The Haunted Highland Tale (Preview)
In the dead of night, in a Parisian inn, young Reed McNeil stood stone still in the middle of the room, hands jittering at his sides. He stared at the dead man slumped over at the table, his horror building with each second that passed.
The body lay face-down, fingers still resting on the stem of an overturned chalice—wine soaked into the light wood grain of the table, staining it crimson. The motionless form was slouched over, one hand dangling loosely at his side. Red frothed at the man’s lips, wicked bubbles of spittle-flecked with blood.
The wicked mark of poison.
A harsh knock sounded from the other side of the wooden door causing Reed to jolt in shock. Orange candlelight spilled beneath the crack in the door, and a shadow shifted on the other side. When Reed’s fear prevented him from moving, the fist pounded the wood again, booming on the thick oak. There was much more force this time, and the power of the blow rattled the heavy door on its hinges. Breath whooshed out from his lungs in a great rush, and he inhaled the strong scent of red wine.
He turned to search the room for some escape, freezing again when his gaze fell upon the motionless figure…
Bile rose up in his throat as his eyes fell on the wine on the table. He brushed one trembling hand roughly through his red hair, baffled and frightened. The maid who’d brought them their bottle and chalices hadn’t had any hint of malice in her eyes, nor had the innkeeper or his wife. They’d given him a room, showing him kindness. Reed couldn’t imagine any reason they would want to hurt him or the stranger who’d taken residence in the room’s second bed.
Who could have done this?
Only moments ago, he and his older roommate had been sharing stories and laughter, drinking merrily, and enjoying each other’s company. Reed had been listening intently to the stranger’s tales and told him about his plan to study literature in Paris, an endeavor the man had applauded, when a knock at the door had revealed a smiling maid, with two chalices of red wine in hand. She set them down before them without a word, shutting the door behind her. Reed had taken a swig of his wine, then laughed, adding that his taste was more towards whisky. He was about to call the maid back and ask her to bring more whiskey, when his new friend dropped his chalice from shaking hands, the metal clattering against the wooden table.
In another minute, the stranger was clutching his throat, rasping for breath. He gripped the edge of his wooden chair, his body contorting with pain. Then his last breath rattled his body, and then he moved no more.
As he stood frozen in the room, now, just minutes later, Reed saw the scene over and over in his mind, unable to block it out of his thoughts. The dying man’s cry echoed in his mind.
The guards are goin’ tae think this was my doin!
His heart pounded in his chest, trembling fingers knotting into fists. There were no windows in the room, only four walls that threatening to close in on him as his mind rushed in a whirlwind of thoughts.
Another thunderous knock came, this time accompanied by angry voices. The words were spoken in swift French that Reed couldn’t understand. He heard men grumbling in low tones, their shadows shifting, growing more and more agitated as the seconds slunk on.
Reed held his breath, praying for them to leave. For a moment, it seemed like they were doing just that. The candlelight faded softly, as did the voices, and soon there was only darkness beneath the crack in Reed’s door. He exhaled, his knees weakening in gratitude.
He turned to grab his bag from the foot of his bed. Before he could do so, a mighty blow struck the door again, as though a man or several men were ramming into it with all of their weight. They hadn’t been leaving at all, merely making room to bust the door down. Reed stumbled backward, his eyes wide, but his body stiffening in anticipation of a fight…
Again, the men charged the door, their feet pounding the inn’s wooden floorboards. This time, to Reed’s horror, the door gave way.
Three guards stood crammed in the hall, the first two breathing heavily and rubbing at their shoulders. They pushed forward, seizing Reed by his upper arms as the third man rushed forward to inspect the body at the table. He bent low next to the man’s face, sniffed the chalice, and turned back with an expression muddled with rage.
“C’et homme est mort!” the guard cried. The man stood and turned to Reed. He could already see the accusation in the man’s eyes. “Poisoned by the hand of a coward!”
“Please, listen —”
“Meurtrier!” the man shouted. “You Scots think we won’t check a room when we hear someone screaming for help in the middle of the night? Or did you think your draught would be quick enough to end his life before we could notice?”
“No, I —”
“Silence!” another guard cried, shaking Reed roughly. “It’s clear what’s been done.”
Reed struggled in the men’s iron grip, desperately trying to reason with them, but it was as though he was speaking to statues. They dragged him down the hallway as the innkeeper and his wife looked on in horror. Reed twisted, trying to catch their eye, hoping they would help him, but a tight grip on his long hair forced him forward.
