A Night with a Highlander (Preview)
Isle of Iona, Scotland
Arya waited until full moon before she made her move to escape. She knew the moonlight would guide her steps from the convent all the way to the sea front. It was long after the ringing of the curfew bell and silence had fallen throughout the nunnery, before she was certain the nuns would be sleeping and she could leave without anyone noticing her slip away.
After tucking a folded note under her pillow explaining where she was going and begging the sisters not to worry about her wellbeing, she flung on her cloak and ventured from the small cell she’d been occupying during her exile here. Closing the door silently behind her she tiptoed down the corridor, her boots clutched in her hand.
Passing on soft feet along the passageways she drew open the creaky old door of the nunnery and found herself in the walled garden. This was where she’d spent many hours learning about healing and herbs from Sister Dominique. Arya was convinced the old nun, with her amazing depth of knowledge and understanding, must have been a witch before she left the confines of the world and took her vows of contemplation and chastity among the sisters of Iona.
Arya looked around with something approaching regret. Her time on the island had not been without its consolations, and she wished she’d been able to thank Sister Dominique for her teaching, and bid farewell to Maggie Drummond, her loyal maidservant. But her enforced seclusion had now come to an end, and, if her plans were known, there were those who would do their best to forestall her departure.
It wasn’t that she was a prisoner. She was a guest of the sisters, not their captive. She was here at the insistence of her older brothers. Payton, her eldest brother, the Laird of the Macdonells, and Taveon, two years younger, were convinced she should remain here, safe from the wicked Sir William de Coughran, who had threatened to kill her in his battle against the Macdonell clan.
More than anything, she wished to aid her brothers. Locked away in this peaceful community, she was no use to them at all. Although she was well aware that leaving the confines of the nunnery would incur their wrath, once they saw how much they needed her with them, she was confident they would see things her way.
Her most fervent wish was that she could earn their respect. Of course, as her older brothers, they loved their little sister. But she was no longer a child but a grown woman of nineteen years. Old enough for marriage and to have a household of her own.
Knowing her own mother had lost her life giving birth to her had always felt like a cruel curse hanging around her neck, weighing her down. The gift of life her mother had bestowed on her newborn daughter had meant depriving her older brothers of their dear mother’s love. She’d never known it herself – although she’d felt its absence sorely – but nothing could ever compensate her brothers for the precious mother they had worshipped and loved with all their hearts. No matter how hard Arya had tried throughout all her days to redeem herself she could never rid herself of the guilt.
She sighed. This was her opportunity to prove to them she was worthy. Despite her one brief moment of doubt, she was resolutely determined to make her way home to Macdonell Castle. She fastened her blue woolen cloak tight around her, pulling the hood with its lining of white fur over her red curls, hauled open the door in the garden wall, and set off, the moonlight guiding her steps.
The first part of her mission gave her a tiny niggle of concern. She must take all her courage in her hands and knock on cottage doors seeking the services of a fisherman who would take her across to the nearby Isle of Mull. On her occasional brief breaks from the routine of the convent she’d been permitted to stroll along Iona’s rocky foreshore from where Mull was clearly visible. She’d seen the fishing boats pulled up on the shore not far from the village and it was there she was heading.
Her faith in herself grew bolder. She could do this.
Squaring her shoulders, she pulled her confidence around her like a cloak. Once across to the other island, she would make her way to Ardtun, a few short miles away, where she knew she would find sanctuary with the MacKinnon clan. From Mull she would take the rest of her voyage home.
But there was something else about tonight’s adventure that set her pulse thrumming. The tiny village of Baile Mòr lay less than a mile away and, until tonight, her itch of curiosity about the place had never been scratched.
The sisters were strictly forbidden to ever set foot there and the convent rules were strict, never to be broken. Even though she’d asked around, no one had ever dared pay a clandestine visit there. Mother Superior was unmoved by Arya’s numerous pleas to be permitted, just once, to visit the village.
As far as the Mother Superior was concerned, Baile Mòr was only second to Hell when it came to wickedness. And, it was certain, the devil himself resided in the village tavern.
Of course, this made Arya even more curious.
