Taming the Highland Wolf (Preview)
Duntrune Castle, Seat of Clan MacGregor, May 1528
Laird Callan MacGregor slowly and painfully sat up in bed. He felt almost sewn to the mattress; it took so much effort to get up to his elbows. He couldn’t open his eyes yet; his head hurt too badly.
“Bloody Hell,” he said, listening to the sound of his raspy voice. His throat was so dry, and his tongue felt like a rock in his mouth. He rubbed a hand along his forehead, a pounding coming and going in a rhythm. He slid his hand down his face until it hit his clipped beard. He grimaced and tried to think back to the evening before. What had he been doing? It took a few seconds for his mind to catch up with him, and even still, he could only see flashes of images.
“Och, the wedding,” he said, remembering that he had been feasting and drinking at the party with his new wife, Leslie Frazer, new Lady MacGregor. But then, that was it. He frowned. No lovemaking? Nothing? He shook his head a little, trying to remember, but it only made his headache worse. He put another hand up to his head and gasped when he felt wetness there.
Slowly, he opened his eyes, looked down, and saw blood on his hands. He gasped again, his heart bursting into life, his body forgetting the headache and the pain it was in.
“I…” He began and then froze when he saw who was lying next to him or, rather, what had happened to her. He saw Leslie, his dear wife laying back as if she was sleeping except for the dark red line at her throat.
“Nae, nae, nae!” He called out and scrambled from the bed, nearly slipping on the dagger on the floor. His dagger. He picked it up, getting even more blood on his hands, and stared at his dead wife. “What is this?” he asked, hoping it was a nightmare and praying that it would be over soon. They had just been married; all was going to be well; they were going to start their lives together. But now, she was cold, her vacant eyes staring up into nothing. His new wife was dead.
Callan couldn’t move; he was frozen to the spot, his eyes on Leslie. Only hours before, he remembered her smile as they said the words from the priest, holding hands. Callan had looked into her lovely green eyes then, knowing that he was making the right choice, choosing her as his wife. More and more images started moving through his mind. He remembered his happiness at that moment, how he and Leslie had discussed what their new lives would be like, and now it was just over. Finished. He hadn’t known her long, but he knew that he wanted to make her his wife. She was good and kind and loving. She would be a good leader.
Would have been.
Finally, movement returned to his limbs, and he slowly moved around the bed. He reached out for her hand, his own trembling, as his fingertips touched her cold skin. “By God, Leslie, who has done this tae ye?” he said, his voice a whisper, tears coming to his eyes.
There was a knock at the door, and then it swung open, two maids entering. Their eyes were down as they walked in, but once they looked up, they froze, their eyes wide. It was only seconds, but time slowed as Callan watched them. They both opened their mouths, in unison it seemed, and screamed when they saw Leslie on the bed, blood covering the sheets and Callan. He reached out to them, stood up, but his feet wouldn’t move. They refused to get him there, to stop the maids from screaming. They hurried away from him, screaming as they went, calling out murder to the halls and corridors.
In seconds, people appeared at the door, and Callan faced them. His brothers were at the head of it, breathless, their hair ruffled, partly undressed. The rest of the crowd was the guards and other guests from the wedding, all looking on in horror. Thayne and Glendon, his two brothers, stared at him first, then they looked at Leslie’s dead body. Thayne was the taller of the two, and his hair was dark, like Callan’s, but he had far more battle scars across his cheeks. Glendon was the most jovial of the three and the youngest, with bright hazel eyes.
“Callan, what happened?” Glendon asked, his eyes wide with surprise and fear as he stepped forward, his eyes on Leslie’s lifeless body. He gasped. “How terrible! The poor lass!”
Callan tried to speak, to defend himself, but he still felt caught between reality and a nightmare, and his body and mind weren’t quite catching up with him. His eyes filled with tears again, and for the first time, he felt a tear slip down his cheek in the presence of his younger brothers. Thayne, the older of the two, was watching him with sadness. “Callan, who has done this? Did ye see who did this?” Thayne’s eyes fluttered to the dagger in Callan’s hand. Out of instinct, Callan dropped the dagger, and it cluttered to the floor, so loud among the silent people. Callan could see the guards that awaited Thayne’s orders, for if Callan was seen to be guilty of this horrible crime, Thayne was the next oldest.
“Brother, it wasnae me. Ye must ken that,” Callan said, his voice sounding weak as he spoke. He shook his head, knowing just how guilty he looked, blood on his hands, and a dagger in his grasp. Thayne watched him for a few more seconds.
“I ken, Callan. It couldnae have been ye.” The people, who had stood speechless before, now cried out in anger.
“Look at the dagger!” one man called.
“She is one of us!” A Frazer relative said, pointing at Callan accusingly. “Ye cannae let him go! The Frazer laird will have tae see this!”
