He is coming for me…
Mia lay in bed, frozen. She was paralyzed, visited by the same unwanted guest every night, a friend she called terror. It was a demon on its own.
It hadn’t always been this way. Mia had once been a happy child who did not flinch at the thought of darkness. The nightmares began at the same time as he had changed. Her little body trembled, and her eyes darted around the room, trying to dispel the tortuous images that were mercilessly infiltrating her innocent mind.
“Nae! I beg ye, nae,” she muttered as tears streamed down her face from the corners of her eyes. Her back was flush with the hard bed in the corner of her room. Turning a deaf ear to her pleas, ignoring her as though she wasn’t there, the man in her dream continued to hit the woman behind her eyes. Again. And again.
Mia was certain that if he didn’t stop soon the woman would be nothing more than a bloodied sack of bones, but he didn’t seem to care. The woman’s screams pierced through the confines of her dream and into her reality.
Perhaps if I ignore them, the screams will leave me be, she thought, but the more she fought to ignore them the louder they became.
Finally, she opened her eyes. Before attempting to get out of bed, she flexed her hands in the darkness. It usually took more than a few minutes for her dreams to unshackle her. She clutched her throbbing head—now that she was awake, the screams were even louder.
Mia was used to this. She knew where the sound was coming from, but she did not want to go and investigate. Try as she might, she could never fall back asleep. When her father lost his temper, the onslaught could — and would — go on for hours.
Slowly, Mia dragged her feet off the bed, pushing away the sheepskin that served to shield her from the cold, recalling her mother tucking it around her before retiring for the night with a smile on her face.
Mia stood beside the bed for a moment, staring at the brick walls of her room, then the wooden roofing overhead. Sometimes, when the screaming started, she counted the bricks until all she could hear was numbers. Knowing her counting would not help her now, she sighed and walked toward the door. It had been left ajar, so she could hear her parents’ voices more clearly.
“Useless, fallow-wombed woman!” her father shouted, stomping his foot on the ground. Mia felt the floor shake beneath her.
Her father had always had a temper, but it had only gotten worse with her mother’s inability — or unwillingness as he called it — to produce a son. Even at the age of ten, Mia understood how important it was to have an heir. A girl was not fit to inherit anything, her father had said, not even a name.
“I feed ye! I clothe ye! I keep yer house warm!” her father cried again. “The least ye can do is birth me a worthy bairn — a boy! Ach, what do ye do but speak to me without respect? What do ye do but drink and whine? Maybe ye’ve been killing all my boys with yer drinking.”
The pounding had stopped now and all Mia could hear were the sobs of her mother. The little girl stood clinging to the door, unsure whether she should try and intervene or if it was safer to stay away. Her mother always warned her to protect herself first.
The decision was made for her as her father stormed out of the room past Mia and into his study. Fortunately, he had not noticed her in the darkness.
There was no telling what her father would do on nights like these. Conrad Steward was an impossible man, her mother had said, a brute. Sometimes he took his anger out on his daughter. Sometimes he said nothing at all. Mia didn’t want to find out what he would have in store for her tonight.
As soon as she heard his study door slam shut, she scrambled over to her mother’s chambers. She worried, just like in her dream, that her mother would be laying bloodied on the floor.
What she saw instead took her by surprise. Her mother was standing straight, a fiery look of determination on her face as she stuffed her belongings in a little cloth bag, her left eye swollen shut.
“Mia… Oh, Mia, my little bairn… Mammy cannae stand it nae more,” her mother, Maeve, said through her sobs, stumbling as she pulled Mia into an embrace. Maeve smelled like ale and sick again, which made Mia’s stomach turn.
Mia despised it when her mother drowned her sorrows in drink, as it frustrated her father even more. She could feel her mother’s ribs as Maeve held her tightly. This woman, who she could barely recognize anymore, looked frail in the silvery moonlight. It swept across her gaunt cheeks, across the dark eye that Conrad had just given her.
She pulled away from Mia, giving her a peck on the forehead. Her round eyes bore into her daughter’s face like she was trying to memorize every inch of it. That was all Mia could remember before her mother climbed out the window without saying another word.
Mia was too scared to stop her. Perhaps if she hadn’t been, she would have pleaded with her mother to say something; she would have implored her mother not to leave her alone with her father. She knew what it looked like when someone was leaving for good, but she couldn’t quite believe it—her mother abandoned her.
