Legend of a Highland Lass (Preview)
Four English redcoats wandered into a forested area. The glow of the moon cut through the trees, slivers of silver coating the ground as they hopped off their saddles and prepared to make camp.
“Lord Cutler will be most displeased,” the one with ginger hair said. “We failed to capture that savage that stole his swords.”
The leader, tall, strong, and handsome, waved his hand through the air. “Say not another word, Thomas. I am well aware that our mission has failed.”
“There were four of us,” another one added. “How did he escape?”
The soldier in charge placed his hands on his hips, turning and facing his men as he spoke through gritted teeth. “Are we prepared to have a conversation that will do nothing more than go in circles? We lost the Highlander. It is what it is. I will have to face the consequences that Lord Cutler will dispense once we return to the castle. Enough of this useless banter. Set up camp. We will leave in the morning.”
The redcoats tethered their horses to the nearby trees and began setting up a fire. Blankets and rolled-up mattresses were set out on the ground as meats and stews were prepared for consumption. The redcoats then gathered in a huddle, crickets chirping in the distance as the dark of night consumed the forest, and the only light came from the moon overhead and the dull glow of the fire that cast hues of orange on the redcoats’ faces—and then the crickets ceased chirping. Silence held sway. The redcoats looked around.
“It is quiet,” one of the redcoats said. “And so quickly, too…”
They glanced around, fearing that a wild animal—or something else—was lingering close by.
“It is probably nothing,” the leader said. “You are just paranoid.”
But then a twig snapped, the redcoats all standing up and reaching for their weapons in response.
“Something is out there!” one of them said. “Something is in the trees!”
“Nonsense,” the leader said. “We merely—”
His words were cut short and followed with a wet smacking noise. The leader looked down at his torso, a small pool of red forming on his chest from the arrow that had impacted with his chest. As the redcoats stared on in a daze, they were rushed on all sides by a group of black and green-clad figures with masks over their faces and hoods over their heads.
“It’s the Scots!” one of the redcoats yelled. “It’s those bastards, Scots!”
The redcoat leader fell to his knees. Another reached for his sword but was swiftly cut down by one of the intruders with a quick blow to his torso…
The last two redcoats left standing retreated immediately, mounting their horses and preparing to make their escape.
The leader of the intruders, a warrior with a red cloth mask covering his face, attempted to strike down one of the redcoats, huffing, and puffing as he ran and prepared to strike. The soldier turned, defending himself with his sword and engaging with the leader. He swiped out a hand, trying to land a blow on the leader’s face—but all he managed to do was pull down the mask and reveal the face of a beautiful woman underneath, his face slack and expression nothing shy of shocked as he stared into the eyes of one of the most beautiful women in all of Scotland. The other redcoat, while straddling his horse, looked at the woman’s face, her features clear and unmistakable, and painting a permanent picture in his mind.
“You!” he exclaimed. “I know you!”
The redcoat engaging the woman leader was struck with an arrow to the back by one of the archers, landing on the ground before the life evacuated from his body. The last redcoat left standing retreated from the forest, moving swiftly away as the group of intruders that had killed his companions sheathed their weapons and stood in a circle around the campfire. A few arrows were launched in the man’s direction—and one of them managed to bury itself into the lower part of the man’s back.
“Damn,” one of the intruders said. “He got away…”
“Can we give chase?” another said.
The leader shook her head. “No…he is too far gone…and that arrow he just took will undoubtedly kill him.”
The leader of the intruders, the woman, slowly pulled down her hood and squinted as she watched the last redcoat flee from the forest. Her black hair licked with hints of auburn was tied up in a thick bun, and combined with the mask and the loose nature of their clothing, one would have never guessed that one of the finest and most fearsome women in all of Scotland was hiding underneath it all.
“He saw me,” she said. “That redcoat saw my face…”
“Does it matter?” the man beside her said. “He is dead anyway. He bleeds out as we speak.”
