Highlander’s Wicked Destiny (Preview)
Knock Castle, Isle of Skye, Scotland
Ten Years Later
Noah MacDonald stood across from his friend Ewan MacGregor-Campbell and squared off to match him in battle. They stood upon the packed earth of the training yard, where they had stood so many times before, each with a determined glint in his eye. They had been training together since they were children, but now they fought for higher stakes. They fought for the attention of the beautiful, golden-haired beauty, Lizzie MacDonald. They had each been in love with Lizzie for as long as they had been friends but had never mentioned it aloud. Noah had been foolish enough to announce his intentions to marry Lizzie one night when they had been a little too deep in their cups. Ewan, being the eldest, and a laird’s son himself, had thought it his right to wed the laird’s daughter and had taken dispute with Noah’s declaration of love. Now they stood face to face, ready to battle for the right to petition the laird, James Alexander MacDonald, for Lizzie’s hand.
Noah’s sister, Fiona, stood with her hands on her hips, frowning at them both. “Ye have both gone mad,” she chastised. “Mam and Auntie Elizabeth are goin’ tae have yer skins peeled from yer bones and hung up tae dry in the sun if they catch ye fightin’ o’er any lass, let alone Lizzie. Ye ken that she wants nothin’ tae do with either o’ ye bampots. Yer like brothers tae the lass, nae tae mention yer just plain barmy.”
“Get out o’ here, Fiona,” Noah grumbled. “’ Tis for the men tae fight it out. We dinnae need ye clammerin’ in our ears distractin’ us.”
“I’ll remind ye o’ that when Mam gets a hold o’ ye after. Ye’ll wish ye had listened to me then.” Having said her peace, Fiona huffed away, returning to the castle.
“Chances are she is goin’ tae tell Mam about this,” he grumbled to Ewan.
“Then we had better hurry afore Auntie Talise sets tae scaldin’ us, aye?”
“Aye,” Noah agreed, and the battle began.
The sound of clashing swords rang through the air as the young warriors delivered blow after blow. They were evenly matched, strong, and skilled. William, James, Robbie, and Duncan had taught them well. Now they stood against each other, so different, and yet the same. The fight went on for some time, neither winning, neither flagging. Noah was fairly certain that they would have gone on for some time longer had his mother not come tearing out of the castle with Fiona close on her heels.
“We’re in for it now,” Noah warned, jerking his chin in the direction of the castle.
Talise lit into Noah with a string of Iroquois that would have made his father laugh.
“What is she sayin’?” Ewan asked, scratching his head as he stared at Talise, his nose scrunched in concentration.
“Ye dinnae want tae ken,” Noah answered under his breath.
Hearing this, Talise switched to English, which only proved to make what she was saying sound so much worse. “I will have you scrubbing pots with your grandmother for the next year!” she ended on the threat, taking a deep breath.
Before she could start in on them again, Noah stepped forward and wrapped her in a hug, kissing the top of her head. “We’re sorry, Mam,” he answered, giving Ewan the ‘you had better say you are sorry too’ look.
“Aye, I’m sorry tae, Auntie Talise. We didnae mean anythin’ by it,” he lied.
Talise gave them both a scowl, then hmphed before she caved under their charming efforts at affection and smiled. “See that it does not happen again.” As she turned and walked away, Noah’s father, Robbie MacDonald, walked over and wrapped his arms around Talise’s waist.
“Ye ken that they are just goin’ tae do it again,” he told her as they walked away.
“Yes, I do, but it is my hope that my words will keep them from killing each other over what they believe to be love when it is only lust that drives their foolhardy actions.”
“Aye, I will admit that they are thinkin’ with their tadgers and nae their heads, but I dinnae think that it is only lust for our Noah. He is nae one tae act, so o’er a lassie as ye well ken.”
“Yes, I know, but I worry for him. You know what I have seen in my visions.”
“Aye, I ken…”
Whatever his father might have said was lost to the wind as they moved out of Noah’s hearing. His mother had been prone to visions his entire life, and they always came true. From the time that Noah was but a babe in the cradle, she had dreams of some impending danger that would forever change all of their lives. Noah did not know what it was, but his father feared it might be an all-out war with England. The Jacobite cause had been growing in number and influence throughout the highlands and islands of Scotland, and Robbie felt that it was only a matter of time before it broke out into open warfare. Noah was inclined to agree with him.
As a MacDonald of Skye, Noah would be expected to fight, as would Ewan. They had both been on minor raids but had never seen the full heat of battle. It was their family’s greatest fear that they would both go off to war and never return. Noah’s mother had even gone so far as to forbid them to leave the island, but that had only served to make them want to go all the more. They longed to prove themselves as men and warriors, not only to the clan but specifically to Lizzie MacDonald.
