Taken by her Highland Enemy (Preview)
Northern Highlands, March 1756
Sean and Rose Wilson stood staring at Eamon Wilson with suspicious eyes after he told them his plans. He had arrived almost half an hour ago after traveling days to find them. He had left his men in a nearby tavern to wait for his instruction. He feared to give away his brother’s location to anyone.
If there was any lesson that he had learned over these past few years, it was to give out one’s trust sparingly, perhaps even better if one trusted no one. “Brother, I know that ye have cause tae distrust me, but I do this for ye. And the wealth of course, which we can split taegether. Ye need it if ye are going tae help yer family. Ye will nae be able tae do so if ye find yerself killed by Lord Cutler’s sword.”
Sean nodded and eventually sat down. A pregnant Rose followed suit. Sean continued. “Aye, I have agreed tae yer plan, brother, but it is nae just my distrust of ye that makes me hesitant. I dinnae ken how we will muster the strength tae fight back. I have men here, but they are content with their new and peaceful lives. We havenae practiced our swords for many a month. And ye are only yerself.”
“Is there a way we can keep Cutler’s men from finding this place? I dinnae think the battle should be done here,” Rose said.
Eamon sighed, what he was about to say weighing heavily on his chest. “I am sorry tae say, lass, that they know this place already, despite its remote nature. My spy has told me that Cutler will arrive in the next few days. Since my journey here, he also has already begun his own. I would expect him in two days’ time. So, we must set to planning. Sean and I can ride tae meet him upon the road tae prevent his seeing the village, but he still knows where it lies.”
Rose’s face screwed up with anger, and her skin flushed red. She slapped a hand against the table. “Then ye must kill all who ride with him. But who is this spy ye speak of? Can they be trusted?”
Sean chimed in. “Aye, how do we even ken what the spy says is true?”
Eamon twisted his mouth in thought as he planned his words. He leaned forward again. “Ye will find this bit of news quite interesting. I asked the spy myself about why they would help a band of Highlanders attempting to protect themselves, and ye know what the boy told me? He said he did it for The Scots.”
Eamon waited as the words sank into his companion’s minds. Rose and Sean both wore a similar expression. Confusion, then surprise, then disbelief. Sean said, “Truly? But that doesn’t make any sense.”
Rose added, “Aye, all members of The Scots are now settled in these lands. They are working on nae mission. They have nae plans of rebellion at this time.”
Eamon shrugged. “He did not say that he was a member of The Scots. My spy is an English boy.”
Again, Rose and Sean showed expressions of surprise. Eamon nodded. “Aye, I ken. It doesnae make sense, but I am under the impression he doesnae get treated well by his master. Perhaps that is why he rebels against him?”
“And leads him tae his potential death,” Rose said to herself.
“Aye. There have been papers nailed up in the surrounding areas calling for a rebellion against the English. Could this be the work of the boy?”
He unfolded a page and displayed it for Rose and Sean to see. “I took one on the journey here so I could show ye. I thought it might be The Scots, but I suppose nae, after ye said they are at Peace now.”
Rose nodded. “How very strange. I mean, ‘tis nae strange that men want tae rebel against the English, but that these would spread around just as this Lord Cutler comes tae take his revenge.”
Eamon sighed. “Well, whether it be strange or nae, this is our chance tae get the man before he comes for ye. Leave the riches tae me if ye dinnae want them. I know, Sean, ye wish tae live a different life. But then there is nae other option than tae fight back and kill the man, and his men, afore he takes the life of yer family once more!” Once Eamon said the words, he knew that he should have put it more delicately. He had spent years punishing himself for leaving his brother to fight against a Highland enemy, where they lost their father, and Sean lost both his wife and child. Eamon would not be the orchestrator of his brother’s ruin once more.
“Forgive me, brother,” he continued, “But I cannae see this happen tae ye again.” He watched as Rose placed a hand softly upon Sean’s arm. The intimate movement touched him, and for the first time in a long time, Eamon desired that someone would be there for him to comfort and to love, just as he was. But he pushed that desire out of his mind. It would serve him no good when revenge and wealth needed to be at the center of his thoughts.
Sean nodded solemnly. “Aye, ye are right, brother. We will prepare. But we must begin by practicing our swords.”