“Brute,” the guard snapped. “ You’ll be lucky if you do not hang.”
“No,” Reed shouted, his voice rising. “Ye cannae do this. I didnae do anythin’ wrong! Let go o’ me!”
“Tell it to the rest of the dogs in the dungeon,” the guard said, his thick accent contorting the words. “That’s the only company you’ll have from now on.”
Nothing Reed said or did seemed to make any difference. His reasoning passed through the guards as though he were speaking to his shadow. When it became apparent that they would not hear him, he tried to twist away, but the men’s hold on his arms was too strong. He couldn’t wrench himself away, no matter how he tried. Reed’s anger flared even through his fear, and he bared his teeth at his captors. He’d almost loosened one arm out of the men’s grip when he was struck with a heavy blow to the side of the head. Colors burst before his eyes, and he felt blood trickling down the side of his face in a slow stream.
With that, Reed was forced through the threshold of the door and out into the night, friendless and alone. He lifted his pounding head and turned back towards the inn, desperately wondering why anyone could want to frame him for a murder that he had no hand in. As he was led away, images of his family flashed in his mind. He could see his mother and father’s serene and encouraging expressions, hear his brothers and sisters laughing in their orchard together.
As Reed was dragged away, he wondered if he would ever see them again or if he would take his last breath in a country he barely knew, far away from home and everyone he’d ever loved.
If Reed knew one thing, it was that the sunset on the moors of his home country was unrivaled anywhere else in the world. Although, he supposed that a man who’d been imprisoned for three years would think just that very thing.
He leaned forward on the back of Atlas, the black horse he’d stolen during his escape, and spurred the sleek beast onward over the white terrain. Scarlet sunlight broke through the clouds, settling on the sloping hills and reflecting the brilliant colors in the snow. Silhouettes of the hawthorn trees reached their arms up high, while the willows bowed and swayed their naked branches in the wind. Reed inhaled, breathing in the crisp scent of home. He couldn’t help the smile that brushed across his face. It only widened the closer he got to Eilean Donan Castle.
His dark red hair flew about him as he pressed on toward home. Atlas kicked up a wave of white slush as the creature jumped over a fallen oak log. Reed laughed, adrenaline coursing through his body. The flurry of horse and rider upset a family of quails, the little birds fluttering in the icy powder.
Memories of his youth began to flood back. He and his brothers had loved to hunt in this area for deer and duck, bringing back the game for great feasts for the entire clan. The memories were so vivid that he could almost hear Laurence and Allan’s voices ringing through the wintery landscape as he raced on.
His escape from his captors hadn’t been easy, but it had been worth it to be once again surrounded by the comforting landscape of home. The long trek back had been nearly as unbearable as the prison itself. Every step felt as though it were a mile. He’d worn out his shoes running through the French woodlands, stolen a horse, and stowed away on a ship, but now the journey was coming to a close.
Reed smiled. The castle wasn’t far. He only had to round this clump of snow-dusted pine trees, and then he’d be home, to be greeted by his mother and father, a cozy fire and the warm embrace of his siblings.
Safety. Security. The comfort of family.
All just within his grasp.
Atlas picked up speed, bolting beneath two craggy boulders, towards the loch that Eilean Donan overlooked, nestled in the mountains. He could see the sunlight reflecting the water in the distance, glinting off the ice like diamonds. He sat up tall, his heart racing, but something wasn’t quite right.
The tips of the castle peaks should be visible… but they weren’t.
His dark brows dipped down. He straightened, pushing up on his saddle with the toes of his boots, but still nothing. Reed shook his head at himself. It had been some time since he’d clapped eyes on this place; perhaps his memory wasn’t entirely accurate.
Still, the longer he rode, the clearer it became that something was wrong. Terribly wrong.
Reed rounded a snowbank, worry eating away at his heart. As he rushed down a steep hill towards the loch that lay cupped between the mountains, his grip tightened on the reins.
When Reed finally reached the top of the slope, his breath caught in his throat, choking him like a stone.
There lay only ruins where his once beautiful home stood. The stone walls were crumbling, smashed as if a battering ram had slammed into them with ruthless force. The plentiful orchard, too, seemed to have been ravaged. Instead of mature trees stretching up towards the sky with their thick branches, only stumps and blackened trunks remained. As Reed drew closer, he saw that the castle gates were splintered and cracked, and the bridge across the loch was near collapse.
