The Secret of a Highland Rebel (Preview)
The first night of the new moon phase was particularly dark, but that didn’t stop anyone from going about their business, especially the two men stumbling through the darkness. Keenan MacNeish had a puzzled expression on his face. His Laird, John Murray of clan Athol, leaned against him, one arm slung over his neck, holding up the lantern, their only source of light in the absolute blackness.
The two men wore cloaks over their heads, and the light from their lantern cast shadows over their faces, making them unrecognizable. Keenan was leading the way, but only because he was the only one who was thinking clearly. He was still essentially doing what he was told. He sighed as he dragged his drunken Laird toward the pub, his breath letting out steam in the cold air atop the hill.
“Me Laird… Are ye certain ye want to visit the pub? Nae only have ye missed dinner and should be back at the castle by now, but I am sure this pub owner does nae want ye back after last time,” Keenan said. Sweat dripped from his brow, and he wished he had a free hand to wipe it away. He sighed, exhausted. He’d dragged Laird Murray all the way up here from the bottom of the hill, as he was stumbling and couldn’t stay on track by himself. If Keenan left him alone, he would fall down the slope due to his lack of balance. For a brief moment, the thought of the Laird falling from the hill seemed too pleasant. He shook his head to clear his mind of the image.
“Why dae ye question me, Keenan? I want to go to that pub because they have the best ale!” John Murray said, slurring his words.
“Aye, but ye have been drinkin’ at other pubs all night. Ye seemed quite satisfied with those until a moment ago…” Keenan murmured. John gave him a look, narrowing his eyes like he had been offended.
“Are ye… are ye givin’ me attitude, Keenan? I ken me ale and what I like best. Yer only job is to make sure that I get it. Ye always dae as I say, since when dae ye talk back to me?” John asked threateningly. Keenan, on the other hand, saw him as threatening as a whiny, petulant child. He hadn’t been scared by the Laird in a long time.
Regardless, John was correct. Keenan usually let the Laird do whatever he wanted, especially recently. It served him well when the Laird, who couldn’t go a day without seeing the bottom of a barrel, made a fool of himself. Still, he was irritated by John’s antics tonight, because he was already drunk enough for his own purposes. So the strain of dragging him to the pub was entirely unnecessary. He was a large man — in fact, he was a large warrior, or was until he succumbed to the temptations of alcohol. The point was that he was quite heavy.
It also did not help that Keenan already had plans for them both that evening. Well, there is still some time before the gathering. I am sure we can make this quick. Keenan only let go of John when they got to the top of the hill and were in a safe place for him to stumble around. The Laird floundered to the pub’s door and banged on it.
Keenan stood back, his eyes hooded, watching the scene unfold. He could hear sounds from inside, so he knew they were open even though their doors and windows were closed. He could see light shining through the slits between the wood in the windows.
“Open up, ye old bastard!” John shouted, continuing to bang on the door like a lunatic. Keenan didn’t blame Old Newman, the pub owner, who had probably seen them coming up the hill and locked up. When John was last here, he almost set the place on fire. As the window cracked open and Old Newman poked his head out, Keenan sighed tiredly.
“What are ye lot daen’ back here?! I told ye that I never wanted to see ye here again, and ye dare to come back?! Ye are banned from this place, dae ye understand? Ye are nae allowed in!” he yelled. Keenan drew his hood up over his face a little more. It was a good thing they only ever appeared in this disguise. He wondered how Old Newman would react if he realized the man yelling at him was his Laird. John stood firm, shaking his fist at the older man.
“What dae ye mean banned?! Ye should be happy I even want to drink at this dump. Ye think ye are the only one with ale in this clan?” John shouted.
“Then go get yer ale elsewhere, ye wee piece of—,” When John charged at him, Old Newman quickly ducked his head back in the window. He slammed the window shut just as John’s fist made contact with it. Keenan sighed and rubbed his hands across his face. John, as expected, was not pleased.