Eamon grinned, filled with energy that the plans would begin. “That we must. I hope ye will find my skills have improved over the years. All the men will remember what they must do once they lay their hands once again upon their swords. It will not be too late. And do not worry. It is not just me. I have a group of men waiting for my word at a tavern in the town below. They will come when we need them.”
The two men stood, and Rose looked up at them with longing. “I apologize that I cannae join ye in the practice.” Rose looked down at her stomach briefly. Eamon raised an eyebrow, and Sean chuckled, placing a hand on his wife’s shoulder.
“Aye, brother, ye should see my wife in a battle of swords. She is nae one tae trifle with as leader of The Scots.”
Eamon paused for a moment, and his eyes widened. “Is this Scots land as well? I’m impressed, Rose. I found out about The Wanderer, and everyone’s heard of The Scots. But I did not imagine there tae be a connection such as marriage between my brother and the infamous band of thieves. Well, then, it is doubly good that I came tae warn ye.”
Rose sat up and lifted an eyebrow. “Ye are impressed because I’m a woman and women cannae do such things, is that it? Think a woman cannae handle the job? After the loss of my clan, I was all they had!”
Eamon paused, knowing that he was in dangerous territory once he spotted the dark look in Rose’s eyes. He held up his hands in defense. “Forgive me, sister, I didnae mean tae offend. ‘Tis nae that a woman cannae do it, of course, but ye must admit ‘tis highly unusual. That is why it impresses me so.” Rose seemed to calm at that, and the taut muscles in her face relaxed. Sean’s hand remained on her shoulder. “Come, I do hope that one day, ye and I can have a battle of swords taegether. I wish tae see yer skill.”
Sean smiled, and so did Rose. “Aye, lad,” Sean said. “A woman has the advantage of being lighter of foot and quicker. They are the experts of the hidden dagger thrust intae the belly just when ye least expect it.”
Eamon looked impressed. “That I could definitely see. Now, come, shall we speak tae the men?”
Sean nodded. “Aye. I shall call Donovan. He’s our second-in-command, and we shall discuss with him first. Goodbye, Rose. Please try to rest a little, my dear.”
Sean and Eamon wandered outside of the cabin and into the bright sunshine. The blue sky with white clouds scudding across it brightened their spirits, even though the ominous arrival of Lord Cutler loomed in their minds. Eamon watched as his brother motioned for Donovan to come to meet him. He was happy for him.
His big brother had made such a change in life. He wanted to hear all about it. Deep down, he was grateful for the danger that Lord Cutler brought, for it had forced him to come and seek Sean out, the infamous Wanderer, a hired sword. Now that Sean had settled, it had been much easier to find him, climbing his way through the rocky and hilly Highlands, speaking to clans along the way, hearing whispers of a remote area, hidden away from clan and town, close to Loch Ness, but nestled in a foreboding forest.
It gave Eamon a purpose once again. Since he fled his father’s lands, he had worked hard labor for a time, until he met with a man who gave him everything he was missing in his life: the skills with a blade and a sense of belonging. They had wandered all over the North of Scotland, seeking, fighting, and plundering. But he missed the warm bosom of his family, and he’d heard rumors about what had occurred.
His heart broke when he found out about Sean’s wife and child. He was afraid that Sean would never want to see him again. So once he found out that there was a price upon his brother’s head, he wasted no time in coming to find him. He just hoped that his brother would trust him once more.
Eamon had mixed feelings as he approached his brother’s land on horseback. He was surprised at how well his older brother looked after all this time and hardship. One could tell they were definitely kin, but while they were both dark-haired, Sean’s was the lighter of the two, while Eamon looked the swarthier. Seeing Sean’s look of wariness had made his whole body tense with each pounding of hooves. He will wonder why I have come after such a long time. He might even kill me on the spot.
But Eamon had been lucky. Sean had done nothing of the sort and gave him a listening ear. Now they were on the verge of moving together once more as if the past had not occurred.
“Donovan! Come. There is much to discuss.” Sean yelled over to Donovan, his right-hand man. He was young with reddish hair and stood tall and proud.
