Highlander’s Rightful Claim (Preview)
The Son of the Laird
Andrew Cameron was breathless. He had run for several miles through the forest that morning, enjoying the peace and tranquillity of the beautiful place. Above him the sun cast its light through the canopy, a dappled shade spread across the forest floor covered by ferns and mosses, a carpet of greenery stretching out before him. Soon he was deep into the forest, running along a path which was often used by the deer. At length, he came upon them quite suddenly, startling them from their grazing and causing them to scatter. As he watched the young creatures disappear into the woods, a magnificent stag appeared into the glade, taking little notice of Andrew who posed no threat to this monarch of the glen.
The young man watched as the stag grazed, it’s majestic appearance an astonishing sight to behold. Turning its head, the animal looked at Andrew for a moment and instinctively bowed its head, as though recognising Andrew for who he was: the rightful heir and Laird of all he surveyed. Andrew stood motionless as the stag turned and ambled off into the forest after its herd. A sight so spectacular that it took the young man’s breath away. Such views were the reward of solitude and Andrew would have gladly resided in the forest his whole life, the peace and tranquillity of that place as much a home to him as the crofts from which he had just descended.
He had left home as the dawn broke, the first crofters emerging with him to see to the animals, the sun rising over the moorlands. His mother and stepfather, Rhona and Stewart, had still been asleep as Andrew left the croft quietly, running off across the heathers towards the forest.
Rhona and Stewart had lived a happy life together, though one which was always fraught with danger. At any time, they could expect a raid by Murdoch’s men, though the pretender himself never dared to face his brother. Stewart and Rhona had raised Andrew to always honour the memory of his father, Iain Cameron, taking every opportunity to remind the young boy of the brave deeds and great acts of heroism that the Laird had achieved.
“Ye are very like yer father in so many ways,” Rhona smiled. Her son was growing quickly, and the young laddie loved to think about his father and what he might have been like.
“What was he like, mother?”
“A brave and noble man, my son,” Rhona looked wistfully into the distance as memories of her dear husband returned to her
The crofters lived a simple life, tending to their cattle and making a living from the land. As a child Andrew had learnt to hunt and catch fish and following in his father’s footsteps he had learned to fight. He was taught by his stepfather Stewart and uncle Duncan, the brother of Rhona.
“We must always be ready for a Mackintosh attack, laddie, ye must be ready to defend yerself and yer dear mother tae.”
Andrew was as capable with the sword as he was with the tools of a crofter, and as he grew, came to be liked and respected by all. He was a handsome young man, with the strength of his father and the gentle good looks of his mother. A crop of blonde hair and green eyes gave him an attraction which many a young lassie had noticed over the years. But Andrew found little interest in such things, at least he had done until now, the lassies on the crofts were all the same, simple folk and the daughters of peasants, he knew himself to be the son of the Laird and could not merely chase after any lassie who took a fancy to him.
Besides, it was not the excitement of the battlefield or the work of the croft which interested Andrew Cameron. As often as he could, he would go off by himself into the forest. There he would run through the trees and feel the rush of fresh air around him. The scents and sights of the forest a familiar home to him. Ever since he could remember, he had loved to be alone in the forest. Solitude gave him time to think, and often he would ponder on the future and his destiny to be Laird of the glen, it was this inheritance which often troubled him, a sense of unworthiness hanging like a rain cloud. Could he ever emulate his father’s deeds? Or be strong like his uncle and stepfather? Andrew was still a boy and had much to learn, but in the forest, he was master of all he surveyed.
He knew every part of it, from the waterfalls which cascaded down from the high mountains to the glades where deep pools and gushing streams flowed through the trees, and where it was said that the faery folk lived. He knew the paths which the animals took and the best places to watch the deer grazing and the wildcats at play. Often, he spent the night there, kindling a fire and sleeping beneath the stars, the ways and moods of the forest as much a part of him as they were of themselves.
It was this solitude which Andrew Cameron longed for that morning as he set off across the heathers and down into the forest below. He took his familiar route, one walked a thousand times before, following a path which led him deep into the woods.
As a child, his mother had warned him not to stray too far, and to always keep an eye on where he was going. Evil men lay at the other end of the forest, and she recounted the tale of his father’s death and the capture of the Cameron castle all those years ago when Andrew was but a bairn in arms. Occasionally he had dared himself to walk deeper into the forest, seeking out new paths and edging closer to the mysterious castle which held so much fear for them all.
“Tis’ Murdoch Mackintosh who now resides there,” Rhona furrowed her brow “and no more wicked man can be found than he. Ye know the tales of what he did tae me and tae yer father. How he murdered him upon the battlefield and would gladly have murdered us all if given a chance. Long has he sought an opportunity to be rid of ye, my son.”
