would give him children. ‘Twould be a fair exchange.
They rode hard all day, stopping for the night at Charles the First’s country estate. He would be joining them on their journey to Eddingfield Hall, where the marriage announcement would be made; one of Lord Pritchard Caldwell’s daughters would be betrothed to Alexander MacTavish.
It was not simply a matter of a life saved. Charles the First needed to strengthen his ties with Scotland. A marriage between the family of one of his greatest supporters – who was yet to prove his loyalty – and a brave son of Scotland was one way to achieve that. Therefore, Charles I would be joining them to oversee the betrothal himself.
Alexander was both reassured and nervous at the thought of the king at his betrothal ceremony. Such a presence would add weight to the delicate situation. For the sake of them all, but especially his sister, he hoped everything went off without a hitch.
Lady Caldwell walked into the sewing room where six of her daughters were gathered together embroidering cushions. They spoke with enthusiasm of their father’s long-awaited homecoming.
The younger two, Elizabeth and Blanche, rolled the yarn while the older four, Anne, Katherine, Emily, and Elinor employed their needles to create beautiful images on the linens.
The three youngest, Phillipa, Joana, and Mary, were in the schoolroom, learning their letters.
“Girls I have an announcement to make.”
Stopping what they were doing they put their work aside. All eyes on their mother, their faces somber, breath bated. They could tell from her tone that she had something important to say.
Lady Caldwell took a deep breath. “The king will be arriving this morning with your father. When he gets here, an important announcement will be made.”
This statement caused an outburst of agitated chatter in the room as all her daughters began to speak at once. Lady Caldwell raised her hand, instantly silencing them.
There was an air of expectancy in the room as they directed their attention back to her, eyes wide and eager for news. Lady Caldwell looked from one to the other, her eyes soft with love. She could not help but feel that she was sacrificing one to save them all.
They knew nothing about this Scotsman – save that he had come between Lord Caldwell and certain death – and that he was a man of no family and no name.
It was a well-known fact that Scotsmen were barbarians. Alexander MacTavish had not the benefits of a genteel upbringing to recommend him.
Elinor was her firstborn, deaf in one ear and slow to grasp any concept. She did her best but was never able to keep up with her sisters. The girl would need to be cared for, for the rest of her life. There was no way she would survive on her own and must be protected at all costs.
Her eyes slipped to her second daughter, Emily who had a nervous disposition, but a spine of steel. She always tended to the needs of her siblings without being told to do so. As the second born child and first of sound body and mind, she was the natural choice.
“Who is coming, mama?” Emily asked.
Lady Caldwell smiled, “I have some good news for you, Emily. You are to be wed.”
Emily shot to her feet with a gasp. “Father is bringing me a bridegroom?” Her voice was halfway between excitement and fear.
Lady Caldwell nodded, “Yes my dear, he is,” By Monday week you will be a married lady.”
“Oh my lord!” Emily exclaimed.
Lady Caldwell frowned, “Language, my dear.”
Emily did not hear, she was too excited and jumping around with her sisters in a most unladylike manner as they shared her joy.
Lady Caldwell and her daughters hurried downstairs at the sound of the approaching company. The pitter-patter of running feet from the nursery signaled the arrival of their younger siblings.
Huddled together in the doorway, their hearts beat fast with anticipation, their mother standing in the middle, back straight, face calm, looking towards the melee before them.
The king was of the first to alight from his horse followed closely by Lord Caldwell. Lady Caldwell smiled taking a step toward them. She curtsied low and her daughters followed her example as the king came to a stop before her.
“Your majesty, welcome to our humble abode.” The king smiled helping her back to her feet.
“I do not know about humble, Lady Caldwell, but I thank you for your welcome.”
Emily scanned the crowd of men, trying to guess who would be her husband. Her eyes passed over a tall, brawny, grey-eyed, forbidding man with hair as dark as midnight. It was tied carelessly with a piece of leather at the nape of his neck giving him a raffish air. He stood two steps behind her father and looked for all intents and purposes as if he expected attack at any moment.
Next, she came upon a green-eyed man, his blonde locks falling in waves down his back. He stood arrogantly next to his horse, his eyes on the king.
That must be him!
He was everything she had ever imagined a cavalier to be; dashing, handsome and well turned out. His long delicate hands were so different from the rough callused, discolored hands of the alarming man standing next to her father. His smile was a mere quirk of his lip, his superiority obvious in the upturn of his nose.
Emily wanted to scamper back into the house and change her clothes before he laid eyes on her. Her husband-to-be should not see her in her everyday apron and her hair stuffed carelessly under a white cotton cap.