Glendon opened his mouth and then closed it again. Thayne looked pained as he watched the crowd and then looked back at his brother. Callan knew what he would have to do.
Thayne then said to the guards over his shoulder, “Take him tae the dungeons. He will await trial there until we can find whoever did this evil deed. Take him kindly, men. He is nae usual prisoner, and hs is nae the guilty one! Remember that, all of ye.” Thayne had raised his voice and stared back, defying anyone who would reply. The crowd fell silent again, and a sad-looking Glendon pulled away from the crowd, leaving soon after Thayne made his pronouncement.
Callan’s heart fell, and he nearly collapsed to the ground, but the guards came and held him up, dragging him away. Callan called out, but no words came, only sounds of pain. His heart was heavy with grief, and his body felt so dense and tired that he could barely hold himself up as he was pulled towards the dungeons, a place a laird never thinks he will go himself in his own castle.
Darkness filled the dungeons, and there were only two trembling candles that hung on the wall, illuminating only small squares of the room. Callan was feeling better now in body, if not in spirit. He was pacing his moist cell, wracking his mind for what could have happened. It doesn’t make any sense. Of course, he didn’t kill his wife, but who would wish to? He knew that Clan MacGregor didn’t have enemies that would wish to kill off a woman from the Frazer clan or prevent his marrying one. It was all so strange.
The blood had dried on his skin now, and he rubbed a hand over his rough beard, trying to piece things together. He caught sight of the red stains on his skin and paused for a moment. Could he have done it? It was true that he remembered hardly anything after the feast. And it was not the drink; he had been so busy speaking with well-wishers that he’d barely had a chance to drink enough ale to put him in that kind of state.
Feeling lost and confused, he slunk down to the ground, thumping onto the hard, cold dirt of the dungeon floor. He looked about him. There were no other prisoners with him, and he felt lonelier than he ever had. He almost felt pity for the men he and his father had placed in the dungeons. What a morbid, tragic place. It made him feel as if it was the only place in the world, near to the very bowels of Hell.
He was lost in sad thoughts when he heard a struggle not far off in a passage leading to the dungeon. There was a screech of metal, along with grunting, groaning, and then something heavy hit the ground. Callan sat up and leaned forward, clutching the cold iron of the cell doors. “Who’s there?” he called into the gloom.
No one answered, but footsteps were getting closer, coming his way. He shrunk back a little, wondering if it was the Frazer men who came with the laird’s family for the wedding. Perhaps Laird Frazer wished to beat a confession out of him. He felt grim at the thought, but he flexed his muscles anyway, ready for a fight.
In a matter of seconds, the owners of the footsteps made themselves known, and the men held a finger to their lips when they spotted Callan’s surprised look. “Kendrew? Ervin?” Callan whispered. “What in the bloody Hell are ye doing here, lads? How did ye get here?”
“Ye ken how. The secret passage, of course. We knocked the few guards down on our way, and here we are, ready tae help ye,” Ervin, the younger of the two brothers, smiled at Callan with relief.
Kendrew cleared his throat. “Come. There is nae time tae waste in talk. It is time we left, afore more guards come tae make sport of us and run us through.”
“Nae on my watch,” Ervin said, his eyes narrowing.
Callan was speechless. His friends had come to rescue him. Kendrew frowned as he focused, shoving a thick key into the iron lock of Callan’s door. Callan leaned forward. “Ye mean that ye both believe me? That I didnae kill Leslie?”
“Of course, we believe ye! Why should ye do a thing like that?” Ervin said kindly, and Callan sighed with relief. Kendrew nodded.
“There is nae sense in ye doing such a thing on yer wedding night. Besides, ye donnae have it in ye tae kill a woman. None of us do, I should hope.” He shuddered, and Callan did as well. That meant Leslie’s murderer was the type of man who did have it in him, and that was not a character Callan wished to know. He couldn’t really think of anyone he could imagine guilty of such a heinous and brutal crime.
“Ah!” Kendrew cried as the lock clicked, and he swung open the door. “Laird MacGregor, it is time we get the hell out of here.”
“I couldnae agree more,” Callan said, racing after his friends. Kendrew had thrust a blade into his hands.
“Yers. I didnae wish tae see it left behind in the room. What a waste of a great warrior’s weapon. This is the dagger as well. I ken perhaps it doesnae have a good memory, but yer Father gave it tae ye, and so…” he trailed off.
Callan smiled at his sour friend, who had a kind heart once all was said and done. “Nae need tae explain. Ye are a good man, Kendrew. I owe ye.” Ervin led the way down the passage, and they turned to a fake stone wall, pushing it open to slip inside. Callan’s father had shown it to his children when they were younger to help them escape in case of a castle takeover, and Callan had shown his friends. It would be their freedom now. His blood rang in his ears, and sweat poured down the side of his face as he moved quickly after a day in the dungeon with no food, no water, and the weight of grief on his heart.