The girl stood there, staring at the window, shaking and trying to decide whether to follow her out into the wilderness.
At first, Mia did not hear his footsteps in the hallway. Stuck in a trance, she let out a little sob. When she heard them at last, she looked for somewhere to hide.
He was coming. If he could no longer torment his wife, who would suffer his anger next?
The footsteps and curses grew louder. Mia stepped back tentatively. With each step, she hoped to free herself from the man who sought to destroy her and find sanctuary in the arms of the woman who had just left her at his mercy.
Mia shut her eyes, covering her face with her hands.
There was nowhere left to run.
Murray Castle, 1746
In the warped wooden mirror opposite her bed, Mia stared unflinchingly at herself. She shifted the sleeve of her nightgown off her shoulder, trying to imitate the seductive women she had studied in taverns. She needed all the help she could get.
Her predicament was made worse by the scars that marred her skin. One of the deepest was a gash on her knee that she had gotten when she fell from her horse as a child. She hoped the darkness would hide her imperfections from her husband, Bram, the Laird of Clan Murray, but there was no hiding that one.
Mia was not deterred. This had to be the night. She had been married to the Laird for almost a year, but still she was as virginal as the day she had stepped foot into the keep. She looked at her reflection in the mirror, hoping that her gently waved hair and long bare neck would be enough for him to desire her. The sheer night chemise would do the rest of the work.
Turning her head from side to side, hoping her scars were mostly hidden beneath her nightgown, she reached for her dressing gown and started to make her way out of her chambers. Trying to keep her back straight, she swung her hips as she had seen some of the noble wives do.
She sighed, feeling ridiculous. Perhaps she should have asked her maids for assistance. She had sent them away earlier that evening, confident that this night would be different from every other.
Mia stood in front of the door to her husband’s chambers — chambers that should have been theirs to share — and adjusted her posture. She gathered enough courage to knock on the door. Despite being the lady of the house, she wasn’t allowed access to his room.
Before she had a chance to change her mind and turn back, she rapped on the door, turned the doorknob and walked in.
“Who’s there?” Bram grunted in the dimly lit room.
Mia could hardly make out a thing. Suddenly, she heard a high-pitched shriek from where she presumed her husband’s bed to be. The occupants of the room — of the bed — had seen her before she could see them. Both of them.
“Why do ye bother me so, Mia?” her husband rasped, getting out of the bed where he had been laying, his dark hair falling into his eyes. She could smell the alcohol on the air between them, but her eyes were fixed on the woman in the bed. She recognized her as one of the maids who worked in the keep.
The maid that had so willingly warmed her matrimonial bed was now clutching her clothes to her chest and dashing out of the room. Bram, on the other hand, stood proudly bare before Mia, challenging her.
This was not the first time he had taken other women, she knew, but this was the first time she had caught him. The keep was pregnant with rumors of her husband’s affairs, but Mia had always ignored them. Of course, it was true. How else does a man service his loins when he refuses to touch his wife?
She looked away from him, staring at the door, but promptly snapped back to attention when Bram spoke again.
“For God’s sake, Mia… What are ye doing here? Ye didnae even give me a chance to finish, and I for sure will nae finish with ye,” he argued, not even stopping to catch his breath. “I have told ye over and over again that I need my privacy, but still ye come barging into my room, disturbing my moments o’ peace. I cannae even begin to find ye desirable with that sort o’ behavior. How can I want ye when I cannae stand ye?”
Mia realized she had been slouching, her shoulders heavy with disappointment. She felt her bravery retreat. It was clear that she would never be enough. For her husband. For her father. For anyone.
“Ye walk like a man. Ye have the scars of a man. Ye act like a man, and I cannae desire such a lady. Leave now, before ye do something we both regret.”
Mia stood there, unable to move. Her heart thundered so frantically that she worried it would leap out of her chest. She was humiliated but awestruck by the body that stood before her. Although he was much older than she was, her husband was still in his prime. His muscles were bulging beneath his skin; his jawline was defined and strong, his face unmarred by age. Mia didn’t love him. She never had, not in the way the poets spoke of love and burning desire, but she did believe she was failing as a wife if she could not make her husband desire her.
Further irritated by her refusal to move, Bram’s dark eyes bored into hers. “What did I say? Get out o’ my damned room, Mia! Remember what I told ye at our wedding? If nae for the good o’ my clan, I’d nae have married ye nor any other lass. Dinnae make me regret my kindness to them and to ye. Leave me be or I will throw ye out myself!”
