Highlander’s Lost Heir (Preview)
Two figures stood on the rocky outcrop silhouetted against the starlit sky. They were overlooking an encampment in the valley below. A slumbering sentry could be seen by the glowing embers of a dying fire.
One of the figures motioned to his companion to duck down beyond the camp’s line of sight. With their backs pressed against the hard ground and tufted grass that littered the Highland hills, the shorter of the two whispered to the other.
“What do ye propose to do now, Broehain?”
His tall companion bent his head closer so that no trace of their conversation would be heard in the camp below.
“We must bring our men nearer and strike at dawn, Ragnall. ”
“What about the sentry? Will he nae be awake and alert by that time? Should we nae take our luck in both hands and make our attack immediately?”
Ragnall furrowed his brow, trying to remember the battle strategies his father had taught him.
Broehain bent his head in silence as he gave the matter his full attention, and in his mind, played out different scenarios. His companion did not interrupt his train of thought – he was used to Broehain quietly weighing up the consequences of his actions.
After many minutes he turned to Ragnall, his mind made up. “We should strike at dawn. It will give us time to better position the men. Having made it undisturbed through the night, the brigands will have their minds on breaking their fast, nae posting guards.”
Broehain waited to see if the plan was to his cousin’s liking. When he saw Ragnall’s handsome face slowly break into a smile and nod his head, he continued speaking. “We must water and tether the horses where we lie. They will nae give us the advantage on such a steep descent. Do ye agree, Ragnall?”
“Aye, Broehain. ‘Tis well thought out. Let us get back to the men an’ see to it.”
The cousins quietly made their way back down the hill, rapidly jumping from rock to rock in silence. As they approached their hiding place, Ragnall placed two fingers inside his mouth and made a thin whistling sound, precisely like the birdcall of the Highland nightjar.
The soldiers were waiting attentively back at the camp. They recognized the captain’s call and lowered their spears and crossbows.
Ragnall and Broehain moved calmly amongst the men explaining how they would proceed. Ragnall would give a man his order and move onto the next solider. Broehain followed behind to make sure the orders were understood and to answer any questions.
The eastern sky began to lighten. It showed the two captains readying the small troop for the skirmish. The men did not look much like cousins when comparing the two physically.
Broehain had an imposing stature. He stood over six feet and three inches tall in his black leather boots, with broad shoulders and slim hips. His muscles, lean and hard from years of sword training, could not be hidden by his clothing. His green eyes and strong jaw set him apart from every other man. However, those same green eyes were usually reading a book when he was not busy ridding the countryside of brigands.
Ragnall had never grown up in Broehain’s shadow, despite his cousin’s formidable height. As the son and heir of the Laird of the Ewing clan, and commander of his father’s armies, Ragnall never let his lack of stature get in the way of his ability to win his battles or hunt. His stocky frame was as muscular as Broehains – and his eyes were blue enough to make many a lass turn and stare as he passed by.
Both men looked grim as they tightened their broadswords and plucked at the taut strings over their crossbows. All the men watched Ragnall, and at his sign, began to make their way back up to the outcrop. Every metal stud and embossed sword sheath was swaddled in plaid and leather to smother any sound of their approach. The men moved in deadly silence towards the brigands’ camp.
Down below, there was much evidence to show the lawbreakers were waking and stirring. The slumbering sentry was bending over the campfire, stirring fresh logs with his foot and fanning the smoke away from his face. Men gathered at a stream to remove their leather jerkins and dented breastplates to wash the sleep from their eyes.
Ragnall shouted. “Forward, ye all, for the glory of the King and me faither! Death to all that live outside the law!”
The men thundered down the steep hill. With swords raised and crossbows twanged, the battle between lawmakers and lawbreakers had begun.
The camp was surrounded, and the brigands swiftly realized they had no chance of escape. Each man decided to die by the sword or wait for the hangman’s noose. Most chose to fight to the death. One by one, they fell.