Reading his thoughts, Ewan sidled over to him and jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow. “I bet Lizzie would be willin’ tae kiss a true hero o’ the Jacobite cause.”
Fiona snorted. “Only if she enjoys kissin’ dead fish.”
Noah knew that his sister had only meant the words in jest, but they had a prophetic ring to them that did not sit easily with him. “A lass can only kiss a man if he returns alive,” he warned his friend. “A dead man cannae kiss back.”
Lizzie MacDonald stood watching the scene below her bedchamber window. “When will they e’er learn?” she mumbled under her breath.
“When they are dead most like, and more’s the pity,” Mary MacDonald answered from behind her, having brought up Lizzie’s freshly laundered clothing. “I love my grandson, Noah, as ye well ken, but when it comes tae ye, lass, neither he nor young Ewan out there has any sense at all. They ne’er have had from the time that ye were all but wee bairns just barely out o’ the cradle.”
“And yet they wonder why I refuse tae pay them heed,” Lizzie shook her head and turned away from the scene. She herself had thought little of such matters concerning Noah or Ewan from the time that she was quite small, but all of that had changed when Noah had kissed her. She had slapped his face and ran away although she had liked it very much, but she would never have dared to tell him or anyone else so. She and Noah were considered cousins by marriage but did not share a single drop of blood. Even if they had been related, such a courtship would have been allowed without a second thought, but her father had his heart set on Lizzie marrying Ewan MacGregor-Campbell. Ewan’s parents shared the same desire, and it had played a part in Ewan being sent to Knock Castle to foster with his godfather.
“All the while ye deny yer own true feelings on the matter,” Mary remarked, studying Lizzie as she stood with her hands on her hips. “Do ye e’en ken yer own mind, lass?”
“Aye, I ken it well enough, but ‘tis nae my desires that concern me,” she pointed out, turning back toward the window to avoid meeting the cook’s eyes. She did not wish for the older woman to see the confusion that warred in their depths.
“Oh, aye? And tae whom might ye be referrin’ then?”
“Our families have quite definitive notions on whom I am intended tae marry, ideas that I dinnae share.”
“That may be so, but they wouldnae fault ye for yer feelings were ye tae tell them,” Mary reminded her. “They are good people who have been through more than their fair share o’ hurt. They wouldnae wish ye tae wed someone that ye didnae love.”
“Why do I have tae choose at all?” Lizzie grumbled discontentedly.
“Ye ken that ye must choose, lass, whether ye wish tae or nae.”
“Aye, I ken that all tae well,” Lizzie sighed in frustration.
“And whom would ye pick if ye had the choice o’ it?”
“I dinnae ken,” she shook her head, torn as to what to do and wishing she had more time in which to make her choice, but the fight outside told her otherwise. “Ewan is a good man, the son o’ a laird. Whomever I wed will be the future leader o’ the clan. Noah is also a good man, beloved by many, but I dinnae think that the clan would accept a leth-bhriod as their laird.”
Mary snorted in indignation. “My grandchildren are as much Scottish as anyone else on this blessed island, and I will nae have them disparaged for their maither’s blood, and her the noble spirited lassie that she is.”
“Whether ye will have it or nae, I dinnae believe that the clan would allow Noah as my husband, nae matter the respect they hold for ye or Uncle Robbie. ‘Tis my responsibility tae wed a man that the clan will accept as their leader, nae else will do.”
“Well ‘tis barmy if ye ask me,” Mary huffed, but came over to lay a gentle hand on Lizzie’s shoulder. “Follow yer heart, lass, where e’er it may lead ye.” And with that, she left the room.
Lizzie turned her eyes back toward the young men below. They were both tall in stature with broad shoulders and long, lean, muscular torsos. Where Noah was dark and serious, Ewan was flame-haired and fair with a much more tempestuous personality alternating between joyous exuberance and roiling anger at a moment’s notice. Lizzie cared for both men dearly. When she had been but a child, she had held hope in her heart for a future with Noah, but then Ewan had arrived and caused her heart to waver. As she had grown and heard the murmurings about Noah’s birth and questionable bloodlines, she had realized that they could never be. It had shattered her heart, but she knew her duty and was prepared to do it by marrying Ewan. Now, after the kiss with Noah, Lizzie was more confused than ever.
