Moira Campbell stood in the doorway of the large kitchen and watched her maid scrubbing a heavy copper pot. Her heart sank at the sight of the older woman’s hunched shoulders. Her tattered dress and her silver hair hanging limply made her look much older than her years.
I have to do something.
“Emily,” Moira said, stepping forward, her footsteps quiet on the flagstone floor. “Leave that be.”
“I’ll soon have it spick and span, m’lady.” Emily didn’t look up.
“Emily, please stop.” Moira rested her hand on Emily’s shoulder. “I can do that.”
“Nay, nay, it’s me job, m’lady, I don’t mind.” She didn’t pause in her vigorous scouring.
Moira sighed. “It’s time for you to go and be with your family. With Nell gone your wee grandchildren need you.”
Emily paused briefly at the sound of her recently deceased daughter’s name. “The bairns are fine while I’m here all week. The eldest, Nancy, takes care of the younger ones when I’m caring for you, m’lady.”
“But that’s just it, I don’t need caring for, not really. I’m perfectly capable.”
“You’re the Lady of Leannan Creag, you shouldn’t be cooking and cleaning and you shouldn’t be alone here.”
“I have good arms and legs and the ken-how. T’is time you went home, Emily, and stayed there.”
Emily turned with her eyes narrowed and her brow creased. “Please, m’lady, I need this job, to put food on the table.”
Moira didn’t want to make Emily’s plight harder. “I’ll still pay you.”
“God’s bones, but you can’t pay me for being at home, that’s just not right. And besides this big old house needs more than one person to keep it in order.”
For a moment Moira hesitated, then, “There’s a pile of mending and curtains to be sewn in the fourth bedroom, take that, it’s a least a month’s work and I’ll pay you to do that. Perhaps you could work in the evenings, when the bairns are down for the night. At least that way you’ll be free in the day to help Nancy.”
“Nancy is a good lass and she’s managing just about and—”
“Och, Nancy is only twelve and needs to be a child herself before she likely becomes a mother.” Moira dug into her pocket and withdrew several coins. “Here, this is a full month’s pay. When that time is up, bring the mending and the curtains back and I’ll have more for you to do.”
Even if I have to tear a few dresses, I’ll find work for her.
Moira watched as Emily’s expression changed from one of argument to concern then to relief. “Are you sure, m’lady?”
“Aye, I’m sure, and not scrubbing these old floors and labouring over the stove will do your poor back a world of good.”
“Aye, I dare say it will.” Emily took the money and shoved it into her apron pocket. “I’ll finish up here, though, before I go. And if you need me to come back at any time, just send word.”
“I will. Thank you.” Moira squeezed Emily’s shoulder. Then to her surprise found herself drawn into a hug as the older woman embraced her.
“You’re a good soul who’s been dealt a tough hand,” Emily said. “But you always put on a brave face, despite your losses. You’re a fine example to us all, m’lady.”
“Thank you, Emily. And thank you for your loyal service over the last two years, you’ve been such a big help.”
“And I’ll still be here in a lightning flash if you need anything.” Emily pulled back.
“Thank you.” Moira stepped away. “Don’t forget the mending. There’s some clean sacks too, if you need them for carrying. And there’s stew left over from yesterday, take it, it will put meat on the bairns’ bones.”
“I may well do that.” Emily returned her attention to the pot. “Thank you, m’lady. Thank you for everything.”
Moira brushed her hands over her waist; the wool of her dress was fibrous and warm, beneath it her torso was lean. She, too, needed to put on some weight. Since her husband Angus had passed, God rest his soul, her appetite had been jaded. She figured dismissing her housekeeper—and Emily was a wonderful cook—wouldn’t help that problem in her life.
But it was one of many problems a lone Scottish woman faced in the Highlands. And gaining some curves wasn’t at the top of her list of priorities.
Wandering through the large hallway, complete with fireplace and ornate antler candleholder made by her brother, Bryce, she headed outside. The sun was shining today. Spring was well underway.
Perhaps spring would bring Bryce home. Maybe the milder weather, the thought of the vegetable patch, and the grand Scottish land he loved so much would lure him from wherever his travels had taken him. Spring would never return her husband—the Red Coats had seen that he’d met his maker much earlier than he should have.
Damn those Red Coats.
She frowned and pulled the heavy oak front door open. Her husband had been older than her, and a good kind man. He’d also believed, like she did, in the Jacobite cause. But it was his loyalty to the rightful king, which meant he’d paid the ultimate price.
She stared across the sunlit cobbles. To the right an archway in the high stonewall faced east. Her gaze was always drawn to it, hoping to see Bryce finally returning.
Of course there was nobody there.