Mia scowled to mask the disappointment she felt. All the promise of the night washed away at once. She walked out of her husband’s chambers as gracefully as she could, clenching her fists.
This was all her father’s fault. With no son to call his heir, he had spent her entire childhood treating her like she was a boy — teaching her how to hunt, how to ride. Even now, as a grown married woman, sparring was still her favorite pastime.
She knew giving up was not an option. She refused to live in a loveless marriage like her parents or be forced to escape from the window of her own home like her mother. She would win Bram over. Of that, she was sure. She just had to figure out how.
Mia kept thinking as she made her way down the stairs, when excited chatter interrupted her pitiful musing.
“The ball,” she heard, making out the voices. “Tis the largest, most beautiful celebration in all o’ the Highlands, and I cannae wait,” the first maid said excitedly.
The maids huddled together beneath the staircase she was descending but she couldn’t understand most of what was said since they spoke in a mix of Gaelic and English. It didn’t really matter. She didn’t care about balls anyway.
“The most handsome lairds are going to be there,” another maid replied. “If only one of them could take me to be his bride, I’d be the happiest lassie alive!”
The last maid, who had been quiet, finally broke her silence. “Well, there is a load of preparations to be performed with the Lady of this keep paying nae attention to such matters.” The maid sighed. “She would rather spend her time sparring in the fields,” she whispered.
“Och, dinnae bother about her,” said the first girl. “There are going to be many ladies in attendance too. Perhaps she will learn a thing or two about being a lady from them.”
The three girls giggled under the stairs, scuttling away before long. They had been right about one thing: Mia would much rather spend her time in the fields. She continued down the stairs and headed out of the keep.
“Aye, aye, lassies! Exactly like that,” Archie groaned, sandwiched between two women. In tandem, they worked their way between his muscled legs.
Archie looked between them, their eyes twinkling and their cheeks flushed. There was nothing quite like a Highland girl. They were the most desirable of the bunch.
To his dismay, his enjoyment was cut short by a loud knock on the door. The knocking didn’t stop until Archie heard his war chief, Lennox, speak up.
“Och, nae again, my laird!” Lennox said, opening the door without invitation. “Cannae ye wait just a while longer before ye indulge yourself in such pleasures?”
Archie rose from the bed, dismissing the two red-haired women with a wave of his hand. They sashayed out of the room, not bothering to cover themselves. Archie noticed how one of them — God above, he couldn’t remember her name — eyed Lennox as she walked out. He debated encouraging him to run after her—it was the least he could do for his best friend.
Archie could hear the pitter-patter of their naked feet against the floorboards as they left. Lennox settled by the door, almost knocking one of the shields from its rack. Archie had a penchant for battle memorabilia. The walls of his chamber were decorated with claymores and dirks. A wide armchair was perched in the corner of the room, with shelves of fortified wine and spirits stacked above it. Archie ambled over to it, fastening his britches.
“These wenches ye entertain do ye nae good,” Lennox said. “Ye need to find yerself a fair lady to settle down with.” Lennox fixed his gaze on Archibald’s left arm and let out a breath. “Ach, with that gash on yer arm, I dinnae ken how ye handle them anyway.”
Archie picked up his plaid and wrapped himself with it. He grabbed a bottle from the shelf and poured them both a glass of whiskey. He walked over to Lennox and patted him on the shoulder, handing him a tumbler.
“Ye worry too much, my friend,” Archie said. “They dinnae call me the Highland Wolf for naething, ye ken. I belong to the ladies and the sweet pleasures they give me,” he grinned.
Scoffing, Lennox chose to ignore him. Instead, he turned his attention to the rattling window behind the bed, rain and wind crashing against its panes.
“Be that as it may, Wolf, I have news,” Lennox started tentatively. His long hair glittered in the light from the fire. “Yer brother, Dallas, was seen near the lands by Balbaire, and—”
“I have nae brother,” Archie interrupted him fiercely. His smile vanished.
“I want to hear naething of it, Lennox. Dallas can do as he pleases.”
“As ye wish, my laird” Lennox sighed, “but I implore ye to go easy with the lasses. We dinnae need wee bastards running amok, Archie.”
“We dinnae need miserable soldiers either. Ye ken we should nae have been so easily crushed at Culloden, Lennox. The Jacobites have to be stronger, mightier—nae to mention that I dare nae refuse myself any pleasure I desire, knowing full well I almost lost my life in that battle.”