Her heart was hammering as she made her way along the woodland path that would soon bring her to the rocky shoreline and, a little further along, to the village.
It was then she heard a strange growling sound. At first, she thought it was an animal, and she quickened her steps. Then the deep growl was followed by a high-pitched whimper and she registered that the noises she was hearing were all too human. These were the sounds of a man and woman locked in a fierce conflict.
She paused, peering through the trees into the nearby clearing. The moonlight shone brightly and she could clearly make out the two figures. Hearing voices raised in anger she crouched low, suddenly afraid of being discovered.
Although she couldn’t make out the words they were speaking, it was clear they were arguing. The woman’s voice rose higher, until she was almost shrieking, the man’s voice was deep and unrelenting with rage.
The woman screamed out “Nay. Nay.” and, heart in mouth, Arya craned forward, fearful, but struggling to make out more clearly what was going on.
Creeping toward the couple she saw the man had hold of the woman’s arm in a tight grip. She struggled, her nails raking his cheeks. Breaking free of him, she went to run, but fell, tangled in the skirt of her long kirtle. Growling and cursing he was on her in an instant, hauling her to her feet.
To Arya’s horror she saw the man draw back his arm and bring his fist up. The woman screamed as he landed a heavy blow to her jaw. Her head jolted back and he raised his fist and delivered a second blow.
From her hiding place, Arya could clearly see the blood streaming from the woman’s nose and mouth.
The woman raised a hand to her broken face, making a gurgling sound in her throat. A fierce protective instinct galvanized Arya. There must be some way she could try and save the woman from this brute.
The woman’s legs seemed to give way and she sank to her knees. At once the man seized her long hair and forced her head back, dragging her to her feet.
“Ye cursed whore,” he said in a low harsh voice. “I should slit yer throat.”
Horrified, Arya listened as the woman pleaded for her life.
“Please, nay, dinnae kill me. I swear I…”
The man was fumbling for the knife in his belt, the woman fighting fiercely.
Looking around feverishly for some kind of a weapon, Arya’s hand encountered a sharp, heavy stone which she clutched in desperation.
The man pulled up his hand, holding his dirk aloft preparing to slash the woman’s throat as he’d threatened, and Arya’s fingers closed tightly around the rock.
Just as the man was bringing down his weapon, Arya dashed forward. Coming up behind him she smashed the stone as hard as she could against his head. Letting out a roar he released the woman and staggered to his knees, his attention now on his attacker. Arya.
“Curse ye, devil’s wench,” he bellowed at her, scrabbling to haul himself upright, raising his dirk again, this time aiming straight for Arya’s heart.
In a wild panic she struck a second blow as he tried to rise, the heavy rock smashing into his temple. With a loud grunt, he dropped the dirk, fell back, rolled to his side, and lay at her feet, motionless. Blood gushed from the wounds on his head where the sharp end of the stone had found its mark.
Arya knelt quickly, forcing herself, without success, to feel a heartbeat under the heavy leather jacket he wore.
Finally, rising to her feet, she gazed with revulsion and trepidation into the man’s unseeing, lifeless eyes, her hands dripping with his blood. Frantically she grabbed his tartan cloak and wiped her stained hands clean.
Rolling her gaze to the stars, she breathed a prayer.
Oh, dear God in heaven what have I done? I’ve killed a man.
She turned to the trembling lass, her own body shaking uncontrollably.
“Ye saved me life,” she heard the woman say. “I thank ye.”
“Aye, that I did,” Arya mumbled, scarcely able to believe the scene that confronted her. “I saved yer life by making this man pay with his.”
In an instant the two girls were in each other’s arms, each attempting to reassure the other.
“Ye’ve done aught tae be ashamed of lass, he was a wicked, wicked man and the world’s a better place without the likes of him in it. I’m grateful tae ye from the bottom of me heart,” the trembling woman said quietly. Her words going some way to soothing Arya’s shattered nerves.
Arya looked up into the lass’ tear-filled eyes, surprised she was only about the same age as herself. She’d imagined her to be much older when she’d first come upon on the couple.