“I saw him before,” the woman said. “Months prior. He tried to proposition me…” She huffed. “Damn it! We must hope that he bleeds out before he reaches his English overlords.” She pulled at her bun, letting her flowing locks fall down over her shoulders as she shook it out and pulled the mask down off of her face. She was beautiful, her soft skin glowing in the deceased redcoats’ campfire as she put away her swords and placed her hands on her hips.
“Rose,” one of the bandits said. “What now?”
The leader, Rose MacGillis, gestured to the dead men. “Search their belongings,” she said to her people. “Let’s see how we made out.”
The intruders began searching the bodies, bags, and horses of the dead English redcoats. They found coin, food, clothing, jewelry, and various other trinkets. Kelly, Rose’s right-hand-woman, her hair the color of a ruby, cozied up alongside Rose with a small sack filled with coins in her hand.
“Look here!” Kelly said. “We made out well. This is enough to feed us for at least a week!”
Rose turned around and looked at her group as they proceeded to take the last remnants of their loots from the fallen redcoats. “Are we finished?” she asked.
Kelly nodded. “Aye. I believe that’s all of it.”
“Then, the time has come to make our departure…” She turned to leave—but someone called out before they had the chance to disembark.
“Rose!” one of the men said. “Come! Quickly!”
Rose looked upon the man calling her name and saw him standing over the lead redcoat that had taken the arrow to the chest. His eyes were wide, a look of shock completely stretched across his face.
She came alongside the man. “What is it?”
The man pointed. “Look! Look who it is…”
Rose squinted as she looked upon the ashy face of the fallen redcoat. She looked at his features, his lifeless eyes, his agape mouth. It took her a moment to realize who she was looking at, but once she did—her mouth fell open as she became consumed with shock.
“Me God…” Rose said with a gasp.
Kelly approached her. “What is it?”
Rose pointed at the dead man. “This man,” she said. “This man is an important member of the English army.”
Kelly looked at the body. “I do not recognize him. Who is he?”
Rose sighed. “His name is Lord Henry of Sanford.” She turned to Kelly. “And he is the nephew of the King of England.”
Rose and her people had fled from the forested area and retreated to a village a half-day ride away. They sat around a table, sans their green and black uniforms and masks, dressed in commoner’s clothing with none of the other denizens in the dimly lit bar made of cobblestone the wiser. The village rested in an area a short distance away from an English stronghold, the entire area for miles consumed by redcoats and lords and those suffering under the oppression. The air in the tavern was thick with tension, each Scotsman and woman inside checking over their shoulders in fear that an English noble or redcoat would show up at any moment.
Rose was completely dumbfounded. She had been so careful for so many years to make sure that her identity and that of her people were not discovered. The masks were a deliberate choice, the false rumors that were spread about the Scots being led by a man the same. Rose had gone to great lengths to make sure that no one ever discovered who they were—but then they killed the nephew of the King, and then her mask was pulled off, and it was done so by a man that she just so happened to be propositioned by a few days before.
Fool. He only overheard me name because Kelly shouted it out when we were drinking in that tavern. But why, how did we manage to cross paths with him again? Is it fate? Did I bring this upon us?
“This is a problem,” one of the men said, a man named Brandon, barrel-chested and with a long and thick beard. “Lord Henry of Sanford is a well-revered man. His death will bring about a lot of attention.”
“There was no way we could have known that it was him,” Kelly said.
“But,” Rose said, “it is a problem like Brandon has stated, nonetheless. The redcoat that fled saw me face. He will no doubt report this to his superiors. They’ll send an army. We cannot fight an army.”
Kelly hung her head. “It is me fault, Rose. I was the one who blurted out yer name.”
Rose waved her hand through the air. “It does not matter. What’s done is done…”
Another man at the table, Eric, spoke up next: “This was foolish. We should have never started this campaign of thievery, to begin with.”
“Do not be a fool,” Kelly said. “We agreed long ago that this was the life we were going to lead. We are the Scots—the most feared thieves in all of the Highlands. This one interruption in our routine will not stop us.”
Rose held up a finger. “It was always a point,” she said, “to make sure that no one saw our faces our learned our true names. But that time has passed now. We have become compromised. The Scots must disband. We must figure out a new way.”