Broehain and Ragnall fought side by side as they had since training with wooden sticks as children. Each had the other’s back as they cut a swathe through the deadly melee. Inch by inch, they made their way slowly to where the outlaw chieftain was attempting to fight his way across the stream. A group of mangy ponies was grazing a few yards away, and he had spied a possible escape route.
Broehain broke into a run. Slashing out at the brigands on either side, he sprinted towards the chieftain – Ragnall was not far behind.
Seeing a towering Highlander in full battle dress charging toward him, the chieftain dropped his sword and raised his hands into the air. Broehain thought it a good idea to take the man alive; he could be interrogated regarding his allies and stashes of coin and jewels. Lowering his sword, he turned to see how the rest of the battle was faring.
Quick as a flash, the chieftain drew a dagger out of his jerkin and flung it straight toward the back of Broehain’s head.
Ragnall was only a few feet away and lunged towards his cousin, tackling him to the ground just as the dagger whistled overhead. Without stopping to see how Broehain fared, Ragnall jumped up, and with one fell swing, the chieftain’s head hit the ground next to where Broehain lay.
The two men looked at one another for a brief second, the sweat of close combat and adrenalin still marking their faces.
“Ye will catch hot water from our auld martial teacher when he finds out ye turned yer back, Broehain!” Ragnall used humor to try and diffuse his emotions.
Broehain pulled himself from the mud, a rueful look in his eye. “I trust ye nae to tell him, Ragnall. He would box me ears harder than a mountain troll if this were to get out!” The men began to laugh as the triumph of victory replaced the narrow escape. All around the encampment, brigands lay on the ground, the soldiers standing proudly over them.
Broehain clasped Ragnall by the hand and drew him closer into an affectionate, brotherly hug. “Ye saved me life, Ragnall. I stand forever in ye debt. If by doin’ any deed or action I can repay ye, I swear I’ll do it.”
Ragnall shrugged his shoulders and laughed it off. “’Tis to be hoped that I never require ye to pay that debt. I plan on stayin’ quiet in the castle for many a day after so many months on the road.” He reached up to slap his cousin on the back. “Come. Let us away to the horses. I must send a messenger back to me faither to relate our good news.”
The two men turned and began to make their way back through the camp together.
“I cannae wait to tell Aileen about our adventures these past months,” Ragnall said to his cousin between ordering his men to sift through the baggage the brigands had left behind. “She will be green with envy that we saw so much action – an’ she left behind to sew samplers and brew potions.”
“Aileen has always been a headstrong lass,” Broehain agreed. “We must make all haste to see the little one upon our return, and tell her our story.”
Broehain thought that the days of Aileen wishing she could fight battles and wield a sword were fading quickly into the past. When they had said their farewells to her last year, she had shown more interest in the townhall dance that May, then yearning to accompany her closest playmates on their quest.
With many days of traveling back to the castle ahead of them, Ragnall gave orders to half a dozen men to stay behind and strike the camp. The rest of the company mounted their horses and rode slowly alongside the carts full of the spoils of war.
The castle pennants were blowing gayly in the brisk spring air as the Ewing stronghold came into view. Ragnall’s father, Laird Oswald Ewing, had ordered the turrets and towers to be decked in bright banners and bunting for the return of the men, announcing yet another victory for the Ewing clan.
As the carts and horses made their way up the coastal road towards the castle’s portcullis, the Laird stared out of the balcony on the second floor. He was waiting to catch a glimpse of his son, leading the triumphant procession into the courtyard.
There was an atmosphere of resigned depression amongst the villagers lining the road as ordered. Laird Ewing imposed punishing taxes on the people he ruled over. His aggression and need for constant acclaim boosted with every military success his son brought home.
Ragnall and Broehain strode into the great hall side by side, and the Laird frowned from his raised platform. It seemed to him that Broehain was always trying to act as an equal to his cousin. It was not so much the man’s superior height that irritated the Laird as, but the fact that with his piercing green eyes, noble brow, and dark red hair, he cast his cousin’s cheerfully charming countenance into the shade.
