The Lass He Never Forgot (Preview)
Scottish Highlands, 1654
Iona awoke dazed to the thick, infernal darkness of the room. A repulsive and foul odor ran through her nostrils as she found herself in such a mysterious place. The heat and anxiety caused her to sweat profusely — its drops trickling into her cuts and wounds, causing a stinging sensation. Her dizziness and fear were only exacerbated by the pain.
As her eyes blinked open, she found herself in a small, unfamiliar room made of grey stone. Torches slanted across it on the left and right, held only by black, rusted steel cases. The torches emitted a small flame, keeping the room dimly lit. As a result, Iona could barely see, which made her feel even more uneasy.
The only opening in the middle wall was the size of a human palm. So she knelt beneath this window, straining her eyes to make out the details of her surroundings but all she could see were steel bars chained shut in front of her.
She crouched down silently for a while, shocked to discover that her hands were bound by thick bronze chains. She used her wrists to pull on her bounds for a while, but her efforts were futile. This beautiful young woman was slender and frail, fighting against chains that even the strongest Highlanders couldn’t break if they tried. Her once pale wrists turned red as she struggled with every ounce of strength she could muster.
After what seemed like an eternity of struggle, she slumped defeatedly onto the ground and rested her back on the hard wall, her fluffy brown hair cushioning her against it. Her thoughts wandered to how she got here.
She propped her head up and spotted two silhouettes outside the room. Even though they were out of sight, their shadows were cast over the doors.
“Who are ye?” she exclaimed authoritatively, but the shadows stood unmoved. “Release me, ye dirty scoundrels!”
But the shadows remained unmoved by her wails.
They appeared to be six-foot-tall guards with pointy hoods over their heads, and although they displayed indifference towards her pleas, she was sure they could hear her. Shortly after, two other figures joined them, all of them standing still across from one another.
“Can ye hear me?” she screamed again fearfully as the stillness sent a chill down her spine.
She began to wonder if they could hear her or if her captors were just ghosts or figments of her imagination. The more she screamed, the more still they seemed to become, and the thought of what men who weren’t even slightly shaken by her anguish could do to her gave her goosebumps.
“I beg thee, let me free, an’ I will dae anything ye ask o’ me!” she said yet again as her feelings of fear rose to the fore.
Fear blasted through her as the shadows suddenly began to close in on her. They moved in unison before standing in front of her, staring her down, yet all she saw was a human-shaped shadow.
“Are ye going tae kill me?” she asked again, about to burst into tears.
She wondered if these silhouettes were human at all, and if so, why did they have such unrecognizable features. The mystery of who these men were fuelled her agony.
She remembered going to her chambers before everything went black. Perhaps she was brought here for protection, or perhaps it was the Laird’s enemies — her husband had many foes who wanted to harm him in some way. That would probably explain why she was being treated so poorly.
Her mind raced and she screamed and yanked on her shackles. It was as if she had emptied herself of all the fear and pain that had accumulated within her onto the clutches. Her efforts paid off this time, and she collapsed panting on the damp dungeon floor.
Iona’s tears streamed down her face, as she had always dreaded the nightmare of captivity, and here she was, facing it out of nowhere. She quickly sprung up at the realization that her entire body was sprawled on the floor and her hands were no longer shackled. She kept her head down, thinking that one of the shadows undid the chains and was now in the room with her.
“Please let me go!” she screamed before raising her head up.
When her cries were heard only by herself, she realized that the shadow figures, like the shackles, had vanished into thin air. She had no idea where they had gone, but she knew she had to leave before they returned. With what little strength her tired and bruised body could muster, she sprung up off the floor and ran towards the door, only to discover that its chains had also vanished.
She leaped hands-first towards the doors before collapsing against hard bricks. She moaned and picked herself up, shakily and confusedly, scanning the room and wondering where they’d gone. She was terrified when she discovered that the doors and window had mysteriously closed.
Her screams resurfaced and only became louder as she hoped for someone to save her from the terror she was in, but to no avail. There was no way in or out of the dungeon, but she felt a chill, as if the heat of the night had turned into a brewing storm.
She dashed towards the dungeon’s only source of illumination, a wooden torch, for warmth, and as she leapt towards it, the torch’s flame began to flicker. Fear and confusion danced around her, as there was no explanation for the fire’s instability.
