A Highlander Marked by Fate (Preview)
Rory Elliott was restless. He gazed out of the window across the moorlands towards Lochrutton, sighing as he did so.
“Tis’ nay use,” he said out loud, “I am like a prisoner in my own home.”
He got up and made his way from his chambers and down into the great hall. His mother was there, and she looked and smiled at him, as he scowled back.
“Now then, Rory, what is it that ails ye?” she asked, rolling her eyes.
“I am tired of bein’ here in the castle. Why does father insist that I remain here while he is away?” Rory said.
His father had been visiting the Laird of Klinross, a two-day journey to the north. In his absence, Rory had been left in charge of the castle and the clan. A fitting test for one who would one day be Laird.
“Because yer father has given ye a responsibility, Rory. He trusts ye, does that nae mean anything to ye?” his mother asked.
Rory nodded. It meant a great deal to him, but still, it frustrated him. His brother Owen was in the monastery at Lanercost, living out his religious vocation and his sister Evie was happily married and living with her husband Hamish and her children at the castle of the McBryde’s, some miles to the east. Only he, Rory Elliott, was living precisely the same life as he had always lived.
It was a life devoid of interest unless one counted the archery and swordsmanship, which his father made him practice almost daily. He would ride out at his father’s side or visit tenants and crofters on the high moorlands. But Rory was always his father’s second. This was the first time any responsibility had been given him, and far from being excited by the prospect, he still found himself as though tethered to the Laird’s apron strings.
“It does. But … if I am to be Laird, I must have more trust placed in me. By ye and by my father,” he said, eyeing his mother for her reaction.
She smiled, shaking her head and beginning to work once more on her spinning wheel.
“Ye are headstrong, Rory. Just like yer father. But he was less impatient than ye. He dreaded the day yer grandfather died. The thought of that responsibility filled him with terror. If truth be told, I think it still does,” she said.
Rory found that hard to believe. His father was every bit the noble warrior, a man feared and respected in equal measure. The Elliotts were a proud clan and used to fighting battles against overwhelming odds. Was it not his father who had led them to victory over the Musgraves and who kept the uneasy peace upon the borders? Fraser Elliott took his responsibility seriously, and he had long impressed upon Rory the need to do the same.
“Father is nae afraid of anythin’, and neither am I. I would face a thousand Musgraves right now, but instead I am sat here mindin’ the affairs of peasants, while father is away on the true duties of a Laird,” Rory replied.
“And takin’ care of yer dear mother too. The true duties of a Laird are many, and ye would dae well to know that, Rory,” Isla replied, somewhat pointedly.
Rory sighed. He wanted an adventure, something to lift him from the monotony of life at Kirklinton.
“And I dae that gladly, mother. But I am tired of bein’ here right now. Owen has his life, Evie has hers. What is there for me?” he asked.
“Think of it this way, son. Owen’s life is decided for him at Lanercost, his vows of poverty and obedience mean he cannae leave, and Evie will live out her days with Hamish at the castle of the McBryde’s. They are happy, of course, but ye still have the future to look forward to. Who knows what adventures ye might have?” his mother replied.
Rory nodded. His mother was right, of course. To wish his place as Laird fulfilled was also to wish the sad death of his father. Fraser Elliott had been in ill health lately, a recent illness almost having taken him before his time. But he had rallied, as strong as an ox, as his sister Evie might say.
Rory did not wish his father dead, not for a moment. But he longed for something more, some excitement in his life to break from the normal drab and daily grind of peasant’s work and oversight. He was no farmer, he was a warrior, and right now, he longed for adventure.
“I suppose so,” was all he could reply, and his mother laughed.
“Oh, Rory. Ye always were so headstrong. If ye cannae tolerate bein’ here a moment longer then why daenae ye walk to Lanercost with yer uncle. He is leavin’ Kirklinton shortly, and ye can take my love to yer brother and tell him to visit us soon,” she said.
“But father said …” Rory began, and his mother raised her hand.
“Yer father is nae here. Go, Rory, I will be quite all right here. There are soldiers aplenty, and I have old Sweeney for company. I am just glad that ye shall have time to think a little. Be on yer way,” she said.
Rory did not need telling twice, and he hurried off to find his uncle and prepare for the journey. It may not have been the grand adventure he dreamt of. But right now, anything was better than sitting in the castle, listening to the complaints of crofters, and collecting taxes for his father. Rory was ready to stretch his legs, and he made his way to the courtyard, where he found his uncle preparing to depart.
