Highlander’s Forbidden Desire (Preview)
The day was sultry and warm, midsummer having brought a seemingly endless heat to the lush landscape of Argyll. It had not rained for several weeks, and the heathers were growing brown upon the hillsides and the streams trickling their course into the lochs.
Elaine and the party of clansmen rode slowly that morning, pausing several times to rest in the shade of a clump of trees or beneath a rocky outcrop. It grew warmer as the day drew on, the horses sweating as they trudged along the moorland paths, which led north towards Loch Awe and Kilchurn.
“A hard and long day,” Elaine’s father said, reining in his horse and pausing to look out across the landscape.
“Everywhere is so dry. The rain will surely come soon,” Elaine said, as she came to a stop behind her father.
“This is the limit of our land. Here is where we enter the territory of the MacCallum’s. Everythin’ that ye can see from here belongs to them, and behind us, everythin’ ye can see belongs to me,” her father said, pointing first forwards and then backward.
“Then I am to be mistress of two lands,” Elaine replied, looking out across the landscape.
From the ridge, she could see right across the moorlands, making out the distant sparkle of a loch many miles to the north. It was wild and rugged countryside, and she could only imagine its bleakness in the depth of winter when the snows lay thick and heavy there, and freezing winds blew down from the north.
“Aye, mistress of two lands, lass. A McRob and a MacCallum. Tis’ a great moment for our clans. And when yer first child is born, perhaps it will be he who will become master of these two lands,” her father replied.
“And what if I produce a girl, father? What then?” Elaine asked, but her father only laughed.
“Then ye must try harder, lass. I love ye with all my heart, but it was a tragedy that yer dear mother did nae produce an heir. A true tragedy,” he said, sighing and shaking his head.
“Things are meant to be, father. Fate is nay always a kind mistress,” Elaine replied.
“That is true. But come now, fate has it in store that I shall leave ye presently. I must return to Carrick. Ye will be quite safe ridin’ north now. MacCallum territory is safe enough,” he said, calling out for the clansmen to continue.
Elaine paused a moment, still looking out across the vast moorlands ahead and wondering as to her fate. It felt as though this were her final step. To leave this ridge and ride down into MacCallum territory was to take a step she had never taken before. Now, she was leaving home for the final time, and all that lay ahead was unfamiliar.
“Take courage, mistress. We can ride together,” Carys said, causing Elaine to look up from her pondering.
“Then we shall ride together, Carys,” she said, and her companion smiled.
They urged their horses onwards, following her father and the other clansmen on down the moorland path. They had crossed the border now, and Elaine could feel herself letting go of the past and looking to the future. She was brave, dutiful, and determined. This would be a true adventure, and she was ready to face the challenges which lay ahead.
For the rest of the day, they rode on, making slow progress in the heat. They paused to eat a simple meal by a stream upon the moorlands, and it was here that her father bid them farewell. He would not attend the wedding but would ride to Kilchurn later in the summer when further agreements between the two clans could be reached. Elaine was sad to see him leave, and they stood together for a moment upon the path, her father embracing her and offering her his blessing.
“Be strong, Elaine. There is so much of yer mother in ye. She, too, was a brave and noble soul. I see her in ye every day, and I know that she would have been proud of ye. Just as I am,” he said, kissing Elaine and holding her close.
“Then I must dae my best to live up to that reputation, father,” Elaine replied.
“Ye already have done, lass. But here, there is somethin’ that I want ye to have. Wear it on yer weddin’ day and may it remind ye of yer mother and bring ye good luck,” her father said, reaching into his pocket and drawing out a little box.
Elaine had never seen it before, and she opened it curiously, revealing a gold necklace inside.
“Tis’ beautiful, father,” she said, and he smiled.
“It belonged to yer mother. She wore it on the day that she and I were married. Ours was nae, unlike yer own. Yer mother came havin’ never met me before. But we were the happiest of people, and I loved her with all my heart. Hamish MacCallum will love ye too, I am certain of it. Now, be brave and take heart. We shall see each other very soon,” he said, and he kissed her once more before climbing onto his horse and preparing to ride away.