“How could this have happened?” Reed whispered, slowing to a halt outside of the gates. “Who could have done this?”
Two guards stood at the entrance, eyeing him suspiciously. They were young men, and he didn’t recognize their faces. One of their hands twitched towards the hilt of the blade slung across his back as Reed approached.
“Who are ye an’ what d’ye want wi’ the McNeil clan?” the young man called out. His voice dripped with distrust, hostility coloring his words. “I warn ye if ye mean us any harm —”
“No need fer tha’,” Reed said, holding out his hands to show he held no weapon. H“ I’m the Laird’s son, Reed McNeil. This is my home. Now tell me, who did this? What happened?”
The young guards shared a glance, Then the first man stepped forward, looking up at him on his horse, with eyes glinting dangerously.
“Ye think we’re goin’ tae let ye in, jus’ like tha’?” he asked. “There is no proof tae yer words, an’ we willnae be tricked. Ye have no place here, traveler. The McNeils are dead, an’ the rest o’ us have enough problems without a suspicious stranger skulkin’ aroun’ the keep.”
Reed froze. His stomach tightened like a clenched fist at the man’s words.
“What?” he asked, his voice thin and his throat burning. “But… how can tha’ be?”
Reeds slid down from his horse, taking long, urgent steps towards the splintered castle gates. His gaze darted up towards the broad spire at his parent’s window. There was no light coming from within.
“Leave, stranger,” the guard said again, his words steely this time. The man’s stance shifted as he advanced towards the castle.
“No,” Reed said again. Grief stung his eyes, his throat. “Not until I’ve seen fer myself. I’m enterin’ this castle, my home. I dinnae want tae fight wi’ ye, especially if ye’re from my own clan. Now lay down yer arms. I need tae know who did this.”
The guards shared another dark, suspicious look, both silent. Reed steadied himself as he waited for them to make the first move. His blood pounded in grief and rage, but he didn’t want to fight these men if he didn’t have to.
He had nothing to defend himself but the small blade at his side, but he had to see within the castle walls. His heart pounded as he stole another glance up toward the crumbling tower. He could hear nothing on the other side of the gate; no voices, no laughter, no life.
Reed looked back towards the two men before him. It was clear that they didn’t trust him; their hands were twitching, ready to draw their blades. Reed was just about to open his mouth again to try and dissuade them from doing anything foolish when the first young guard reached back for his weapon.
Just as the first deadly flash of steel peeked out from within the guards’ scabbards, the gate swung open with a heavy creak.
Out stepped an older man, his face weathered from years of grief and worry. The straggled red strands of hair were streaked with white. The man squinted at Reed, his fingers tugging at the long beard at his chin.
“What’s all this, eh?” the man asked. “Who are ye tae come wanderin’ aroun’ our castle? We’ve ‘ad enough o’ strangers. Begone!”
But as the old man came closer, Reed’s eyes widened.
“Travis?” he asked. “Travis McMahon? Ye were my father’s advisor! Can ye no’ recognize me?”
The elderly man blinked and rubbed his eyes for a moment. He took another step forward, disbelief draining the color from his face.
“It cannae be nothin’ bu’ a miracle,” the man said. “Reed McNeil? Bu’ where ‘ave ye been all these years? Yer father sent out search parties throughout Scotland and France when ye never wrote home. We thought ye were dead!”
“No’ dead,” Reed said. “I’m still livin’, even if at times I thought I was in Hell. I was imprisoned in France, framed fer a deed I had no part in. Murder by the way o’ poison. I finally made my escape after years o’ plannin’, but I expected anythin’ else other than this.”
Travis motioned the two guards to sheath their blades and reached out for Reed’s shoulder, squeezing hard. Reed wondered whether the old man did so to comfort him or assure himself that he wasn’t truly looking at a ghost.
“I know ye have questions, but this isnae the right place,” Travis said softly. “Come inside where it’s warm, or as warm as we’re likely tae be, then I’ll tell ye everythin’. I’ll warn ye though; the castle is in no more of a better state inside than it is out. But four walls and a decent fire is better than the wind an’ snow. Lads, one o’ ye take the horse tae the stables an’ I’ll send fer yer relief shortly.” He directed these last words to the guards, who nodded at him gratefully.
The old man pushed the thick oak gates open wider, struggling with the weight of the wood for a moment, and then waved for Reed to follow. The two guards stepped aside and let him pass, mumbling their apologies and looking sheepish. Reed followed behind Travis, and the gates shut with a heavy thud.
