Highlander’s Golden Enchantress (Preview)
Living her days in constant fear for her brother wasn’t how Guinevere had thought her life would be. The two of them had once been inseparable, twins who had never spent a single day apart, and now Tristan was nowhere to be found. Even their sister, Nimue, thought that was because he was dead, but Guinevere refused to believe it.
“I ken it in me heart,” she told Nimue. The two of them were sitting in the drawing-room of the MacIntosh Castle, Nimue, with her little daughter, Morgana, in her arms. She was watching Guinevere with concern, a look that Guinevere had come to expect from her. “I ken that Tristan is alive. He’s somewhere out there. I’m certain they have him. I canna stop thinkin’ about him, Nimue. He’s on me mind all the time, and all I can think about is how I can help him. I need to find him.”
They had had that conversation several times before, ever since Guinevere had come to stay at the MacIntosh Castle along with the rest of her family’s clan. The English had decimated the MacLellan lands within days, and they had captured Tristan in the process, too.
Or killed him, according to what everyone else said.
“Guinevere, I worry about ye,” Nimue said, balancing Morgana on her knee to place a hand on Guinevere’s shoulder. It was gentle and hesitant, and Guinevere couldn’t help but scoff. She didn’t like being treated like she was about to break under the slightest pressure, and those days, everyone seemed to be cautious around her.
“Dinna worry about me,” she said. “Worry about our brother. He’s the one who needs our help.”
“Tristan is dead.” It was the first time that Nimue had spoken those words to her, even though she had implied the very same thing many times before. Her tone was cold and firm, and Guinevere flinched, her breath catching in her throat. “There is nothin’ that we can do about him noo, ye must understand that. Na matter how long ye search for him, ye willna find him. It’s been so long noo, we probably willna even find his body.”
She knew that Nimue wanted her to move on, but she couldn’t do that, not when she didn’t believe Tristan was gone in the first place. There was no body to bury, no grave to mourn by, and she firmly believed that was only because he was still alive. There was nothing to prove to her that Tristan was dead, and as long as there was no proof, Guinevere held onto hope.
“Ye’re only doin’ harm to yerself,” Nimue continued, her voice softening once more. “Our clan suffered, Guinevere. So many of our people were lost. Everyone who fought for our land was captured and then killed by the Sassenachs. Ye ken that Tristan was one of them, dinna ye?”
“I do,” Guinevere said. Tristan had been the one to lead the MacLellan army, after all. But that didn’t mean that the English had captured him. Perhaps he had managed to escape and was now trying to find his way back to the family. “I also ken that Tristan would do anythin’ to come back to us. Anythin’.”
“I’m na sayin’ that he didna,” Nimue pointed out. “But Guinevere . . . na one has heard anythin’ about him for so long. If he were still alive, dinna ye think that he would have found a way to contact us? And why would the Sassenachs na use him to bargain with our faither if they had him? Why would they na tell us that they have him?”
It was a good question and one to which Guinevere didn’t have an answer. But she wasn’t basing any of her hopes on logic. If Tristan was dead, she was certain that she would know it in her gut. A part of her would have died with him, and she would instantly know that he was gone, no matter how far apart they were.
That pain had never come, not even when she had heard the news of the attack. From the very first moment, she believed that Tristan was still alive and that he needed her help.
“I dinna ken,” Guinevere said with a small shrug. “But if there’s even a small chance that he’s still alive, I want to find him.”
“Let’s assume that he is alive. How are ye plannin’ on findin’ him?” Nimue asked. “Will ye look all over Scotland for him? If it turns out that the Sassenachs do have him, then they’re keepin’ it a secret for a reason. We wouldna find him even if we tried.”
“I will go anywhere in the world if I must,” Guinevere said fervently. She would track him down even if it meant going to the other side of the world. It seemed more likely to her, though, that Tristan was somewhere in England on in the Lowlands still. The English had no reason to take him too far. If they had him, then they were bound to be holding him in one of their camps. “But there must be someone who kens somethin’ about him. Is there na one in the Highlands who still has relations with the Sassenachs?”
Nimue seemed to consider that for a moment, pursing her lips together. “The clans have ceased all relations with them. Although . . . I suppose the MacPhee clan is the only one that hasna. The Sassenachs need them for their wool, and the MacPhee’s . . . weel, they like Sassenach gold.”
Nimue’s voice was laced with disdain, and Guinevere couldn’t blame her for it. The English had done nothing but harm to their clan, and Guinevere had the same hatred for them as her sister.