“There is nae need tae thank me fer…” Arya, said staring in true horror at the body crumpled at their feet where he’d fallen. He had menaced both of them with his dirk and she had no doubt he’d intended to end the lives of both her and the lass. “…and ye’ve aught tae be fearful of, now he is… nay more,” she said, releasing the young woman from her tight, panicked grip.
Taking a seat on a fallen log nearby, the woman reached for Arya’s hand and pulled her down to sit beside her.
“I am named Eleonor,” she whispered. “Ye?”
“I’m Arya…” She hesitated, suddenly afraid of revealing the name “Macdonell” to this unknown girl. After all, she, Arya had just killed a man. Her head buzzed with a thousand bees. Perhaps she’d already said too much. She sucked in a breath, her eyes widening as the recognition of her own dangerous situation dawned. Once the dead man was found, there would be others seeking to find the culprit who had murdered him.
Shaking her hand free, she pushed herself to her feet. She had to get clear of this place. Now. Before someone discovered the man’s body and came searching for his killer.
The sound of distant men’s voices made them both freeze.
“They’re coming this way,” Arya whispered as the voices grew louder.
Eleonor groaned. “That will be his men seeking him out now that he hasnae returned tae them. We must flee,” she took a step toward the path.
Arya went to follow but her skirt was caught, snagged on the fastening on the man’s plaid cloak. She tugged at her skirt but it was securely trapped.
“Here.” Eleonor swiftly snatched up the dead man’s dirk and slashed at the offending cloak. Her speedy action released Arya, but left the brooch and a fragment of the man’s cloak still clinging to her skirt.
Arya went to undo the fastening, but Eleonor placed a restraining hand on her arm. “Come now. We must be quick. There’s nae time tae fash about that now. We must run before they catch us here.”
Turning back toward the abbey, Arya reached for Eleonor’s hand. “I will find sanctuary with the sisters in the convent. I can hide there. Come with me. We’ll be safe from pursuit.”
Eleonor turned away, shaking her head. “Nae, Arya. I cannae go with ye. I have other things I must attend tae. I’ll find me way back tae the village and I’ll be safe there. There’s none who kens I was tae meet with this man, nae even his own soldiers, so they’ll nae look fer me.” She turned to go. “Ye bide well.”
Desperate as she was to regain the safety of the nunnery, Arya held grave concerns for Eleonor’s safety. “Ye must make haste tae hide, lass. But if ye ever need me help ye can find me at the abbey. If I’m nae there, leave a message for Arya with the sisters. They’ll ken where I stay and get your word tae me. I’ll help if I can.”
They gave each other a quick hug and sped on their way, their footsteps racing along the path in opposite directions.
Stumbling along the path to the abbey, Arya’s head was spinning. She was hardly aware of where she was until she found herself in the convent garden. The darkness of night was slowly being overtaken by the gray light of early morning and several nuns were pacing slowly toward the chapel for morning prayers. Passing the sisters, she entered the main hall, where preparations were underway for the breaking fast meal that would await the nuns on their return from Matins.
Head down, her hood almost covering her face, she crept along the passageway leading to the cell she’d only vacated a few short hours before.
In that time her life had changed forever. She had left here, her heart full, wishing only to be useful to her beloved brothers. She was returning with the blackest of marks marring her future. Her actions had made her a sinner. She had no right to be here, among the spotless purity of the contemplative women whose refuge she craved.
If she could only make it to her cell and take off the bloodstained kirtle and blouse and join the others in the chapel to pray for forgiveness.
Turning the corner and heading along the corridor that led to her cell, she was pulled up short by a voice crashing into her morbid and hopeless thoughts.
“Goodness child, where have you been so early in the day?”
Arya’s heart sank. It was the Mother Superior. The tall, angular nun studied Arya with an all-knowing expression in her gray eyes.
“Well, lass. I hope ye’ve nae been meeting with a lad outside these walls. Yer brother, the laird, willnae be happy if he discovers ye’ve found a sweetheart while ye’ve been with us.”
Arya shook her head. A lover would be the least of it. If the saintly Mother only knew the truth of the sin she’d committed.