She stared blankly at the flickering fire when a cold chill went down her spine once again, but this time, the torch behind her went out. She turned around, but as soon as she looked at the unlit torch, the one beside her went out as well.
Now in a totally dark room, crying softly as though she had given up on her screams, she was startled as a strange being appeared. The creature’s fire red eyes were all she could see.
As footsteps approached her, she crawled back into the wall. The figure appeared to be eight feet tall and stood quietly next to her trembling body.
The creature was now lying next to her, staring at her with its beady red eyes and breathing on her shoulder. She was puzzled as to why the creature lay so peacefully next to her without causing her any harm. Her breathing rate quickened as she struggled to remain still, hoping that if she stayed so long enough, nothing bad would happen to her.
As she lay there, contemplating her fate, the torch above her rekindled, and she finally saw the creature. Its shaggy, lumbering figure stood eight feet tall on six brown hairy feet. Its face was obscured by hair that appeared to have never been groomed.
It possessed six knife-like teeth and emitted froth from its mouth. The torch went out yet again, and she heard the animal licking its face before it growled and stood up. She lay there waiting for it to devour her, as she could feel it standing over her limp body. The ground of the dungeon seemed to turn over as she waited to be finished, plunging them both into a deep fall.
Iona awoke screaming in terror, desperately panting and gasping for air. Her dry throat ached as she regained her composure and found solace in the realization that her encounter with her captors and the fiendish beast had all been a dream. She did, however, feel a genuine ache in her wrists and forearms, as if she were still bound by chains, and she gently rubbed her arms for a moment, hoping it would alleviate her discomfort.
Her panting slowed, and she buried her face in her hands. Her red hair was now strewn from her violent turning while asleep, and the crimson silk bedsheets were rumpled and scattered. Even though her nightmares were becoming more frequent, she didn’t attribute them to her husband’s absence. The Laird had been away on business for three weeks.
With a heavy sigh, she managed to sit up and lay her head on the black, luxurious bed frame. Her heavy eyes told of a damsel wallowing in scorn and insurmountable stress. She had been lost in thought when she was interrupted by a loud knock.
“My lady,” a soft voice greeted from behind the doors, “is everything alright?”
“Enter, Aileen,” Iona replied. “I am fine, just these nightmares again.”
“Well, my lady,” Aileen asked concerned, “would ye fancy some chamomile tea?”
“Yes, Aileen. Thank ye,” Iona responded lowly with a grateful look on her face.
“I will as soon as I step out,” Aileen affirmed. “Is the Laird back from his voyage?” She looked around as
though she expected to find him in the room.
“Nae. Is he due tae be back today? I have neither heard from him nae seen any sign o’ him,” Iona replied.
“Yes, miss. I informed ye o’ his return yesterday,” Aileen said worriedly.
She had noticed a strange distance in her eyes, and the despair in her voice had thickened as well.
“Ye must be missing him terribly, I presume,” Aileen said jokingly, assuming that the Laird’s absence was the reason for Iona’s dismay.
“Well…” Aileen said almost sarcastically.
Aileen handed her a cream-colored envelope with beautiful cursive handwriting and a red stamp, which Iona recognized as the English stamp.
“This came in the mail for the Laird this morning,” the girl said.
Iona took a second to fully comprehend what was going on around her, leaving Aileen awkwardly standing there for a few seconds.
“Thank ye, Aileen,” she responded with a light, fake smile. “I will reserve it an’ show it tae him upon his return.”
“Yer welcome, my lady,” the girl replied, clasping her palms and waiting for further orders from Iona.
“I would love tae be alone. If ye could please fetch me some breakfast along with a cup o’ tea in about an hour?” Iona asked in a subtle tone.
“O’ course,” the girl said and turned to leave.
“Aileen?” Iona said, “Thank ye.”
Aileen was the only person she could connect with in the castle. She had found in her not only a maid, but also a right-hand woman and confidante. She was grateful for consistently checking in on her whenever she was in need.
Iona placed the letter on her bedside stool and opened the curtains. The light fell on her blue eyes as she turned away from the sun, and her violet long-sleeved silk nightgown, which matched the curtains, was illuminated by its rays. She sat in the small chair by the window for a few moments, staring out the window, wondering what was in that letter.