She remembered the MacPhee clan, though, and most of all, she remembered the boy who was supposed to become Laird MacPhee one day. They had only met briefly when Guinevere was a girl, but she still remembered how handsome he was back then.
She wondered if he was still as handsome as a man.
“But ye’re na to write to Laird MacPhee,” Nimue said, putting an abrupt end to Guinevere’s fresh plans. “Even if ye did, I doubt that he would help ye.”
“Why na?” Guinevere asked. Surely, she thought, someone who still traded with the English could also gather some information on Tristan for her.
“Because he’s a horrible man,” Nimue said. “Ye’re na to contact him, and that is final.”
Guinevere’s bottom lip quivered in anger, her hands balling up into fists. She couldn’t understand why Nimue thought she could tell her what she could and couldn’t do. Even though she was younger, she was the only one doing anything to find Tristan.
“Just because the MacPhee clan still trades with the Sassenachs, it doesna mean that Laird MacPhee is a horrible man and—”
“It’s na that,” Nimue interrupted, shaking her head. “That man killed his wife. Everybody in the Highlands kens it, even though they are afraid to talk about it. Chrisdean doesna have any relations with him since he found out.”
Chrisdean, Nimue’s husband and Laird of the MacIntosh clan, was not one to act just on rumors. Guinevere had come to know him well in the time she had spent at the castle, and he seemed to her like a rational man, one that didn’t listen to gossip. Perhaps it was true, then, that Laird MacPhee had murdered his wife, but Guinevere didn’t see why that should deter her from trying to contact him. She would only ask about her brother. The worst that could happen was that he would refuse to help.
“Are ye certain that the man killed his wife?” Guinevere asked, thinking that if Nimue had some doubts over it, perhaps it would be easier to convince her to assist her with her search. The last thing that Guinevere wanted was to go behind her sister’s back, but if it wasn’t possible to change her mind, then she was determined to do anything it took to get information on Tristan. “Surely, he would have been punished for it.”
“The official story is that it was an accident,” Nimue said. “That’s what the Laird and the nobles always said. But she was found dead in his chambers, and I dinna think that anyone ever believed that it wasna a murder.”
“Just because she was found in his chambers?” It didn’t sound like a good enough reason for suspecting Laird MacPhee to Guinevere. Who was to say that she hadn’t been murdered by someone else?
“It’s na only that.” Nimue sighed as though the conversation seemed pointless to her. “He’s na a good man, Guinevere. Everyone kens that he has a string of lovers and that he’s verra unpleasant. There is na point in tryin’ to speak to him, and it may even put ye in danger.”
“Why? It’s na as if I’m his wife!”
Nimue pinned her with a strict look, one that Guinevere could only respond to with a sheepish smile. But none of what Nimue told her did anything to dissuade her from putting her plan in motion. She would contact Laird MacPhee, even if she had to go behind Nimue’s and Chrisdean’s backs, and if that didn’t work, then she would keep trying.
All the effort and all the lies were worth it if it meant that she would get her brother back. Nimue couldn’t understand, she thought. She loved Tristan, of course. She loved him dearly. But Guinevere was his twin, and the two of them had been torn apart. It was something that Guinevere could hardly bear. Every day was a new burden on her shoulders, her desire to find him almost as heavy as her failure to do so.
She hated to think of him, cold, alone, scared, held captive by the English in some dungeon. It was as though she suffered with him, their bond so strong that his pain was hers, too.
For a few moments, the two of them sat in silence, little Morgana gurgling playfully in Nimue’s lap. Guinevere reached for her, letting her wrap a tiny hand around her finger and delighting in the way that she smiled. She was already the spitting image of her mother, with her halo of dark, almost jet-black hair, and Guinevere couldn’t wait to see her grow up.
That hair was the one feature that Guinevere and Nimue didn’t share. Guinevere and Tristan took after their golden-haired Mother, while Nimue had hair black as coal. But the two sisters shared the same eyes, a deep, vibrant green that spoke of their close relation.
Seeing that insisting would get her nowhere, Guinevere decided to change the subject. After all, there was no point in arguing with Nimue, not when she knew that she didn’t even believe Tristan was alive.
“Weel . . . I wish to go to the Craig Dunain priory,” she said. “I’d like to spend a few days there, to pray and be away from all this.”
It was something that had been on her mind for a few days— that need to escape making her skin itch. She needed a change of scenery, and the monastery seemed as good a place as any to get what she needed. It was close to the castle, less than a day’s ride, and so she doubted that Nimue would be too concerned about her.