Reed closed his eyes before looking up at the interior of the castle walls, telling himself that he would accept whatever he saw. He would listen to Travis with a level head — or as much as he could manage — and then he would decide what to do. Reed’s lips felt impossibly dry, and his head was swimming, but he steadied his shoulders, lifted his chin, and then opened his eyes again.
But there was not enough will in the world that could have prepared Reed for what he saw.
As he gazed around at the ravaged courtyard, the air rushed out of his lungs in an agonized breath. His hands wandered up to cover his mouth, to rub at the stubble of his chin, anything to feel a sensation that wasn’t the terrible aching in his heart. He wanted to look away from the singed trees and the decaying ramparts but found it impossible. Wherever he turned his attention, memories melded with the cruel reality, blurring his vision. Ghosts of his tender youth blended with the despair and desolation that blanketed the grounds.
The old man led him across the courtyard, through the main doors that lead into the entrance hall. Reed could see a few people in the distance, bending low to pluck meager amounts of blackberries from the plants that were growing along the walls of the castle. They straightened up as they caught sight of him.
“How many o’ us are left?” Reed asked.
Travis shook his head.
“Wait until we’re more comfortable, lad,” he said. “Take the time tae adjust tae all this. I know it cannae be easy tae take in. We’ll have a dram, an’ I’ll tell ye everythin’.”
With that, the two made their way indoors. Reed dropped his head as he tried not to let the grief take hold of him, though his heart was as shattered as the castle that had been his home since his earliest memories. He made a silent oath to himself as a single tear fell to the crumbling stone floor.
He would find whoever did this, and they would pay with their life.
Freya Cameron clutched her white cloak around her, her eyes on the tree line that surrounded her small cabin. She’d heard something out in the forest this time, she was sure of it. It sounded like footsteps, as though someone had stepped on a branch and snapped it. Freya’s grip on her cloak tightened in excitement, and she fought the urge to smile.
Please let it be him, she thought to herself. It has tae be this time. It jus’ has tae be.
She leaned forward earnestly, trying to stop herself from bolting into the forest in anticipation, and waited.
Another crack, closer this time.
“Father?” Freya called into the night. “Is tha’ ye?”
She took a step forward, her breath coming out in frosty puffs of air. Snow crunched beneath her shoes as she braved another step.
The brush crackled and the bushes parted before her. Freya couldn’t keep the smile from whisking itself across her face, but as branches dipped further, the excitement dropped from her expression. A fox came skittering out of the underbrush, hopping through the snow playfully. It caught sight of her, froze, and then bounded off over the hilltop. The little creature left dark footprints in the slush behind it as it ran.
Disappointment flooded through her. She let her cloak slide from her shoulders as her grip on the white wool loosened. She turned back to the cabin, plodding through the snow, and tried not to let her heartache win. Freya shut the door behind her as she toyed with a strand of her raven black hair.
“Another lonely night,” she murmured to herself. “Jus’ like they all have been.”
She leaned down, picked up her mug of whisky from the table, and sloshed the contents around, sighing. She sipped what was left of it, the liquid burning her throat all the way down.
Freya’s heart ached terribly. She’d been so certain this time. The sounds in the forest had been almost identical to footsteps; she wasn’t sure how she hadn’t realized it was a fox. She gazed around at the little cabin, her chest tightening in disappointment. It had been three long years since she’d seen her father, and the grief had become heavier and heavier by the day. She knew that his journey had been important to him, that her aunt had been gravely ill, but Freya wished more than anything to see him again.
Before she knew what she was doing, she swooped down and snatched up her bag.
I think tonight mus’ be a prayin’ night. I cannae think o’ any other way tae help my father, but maybe my words will reach God’s ears.
Within moments, her sack was stuffed with a bottle of wine, a thick blanket, and a few morsels of salted venison and cheese. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to hold her over and keep her warm for a few hours. She smiled, telling herself she was doing as much good as she was able. Freya slipped her cloak back on, fastening it at the collar, and threw her bag over her shoulder. She scribbled a note on a piece of parchment and slid it in the crack of the door. It was the same words she wrote every time she went praying.
If you’ve come home while I’m gone, stay put. I’ll be back soon. At the old church.
She’d written these words countless times, faithfully sliding the parchment somewhere that her father would see if he did happen to return. Each time, she would come back to see that the parchment remained untouched.
