Unchain the Highlander’s Heart (Preview)
Mull of Kilchurn, Spring, 1715
Peace so often follows a storm. The crashing waves, the devastating winds, the driving rain, and then… all was calm. Such was the scene that morning on the Mull of Kilchurn, where the seabirds arced above the cliffs, and on the wide, sandy shore, the remnants of a ship lay wrecked, smashed into a hundred pieces by the force of the sea, which had churned it up and dashed it on the rocks. It was a scene of devastation, but among it, one survivor remained.
He was lying on his back, barely conscious, the sea washing over him, the foam of the gentle waves dyed red by his blood, seeping from a wound at his side. Suddenly, he gave a start and sat up, dazed and confused. He let out a cry, which echoed across the deserted beach, and rolled onto his side, vomiting up seawater and coughing violently. He clutched at his side, staggering to his feet, before collapsing again onto the sand.
“Help me! Someone, please, help me,” he cried, but no answer came –he was all alone, and the cliffs merely echoed back his desperate cries, the birds arcing overhead, and the waves washing gently on the shore.
He looked around him in dazed confusion, unable to remember what had happened or where he was. The sun was shining, a blue sky above promising a peaceful day, the storm giving way to calm, as though nature had not made known her full and destructive force but a few hours before. The crew was gone, swept overboard by the force of the waves, and pulled down into the depths. The ship’s cargo–brandy and tea–was scattered across the sands, ruined, save for a few chests which had somehow survived the storm and now lay washed up on the beach.
“What is this place?” he gasped, his head throbbing with pain, the wound at his side smarting.
He looked desperately around him for some sign of familiarity, for something to cling to in the wake of the nightmare into which he had emerged. All was calm, placed, and peaceful, but in his mind, the storm still raged, a storm which prevented him from knowing even who he was or why he should find himself in such a strange and remarkable situation…
Murdina MacFadden knew every detail of the ceiling in her chambers above the great hall at Kilchurn Castle. She had spent hours staring up at it, lying on her bed, her eyes wide, gazing up to the ceiling, where a crack ran across the plaster from right to left. There was a cobweb in one corner and the remains of what had once been an ornate fleur-de-lis painted at the center. Murdina had gotten to know every detail of that ceiling in the past few months–when her own company had been preferable to that of anyone else’s. She would shut herself away in her chambers and stare up at the ceiling for hours on end, longing for the past to change, and for peace in her suffering.
Now, she sighed and rolled onto her side, a tear running down her cheek at the thought of her dear sister. It was always the same. She would shut herself away and think of Aoife, lamenting the loss of her dearest friend, a loss which could so easily have been prevented if it were not for the wiles of that wicked man. Her sister had taken her own life, heartbroken at the discovery of her betrothed’s affair with another woman–a woman to whom he was now married. Murdina would not mention his name, but the loss of her sister had left her in the depths of despair, despair from which she believed she would never recover.
A knock now came at the door, and Murdina brushed the tears from her eyes and sat up. She did not like to be disturbed, but she knew she would be missed having skipped the midday meal. Her younger sister, Ella, now called out to her, knocking again, so that Murdina had no choice but to get up and answer the door. She would have preferred to be alone with her thoughts, her grief for Aoife still as raw as it had been on the day when they had discovered her lifeless in her chambers, a moment which Murdina would never forget.
“Sister, why dae ye torture yerself, so?” Ella asked as Murdina opened the door to her.
“I just want to be alone, Ella,” Murdina replied, and Ella stepped forward and put her arms around her.
“Tis’ better if we are all of us together. Dae ye nae think? We are grievin’ too, we all are,” she said, but Murdina shook her head.
The pain of Aoife’s loss seemed unbearable to her, while her other two sisters seemed almost able to accept it. Her father, Andrew Macfadden, the laird, had emerged from mourning and was even now riding out on the hunt with the rest of the clan. Murdina felt she was the only one who still honored Aoife’s legacy, and she was determined not to let go of her sister’s memory.
“Ye and Freya were nae as close to her as I was. Ye daenae understand,” Murdina replied, shaking her head sadly.
Aoife had been her closest friend, the bond of sisterhood and friendship as one. She loved her more than anyone else in all the world, and in losing her, it had felt as though a part of her was lost, too.