“Aye, Sean?” Donovan walked towards them, skepticism in his eye as he took in Eamon’s figure. He was the one who had noticed Eamon’s approach when he was still far away. Eamon was used to being eyed thus, as he knew that his rough appearance often made others think he was a dangerous rogue.
Sean said, “Donovan, this is my brother, Eamon. He comes with bad news, I’m afraid.” Sean explained the approach of Lord Cutler. “We need to prepare the men tae meet him out in battle before he and his men find the village.”
“And there is wealth to be had,” Eamon added.
“We dinnae wish tae rob anyone anymore, like I said,” Sean said sharply.
“Even if they are our sworn enemies?” Eamon asked, skeptical.
“Aye, even so. Ye may take the money if ye so wish. But that could bring the King once again upon our heads if he knows it was The Scots that both killed and robbed his men.”
Donovan replied, “Is the information certain, Sean? Could it nae be that someone wishes tae lure us away from our homes so that they can attack when there are nae people tae defend it?”
Sean paused for a moment. He glanced at Eamon, and Eamon knew he was trying to search for the lie in his eyes. He hoped Sean knew him well enough that he would know Eamon wouldn’t do such a thing. Eamon was not a liar. He might have been fearful, but he was an honest man. And despite the draw of Lord Cutler’s wealth, Eamon would have ridden in search of Sean anyway, to warn him that he was in danger.
Sean shook his head, and Eamon wanted to sigh with relief. Sean looked back at Donovan, who continued to eye Eamon with doubt. “Donovan, that wouldnae make sense. Most of the villagers here are swordsmen and women, but perhaps they dinnae know that. Besides, Lord Cutler wishes tae kill Rose and me for what happened tae his nephew and Lord Marcus. It wouldnae behoove him tae remove us and then come back tae an empty village, would it?”
Donovan colored a little, and Sean hesitated slightly before continuing, trying to ignore Donovan’s discomfort. “The plan is for the men tae practice their sword skills. We need tae leave in a day’s time tae meet him. We must start right away. Then, we can prepare for our journey: horses, food, weapons, and the like. How many men come with Cutler?”
Eamon answered, “My spy tells me that he could come with at least a dozen men, but he plans to pick up more soldiers at Fort Augustus as he travels northward. We may have the advantage in numbers, but I assume they will be well-armed and well-skilled, for each of them will be carrying a small percentage of wealth upon their person.”
“Aye. Donovan, do ye nae think we will have the advantage over a dozen men?”
Donovan looked surprised for his opinion to be requested. Eamon could tell Sean was pleased. “Aye, I think so, but if it becomes twice that, we may struggle. We just need tae remember our swords. But I think we ought tae hide in the hills and forests and take as many down as we can with arrows first.”
Eamon’s eyes widened with excitement. “Have ye bows and arrows?” At the two men’s nods of assent, he grinned. “Then, we shall be saved. They will nae be able tae fight with their muskets when arrows fall from the sky down upon them.”
Sean nodded. “Donovan. Gather the men. Tell them tae leave any of the building tasks they were completing and meet in the large clearing in the woods.” Sean pointed. Donovan left quickly, off to send the message out.
Sean turned to Eamon. “The village is not large, but it will take time for the men to drop whatever they’re doing. I hope they will come as soon as they’re able. We’re in the middle of building homes, outhouses, storage spaces, everything we need for a full, thriving village. You must understand my disappointment that a vengeance-hungry Englishman is the cause of our delay.”
Eamon smiled, happy his brother was willing to share such information. “Aye, ye have built a good life, brother. But ye would rather take pause, I am certain than have everything ye’ve worked for be burned tae the ground.”
Sean grunted in assent.
They walked towards the forest in silence. Both clutched their swords in hand, and Eamon said softly, “Remember, brother, when we would fight each other with sticks, in the trees near our home? Father would try tae teach us, but we wouldnae listen tae instruction.” Sean chuckled softly. Eamon’s heart warmed. He enjoyed being in the presence of family again, but he was not ready to tell Sean so.
“Aye, I remember. It feels as though it was a lifetime ago.” Sean squinted his eyes up at the sun. “The world has become a cold and cruel place since then.”