“Ah, well now, my nephew,” his uncle said, smiling at him, as Rory entered the stable.
“Mother has told me that I am to escort ye to Lanercost,” Rory said, not wishing to reveal the precise reason why he was taking to the path.
“Did yer father nae give ye instructions to remain here while he was away. Unless trouble flared up along the borders?” his uncle asked.
Rory’s uncle had a way of seeing beyond words to the truth, and it was clear he considered his nephew to be lying. Rory blushed and nodded.
“Aye, uncle. But my mother has said differently,” he replied.
Duncan shrugged his shoulders and smiled. He had an elderly look about him, though he was younger than Rory’s father by several years. It was his long white beard, which made him look thus and his enormous eyebrows, which seemed to grow bushier with every visit.
“I shall be glad of the company along the path. Ye can protect me from brigands and outlaws,” his uncle said, laughing and shaking his head.
The path to Lanercost was a safe one, thanks to Rory’s father. There had been peace along the borders these past years, and Rory had not had cause to lift a sword in anger for months. The last time had been a simple dispute between crofters, one easily resolved when the Laird had threatened to banish both parties from the clan if they did not desist in their argument.
“I am sure that nay one would attack a monk of Lanercost,” Rory said, though he tied his sword belt to his waist just in case.
“A monk is as much a target as a Laird. More so, since any would-be thief knows that I would turn the other cheek,” his uncle said, laughing once more and shaking his head.
“The truth is, I will be glad of the journey, and I should like to see Owen,” Rory said, as Duncan led him across the courtyard.
“Ye miss yer brother?” his uncle said, as the gates of the castle were swung open for them.
“I … well, I envy him at times,” Rory replied.
“Ye used to call him ‘little monk’ and mock him for his piety,” his uncle said, walking next to Rory through the gates.
“Aye … that was only a joke, Uncle Duncan. I daenae mean I envy his life. Though I can see it makes him happy. But I … I envy that he has found his way and …” Rory began.
“Ye are still searchin’ for yers? It will come, nephew. Give it time. While yer father lives, ye shall always be in his shadow. Think of Hamish McBryde. He lived in his father’s shadow for years, and it was only upon his death that life changed for him. Daenae wish too hard though, or ye may get yer wish. God listens to the thoughts of our hearts, and he can read yers as though they were written in a book,” his uncle replied, shaking his head.
They walked on in silence for a while, crossing over the moorland path which led towards Lochrutton. It was a pleasant day, the clouds high in the sky, and a gentle breeze blowing across the sweet-smelling heathers. Rory watched as a hawk circled above, diving like an arrow to catch its unseen prey below. How he admired its freedom and the way it seemed to soar so majestically above them, monarch of all that it surveyed.
“Is Owen happy?” Rory asked as they took to the path west towards Lanercost.
“Aye, yer brother is happy. He is a monk,” Rory’s uncle said, laughing, as was his habit for he always seemed to have such peace about him, a peace which Rory envied at times.
“I didnae mean that. Is he happy that he has found his way?” Rory said, and his uncle paused.
“What is it that troubles ye, Rory? Ye are askin’ about others happiness, what of yer own. Are ye nae happy?” his uncle said.
Rory paused for a moment, uncertain of how to reply. Once again, his uncle seemed to have a way of seeing through his words to the truth, and he knew that a lie would never get past him.
“I … I daenae know. Sometimes I am, and sometimes I am nae,” he replied.
“Well, that is nay answer, lad. Ye may as well say that sometimes ye are hungry and sometimes ye are nay. It means nothin’ until tis’ one or the other,” his uncle replied.
Rory sighed. He wasn’t happy, not really. He had a burning desire inside him for something more than the everyday existence he was living. He longed for adventure or the chance to prove himself. Something to lift him from the drudgery of life and offer him the opportunity to show his father and others what he was made of. That, and he wanted a wife and not just any wife, the woman he had so long desired and who was forever out of his reach. He was restless and could only admit that he was not happy at all
“What have I achieved? I am nae the Laird, I have nay responsibility, and I have nay wife. Owen has found his vocation, and Evie is happy with Hamish and the children. What dae I have?” Rory said.
“Opportunity, lad,” his uncle replied, patting him on the shoulder.
