Taming the Highlander (Preview)
A wood in Glen Orchy
Siusan leaned back in the saddle as she urged her mare down the grassy bank towards the small burn that ran between the trees. The polished leather of the reins ran smoothly between her fingers. The chillness of the fresh morning air laved her cheeks.
It was a fine spring morning, and she had taken herself out to the Hermitage Wood, one of the many copses that grew along the banks of the River Orchy as remnants of the ancient Caledonian Forest. Around her, straight Scots pines towered to heights that made her feel dizzy when she looked up to their sparse feathery heads, rocky escarpments tumbled down towards the broad rushing river that had carved them, and carpets of bluebells nodded between the trees.
After the excitement of the previous few weeks, she had felt the need to calm her mind and catch her racing thoughts. Even though she was of an age when she could expect to be married, the news of her impending nuptials had taken her by surprise, and her head was reeling with conflicting thoughts and emotions, dreams and images.
She was awoken from her thoughts by the clicking and begging of a pair of mating capercaillies, their lek hidden somewhere in the thick undergrowth. Between the tall, thin trunks of the pine, she could hear the metallic jip of crossbills calling. From ahead of her came the gurgle of the burn as it trickled down to join the Orchy. Her nostrils were filled with the sharp astringency of the pine and… something else.
She sniffed the air, straining to identify the odor. It was the scent of dry woodsmoke, mixed with the faint aroma of meat roasting.
As Oighrig, her mare, scrambled from the foot of the bank and onto a flat piece of ground that fringed the scar of a small gravel burn, she found a group of six men squatting and lying around a small campfire. A blackened can was suspended on a thin branch over the flames. Two skinned rabbits were roasting on a makeshift spit, and what she presumed to be a hedgehog wrapped in clay was baking just inside the large stone hearth.
She did not like the look of the company.
“Well then,” one of the men said, shifting and levering himself to his feet. “Whit hae we here?” He came across and took hold of the mare by the halter. “A pretty maid lost in the forest an’ all alone.”
Siusan jerked back on the reins to free Oighrig’s head from his grip, but the man held fast.
“Now, now, why the haste, lass?” he asked, as the mare tossed its head and skittered back a few paces. “Come an’ join the company fer a while.” He looked across to the others, who were now also getting to their feet as if inviting their encouragement. “We hae plenty o’ meat, an’ ye can provide the sweet dessert. Eh, lads!”
The men chuckled as they surrounded the mare; some of them began running their hands over Siusan’s hips and legs. All of them were dressed in odd assortments of rags. Their faces were grubby with grime, their hair matted and greasy nests of rats’ tails.
“Aye, but she looks a tasty morsel, Archie, does she no’?” one of them remarked, his lecherous grin revealing the brown stumps of his broken teeth.
“That she does, Jockie lad. That she does,” their leader, Archie, replied, stroking the mare’s head to calm it. “Lift her down, lads, lift her down. An’ be careful no’ tae bruise the tender fruit.”
A small sob escaped Siusan’s throat as a dozen filthy hands laid hold of her and began to draw her, gently but firmly, down from the saddle.
For a moment, terror drained the strength from her limbs, but she was suddenly galvanized by the realization that, if they were to succeed in getting her down onto the ground, then all would be lost.
She kicked out to the left and right of her and hammered down a rain of blows on their heads with her fists. The scrum fell away from her, crying out in surprise at her attack. She placed her foot on Archie’s chest and heaved him away from Oighrig’s head. Taking up the reins, she prepared to dig her heels into the flanks of her mount, but the men were up and on her again, clawing at her clothes and pulling her from the horse’s back.
The mare reared and bolted, its eyes round and wide with terror.
Siusan tumbled from the saddle and was dragged kicking and screaming across the ground and thrown onto the turf by the fire. She immediately scrambled back to her feet, still screaming with rage and fear, lashing out in all directions with her arms and feet. She kicked out blindly and caught one of her assailants in the groin. He yelped and collapsed to his knees. Then her head snapped back as a fist connected with her jaw, and she spun to the ground, the world rotating slowly in the wrong direction.