Besides, as long as she was away from the castle, she could scheme in peace. She wouldn’t have to worry about coming up with excuses for Nimue and Chrisdean.
Nimue’s face lit up immediately at that, and she nodded eagerly. “That sounds like a verra good idea,” she said. “It will be good for ye, I think. I would come with ye, but—”
“Na.” Guinevere was quick to interrupt her. She didn’t want Nimue following her around and interfering with her plans. “Na, Nimue, ye have the wee one, and ye’re the Lady of the clan. I couldna ask ye to come with me. Ye should stay here.”
“Ye’re na askin’ me. I offered,” Nimue pointed out. “But ye’re right, I canna leave Morgana. Will ye be alright alone? I would hate for ye to have na company.”
“I willna be alone. I’m sure that the nuns will keep me company. Besides, I wish to go there to have some peace and quiet. After everythin’ that happened . . . our clan bein’ destroyed and the Sassenachs almost capturin’ Faither and me I think that bein’ away from everyone else for a while is a good idea.”
It wasn’t a lie, not quite, at least. Guinevere did want some peace and quiet. The past months had been hard on her, and being around so many new, unfamiliar people was harder than she had originally thought, even if everyone had been perfectly nice to her. She was still adjusting to a life away from the only home she had ever known, and she could hardly adjust when there were so many people that she was obligated to meet and talk to every day.
She had gotten into the habit of taking long rides into the woods, all alone, but Nimue and their father always fretted over her, telling her how dangerous it was to be out there all alone. They were right, of course. There could be brigands or even Englishmen anywhere, and Guinevere wouldn’t be able to fight them off on her own, but the walls of the castle stifled her. There was a constant weight on her chest those days, a perpetual knot in her stomach that only eased when she was outside, away from it all.
“Verra weel,” Nimue said. “I’ll make the arrangements for ye.”
“There’s na need for that. Thank ye,” Guinevere said. “All I need is a horse. It’s na that far from here. I’ll be fine.”
Nimue seemed reluctant to agree, and so Guinevere gave her a reassuring smile as she stood, eager to put an end to the conversation while she was ahead. If she gave Nimue any time to disagree, she knew that she would lose.
“I’ll go make the preparations noo,” Guinevere told her. “I will leave first thing in the morning, but I’ll be sure to find ye before I do to say goodbye.”
With that, she all but ran out of the drawing-room, her heart thumping wildly in her chest.
It willna be long noo. Soon, I’ll ken if Tristan is alive for certain.
Beads of sweat and blood dripped down Kaleb’s temples as he stumbled his way through the MacPhee Castle, the servants and the clansmen looking at him in horror. Those who offered to help were quickly turned away, Kaleb shooting them a warning glare as he heaved, trying to catch his breath.
His limp made it difficult to walk, and his mouth was filled with the taste of iron, blood still dripping from his split lip. But his injuries weren’t that serious, he knew. They would heal in time. What was serious was that he had gone on a hunt and had barely managed to return.
The few men with him were in a similar condition, all injured after the fight, though thankfully none had died. They had been attacked in the middle of nowhere by a group of men who fought too well to be brigands but who were also certainly not English. Kaleb and his men fought well and eventually defeated the enemies, striking some dead while others escaped. But the attack itself bothered him.
And he already had a good idea of who was behind it.
Walking up the stairs was a struggle. His knees almost gave out under his weight, but Kaleb soon made it to his study, where he found the Elders already waiting for him. The sight of him seemed to give them pause, and he couldn’t blame them, covered as he was in filth and blood.
“What happened to ye?” Andrew, his chief counselor, asked, standing up and rushing to him to check for injuries. “Why did ye na go to the healer, me Laird?”
“I’m fine,” Kaleb said, quick to dismiss Andrew’s concerns. “We were attacked deep in the woods while we were huntin’. Everyone’s alive, but the men are injured, too. Noo tell me . . . why are ye all gathered here?”
At his question, all the Elders fell silent, much to Kaleb’s concern. “What?” he asked. “What is it?”
“Some of the villages have been pillaged,” Andrew said, always the first one to speak. “We received word na too long ago. Three of them, and they all suffered massive losses.”
The news punched the air out of Kaleb’s lungs, his hands curling into fists. He had fought so hard to make his clan what it was, to make sure that everyone was prospering, and yet someone had managed to destroy three of his villages overnight.