Eamon replied solemnly, “That it has.”Eamon felt a familiar guilt hang over him, for he knew that Sean referred to his betrayal. But there was also so much more. Despite the sunlight glinting off the green leaves in the trees, Eamon could feel a foreboding in his heart, and he only wished his deepest fears would not come to pass.
On the road from Fort William, towards Inverness
“Stop! I wish to rest here.” Lord Cutler raised a gloved hand in the air, and he could hear the slowing of hooves as he and his men approached the stone tavern. It was adjacent to a grassy hill, and a curl of smoke lifted into the air as the evening settled in.
He dismounted, and the jangle of bridles and the stretch of leather echoed into the air. “Let’s see if these Scotsmen can prove their hospitality.” He grinned, and his lead man, Martin Dorset, grinned back.
“Yes, milord, but I’m certain it will not be the same as what you’d receive in England. They are country folk, unused to serving nobility.”
Lord Cutler nodded his head curtly, satisfied. He was a tall man, broad of the shoulder with dark hair and dark eyes that narrowed into slits whenever he spoke. It unnerved many a person, but Martin was used to the lord’s manners and quirks. Lord Cutler motioned to the back of him. “Tell the men to get their horses to the stables. Bring Isabelle here to me. I wish to eat with my daughter. Her lady’s maid can eat with the men once they sort out the horses.”
Martin nodded and scurried off to do his bidding, and Lord Cutler pushed open the door of the tavern to a surprised innkeeper. A few guests lingered at tables around the establishment, and all of them looked towards the door, their eyes wide.
“Aye, Sir? Can I help ye?” The innkeeper asked, and Lord Cutler pinned with him a dark glare as he walked up to him.
“I have many men here to feed. Our horses need to be fed, watered, and brushed. I want a hot meal and your finest ale. We shall pay you handsomely. And we need a bit of information, but I will ask later, once my belly is full.” Lord Cutler opened his gloved hand to show a gold coin lying in the center. But then he closed his hand again once the innkeeper got a look at it.
He enjoyed taunting the workmen he came into contact with. They had never seen so much wealth in their lives, and if he wanted them to do their duty properly, then he had to prove to them that he could pay. Not that he always did.
The innkeeper put down the tankard he was drying, and he nodded. “Aye, Sir. Right away.” The innkeeper scuttled off, and Lord Cutler sat down close to the hearth and set his feet up on the chair next to him. A mug of ale was brought to him soon after, and without glancing up at the person who brought it, he grabbed onto the mug and took a deep long sip. He began to grumble.
Where is Isabelle? That girl will give me no end of trouble. She is probably giving money to the beggars lingering outside. I had hoped to instill a harder heart in her, for a soft one will do her no service in this world, but alas.
A woman with long dark hair braided down her back entered the tavern, wonder in her eyes. She looked around the low-ceilinged room and smiled. She was diminutive but womanly, and anyone could tell by the set of her shoulders that she was born of noble blood.
Lord Cutler waved at her from across the room, and she colored before finding her way to him. “Father. Isn’t this wonderful? I thank you again for bringing me on this journey, for I had such a yearning to see how the Scottish people in the countryside live. Such industry and hardness to it. I’m amazed!”
Lord Cutler wiped his ale from his mouth with the back of his hand. Plates of steaming hot ham and bread were set before them. “Isabelle, you mustn’t be in awe of such things. Lurking just below the surface, these people are bloodthirsty and have no education nor morality. They would as soon cut your throat as look at you. You must keep a wary eye on them all. We are here on a mission of revenge for our King. Do not forget that!”
He pointed to her before beginning to eat. The excitement left her face a little, and she began to eat as well, chewing slowly and quietly. “How much further will it be, Father?”
He grunted. “I am not entirely certain. Martin thought he knew the way, but he is confused by the hills here. We will have to ask the innkeeper if there is anything that they can tell us, though I hate to depend on their generosity.”
“But you will pay them, of course, won’t you, Father?”
He nodded but did not look at her. Isabelle gave him the oddest feeling from time to time that she was rebuking him. Now that her mother was long gone, he often feared that she had taken his wife’s place and endeavored to try and change him. He spotted the innkeeper once more, returning from where he had disappeared to. He saw his men begin to wander in and take their places amongst the empty tables, moving those out of the way whose place they wanted.
