A Highlander Forged in Fire (Preview)
Scottish Border 1545
Isla Armstrong was looking across the borders from her chambers at the top of the castle at Kirklinton, where she had lived since that fateful day all those years ago when her parents had been so cruelly cut down. It was a wild day; the rain having battered the borderlands these past three days, storm clouds sitting thick and foreboding above.
Across the valley, the trees were swaying in the wind, and she could see the waterfall of the Beck, which cascaded into Lochrutton some miles across the marshes. It was a wild and lonely scene, and she shivered a little, turning back into the room and warming herself by the fire, which burned merrily in the grate — a contrast to the blackening skies outside.
She had been looking for her father, who had ridden to one of the outlying crofts, where trouble had recently been reported. Isla was used to that word; it was one she often heard, the trouble with the English, the trouble with other clans. Trouble meant danger, and her life had been fraught with danger since its beginning.
There was no sign of her father for the rest of the day, but he returned after nightfall, demanding food and a place by the fire. Isla sat in the hall of the castle, a large room with a heavy door and wide hearth, where many a tale had been told, victories celebrated, and defeats commiserated. It was there that she was often told to stay, while trouble brewed outside, or her father rode off to deal with yet another incursion or threat. Such was their way of life, and, as Alistair Elliott entered the room, he had a grave expression on his face.
“Were ye successful, father?” Isla asked, as Alistair slumped before the fire, fondling the heads of the two dogs, who had run to him as he entered the room.
“Successful?” he replied, shaking his head, “too late more like. Those English fiends did what they always dae: cross the border like cowards and set fire to the croft. Before we can retaliate, they are gone, ‘tis the same every time.”
“Was anyone harmed? Did they make off with anythin’?” Isla replied, shaking her head at the sad tale her father was recounting.
“Aye, they took cattle, but none of the folks were harmed, just left scared and confused. Too long has it been like this, there are times I think we have the upper hand, and others when I fear we shall nae even hold this place, let alone protect our folks,” he said, spitting into the fire.
Isla was silent for a moment; she had grown up listening to tales of English brutality, and she had seen enough violence in her short life to last a lifetime. Her father had done his best to shield her from the worst, determined to see no harm come to her, the memory of her family’s demise all too fresh. But Isla Armstrong was the daughter of lairds, brave and determined, and she had a desire to fight for her clan, and to see her parents avenged. She had often asked to accompany her father on his rides out, but the answer had always been no. She must remain at the castle, safe from the wicked English, who would show no mercy to a Scottish lass on the battlefield.
They sat in silence for a while, the fire crackling in the hearth, the dogs lying sleepily before it. Outside, the storm was now blowing up again, raging across the borderlands and causing the wind to whistle around the castle.
“Dae ye think another attack will come soon, father?” Isla eventually asked. Alistair Elliott raised his sad face to her and shook his head.
“Sooner rather than later, lass. The English are regrouping, and that Percy Musgrave will stop at nothin’ until every Scot along the border is cut down, ye mark my words. Especially now that his son is of age,” he replied.
It was with a heavy heart that Isla ate her supper that night, knowing that all around them, danger lurked, waiting to pounce. How she longed to join her father on the battlefield and face the enemy in war. She had heard many tales of bravery and valor and watched from afar as her fellow clansmen sacrificed themselves for her safety. She was determined to have revenge, whether her father allowed her to fight or not, and she knew that soon the time would come when a lass would prove herself just as much a warrior as any lad of the clan.
The blacksmith’s workshop at Lochrutton was home to two brothers, Fraser and Duncan MacGinn. Their parents had died suddenly in the winter of the previous year, succumbing to a fever that had swept the village. Fraser was twenty years old and now found himself an orphan, though as the inheritor of the blacksmith’s workshop, he at least had the means to support himself and his younger brother. Duncan was a bright lad, though he possessed none of the skill with a forge that their father had imparted to his elder son. He spent much of his time with the local priest, harboring dreams of entering the priory at Lanercost and following the religious life
It was a bleak morning, the mist hanging low in the valley and across the loch. Fraser was at his work, hammering tools into shape and making horseshoes for one of the local crofters. He was a simple lad, handsome and straight-talking, though shy, and more at home in the workshop than the company of others. His life thus far had been predictable and uneventful. At times, they would hear tales of far off battles or victories won over the English, but such things were of little concern when there was bread to put on the table.
“Ye cannae dae it like that, Duncan,” Fraser said, as he watched his brother trying to hammer out a horseshoe on the anvil.
“What dae ye mean? I am doin’ it just like ye showed me,” his younger brother replied.