“A safe journey, father,” Elaine called out, and she watched as he rode off across the moorlands.
“It will nae be long until ye see him again, mistress,” Carys said, coming to stand by Elaine’s side.
They watched as her father became a distant dot upon the landscape, his horse charging over the heathers. With a sigh, Elaine turned and nodded, the two women making their way back to the party of clansmen who had just concluded their simple meal of bread and cheese.
“We shall camp a few miles further on tonight, mistress, and then arrive at Kilchurn by noon tomorrow,” the captain of the clansmen said, as they made ready to depart.
“And the path is safe to camp upon?” she asked, and he nodded.
“Ye are quite safe, lass. Besides, I have seen ye wield a sword on many occasions,” he said, laughing and shaking his head.
“But never in battle, captain. I am nay warrior,” she replied, “I shall leave any fightin’ to ye and yer men. Come now, the sooner we ride on, the quicker we shall arrive.”
He nodded to her, calling out orders to the men as Elaine climbed into her saddle and smiled at Carys, who had just finished tightening the straps on her saddlebag.
“What dae ye think the castle is like? Does the Laird have many servants?” Carys asked, climbing up into her saddle and reining her horse around to depart.
“I know very little about it, or of the Laird. I know he has a son, though, for the Laird was married before. His wife died some years ago, but unlike my father, it seems he is keen to marry again,” Elaine said, and Carys nodded.
“Ye didnae tell me he had a son, Elaine. I wonder if he is handsome,” she replied, and Elaine laughed.
“And if he is, then ye are welcome to marry him, Carys. Ye are welcome to marry any man ye so choose. One of us at least should find some happiness in all of this,” Elaine replied, as they rode off across the heathers.
“Come now, mistress. Ye will be happy, I promise. We both will be,” she said.
“So long as I have my faithful friend, I will be,” Elaine replied, grateful at least for the company of one who had been so loyal to her across the years.
Carys had been her maid since they were children, and she was the closest friend Elaine had ever had. She could not imagine life without her and had been greatly cheered when Carys had happily agreed to ride north.
“Ye shall always have me, mistress. I promise,” Elaine replied.
For several hours they rode north across the moorlands. The heat of the sun was relentless, and Elaine was grateful when the shadows began to lengthen, and the cool of the evening began to descend. The captain called a halt at a copse of trees on the edge of the path, and here they decided to make camp, a fire soon kindled, and a stew prepared for their dinner.
Elaine and Carys went to fetch water from a stream that ran below a bank covered in flowers, the water gushing and gurgling its ways down from the hills above. After the heat of the day, the water’s edge was refreshing and reviving, and they paused a while by its side, bathing their weary feet in the cold, clear stream and splashing one another for fun.
“Mistress, I am wet through,” Carys said, laughing, as she leaped out of the way.
“Tis’ so lovely after the heat,” Elaine said, wading up to her waist in the water and splashing Carys again.
“Oh, tis’ just that,” Carys said, giving in and joining Elaine in the pool where they both began to swim.
“Perhaps this journey will nae be so bad after all,” Elaine said, turning on her back and floating into the middle of the water.
“Tis’ an adventure, lass. We will be happy, I promise. We shall find a place to look out from each day, just like we did at Carrick. We shall take walks in the hills just as we always did, and in the winter, we shall sit and spin the wool. Life will nae be that different,” Carys said, as they climbed out of the pool and lay panting on the bank on the other side.
“Except I shall be married. Dae ye think the Laird will expect much of me?” Elaine asked.
“He shall expect ye to be dutiful, I suppose. But surely he will have important tasks to see to. Ye and I will be left to dae as we please. We can begin by explorin’ the whole of the castle, and then around the loch. There will be all manner of things to see,” Carys said, smiling at Elaine, who nodded.
“And by tomorrow, we shall see it,” she said, picking up the pail of water they had collected and pointing back towards the copse of trees above.