“Dae ye think we daenae mourn her, too?” Ella asked, sounding hurt at the suggestion.
Murdina made no reply–she had not asked for Ella’s sympathy, content, as she was, to be alone with her thoughts.
“I was nae hungry,” she said, by way of a response to Ella’s visit, and her sister sighed and shook her head.
“We are worried about ye, Murdina–all of us. Father will come and see ye later. He told us so before he rode out this mornin’ on the hunt. Ye cannae hide yerself away like this forever. Life must go on,” she said, but Murdina looked at her angrily.
“For us, it can, aye, but nae for poor Aoife. What wickedness brought about her death–that man, he should pay for his crimes,” she exclaimed, turning back into the room as tears welled up again in her eyes.
“But ye cannae live yer life like this, Murdina. Tis’ nae what Aoife would have wanted,” Ella said.
“Leave me alone, Ella–ye daenae understand,” Murdina shouted back at her, and she slammed the door to her chambers in her sister’s face, throwing herself on the bed and weeping.
It was as though everyone had forgotten her sister–the period of mourning at an end and her memory confined to the occasional thought. But Murdina could not forget–she refused to forget–and in her anguish, her anger only increased against the man whom she blamed for taking her sister away from her, the man who had betrayed her beautiful soul, and in her eyes, was no better than a murderer.
It was clear to him that no help would come. His head was throbbing with pain, and he could remember nothing–not even his own name. It was as though everything was a blur–the world around him made sense as far as he could see, but he could find no reference to make sense of what was there–or of himself. He struggled to his feet, still clutching at his side, and staggered up the beach away from the shipwreck.
“I must have been on board,” he said to himself, though he could recall nothing of being so.
There were no bodies washed up on the shore, no sign of anyone among the wreckage. He was entirely alone, and the surrounding landscape appeared strange and unfamiliar. He was on a beach, with cliffs stretching up on either side to moorlands, where the purple heathers were dotted with straggly trees. He could remember nothing of where he had come from or where he was going, and he sat down on a rock and sighed, his whole body aching and the wound at his side smarting.
As he sat down, he felt something in his pocket, and reaching into his breeches, he pulled out a key on a chain. It was not like a normal key to a simple lock, but ornately made, gilded in silver, and with a chain–he looked at it curiously. There was a coin in his pocket, too. But again, this was no ordinary coin bearing the head of a Hanoverian king, but embossed with a phoenix, large and weighty–it seemed somehow familiar, but he could not remember why he had it and what it could mean.
He held the key, and the coin, in his open hands, looking down at them in confusion. It frustrated him to not remember, and he cursed himself for his stupidity. He felt a fool sitting there on the beach with no idea of who he was or where he came from. He tried desperately to remember, furrowing his brow in a vain attempt at recollection. But it was to no avail. He was sitting on a beach in a foreign land, soaked to the skin, wounded, and without a single memory, which would prove useful–the situation seemed hopeless.
Now, he searched his pockets more thoroughly and drew out a parchment, which had somehow survived the worst of the water. It was sealed with wax and had been hidden between the hem of his breeches–concealed, though, from what, he could not remember. There seemed little point in respecting the wax seal in such circumstances, and he unrolled the parchment and began to read. The crest at the top bore the arms of a noble family–a lion and an eagle guarding a shield, embossed in red and gold, below which was a Latin inscription–the words too water damaged to decipher.
Much of the letter, too, was unreadable, the ink having run with the damp seeping through his clothes. It provided no clue about his identity, only adding to the mystery of who he was and why he should be carrying such a strange assortment of items about his person. He began to shiver, and his stomach was rumbling so that he knew he had to do something to help himself since no one else was to come to his aid. For all he knew, he was alone on an island, and any hope of rescue was in vain.
He got up and went back down the beach to the shipwreck. Several chests were lying about among the wreckage, and he prized one of them open, revealing dry clothes and blankets to his great relief. Another chest held ship’s biscuits–crude oatcakes made for the longevity of a voyage–and a side of cheese so that he was soon dressed in fresh clothes and his hunger satisfied. He tore strips from a shirt and made a simple bandage with which he dressed his wound, and though he could still remember nothing about himself, he did, at least, feel a sense of relief at having raised himself from the worst of his situation.