Forcing a shy smile, she shook her head. Mother Agnes returned her smile, making no comment. Her gaze roamed across Arya as if search for an answer to her question, coming to rest on Arya’s skirt where the brooch with its remnant of bloodstained plaid was still attached.
Arya held her breath, fearful of the questions she expected.
Agnes reached down, undid the fastening and rose, clutching the brooch and the fabric in her hand. She looked sternly at Arya.
“This is the MacQuarrie tartan, and the brooch ye have here is chased gold, bearing the Clan crest.” She tilted her head to one side questioningly. “Only the Laird and his family are able tae wear such treasures. How did ye come by this?”
Arya gasped. “I dinnae ken, I was in the woods, Mother. It must have caught in me kirtle.”
Mother Agnes took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. “I pray ye speak truth Arya. The MacQuarries are a vile lot. If they believe this precious item has been stolen, they will nae spare the life of the thief. I must arrange fer this brooch tae be returned. It would nae dae fer any of the clan to ken it is in the hands of a MacDonell.”
“Oh, thank ye, Mother,” Arya muttered. “I’m of nae mind tae keep it.”
Mother Agnes tucked the brooch into the pocket of her surplice and gave Arya’s arm a squeeze. “Dinnae fash, lass. I’ll arrange fer one of our messengers tae take it across tae Mull, with the word that it was found in the woods by one of the sisters on her daily walk to the farms.” She made the sign of the cross. “I believe the Good Lord will forgive me the lie. Now, dae hurry and tidy yerself fer morning prayers. Yer brothers have sent news and it is now safe fer ye tae return home. After the prayers you can prepare tae leave.”
Arya could scarcely believe Mother Agnes had chosen discretion, and could only nod as the older woman swiveled and continued her way along the passage. The news of being called home would have overjoyed her just a few hours ago, but now, it was secondary. Her heart was beating fast and the blood was pounding in her veins as the nun’s dire words took hold. Feeling her knees buckling under her, she put a hand on the wall to support herself while her stomach roiled and a wave of terror swept over her.
Not only was the man she’d killed a member of a bloodthirsty, vengeful clan, it seemed he was an important member of the clan laird’s family.
Early Spring 1305
Isle of Iona
Grimacing, Gillebride slammed the heavy pewter tankard on the sturdy oak table. Ugh! This seedy tavern in the godforsaken village of Baile Mòr served what must surely be the worst ale in all of Christendom.
Looking around, he swiped his sleeve across his beard. He despised this place, and was only here on the Isle of Iona at the behest of the Laird, Blaine MacKinnon, who was keen to obtain the latest battle plans from their neighbouring clan, the MacQuarries.
Grumbling under his breath he scanned the motley throng of cutthroats, whores and poorly disguised clansmen seated around him in the fetid, smoky parlour. There was no sign of the man he’d been sent to meet, Beolin, a henchman of Anrias, Laird of the MacQuarrie Clan.
Although the MacQuarries and the MacKinnons were now allies, fighting side-by-side for their King Robert the Bruce, theirs was a long, uneasy history. MacKinnon land bordered that of the Macquarries on the Isle of Mull and, for as long as Gilly could remember, there’d been ongoing skirmishes along the border and attempted incursions by the MacQuarries. Cattle had been stolen, crops destroyed, fishermen’s catch taken. Not only that. They were a bloodthirsty, merciless clan with a reputation for engendering fear of their ruthlessness into all those unfortunate enough to encounter them.
Still, if nothing else, meeting on Iona they were in a neutral place, a short distance from either clan’s territory. Despite that, it was a damned nuisance to make the short sea crossing even though, when the tide was out it took a strong oarsman only minutes to cross from one island to the other.
Apart from a few straggling, thatch-roofed cottages, this was the only meeting place on the island and it bedeviled Gillebride’s thoughts that a place harboring so much evil was situated so close to the abbey and the nunnery.
Glancing around, his eye was captured by a parchment tacked up on the wall near the doorway. From where he sat, he could just make out a roughly drawn and painted woman’s face. The features were indeterminate but what stood out was the mane of red hair cascading over the face, visible even at a distance. He squinted in the dim light, but was unable to read the rough script on the bottom of the parchment. Apart from the grim words “Wanted Dead or Living”.