She traced the lines of Noah’s dark features with her eyes even though she had long ago committed every masculine element to memory. It was comforting to do so, like a familiar path along the shoreline. The plains of his face soothed her soul and left her feeling strong enough to face whatever might come. She turned her eyes to Ewan and attempted the same but felt no such comfort, but she could still feel the strong pull of duty and honor that such a match would inspire. Sighing, she turned away from the window and left her bedchamber. Making her way down the stairs into the great hall, Lizzie nearly ran into Fiona, entering the hall.
Fiona took one look at Lizzie’s face and knew that she had seen everything. “I trust that ye saw the barmy display in the trainin’ yard?” Fiona frowned in disapproval at the men’s quarrel.
“Aye, I saw it,” Lizzie nodded her head in acknowledgment. She worried her lower lip between her teeth until she tasted the slightest bit of blood. She cursed herself for the bad habit and sucked on the injured skin. The coppery taste swept across her senses, distracting her from her worries for a moment.
“If you continue to chew on your lip in such a fashion, you will not have a lip left,” her mother’s English voice interjected from behind her.
Lizzie turned to smile into the beautiful blue eyes that she loved so much. “Maither,” she greeted, stepping forward to share an embrace. “Are ye feelin’ any better?” she asked. Elizabeth had been suffering from an ague but appeared to be doing much better at the moment.
“Yes, I am feeling quite well this morn.” Elizabeth smoothed her daughter’s hair back from her face and placed an affectionate kiss on her forehead. “You look concerned about something,” she observed aloud, studying her daughter’s face.
“’Tis nae anythin’ tae be concerned about. Ye ken how I am, worryin’ o’er nae.”
“Hmm,” Elizabeth mused but did not press the issue further. She and Fiona exchanged a glance but did not say anything.
“I saw that,” Lizzie admonished, shaking her head at them. “I am fine, dinnae fash yerself on my account.”
The sound of the young men returning from the training yard interrupted any further conversation between the women. “You look as if you’ve been wrestling in the dirt,” Elizabeth noted the disarray of their clothing and hair. “Off to the bath with you both,” she chastised, ushering them back out of the door to bathe in the sea.
Fiona rolled her eyes at her brother and turned to join her grandmother in the kitchen. The castle steward drew Elizabeth away, leaving Lizzie once more to her own devices. Taking a basket from the inside of the kitchen door, she moved to the kale yard to pick some kale, onions, leeks, and potatoes to deliver to Samuel and Agnes MacDonald, an elderly couple near and dear to the family who could no longer tend to their own garden. Lizzie loved visiting the couple and viewed them as the grandparents that she had never been blessed to have.
Once her basket was full, she took the path along the shoreline toward Samuel and Agnes’ cottage. She loved the sights and sounds of the island, reveling in the crisp sea air. A sea eagle soared overhead, crying out for its mate. Lizzie smiled and stopped to watch its elegant gliding descent to the rocks below. On the beach, she saw Noah and Ewan’s clothes stretched out to dry on the rocks, but she did not see the young men themselves. Smiling at the thought of the lads running about in naught but their skins, she continued along the path.
When she arrived, she found Samuel sitting on a log just outside of the cottage door, working on repairing a wooden chair leg. She could hear Agnes thumping around inside of the cottage, her cane making solid contact with the earth. “Samuel,” Lizzie greeted as she approached. “A bonnie day, is it nae?”
“Aye, ‘tis at that,” Samuel returned the greeting with a smile. “How fair ye, lass?”
“I am well.”
“And yer dear maither?”
“Thankfully, she appears tae be o’er the ague.”
“’Tis good tae hear it.” Samuel nodded in approval of the news. “Agnes will be right pleased tae hear o’ it as well.”
Taking that as her leave to enter the cottage, she left Samuel sitting outside and found Agnes inside making bannocks. Agnes moved about the room stiffly, her once agile body now slowed with age. When Lizzie entered, Agnes looked up and smiled. She motioned for Lizzie to join her at the table where she was kneading the dough. Agnes had not spoken a word in the entire time that Lizzie had known her, but the older woman had found ways to communicate that had never left Lizzie feeling the lack of her voice. “How are ye feelin’ this bonnie morn?” she asked.
Agnes grinned and placed a hand over her heart.
“I am glad,” Lizzie grinned back, giving the older woman a hug. She placed the basket on the floor beside the table and sat down on one of the wooden chairs, very much like the one that Samuel had been mending outside. Pushing up her sleeves, Lizzie set to helping Agnes knead the dough.
Both women sat and kneaded for a while in silence. The room had grown so quiet that Lizzie was startled when Agnes reached out and laid a hand on her arm. The older woman reached a hand up to her heart, then to her eyes. She arched her brow in question to emphasize that she meant her inquiry to be answered honestly.