He smiled to himself. His men were patiently selected by none other than himself. They were the most skilled, the most brutish, and the most intelligent of all the soldiers of his Majesty. They would find the man who killed the King’s nephew and his Majesty’s second proxy. Lord Cutler would not fail, not when these men were on his side, and wealth and status would be his forever.
He hailed the innkeeper who paled a little at the sight of it. The rather stout man approached the table with hesitation. “Aye, Sir?”
“I need that information,” Lord Cutler said, before taking another deep drink from his tankard.
The innkeeper nodded, and Lord Cutler wished he could slap the fat man’s face, for his cheeks were pink with fear. So like a woman.
“The Scots, the band of thieves. Surely, you’ve heard of them in these parts? I search for them and wish to know their whereabouts. My leader has gone astray, and we cannot find the way.”
The innkeeper swallowed, and Lord Cutler noticed his hesitation. The man glanced at Isabelle, who was merely staring back at him. “Do not look to my daughter for pity or to stall your words.” He held tightly to a dagger at his side. He could fillet the man alive if he hid something. He could tell he was trying to by the tightness of his shoulders, the sweat on his forehead, and the nervous clasping of his hands. “I can see you falter. What is it?”
The innkeeper shook his head and began to stutter. “No, Sir, ‘tis just that they are a fearsome lot. I dinnae wish for any trouble. I wish only for peace.”
Bloody idiot. “Peace will not be your reward if you do not give me what I seek. Where are they?” He was growing impatient now, and he could feel that familiar cold rage moving over him, holding him in its grasp. He was taut like the string of a bow, and he knew just what would happen if he were to snap.
The innkeeper swallowed again. “They were roaming about these parts for years, plundering and the like. But now, they have moved far intae the mountains with the one who is called The Wanderer. Tae the Northeast. Ye must take the road toward Inverness, but then there is a large cluster of trees along the path, dark and menacing. There ye must turn, afore ye cross the Loch. Ye will find them.”
Lord Cutler grinned. The Scots and The Wanderer all in one? Excellent. The King will be pleased. Cutler had not been certain of this fact, despite Martin’s assurances, but now he was convinced. He placed the gold coin down on the table with a slap. “There, that was not as difficult as you imagined.” The innkeeper’s eyes widened, and he took the coin gingerly.
“Best of luck with yer journey, Sir.”
He moved away, and Lord Cutler stared back at his daughter. “Finish your meal, daughter. We shall be on the road soon enough. Revenge moves in my belly.”
Lady Isabelle Cutler ate as quickly as she could. She always tried to be grateful for what she had been given, but it was difficult sometimes, when she had a father such as Lord Cutler, always bellowing, always following the dark path. He had not always been this way, but in the past few years, once her mother had passed on, her father had hardened, continually seeking out violence and revenge.
He became the King’s righthand man once the King’s former one, Marcus Donovan, had been killed only a few months before. He had been vying for that position for a long time, and Isabelle had felt a sense of deep dread, once she realized her father had earned the position. Now he was on a journey towards revenge, for he had plans to kill The Wanderer and The Scots in their entirety, no matter the times she’d tried to convince him not to, for many reasons, one of them being that The Scots was a mixture of men and women and their children.
The King wished her father to banish these people from the Earth, and her father did not need much urging or encouragement. He had gathered up his most bloodthirsty and sword-skilled of men and set off, picking up new soldiers along the way. Now, their caravan was over 30 strong. It would be a slaughter. Isabelle had begged and pleaded with him to allow her to go on the journey, and he was surprised at her interest. He allowed her to come, but she knew it was only because he wanted her to become hard, just as he was. Perhaps she could be of use to him one day, he would tell her.
She begged him to let her join because she thought she might try to convince him to sway his course or at least find a way to stop the brutal attack from happening. She was grateful that Martin had gotten lost. That at least gave her more time to think. When her father was not looking, Isabelle grabbed a piece of warm bread from her plate and hid it in the pocket of her cloak. The beggars outside would be grateful, but she would have to figure out how to get it to them without her father seeing. Arya, her lady’s maid would have to help her, as she had persuaded her to do over the last few years.
“Father, I am finished now,” Isabelle said cheerfully and looked up at her father.