“Have ye considered that, perhaps, a single woman would give ye just as much pleasure? A single lass like a wife?”
Archie laughed. It wasn’t as though he had never considered marriage. However, the idea didn’t appeal to him. “Nae, my friend. I would soon grow bored and weary of her, I ken it. I would rather have any beauty I please than be bound to one lass for the rest of my life.” Moving to lay back in bed, Archie continued. “Tell me something. Have ye received any news that will lift my spirits, or are ye here simply to hound me all day long?”
“Well, the invitation to the Murray annual ball arrived this morning. We should be leaving nae later than dawn on the morrow.”
“Och, now that I like to hear! A distraction is just what I need. Are the horses ready for the journey? There is nae reason to wait for dawn where lassies are concerned,” Archie quipped, crossing his arms behind his head.
Heaving another sigh, Lennox left the room to make the final preparations for their travel. And despite his friend’s protestation, the Laird was convinced he heard the man chuckle down the hall.
Swords clattered all around as Mia and Clyde sparred behind the castle. The sound of battle was enough to wash away her shame from the previous night. She planted her bare feet firmly in the grass as Clyde’s sparring sword came down on her shoulder.
“Got ya, lassie!” he exclaimed, filling the air with his carefree laughter. “Ye can pretend it is nae so, but ye are still a lady,” he added with the singsong voice that never failed to amuse her.
“Clyde. Och, Clyde… Ye ken for a fact that ye are going to be beaten by a woman for the umpteenth time one way or another. These fighting words will nae protect ye forever,” Mia mocked. Today would be like every other day. She would best her husband’s younger brother before sundown.
Clyde had been her only friend at the keep since her wedding a year ago. The man was different than his older brother, who stalked around the castle like a quiet tyrant. Clyde was genial, always doing something, his hazel eyes glittering with mischief. His good humor had nothing to do with his age. Mia was only two years older than him, but she looked twice as glum, and he was twice as tall.
“What is that look on yer face? Is my brother really that awful to ye?” Clyde asked, attempting to knock her sword out of her hands. “So awful that ye choose to come and spar with me? Something ye swore to me that ye would never do again, by the way. What was it ye said the day before last? ‘It is time I stopped acting like a lad.’”
Mia scoffed. Aside from Clyde, the whole clan thought that she and Bram were the perfect match—noble, beautiful and powerful. It couldn’t have been further from the truth, and at least Clyde was brave enough to say it.
“Och, well, what can I do? It is the only way I can chase my worries out of my stubborn mind, ye ken.” She pulled back, deflecting a slash of Clyde’s wooden sword. “Still, I blame nae one but my wretched father, nae even yer brother. He was nae the one that sold me like a cow. At least my father had the sense to arm me with a sword. And a bow. Ach, I bet that I am a better horse rider than ye too.”
“Then it is also yer father’s fault that ye are so bonnie,” her partner replied with a smirk.
“Yer brother certainly doesnae think so.” She sighed. “For the life o’ me, I cannae imagine how those noble ladies do it—sitting all day in their cottages or chambers, embroidering and gossiping. They always have an air o’ agreeance about them. I could nae stand it. Yet a part of me yearns to give it all away… to feel wanted and appreciated and nae to be stuck in a marriage without love.”
“Perhaps if ye truly loved someone it would make ye want to be a lady for him.”
Mia said nothing. Even to Clyde, she could not admit that she had been trying to be more ladylike, to fall in love and be loved in return. To no avail.
“My lady!” a maid cried suddenly. She ran down the hill at the bottom of which Clyde and Mia stood, clutching her bonnet.
As she got to them, looking white as a sheet, Mia feared the girl would faint.
“The guests,” the girl gulped, clutching her stomach, “they are arriving tomorrow. Word has arrived that they are just over the mountains near Ben Nevis. The rooms are nae ready yet, my lady!”
The maid looked over her shoulder, and Mia regarded her curiously. She recognized her before long as the girl she had caught with her husband.
Mia swallowed down her anger. Most of these women had lived and worked in the keep their entire lives. They were loyal to the Laird now that they were grown, and if the Laird called for him to share his bed they could hardly refuse. With the way the girl refused to look at her, Mia knew she remembered the evening too. However, the maid’s shame did not soothe Mia’s pride.
“Take me to the guest rooms,” Mia said as she handed Clyde her sword, waiting for the maid to lead the way. “Let me see how much work still has to be done.”
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