Mother should have given me more warning!
Emily frowned as the tall dark haired man moved, obscuring her view. She wanted to order him out of the way but they had not been introduced, and therefore she could not speak to him.
Her parents and the king were still deep in conversation, while her sisters whispered excitedly around her.
“Your highness may I present my daughters?” Their father motioned for them to come forward. Her sisters hastened to obey while Emily hung back; hand on her cap, thinking about how she was in her house slippers and there was a tiny hole in her stocking. She could not meet her future spouse looking like this!
While everyone was distracted, she turned and ran back into the house, taking the stairs two at a time to get to the room that she shared with her sister, Elinor, calling quickly for her lady’s maid.
Lord Caldwell leaned towards his wife, “Where is Emily?” he whispered.
Lady Caldwell looked around in surprise, “She was just here.”
“Find her quickly.”
Lady Caldwell turned to toward the house, one eyebrow raised. Immediately the butler stepped forward.
“Where is Miss Caldwell?”
“I shall locate her at once,” the butler stepped away, indicating that two footmen and an Abigail should follow him.
“Find Miss Caldwell at once,” he ordered and the three servants scattered to find her while the butler went in search of Miss Caldwell’s maid.
It did not take long before Abigail found her, clothes strewn on the floor while her lady’s maid wrung her fingers in anxiety.
“They are waiting for you downstairs ma’am.” Emily flung her cap on the floor shaking out her long golden locks.
“Frances, will you hurry up and do my hair?”
She picked up gown after gown, trying to decide which one to wear. Having a coltish figure had its disadvantages when choosing clothing.
The bodices of my gowns would look better if my bosom was larger, she fretted, arching her back to try and make the best of it.
The butler, fetched by Abigail, knocked tentatively on the door hearing the commotion going on inside and hesitating to enter.
It was not his place.
Frances, the lady’s maid, opened the door eyes wide and anxious. “Miss Caldwell is changing her clothes. She will be down presently.”
The butler nodded, he would inform Lady Caldwell and she would decide what to do.
Meanwhile, Emily had decided on a gold and green chiffon gown, which brought out the color of her emerald eyes, and looked well on her pale English rose complexion, topped by her blonde locks.
Frances hurried forward to help, twisting Emily’s luxuriant mane into a bun, topped off becomingly with a moss green cap.
Emily whirled around to face her maid.
“Do I look well?” her breath came hard as her heart pounded in her breast.
“You look beautiful, My Lady.”
“Very well then, let us go down and meet my future husband.”
Emily moved at a sedate pace as she approached the stairs seeing that the war party had moved indoors. They were milling around in the foyer, as if waiting for something to happen.
Her eyes darted from man to man, looking for the tall, blonde, green-eyed man. She found him at last speaking to some other gentleman. Her parents and sisters were in deep conversation with the king, and the dark-haired, tall, brawny gentleman hovered just outside their circle.
She frowned, conjecturing that he was some kind of liege lord and wondered why he stayed so close to her father. Was he some kind of protector? He looked fearsome enough to be. Emily shivered; glad that she had nothing to do with the man.
Her father looked up to see her standing at the top of the stairs. “Emily come down here.” he said holding out his hand.
Descending the stairs slowly she was aware that every eye was on her. She risked a quick glance at her future bridegroom who stood with his arms folded, one eyebrow raised, two rows behind her father and her family.
Her heart wanting to pound right out of her chest and run away hoped that her nerves did not show as clearly on her face as they were wont to do, focusing her mind instead on not tripping upon the stairs
The room was so silent, that she wished someone would say something, or at least look away from her. At last she reached the bottom, looked up at her father and smiled.
“Father it’s good to see you again,” she said before turning to the king and curtsying towards him while saying “Your Majesty.”
Charles I smiled, looking pleased, and turned to her father with an approving nod.
“She will do nicely. Don’t you think so MacTavish?” his eyes slid to the Scotsman standing silently behind him.
“Indeed she will,” Alexander bowed and did not fail to see the look of confusion that crossed Emily’s face. Had she been expecting another?
“F-Father?” Emily’s voice trembled she did not understand what was happening. Why was the king asking the liege lord if she would do? Her father turned towards her with a huge smile.
“Emily I have some good news for you. I have secured you a husband.” Turning, he extended his hand toward Alexander, who took a step forward and bowed.
“This is Alexander MacTavish. You will be wed to him before the week’s end.”
Emily stared at him for a long moment before finally sinking inelegantly to the floor in a dead faint.
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