He grunted and turned back to her. “Let’s go. We are not far. It is only perhaps another day’s journey to the site of The Scots. We will make camp on the edge of the Loch tonight, and then the men can clean themselves, and we can rest before our surprise attack.”
Isabelle nodded solemnly and followed her father out of the door. She saw him eye a few of his men who sat at different tables around the room, eating and watching the other occupants with their beady eyes. She shuddered at their dark looks. They had often turned their sinister eyes to her over the course of the journey, watching her movements, whenever she and Arya were on their own, but she knew that her father would cut the hand off of any man who touched her. So, for that, she had to be grateful. Not every woman was so lucky.
Lord Cutler raised a hand in the air, and made a swirling motion with his finger, as he walked out the door. Isabelle watched in horror as the seated men stood, and a tin of oil was passed around as they doused the tavern. She cried out, “No, Father!” as she saw the other customers’ eyes widen with fear. But Lord Cutler grabbed her by the wrist and yanked her outside.
“I have told you, Isabelle, do not subvert me in front of my men!” His voice was low and menacing, and she knew the familiar look in his eye.
She whispered back, “Father, think of the innkeeper. It is his livelihood! And the people inside? You will not trap them, will you?”
He watched her for a moment and then laughed. “No, daughter. They will be freed. If they can find their way out from behind the flames.” Isabelle wanted to scream and run back for them, but her father knew her too well. He kept her wrist in his hand and passed her to Martin Dorset, who watched her calmly as if nothing unusual was happening. “Take her, Dorset. Put her and Arya into the carriage. Lock the door and be sure they do not escape.”
Martin bowed his head. “Yes, Sir.” He did not look Isabelle in the eye as he took her in his arms and prodded her towards the carriage. She had known Martin as a boy, and to see him now in this role was more than she could bear. As they moved away from her father, Isabelle could smell woodsmoke as the tavern burned, and she heard the footsteps of her father’s men leave the tavern, shutting the door behind them. Cries and screams filled the air as people moved around inside, jumping out of windows, and rushing through other doors to escape the growing flames.
She whispered to Martin through gritted teeth. “You are a fool, Martin. You used to be such a kind boy, so generous and thoughtful. Look at you now.” She struggled against his grip as they walked along. For such a short and rather a plump man, Martin was surprisingly strong.
He kept his voice even and measured as he always did when he replied, “Dear, beautiful, Isabelle, one day, you will see that what your father does he does out of necessity. And he does it for King and country. You should be honored by your connection with him. If he was not cruel and bloodthirsty, then these brutish Highlanders would never learn to respect their King. Your father is their judge and the teacher of lessons.”
Isabelle thought about spitting at the ground to show him her disgust, but it would only cause her father further displeasure. The very sound of his words made her want to shudder. Her father had totally brainwashed this man and forced him into his way of thinking, making him feel like what he was doing was proud and noble. She said nothing else, and Martin opened the carriage door and shoved her inside. “This is for your own good, Isabelle. You will see.”
Once he shut the door behind her, Isabelle banged her head on the back of the seat and closed her eyes. She growled in rage and slapped a hand against the wall. “How could he do this? These people have nothing!” She felt the shape of the roll in her pocket and wanted to burst into tears at her own helplessness, but she knew that would accomplish nothing. One day she would be able to fight back and not just in secret. Her father would see her for what she truly was.
A few moments later, the door was opened again, and Arya entered, watching Isabelle warily. “You have seen, Mistress.”
“Yes, I’ve seen, Arya, and what a waste it is. I can only hope that no one will be killed in the flames.”
She looked outside and tried to ignore the sound of the fire as it rose higher and higher. Smoke began to fill the yard in front of the tavern, but once it began curling towards their carriage, the horses were led onward, and the whole company was on the move. The carriage turned to the side to continue their path, and both Arya and Isabelle could get a full view of the burning tavern, now wholly encapsulated by flames.
Isabelle watched angrily as the innkeeper rushed out the front and fell to his knees, yelling into the open air. She understood his pain, but she feared that her father’s men might fill his chest with musket balls if he continued. “Arya, my father says that revenge moves in his belly, but now, at the sight of this, my own desire for it grows as well.”
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