“How fare ye, faither?” Ragnall called out across the great hall as he sauntered casually across the stone floor.
“Well enough, ye careless scamp. I hear from the messenger that ye waited ‘til dawn before pouncing on those scoundrels. ‘T’was a dangerous strategy, but all’s well that ends well.”
“I gave the matter careful consideration, Sire,” Ragnall grinned. “An’ at the end o’ the day, it was me own life that was on the line, nae so?”
“An’ the life of me soldiers!” The Laird roared. His anger simmering just as soon as it had started. “I have a feast planned in yer honor, my son. I have gathered chieftains and Lairds to pay homage from near an’ far. They will be in attendance here this night.”
“Are Helga and Aileen invited?” Ragnall asked. Broehain lifted his head at the question.
The Laird sighed, “Me messengers have lately been sent on higher errands, Ragnall. So the healer has nae yet received an invitation to the feast.”
On hearing this, Ragnall turned on his heels and began to stride out of the hall with some haste. He called out over his shoulder to his cousin, “Hurry, Broehain. Let’s race to the village to see Aileen! Adieu, faither. Thank ye for the welcome.”
The two horses galloped neck and neck through the Highland heather, kicking the spring flowers into the air as they cut a wide path into the blossoming countryside. Broehain and Ragnall would occasionally give one another a sideways glance, each man intent on reaching his destination first.
“Ye might be fast with yer sword,” Ragnall shouted across to his cousin, “but I’m the better rider!”
Broehain’s riding hat had allowed one lock of dark red hair to fall over his eyes. He grinned but did not vouchsafe an answer. He simply spurred his horse onwards and bent down low over the speeding animal’s neck.
Little by little, Ragnall was left behind. He grew vexed and began to shout out playful threats to his cousin, but the wind whipped his voice behind him. All he could do was canter at a more gentle pace until he saw Broehain dismounting outside the healer’s cottage on the outskirts of the village.
“Better late than never, Ragnall,” Broehain said as he tied his horse’s bridle to one of the cottage fence posts.
Ragnall shook his head as he rode up and dismounted next to the victor. “I felt sorry for ye, Broehain, so I let ye win.”
Before entering the house, the two men stood side by side to one another as each man brushed down his riding coat with his hands and straightened his hat. As they had grown from children to carefree youths, Broehain and Ragnall had been slow to stop treating Aileen as one of the boys. With nearly nine months passing since they had last laid eyes on their old playmate and childhood firmly behind them forever, they thought it would be best to appear in front of her as well-dressed gentlemen.
They walked down the garden path towards the cottage’s front entrance. On either side of the pathway grew flowers and bushes in dense abundance.
They crowded against the stone walls and climbed over parts of the cottage itself. Foxgloves, poppies, belladonna, and lily of the valley had all made the most of the warm spring weather to put out blooms that perfumed the air with sweetness.
Broehain and Ragnall stood on the doorstep.
“Do ye think Aileen will have news of our return?” Ragnall turned to Broehain with one eyebrow cocked in question.
“I doubt it, Ragnall. We had barely unpacked our saddlebags before ye were champin’ at the bit to ride over here.”
Ragnall squared his shoulders, cleared his throat, and lifted the door knocker. He had barely knocked once, before it was opened by a short, dark woman wearing serviceable leather gardening gloves, with a woven basket hooked over her arm.
“Good morning, Mistress Helga,” Ragnall said with a short nod of his head. “Are ye off to tend to yer herbs and flowers? ‘Tis a beauteous mornin’ for it.”
The proud lady did not answer immediately. She pushed passed the two men and stepped onto the path behind them, completely unconcerned that she had not seen her daughter’s friends for so long. She turned to look at them with a knowing, cat-eyed stare.
“Are ye come to see Aileen? She will be pleased to welcome ye both home. ‘Tis many a month since ye graced us with yer presence. Ye’ll find her in the distillery.”