“Ye dare… ye dare lock me out?!” he thundered. He dashed back to the door and started slamming himself against it. Keenan jumped slightly at the first impact. John was a massive man. Despite the fact that the door was locked, he shook it. He can nae be serious… Unfortunately, he was indeed very serious.
“Keenan! Come over here! Help me kick this door down! Break it down with me!” John commanded. Keenan drew his hood even tighter around his face. He was aware that this could happen, but hoped it would not. He was often forced to assist John in doing something stupid. When he was younger, it was because he couldn’t possibly disobey his Laird, but now that he was an adult, he had additional reasons.
He’d given up on his Laird ever becoming a respectable person, so he no longer tried to stop him when he misbehaved. Now John’s ridiculous behavior served a purpose for Keenan. If he could demonstrate to the people how inept their Laird had become, they would be more willing to fight against him to protect their rights and stop blindly trusting him out of loyalty.
“Aye, me Laird,” Keenan murmured, going over to join John at the door. They took a step back together and slammed their shoulders into the door on John’s count. Keenan was also a huge man, standing six feet and five inches tall. The door had no chance against them and, thus, it splintered after four rams.
“Ha! Aye! That is how it should be! Break it down!” John shouted with a childish glee. He kicked against the fractured area, urging Keenan to join him until their feet passed through. He could hear the ruckus from inside the bar.
“Ye… ye scoundrels!! Why, I ought to call the guards on ye nuisances! Ye broke me door!” Old Newman screeched as he charged at them with a broom. That was Keenan’s signal that they needed to leave. He was not going to be beaten with a broom for John’s sake. Before dragging the Laird out, he let Old Newman get a few good whacks in on his head. At the very least, the old man deserved that much; his door had been broken.
He dragged John, who was still holding his head from the beating, down the hill after him. He headed for the town square while holding the lantern above his head to increase his visibility.
“Where are we goin’ Keenan?” John asked, stumbling along. For a brief moment, he returned his gaze. The man was a complete mess. But then again, it was difficult to recall a time when John was a man worthy of his respect and loyalty.
He lied, saying, “Nowhere, we are just running.” When they arrived at the square, it was already crowded, with people huddled in the center around one man standing on a wooden crate and reading a letter aloud. Phew, I am a little late, but it looks like we made it in time, regardless.
“What is this, Keenan?” he slurred.
“It is a meetin’ of the villagers to discuss their problems,” Keenan explained. He kept his gaze fixed on John, waiting for his reaction. Keenan had summoned him for two reasons. The first was to see if any part of him would listen to the people’s complaints, and if not, to expose his selfishness to them.
Everything hinged on John’s reaction. It would be better if he quietly listened and reflected; if he flared up and attacked the people, it would still be better because Keenan would then blend into the crowd, shine some light on him, and declare that the crazy man attacking them was their fool of a Laird. He knew the people were too scared, too loyal to do anything to defend themselves, but if they saw the man to whom they were committed being a pathetic fool, they would rise up in anger, as they should.
“It pains me heart tae watch our people struggle so when we have the potential for so much more! We could be the greatest clan in all the Highlands with the gifts our lands have been blessed with. Our people could flourish, but instead, we are wallowin’ in poverty, and why is that? The answer is simple, because those who are supposed tae lead and protect us are stuffin’ their bellies with our coin and doin’ nothin’ tae take care of us!” the man reading shouted over the din of the murmuring people.
“Who is that talkin’?” John asked again, staring up at the man on the crate. As one of the villagers approached John, who was shrouded in his cloak, Keenan remained silent.
“Ah, that is just Philip the tailor, he is nae important except that he reads better than the rest of us. He is readin’ us a letter left by Malcolm,” she explained.
“Malcolm? Who is this Malcolm?” John asked. This time, a few more people turned to glance at him in surprise. The woman who spoke for the first time gave him a shocked look.