“Aye, come now, the men will be eager for their water. I hope the stew is ready,” Carys said, and the two of them climbed up the bank, carrying the pail of water between them.
“Tis’ strange,” Elaine said, when they came to the tree line, “I cannae see any of them men around.”
They paused for a moment, looking through the trees to where the men had set up camp not an hour before. But there was no sign of anyone. Elaine could see none of the men, nor the horses either. It was as though they had simply vanished.
“How strange. Ten men daenae just disappear in a moment,” Carys said.
“Captain? Where are ye?” Elaine called out as they came to the clearing where the fire was smoking.
“Mistress, look,” Carys cried out, and in their horror, they dropped the pail of water to the ground, spilling the water out as they did so.
There, lying with his neck cut, was the captain of the guard. Several of the other clansmen lay dead too, attacked it seemed with swords and other crude instruments which had left horrific injuries to their bodies. Carys clutched at Elaine, and the two women stared in horror at one another, realizing the sudden terror of their predicament.
“Quickly, Carys, come,” Elaine hissed, taking hold of Carys’ hand and leading her into the trees.
It was not a moment too soon, for there appeared in the clearing several vicious-looking men who began to rummage through the discarded saddlebags. Elaine and Carys hid just a short distance away, hardly daring to breathe as they watched what happened next.
“Four dead, these are nae MacCallum’s though. Look at them, these are McRobs, ye can see the insignia,” one of the men said.
“Ye shouldnae have killed them all. What are they doing up here? Where were they going?” another of the men replied.
“Travellin’ north, they must have been on their way to Kilchurn to see the Laird. Well, he shall nae get his tributes now. But what is this?” the first of the men said, emptying out the saddlebag.
Elaine watched as they searched through her belongings, picking out her clothes and holding them up in surprise. There were eight of them in total, all heavily armed, a group of bandits who no doubt preyed upon travelers foolish enough to paused as Elaine and the others had done.
“Why would clansmen have lass’ clothes with them?” one of them said, and the others laughed.
“Because they must have lasses with them. There must be some we have nae found yet. Come on, let’s search for them,” one of them said, and Carys clutched at Elaine as the two women backed further away into the undergrowth.
“We need to get away, come now,” Elaine hissed.
She had only her dagger on her belt, and the two of them could be no match for such vicious and heavily armed men. They had killed all of the clansmen, and surely, they would have no qualms in killing them too if they found them.
Elaine pointed towards the trees behind, as the sounds of the men beginning to search now echoed all around. They kept low, scrambling through the bracken, which grew up all around, cutting themselves on thorns and brambles as they tried desperately to get away.
“There are two extra horses here; there must be two lasses somewhere. Hiding in the trees. Quickly now, they would make a handsome bounty if we can find them. Daenae let them get away,” one of the men called out.
“Mistress, we are surrounded,” Carys whispered, her voice shot through with fear.
“This way,” Elaine hissed, pointing through the trees.
The men were almost upon them now, shouting to one another as they hunted. But Elaine had no intention of being caught, and she took hold of Carys’ hand, holding it firmly and reassuringly.
“Where now, mistress?” Carys whimpered.
“We shall make a run for it. See, the horses are unattended through the trees. On my signal, we shall run for them and ride like the wind. Climb onto the captain’s horse—Tis’ the swiftest of them all. We shall ride together and be away before they can catch us. We shall nae stop until we are safe,” Elaine said, and Carys began to cry.
“I cannae, mistress,” she whimpered, but Elaine squeezed her hand, preparing to pull her to her feet.
“Tis’ our only chance, Carys. Come now, be brave,” she said, “we will run on my signal.”
Elaine took a deep breath, the sounds of the bandits almost on top of them. But they had no choice, for if they did not try to escape, then surely they would be made prisoner. She summoned all her strength, reminding herself that she was the daughter of a Laird and mistress of these lands. She was brave, and she would not be cowed by bandits who would kill her father’s men and attempt to make her their ransom.
“There, over there,” one of the bandits cried out as Elaine and Carys rose from the undergrowth and dashed towards the horses.