Further along, on the sunny southern wall, new life was bursting from the ground. The vegetables were sprouting. She’d be tending them herself now Emily wouldn’t be around. But that was okay, it filled the time and nurturing the small shoots to big, fruitful plants was rewarding.
She reached for a small sack of grain and hoisted up the layers of her dress as she navigated the four stone steps down to the courtyard. “Hey, girls, calm down, I’m coming to see to you now.”
The chickens fussed around her, clucking and strutting as she made her way to their coop. “Here you go,” she said, filling up their feed bowl. “Eat up and lay me some eggs.”
They dipped their heads and pecked, bustling and seeming to squabble for the best pieces of grain.
She smiled, enjoying the sun on the back of her neck and the scent of blossom in the air.
After setting down the sack, she reached for a broom and began to sweep the yard. There was a time she wouldn’t have dared touch the broom handle. Angus would have berated her, spanked her even. Sweeping wasn’t a task the lady of the house should even think about, let alone undertake.
But now… now life had changed.
She was alone.
Would she ever find love again? She hoped so. Her bed was cold at night and her body craved another to hold. She didn’t think Angus would object to her finding another husband. He’d once said he was sure he’d die before her, owing to their age difference, and he understood a second husband might be in her future.
Is that future now?
Moira looked up at the sound of Emily’s voice.
She carried a sack stuffed full and a wrapped box.
“Enjoy your walk back to the village.” Moira found a smile, even though she knew she’d miss Emily. “And don’t be a stranger.”
“I won’t. I’ll be back with this mending soon. And thank you again.”
“No thanks needed.”
“You and me both know it is.” Emily inclined her head, then, with her spine still hunched she made her way to the archway.
Moira straightened with her hands on the end of the broom and arched her back. After Emily had gone from view she closed her eyes and tipped her face to the sky, hoping the heat of the sun would give her the strength to look after the huge house on her own. It wasn’t just the house, it was the land and animals that would feed and clothe her through the summer and into the winter. There was always so much to do.
With a sigh she continued to sweep the yard. Soon the straw and dust, which had littered the cobbles, had been swept away. She then spent some time weeding around the young vegetables, before going back into the house.
Her stomach rumbled and she cut herself a piece of the pie Emily had made the day before. It tasted good, and washed down with last year’s pressed apple juice, she had the energy to tend to the goats, milking them and cleaning out their stable. They had a small fenced paddock, just beyond the archway, created by Angus several years ago to give them access to better grass in the spring, and she shooed them in there.
Pausing, she cast her eyes over the horizon. The green Scottish hills rolled and dipped like giant waves gathering their energy before a storm. In the distance a lake reflected their peaks and the fluffed white clouds in the blue sky.
She floated her hand over the citrus yellow flowers of a gorse bush, then turned back to her house. Her heart felt as empty as the big, high-ceilinged rooms. Knowing they were lifeless, not even a dog—he’d gone with Bryce all that time ago—sank her mood lower.
Perhaps she should get another dog. Angus would want her to do that—a big, loud beast to bark at approaching friends or strangers alike. She was vulnerable here in the big house, had been since the men in her life had left. And now without even Emily, it wasn’t sensible to be so defenceless.
A couple of minutes later Moira found herself standing in front of Angus’s weapon cabinet.
He had quite a collection. Some of the swords had been passed down from his father and grandfather. A few he’d acquired on his travels and meetings with other supporters of the cause. A Lochaber axe belonged to Bryce.
She reached for the lone firearm in the collection of ironware. It was a musket, Angus had once told her, and very deadly. She tested its weight in her hands and frowned at the complex trigger mechanism.
Deciding it wasn’t for her, she placed it back on the shelf, the lethal end pointing upward.
Next to it sat a dirk in its leather sheath. She gripped the ornate bog oak handle and withdrew the blade. It was much lighter than the musket, and smaller too, about fourteen inches in length.
Moira hadn’t thought she’d ever have to arm herself in her own home, but these were the times she was living in.
She attached the re-sheathed dagger to the leather tie at her waist, beneath her bodice. It would be prudent to have a weapon about her person. Anyone could ride onto her land and into her home. Attack her, rob her, rape her… or worse. Morrow, she’d walk the three miles to her neighbour’s farm and see if old McFitz could spare her a dog, too.
Perhaps then she’d sleep better at night in her big, cold bed.
Kendal McDonald halted, reached for his basket-hilted sword and glanced sideways at his best friend, Reid Murray.
Reid’s lips were a thin, tight line. He’d heard it too.
Someone was approaching through the undergrowth. Leaves scattered and crunched beneath the weight of hooves and a low murmur of conversation permeated the woodland.
He widened his stance. He wasn’t one to duck and hide, neither was Reid. Whoever it was they’d face them head on, even if they were outnumbered.