“We cannot quit,” Kelly said. “After the English destroyed our clan, they left us with no choice but to pillage them in return! How will we live? How will we survive?”
“We shall have to figure it out. But the time has come to bring an end to the Scots. We are disbanded. We shall disappear into the Highlands without a trace. It is our only option.”
“We have no money after this,” another one of the Scots said. “If we truly choose this to be our last exploit, how will we live?”
Rose perched forward on the table, a fierce intensity in her eyes. “I need all of ye to listen to me,” she said, an authoritative quality in her tone. “I was chosen to lead us after we lost our people. I was the one who made the decision to live the lives we had, and it was designated long ago that I would be the one to make all the final decisions about the best course of action for all in this band. I trust ye, all of ye, and have heeded yer words good and well, but the time has come to move on. I do not know what is in store for us, but I shall make it me priority, as I always have, to figure it out. And that’s exactly what I shall do…”
The collective tension was thick around the table as the group sipped at their drinks. The atmosphere around them was elated, the other Scotsmen and women in the bar drinking and laughing and singing made their dire nature stand out all the more.
Rose felt depleted. She felt like she had made a mistake she couldn’t come back from. We did so well for the longest time. What happened? Where did I go wrong? These people look up to me. I must Do what is in their best interest…and I am not quite sure what that is…
“So,” Brandon said, “what do we do?”
“We should track the redcoat down,” another one of the men said. “Finish him off afore he reaches his destination.”
“That time has passed,” Rose said. “It is too late now.”
Brandon huffed. “We should have been more vigilant.”
“Again, that time has passed. We cannot focus on what we could or should have done. It is what it is. We merely need to figure out how we proceed from here.”
“And what does that look like?”
Rose looked out toward the fogged glass window to her left, the dark terrain of the Scottish Highlands as hazy as her plan of action. “The redcoat that fled,” she said, “will no doubt tell his masters what transpired. He knows that he was attacked by us, the Scots. Our reputation is fierce enough at this point that I am sure he has no doubt…he also saw me face. He may not know me name, but he has a description nonetheless…our only course of action now is to flee. We must find someplace to hide until this all blows over.”
“It will not merely blow over,” Brandon noted. “We killed the nephew of the King. The repercussions will be swift and merciless.”
“I have no doubt,” Rose said, “which is why we must find someplace that they will never think to look.”
“Where?” Kelly said. “We have stayed in our region for quite some time. There are so many uncharted parts of the Highlands that we do not know about.”
“Which is why we must find where they are. There must be somewhere we can gae, someplace that the English do not know about.”
Brandon looked around the tavern like a solution would somehow present himself. When he laid eyes on a man seated at one of the tables—his mouth was open in shock. “Do ye know of the one they call the Wanderer?”
Rose looked at Brandon, squinting with a pensive gaze. “Aye,” she said. “He is a rogue. A thief and swordsmen for hire. What of him?”
“It is said that he knows every area of the Highlands. His knowledge of the country is vast. That is why it is so hard for the English to find him—he knows of where to hide. Perhaps if we seek him out, he can help us. The man has been said to do anything for the right price.”
Rose pondered the proposal for a brief moment. We are shy of options. We must flee here as soon as possible. “Where do we find him?” she asked Brandon. “This man they call the Wanderer?”
Brandon forked a thumb over his shoulder. “Easy,” he said, “he is sitting right over there.”
Rose craned her neck and looked around Brandon’s brawny frame. It took her a moment to see him, but after a few seconds of searching, she saw the strikingly handsome man with the angular jawline and the brooding eyes seated by himself in the corner—the man that those in the Highlands all knew as the Wanderer.
Sean could feel the gaze of the table from the corner. He didn’t know who the collective group of Highlanders were, but based on their body language, he could tell they were a tight unit. He sipped at his drink, pretending not to notice their gazes being directed toward him as he focused straight ahead and only took the occasional look at them through his peripherals.
They are not a clan. Perhaps they are thieves.