Helga was descended from the wild Pict chieftains that had ruled the Highland hills for thousands of years. Her petite frame, thick black hair, and amber eyes were all signs of the pure Pictish blood that coursed through the woman’s veins. The race had faded into the mountains, and now, only remembered in stories of the faerie folk.
Helga was a famous healer. She knew which potions cured aches and fevers and how to brew them. However, no one knew how much of the dark knowledge she kept secret from her neighbors. Turning to walk down the path, she dismissed the men with a wave of her hand as she made her way through the bushes and flower beds.
The two young men entered the narrow passage that led down to the cellar where Helga kept her distillery. The door was open, and inside the room, Broehain and Ragnall saw Aileen standing next to a wooden workbench with her back to the doorway. She was stirring the contents of an iron cauldron with some concentration.
Ragnall put his finger to his lips as Broehain opened his mouth to bid Aileen welcome. Silently, he crept behind Aileen’s slender back and prepared to grab her by the waist.
Just as he was about to pounce, Aileen sensed a disturbance in the air and turning around, brought a spoon down onto his Ragnall’s head with a hard knock.
Ragnall yelled and grabbed his head in pain.
“Ye foolish bampot!” Aileen exclaimed. “Ye’re lucky it was only yer head an’ a spoon – nae a knife!”
Ragnall rubbed his aching head ruefully. “Ye are sharper than an eagle on the hunt, Aileen. I have never yet managed to catch ye off guard.”
Aileen looked contrite when she saw the bruise that was growing on Ragnall’s forehead. “I beg yer pardon, Ragnall, but yer could’ve been some rogue looking for mither’s extract of poppies.”
Ragnall gave her a grin. “It’s very tempting to find ye here all alone, Aileen. If I were some rascal, I would forego the poppies and take ye instead!”
Aileen suddenly became aware of Broehain standing in the doorway, quietly watching them.
“Broehain! I havenae seen ye for so long. How was yer venture to go hunting for brigands? The leaves were blooming on the tree branches when I last saw ye both.” Just as she said this, Aileen became aware that she was unprepared to receive visitors.
Her long, brunette hair hung loose and fell to her waist in soft ringlets. Even though she had inherited her height from her Scottish father, she had received her exotic coloring from her mother’s side of the family. Dark lashes fringed her amber flecked brown eyes, and a delightfully pert nose and plump lips perfectly complemented her heart-shaped face.
As Broehain stepped into the room to bid Aileen good morrow, she hesitated, raised her hand to halt him, and then turned her attention to the contents in the cauldron. “Nay. Dinnae tell me anythin’ yet awhile. Get yerselves upstairs this instant while I finish this potion. I will join ye there, by and bye.”
Ragnall opened his mouth to utter protestations, but Broehain gripped him firmly by the elbow and guided him out of the room.
Aileen watched them depart as a blush stole across her face.
Here I stand in my workaday clothes, and mither allows for me two auld childhood friends to come in! When will she learn that they are nae now the two naughty schoolboys I grew up with?
Aileen poured the cauldron contents into a clay jug before climbing the stairs to her little room. There she removed her smock and short gown and donned her best day robe. The satin fabric had been dyed a deep yellow hue by her mother using iris stamens. Aileen removed some blooms from a vase to weave into her hair as she tied it in a ribbon.
When she entered the parlor a few minutes later, Broehain and Ragnall stared at her in open admiration.
Aileen is nae longer the gawky, skinny girl of my youth. Broehain thought to himself as he bent to brush her hand lightly with his lips.
Ragnall refused Aileen’s hand when she extended it towards him.
“What’s this sudden formality, lass? Next thing ye’ll be callin’ me ‘sir’ and curtsying as low as yer knees allow! Can I nae give yer cheek a peck?”
Aileen smiled as Ragnall stepped forward and embraced her with friendly enthusiasm. Broehain bent his head and wished he had been as bold as his cousin to claim the right to hold Aileen a little closer.
She had changed so much since they’d been apart as if a fairy godmother had transformed Aileen into the beauty standing before them.