Stewart nodded in agreement. “Stay away from that castle my laddie tis’ a dark place and ye do not want tae encounter my brother Murdoch. If I never see him again, then I shall be glad of it.”
“Keep yer wits about ye at all times, nephew,” his uncle added, “the woods are full of Mackintosh spies if ye are intent upon walking there so often then be prepared tae use yer sword and dagger upon any stranger.”
At these words, Andrew remained silent, secretly wondering just what the castle was like and whether every Mackintosh was truly as bad his relatives made them out to be. Once he had gone almost too far to the walls of the castle, following a track that seemed to lead directly there. He had caught sight of one of the castle banners in the distance, just as a party of Mackintosh men had appeared on the road ahead, patrolling for Cameron insurgents, their swords drawn and murderous looks upon their faces. Andrew fled quickly back into the forest, running with all his might in terror at the sight of such wicked men.
Ever since then, he had kept his distance, the vast forests big enough to ensure that he need to go nowhere near that evil place again. Now, as he walked into the trees, he breathed in the fresh scent of pine and smiled to himself as above him the birds sang, a cuckoo echoing its song in the distance, as the first dawn rays broke through the canopy.
Today all he desired was to be alone. He walked more slowly through the forest, but decided against visiting his Godmother Cairstine and her husband Alistair as he often did, who resided in a cottage deep in the woods, instead he took the hidden paths, known only to the animals, pausing to collect berries which he ate and drinking from one of the streams. The cold, icy water refreshed him, and he was soon running through the trees intent upon reaching the waterfalls which flowed down from Cornevis, the mountain towering high above the glen, and even in summer had wisps of snow about its top.
As he ran, Andrew thought once more of his destiny. Ever since he could remember his mother and stepfather had impressed upon him the fact that he would be Laird and that when he was of age, it would be his responsibility to lead the Cameron Clan to revenge Murdoch Mackintosh, the man who had murdered his father and left them in exile.
“Ye are the rightful Laird of this glen, my son,” Rhona instilled in the boy, “ye are the one who will lead the Cameron’s home and vanquish that wicked man from the castle.”
Duncan remembered the past only too well. “Aye, the honour of our clan is yers tae defend, ye are the one who will lead us intae battle.”
“We have suffered tae much at the hands of the Mackintosh’s, the years since ye were a bairn have been long and hard. Many a good man has been lost in their raids, and in the battles we have fought. Now is the time for us tae emerge as victors,” Stewart could never forgive or forget the treachery of his brother.
It was a well-rehearsed narrative and one which Andrew knew all too well, yet the thought of such responsibility unnerved him. He was as accomplished a swordsman as any of his fellow clansmen, but the idea of facing his father’s killer in battle terrified him. He had known nothing different to life amongst the crofters, and he had no real desire to reside in a castle which had been described to him as a place of such wickedness. But the time was approaching, and already his stepfather and uncle had begun to rally those forces friendly to their cause in preparation for an assault upon the Mackintosh clan. For too long the Cameron’s had been on the offensive, protected only by the stoutness of their men and the geography of their crofts which, lying high up in the mountains, made an all-out assault impossible. Occasional raids still decimated the lands and caused much hardship to the Cameron’s, and they knew that the time was coming when they must fight on their own terms.
“A foolish quest,” Andrew thought to himself, pausing to catch his breath beneath the shady trees. It was then that he heard a sound, not of birdsong, or the noise of animals in the forest, nor the movement of the trees, but rather the sweet sound of someone singing. Startled, he stood still and listened. The sound coming from just a little way away.
“I left my baby lying here,
Lying here, lying here
I left my baby lying here
To go and gather blaeberries.
I found the wee brown otter’s track
Otter’s track, otter’s track
I found the wee brown otter’s track
But ne’er a trace o’ my baby, O!”
The words sounded sweet and gentle upon the air and Andrew stood transfixed as he listened to the song, wondering as to who might be singing. Rarely did he come upon anyone in the woods and rarer still to hear such a beautiful song. It was one he had heard his mother hum occasionally, and he crept forward to see who was singing.
The foliage was thick and lush, the perfect camouflage as he approached the sound of the voice. He had been there several times before and came to it on a side which he knew to be well covered by ferns, following a path used by animals who went there to drink.
The chorus was now repeated, the distinctive sound of a lassie singing. Andrew wanted to call out in response but worried lest he should scare away the singer he crept forward as quietly as he could, his heart beating faster as the source of such beauty came into view.