The secret passage was slightly wider than the passage from the dungeon, and it yawned open toward a sluice gate at the back of the castle. Once there, it was easy enough to open if they worked together to lift it. He could see a pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel, and he assumed it was the moon, but once they arrived, breathless and bathed in sweat, he saw who it was. With torch in hand, Thayne looked more regal and laird-like than Callan had ever seen him. But the torch was trembling a little, and Callan felt for him. What would he have done if he’d seen Thayne in the same position, standing over his dead wife with a knife in his hand?
Callan wondered why Thayne was there. Would he try to stop them? But he didn’t look angry, just resigned. Thayne remained silent for a few seconds as he looked upon the three bedraggled men through the gate. His scrutinizing gaze finally fell upon Callan.
“Callan, ye ken that ye must leave this place.”
“Aye.” Another silence.
“What can ye remember about what happened?”
“I am innocent, Thayne. Surely ye ken this. Surely ye donnae believe that I could be capable of such a thing, especially nae tae a woman I just made my wife! I remember nothing. Just waking up with a headache like nae other and finding Leslie next tae me, blood on my own hands.” His voice caught. It was the worst day of his life, and he would never forget such a scene for as long as he lived.
Thayne’s jaw clenched. “Nae, I think ye are innocent. There is some villain afoot, and perhaps they drugged ye tae keep ye unaware until ye awoke, looking like the guilty party.”
Callan relaxed. A little. He was glad his brothers didn’t think him a killer. “Yer right. That is the only explanation. But why, Thayne? Why should someone wish tae kill Leslie and make me pay for it? It doesnae make sense!” He could feel pressure behind his eyes. He had lost his whole life, and he had no way of knowing who had been the cause of it. He waited until his brother spoke again. Kendrew and Ervin exchanged looks.
“I believe ye are innocent, Callan, but I cannae prove yer innocence. Yer were seen by so many with yer hand on the weapon that slew yer wife and her blood was upon ye.” Thayne swallowed, looking Callan dead in the eye. “The clan will never forget what ye have done. Neither will the Frazer clan. Ye will need tae leave and never return in order tae avoid what they will ask for.” Another brief silence ensued. “Yer head.”
Callan nodded; the truth of his new circumstances settled into his brain. He had woken up that morning after sleeping like the dead, and now everything had changed. He stepped up to his brother and reached through the gate to put a hand on his shoulder. His heart ached in agony at having to leave the life he had with his brothers, as well as the life he had planned for him and Leslie. He had not yet left, but he felt the pain inside him growing. “I understand,” even though he didn’t. It wasn’t right; it wasn’t fair that he should have to leave, lose his position, his wife, lose everything in a matter of a day, all because he was falsely accused. “Ye will let us go then?”
“Aye.” Thayne’s face looked like it was made of stone, but Callan could see a flicker of pain in his brother’s eyes. Thayne bent down to lift the gate. “Help me.”
The men followed his orders in silence, helping to lift the gate until they each could slip out from underneath. It made a sound as it went down, but it had been so often used by them as children that it was not loud. Thayne said, “Go. Take Kendrew and Ervin with ye. I have had horses brought for ye.”
“Ye kenned that this would happen?” Kendrew asked, incredulous.
“Of course. A man doesnae desert his best friend.”
“Thank ye, brother,” Callan said to Thayne. Thayne nodded.
“Go. Ye donnae have much time. Go!”
Kendrew led the way, Ervin behind him, and before Callan turned away, his brother said, “Goodbye, Callan.”
“Goodbye, Thayne. Give Glendon my parting words.”
“Aye. And take these with ye. Ye will need some money,” Thayne added, handing Callan a small leather pouch. Callan looked at Thayne for another second, and then he followed his friends into the night.
Five years later
Cape Wrath, Northern Scotland
Ailyn Frazer jolted awake, a scream in her throat. She was sitting up in bed, her chest heaving rapidly. She tried to catch her breath for a few seconds before she lifted her hand to touch her face, feeling her clammy skin. “Nae again,” she said with a tiny groan, thinking back to the nightmare she’d just had. The same old nightmare that had haunted her all these years. She lifted the heavy fur blanket from her limbs and slid over the edge of the bed. Her whole body was warm, almost as if she’d been running.
That’s what the dream was always like. It was always the same. There was a wolf in it, a white wolf with deep blue eyes. It stared at her, and she stared back, fear slowly gripping her. Then, the wolf would bare its teeth, and Ailyn would turn around and dash away through the forest, the footfalls of the wolf’s paws echoing after her as she tore through a thick forest. She ran as hard as she could, her muscles aching to rest. She could always hear the sound of the wolf behind her, growling almost right next to her ear, and then she would wake up at that point, each and every time, often screaming.