With a roar, several of the men charged towards them, but the two women already had a start on them, and they reached the horses, throwing themselves onto the captain’s stead, which bucked and reared up on its hind legs.
“Woah there, ride,” Elaine cried out, urging the animal onwards.
It charged forward, but just as it did so, one of the bandits caught hold of the reins, and the animal bucked, almost sending Elaine and Carys falling to the ground.
“I have them,” he cried out, but Elaine had no intention of being made a prisoner in their moment of escape.
She pulled her dagger from its hilt and slashed at the man’s arm. He let out a cry of pain, letting go of the rains and falling back to the ground. The horse charged forward, and Elaine and Carys were away. She did not look back but urged the horse onwards, charging along the track towards the north.
Behind them, they could hear the sounds of the bandits mounting their own steads and preparing to give chase. Cries and threats filled the air, but Elaine could think only of escape, and she pushed the horse onwards, urging it to ride like the wind across the moors.
It was evening now, but still as light as day, the sun barely beginning to set. They had escaped, but how long could ride when all was unknown and unfamiliar? The moorlands all looked the same, though the path seemed well trodden on its way north. If only she knew the way to Kilchurn. But all that Elaine could do was ride on, praying for their deliverance and an end to this nightmare.
They are still following us, mistress,” Carys called out, glancing behind her.
Elaine, too, stole a glance back, and she could see the bandits riding at speed around half a mile behind them. If they paused for even a moment, then they would surely be upon them, and she was beginning to tire, not used to long rides in the saddle.
“We must keep goin now, we cannae stop,” Elaine called out, urging the horse forwards as fast as it would go.
But with two of them riding, it was clear that the poor animal could not hope to keep up its speed. It was tiring, and the bandits were gaining upon them moment by moment. Elaine knew that soon they would be upon them and that their only hope was to reach a place of safety, wherever that might be.
But the moorlands were open and barren. There seemed to be no shelter for miles around, not even an outlying croft or a farm where they might find shelter. Carys was terrified, and Elaine could feel her hands shaking with fear as she held onto her waist.
“What will they dae with us?” Carys said, her voice sounding tearful.
“They shall nae kill us. We are worth too much for that. But I have nay wish to find out anythin’ more,” Elaine said, glancing behind her once again.
The group of bandits was now only a short distance behind, and she could see the murderous look on the dead man’s face. They seemed determined to catch them but try as she might, she could not force the horse to greater speeds. He was slowing now and would surely collapse from exhaustion soon, sending them sprawling to the ground, captured and at the mercy of these wicked men.
“Ye will nae leave me though, mistress? Will ye?” Carys said, and Elaine shook her head.
“We are nae beaten yet, Carys. Look. There is a ridge there; we shall make for that. Perhaps we can gain some distance between us on the rocks,” she said, trying to sound more convinced than she felt.
“Aye, or lame the horse as we go,” Carys said, seeming to doubt any hope of their escaping their pursuers.
They had come to a fork in the path, one way leading north and the other to the west. The heathers ran down a long ridge, the path there ahead somewhat obscured. It seemed the best of several poor hopes, and Elaine urged the horse onwards, praying again for the wisdom to choose the right course.
“Tis’ nay use, we have ye, stop this foolishness and give yerselves up,” the lead bandit called out, the sound of his horse’s hooves now almost upon them.
“Never, nae to a coward like ye,” Elaine cried back as they charged up onto the ridge.
But it seemed that all hope was lost. The ridge gave way to a path running down towards trees, an empty country, and the perfect place for capture. She was about to rein in the horse and draw her dagger, ready to defend herself and Carys unto death.
“Nay, mistress, keep on,” Carys cried out, but just then, a most extraordinary thing occurred.
From the trees, there appeared a party of men, some twenty or so in total, all mounted on black horses, with brightly fluttering banners above them. The sight of these men caused the bandits to cry out in horror, the lead man calling an immediate retreat as confusion seemed now to rein.
Elaine and Carys were caught between them, and Elaine reined in the horse, uncertain of who now to face as her enemy. Was this an ambush upon them? A trick to deceive and lure them into a new danger?