“Nae, ye are nae. If ye were doin’ it as I showed ye, then ye wouldnae have got it crooked like that. Come here, let me show ye. Honestly, Duncan, ‘tis quicker if I see to this work myself than have ye helpin’ me,” Fraser said, wiping his hands on his tunic and going over to the anvil, as Duncan stood back.
He hammered the shoe back into shape expertly and placed it, hissing and steaming, into a pail of water at the side. Fraser worked hard, shodding horses and mending broken tools. He sold his wares to local crofters and forged swords and other weapons for the clansmen of the local lairds. The two brothers lived in their parents’ home, a simple cottage attached to the workshop. It was a simple life, and Fraser liked that, despite the hardships he and his brother faced. The two had forged what any outsider might call a happy life.
“Ye see, now ‘tis properly done. Now, make yerself useful and go to Cora Macleod’s for a loaf of bread. She bakes today, and we shall need some supper if we are nae to starve,” Fraser said, handing his brother a few silver pennies.
Duncan nodded, but as he turned to leave, he let out a cry and pointed towards the ridge above the village. There, outlined along its top, was a line of clansmen on horseback. It appeared they were riding out to fight, and Fraser came to join his brother as they watched the soldiers above. The village lay in a dip between two ridges, surrounded by thick woodland, which led down to the shores of the loch. Nestled there, they rarely saw travelers passing by, and the sight of the soldiers was unusual.
“Where dae ye think they go, brother?” Duncan said, peering curiously up at the ridge as the soldiers disappeared.
“I dinnae know, and I dinnae care, so long as they dinnae bother us. Except perhaps with the shoes they will nae doubt kick from the poor animals’ feet as they ride out. Then they may come to be shod,” Fraser replied, returning to his work.
But Duncan remained watching, and as he did so, he once again let out an exclamation, calling Fraser over to his side.
“What now, Duncan, can ye nae see we have work to dae,” Fraser said, laying aside his hammer again, and coming irritably to the door of the workshop.
“Is that a lass up there?” Duncan said, pointing up to the ridge.
Fraser put his hand to his eyes and squinted towards the solitary figure who had now appeared riding slowly along the ridge. Whoever it was had a far shorter stature than those that had just passed by and was riding upon a white horse, but without banner at their side. Fraser shook his head.
“I cannae see, but nae lass would be riding out to raid, or wherever it is those men were going to. It looks almost like a child, very odd indeed,” he said, a puzzled look upon his face.
“It is a lass; I can see her long hair,” Duncan said, turning to his brother.
“Enough now, Duncan, away to Cora Macleod’s, and be sure to get a decent-sized loaf. Otherwise, it shall be baking ye must learn, as well as the work of a blacksmith. Does Father Dunbar teach ye nothin’ but yer prayers?” Fraser replied, watching and smiling as his brother ran off into the village.
Once again, he looked to the ridge; he could just see the solitary figure about to ride into the forests above. Duncan was right; it was a lass, and now, Fraser could make out her long red hair flowing down her back. How strange to see a lass riding out in such a way on the trail of soldiers. Fraser shook his head and returned to his work. These were strange times and make no mistake.
Isla had grown used to her father’s ways over the years, and it was something of a running joke between them. He would go on a raid or skirmish across the border, and she would ask if she could accompany him. The answer was always the same: no.
The reasons he would give were always the same: it was too dangerous, or the threat was too great. What if something happened to him? Who would look after the good folks of the clan? No, Isla must remain at home, safe and secure in the castle. Though the castle was far from safe, it was a refuge, at least, and a place that Isla had grown weary of over the years.
Three times during her short life, they had come under attack in what was meant to be their home. And not only from Sir Percy Musgrave and his English allies, but also from other clans, hungry for conquest and wealth. On these occasions, she had taken refuge in the hall of the castle, barricaded behind the doors as her father had ridden out to fight. She had watched helplessly as he had charged down the enemy, knowing that at any moment, he could be killed.
How she had longed to follow him into battle and win victory for her clan and for her father. She knew that today would be no different. Her father planned to march out and confront the Musgraves. He and his fellow clansmen had planned a daring raid on their southern neighbors. It was all just tit for tat; neither side ever gained the upper hand, but each enjoyed the chance for the boast and bravado any minor victory might bring.
The Musgraves burned a farm on which Elliott men and women tilled the land, and in revenge, the Elliotts would cross the border and wreak havoc with the Musgrave cattle or lay waste an English farm. That was the order of things, and that was how it always had been, with neither side ever gaining the advantage.
Alistair Elliott was sharpening his sword, the sound of the metal against stone echoing around the hall. Isla was watching her father from beside the fire, and knowing his response, she cleared her throat, causing him to look up, pausing from his work.