How many dead could there be? How many injured? How many people that he had failed because he hadn’t prepared for it?
But it was too late now. Regret washed over him, and the guilt that he always carried inside him only grew, fed by the recent events. It was a hole in his stomach, one that widened with every wrong decision that he made, and he feared that one day, it would be all that would be left of him.
“How bad is it?” Kaleb asked.
“Verra bad, me Laird. Crops, wool, all of it stolen or destroyed. They didn’t seem to want to leave anythin’ behind. They even slaughtered some of the animals, took the little gold the villagers had.”
“I see . . .”
I was just as Kaleb had expected. The pillaging and the attack on him and his men were not isolated incidents, and they certainly weren’t random. The work was familiar. Kaleb had encountered it before.
“Were there any dead? Injured?” he asked. While they could make more wool and plant more crops, they couldn’t bring back the dead. His main concern was the people. Everything else he could fix.
“Many injured, but na dead,” Andrew informed him. “It’s a wonder they all made it out of the entire ordeal alive. The report we received spoke of a brutal attack.”
“This is the work of me brother,” Kaleb said with no hesitation as he threw himself down on his chair. He let out a long sigh, deflating, though his body never relaxed, not even for a moment. The battle had left him exhausted, and he wanted nothing more than to clean up and sleep, but he had work to do first.
If his brother was back, it meant that they were all in danger, most of all him. Ralph had never been happy about Kaleb being the Laird of the MacPhee clan, and he had done everything in his power to take the position from him for years.
But the Elders said nothing in response. They only glanced at each other as though they knew something that Kaleb didn’t.
In the end, it was another man, Cormag, who spoke. “Yer brother is in France, me Laird. Our spies report on him every six months,” he said. “He hasna returned. We have na word of him bein’ in Scotland.”
“That doesna mean that he’s na here,” Kaleb pointed out. Ralph always had his ways of staying hidden, undetected by all his spies. He knew Kaleb’s defenses better than anyone, and he knew Kaleb himself. “Ralph has his ways. We would only ken that he’s here if he wanted us to.”
But Kaleb could tell even as he spoke to the men that they didn’t believe him. They all thought that he was obsessed with Ralph, that what had happened between them had broken him too much to allow for any rational thought when it came to him.
Kaleb knew what he had seen, though. He knew that the men he had fought had trained under Ralph. He recognized how they moved and fought, dirty, like he did, but with discipline.
“There were Sassenach soldiers at two of the villages, me Laird. Dead,” Cormag continued. “Why would yer brother have Sassenach soldiers killed?”
“I dinna ken,” Kaleb said. “All I ken is that it was him, or at least his men. I’m askin’ ye to trust me on this. I ken me brother. He’s here, back in Scotland, and it willna be long before he attacks again. Next time, he might even attack the castle.”
There was another long silence, and Kaleb could tell that it was a losing battle. Even Andrew, who tended to agree with him on most matters, seemed reluctant to believe Ralph was back. None of them knew him like Kaleb did, though, and none of them knew what he had done. Kaleb had never told the truth to anyone. All they knew was that there had been a rift between the two of them, and Ralph had left for France.
They didn’t know what a vile man he could be.
“Perhaps we can send some spies, but I think it’s a waste of resources,” another Elder said, bolder than Andrew and Cormag. “They’ll come back empty-handed, I’m sure. And even if he is back . . . weel, why would he attack the castle? What would he gain out of it? Surely, whatever men he would have would be na match for our soldiers. It’s better to focus our efforts and our gold on findin’ the real culprits. It more likely that the attackers were brigands, me Laird, rather than yer brother.”
There were mumbled agreements from the other Elders, all of them reluctant to waste money and time on someone who was little more than a ghost at that point. Kaleb’s anger simmered inside him, threatening to spill out, but he knew better than to attract the dislike of the Elders. He needed his council to be on his side, especially if Ralph was truly back, planning to take over the clan.
He needed some time to think and come up with a plan, something that he couldn’t do when he had an entire council of Elders in the room opposing him.
“Thank ye all,” he said, taking a deep breath to calm himself. “I will consider it.”
It was their cue to leave, and the Elders stood one by one, flocking to the door. Soon, Kaleb was alone with Andrew, who lingered by his desk, looking at him expectantly.
“Weel?” Kaleb asked. “What is it?”
“If Ralph is back,” Andrew said, and Kaleb perked up, glad that someone was willing to listen to him at least, “then ye should find a wife soon. A noble lass from the clan or from a neighboring one. Someone with power. If he is back and he’s after the Lairdship, then ye need to have a strong alliance.”