He had more than a little sympathy for the woman, whoever she was and whatever crime she’d committed. If she attracted the attention of the ruffians frequenting this disreputable hideout then pity help her.
A big-breasted woman whose blouse and kirtle were alarmingly low, exposing an expanse of her flesh, sidled up to his table.
“Only a penny fer such a handsome bear of a man as ye, tae take me tae bed,” she said, giving him a lascivious grin, her gaze roaming over his broad shoulders and huge size.
Gilly shook his head. “Nay lass, I’ve nae taste fer what ye’re selling.”
She huffed, shrugged her shoulders, and moved off to another table where one of the men seized her around the waist and pulled her onto his knee. The sound of her false laughter rang in Gilly’s ears as a shadow materialized beside him. He looked up to see Beolin pulling out another stool from under the table and lowering himself into the seat.
He grunted a greeting and Gilly dipped his head. He had no time for Beolin. He’d never trusted the man, despite their frequent meetings to discuss the plans being laid down by the clans in the war against the English. Beolin was a tall, gaunt, grey-bearded man who, to Gilly, always had the hungry look of a half-starved fox about him.
Beolin called the serving-wench over and requested an ale. Gilly shook his head. He’d had enough of the bad brew. Once the woman had placed the tankard on the table the two men bent their heads in conversation, apprising each other of the most recent strategies for the upcoming battles against the English.
Gillebride watched Beolin in disgust as the man licked his lips, his gaze fixed on the young whores shamelessly parading their wares, half-naked before the men. No doubt after his conversation with Gilly was done, he’d take one of the lasses upstairs and have his way with her, offering nothing more than a small coin for her services.
“Have ye nae shame, man?” Gilly said when the man’s obvious lust became too much for him to observe without commenting. “These lassies are young enough tae be yer own daughter.”
Beolin’s only comment was a short sniggering laugh and an uneasy shifting in his seat, his hand on his braes.
Gilly shook his head, looking away in disgust. His gaze came to rest again on the rough painting tacked on the wall. “What’s the story with the lass?”
Beolin swivelled to stare at the poster and turned back to Gilly, a frown on his gaunt face.
“There’s a price on her head. If ye’ve a mind tae search fer her ye could earn yerself some coin.”
“I’m nae looking fer coin, lad.” Gilly offered a sharp laugh. “What’s the lass done tae make her an animal tae be hunted?”
“An animal is too good a name fer her. The whole of Clan Macquarrie is after her fer killing young Alasdair, the favourite son of Anrias MacQuarrie.”
Gilly raised an eyebrow. “The Laird’s son? Murdered by a wee lass?”
“She’s nae a wee lass, Gillebride, but the spawn of the devil and his bride. She’s a witch who killed the lad by smashing his head with a rock. When Anrias catches up with her he’ll most likely have her walled up fer eternity, to die a slow and hungry death. A quick death is too good fer the likes of her.” Beolin hoicked a blob of phlegm onto the scuffed dirt floor and ran his fingers across his belly and shoulders in the sign of the cross.
Gilly had seen and heard enough. It was time to take his leave and turn his back on this man Beolin and the ugly village of Baile Mòr. He placed a coin on the table as payment for the ale and rose to his feet.
“Bide well,” he said to the other man. As he turned to go a sudden commotion broke out.
The boatman lifted Arya out of his small boat and slung her over his shoulder as if she was a sack of barley. He waded the few yards to the sandy, rocky beach and lowered her, none too gently.
She handed him a coin for his trouble. “Wait here fer me, I’ll nae be long. I have business with a lass I’m tae meet in the tavern. Ye’ll get the rest when ye return me tae Mull.”
The man grumbled under his breath. “A decent lass would nae be here at all.”
Arya shivered and pulled her cloak tight around her against the wind, lowering the hood with its white fur trim. She was back in the place she’d vowed never to visit again and the cold breeze whipping off the sea and the drizzling rain simply added to her disquiet.
All these months she’d almost begun to put the memory behind her, almost begun to feel safe. Although, she knew in her heart, she would never be able to forget the awful secret of the man she’d killed.
“Dinnae fash,” she told the boatman, “I’ll be back in minutes.”