There was a flash of red through the branches.
Reid pulled out his sword and held it aloft.
“Damn it,” Kendal muttered, also withdrawing his sword. “Why are they so far north?”
Reid didn’t answer because at that moment, four huge bay horses appeared, each one ridden by an English soldier in full uniform.
Surprise briefly crossed their faces when they saw Reid and Kendal then they all came to an abrupt halt.
Four. Okay. Two each. We can do that if we have to.
“What have we here then?” the rider of the leading horse asked, his gaze roaming over each of them. There was disdain in his expression and his tone.
“Heading south to trade,” Reid said, lowering his sword a fraction. “Don’t want no trouble.”
“Neither do we.” The soldier chuckled. “Though trouble has a habit of finding us.”
“Yes, it does,” said another, settling his hand over his weapon and staring at Kendal. He was a big bastard. “What are you trading? I can’t see anything with you.”
Kendal gritted his teeth. The English soldiers were not making this a good day. He’d wanted to make it to Nairn and see the laird there about funds for the cause.
“We’re intending on laying traps,” Reid said, nodding ahead. “About three miles south of here. So if you don’t mind, we’ll be on our way.” He took a step forward.
“Not so fast.” The leader dismounted, his booted feet landing softly on the ground.
Kendal kept his heavy sword held before him. He wasn’t afraid to use it. He had in the past, and he knew damn well he would again.
“What are your names?” the leader asked.
“Reid Murray,” Reid said with a shrug.
“Reid Murray, hmm, I don’t recall that name. Do you have a bounty on your head?”
Reid laughed. “No, sir, clean as a whistle me.”
That wasn’t quite true. Reid had blood on his hands from a meeting with Red Coats several months previously. They’d come across two soldiers who were harassing local village woman. More than harassing, their intentions were disgusting. It had only taken a few blows of each of Reid’s and Kendal’s swords to relieve the men of their lives.
So not entirely innocent, at least in the eyes of the English, though in the eyes of God, yeah, they’d done a good deed.
“I find that hard to believe,” said the big soldier, staring at Reid from atop his horse.
Reid continued to smile. Kendal didn’t know how he did it; smiling at an Englishman wasn’t something he could bring himself to do. They sought to impose their king on Scotland, they invaded land that didn’t belong to them and took what they wanted. The sooner they were defeated, chased back to their homeland, the better.
Glory to the true king.
“And what about you?” The soldier on the ground pointed at Kendal.
“What about me?” he managed though it made his jaw ache to speak to the man.
“Name?” He tilted his chin.
“Why’d I have to tell you,” Kendal said, irritation swarming over him.
The soldier raised his eyebrows and his mouth twitched as if excited at the thought of Kendal disobeying him. “Because we are serving His Majesty and he requires to know who roams this land.”
“He’s not my king and this is neither his land nor yours. It’s ours and the land of our fathers.”
“Don’t do it,” Reid muttered.
“I’ll not have these trespassers demanding to know my name,” Kendal said, stepping forward with his sword outstretched. “Unless they care to tell me theirs.”
“That’s not how this works,” the big brute on the horse said.
“Oh no, well, perhaps it should be.” Kendal puffed up his chest.
“If you won’t tell us your name, you’ll both have to come with us,” the leader said, nodding to the men behind him. “Shackle them.”
“Now look what you’ve done,” Reid said with a huff.
Kendal huffed in return. Both he and Reid had known the Red Coats would try to cart them off. Two kilted Highlanders, roaming the woodland with nothing to trade and no hunting equipment were not likely to be on the side of the English. Taking them out of the equation by throwing them in some dirty, damp gaol was the only option… apart from killing them.
Suddenly the soldier to Kendal’s left kicked his horse’s flanks and scooted forward. His sword was angled down at Kendal.
Quickly Kendal backed up, raised his weapon higher, and managed to deflect the lethal shard of iron heading his way. He grunted and spun around with the weight of his own heavy sword swinging.
It seems shackle is code for kill.
Reid was having the same trouble as Kendal and deflected a sword from above as the fourth mounted soldier careened forward.
Kendal raised his weapon again and found himself face to face with the big bastard who’d now dismounted.
“Think you can escape us?” the huge Englishman said, spittle forming in the corners of his mouth.
“Damn you to hell,” Kendal said, uncaring of the other man’s great size.
As he fought off three hard clashes, he was aware of Reid also battling, his assailant on the ground now. Reid was doing well. Unsurprising, he was an excellent swordsman.
The leader was watching, as though entertained by the spectacle. It hadn’t skipped Kendal’s notice that he had a musket in his hand.
“Urgh,” Kendal grunted. The other man’s blows were heavy and each one would be lethal should it hit target. Kendal had to hold his sword in both hands, biceps tensed so hard they were painful. Each strike was like fending off a charging bull.