“Aye, lass, ye have somethin’ ye wish to say?” he said, running his finger gingerly along the sword’s edge.
“Ye are riding out today, father? Where is it ye are going?” she asked.
“South, past the village of Lochrutton and on toward the Musgrave lands. We shall cross the border and burn the farm belongin’ to the Howard family, allies of Sir Percy and folks who would happily see us all burn in our beds,” her father replied.
“And ye wouldnae allow me to accompany ye, I suppose? If only to watch from a distance?” she said, not meeting her father’s eye as he let out a laugh and shook his head.
“Nae lass, I wouldnae. Ye know the reason why. I have often repeated it to ye: ‘tis too dangerous for ye, and if anythin’ happened to ye, I would never forgive myself. Nae, ye are to stay here, ye understand,” Alistair said, raising up his sword, the edge of which had been sharpened to a fine point.
Isla made no reply, disappointed by her father’s words, though they were precisely the ones she expected. It was always the same, but despite her disappointment in the predictable response, she had determined that today would be different. She had been mulling over it for some time and had determined that the time was right. Today, she would follow her father out to ride, watching from afar.
Isla was tired of being left at home, and despite her father’s warning of danger, she knew she was ready. As the daughter of a laird, a border laird at that, Isla knew well how to handle a sword. She had done so ever since she was a child and knew just how to comport herself in battle. Even though she had never experienced such things firsthand, she could ride, shoot an arrow straight, and defeat even her father’s best men at arms in a sword fight.
Her plan was simple. She would wait until her father and his men had ridden out for the raid and follow on horseback. No one would stop her; she would simply tell anyone who asked that she was riding out for an afternoon on the moorland. No one would question her. After all, she was the Laird’s daughter.
“Ye will be careful, won’t ye, Father?” she said, as Alistair sheathed his sword and made ready to depart.
“Aye, lass, dinnae fash yerself, ‘tis a simple enough task. We shall be home before nightfall, I promise ye,” Alistair said, and nodding to her, he left the hall behind.
Isla waited a moment before crossing to the window and watching as her father made ready to depart below. His faithful dogs were whining for their master, and they came and placed their paws on the sill, barking at the sight of Alistair with the clansmen below.
Ten men were accompanying the Laird that day, and they had all mounted their horses, Alistair, on a black steed named Storm. Isla watched him rally the men, and she could hear their cries echoing from below as they rode away from the castle. Now, she wasted no time. Telling the dogs to sit, she clattered down the stairs from the hall toward the stables.
“If it be a horse ye are wantin’, lass, then the best of them have already gone,” the stable hand said.
“Who has taken Bolt?” she said, annoyed that her father had allowed another to ride the horse that had been hers since it had been a foal.
“One of the clansmen, lass. Yer father told me to saddle the best horses, and that is what I did. If it be a ride ye are seekin’, then ye best take this young un’ here,” the stable hand said, pointing to one of the younger horses, an excitable creature named Thunder.
“Aye, he will dae,” Isla said, patting the horse’s mane and shushing him as he whinnied with excitement.
“And where is it ye be wantin’ to ride to?” the stable hand said, eyeing Isla with suspicion, for he knew of her excitable temperament and disregard for the rules.
“Oh, just over the moor. I hear there are mushrooms growin’ in the woods at Dunbier, and I want to pick some,” she replied, the lie flowing smoothly off her tongue.
The stable hand shook his head and led the horse into the stable yard, Isla following behind. She had collected armor and a helmet before leaving the keep, and these were stowed in a bag by the door to the castle. There was a strong breeze, and the horse neighed once more, as though eager to get going in pursuit of its fellows. Isla picked up the sack of armor and slung herself on the horse. Isla turned the horse towards the track south, and not heeding the stable hand’s gentle reminder that Dunbier was to the north, she set off in pursuit of her father.
Isla knew where her father was going. She had walked that track many a time, even though she was forbidden to go further than the village at Lochrutton. Some days she would go as far as the border, being careful not to show herself, watching the English from afar.
They terrified yet fascinated her in equal measures, and she found herself often daring herself to go closer. Once, she had hidden in a thicket, close to where an English archer was conversing with a foot soldier. She was so close that she could hear their conversation as they breathed murderous threats against their northern neighbors
It had terrified her, and as soon as they had gone on their way, she had hurried home. But today was different. Today, Isla had resolved to follow her father to battle and prove to the clan that she was ready to be a leader of men and not just the daughter of the Laird.