Having eaten and drunk from a spring that flowed onto the beach at the far side, he now made a survey of his surroundings. A path led up to the top of the cliffs, and the sight of it cheered him enormously–a path meant people, or at the very least some kind of animal, and taking with him as much of the food as he could carry, he made his way up the path and onto the moorland above. From there, he gained a far better perspective over his situation and could see, in the far distance, mountains rising majestically into the clouds. He was certain this was no island, and there seemed to be signs of habitation–a path leading across the moorlands and the remnants of a fire by a small copse of trees.
The wound to his side was painful, and he knew he could not remain out of doors for the night. The day was bright and breezy, and from the sun’s position, he reasoned it was still the morning. His best hope would be to follow the path and see where it led to, and he set off across the moorlands, still trying desperately to remember even the smallest detail about himself and who he was. All he knew was that a shipwreck had brought him to this strange and unfamiliar land and that his best hope for survival would be to find its inhabitants–whoever they may be…
“Why did ye let yer guard down, Cillian?” Murdina demanded as her opponent fell to the ground, and she pointed the tip of her sword to his neck.
“I… I am sorry, lass, ye are… ye are a match for any of yer clansmen,” the man replied.
Murdina had been sparring that morning with Cillian out in the castle courtyard. He was an excellent swordsman, and few could best him–but Murdina was one. Her father had despaired at having four daughters and no son to inherit his title. Even from an early age, Murdina had been treated not as a delicate woman but as a clansman and a warrior. She had learned to fight, ride, shoot, and do so better than any man.
“But ye were nae even tryin’ to beat me,” she replied, cursing under her breath and sheathing her sword.
“A few moments then, and we shall fight again,” Cillian replied, catching his breath, but Murdina only dismissed him with a wave of her hand.
In her skill with the sword, Murdina found a way to forget her sorrows for a while. She took out her anger and frustration on her opponents, and there was not a man in the castle whom she had not challenged to fight. There had been only one man who could ever stand a chance against her, and that was Arran Athol, the sword master who had taught her everything she had ever needed to know. In his hands, a sword was as much a work of art as a tool, and he had fought many a campaign against the English during the long, troubled period of the years gone by.
“Forget it, I shall find another opponent,” she said, shaking her head as Cillian bowed.
A small crowd of her father’s men had gathered to watch, and Murdina looked around at them now, challenging each of them to fight. But all of them shook their heads, turning away, as Murdina scowled. They were cowards, she told herself, and it was no wonder that the Jacobite cause was all but lost with such men as this to represent it. Murdina had grown up with the stories of English oppression. She hated the house of Hanover and its claims to the throne of Scotland. But the Stuart cause seemed all but gone, the few pockets of resistance against English rule gradually weakening in the face of overwhelming odds. Her father still clung to the hope of restoration, but with the protestant strangulation on their beloved land, such hopes seemed ever further from being realized.
“Murdina, I want to speak to ye,” her father’s voice came from across the courtyard, and Murdina looked up to see the laird beckoning to her from the top of the castle steps.
Despite his advancing years, Andrew was still a formidable figure, his long white beard flowing down his front and his height and build raising him above other men by some considerable amount. He commanded respect, and those around her now dispersed, leaving Murdina and her father alone.
“What is it ye wish to speak to speak to me about, Father?” she asked, coming to join him on the steps which led into the castle keep.
“Have ye thought more about what I said to ye the other day?” he replied, and Murdina shook her head.
“I told ye then, I daenae wish to marry anyone, Father,” she said, and Andrew looked at her angrily.
He had come to her in a fit of some agitation a week or so previously, demanding that she consider marriage for the sake of the clan and its future.
“If we are to advance the Jacobite cause, then ye must marry and bear children,” he had told her.
They were words he had repeated to both her sisters, too, and while Murdina remained angry with Ella and Freya for their apparent lack of feeling in the face of Aoife’s death, they could at least find common ground in objecting to their father’s demands. Since losing her sister, Murdina had found herself more and more distrustful of men. She blamed the man whom Aoife had loved for her death, and the thought of allowing her own heart to be broken in such a way was too awful to comprehend.
Murdina had no qualms in standing up to her father, whether or not he was her laird, too, nor of disobeying him–it would certainly not be the first time. He had suggested several possible matches to her, all of which had made Murdina’s blood run cold–she would not marry merely to satisfy her father’s ill-thought-out plans for a future glorious revolution. The Jacobite cause was dying, and her marrying a man she did not love would not save it.