“Good sir, where have ye been the past few months? Malcolm is a fierce outlaw! He seems tae be the only one fighting for the people these days. His words are so powerful for a common born like us, so even when we are nae able tae dae anythin’ like him, we still listen as his words give us hope and remind us that what we are goin’ through is nae normal and is nae somethin’ we should get used tae,” the woman said.
Keenan yanked on his hood, pulling it closer to his face to conceal his smile. All he had to do now was wait to see how John reacted to the news. While listening to the letter being read, he was silent for a while, as if in thought. He remained quiet until the reading was finished and Philip stepped down from the wooden crate.
Is… is he actually reflecting?
Just as Keenan was starting to wonder, John pushed his way through the crowd, heading for the crate in the center. He snatched a torch from one of the villagers and carried it with him until he was standing on the crate, the fire above his head. Everyone looked at him with surprise and curiosity, wondering who the hooded man who had abruptly hijacked the meeting was.
Oh, what was I thinkin’? Of course, he was nae reflectin’. He is goin’ to have a fit now, and make a fool of himself. Well, I suppose that still works for me.
Nothing, however, could have prepared Keenan for what John did.
“Unbelievable… Unbelievable, I say!” John shouted suddenly, making a few people jump as his large voice boomed across the square. They muttered in surprise, exchanging confused glances.
“How could ye all stand here so calmly after hearin’ words filled with such passion and fire?!” John roared, clearly displeased. Keenan froze in his tracks as he was about to dwindle into the shadows to wreak havoc. What? In disbelief, he looked at John on the podium, who had the audience spellbound.
“Did ye nae hear what was said? Did ye nae hear the injustice being done to ye all? How could a man, sworn to protect ye, be stealin’ from ye instead? Ye all are left to starve, while he fills his belly with pork and ale and languishes in mediocrity! And yet, ye stand here confused like lambs without a shepherd?” John continued. At this point, Keenan’s jaw was hanging open. Is… is the man mad? Does he nae realize he is the one being spoken against?
The people, on the other hand, had no idea that the man speaking to them and shaking them was the very man they were instigating against. They became moved as they cheered John on while he preached like a true outlaw.
“Pick up yer torches and lift yer voices, and march! March for yer rights! March for yer lands! March for yer children at home whom ye struggle to feed! Make yer voices heard because the longer ye dae nae, the longer the injustice reigns!” John kept shouting, raising his torch into the air and causing the villagers to do the same, yelling a war cry.
Keenan palmed his face, stunned and disappointed. For John, this was a new low. No, it was a low that Keenan had never imagined was possible for anyone. As he yelled, the villagers carried him off the podium onto their shoulders, prompting them to protest. They were too enraged to notice his shaky feet as they threw him to the ground and marched toward the palace gates, yelling their opposition.
“Protect our lands! Protect our rights! We will fight for what is ours!”
Keenan stood alone in the square, watching John stumbling after them at a much slower pace. He continued to chant, albeit more subduedly, as he tried to orient himself. He appeared to have been moved around too much while being carried, as he suddenly doubled over and vomited copiously on the ground. Keenan winced in disgust as he watched him groan until he collapsed onto the ground, fast asleep, right in his own vomit.
If the situation hadn’t been so bleak, Keenan might have laughed at the irony, but he couldn’t. He was too agitated. Now I’m the one who needs a drink. He sighed, looking at John.
Keenan was a man who cared deeply about his clan. He couldn’t stand by and watch them be treated unfairly and robbed simply because their Laird had lost his way in life. As he looked at John on the ground, he was overcome with conflicting emotions. He idolized John when he was a good Laird and the people were happy. That was what enraged him even more. He had seen the good times and never imagined he could be like this. He believed that the Laird had a duty to his people no matter what. That meant that even when things were bad for him, it was his responsibility to stay strong because his people relied on him.
John had failed them, and to make matters worse, he was unaware of his failures. Keenan loved his people too much to watch them be destroyed in the name of loyalty. He would see to it that they got what they deserved.