She paused some way down the track, clambering down from the horse’s back and taking out the armor and helmet from her bag. The armor was heavy and ill-fitting, but somehow, she managed to get it on, placing the helmet squarely upon her head and climbing back on the horse, which stamped its hoof as if eager to follow its friends.
“Aye, lad, I hear ye,” Isla said, urging the horse on down the track, her armor clinking as she rode.
The track soon rose up from the moorland, passing through scrubby trees and the remnants of what had once been a much larger forest. Isla knew her father had gone that way; the path was freshly churned up with mud, and horses’ hoof prints could clearly be seen, heading onto the ridge above.
Now, she proceeded with more caution, not wishing to be seen by her father and the other clansmen if they had paused to rest above. The path was overhung by trees, the perfect place for an ambush, and despite her bravado, Isla looked around nervously for enemies. She had no desire to fight that day, only to prove to her father that she was more than capable of riding alongside him.
The tree line soon gave way to the ridge above, and Isla was glad that the trees no longer hemmed her in on either side. She looked on the village below, nestled in the glen and surrounded by the forest. It was a strange little community, one she had few dealings with, despite the proximity of Lochrutton to the castle.
The people there kept to themselves, and they had little contact with outsiders. She glanced down and could see little figures below, going this way and that about their business. She wondered if they knew or cared that her father was risking his life at this moment for their protection. It did not matter though; all that mattered was avenging her birth father and seeing Sir Percy Musgrave pay for the crimes he had committed in the past.
On she rode, across the ridge, looking ahead to where she fancied she would see her father and the clansmen paused at the border. Isla reined in the horse, dismounting and stepping behind a rocky outcrop on the ridge to hide herself. It was her father that she could see, flanked by several of his clansmen. They were also hiding next to some trees that Isla knew marked the border between England and Scotland, though one was never sure precisely where that border lay.
It was a wild country, and Isla knew she must keep her wits about her if this first foray after her father was not to end in disaster. She glanced along the track toward the village, but there was no sign of pursuit. Just the whistling of the wind and the ever-darkening skies above. Rain was imminent, and even as she pulled her cloak over the ill-fitting armor, the first drops began to fall.
Her father and his men were making ready to march onward now. Isla steadied her nerves and reminded herself that she was the daughter of a laird, a brave lass who could fight as well as any man. But despite having often walked this path in secret, today felt different. Today, she knew that she would be facing those loyal to Sir Percy Musgrave, Englishmen who had been responsible for her father’s death and for the numerous deaths of those she held dear.
“For them,” she whispered, and as her father and the clansmen disappeared over the hill down toward the English border, she rode after them in trepidation.
There was little to distinguish the frontier of England and Scotland from any of the surrounding countryside. Only a thin line of trees, which stretched down from the hill toward an isolated farm below. It was the last friendly house in England or the first hostile house across the border, depending upon your perspective.
The farm was well-fortified, built of stone, with a watchtower jutting above it. It was built in much the same way as the castle at Kirklinton, though to Isla, it was a foreboding place, and she shuddered as she looked down from the hill.
Her father and the other clansmen were nowhere to be seen. Presumably, they had ensured their approach was well-hidden so that they could take the enemy by surprise. The raid was not designed for conquest, only to cause havoc to the English, and Isla knew that her father would strike quickly, causing as much damage as possible before retreating across the border.
She watched from the same vantage point that her father and the clansmen had done just a while ago. The English flag was flying above the farmhouse, and she could see several peasants milling about. She steadied the horse, which had begun to stamp its hoof, stroking its mane and watching for any sign of movement.
Isla was not sure why she had followed her father in this way; perhaps it was a foolish thing to do. Her whole body felt tense, and her mind was racing through everything her father had said. Within her, there was a grim determination to seek out vengeance for the Armstrongs, but today would not be such a day. Sir Percy Musgrave would be safely behind his castle walls and would only discover the raid had taken place later on. She was hardly going to save her father from his sword or perform some great deed of valor as she had always dreamed of.
Instead, she watched for any signs of her father’s charge toward the enemy, waiting for her chance to join them. She would ride over the border as fearlessly as her present disposition allowed. It would be enough for her father to see her, to see that she was brave enough even to defy his strict orders, brave enough to follow him into the heart of enemy territory and, if necessary, defend herself.
Her mind was racing with such thoughts when suddenly there sprung forth a charge of her father’s men from either side of the trees on the hillside below. They had taken shelter just above the farm and now took the peasants by surprise, charging toward the farmhouse, their swords drawn. Isla knew that her time had come, and mounting her horse, she galloped after them across the border.
If you want to stay updated on my next book, and want to know about secret deals, please click the button below!
If you liked the preview, you can get the whole book here