She never understood what it meant, all these years since she’d had a terrible fever five years before. The fever was enough to keep her from traveling to Duntrune Castle to celebrate her sister Leslie’s wedding. Ailyn often wondered if she had been able to go, what would have happened? Would things have been different; would Leslie still be alive and not slaughtered by that pig of a MacGregor husband? That death had been the turning point of her life, and it had broken and changed her family forever. There was no going back because of that man. It had been a marriage of convenience, and Leslie and Callan had hardly known one another, but they seemed to like each other well enough.
She shook her head, trying to wake up. The nightmare always made it feel like she hadn’t gotten any sleep at all. She looked out of the small window of the inn and wrapped her woolen tartan around her shoulders. It was dawn, and frost sparkled on the grass below. She could spy the gray of the bay beyond where a mist lay heavy. Someone knocked on the door.
“Lady Frazer,” one of her clan guards said, entering the room with his eyes averted. “We must ride soon. We want tae reach the next village by the afternoon tae avoid the nightly frost.”
“Aye, Finnigan. I will prepare myself quickly. Are the men fed?”
“Aye, Lady. All are ready. Food is waiting for ye as well.”
“Good.” Finnigan left the room with a nod of the head, and Ailyn hurried to get dressed. Her tired limbs were still aching from the dream. She dressed in a thick woolen gown with leather boots and a fur wrap and hood. She plaited her red hair as tightly as she could so that it would fit nicely under the hood. It would be an icy ride, but Ailyn hoped it would be an invigorating one.
Riding was the best way to release all the painful thoughts that clamored inside of her mind, threatening to burst forth and break her in two. Since she’d left home, her father allowed her a small group of men, only four, but they had been her guardians and companions all this time as she traveled and learned the ways of healing. She was a laird’s daughter, now only daughter, and yet she preferred her existence now. Her life was a free one, and her men were happy, and everything could have been right in the world, except it wasn’t. Even though riding with her men gave her peace she couldn’t find elsewhere, she could still feel a weight in her chest.
It was as if a cry was always ready to come out of her, tears always threatening to spill forth. It was the weight of grief that had never entirely left her when her sister died and so brutally. It was five years ago, and yet, Ailyn could feel the pain as if it was yesterday as if she’d received a wound that had never really scarred over. The world always had a sort of gray tinge to it, and there was nothing that had ever made her feel joyful or as wholly joyful as she had been when her sister was still alive.
That was her reason for turning to the study of healing from anyone willing to show her. She had spent so much of her time affected by Leslie’s death. She especially wanted to find a cure for this ‘ailment’ that plagued her. While she knew that Leslie would never come back, Ailyn wanted to find joy and peace again, but it felt like she simply couldn’t. Every healer she came across, she asked if there was something she could do. They prescribed many things: vetiver, lavender, St. John’s Wort, herbs that were meant to lift the spirits and to help her rest to be rid of her nightmares, but nothing worked.
Her body was healthy, but her mind struggled. After years of attempting to find something, she resolved on a new method to rid herself of this heaviness, this lack of joy. She knew that the only way to be cured was to find the man who’d killed Leslie and kill him herself. Then, perhaps, she might finally be free, and not only that, but her sister could rest in peace, having been finally and at long last avenged.
“Lady,” Finnigan said, and Ailyn jolted out of her reverie and looked to her side to see the young man looking at her. Finnigan was young and handsome with dark brown hair and green eyes. He was a skilled warrior, and he always led the men, prepared the meals, and protected her whenever there was danger. She depended on him wholeheartedly, but after a few years on the road together, she began to see something else in him. He cared for her, more than as a friend or a lady, and she could see it in his eyes each time he looked at her.
She felt sorry for him. There was no hope of her feeling anything for him of that kind. And it was because she felt that her heart was dead and lifeless, and she had not wanted to see another man or be attracted by one after Leslie was killed on her wedding night. And since her father didn’t care much for her, Ailyn resolved not to let a man get in the way of her life. She closed off that part of herself, for men were not to be trusted, and she would not be hurt again, not by them at least.
“Aye, Finnigan?” she asked, smiling, but not too widely. He never said anything about his affection for her, and she didn’t want to encourage it.
“We will be there in an hour or two. How long would ye like tae stay in this village? I will tell the next innkeeper.”
Ailyn nodded and looked off at the horizon, in the direction of where the village, Durness, lay. They had been staying in inns during the winter where there could be ready fires, and the men could have a comfort they would not have had if traveling among her father’s warriors. “I will meet with the local healer and advise ye. It could be a few weeks at least. Will that be troublesome for ye?”