“’Tis nae anythin’ tae be concerned about,” Lizzie reassured her, embarrassed that her own thoughts and feelings had been so evident to the outside observer.
Agnes cocked her head to the side and held Lizzie’s gaze, brow still raised.
“Truly, ‘tis nae anythin’ o’ note.”
Agnes stomped her foot, and Lizzie could not help but smile at the older woman’s version of an expletive.
“Noah and Ewan were fightin’ o’er me again,” Lizzie admitted. “I dinnae wish tae see either o’ them hurt, but it is unavoidable.”
Agnes’ eyes softened in sympathy, and she squeezed Lizzie’s hand. She tapped her heart twice, then raised her brow in question once more.
“I love them both, as they are both a part o’ my family, but Ewan is the clan’s choice, my family’s choice. He is a good man who would serve the clan well, but so would Noah if they would give him the opportunity. I simply dinnae believe that they will.”
Agnes covered her eyes with her hands, then opened them again as if removing the blinders from a carriage horse.
“Aye, that ‘tis the way o’ it.”
Agnes reached out and touched Lizzie’s chest over her heart, then her temple, then Agnes touched her own forehead.
“Aye, I ken that love can change the hearts and minds o’ people and that it has done so for our clan in the past with my own maither bein’ a Sassenach, but ‘tis different with Noah’s maither. The clan fears her, in spite o’ all o’ the years that she has spent with us. They fear her gifts, her insights in tae the unseen. They still view her as an outsider. She is protected by Uncle Robbie and my faither, as is Noah, but our people would ne’er accept a leth-bhriod as their laird.”
Agnes sat looking into Lizzie’s eyes for a moment as if to weigh her next words carefully. Lifting Lizzie’s hand, she placed it upon Lizzie’s chest, then pulled it up to rest upon the side of Lizzie’s head. The message was loud and clear in the profound silence. Follow your heart.
“If only I could.”
Noah and Ewan swam in the sea, their feud temporarily set aside. They watched as Lizzie walked along the shore path, basket in hand, toward Samuel and Agnes’ cottage. “Auld Samuel does nae have verra many years left in him, and I fear that Agnes has even less,” Noah remarked with sadness.
“Aye, ‘tis sad indeed tae see them age thusly, but they have lived good lives, helpin’ the people o’ the clan as they could. I ken that they have had more than their share o’ pain o’er the years, but they have endured with a strength that would make the angels proud.”
“Aye, they have at that.” Noah smiled at such a thought. He could imagine the angels gathered around the older couple watching them with encouraging smiles. It was a pleasant thought to think that there was something larger than themselves looking out for them. His mother believed in the old ways of her people and prayed to the Sky Woman on a regular basis to keep their family safe. She believed that there were spirits all around them that aided them and guided them along their path. Noah, torn between two worlds, accepted both and lived his life accordingly. He sent a quick prayer to both the Christian God and the Iroquois goddess, Sky Woman, to protect their people.
“Mr. Withers has nae been doin’ tae well either. The man is a force o’ nature unto himself. It is hard tae imagine life in the castle without him runnin’ about bossin’ the lads around.”
“Sometimes it feels as if my sister, Fiona, is his apprentice,” Noah chuckled, then sobered. “They are all such a part o’ our lives that tae think about them nae bein’ here is unfathomable. Other than my grandmaither, Mary, they are the grandparents that we ne’er had.”
“Aye, that they are,” Ewan agreed. Ewan’s grandparents had all died before he had ever been born. It had not been until he came to Knock Castle and met the elderly clansmen and women that he had known such affections. “I ne’er missed havin’ grandparents as a bairn because I kenned nae different, and my parents are a strong lovin’ force for good in my own life and the clan’s, but I am glad that I came here and became a part o’ yer own family. My godfaither is a fortunate man tae be laird o’ such a loyal and carin’ people.”
“May ye be every bit the laird to yer faither’s and maither’s clans that Uncle James is tae ours.” The seriousness of Noah’s tone struck a chord in Ewan’s heart.
“Aye, may it e’er be so, but nae for a verra long time. I dinnae wish tae be without my parents just yet.”
“God and all the saints forbid,” Noah intoned, “but when the time comes, I ken that ye will make them proud.”
“I pray that ye are right. I have learned a great deal under yer uncle’s tutelage o’er the last many years, but time tae return home for good is drawin’ nigh. Soon, I will return tae my faither’s keep and take up the responsibilities o’ his son and heir.”