He kept a steady hand on his sword, ready to pull it at a moment’s notice. He did not want to engage in a fight—but he would if need be.
The chatter went on at the table for a few minutes, Sean sensing that they were going around and seeing who would be brave enough to approach him. They want something…They know of who I am…
Eventually, one of them stood—the woman, her hair the color of a raven and features as beautiful as any woman he had ever seen in the Highlands. She reminded Sean in many ways of his deceased wife; her curvaceous form was similar to that of his past love. Who is she? There is…something about her…Sean saw the woman stand, shifting his weight as she approached the table. Do not come over here…Do not bother me…
But it was a fruitless hope—the woman was closing in, a drink in her hand, and an inquisitive glaze in her eye. She approached his table with the utmost confidence, no shred of fear about her as she came two feet shy of him and stood there waiting.
“Can I help ye?” Sean finally said, making it a point to not look at the woman.
“Me name is Rose,” the woman said.
Sean shrugged. “Good for ye.”
Rose jutted her chin. “Are ye the one they call the Wanderer?”
Sean leveled his gaze in Rose’s direction, fearful of having his presence announced. “I do not know what ye are talking about.”
Rose gestured to the members of her table, all of them watching with anticipation in their composures. “Me friends,” she said, “are inclined to think that ye are the one they call the Wanderer.’ Is it not true?”
Sean shook his head. “They must be mistaken. I do not know of who ye are talking about.”
Rose huffed, pulling out the chair next to Sean and seating herself across from him. He is quite handsome…But no, do not think of such things. That is not relevant. Focus, Rose…
“I do not ask ye to sit,” Sean said.
“Well,” Rose said, “I am sitting.”
Sean looked at Rose, her features in full view. She was stunning. There was no denying it. But Sean could not look past that. He did not want to desire anyone else. He did not need to desire anyone else. “I am just trying to have a drink,” he said. “I am not looking to have a conversation.”
Rose leaned in, squinting, sizing Sean up. “Ye are him,” she said, “ye have a look about ye.”
“What look might that be?”
“One of a weary traveler. It is universal in the Highlands. A man like ye clearly does not have a clan, a place to call home.”
Sean laughed. “Ye base all of this merely on me appearance?”
Rose shrugged, unable to help herself from noting his ruggedly good features, titillating her despite her best intentions. “Am I wrong?”
Sean said nothing, sipping at his drink as he looked away. This woman is smart, very smart… “Can I ask,” he said, “why ye are bothering me?”
Rose drew a breath, preparing to ask her lingering questions. “I require assistance.”
“Sounds like a personal problem.”
“It is. And I have been led to believe that ye are the man to assist me.”
Sean leveled his gaze toward the tavern owner, wiping down the counters and serving the patrons dwelling inside. Sean was liquored up enough that he felt his defenses being lowered. “I do not know,” he said, “of who this ‘Wanderer’ is that ye speak of. But I am willing to indulge in a conversation on one condition.”
Rose crossed her arms. “Gae on…”
Sean gestured to the tavern owner. “Buy me a drink. Then I will hear what it is ye have to say.”
Rose smiled. Then she turned, held up two fingers, and flagged down the tavern owner. The burly man with the beard the color of fire approached, rubbing his hands together before saying: “What can I fetch ye?”
Rose looked to Sean, waiting for him to give an answer.
“Whiskey,” Sean said. “Yer most expensive bottle.”
Rose showcased a smirk, looking away and giving her table a reassuring glance as the tavern owner set about fetching Sean’s drink. “So,” she said, “be honest with me—are ye the one they call The Wanderer?”
Sean pouted his lip. “I’m curious who has led ye to believe this.”
“It is a simple answer—aye or no.”
Sean took his time answering, pondering how to best approach the conversation. I have been around long enough that me face is undoubtedly known by several. What harm could come to tell her? This woman is not a threat. She requires assistance. Perhaps a lofty payday is in store for me…
“If I am the one ye speak of,” Sean said, “then what benefit do I gain from indulging in this conversation?”
“Money,” Rose said. “Enough to help sustain ye.”