Despite the fact that the letter was addressed to Dougal, her curiosity about its contents was nothing new to her. He was a secretive man when it came to official business, and she was always curious because she didn’t have anything else to do. Even though she had promised herself not to pry, the stamp drew her attention. The English rarely sent letters, and when they did, a change was on the horizon. She resolved to open the letter after a few minutes of consideration.
Why in the Laird’s name am I tiptoeing when there is literally nae one here? she questioned as she walked to the stool where she’d placed the letter. She was so overwhelmed with curiosity, she had begun to act like a thief.
She neatly opened it and began to run her eyes through its contents, line by line.
“Oh my!” she said as she sat slowly on the bed, processing what she had just read.
For the first time in a long time, Iona smiled with genuine hope and anticipation. She neatly reinserted the letter into the envelope and sealed it. Her spring in her step was palpable as she skipped over to bathe; this new burst of energy flooding her entire being.
The chestnut brown horses stomped their feet together as they advanced across the green grass of the Highlands. The clouds were a lovely light blue color, and birds soared above them in all their splendor.
The valiant, strong-looking men with the wind in their hair kept their heads held high, savoring their long-awaited freedom as they marched forward, chanting songs of pleasure.
The air was fresh, and the scenery was as delightful as ever. The horses stomped on the green grass, and their liberation cries could be heard for miles. Their excitement made their fingers tingle as they rode past trees and bushes and eventually towards the castle, their joy knowing no reasonable bounds.
Brodie MacClery, their leader, was the epitome of good looks. His hair was long and silky, and his face was perfectly defined. The stunning young man ran his hands through his smooth, thick black hair and couldn’t stop grinning the entire ride. He rode in front of the men, and his relieved, smiling face revealed his eagerness to reach their destination.
Wearing such relief on one’s face told anyone who saw him that the experience he had left behind had been nothing short of dreadful. While incarcerated, imagining his return home every night kept him going. He was fully prepared to take on his responsibilities, despite the fact that he was wary of not seeing his father alive and was curious about his brother’s reign as Laird.
Many events had overtaken his absence, and he knew that adjusting would be difficult. Besides the changes that come with time, like appearance and castle workers, there was one change he dreaded the most: his childhood best friend was now married to his brother, Dougal. Even though they were only friends, Brodie had developed romantic feelings for her before their father announced that she would marry his brother and become Lady.
Despite his desire to leave, he soon realized that no heartbreak or uncertainty could ever outweigh the insurmountable agony of shackles and captivity.
When Brodie and his men spotted the castle in the distance, his eyes lit up. It had grown even more beautiful than he remembered. Cawdor Castle’s gleaming gold gates had been raised and reinforced with bricks towering over the castle, which had turned a lovely faded wine color. A large number of cottages and completed structures appeared to surround the castle, and a large fountain stood tall in the middle of the gardens, where a majestic statue was now erected.
He recalled Dougal being arrogant and conceited, and imagined that as the new leader, he would have to keep his head even higher. His thoughts returned to the defining moment before his journey, when his father had announced Dougal and Iona’s engagement without even informing him beforehand. The memory made him relive his emotions, as he had not left things on good terms with Dougal after that.
The night Brodie was conscripted to fight the English seemed to bury a hatchet the men had wielded weeks before when the engagement was announced. He had been vocal about his displeasure, but Dougal had refused to listen to his repeated complaints because he was determined to do his father’s bidding. Nonetheless, once Brodie was scheduled to go to war, sobriety took over, and Iona was left out of the loop on everything, from the tantrums to the plans, and only saw Brodie ride off into the night without saying goodbye. After weeks of disdain, the men exchanged warm hugs, and he left for England without uttering a word to her.
Uncertainty hung over him as he wondered if Dougal would still pay attention to his reaction, a thought that prompted him to devise a strategy to avoid Iona as if she were infected with the most contagious of plagues. He knew it would be difficult because every time he closed his eyes, he saw her ocean blue eyes glistening in the sun. Even after all that time, nothing could have prepared him to look into those eyes again.
Even though he was nervous, no situation at home would be as cruel to him as the outside world. Despite these uncertainties, he was simply eager to leave this disdainful experience behind.