As she trudged up the hill toward the tavern her heart was pounding. A pall of wickedness fell over this place. It was clearly no place for a lass on her own. She’d learned it was a stronghold for the feared MacQuarries, even though their territory was on Mull. Despite telling herself she was be safe enough to be here, unrecognized, her feelings of unease grew stronger with every step.
Why on earth has Eleonor sent me a message? It can only mean she is in trouble. And why of all places, has she asked me tae meet her at the most dangerous place of all, the tavern in Baile Mòr?
Following Eleonor’s instructions, she’d told no one of her destination. But now, as she approached the dimly lit tavern, hearing the raucous, raised men’s voices coming from inside, she questioned the wisdom of her decision. If anything happened to her here, her brothers and her friends would have no idea where to find her.
Outside the tavern, she hesitated. Of course, she wished to aid Eleonor if she needed help, but coming here meant she was risking discovery by members of the MacQuarrie clan.
But, save fer Eleonor, nae-one kens me part in the death of that man. Surely, I’ll be safe.
Taking a deep breath to settle her nerves, she tightened her cloak and, head well-covered by her hood, she pushed open the door and stepped into the noisy, fetid interior of the tavern.
The instant she was through the door she knew she’d made a horrible mistake in coming here.
All conversation ceased as she stepped into the tavern and every eye turned in her direction. Her eyes searched for Eleonor, but wherever she looked there were men accosting women, some of whom had their breasts bare, being fondled by rough-looking characters. Many of the men seemed drunk and staggering. One man was lying on the floor looking up the skirt of a woman who was bare to the waist and giggling as if she was tipsy.
Arya groaned audibly. There was no sign of Eleonor, even though the message she’d received was clear. They were to meet in the Baile Mòr tavern, shortly after sundown.
She waited, unsure of her next move and, after moments, the rough laughter and talk resumed. All the same, she was uncomfortably aware she was being closely scrutinized by several men at a nearby table. Two of them laughed and nodded to each other as if in agreement with something. She shuddered as they gazed intently at her, their lustful intentions all too obvious
Stomach lurching, she looked away. It was then her eyes were drawn to the roughly-painted poster just inside the door. Her heart, which was already beating much too fast, suddenly felt as if it would jump right out of her chest.
The painting was childish, roughly drawn and colored, but the tilt of her head, the straight nose, the big blue eyes and, most of all, the cascade of red hair were sufficient for her to realize this was someone’s attempt at creating a portrait of her – Arya Macdonell.
The words, Wanted Dead or Living, underscoring the likeness, sent a stab of ice straight to her heart.
I must get out of here. I cannae wait any longer fer Eleonor.
On the spur of the moment she pivoted, determined to flee from this horrid place as swiftly as her shaky legs could carry her. But her hopes of beating a hasty retreat without drawing any further attention were dashed. Her cloak flying out behind her as she turned brought glasses and tankards from a table beside the door clattering and smashing to the floor.
Once again, all eyes were upon her.
Ignoring the commotion she reached a hand to the door, determined to be gone before there was time for anyone to take another breath. But the men who’d been watching her were already on their feet and in an instant two of them had seized her. One had her around the waist and the other pinioned her arms behind her back in an iron grip.
She screamed, struggling vainly against their tight hold on her.
“We’ll have some sport with ye tonight lass. Ye’ll nae be disappointed I guarantee ye.” one of the men said. “Mayhap we should take ye upstairs with us fer our fun.”
A bawdy laugh went up from the assembled throng. One man waving a tankard in encouragement.
“Let me go,” she shrieked. “Please,” she begged, attempting to kick out at the man behind her.
Her desperation only seemed to encourage them.
“Ah. I like a feisty one,” the man behind her said, leaning down to plant a wet kiss on her cheek. “Ye’ll keep us busy tonight, lass.”
She screamed again, bucking wildly as they hauled her toward the stairs at the side of the parlour.
Looking around beseechingly she implored someone – anyone – to please come to her aid and rescue her from this nightmare.
But the other denizens of the tavern were far too interested in their own debauchery to pay any further attention to her plight.
Except for one man.
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