“Nae, but James has family in a small village close to Durness, and he wanted tae go and visit them. I will make sure all is safe before I send him, but I wanted tae ask ye first.” Finnigan’s eyes watched her closely when she turned back to him. Sometimes she imagined that she returned his affection, and they could love freely, living as they did. It was not as if her father really cared for what she did or who she spent her time with. Not anymore. It would be so easy to give herself to Finnigan, and yet it would be the most difficult thing in the world. No, she would not love Finnigan. There was something not right about it.
“Of course. Do what ye must, but I have nae objection. That should be nice for him.” She nodded, glad to at least give someone some small happiness.
“I will tell him. Thank ye, Lady.”
“Yer welcome, Finnigan. Thank ye for…” she saw him hesitate, even lean forward a little, his eyes full of hope. “Everything that ye do. It is much appreciated. I am sure this is nae the life that ye expected tae have, a warrior like ye.”
Finnigan looked slightly disappointed at her words, but he smiled anyway. “It is nae so bad. It is a life of luxury compared tae some, and I get my battles.” He chuckled. “Ye donnae see them always, Lady, but they happen. Many see a young woman on her own as an opportunity. Especially a laird’s daughter.”
Ailyn looked away. “Nae one would ken I am a laird’s daughter, especially nae in what I wear as we travel.”
“Nobility has naething tae do with clothes, Lady. It is in the bearing, the speech, the way one holds themselves. Ye do all of that. Anyone could see yer status from miles away.” When she looked back at him, he was staring at her again.
“I see,” she replied awkwardly. “Well, perhaps I need tae unlearn those things, and ye all could get a bit more rest without such battles.”
“Nae, like I said, we enjoy a bit of fighting. Keeps us sharp and trained and ready.”
“Thank ye. I will have tae thank the others too. I didnae ken how difficult it was tae keep such…opportunists at bay.” Ailyn sneezed. The air was getting cold quickly, even though it was still afternoon.
Finnigan’s expression instantly turned worried. “Come, Lady, we should hurry our pace. I donnae want ye tae get ill. Ye should be by a fire in this weather. Come.” He sped up his horse, and Ailyn sighed, but she knew he wouldnae stop until she listened tae him. She trotted after him, trying to focus on what exciting things she would learn in the next village.
“Ye ken we could have chosen a more southerly city tae spend our time in. Instead, we have gone as far north as possible before the place where the world freezes over.” Ervin shivered and leaned closer to the fire in the hearth, reaching his hands out to feel the heat. Despite that, there was a grin on his face, and Callan chuckled, rubbing his own hands together.
“Aye, well ye may be right, but I think I have chosen well. Most likely, nae one will want tae travel this north in search of me, so we make ourselves uncomfortable in order tae avoid detection. It is as simple as that.”
“I suppose so.” Ervin sighed and leaned back, apparently sufficiently warmed to pull back from the warm fire. He looked down at his hands, calloused and cracked from the cold winter. “I didnae think I would turn out tae be a shepherd, though.”
Callan burst into laughter. “Just a small flock. Enough tae keep people from being suspicious at three ‘brothers’ living in a village and nae working.” It had been five years since he fled his home, and even though he was on the run, or rather always attempting to avoid being found, Callan sometimes enjoyed his new life. It was quiet, comfortable with the income from the sheep and the money he already had with him that Thayne had given to him. There had been money and jewels in that small bag, and he, Ervin, and Kendrew had made it stretch over the years, using it only when they could not find work.
“If we ever get the chance tae return home, everyone will think that we have gone soft and forgotten our warrior ways. I willnae be able tae find a lady who can appreciate my…abilities.”
Callan laughed again. He was grateful his friends had come with him to hide from his clan and the Frazers who wanted his head. It had made everything much more bearable, even if grief still clung to him a little. “I think ye have done well enough for yerself with the ladies of this village, Ervin. I think ye have even caused some jealousy and controversy among some of them.” Callan lifted a brow, and Ervin scoffed at him.
“Well, what can they expect? I didnae propose marriage or pretend I wanted it, and yet they hoped for it? Nae,” Ervin clucked. “We cannae be married men in this life. It willnae work. For any of us.”
Callan nodded, but he didn’t say anything. He knew that Ervin was right, but he still held out hope that there might be one day, even in the far future, where he could return to a normal sort of life. There wasn’t any way to become the laird of his clan again, but maybe, he could find someone again as he had found Leslie? It was a foolish dream to have with the way he had to forever stay away from those who knew of his past, but he still clung to it anyway, hoping, always hoping.
Ervin sighed. He walked to the table and took up a bottle of whisky. “I think that this evening calls for whisky. The animals are warm and settled in their pen; the dog is here with us, sleeping soundly in front of the fire, and Kendrew will be returning soon with the supplies. We can celebrate an evening of quiet and peace.”