Andrew had a point, Kaleb thought. He hadn’t remarried after his wife’s death, the mere thought of it put him on edge, but he would do anything for the good of the clan. He wouldn’t allow Ralph to get his hands on the Lairdship. If he did, he would bring the entire MacPhee clan to ruin. All he had ever cared about was his own personal gain. He had never considered the people. He had never considered the clan and its legacy. All he cared about was eating and drinking, spending each of his days in a hedonistic stupor. The clan would run out of gold before the elder council would have a chance to even put up a protest.
“Ye think he’ll try to make a formal claim?” Kaleb asked.
“Aye, he might. If he finds a suitable wife before ye do, there’s little stoppin’ him from doin’ so. But a good alliance will make the people think twice before they support him.”
As much as Kaleb thought it was a good plan, he didn’t know how he could spend the rest of his life tethered to another wife. His first marriage had brought nothing but pain to him, and he had no hopes that a second one would go any better. Women were nothing but treacherous, he had come to find. Trusting them was an even bigger mistake than trusting Ralph.
But what other option did he have? If Ralph did find a highborn wife, then he could easily make a claim for the Lairdship. Kaleb would have to find a wife, and soon.
But that didn’t mean that he would have to keep her.
“I’ll find a wife,” he said. “But dinna expect me to have a marriage with her. We’ll wed, she’ll sire me an heir, and then I’ll send her to a monastery.”
Andrew stared at him in silence for a few moments before he parted his lips as though to speak but then seemed to change his mind. He didn’t need to voice his concerns for Kaleb to know, though. Andrew had been the first to tell him that three years without a wife was long enough and that just because something had happened between the two of them, it didn’t mean that every other woman he met would do the same to him.
Finding a woman to marry just to send her to a monastery did sound cruel, even to him, especially since he would be separating her from her child. But dire situations called for extreme measures, and though Kaleb had no desire to put any effort into keeping his future wife happy, he would at least ensure that she would have every comfort that she would ever need.
Keeping her in the castle was not an option. Unlike what Andrew liked to say, Kaleb didn’t think that he could trust any woman. All of them were traitorous, eager to stab him in the back at the first opportunity for their own profit, and that was the last thing that he needed.
“I’ve made me decision, Andrew,” he said. “Dinna give me that look.”
“I do hope that ye’ll change yer mind about sendin’ whatever poor lass ye find to a monastery,” Andrew said. “Perhaps ye’ll come to like one of them.”
“I verra much doubt that.” Kaleb had felt nothing but lust for other women since his wife’s death. He had dared to love once, and he had promised himself that he would never do it again.
“Would ye at least consider allowin’ her to stay at the castle?” Andrew asked. “It’s big enough that ye will rarely have to see her.”
“What does it matter, Andrew?” Kaleb asked with an exasperated sigh. He didn’t even have a wife yet, and Andrew was already trying to be involved in his decisions.
Though I suppose that is his job as my advisor.
“It matters because the people already think ye’re a brute,” Andrew said bluntly, more so than usual. Kaleb wasn’t used to hearing him speak like that, and for a moment, he was taken aback by it. “Ye’ve heard the rumors, me Laird. It would be best if ye didna give them another reason for them to think ill of ye.”
“They willna think ill of me if they think that it was her decision,” Kaleb pointed out. “Regardless, that is a conversation for a later time. I havena even found a lass to marry yet, Andrew. I’m sure when the time comes, we’ll find a compromise.”
And as usual, Andrew would be the one who would have to make that compromise.
“Verra weel, me Laird,” the man said, giving Kaleb a small bow before heading for the door. Once there, he hesitated, turning around to look at Kaleb. “Do ye really think he’s back?”
“Aye. I’m certain it’s him. Do ye believe me?”
“I do,” Andrew said and then left the room, closing the door behind him.
There was no doubt about it in Kaleb’s mind about it all. Even if no one else apart from Andrew believed him, he believed his own eyes. Ralph hadn’t been one of the attackers, but he was lurking somewhere close. Kaleb could almost sense him, the hairs at the back of his neck standing straight every time he thought about his brother.
The only thing he didn’t know was why he had returned now. What had kept him away for three years? What had brought him back? Had he simply been plotting while he was away, waiting for the perfect moment to strike? Did it just so happen that the perfect moment was right now?
Kaleb didn’t know, but he intended to find out the truth.
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