“What?” Rory asked, surprised by his uncle’s words, which seemed almost meaningless.
“Why does everyone think they must have everything their heart desires in an instant? Tis’ nonsense, ye still have the chance to make somethin’ of yer life. Ye are twenty-five years old, Rory. Why dae ye want everythin’ now? Is life a journey or a destination? The destination for us all is heaven, so enjoy the journey and daenae worry about arrivin’ at somethin’ before ye are ready for it,” his uncle replied.
Rory nodded, his uncle was always so wise and knew just the thing to say. It made sense, of course, just like everything the monk said. He was the smartest person Rory knew, far more so than his headstrong father.
“Aye, uncle,” he replied as they set off together along the path west.
“I might nae know much of the ways of the world. I have been a monk these many years past, but I know about the soul, and I know that ye are restless, Rory. But have patience,” his uncle said.
“I know, tis’ hard, though, but …” Rory said, but he had no time to finish his words, as the sight of something ahead caused him to startle and turn to his uncle in alarm.
There, heading straight towards them, were three English soldiers, their swords drawn and angry looks upon their faces.
It was too late to run away, and he was no match for the men alone. His uncle bore no arms, but Rory drew his sword anyway, as the three men advanced towards them along the track.
Each bore the insignia of the Musgraves, and Rory knew from the stories told him by his father and the times he’d encountered them before, that the Musgraves were more likely to attack than listen to reason.
“You there, boy,” one of them called out, “what business do you have wandering along this path?”
“Our business is our own,” Rory replied, stepping forward between his uncle and the men.
“A Scot and a monk. What clan are you?” the lead soldier asked, advancing ahead of the others and drawing his sword.
He had a nasty look to him, a scar running down his cheek, and his sword was bloodied and sharp.
Rory wondered whether to make up a story and tell a lie. The Musgraves would not take kindly to discovering that he was an Elliott, for the Musgraves were bitter enemies of his father, as they had been of his grandfather before. But it was his uncle who stepped forward, holding up his hands in a sign of peace.
“Come now, lads, can ye nae see that I am a monk of Lanercost? I bear nay arms, and this lad here is accompanyin’ me to the monastery where his brother is a novice. Let us be about our business, and we shall let ye be about yers. I will pray for ye,” Rory’s uncle said.
But the lead soldier only shook his head and laughed.
“An old monk and a boy with a dagger in his hand, what nonsense. You say his brother is a novice at Lanercost? Is not the Elliott Laird’s son a novice? And would you be the Laird’s brother? I have had dealings with the Elliotts these many years past. I know an Elliott when I see one. This boy must be Rory, am I right?” the soldier said, turning to the others and laughing.
Rory wanted to rush forward and clash swords with them. But what good would it do? He would only be outnumbered, and no doubted injured or worse. He replaced his sword in its hilt and turned away.
“We have nay business fightin’ with ye,” his uncle said, “come now… Andrew, let us be on our way.”
“Andrew?” the soldier said, “do you really expect us to believe that? You are Rory Elliott, and you, old man, are Duncan Elliott. We are not fools, and we know our enemy when we see him. Come now, boy, let us see what you are made of. Fight me,” the soldier said, stepping in front of Rory and pointing his sword at him.
“I have nay desire to fight ye,” Rory said, though every instinct he possessed was saying different.
“So, you do not deny that you are Rory Elliott?” the soldier said.
“Careful,” Rory’s uncle whispered to him as Rory raised his sword.
“I will nae fight ye,” Rory said, shaking his head.
“And what if I wish to fight you? What then? Will you deny the challenge?” the soldier asked.
“He is a coward,” one of the others said, “they all are. These Scots are no better than dogs. You have heard the stories of how his father begged for mercy on the battlefield and then ran the noble Howard Musgrave through when his back was turned.”
At these lies, Rory’s face flushed with anger, and he raised his once again, ready to strike the man for his insults.
“Peace,” his uncle called out, but Rory’s sword had already clashed with that of the soldier, who laughed as he took up the challenge.
“You see, he is who we say he is. The fool has revealed himself,” he cried.
“I am nay fool,” Rory said, lunging forward and causing the soldier to stumble backward.
Quickly, he regained his footing, bringing his sword clashing against Rory’s, as the other soldiers urged him on.
“Strike the runt, see him dead,” they cried out, as Rory’s uncle watched in horror.