“I will miss ye, my friend,” Noah admitted, in spite of their recent scuffle.
“And I, ye.”
“Will ye be placed in charge o’ yer faither’s fightin’ men upon yer return?”
“Aye, I will. The man who once held the post is now tae old tae continue on. If I am tae be the leader o’ such men, I must accustom myself tae leading them in tae battle, as well as peace.”
“Aye, ye will at that.” Noah thought about his own life and what might lay ahead for him. As the laird’s nephew, he held a place of import among the clan’s fighting men, and such a place served him well. He loved to hunt and fish, anything that provided food for the table, but his true passion lay in protecting the clan’s people. He had a strong protective nature that stemmed from his own turbulent background.
As the son of an English ship’s captain who had forced himself on Noah’s mother, he had struggled with the notion of his own identity once he was old enough to understand that he was not like all of the other lads and lassies on the island. He had always been aware that he looked different but had accepted without question that Robbie MacDonald was his father in every way. When he had found out about his true origins, he had sunk into a deep, dark melancholy that had threatened to destroy his sense of self. It had been Robbie who had once again come to his aid. Robbie had told Noah the full story of how he himself had come to be born under very similar circumstances. Knowing that he was not alone and that the father of his heart had suffered just such a crisis of heart and mind had helped Noah to accept the truth and move forward with his life. It had been Robbie’s adoption and protection of Noah over the years that had instilled in him a strong sense of family and the importance of protecting one’s own people.
From the moment that Noah had been big enough to hold a wooden sword, he had trained to be a warrior. It had been his heart’s deepest wish to become just as skilled as Robbie, and he had worked on it every day since. Now, he was a fully-grown man ready to face the world. His mother’s haunting warnings about the coming difficulties that she had seen in her visions floated through his mind, haunting every waking hour. Her premonitions cast a pall over his mind and heart. She had never been wrong, and Noah saw no reason why she would start now. He said as much to Ewan, detailing everything that he had heard his parents talking about.
“What do ye think she is talkin’ about?” Ewan asked, floating on top of the water a few feet away.
“I dinnae ken for certain, but Da believes it tae be a conflict betwixt the Jacobite’s and the English.”
“That is nae a likely battle tae be won without a great many men and an even greater amount o’ money.”
“Nae, ‘tis nae, but the rumors have been boilin’ up from the mainland and throughout the isles. The true king, King James, wants his throne back, and Scotland is more than ready tae see that he gets it, nae matter the cost.”
“Would ye go and fight if it came tae it?”
“Aye, I would. The Sassenachs have caused us enough harm. They dinnae need tae be lordin’ o’er a land that they dinnae ken. A Scotsman should sit upon the throne, nae doubt about it. I just dinnae ken how they intend tae make it so. The British army is strong.”
“Aye, but the clans are stronger.”
“If they can come together long enough tae make it so,” Noah pointed out, referencing the many feuds and conflicts among the clans of the highlands and lowlands alike.
“Would yer uncle and faither fight, do ye think?” Ewan asked curiously, eyeing Noah with a sense of excitement.
“I dinnae ken. I think that they would tae protect the clan and all o’ Scotland, but they wouldnae wish tae put their people in further danger by the doin’ o’ it.”
“Aye, my Da and Mam feel much the same way on the matter. They are nae ones tae shirk their responsibilities, but they dinnae care for fightin’ if they can keep from it. ‘Tis the danger o’ the MacGregors bein’ discovered, ye ken.”
“Aye, ‘tis legal for ye tae reclaim yer surname now, but I ken that, were yer faither tae do so, he would place yer entire clan at risk o’ retaliation by the Campbells.”
“Aye, he would at that. He risked enough namin’ my wee brother Gregor, a name forbidden tae all clans nae that long ago.”
“Perhaps he intends tae reclaim nae only yer name, but the legacy that his own faither was forced tae leave behind.”
“I dinnae think so. I think that he simply wished tae honor his faither in the only way left tae him.”
“I can see how that would be so, and I respect him all the more for it.”
“Aye, as do I.”
They fell into a companionable silence for a time, soaking in the sights and sounds around them, the feel of the water and sun upon their bare skin. After a time, Ewan was the first to break the silence. “I dinnae wish tae die.”
Noah closed his eyes and took a deep breath before answering. Opening his eyes, he let the breath out and turned his gaze to meet Ewan’s. “Nor do I, but we will face whate’er may come together, as brothers.”
Ewan nodded, his resolve shining in his eyes, all signs of their previous fight were gone. “Aye, together, as brothers.”
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