The Lassie in the Glade
A little further down the path, it opened into a glade where a stream flowed merrily into a great pool. The water was deep and blue, invitingly clear, the current swirling a little as the water cascaded white and foaming into its depths. There, swimming across, was a lassie, as beautiful a one as Andrew had ever seen.
He stooped behind the ferns which bordered the glade, watching her in fascination. She had a face so fair and lovely that he was instantly captivated by her and as she swam her long hair flowed out upon the water, her body gliding effortlessly as though she had swum there every day of her life.
Her singing continued, the words echoing around the glade. More folk songs of the glen, which told of faerys and mythical beasts, of love and loss, of great battles and glorious deeds. She was a songbook of words and Andrew was enchanted, unable to take his eyes from her.
The lassie swam for around an hour, back and forth across the pool, gliding through the water and occasionally diving into its depths and emerging with a great splash, shaking her head in refreshment. Finally, she emerged from the pool, the sight of her naked body, causing Andrew to blush and look away. He desperately wished to speak with her. He had never seen a lassie more beautiful than her, and as she finished dressing, he made the decision to boldly step forward.
Across the water, Andrew could hear her humming another ditty, straightening her dress and tying back the wet hair. She was shivering a little, for despite the summer sun breaking through the canopy the water must still be icy. The day was drawing on, and with the sun at its height, it was clear to Andrew that she was preparing to go home. Realising this might be the only chance to speak with her, he took a deep breath and stepped forward.
Andrew Cameron emerged from the ferns, stepping upon a dry branch as he did so and causing it to crack. The sound of the splitting wood caused the lassie to turn in shock as she saw Andrew across the water. Letting out a scream, she ran off into the forest, taking a path which Andrew did not know, her figure disappearing rapidly before him into the trees.
“Wait, I just …” Andrew Cameron began, but his words were lost, as the lassie fled into the forest.
Andrew ran downstream a little, forging the water just below the pool and running to the place where she had stood just a few moments before. There, beneath the trees, lay a woven shawl, left by her in her haste to run away. Andrew stooped and picked it up, holding it to his chest and breathing in the sweet perfumed scent. Turning towards the forest, he looked down the path, but there was no sign of the lassie whose name he did not know, but whose looks had so enchanted.
He began to run down the path, thinking that perhaps he might catch her and apologize for startling her, intent upon returning the shawl, but there was no sign of her. Walking deeper into the forest, he had no idea where he was going and stopped, catching his breath and looked around at the unfamiliar trees.
“I shall not find the lassie now,” Andrew called out loud, the trees seeming close, as overhead the sky became overcast, the sun disappearing behind a cloud.
Reluctantly he turned, retracing his steps to the forest glade and sat beside the pool a little while. Staring into the water he clutched the lassie’s shawl and began to sing snatches of a song he remembered from his childhood.
“With careless step I onward stray’d,
My heart rejoic’d in nature’s joy,
When, musing in a lonely glade,
A maiden fair I chanc’d to spy.
Her look was like the morning’s eye,
Her air like nature’s vernal smile,
Perfection whisper’d, passing by: –
‘Behold the lass o’ Ballochmyle!”
Andrew sat for an hour or so by the pool, singing stanches of songs he knew and thinking of the young lassie. What an unexpected encounter it had been. She was beautiful, and her image was clearly imprinted upon his mind, the thought of her emerging from the pool a sight he would never forget. He felt guilty for startling her, she had seemed so frightened, as though she feared any person she might meet in the woods.
Idly skimming a stone across the water, it bounced along the smooth surface. It was not easy for Andrew to meet women. There were the daughters of the other crofters of course, but he was to be Laird, and they were just ordinary folk. He could not just court any lassie he desired, a fact his mother often reminded him of.
“Ye are of noble blood, Andrew and it must be tae noble blood that ye marry,” Andrew spoke aloud, repeating his mother’s words.
This lassie had appeared different. She looked as though she had never worked a day in her life. Her skin was soft, her hands gentle and delicate. The dress she wore and the way her hair was smooth and long suggested a woman of noble means. Such thoughts made him even more curious. Had he seen one of the faery folks? Unlike many of his fellow kin, Andrew was not easily given to superstition, but there were tales of woodland creatures enticing men to their doom, beautiful faerys in the glen who would assume the form of a maiden only to lead a man to his death.
Andrew looked around him as though a host of faerys would leap out upon him or a spirit of the trees descend upon him in a cloud. There was nothing though, only the gentle breeze blowing through the forest which now rippled across the water. He skimmed another stone and stood up, tying the shawl around his waist as he walked through the forest towards home.