“And I told ye that there is little choice in the matter, Murdina. Had yer mother given us an heir, then there would be nay need, though surely tis’ any woman’s wish to marry well,” he said, but Murdina only laughed.
“Tis’ a fond thing, vainly conceived, Father. I shall nae marry just because ye tell me to,” she said, and her father caught her by the arm and brought his face in close to hers, an angry look coming over his countenance.
“Ye shall dae what is necessary to ensure this clan has a future, Murdina,” he said, but she snatched her arm away and turned from him, the anger rising inside her.
“And perhaps if ye had shown more concern for the daughter ye once had, then ye would have that future,” she cried.
Had Aoife not been promised to a man of such dubious reputation, then perhaps her life might have been saved. Andrew had grieved for his daughter, but it seemed he had now forgotten just what an arranged marriage had done to the one he had always described as his “bright, shining star.”
“And what dae ye mean by that?” her father demanded, as Murdina turned to him angrily, fixing him with a scowl.
“That it was an arranged marriage that caused her such misery, Father. She would still be with us now if it were nae for that man,” Murdina exclaimed as tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Enough–ye shall be married, ye and yer sisters, too. I want nay more of this talk, ye hear me? Aoife is gone, and we have mourned her. Nay amount of weepin’ will bring her back. Dae ye nae think I miss her every day? She haunts my dreams. I am her father, and I could dae nothin’ to prevent this tragedy. Nothin’ at all. But ye will marry, Murdina, even if I have to force it,” he said, and turning on his heels, he marched off back into the castle, barking out orders for the patrols to ride out along the mull.
Murdina watched him go, and she brushed the tears from her eyes just as her two sisters emerged from the gate leading into the castle gardens. Freya–her youngest sister–looked at her with concern.
“Are ye all right, Murdina?” she asked, and Murdina shook her head.
“Dae I look it, Freya? We are none of us, all right. Father wishes to marry us off. We are bargain’ tools, we three,” she replied, and her two sisters looked at one another fearfully.
“I am too young to marry,” Freya replied obstinately.
She had only just reached her eighteenth birthday, and Ella was but only a year older than she. Murdina was the eldest at twenty-one, and Aoife had been twenty when she was so cruelly taken from them. They were all of them in their prime, and now it seemed their father was determined to see them reduced to nothing but the wives of Jacobite supporters, destined to miserable lives at the hands of men who did not love them.
“But ye will nae be soon–mark my words, Freya, ye shall suffer the same fate as I. The both of ye shall,” Murdina replied and shaking her head, she marched off across the courtyard, eager to take her frustrations out with the sword and seeking a worthy opponent with which to do so.
He must have walked five miles–or so he reasoned. But in that time, there had been no recollection of serving as a reference point. For all he knew, the countryside surrounding him could be entirely familiar, his home even, but given he could not remember even his name, the hope of recalling further details was unlikely. He had met no one on the way, but he continued to see signs of life–the marks of horse’s hooves in the mud, the remnants of a fire, an abandoned croft, still with the marks of cultivation in the land roundabout. It was a wild and lonely country, or so it seemed, and he began to long for the sight of something–anything–which would offer hope.
The path wound up to the top of a hill, a steep climb, and one during which he paused several times to catch his breath. From the summit, he commanded a view back towards the coast, where the clouds gathering on the horizon brought with them the promise of further wind and rain to come. He had with him only the small amount of food he could carry and a blanket for warmth, along with the mysterious key and phoenix embossed coin. He took them both out now and examined them again, willing himself to remember–but to no avail.
But as he surveyed the land ahead, a sight brought cheer to his heart. Perhaps two miles further in land, a castle surrounded by a forest built on a promontory of jutting rock. It was no ruin, and from his vantage point, he could make out a banner fluttering on the battlements. With a sigh of relief, he strode forward, caring not if the inhabitants of the castle were friend or foe. The sight gave him hope, and he wondered if there he might even discover the truth as to who he was.
“I could be a noble laird or a knight of the realm,” he said to himself, the hint of a smile coming over his face as he strode forward with renewed vigor.