The path was cut off on both sides. Behind them their pursuers and in front of this new and unexpected sight, a party of men led by a man riding an impressive-looking horse. He was handsome, in an unassuming way, his brown hair partially obscured by a helmet and his face clean-shaven.
“Charge these villains away,” he cried, the men on horseback ignoring Elaine and Carys as they pursued the bandits who now scattered to the four winds.
“Mistress, these men have come to our rescue,” Carys said, as Elain pulled up the horse, breathless and exhausted at the side of the path.
Like the cowards they were, their pursuers now scattered, some of them caught by the heavily armored men while others charged off back across the moorlands. Elaine was now in no doubt that her prayers had been answered and that these men had appeared just in time. But what would happen when they turned their attentions to the horse on which the two women now sat? They could not hope to outride these men if their intentions became hostile. All they could do was wait.
“But caution is still required, Carys. We daenae know who these men are. For all we know, they are worse than those who pursed us,” Elaine whispered, as the leader of the horses now rode up to them.
“Hail there, I mean ye nay harm. Ye have had a lucky escape, but tell me, who are ye?” he asked, pulling off his helmet and shaking out his hair.
“I should ask ye the same question,” Elaine replied, looking nervously around her, for they were now surrounded by the riders, several of the bandits now trussed and tied up.
But despite her fears, there was something about him which she felt able to trust. More so than that, something about him which instantly drew her to him. He intrigued her, a handsome and noble man, a man who had come to their rescue at just their moment of need. Her heart was racing, but not only for fear, a shiver running through her as he fixed his eyes upon her and smiled.
“My name is Finlay MacCallum, and ye are ridin’ across my father’s lands. State yer business and tell me why ye were being pursued by those men. We have had much trouble upon the moorlands from these villains in the past months,” he said, looking her up and down.
At the mention of his name, Elaine breathed a sigh of relief, though perhaps a little disappointment too, for he was certainly attractive, and she wondered again about his father. This was the son of the man under whose protection she now lay, and she knew now that they were safe.
“If ye are Finlay MacCallum, then ye and I are soon to be closer than ye think. My name is Elaine McRob, and I can see by the expression on yer face that now ye realize what tragedy ye have prevented this day. We owe ye a debt of gratitude,” Elaine said, as Finlay nodded and smiled at her.
“I suspected as much. My father has been awaitin’ ye, and he sent out our party to bring ye safely to Kilchurn. The way has become dangerous, as ye have discovered to yer peril. Where is yer escort? Surely yer father did nae send ye alone across the moorlands north to us?” Finlay asked, and Elaine shook her head.
“Dead. All of them. These bandits caught us by surprise in a copse of trees to the south. Carys and I were lucky to escape with our lives,” Elaine replied, shaking her head sadly, and Finlay cursed.
“Villains, well, they shall be punished. These ones at least, and we shall nae rest until their companions are hunted down and made to suffer for what they have done. Come now, we shall ride at once to Kilchurn; my father is anxious to see ye safely to our halls,” Finlay said, his face set in grim determination.
Elaine could not help but be thankful to him for rescuing them, but her heart was filled with sorrow, too, at the loss of her father’s men. The brave captain and his soldiers had clearly not betrayed them to the bandits, and it was thanks to them that they had been able to escape. She was determined to see justice done, but she was tired, too, and wished for a place to lay her head. It would be growing dark soon, the shadows having lengthened upon the moorlands and the sun dipping in the sky.
She urged the horse around, riding after Finlay and among his men, who greeted her with deference and respect. She was to be the mistress of this clan, and it seemed there was much interest in her from among them, relief too that they had found her before the bandits had caught up. But the sad fate of her father’s men weighed heavily upon her heart, and she offered up a prayer for their souls, vowing again to see them avenged.
She is certainly an attractive lass, though what a tragedy tis’ that has befallen her on her way to us, Finlay thought to himself, as they rode back towards Kilchurn.