“Ye require me services then. Well, the services of the Wanderer.’”
A nod. “I do.”
“And what does that look like?”
Rose sighed, leaning back in her chair, the weight of her history being exuded in the prolonged exhale she took. “As I said,” she stated, “I require help. I require a guide.”
“Aye. A guide,” she gestured to her table, “me friends and I are looking to retreat into the Highlands.”
“As far away from the English as humanly possible.”
The tavern owner returned and placed Sean’s whiskey in front of him before taking away the depleted glass. Sean pushed the glass aside, lowering his tone as he leaned in and looked at Rose square in her eyes. “And why,” he said, “would ye need to be fleeing from the English?”
“A rather silly question,” Rose said. “All Highlanders live in fear of the English.”
Sean scowled. “Not me,” he said.
“Which is why ye are the man for the job.”
“Tell me first why ye are running.”
Rose leaned back in her chair. “We had a run-in with a group of redcoats,” she said. “It appears that one of them has a connection with the King of England himself.”
“It sounds like ye killed this man.”
A pause on Rose’s end. “It is possible.”
Sean said: “And now ye are attempting to flee before the repercussions of this catch up to ye.”
Rose sighed. “Are ye going to help us,” she said, “or not?”
Sean crossed his arms. “It depends. Being that ye have attracted a significant amount of trouble because of yer actions, that trouble will be focused on me as a result. If I help ye, that is.”
“I am willing to pay.”
“Name yer price.”
Sean smiled, pulling his fresh glass of whiskey to his lips and taking a sip. “I doubt ye can afford me.”
Rose smirked. I could handle ye if I need to. She blinked herself out of the thought. Stop! Enough! Why are ye doing this? “Ye would be surprised to know what I can afford,” Rose said, slipping her hand into her pocket and producing a sack of coins that she dropped right on the table in front of Sean.
Sean looked at the sack, hearing the weight of it slam down upon the table. Quite a bit of coin in there. This woman is not kidding…
Sean took his time, drinking his whiskey and taking a quick look at Rose’s table. They were all waiting, just as eager as she was to receive the final answer.
“Where do ye wish to gae?” Sean asked.
“As far as possible,” Rose said. “That is why I am speaking to ye. Again, the rumor is that ye possess a vast knowledge of the Highlands. Ye know of places that no other man does. That is why they call ye Wanderer.”
“It is not a name I relish.”
Rose smiled. “So, it is true then. Ye are him…”
Sean swirled his whiskey around in his glass, biding his time, debating his next move. These Highlanders attract trouble. And it is the kind of trouble I cannot afford right now…but there is a lot of money in that sack, perhaps more to be had. That could sustain me for a while as I traverse the Highlands. It could get me in the door with the right people, the people who know of the man that burned me family alive.
“This is risky,” Sean said. “Helping ye is a dangerous proposition. As ye said—ye murdered a member of the King’s family. That is not something that will be taken lightly.”
Rose crooked a finger. “And ye have gravitated toward trouble on yer own, as well. Do not act like that is not true.”
Sean took a sip of his whiskey. He didn’t want to outright admit that he had attracted his fair share of trouble. It was true. But he didn’t know the woman in front of him. Trust was a hard thing to come by in the current day and age. He needed to wait it out, feel out the situation, and act accordingly. It was every man—and in this case, every man and woman—for his or herself.
“Ye wish,” Sean said, “for me to guide ye.”
Rose nodded. “As far away from here as possible.”
Sean scoured his brain, the entire geography of the Highlands mapped out well in his mind. He knew of every remote area there was in the Highlands. It assisted him well in being able to blend in and out at a moment’s notice. A particular area came to mind to him, one that was far from the reaches of the English, a place where one could live in peace without attracting any trouble.
“I know of somewhere,” Sean said. “But it is quite a trek.”
Rose shrugged. “We are willing to make that journey. How far is it?”
“About a week’s ride, perhaps a little more. But it is worth it. The location I speak of is capable of sustaining many, many people. It will serve ye well, and it will be worth the price of me services.”