He walked away, feeling as if his life had been sucked out of him. He couldn’t just leave John there, so he went to the guard station to request that they pick him up and take him home.
When Bevin Murray awoke that morning, the sun was streaming in through the open windows. She sighed quietly and rolled over in bed, her back to the sun. She didn’t want to be awakened just yet. She had stayed up late the night before, expecting her father to return home, but he had not. She sighed to herself, tired. The morning had arrived far too quickly, and she had not gotten enough sleep.
She could not help but be upset. “I ken he did nae come home last night because he was passed out drunk somewhere,” she muttered. It was always this way, no matter how many times she begged him to stop drinking. She had watched her father slowly but steadily lose himself to the barrel over the years, until there was almost nothing left of him that she recognized. She was saddened by his condition, but she was mostly angry.
He changed after her mother died, so she understood in a way, but she was also enraged at him. Just as he had lost a wife, she had lost a mother. It wasn’t fair that he just shut down and couldn’t handle any of his responsibilities as a Laird, let alone as a father. Her tiny, pink lips drooped as she became preoccupied with his neglectful behavior.
A knock on the door of her chambers signaled the end of her ability to sleep. She pushed the covers off and sat up, running her hands through her messy brown hair, which had fallen in her face rather than being in its usual single braid. She’d been too upset the night before to care.
“Excuse me intrusion, Miss,” a voice said from behind the door and Louisa poked her head into the room. Louisa was her handmaid and best friend. They were both twenty-one years old, which could explain why they could relate to each other so easily, despite their master-servant relationship. She raised her head to look at her, and the dark-haired maid winced.
“Oh… ye dae nae look too great this mornin’ Miss. I did tell ye that ye should have allowed me tae braid yer hair last night — now look at ye, yer head resembles a bird’s nest,” Louisa said, stepping into the room and fussing over her. Bevin sighed and got out of bed, walking over to her mirror. Her brown eyes returned her stare; a dead stare with no excitement coming from the sockets, with the beginnings of black rings surrounding them. Her pale skin had turned sickly that morning, and her hair looked like it had been chased through the underbrush by foxes. She really did look terrible — like a ghost.
“I come bearing news, but I believe we should take care of ye first,” the girl said, slipping a letter onto the dressing table before hurrying off to draw Bevin’s bath. Bevin, who was changing her clothes, recognized the seal on the letter as soon as she saw it. She tried to be enthusiastic. It bore the Stewart family seal, and the letter was undoubtedly from her handsome betrothed, Walter Stewart, with whom she should be completely smitten.
The Stewart family was not only insanely powerful in the Highlands, as a member of the English and Scottish noble council, but it was also well known for having a lairdess. Lairdess Margaret held a regency position because her husband died not long after her son was born and neither he nor she had any male relatives. She had taken their world by storm, refusing to cower in the face of power and instead making a name for herself as her lands flourished under her control. Her son, Walter, was of age now, and as soon as he found a bride and made himself a man, he would take over from his mother.
Bevin had now taken on the role of being his bride. “What a miracle it is that I have found meself so lucky,” she said dully. The Stewart family, despite its power, had every young noblewoman her age clamoring for a chance to be chosen. She, on the other hand, had been going about her business when she learned of her betrothal by reading a letter out for her father. Bevin had been chosen as Walter’s bride because of his friendship with Lairdess Margaret Stewart.
Was Bevin excited? Of course she was. Every social gathering she attended now was packed with people eager to meet her and those who were curious about her, the dainty brunette who happened to get such a lucky break and marry the man who was about to become the most powerful Laird in the Highlands. She smiled at them and matched their joy, unable to count how many times she had been called lucky, both by herself and by those around her.
She grinned until her cheeks hurt, and her laugh was thin and lifeless. It wasn’t that Walter Stewart was in any way flawed. No, the Stewart heir was a dashing young man. Blonde with icy blue eyes; intelligent and well-traveled. He had a wide range of experience in the world, which not many people could claim. He walked with a dignity that made everyone in the room want to defer to him, and he was courteous in his letters to her. Polite and filled with stories. He was always saying or sharing something.