“Peace?” Callan said with a laugh. “I have just spent the last hour listening tae yer complaints about the cold, the pains in yer back, yer lack of skills as a warrior, and the fact that ye donnae seem tae have enough female attention.”
Ervin poured two glasses for them and handed Callan one. “Let me correct ye on a few points, lad. There is nae lack of skills as a warrior, merely a sort of softening of them. The skills are there, believe me.”
Grinning, Callan said, “I ken that. Any other points ye should like tae correct?”
Ervin settled himself in the chair again. “It is nae that I donnae get enough female attention, but rather that I could always use more.”
Callan rolled his eyes but then nearly fell out of his chair when the door to their cottage burst open, smashing loudly on the wall as it swung. Both Ervin and Callan jumped to their feet and felt the rush of a winter breeze as Kendrew came inside, breathing hard.
“What in God’s name?” Ervin asked and hurried to shut the door to keep the cold out. Callan looked at Kendrew, breathless, half-frozen, with sweat glistening on his brow.
“Where are the supplies?” he asked tentatively. “What’s going on?”
Kendrew was gasping for breath. “Nae time. Had tae leave them behind. There is this. A letter.” His speech was halting as he tried to calm himself. He held out a tattered letter to Callan. Callan’s heart sped up.
What on earth could have Kendrew in such a stew?
Kendrew finally caught his breath and stood up straight. “Lad, we are being followed. When I went tae the village tae gather supplies, a messenger found me and handed me this letter, asking for the “mad wolf.” He recognized me as one of the men of Duntrune, and he said that he had been followed as he searched for ye. I rushed back as soon as I read it. I could nae remain, and donnae worry, I made sure that I wasnae followed from the village.”
Callan nodded, unable to speak. He opened the letter. It read,
Mad Wolf, no time. Come to Ardifuir if you want to learn the truth.
“What does it say?” Ervin asked after a long bout of silence. Callan swallowed nervously, but there was a flicker of hope in his heart, the first in a very long time.
“There may be a chance for justice now, my friends. The letter isnae complete, but all I ken is, we need tae travel tae Ardifuir. Ye came from the west, Kendrew, so we will travel east. We leave at first light.”
“Here we are, my lady. Now, please sit, and I will speak tae the innkeeper.” Finnigan motioned to the hearth in the inn, and Ailyn found a seat, savoring the feel of the fire’s heat on her cold limbs. It had been a difficult day. The heavy grayness of her mind was worse than usual, and she wondered if it was because of the nightmare. Even the thought of the wolf during the daytime made her shudder, and she wished she could be set free from these terrible dreams. She wanted to have a normal life.
“I will speak tae the healer as soon as I can find out who it is. The best one in the village. I willnae take anything less than the best.” A cup of wine appeared at her elbow, and she looked up to see Finnigan holding it out for her. “Finnigan, ye are too kind, lad. Go and see tae the others. I will be fine here.”
He shifted awkwardly for a few seconds. “Are ye certain, my lady? I am afraid for yer health. Ye began tae cough as well the closer we got tae the inn.”
Ailyn smiled and held a hand to her chest, hoping to prove that all was well and that he shouldn’t worry so much. “I am fine. Naething that a hot fire and a cup of wine willnae fix.”
He looked into her eyes for a few seconds, likely checking to see if she was telling the truth, and then he nodded and left. Ailyn breathed out with relief. She cared about the men that traveled with her, but sometimes she wished that she could just be on her own. She loved going on these adventures, and she loved the freedom it gave her, but at the same time, sometimes she felt like she was back in her father’s house. Her men still treated her as noble and were just as nitpicky about what she did, how she cared for herself, and who she spoke to, just like the servants at the castle.
She didn’t always get the urge to be on her own, but now that she was seated, warm, and comfortable, sipping at her wine, she wanted it. The desire was getting overwhelming. When she was alone, she didn’t have to try to pretend that everything was fine or that she was happy. She could just think and be who she wanted to be. “Tonight, I will try tae get away,” she said under her breath. She was resolved. It was a larger village than most they’d visited in the north, and so she was sure she could find a place to have a drink away from her men. It would just be about timing, for they usually had someone watching her or guarding her every minute of the day.
Ailyn looked around the room at the other travelers. One of her men stood nearby, but she was sure the others had gone to tend to the horses. The inn wasn’t very full, but every other person Ailyn looked at, she envied. There were men, warming themselves with cups of ale, looking bedraggled from their arduous journeys. There were young women with their husbands and children, and there was even one fine-looking gentleman in one of the corners. He looked English. Ailyn felt the envy take hold. It sometimes came on so strong, she almost lost her breath. She wondered what it would be like to be loved, feel safe, and not have the weight of grief on one’s shoulders.