Stunned by the blow, she felt rough hands pin her shoulders and others pull at her riding breeks. Others still were groping her breasts. The strength drained from her and, with it, her ability to resist. She closed her eyes against her tears and let out a long, hoarse wail of despair.
“I’m first, lads,” she heard Archie say.
“An’ I next,” came another frantic voice, followed by grumbles of protest.
“Now, now, dinna fall oot o’er it, lads,” Archie said. “There’s plenty tae go ‘round.”
Suddenly, another voice cut through the babble of breathy, lust-filled voices.
“Get away from her, ye filthy swine!”
Siusan opened her eyes and gasped in amazement.
Three horsemen stood on the other side of the burn. One had dismounted, and his two companions leaned leisurely on their saddle horns, looking on in amused anticipation. The man who had dismounted had wild ginger-red hair, a full beard, and sapphire-blue eyes that flashed danger. He wore a kilt and a sleeveless leather jerkin over a white open-necked shirt. Behind him, a powerful white stallion, its eyes just a fierce as its master’s, pawed the turf, snorting, as if urging him on.
“An’ who the hell are ye?” Archie challenged, jutting his bristled chin out defiantly.
“I’m the man who will cut yer balls aff if ye don’t unhand that woman?” the red-haired horseman stated calmly, drawing his sword and tipping his head back as if to hear what Archie’s decision would be.
A vicious grin spread like a gash across Archie’s face.
“Oh, aye?” he returned, looking from side to side to indicate their strength in numbers. “Ye an’ whose army?”
The horseman turned and looked enquiringly from one to the other of his companions.
“Och, Uilleam,” one of them exclaimed. “Ye are on yer own. We will no’ sully oor blades with the blood o’ such lowly men. I mean, look at ‘em…”
“Aye, come on,” another added impatiently. “Cut the bastards’ throats an’ let us be on oor way. My backside’s sore from all this riding, an’ if I don’t get something tae eat soon, I’ll be forced tae stew my horse.”
Uilleam threw his head back and let out a lusty belly-laugh. Without another word, he stepped across the burn and warmed his muscles by swinging his sword a few turns above his head.
Archie’s companions left off holding Siusan and straightened to their feet, drawing their long dirks from their belts and gathering in a phalanx behind their leader. Uilleam continued walking quickly towards him, without breaking his stride.
As he came within striking distance, Archie made a feint with his dirk towards Uilleam’s belly. Uilleam’s sword whistled through the air and knocked the dirk from Archie’s hand, leaving a bloody stripe across the knuckles. Archie looked down at his wounded hand, his eyes round with fright. His companions darted past him with blood-curdling cries of fury. Uilleam’s sword whistled through the air again, slashing the belly of one before rising to prick another’s throat. The remaining two assailants turned and fled, scrambling up the grassy bank and disappearing into the trees. They were quickly followed by their three wounded companions.
Uilleam, still not breaking his stride, went to stand over Siusan, who still lay supine on the turf. He sheathed his bloody blade and held out his hand to her. She grasped it, and he hauled her to her feet.
“There ye are, lass,” he said, his voice brusque. “Nae harm done. Collect yer horse, an’ we will see ye home. These woods can be a dangerous place fer a young lass on her own, an’ yon vermin will no’ hae scampered far.”
He turned, taking his leave.
Siusan, rearranging her disheveled clothing, stared at him, transfixed.
“W-who are ye?” she asked, her voice quivering ghostlike in her breast.
“Uilleam MacGregor o’ Glen Strae,” he announced without ceremony, continuing to walk away.
“Hae we met afore?”
He stopped and turned back towards her.
“I think no’,” he said, running his eyes over her with a suggestive smile. “I’m sure I would hae remembered sich a bonnie sight.”
His companions, who had been following the whole episode with mild but growing amusement and curiosity, jeered.
“Ye an’ yer svelte tongue, Uilleam,” one of them observed. “I’d watch him, hen,” he continued, addressing Siusan. “He’s a cannie chiel when it comes tae the lassies.”
Uilleam ignored the taunt.
“An’ who might ye be?” he inquired of Siusan.