Andrew had not realised how far he had walked, and it took several hours of walking along seldom used paths and deer runs before he emerged onto the moorland path. A steep climb brought him onto the heathers, high on the mountainside and he turned, looking down onto the glen below. There in the far distance was his father’s castle, the banners of the Mackintosh’s fluttering on the turrets.
Andrew wondered if perhaps the lassie had come from there, yet she seemed far too beautiful to be associated with such fiends. Further above him were the crofts and coming towards was his uncle, Duncan, striding through the heathers to meet him.
“So, this is where ye have been all day? I was expecting ye tae assist me with the cattle, several of them have lamed themselves upon the rocks, and it has taken us most of the day tae make things right.”
“I am sorry, uncle. I had need of time alone. I will assist ye tomorrow, I promise,” Yet all he could think of was the beautiful lassie.
“Ye can assist me now, Andrew. Ye are not Laird yet remember, there is work to be done. Idle hands receive idle portions at the dinner table, just ye remember that.” Duncan shook his head at his nephew’s tardiness, “we lost three of our finest beasts in the last Mackintosh raid, and must ensure the young calves grow intae strong animals for the winter, do ye hear me?’
‘Aye uncle, I hear ye,’ Andrew sighed.
Reluctantly he followed his uncle towards the crofts, casting one final look back towards the glen he had seen a sight so beautiful it would enchant his heart for a lifetime.
The lassie swimming in the pool that day was Nairne Mackintosh, who hailed from the castle of Andrew’s long-dead father Iain, now inhabited by the murderous Murdoch Mackintosh and his clansmen She too had been warned about walking in the woods, yet often she failed to heed the warning. Nairne was beautiful, but she also was headstrong, and not one for heeding the instructions of her family.
That day she had left the Cameron castle early, running off into the forest, a place of solitude and peace for her. She knew the paths well but was always wary of the dangers she might encounter. Despite her headstrong nature, she had been raised on tales of the evils which lay high above the forest, of the wicked crofters, amongst whom resided her uncle, the man who had betrayed his own clan for a Cameron
Occasionally Nairne had caught glimpses of the Cameron’s in the forest, she knew that some lived amongst the trees and was always wary of straying too far towards the edge of the woods. That day she had walked to her favourite swimming spot. The deep pool with its gushing waterfall was the most beautiful place, and she delighted in swimming there, diving into the crystal-clear waters, a place of refreshment and peace.
When Andrew Cameron had emerged from the ferns, she had been terrified of the mysterious man before her. He was well built and looked of noble kin, his red tunic and blonde hair standing out starkly amidst the greenery of the forest. The sight of him had terrified her, and she had rushed forth from the pool, leaving her shawl behind her as she fled.
Having run for several miles without stopping, she now came to the path leading towards the castle and surrounding village, breathless and scared lest she had been followed. Several watchmen were stationed along the road, and who saluted as she passed. As a noble daughter of the clan, she could come and go as she pleased, her beauty a source of constant fascination to the men tasked to guard the lands of the self-styled Laird, Murdoch Mackintosh. As she emerged breathless from the forest, they wondered what had happened to make her run so fast.
“Are ye alright, lassie?” one asked, as Nairne looked behind her, relieved to see she had not been followed.
“Aye … I … saw a man in the trees, he startled me. It was a man I dinnae recognize, and he took me by surprise. I have run ever since,” she stood breathing heavily, still catching her breath.
The men looked worried, two of them drawing their swords and proceeding to the path from which Nairne had emerged.
“A man ye say, what did he look like?”
“He had a red tunic and blonde hair, I took him for one of the forest dwellers,” Nairne responded truthfully.
“Aye, or a Cameron fiend,” the guards spat on the ground at the name of their sworn enemy, “do not worry though lassie, ye are safe now and we shall guard this way so that ye have nothing tae fear. Shall I inform the Laird about this?”
“No,” Nairne turned to the guard beseechingly, “if he knew then I should never be allowed tae walk in the forests by myself again. Please, dinnae tell the Laird, my time in the forest is such a consolation for me, and if I did not have that, then I should be truly sorrowful.”
“Aye, very well lassie, but ye must be careful in the forests, many a fiendish man walks there, many a Cameron devil. Never forget that our enemies are everywhere and seek only tae destroy us.” At that, the guard led his men down the forest track, searching for any sign of the mysterious young man.
Nairne now walked more slowly, catching her breath. A breeze blew gently through the trees causing her to shiver, and it was then that she realized she had lost her shawl. It was one which her mother had woven for her, and she was upset at having lost it.
“I must have left it by the pool,” Nairne realized, emerging from the forest and walking along the track towards the castle.