How fortunate it had been that he and his men had come across her and her companion. It did not bear thinking about what might have happened had the bandits caught up with them.
It angered Finlay to think of these men roaming freely across his father’s land. What right did they have to do so? He had vowed to his father to ensure that the lands around the castle did not become lawless, but it seemed that day by day, things were becoming worse.
“What are we to dae with the prisoners, sir?” one of his men asked as they rode along the way towards the castle.
“Have them thrown into the dungeons. We shall make an example of them well enough,” Finlay replied, riding slowing his horse to a pace with Elaine and her maid.
“Ye ride well,” he said, looking at her with interest.
“Tis’ in my blood to dae so, sir. I am nay idle lass, ye know,” and Finlay laughed.
“Aye, I can see that. To face down such men and ride to safety is nay idle thing. My father shall be impressed with ye,” she replied.
“And are ye?” she asked, smiling at him.
“I am,” he replied, struck not only by her attractiveness but by her strength of character, too.
Here was a woman who would prove an interesting mistress of their clan and even a match to his father.
“He is clearly a good man,” Carys whispered as they rode after Finlay along the moorland track, which rose up across the heathers to the north, “handsome too.”
“And I must hope his father is a similar sort of man,” Elaine replied.
“I am sorry to meet ye under such circumstances,” Finlay said, pulling back his horse so that he could ride alongside them.
“We are only thankful that ye appeared when ye did,” Elaine replied.
“We have long been expectin’ ye at Kilchurn these past months. I have looked forward to meetin’ the woman whom my father has chosen as his wife and mistress of our clan,” Finlay said, glancing at Elaine and smiling.
“And am I as ye hoped I would be?” she asked, causing him to laugh.
“It was nae my place to hope, but ye have certainly proved yerself brave by facin’ down those men. There are many less who would have been killed, many men without the courage to dae what ye did,” Finlay replied.
“I am the daughter of a Laird, sir. I am nae afraid of such things, though we are in yer debt,” Elaine replied, blushing a little under his gaze.
“There is nay debt, lass. Tis’ the honor of our clan that we defend, and I will nae allow this country to become lawless, the preserve of bandits and villains. Nay, we shall ride out again and again, until the trail is safe, and they are brought to pay for what they have done,” Finlay said, glancing back at the prisoners who were being pulled roughly along at the rear of the horses.
The moon was rising over the moorlands now, casting its milky glow upon the heathers and reflecting from a loch which lay below. It sparkled in the gathering gloom, and Elaine could now see Kilchurn Castle, lying at the north of the loch, a most welcome sight after all which they had endured since leaving Carrick and all which was familiar behind.
“Tis’ a welcome sight,” Carys whispered as they rode down the track leading to the gates.
“Though how sad that we are coming here alone and without our men. My father will be sorrowful to hear of their loss,” Elaine replied.
“And so we must honor their memories,” Carys replied, “And ye must stay strong, mistress. Ye will feel better for something to eat.”
“Aye, that I shall,” Elaine said, for she realized now just how hungry she felt, as her stomach began to rumble
The castle was made up of a large, square tower from which a wall ran out to a smaller round tower and curved around to form a courtyard. A large gate stood open, flanked on each side by burning torches, and Elaine could see guards stationed upon the battlements above. It was surrounded by the huts and dwellings of a small village, a stone kirk lying at its heart, and a single track running into trees heading north.
Elaine wondered as to the history of the place and of the people who inhabited it. What would Finlay’s father be like? It was clear he had a care for her, else he would never have sent his son out to escort her there that night and what fortune it was that he had done so. She felt nervous now, for she had been so caught up in the events of that evening that she had barely thoughts of what was next to come.
Now, she followed Finlay and the other riders through the gates, knowing the time for her new life to begin was here, the old one left behind. It had already contained far more excitement than she desired, and she hoped now for a peaceful night and the chance to rest. Everything was new and different, the sounds and smells of the place, the clansmen milling about as the night watch appeared, and there was surely the Laird himself, waiting upon the steps to the tower, a look of relief upon his face and his arms outstretched in welcome.
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