“Nay, peace,” he cried out, but, as he did so, an astonishing thing happened.
The English soldier had just raised his sword to strike Rory a vicious blow when a dagger whistled through the air. It hit the English soldier in the back, and he fell down with a cry, as the other two spun around in disbelief. They drew their swords, but Rory had rushed forward, striking one hard as he let out an anguished cry. The other turned tail and fled, leaving his fellow soldiers lying dead by the trail, as Rory and Duncan looked around in astonishment.
“What?” Duncan said, “where?”
“Over there,” Rory said, pointing through the trees.
There, standing tall and proud, was a beautiful woman. The sight of her quite took Rory’s breath away, and he was amazed that they had been rescued, not by any man, but by a woman with long auburn hair and a proud look on her face. Now, she stepped out of the trees and approached them, and with every step, she appeared more beautiful.
As she came to stand before them, she looked down at the English soldiers and up at Rory, who shook his head in disbelief. He had never seen such a woman before, her piercing green eyes locked with his, a look of satisfaction on her face.
“Who are ye?” his uncle asked, and she looked away, as though unwilling to reveal the truth.
“A friend it seems,” she said, in an English accent.
But, as she did so, she raised her hand to her forehead. She turned back to Rory, her cheeks suddenly growing pale before she sank to the ground with a sigh.
“Quickly, she is delirious,” Rory’s uncle said, rushing forward to catch her.
Rory stooped down, cradling the woman in his arms. She really was very beautiful, with pale soft skin and long hair trailing across her shoulders. She murmured something, but Rory could not understand what she was saying, and he looked up at his uncle in alarm.
“What is wrong with her, uncle?” he said, but Duncan shook his head.
“I daenae know, lad. But quickly, we must get her to Lanercost. We are too far from Kirklinton to turn back now. Besides, the apothecary will know better than we what to dae,” his uncle replied.
The woman was barely conscious, and it seemed that in the excitement of the fight, she had fainted, though she continued to mutter under her breath in words that Rory could not discern. He thought he heard the word “Musgrave” and perhaps ‘soldier,’ but that was all. Together, he and his uncle helped her stand and carried her between them along the path towards the monastery.
“What if more soldiers are on the road ahead?” Rory said, glancing warily around.
“I daenae think there will be. Those men had nay business on this path, though it worries me why they were here. The English are growin’ bolder of late, and we have heard reports of English soldiers as far north as Buccleuch, unheard of before,” his uncle replied.
Rory nodded. He felt nervous, but the need to get the woman to safety spurned him on. She had saved their lives, and they owed her that much, if not far more. He kept a close watch on the path either side, looking out for any further ambush. But it seemed the way was quiet, and they met no one until they came in sight of Lanercost.
The ancient monastery sat close to a river, surrounded by farmland and paddock. A motley collection of houses had grown up around it, inhabited by peasants who worked the land alongside the monks.
Rory was glad at the sight of the red sandstone walls, bathed in the late afternoon sun. He had always loved visiting his uncle at Lanercost, and he was looking forward to seeing Owen again too. But the presence of this mysterious woman was unsettling, and the sooner her identity was discovered, the better.
“What dae ye think can be done for her?” Rory asked as they came towards the monastery gates.
“We shall see, lad. I think she is simply in shock, there are herbs and remedies to help her. If only yer father were here, tis’ ailments like this that he was often called upon to assist with. His healin’ hands as they used to say,” Duncan replied.
“My father was well known for it, but of late he …” Rory began.
“Of late he has had other matters to attend to. Come now, let us get her inside,” Duncan said.
They helped the woman along the track, and, as they did so, several of the peasants peered curiously around their doors.
“Brother Duncan, what is this? Who is this woman? Is she hurt?” one of them asked, stepping forward.
“Tis’ all right, she will be fine. We came across her on our way here from Kirklinton. Tell the others to take refuge in the monastery walls this night. There are English soldiers on the path, and ye will be safer behind our gates,” Duncan replied.
The gates of the monastery were open, as they always were in the day, for the monks welcomed travelers and pilgrims. As they came to the threshold, an elderly monk stepped out from the gatehouse with a curious expression on his face, holding up his hands.
“Brother Duncan, the prior has been lookin’ for ye, but what is this?” he asked.
He was ancient, with a beard like Duncan’s almost down to his waist and with a keen eye and a look of wisdom about him.