Even so, Freya herself had suspected this trip would be a lengthy one. When the letter came detailing how ill her aunt truly was, she’d seen all the color drain from her father’s face. He’d looked so grief-stricken when he’d read about his sister’s sickness that Freya had insisted he visit for as long as needed. She knew that if anyone could heal her aunt, it was her father. The man was knowledgeable on so many subjects. He’d seemed to Freya like an expert on countless subjects, from healing and herbology all the way to pagan rituals.
Aunt Aisla needs Father right now, she told herself, not for the first time. He’ll come home as soon as he can. He made a promise an’ I know he willnae break it.
But it had been three years of disappointment. Three years of heartbreak without even a letter to show for it.
What if he never comes home?
She shoved that thought aside, turning to lock the door behind her as she stepped out into the chill. Freya found that she immediately felt better upon her first few steps into the silent night, as if she was leaving her sorrow behind her. There was a familiarity within the forest. There, she wasn’t alone, or at least not completely. She enjoyed the sounds of deer as they leapt through the wintery forest landscape and smiled when a large brown owl passed through the branches above her head. There was no path to the church, but Freya needed none. She made her way through the trees, feeling the differences in the bark’s texture as she passed each one.
Here, an oak tree. And there, an old hawthorn. She knew if she continued further north, there would be a prickly blackberry bush and just beyond it, the church.
I suppose it’s a good thing Father made sure I can take care o’ myself.
She had been alone in the world now since she was just twenty-one, but she knew how to survive.
She kept going, pulling her white cloak over her pale gown, and continued onward. Soon, the abandoned church was in sight. The moon rose up high behind it, creating a black silhouette of the dilapidated structure. Freya trudged on, creating a trench in the snow as she went. She gathered the skirts of her dress in her arms, not wanting to dirty it. It had been the last gift that her father had given her before his departure, and she had taken great pains to keep it clean.
When Freya came upon the courtyard just outside of the ancient building, she bent to brush the fluffy white powder from an old stone bench. Sitting down chilled her body straight through, but the view of the stars was worth it. She gazed up at the winking lights in the sky, brushing a lock of black hair behind her ear.
Freya wondered if her father was looking at those same stars somewhere. She shivered the cold breaking through her thick cloak.
“Suppose I should pra,y if tha’s what I came here tae do,” she said. “I jus’ wish I wasnae doin’ it alone.”
Memories of her and her father flooded her; how many times had they prayed together at this very spot? She let a bittersweet smile brush across her face, her eyes shining with emotion as her childhood played out in her mind. She saw her father teaching her how to hunt, how to build a fire, how to combine just the right herbs to create a life-saving poultice. The man had told the best stories and had all the answers to every question her curious younger self could think to ask. There were so many little moments, so many ways in which he showed her he loved her, but her memories of praying together with her father in the church were by far her most precious.
Her hands wound together, and she squeezed tightly. With a sigh, she let the hood of her cloak fall back around her shoulders. She kneeled on the stone floor, thinking that perhaps God might hear her better outdoors than within the walls of the church. After all, Freya always felt closer to the Lord when surrounded by nature anyway. She clasped her hands, eyes on the glittering indigo sky, and prayed.
“Oh, Heavenly Lord,” she whispered. “I hope ye can hear me. I know ye prob’ly have a lot tae attend tae, and there’s a lot more people out there who have it well worse than I do… But please, if ye’re listenin’… Please bring my father home. I’ve been so terribly lonely, an’ I miss him verra much. I know I’ve asked this o’ ye before, but if ye could —”
She stopped speaking as a crash sounded from within the forest. Freya stood, whirling around. Her hands flew up to pull her cloak up beneath her chin, her eyes wide with fear. There came another loud, woody crack. This time, though, it came from her far right, on the opposite side of where the first noise came from. Something, or someone, was watching her. No – it was more than one. The sound of feet crunching snow came upon her from several different sides. She looked left and right, searching for movement, desperately trying to see what it was that was approaching her. There came a flash of something dark against the white frost, but she could not tell what it was.
Freya slowly slid her hand into her bag, trying her best to be as subtle as she could. She felt around, cursing when she realized she hadn’t brought a blade.
Instead, her hand gripped the neck of the wine bottle. She would gladly sacrifice the wine if she had to break the bottle over something’s head to save her life. She tightened her hold on it, narrowing her eyes, and waited for the stalkers to make the first move, whoever they may be.
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