Siusan lowered her eyes, suddenly shy of the virile young man who stood before her.
“I am Siusan, daughter o’ Angus Mor, chief o’ Clan Gunn.”
“Siusan Gunn,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “Well, ‘tis a happy chance that I should meet ye on the way.”
Siusan cast a glance in the direction in which her assailants had disappeared.
“A ‘happy’ chance indeed,” she remarked ironically.
“An’ if ye’ll permit me, my men an’ I…”
“Yer men, ye cheeky whelp,” one of his companions declared good-naturedly. “I’ll hae ye know that ‘tis yer father, Iain, that I serve, no’ his by-blow.”
Uilleam glowered at him.
“As I was saying afore I was so rudely interrupted: if ye’ll permit me, my two pet monkeys an’ I will convoy ye back tae Clyth Castle.” He hesitated and considered her. “Come tae think aboot it, I will convoy ye back whether ye permit me or no’. He laughed. “It would seem that the clan chief hereabouts cannae even keep his own estates in order, letting outlaws have the run o’ ‘em.”
“Ye seem very sure o’ yerself,” Siusan declared, bridling against the brazenness of the man.
“I am,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Now, mount yerself up on yer wee toy mare, an’ we will be on oor way.”
Her “wee toy mare” indeed!
Siusan saw she was set on a collision course with the handsome ruffian who stood before her.
Siusan guided her mare over the undulations of the river bank. Down to her right, the Orchy in spate twisted and plunged, gurgled and roared, between the rocks that had over millennia tumbled down the mountain slopes and into its course. The churning water released into the air a cold taste of snowmelt, fresh from the mountain tops. She closed her eyes and inclined her head slightly to the clear blue sky, and the sun faintly warmed her face through the chill of the spring breeze.
She felt thankful for Uilleam’s intervention, but she was also keen to get the journey over with as quickly as possible. She was still shocked by the casual brutality he had shown during that intervention. He had shown no qualms whatsoever about wounding the outlaws. Although they indeed deserved a right thrashing for their assault on her, she shivered at the thought of Uilleam so easily being capable of running them through. She was also conscious of how vulnerable she was in the company of such rough and dangerous strangers, and her heart raced with anxiety at the prospect of all they might do to her were they to take it into their heads.
For the present, however, the men were in fine, friendly spirits. They laughed and joked and sparred insults as they rode leisurely along, letting their mounts set their own ambling pace. The horses’ hooves clomped dully on the turf. Her mare, its ears pricked, alert to the presence of the powerful stallions, jerked and twitched skittishly beneath her and pulled peevishly against the reins, its mouth wrestling with the bit.
Uilleam had taken the lead. His two companions, Lewis and Gillespie, dragged along in his wake, while Siusan was left trailing behind them, almost as an afterthought. She felt strangely torn between the desire to remain invisible, so as not to attract any unwelcome attention from them, and a desire to be noticed.
For there was no denying that Uilleam excited her. She was aroused by his powerful physicality.
Uilleam, his longish red hair and beard burnished by the spring sunshine, controlled his powerful stallion without any apparent effort, and not so much by his brute strength than by an air of command that the horse seemed to trust and respect, just as the man himself seemed to trust and respect his mount’s immense potency. His muscular legs, naked beneath the kilt of his belted plaid, gripped his horse’s flanks firmly. His back was as straight and as supple as a birch, and his shoulders were broad and powerful through the linen of his shirt. His body exuded strength, confidence, composure, and dependability from which flowed an unchallengeable authority. It was this, Siusan reflected, that his giant stallion sensed and accepted, and which formed the basis of its trust.
But still, he frightened her, in much the same way that his stallion would. He had power and wildness that she could never control, that she would always be at the mercy of.
She could not wait to be safe, back at home, and out of his fearsome and disturbing presence.
“Could we no’ go a little faster?” she enquired after them, her voice timid but with an edge of impatience.
Uilleam shifted around in his saddle and considered her appraisingly, amusement adding a gleam to his lively blue eyes, a mischievous smile spreading slowly across his full lips. He glanced quickly between his two companions as if gathering them into complicity with his latest ploy.