As they got closer, he felt a sense of warmth and nostalgic memories flooded his mind. Shortly after, he noticed a fleet of horses riding up to them through open gold gates, with soldiers drawing their swords. Brodie came to a halt and raised his hand to stop his men, while the Cawdor castle gates closed behind the soldiers, indicating that they were not welcome.
“What dae ye want here?” the leader of the Cawdor soldiers asked.
Brodie paused for a while in shock and turned to his men, wondering what was happening.
“Who are ye?” Brodie asked back as he wondered if the castle was not alerted of his return.
“Ye come tae our lands uninvited an’ dinnae care tae introduce yerself?” the stranger asked fiercely.
“I am nae stranger here! Why accost me in this disrespectful manner?” Brodie asked, angered.
His men had drawn their weapons as well, ready to defend themselves as tensions rose. They had begun to scream and become agitated, but Brodie held his hand up once more to silence them.
“We shall handle this in a noble manner,” Brodie started. “Answer me, general! Dae ye ken who I am? Dae ye ken who we are?”
“Who are ye?” the general asked.
“I rank much higher than ye in this castle, that is for sure,” Brodie said.
The commanding soldier alighted from his horse and drew his sword, signaling that he was not about to attack Brodie. He then walked carefully towards him, approaching him slowly but steadily and squinting his eyes as if looking for something. Brodie’s officers, who were still holding their swords in defense, looked on as he exclaimed.
“Brodie? Is it ye?” the commanding officer exclaimed.
“And who are ye?” Brodie asked, trying to decipher who this person was.
“Ye dinnae ken?” the man said in a calmer tone than earlier.
Brodie knew that voice anywhere and recognized it immediately.
“Fraser! Men, stand down!” he said as he carelessly dropped his sword and ran towards the commanding officer.
Fraser, a tall man with dark brown eyes and razor-sharp jaw, ran up to Brodie, and the two men poured themselves into a tight hug and screamed joyfully, tears streaming down Fraser’s face. He quickly wiped his face and adjusted his stance to avoid the men witnessing his emotional outburst.
“I was scared they were nae going tae let ye an’ the men free!” Fraser said breaking away from the hug.
“We received a pardon an’ were freed, Fraser. I was scared too,” Brodie said while his voice softened with each word under the pressure.
“I prayed for ye every day. I really did,” he said as he smiled fondly.
“I thought about ye all the time too,” Brodie said.
“I missed ye, short boy,” Fraser joked.
“Are ye still calling me that?” Brodie asked, smiling.
Brodie laughed; the first genuine laugh he’d had in years. The men had grown up together, and Fraser had always made fun of their one-inch height difference since childhood. While his jokes used to irritate him, they were the first thing he heard upon his return, and it felt like home, a place he was truly happy to be, and it brought back memories that they both treasured.
“I apologize for the rude obstruction,” Fraser said humbly. “I am the clan’s general, an’ I dinnae joke around!”
“That’s wonderful to hear!” Brodie exclaimed. “Shall yer men show the troops inside?”
“O’ course! It would be a pleasure.”
“Men, this is Brodie, the Laird’s younger brother, an’ these are his troops who just returned from years’ worth o’ battle. They will be treated with respect. Kindly take them in an’ make arrangements tae accommodate them,” Fraser announced.
“Commander is a tasking job. Ye must be quite the responsible one nowadays!” Brodie said, teasing his friend’s carefree nature.
“I had big shoes tae fill when me father passed,” Fraser responded.
“Sir Wallace passed on? I am so sorry for yer loss,” Brodie said soberly.
“I am a strong man; I handled it well. My old man left me with everything I needed,” he responded in an assuring tone.
Brodie smiled fondly, remembering the times Fraser’s father looked after them, and a rush of nostalgic emotions came pouring in.
“Dougal is away on travels an’ is slated tae return today. We have not yet seen him, but they should arrive any moment now,” Fraser informed.
“Oh Fraser, I have been away for such a long time. Dae ye think everything will be alright?” Brodie asked with a doubtful tone in his voice.
“I believe so, Brodie. Ye belong here, dinnae ye?” Fraser asked rhetorically.
As their horses approached the castle, Brodie smiled hopefully even though uncertainty engulfed him. But he was prepared to face it.
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