The trio that stood in the cottage parlor had little in common with the three children who had played together since Aileen had first been able to hold a quill. The Laird had granted Aileen’s mother elite status after she had saved his Lady from dying in childbirth, and Helga had taken Aileen to Ewing castle from being a small girl.
As Helga tended to the castle’s sick and old, Aileen had roamed the dark passages and great halls with curiosity. Broehain and Ragnall, released from the confines of the schoolroom, and found her in the armory over twelve years ago, trying to dismantle a full suit of armor that had belonged to Ragnall’s great grandfather.
The three children had become inseparable. When the boys had mastered how to ride their ponies unaccompanied by a groom, every fine day had found them trotting over the hills along the coastal cliffs towards the healer’s cottage. Aileen used to give the boys the admiration and adoration they yearned for after their strict castle upbringing. Suddenly, the tables were turned.
“Ye hardly look like the girl we left behind last summer’s eve, Aileen!” Ragnall couldn’t help remarking on Aileen’s significant transformation. “Back then, ye were a regular ragamuffin, but now…” Ragnall stared at Aileen in open admiration.
Aileen had never experienced such admirable reception from her two friends. Ragnall was quick to tease her again, but differently to the past. He already had plenty of practice in charming the young maidens of the local villages.
“Ye fill out yer gown most becomingly, lass,” he said. It was a line he had used on other women, and both Broehain and Aileen knew it.
“Ye silver-tongued rascal, Ragnall,” Aileen cried in merriment. “I ken ye spoke those same words to the publican’s daughter when we stopped to have dinner at the inn three years ago!”
Caught out, Ragnall had the grace to blush and laugh along with his friends.
But the words Ragnall said were all true. Aileen had always been unconcerned about how she dressed and looked. Still, over the last year, her body had developed sumptuous curves that needed stays and panniers to present them appropriately.
“Please be seated, gentlemen,” Aileen said in a polite voice as they had all looked at each other and burst out laughing at her formality.
This is the Aileen I ken. Broehain thought to himself as he laughed and sat down.
The two men sat on the parlor settee while Aileen made herself comfortable in the big armchair opposite. This time, there would be no kicking off her shoes and curling her feet up on the cushions. She sat daintily with her back straight and smiled at her friends.
“I thought ye would never return. The year has nearly passed in full since ye left to pursue those brigands who were lootin’ the countryside.” Aileen directed her remark to both men, but it was Ragnall who answered her.
“Those ruffians gave us the run-around. They had many hidin’ places all over the land. We finally caught up with them, thankfully. We slaughtered every last man o’ them. That will teach them to steal from the folk.”
Broehain added his thoughts into the conversation. “For sure, they were wrong to steal from the coaches along the Queen’s highway and pillage the villages along our coasts, Ragnall. But the lad who showed us where they hid told me they were driven to it by the high taxes yer faither imposes upon them.”
“Me faither is an auld dragon when it comes to squeezin’ the gold out o’ folks’ pockets – he has done so for years,” Ragnall shrugged.
Taxing the Highlanders had made the Laird wealthy beyond all imagination. For those who earned a decent wage, life was bearable under his rule, but for the many Highlanders who struggled to make ends meet, they saw life under Clan Ewing rule as cruel.
Broehain could see that the conversation caused Aileen to furrow her forehead. He had always been quick to notice whenever she was sad or feeling down. Even after so many long months without seeing her, he could sense when something disturbed her happiness.
He remembered when she was a little girl bravely roaming the castle corridors on her own with a candle in her small hand. All the scary stories about ghosts and bogeymen that the two boys had tried to scare her with had failed to stop Aileen’s adventurous spirit.
“Are ye nae curious about our reasons for coming here this day, Aileen?” Broehain cocked an eyebrow at her.
“Indeed, I believed it was to greet me after so many months away.”
“Nae, lass.” Ragnall sat on the edge of his seat eagerly. “Our visit is regarding something else entirely! If this news does nae have ye jumpin’ out of your seat in glee, I will declare ye dead an’ be done with ye!”
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