“Whit’s wrang, lass? Are ye in sich a hurry tae get home? Would ye no’ rather dally along the road with three strapping men an’ take in the bonnieness o’ sich a fine spring morning?”
A wave of annoyance passed through her breast.
“’Tis just… I hae had a terrible fright, an’ I would much rather enjoy the peace an’ quiet o’ my private chamber, in which I could recover from my recent ordeal. No offense intended tae my present company,” she quickly added.
Uilleam spread his hands and affected a look of innocent incomprehension, dropping a theatrical wink to Gillespie.
“No offense taken, I’m sure.” He smiled. “But ye’re quite safe now. We will see tae it that no further harm comes tae ye. An’ they say that nature is the greatest salve.”
Siusan looked around herself. They were just passing a small copse of hawthorn trees. The young leaves glittered in the breeze. Tits and finches twittered excitedly, as they tried to outdo each other in the frantic search for a mate. On either side of the glen, the mountains soared and glowered down on them. The faint scent of the early-blooming heather carried down to her from the hillsides on the breeze, barely discernable amid the more pungent sweetness of the hawthorn blossom, the ‘may’ from which the month got its name.
The breeze blew her hair across her face and chilled her shoulders, making her shiver involuntarily. Her irritation turned to anger at Uilleam’s refusing of her want.
“No,” she insisted. “I would rather we didn’t dally an’ arrived at Clyth sooner rather than later.”
Her smoldering anger lowed into flame.
“Well, ye see,” he told her, “we are in no haste, are we, lads? We are enjoying oor liberty, an’ tae be able tae spend it in the company o’ so winsome a bird as yerself makes it all the more pleasing. Do no’ wish yer company away from us tae soon, I beg ye. Surely, the sight o’ ye is the least we deserve after saving yer life an’ yer virtue back there.”
She pouted and heeled her horse to pass and move ahead of them.
Their laughter rose behind her back.
Fuming silently, her brows drawn into a sullen frown, she urged her mare into a jittery trot, hoping that Uilleam and his crew would spur their mounts on to keep up with her.
“Och, don’t sulk, my dearie,” Uilleam called mockingly. “It ill becomes ye an’ casts a cloud o’er oor pleasant spree.”
Uilleam ran his eye over Siusan as she rode on ahead of them. Her loose golden hair cascaded in curls over her shoulders and down her back, much as the Orchy danced over its gravelly bed, sparkling in the sunlight. She held her head high and haughty, in proud defiance of the attention she was no doubt conscious of being under. The strong upward sweep of her white throat was long and elegant, like the throat of a swan. Her ample breasts swelled the tight bodice of her close-fitting riding habit. Her generous hips spread voluptuously across her saddle. Her legs, the long and shapely outline of which he could make out through the cloth of her riding breeches, gripped the flanks of her mare firmly and confidently.
His own breathing grew shallow and ragged with desire. A lustful longing unfurled in his loins, and he shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. He rubbed his thumb against the smooth leather of his reins, imagining how soft and smooth her skin would feel, how silkily those golden curls would run through the grasp of his fingers. He fancied those shapely legs locked around his own flanks, and his stomach growled. He pictured how spirited she would be in bed, the fight she would put up; only a man who was worthy of her would be able to subdue her.
“Ye seem discomfited.” Lewis grinned as he rode up beside him. “Something ye’ve eaten, perhaps? Or has the lass put a burr in yer braies?”
“Aye, she would be a cannie ride, an’ no mistake,” Uilleam observed appreciatively, in a low voice. “But she knows that fine well, an’ she knows fine well how bonnie she is an’ the glamour that bonnieness has. She knows the power it gives her.”
Lewis harrumphed and made a face. He shared Uilleam’s cynicism.
“She certainly likes tae hae her own way. She’s a headstrong mare an’ knows how tae use her charms tae help her get her heart’s desire.”
“She’s a tease right enough,” Uilleam agreed.
Lewis leaned across and nudged Uilleam’s arm with his elbow.