Her life was never the same after her sister’s death. She remembered her mother’s shrieks when they told her what had happened after they returned from the wedding at Duntrune. Ailyn hadn’t been able to do anything else but hold onto her mother while she listened. Ailyn closed her eyes, still able to hear her mother’s moans of pain which echoed off the walls of her family home. Her father hadn’t given her many details of the death. So Ailyn felt like she’d seen her sister happily married one moment, and then she disappeared as if into thin air.
“Father, what really happened?” she asked him as he paced in front of the pair of them, servants fluttering about to prepare the evening meal. He was pale, and his eyes had a distant look she’d never seen in them before.
“That brute I married her tae. He cut her throat. That madman has taken my child from me.” He didn’t look at his wife or his daughter, and Ailyn’s mother shrieked again, making Ailyn return to her side to hold her tight. The stricken look on her father’s face was enough to silence her. She’d never seen him so broken.
“He was taken tae the dungeons. I would have killed the man with my bare hands if I had him here before me.”
As would I, she remembered thinking, pain, hurt, grief, anger, all mixing together in one horrible mass that filled her almost to breaking point. It was so strange to think of Callan in that way, though. She’d met him twice years ago when she was only around 15 or 16, and every time their families met, he had been kind and sweet to her, as a future older brother should be. He and Leslie couldn’t be married until Ailyn was 19 because his parents had died, and he was in mourning for a while. Ailyn remembered the wolf medallion he wore around his neck, and he would often touch it as he spoke as if it meant something special to him. Back then, when she’d first laid eyes upon him, she thought him the most handsome man in the world, almost God-like, and she had been delighted and proud for Leslie. Ailyn couldn’t imagine him doing such a brutal act, and yet the truth was staring her in the face.
“But, in the morning, we learned Laird MacGregor had disappeared from the prison, and we had tae leave. There was nae sign of him, nae trace. After that, her father left for his study. Her mother continued to cry on her shoulder until the lady’s maid took her away. Callan MacGregor never appeared again and was given the nickname ‘mad wolf,’ as the family symbol was a wolf. Everyone assumed he’d gone mad, killing his wife one moment and then disappearing into thin air the next.”
Since then, her parents had hardly looked at Ailyn. It had confirmed all the things she knew to be true. Leslie was the eldest, and she was also the one on whom her parents had hung all their hopes. She was the kindest, cleverest, and most beautiful of the two of them. Everyone liked her; everyone wanted her, and her old husband had been no exception. He’d seemed besotted with her at the time and Leslie with him. It was too bad that it had all turned out wrong.
Her parents were thrilled that Leslie was to marry another laird, but once she was killed, they’d almost forgotten that Ailyn existed. And so, she’d taken to the road ever since, trying to forge her own path and leave behind whatever was left of her family. The only way she knew her parents noticed her actions was that her father had sent the guard to go with her.
Ailyn jumped when a hand touched her shoulder. She turned to see Finnigan again and the other men. “Dinner is prepared, my lady. We requested that it be served in yer chamber. We will be there tae guard the door while ye eat.”
Ailyn nodded, trying to swallow back the lump that had formed in her throat. Thoughts of her family always brought everything back up, despite the years that had passed. “Thank ye.” Finnigan led the way up the steps and to her door, and when he shut it after her, she felt the silence. It was a slight relief, although she still didn’t feel truly alone. A table was set up in the center of her chamber, and she sat, eager to feast after a long, cold journey. Once she was finished, she went to the door and said, “Finnigan, I am preparing for bed. I will sleep early taenight. Ye and the men may have yer food and rest as well.”
“Thank ye, my lady. One guard will be here at all times.”
“Aye.” She listened to the sound of parting footsteps, but she could hear the shifting boots of the one who remained outside her door. Her earlier resolve to leave the inn for a little while was still just as strong as ever. Her eyes darted about the large chamber, and she could see two windows. When she looked out of them, she could see that they could easily be climbed out of with a bit of rope. Slowly and quietly, she removed her boots and sat on the bed so that if the guard was listening, he could hear her preparations.
After a few seconds, she stood up and quietly tiptoed to the window to open it. It groaned a little at the effort, but she prayed the guard outside would only think she was opening it for a bit of cool, winter breeze. The inn was quite stuffy after all, with a fire burning brightly in her chamber’s hearth. She paused again, waiting, and there was no sound from outside. She tied her tartan around her shoulders and strung a bag around her in which she hid her boots. She couldn’t afford them making a sound until she was out the window. Luckily, her bag contained a bit of rope as they often used it to keep one of the horses nearby as they rode to give it a bit of rest without a rider.