Many people would give anything to be in her shoes, but when she saw his letters, there was no rush to open them and see what he would say next. She usually pretended, forcing herself to be enthused. What is the matter with ye, Bevin? This is somethin’ great. Why are ye nae moved? Are ye tryin’ tae be ungrateful?
She pondered many questions as those around her swooned over Walter’s letters to her. He once sent her preserved flowers, and the young ladies at the tea party she was attending nearly cried. Many people complained about how boring and unoriginal their own betrotheds were, with some not having the time to exchange frequent letters with them as Walter did with her, and others stumbling over their words, unsure of what a woman wanted to hear.
I suppose I really am just lucky… She had laughed, but in truth, she did not feel lucky at all. She did not feel anything. She sighed in the bath as Louisa washed her hair and applied scented oils to her skin. Another present from Walter. Louisa oiled her supple skin again after she dried off from her bath. When she was finished getting ready, she reflected light with a marvelous, dewy look, as if she had been scrubbed by pearls.
“Dae ye want me tae tie up yer hair today, Miss?” Louisa asked. Bevin raised her gaze to the mirror. Her delicate shoulders stood out more in the simple white dress she wore, and her long brown hair, now combed out, fell in a silky curtain down her back, framing her diamond-shaped face.
“Nae… leave it,” Bevin said, taking the letter from her dressing table and opening it listlessly.
“Aye, ye are right. It looks lovely this way. I shall go fetch yer breakfast,” Louisa said, heading for the door.
“Dae nae bother, I will come down when I am done here,” Bevin said. Louisa quietly nodded and exited the room, leaving Bevin alone with Walter’s letter. She unfolded the neatly folded paper to reveal his penmanship in elegant strokes of ink.
Me dear betrothed, Bevin.
It has been too long since our betrothal was unofficially announced by our parents and since then, letters have been forced tae suffice for the communication between us. However, that is about tae come tae an end. I have returned from me trip tae France and so me maither and I shall be visitin’ yer home tae make our betrothal official before the clans and then hold the feast. And finally, we shall be able tae converse face tae face. I look forward tae meetin’ ye properly.
Yer soon tae be husband, Walter.
Bevin read the letter twice, the first for its contents and the second to see if it would intrigue her in any way. Nae a thing? Nae heart thumpin’? Nae butterflies in me belly? She sighed and forced a smile on herself. Even if she wasn’t naturally excited, she would compel herself to be; after all, there was something to be enthusiastic about. Her wonderful betrothed, who had made her the envy of all women her age, was finally coming to the castle to make their engagement official.
She’d barely had any physical interaction with Walter. They had met at a ball once; she had run into him while he was standing with a group of his friends. Her drink had splashed out of her cup and onto her hand a little, so he had been gracious enough to offer her his handkerchief. With a kind smile, he told her she could keep it because he would be traveling soon and it would be too much of a burden to ask her to return it. She had accepted it gratefully and had not given it much thought, despite the fact that she could feel his and his friends’ gazes on her back even after she had left.
He had begun to communicate with her through letters after their parents had announced their betrothal, and in those letters, he never referred to the incident with the handkerchief; just talking to her as if they had never met, so she felt too awkward to bring it up. She wondered if it would be strange to return it now if she ran into him again. It felt twice as strange just keeping it, and she couldn’t throw it away in case he remembered.
She folded the letter back up with a sigh and a forced smile once more. “There’s a lot tae prepare, now is nae time tae wallow, Bevin,” she said to herself. She needed to tell her father; she was sure Lairdess Margaret would have sent him a letter as well, but she knew he hadn’t seen it yet. He was usually lost in the bottle and could barely deal with his problems. She was saddened by the thought. She generally did her best to pick up the slack, reading him his letters while he was hungover and offering assistance where she could. She was behaving like a mother to him in order to keep the shame of his current situation hidden.