But then the other man raised his arms just as Kendal was bringing his sword up. He spotted his moment, an opportunity, and lunged forward. He drove the blade deep into his opponent’s body, a fraction below his sternum.
Shock washed over the big man’s face. He looked down at where he’d been skewered on Kendal’s sword. He opened his mouth and a trickle of ruby-red blood spilled out. As it fell toward the ground Kendal pulled his sword out, then watched as the wounded man toppled to the right. The sound his heavy body made when it hit the woodland floor was similar to that of a tree being felled—a dense thud that shook the earth and scattered leaves and twigs.
Kendal turned in time to see Reid take a blow to his arm, a deep slash with a swift sword.
He cried out and stepped backward, blood instantly soaking his tunic.
“Damn it.” Kendal rushed toward his friend’s attacker, and got lucky with a blow to his legs.
The Red Coat yelled then fell to the ground.
A sudden ear-splitting shot rang out.
Kendal froze, then turned to the leader. The scent of gunpowder instantly filled the air.
The leader was pointing the musket directly at Kendal. A dark lick of smoke slithered from the end.
“You’re leaving me no choice,” he said, “but to kill you two traitors. Because it’s clear that’s what you are.”
“A traitor in your eyes, not in the eyes of the rightful king of Scotland.” Fury blasted through Kendal.
How dare this Englishman point a gun at me.
“We’ll see if anyone bothers to look for you two heathens, or even notices you’re dead.” He redirected the gun so it was aimed at Reid. “I don’t think they will.”
Kendal watched in horror as the gun was cocked and the trigger squeezed.
Uncaring that he was too far away to reach in time, he lunged for the musket. He couldn’t let Reid get hurt. They’d been best friends for years. They were fighting the cause together. This wasn’t how it ended for them—on a spring day in the woodland at the hands of an Englishman.
Kendal roared and brought down his sword. To his intense surprise he did reach the leader; not only that, he chopped his arm clean off, just below the elbow.
The musket fired then fell to the ground, with the half limb landing next to it.
The soldier cried out and staggered backward, clutching his severed stump.
Kendal was aware of Reid falling and then not moving.
Has he been hit?
He rushed past the Red Coat with the injured legs and kneeled over Reid. He appeared to be dead, but when Kendal held his hand over his mouth and nose he could feel warm breaths. But he was out cold. His arm was bleeding heavily and he had a gash on his head from the bullet.
“Help me, help me,” the leader cried, walking a circle in a dazed state.
“Aye, I’ll help alright, I’ll put you out of your misery.” Kendal reached for the musket, pointed at the leader, then shot him in the chest. Killing wasn’t something he enjoyed but when someone was going to kill him or Reid, it was a necessary evil.
The soldier went down slowly, crumpling to his knees, then slumping forward onto his one hand. After a long low groan he toppled to the side, curled up like a baby. His eyes were wide as he stopped breathing.
Kendal swung the musket at the soldier on the ground near Reid. He was groaning with his eyes closed and clutching his legs. He posed no risk in that state so Kendal ignored him.
“You won’t get away with this!”
Kendal spun to the fourth soldier, the one who’d first tried to strike him with his sword.
Quickly Kendal took aim with the musket.
But the other man was quick. He spun his horse around, put three tree trunks between them, and called over his shoulder, “I’ve seen your faces. I’ll be back… with an army. And then you’ll meet your maker.”
Kendal fired, missed. He fired again, the bullet ricocheting off a tree.
The flash of red disappearing made his blood boil. He should have killed him too. Taken all four of the men out of the equation the way they had the rapists that time. There was no comeback that way. No fallout.
He turned to Reid.
“Damn it.” Quickly he grabbed the leader’s horse’s reins and tugged the large cob over to his friend.
Stooping, he dragged off his belt and tightened the silver buckle above the gash in Reid’s arm. The flow of blood slowed instantly. There was nothing he could do about his head wound. “Come here, my friend,” he said, dragging Reid to sitting.
Reid was a dead weight. His head lolled and his spine sagged.
But Kendal was determined. He squatted, shoved his shoulder against Reid’s abdomen, then gathered his strength and stood.
He groaned as he did so, with the effort of Reid’s full weight. Once standing, he stepped up to the horse and managed, after a bit of jiggling, to get Reid over the saddle. Legs one side, head and arms the other. He used Reid’s belt to secure him in place.
The injured soldier was quiet now. Kendal wasn’t sure if he was still alive but didn’t much care. He took another horse, and with the reins of Reid’s horse in his hand, he mounted.
“Hey up,” he said, digging in his heels, and pointing his new steed in a northerly direction. “Time to get out of here.”