“The goddess of luck is smiling down on me taenight,” she said with a grin and tied one end to the heavy oaken bedpost and threw the other end out the window. She looked back at the door for a second and then sat on the sill, gripping the rope as she let herself down. After a few struggling seconds, she made it to the bottom and could feel the satisfying cold on the ground under her feet.
“Where will we stay when we arrive at the village?” Ervin asked. It had been a couple of hours since they began riding, and it was not far off. It was cold, and even in the bright sunshine, the ride was growing slightly unbearable. Callan could feel the frost in his fingers. “Is it safe tae stay at an inn, do ye think?”
Kendrew grumbled, recovered mainly after a good night’s sleep. His hood was over his face, and he still looked a little fearful and angry, but his eyes were clear. “I donnae think we have a choice, nae in this kind of weather. But we’ll do our best tae stay in an out of the way part of the village. Nae one has found us for five years; I donnae think they will suddenly gain the skill.”
“But what if someone told them about us? Someone must have given away something. Perhaps there was someone who recognized us in the old village?”
Kendrew shook his head. “I cannae make sense of it. Why now? Why after all this time? I had hoped that the Frazers and the MacGregor’s would give up the zeal for yer head, lad.”
Ervin shrugged. “I suppose people could have found it suspicious that we sold the sheep and the cottage in the space of half an hour this morning. It is a good thing we kept Angus with us.” Ervin smiled and rubbed the dog, Hamish, who sat in front of him on the horse, wrapped in a blanket.
Callan chuckled. “Aye, he will be a good companion, but ye must watch him. And did we nae give a good excuse for selling the sheep? There was a family death, and we had tae attend the funeral and go tae assist.”
“I suppose, but after tomorrow, I am suspicious of everyone. I have had far too much excitement in the last twenty-four hours than I’ve had in the past five years. I want tae sit in a tavern and drink whisky until I cannae feel my face.”
Callan laughed. “That sounds like an excellent idea, Kendrew. Although, we’ll need tae at least keep the use of our eyes in order tae watch out for any strange characters.” After another hour, they arrived in the village, and after a bit of asking around, Kendrew found them a smaller inn on the outskirts of town.
They left their horses in the stables to eat and rest and found themselves in their own chamber. “Ye ken, I am looking forward tae when I donnae have tae share a room with two men. It sort of stunts my nightly activities.”
Kendrew rolled his eyes at his brother. “Do ye think of naething else, lad, but women?”
“Women and food.” Ervin grinned. “Let us see if this inn is anything tae remember or if I should have tae step intae the kitchen tae give them a bit of a cooking lesson.”
“I am starved,” Callan said after he took off his tartan and cloak and stood in front of the room’s fire. “Come. We can start on our whisky plan now and discuss our future travel plans.”
Downstairs, the minutes easily flowed together as they laughed and drank whisky in a far corner slightly hidden away from the other tables. It suited Callan perfectly. He was tense at first, fearful that he could see someone he recognized at every corner, but after a quarter of an hour, he could finally settle in. He leaned back while Kendrew regaled them with tales of Ervin’s attempts on the other shepherd’s daughter and her flat refusals of him. Callan found himself smiling and laughing, and he was enjoying himself, but the letter was always at the back of his mind.
Who was it from? Why would they wish to help him? Was there anyone on his side? He knew his brothers didn’t think him guilty, but would they go out of their way to send him a message when it could easily be found by any clan member? No, that couldn’t be. He was puzzled, while on the surface, he laughed and joked with his friends. They ate together, and afterward, Kendrew’s eyes began to wander, and he spotted a set of gentlemen playing a game. “I think I shall join them. There doesn’t seem to be anyone suspicious here this evening. I shall spend it in peace.”
Callan was hesitant, but he agreed. Ervin stood. “And I shall take myself tae the kitchens and see if I cannae help the cook to create some decent pudding.” Callan was soon left alone to his thoughts, and they wandered back to Leslie and her smile as they wed and then her pale, lifeless body as she lay dead next to him that morning. He sipped at his whisky, always hoping and wishing that it could take away the horror of that memory. But he had learned long ago that alcohol would never erase it altogether. He grieved for her; he really did, but over the years, he realized that he’d barely known her. She was fun and exciting and beautiful, but he wasn’t sure that he’d ever really loved her, not in a way that roused his passions. They would have had a good marriage and one of great convenience, but there was a missing element to his grief that he always felt guilty about.
Just as he was about to take another sip, a cloaked woman entered the room, and when she slid into a seat at a table and removed her hood, Callan stopped his glass’s path on its way to his mouth. He was frozen. His heart began to patter. Her green eyes looked about the room, and after she sat and ordered her pint, her eyes locked with his, sending a tingle of pleasure through him. She was the most beautiful woman he’d seen in the whole of his life.
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