The path now wound across the heathers and emerged onto a well-used track, paved in parts and cobbled in others. It led all the way to the castle, and though there were no other dwellings visible for miles around, he reasoned that the castle inhabitants were master of all he could see. The land was wild, though fertile, and from his vantage point, it seemed he was walking along the spine of a mull, one of the great lengths of land which stretched down from the mainland, surrounded by the sea on both sides.
As he came in sight of the castle, he thought he recognized the banner fluttering from the battlements, but he could not remember its precise origins. There was something familiar about it, the stirring of a distant memory, but try as he might, he could not remember. The castle itself was formidable, a great stone edifice rising above the trees. A keep lay at its center, surrounded by a curtain wall with towers at equal intervals and a gatehouse from which stretched a bridge over a deep chasm that surrounded the castle on three sides, its back built into the rocks of the cliff towered above.
“A fine place, and make nay mistake,” he said, shaking his head.
By the clothes he had been wearing on the beach, he had reasoned to himself that he was of some good and noble birth. Had he been dressed in the clothes of a peasant, he would have wondered how such a man as he had come to possess those strange objects–the key and the coin–and be furnished with a letter, indecipherable as it was, bearing a noble crest. As it was, he could only assume himself to be a man of some standing, if not of the aristocracy, then perhaps of a family of merchants or well-to-do traders. His accent, too, betrayed him–he was Scottish, but that meant either he was for or against the crown, his memory offering nothing to confirm so either way.
He made his way along the track, which wound its way across an open plain and into the woods below the castle. He was surprised to find himself unchallenged as he walked, though he was certain his presence would have been noted by any watcher from the castle battlements. A stream flowed beneath a wooden bridge–the first sign of present habitation he had passed since his walk began, and he paused to look over into the waters below, where fish leaped in a clear, deep pool. The sight of them brought fresh hunger to his stomach, and he fumbled in his pocket for one of the oatcakes he had stowed there, when all of a sudden, there came a shout from the far side of the bridge, and he looked up to find a band of clansmen–soldiers–charging towards him.
“Ye there, who are ye?” one of them demanded, drawing his sword.
The sight of the men awoke in him an instinct of danger–he did not know if they were friend or foe–and he turned to run, just as another half dozen appeared at the opposite end of the bridge, blocking his retreat. They must have lain in wait for him, guarding the bridge lest any strangers pass that way. He cursed himself for falling into their trap, and as both sides advanced, he stole himself for the attack.
“I mean nay harm,” he said, glancing from one side of the bridge to the other.
“And what are ye doin’ on the laird’s lands? A spy, are ye?” another of them said.
With no weapon and outnumbered, there was little chance of escape. But he stood his ground, unafraid to fight. He was a strong man, powerfully built, and though his memory was gone, his reflexes remained–he knew what to do, and ducking forward, he lunged at the nearest clansman, knocking him to the ground. The others now charged forward, but despite being outnumbered, he put up a valiant fight, knocking several of them to the ground, and wrestling the sword from one man’s hands, so that he delivered several blows before he was subdued.
“Enough,” he cried, struggling in their grip.
“Eager for a fight, are ye?. What is yer name?” the lead man demanded, but he could only shake his head and shrug.
“I… I was washed up on the beach some miles yonder. I cannae remember anythin’–nae who I am or where I came from. Go to the beach if ye daenae believe me–ye will see the wreck,” he said, as the clansmen looked at him suspiciously.
The one who had spoken had fiery red hair, his beard neatly trimmed, and his eyes flashed angrily, a look of disbelief and contempt on his face. He shook his head and spat to the ground.
“Ye expect us to believe that?” he said, and the man shook his head.
It was an incredible story–the loss of memory, the speculation in his own mind, the strange circumstances in which he now found himself.
“Give me something to eat and a warm hearth–perhaps I shall remember something more then,” he said, but the clansmen only laughed.
“Did ye hear that, men?” the ginger-haired man exclaimed, “he seeks to deceive us and thinks we will offer him hospitality.. Aye, well, we shall see what the laird has to say about it, what dae ye say?” he said, and now they dragged him across the bridge and towards the castle, even as he continued to fight with them.
“Let me go,” he exclaimed, but it was to no avail, the clansmen jeering him and dragging him through the castle gates to whatever fate now lay before him…
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