Sean took a moment to take in all the members at Rose’s table. He could sense their grit, their survivalist mentality as they stayed huddled together. They are loyal. A true band of Highlanders.
Sean squinted, something about the aesthetic of the group sparking a memory in his mind. He tilted his head, looking at each member in Rose’s band of Highlanders with an inquisitive expression—and then it clicked.
Sean smiled. “I know who ye are,” he said.
Rose’s eyes turned to slits. “What do ye mean?”
Sean leaned in. “It’s ye, isn’t it? The one they call the Scots.”
Rose said nothing—but the pale expression that came over her face said everything.
“Aye,” Sean said. “I have heard of ye. Ye are a band of thieves that are known for robbing English redcoats. I have heard of the tales. Ye are quite formidable…the only thing is that the rumors state that a man is in charge of the Scots. Not a woman.”
Rose smiled. “I do not understand to whom ye are referring to…but I would say that a woman is just as capable as leading as a man is.”
Sean laughed, clapping his hands together. “Well, well, well. It appears that two of the most notorious Highlanders in all of Scotland have crossed paths, me lady.”
“Please keep yer voice down.”
“Relax. No one in this tavern is our enemy. The closest English stronghold is only a few miles away. They have not bothered the patrons here in quite some time.”
Rose sighed, crossing her arms. “Are ye going to help us,” she said, “or no?”
Sean looked at the sack of coins that Rose had placed on the table. Debating. Weighing his options. “I want double,” he said. “I take the sack ye have put on the table as a down payment. Once we reach the area that I speak of, I ask for the same amount of coin to be paid.”
Rose held on for a moment, sizing Sean up as she made her decision. After a few moments, she stuck out her hand. “Deal,” she said.
Sean placed his palm into Rose’s and shook. “Deal.”
Rose stood from the table. “I am going to speak to me people. Wait here.”
Sean held up his glass. “Take yer time. I am not going anywhere…”
Sean watched Rose as she walked over to her group, leaning in and whispering to them: “We have retained his services.”
Kelly, Rose’s right-hand woman, said: “How much?”
“I have paid him all the coin we have on hand. And we must pay him the same amount once we reach our destination.”
Kelly’s eyes went wide. “Are ye mad? We do not have that kind of money!”
“Then, we will find it.”
“This is foolish,” Brandon said. “How are we going to acquire more coin?”
“We shall figure it out. We do not have a lot of options, me friends. We must take this Highlander up on his offer.”
“We do not know him,” Kelly said. “How can we trust that this man is not going to stab us in the back?”
“There are more of us than there are of him. Should a problem arise, we are capable of handling ourselves.”
“Rose,” Kelly protested, “we—”
Rose held up her hand. “It is done. Gae and fetch the horses from the stable. We shall leave shortly. I shall converse a bit more with this Wanderer before we make our leave.”
Brandon huffed, shaking his head. “I do not like this, Rose.” He glanced at Sean. “I dinnae trust this man.”
“Neither do I,” Rose said. “But we have no other choice. Now gae. We must take our leave. Gather the horses and supplies for a week’s travel. We have a long journey ahead of us.”
The Scots all exchanged subtle glances before standing from the table and meandering toward the exit, Rose heading back to Sean’s table as he took another sip of his whiskey. “It is done,” she said. “Me people have agreed.”
Sean nodded. “Very well. When do ye wish to leave?”
“Right now,” Rose said. “Time is of the essence.”
Sean looked at the whiskey in his glass, still half full. “Once I finish me drink. Then we shall depart.”
Sean brought the glass to his lips—and then Rose took it from him, taking the glass and downing the rest of the whiskey with ease. “Like I said,” she said. “Time is of the essence. We must take our leave.”
Sean stood, gesturing toward the exit. “As ye wish…”
Rose led the way, Sean following after her as they headed to the entrance. But as they came, a few feet shy of the door—an English redcoat entered, his immaculate uniform standing out among the dark tones in the bar as he jutted his chin and stared on at the Highlanders inside the bar as a terror-laced hush settled over the entire scene.
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