“Well, ye seem tae hae rubbed her up the wrang way.” He chuckled. “I reckon ye hae little chance there.”
Uilleam contemplated her.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he replied. “She will come ‘round in time. It is like guddling fer trout; ye need patience an’ a soft touch. Lull her with a gentle caress, an’ then… wheech! Oot ontae the bank with her. I shall land yon fishie yet…”
“A gentle caress!” Lewis snorted. “Ye are no more capable o’ a gentle caress than a claymore is. An’ patience is hardly yer strongest quality.”
Uilleam rose and settled again in his saddle.
“I hae no doubt she will be a challenge. She is a proud one, yon Siusan Gunn; she will no’ be landed easily. But I will hae her afore tae many weeks are oot.”
“Well, good luck tae ye, man,” he said. “I would no’ wager against it, but she does seem tae hae taken powerfully against ye.”
Soon, though barely soon enough for Siusan, Clyth Castle hove into sight.
It was a modest keep, three stories high, protected by a three-foot-thick stone wall that enclosed a close inner ward. The more expansive outer ward was circled by a ditch and wooden palisade. Shaggy red-haired cattle with wide fearsome horns grazed the outer ward, minded by a tousie-headed barefooted lad. The cattle lowed, warning each other of the riders’ approach, and the cowherd stared at them wide-eyed and open-mouthed as if he wondered whether his worst fears had been realized and they were cattle thieves about to fall upon him.
The gate to the inner ward was guarded by a small fortified tower. From beyond its gate came the distant sound of industry. A hammer clanged on an anvil. An adze thumped against wood, and the high-pitched rasp on a saw ripped the air. Pots clashed, and voices babbled. Uilleam’s nostrils twitched at the reek of peat-smoke and the ripe stench of the midden.
His spirits were suddenly depressed by the realization that he and Siusan would soon be parted. It would have been pleasant, he thought, to have been able to spend even just a little more time in her company. He regretted that he had made such a poor first impression upon her and that the distant prospect of his having his way with her, unlikely though it had always been, was rapidly vanishing from sight.
He resolved to at least part with her on good terms. He heeled his horse and rode forward to catch her up.
Lewis and Gillespie glanced at each other with a smile of complicity and hung back to allow him a moment alone with the lass.
“I am grateful fer yer company,” he said almost bashfully, his eyes fixed awkwardly on his horse’s withers, his voice low and reluctant-sounding, the words as awkward as pebbles in his mouth. Then he looked up and smiled. “An’ I apologize on behalf o’ my feres,” he added, “an’ their rough manners.”
Siusan opened her mouth, aghast at the audacity of the man.
“Yer companions’ manners…” she sputtered.
“Aye,” he confirmed, without a hint of irony. “They are coarse chiels an’ no’ used tae sich genteel company as yer own.”
She shook her head in disbelief, before remembering her own manners and quickly collecting herself.
“I suppose I should invite ye in fer some refreshment…”
Uilleam raised his hand.
“That is kind o’ ye, but… no, we hae a journey ahead o’ us, an’ we really must be pressing on. We hae already dallied tae long on the road; we will be expected at my father’s house at Meggernie.”
Siusan inclined her head in assent, relieved that the insufferable brute had not taken her up on her offer.
For his part, Uilleam felt that, rather than continue pressing his suit, it would be wiser to let her ire subside. He inclined his body in a stiff bow.
“I will take my leave o’ ye, then, my Lady. Ye should be safe now, in the shadow o’ yer father’s stronghold.” He smiled mischievously; he could not help himself. “Yon cowherd looks likely enough tae see aff any stray chiels that would molest ye.”
She ignored his last remark.
“Good day then, Uilleam MacGregor,” she said. “I am grateful fer the service ye hae rendered me.”
“It was an honor.” He beamed.
He considered reaching out to take her hand and kiss her fingers but thought better of it. With a pull on the reins, he wheeled his stallion around and rode back to rejoin his companions.
Siusan felt that she had not seen the last of Uilleam MacGregor.
If you liked the preview, you can get the whole book here
If you want to be always up to date with my new releases, click and...
Follow me on BookBub