“This lass saved our lives on the path. I would have been back far sooner, but we were set upon by three English soldiers, and if it were nae for her, we wouldnae have survived. My headstrong nephew here was ready to fight them, but this lass intervened, much to our benefit,” Duncan replied.
The monk appeared worried, glancing over Rory’s shoulder as though he expected to see an army of English soldiers charging up the track towards the monastery.
“We should sound the bells, call the peasants inside the walls,” he said, and Duncan nodded.
“I have already told the villagers to seek shelter here. Though I daenae think that even the English are bold enough to attack a place of peace and prayer,” Duncan said.
“Ye daenae know what the English are capable of, Duncan. They killed my parents long ago, and they will kill us all in our beds one day, ye mark my words,” the monk replied, shaking his head.
“Nay one will kill ye in yer bed, Seth. I promise ye that,” Duncan replied, “but now, we need to get this lass to the apothecary. Is there space in the infirmary for her?”
“Aye, the two who were sick have left us now. Take her there, and we shall pray for her recovery and the safety of us all,” the monk replied.
Rory and his uncle helped the woman through the gates and into the cloister. It was an ancient place and had stood for some five hundred years, its bell now tolling out from the great tower above. There was a sense of timelessness here, for it had been a place of constant prayer in good times and bad.
They made their way through the cloister’s arches towards a staircase that wound up to the monk’s refectory above, opposite, which was the infirmary. The woman was trying to say something, but still, her words were delirious and muddled.
“Tis all right,” Rory said, as they came to the great old oak door of the infirmary, “now ye shall have the help ye need.”
Duncan pushed open the door, revealing the infirmary beyond. It was a large hall, beamed in heavy oak, and with a row of neatly made beds along one side. The sun was streaming through the windows, and on the other wall were shelves lined with hundreds of dusty old bottles and books.
At the sound of the door opening, one of the monks looked up from his duties. He was young, no older than Rory, his hair tonsured in the same manner as Duncan’s, and was tending to a man lying in a bed at the far end.
“Brother Duncan, dae ye bring me another patient?” he asked, looking at the woman.
“Aye, Callum, we met this lass on the path between here and Kirklinton. She collapsed shortly after rescuin’ us from English soldiers who attacked us. She seems delirious, too,” Duncan replied.
“Then get her to bed, we shall to see to her,” he replied, hurrying over and calling out to another monk who sat at a table by the window writing in a large ledger book, “Brother Luke, bring lavender oil and we shall see if we might revive her.”
The other monk went to the shelves, pulling out a large bottle of purple liquid, as Rory and Duncan helped the woman onto one of the beds. Rory was pleased to see her settled there. It had been a long walk to Lanercost, and he was tired, as was his uncle, who sat down heavily on a chair at the side of the bed.
“What a thing, God bless the lass for helping us,” he said, mopping his brow.
Brother Callum poured some of the oil into a dish and held it carefully by the woman’s face. The scent of it seemed to revive her immediately, and she opened her eyes, blinking in the light, and trying to sit up.
“Tis’ all right,” Brother Callum said, “ye are amongst friends here.”
The woman looked nervously around her, but all of a sudden, she fell back onto the bed as the monks tried to catch her.
“Tis’ some illness of the mind,” Brother Luke said, “perhaps a stronger method of revival is needed?”
Brother Callum nodded, turning to the shelves and pondering the array of remedies before him.
“I think,” he said, turning back to Rory and Duncan, “that it would be best if ye left us to care for her. I will send for ye when she is revived. I daenae think she is permanently damaged. There is shock in her, and shock must be rested and allowed to subside. We will dae all we can for her in the meantime, I promise ye. It will soon be time for the evening office. Prayer is yer duty now.”
Duncan nodded and stood up wearily from his seat.
“Come now, Rory. We shall see yer brother after we have sung the evening office,” he said.
Rory nodded. He paused a moment, looking down at the woman laid peacefully on the bed before him. She really was very beautiful, despite her pale face. Her hair was thick, falling across the pillow on which she lay, and he could hardly take his eyes from her, her cheeks soft and supple, her eyes now closed as she breathed gently in the peace of sleep. He had never seen such a woman before, and she was surely no peasant. Who was she? Where had she come from? And why would an English woman attack English soldiers in defense of two Scots? It was a mystery and one he had every intention of solving.
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