The Cameron castle was a dark place. Once it had rung with happiness and laughter, when Iain Cameron had been Laird and his wife Rhona had been its mistress. Now the place appeared foreboding, even in the summer sun, its ramparts patrolled by guards, the gates closed against would-be intruders. Nairne was let in by two of the Laird’s henchmen and made her way into the keep where she found her mother, Una, in the Great Hall spinning wool upon a wheel.
“Ye have been gone all day, Nairne. The Laird has been searching for ye,” Una laid down her wool and smiled at her daughter.
“He knows I would have been in the forest. I went tae swim in the pool and in my haste to return I have left the shawl ye made me behind,” Nairne smiled sadly, coming to sit beside her.
Nairne loved her mother dearly and hated how Murdoch Mackintosh so cruelly treated them.
“I shall make ye another one, Nairne dear. Dinnae fret, by the time winter comes again ye shall have an even warmer shawl to place about yer shoulders and keep out the cold.” Una patting her daughter’s hand as she told her not to worry.
“What is all this about lost shawls, and where have ye been lassie?” Murdoch Mackintosh strode into the Great Hall, standing before Una and Nairne.
“I have been tae swim in the pool. Just as I often do. Sadly, I left my shawl there, but mother says she will make me a new one,” Nairne spoke quickly, trying to avoid Murdoch’s eyes.
She could hardly bear looking at him, his face disfigured by the injury suffered long ago when his right ear was cut off during a fight. It was not just his physical looks that repulsed her, the most disfigured of men can be beautiful if the person who bears the scars is beautiful, but Murdoch was not. He was cruel, a cruelty which had only become more pronounced in the years following his brother’s betrayal and the loss of Rhona. He seethed with anger, and his soul had become bitter and twisted. There was no love in Murdoch’s heart for Una or for Nairne. Or indeed anyone.
“She is idle enough yer mother. I am sure by winter ye shall have several shawls, all she does is sit and spin all day,” Murdoch laughed, giving Una a contemptible look.
The two women ignored him, Una returning to her spinning and Nairne stroking her mother’s hair.
“Ye will not go intae the forests so freely from now on,” Murdoch continued, “the paths and ways of that place are not safe for a lassie. Not when Cameron fiends stalk them seeking to snatch our bairns and make mischief for our people.”
“Murdoch, when was the last time a Cameron even came near this castle?” Una was not afraid of Murdoch since there was little more he could do to hurt her given the life which he forced her to lead, and the misery forced upon her daughter.
“The Cameron’s are our enemy, Una. Dinnae forget that, and they will stop at nothing before they have this castle returned tae themselves. Mark my words, that laddie, the pretender in the hills, is just waiting for the chance tae invade us.”
“Ye have said that these many years past,” Una stood her ground, “and never has it come true. Ye keep yer iron grip upon this glen, Murdoch.”
“Enough woman, go back tae yer spinning and Nairne, mark my words and stay out of the forest, ye hear,” and with that, Murdoch stormed from the Great Hall.
“I will still walk in the woods,” Nairne spoke defiantly.
“Aye, of course ye shall, and very soon ye shall have a pretty new shawl made by yer mother in which tae do so,” Una patted her daughter on the shoulder and returned to her spinning.
Nairne went to the window from which she could see across the castle walls and up into the forests beyond. It was the same view which over twenty years ago Rhona Cameron had looked upon, wishing she could escape the clutches of the vile and despicable Murdoch Mackintosh. Now, as Nairne stood there, she too completed one day escaping and wondered at the people who lived far out above the forests and up upon the moorlands. The Cameron’s, home she had inhabited her whole life, and of whose reputation had heard many horrific tales.
She thought too of the mysterious man by the poolside, had she been too swift in running from him? It had seemed a natural reaction, though he had appeared to mean her no harm. It was a thought which came back to her often in the days which followed, and far from being frightened, had every intention of returning to the pool. Whether Murdoch liked it or not.
As she watched from the window, she saw the guards upon the road hurrying into the courtyard. Murdoch was there too, shouting orders at the stablemen as they brought out his prized steed. Approaching theLaird, the guard spoke to him, at which point Nairne’s face fell. She knew exactly what the man was saying to Murdoch, despite his promise not to tell the Laird about the man who had followed her in the woods.
A moment later, Murdoch turned and looked up at the window where Nairne was watching, mouthed something indiscernible and spat upon the floor. Nairne sighed, perhaps it really would be impossible for her to walk in the woods. But she could not rid herself of the image of the strange man, and the desire to swim again in the beautiful pool. The only place she could escape from the life she was forced to lead at the hands of Murdoch and his men.