After her mother’s death, she was obligated to be strong for him. That was why she agreed to the betrothal in the first place, when her opinion was completely ignored. She was simply expected to be content. She knew, however, that her marriage aided the clan’s social standing, so she remained silent.
Bevin was a young woman who was bound by her circumstances to become strong. She was the best at putting on a brave face while concealing her pain. She rarely asked herself what she truly desired because she knew she wouldn’t get it. Not anymore. She loved her father, but she had mixed feelings about a parent who was neglectful and selfish. It was an exhausted love that persisted for unknown reasons. She was also aware of her duties and hoped to perform them well. She was a woman and the clan’s sole heir, so she knew it was her responsibility to marry profitably. The clan’s well-being depended on her. Even if she didn’t like it, she had an obligation to them.
She went downstairs to eat breakfast after putting Walter’s letter in her drawer with the rest of them. Louisa had already set the table for her, so she sat down to eat while the maid served her.
“What was the news in the letter, Miss?” Louisa asked as she stood to the side with a towel over one arm.
“Walter and his maither are on their way tae our castle tae make our betrothal official and hold the feast,” Bevin said, eating quietly. Louisa audibly gasped.
“What? Is that nae big news? We have so much tae dae, so much tae prepare… ye need tae tell the Laird,” Louisa said excitedly. Bevin sighed.
“Aye, I ken.”
If I can find me faither, that is.
Seeing her expression, Louisa pressed her lips together.
“Yer faither is nae back yet, is he?” she asked.
“Nae, he is nae,” Bevin admitted.
“Ye should wait for him by his chambers,” she suggested as Bevin finished her meal.
“Ye are right. I will dae that. Let us hope he is sober when he returns,” she said.
Bevin followed Louisa’s advice and went to stand outside his door. She had just leaned against the wall when she heard two guards laughing as they rounded the corner. They were dragging a large unconscious man she recognized as her father without looking twice. He was covered in vomit and his cloak was dusty. She was ashamed.
“Think about it. What kind of Laird dae we even have? How are we tae respect him when we have tae pick him up in the middle of the square, drunk tae stupor and in a pool of his own sick?” the first guard cackled.
“Dae ye think he slept there all night? It was very late when Keenan asked us tae fetch him. Perhaps we should have gone when he told us tae?” the second asked.
“Clearly he spent all night there. Ye can tell he is still drunk. He must have had his weight in ale tae be this pished. I think he pissed himself as well,” the first said.
“Ugh, that is just disgustin’. Why dae we have tae be the ones tae heft him up all these stairs? The man is heavy, too!”
“Why would not he be? He does nae a thing but eat and drink all day. There used tae be a Laird here before, but now he is barely a man.”
Bevin bit her lower lip in response to the guards’ words. For a brief moment, tears welled up in her eyes, but she blinked them away, forcing herself to maintain a strong front. They weren’t entirely wrong. She knew her father was a total disaster now, but it didn’t feel good to hear others say it. Especially not their guards.
She stepped out of the corner she was hiding in with a frown, revealing herself to them. The two men were so taken aback by her appearance that they almost dropped her father.
“Oh, Miss, we – we did nae see ye there; good morning.” the first one said nervously while the second one just shook in fear.
“Is there anythin’ good about the mornin’ given how much ye were complainin’ just now?” she asked. Both men trembled, unable to respond.
“Take me faither tae his bed and call the maids. Have the cook make him some soup as well,” she ordered. They rushed to do as she instructed, removing his filthy cloak before laying him on the bed. She stood by the door as they left.
“Ye are lucky I am in a forgivin’ mood, but speak of yer Laird disrespectfully again, and ye may lay yer complaints tae the crows when yer heads hang from the castle gates,” she said in a low voice.
The two guards nodded to her and looked terrified while they scurried out of the room. She sighed as she looked at her father on the bed, who was snoring lightly.
What will I dae with ye, faither?
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