Authors: Julianne MacLean
Return of the Highlander
Return of the Highlander
Copyright © 2015 Julianne MacLean
ISBN 13: 978-1-927675-25-0
Taken by the Highlander
Copyright © 2015 Julianne MacLean
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or a portion thereof, in any form.
This book may not be resold or uploaded for distribution to others.
This is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover Design: The Killion Group, Inc.
Editor: Patricia Thomas
Formatting: Author E.M.S.
For as long as she could remember, Larena Campbell had possessed an unnaturally keen sense for impending danger. She could feel it in the air, like a whisper of warning, brushing lightly across her skin. Strangely, however, on the day that changed the course of her life forever, she’d had no notion of any unexpected threats. She hadn’t felt the danger when she rose from bed that morning, nor during those critical moments leading up to the skirmish.
Instead, she had come close to falling asleep in the saddle numerous times, her head bobbing forward repeatedly as her horse, Rupert, plodded leisurely, shifting her from side to side in a rocking motion as they moved across lush green glens and shallow burns, where the water flowed clear as polished glass.
Perhaps it was the heat that dulled her senses. It was unusually humid for an August afternoon in the Highlands, and there wasn’t a single stitch of wind. The dense and heavy stillness of the air—marked only by the incessant buzzing of insects on the pale purple heather of the moors—was soothing and hypnotic. She felt as if she were floating on a summer haze. Floating away…far, far away from the anguish and chaos.
Or perhaps she had simply let down her guard. She was, after all, traveling with an escort—a highly skilled and disciplined brigade of English soldiers in tidy scarlet uniforms. They had been commissioned with the task of delivering her home to Leathan Castle in one piece.
was no excuse. She should have known better than to allow herself to feel safe and secure with
, especially under the circumstances.
Though she could hardly blame herself for what happened next. She’d been assured that the soldiers were competent and well trained in the arts of war and rebellion. They were also well rested—a significant advantage in situations such as these—while Larena had hardly slept a wink over the past seven days. How could she, when she’d just been shot like a musket ball, straight into the fires of hell and back?
She blinked heavily as she recalled the terrifying sounds of the battle—the thunder of charging hooves and musket fire, steel clashing against steel, the violent cries of death and aggression. In hindsight, it was clear now that everyone would have been better off if her father had simply surrendered himself to the English, but he was a proud and courageous laird. He had done his best to repel the attack, but it was no use. He was now a prisoner in his own dungeon, charged with a number of treasonous Jacobite crimes, and his castle had been confiscated for use as an English garrison.
Hence the reason for her lack of sleep over the past six days, for she had snuck away in the night and ridden hell-bent to Fort William to meet with the King’s representative there—with whom she had a personal connection.
To plead for her father’s life.
Surprisingly, everything had proceeded like a dream from that moment on, for he had listened to her plea with sympathy and understanding. She was now returning home with a company of armed English escorts and the King’s official pardon in her saddlebag.
Sweet Mary and Joseph.
It all would have been ideal, if only her luck had held. But as soon as she and her protectors entered the shade of the forest, the whole world erupted into a violent explosion of gunfire.
And that’s when the
They came out of nowhere—those reckless, dirty rebels—just looking to stir up trouble. It had become a problem lately, ever since the unexplained disappearance of the famous Butcher of the Highlands—a fearless giant of a warrior who fought for Scottish freedoms and the Jacobite cause by ransacking entire camps of British redcoats at night. His attacks came without warning, always under the cover of darkness. According to folklore, he appeared like a phantom in the mist—with blood dripping from his gleaming battle-ax, his eyes filled with murderous rage—and committed morbid acts of villainy. He drove terror, like an iron spike, into the heart of every English soldier on either side of the border. For a time, the mere knowledge of the Butcher’s existence had crippled the King’s military strength in the North.
Many, to this day, insist that the Butcher was naught but a ghost. Others believe he was true flesh and blood. Dead now, most likely.
Though, in recent months, new bands of hooligans had begun to rise up and wreak havoc throughout the Highlands. According to rumor, they had taken up the sword to finish what the Butcher had begun—which was nothing good. At least not in the eyes of the British army.
* * *
As soon as the first shot whizzed by Larena’s shoulder, her heart crashed like thunder in her chest and all the blood rushed to her head, but she was hardly the swooning type. Raised with three older brothers—all groomed to be warriors—she was suitably scrappy for a woman. More important, she knew how to use a bow and arrow better than most.
Within seconds, another shot struck the senior officer square between the eyes. Down he went, out of the saddle like a felled tree. Then the shouting began. The soldiers scrambled for their weapons as a motley crew of ruffians came screaming out of the bush, brandishing swords and axes.
Larena kicked in her heels and wheeled Rupert into the trees, dismounted, and withdrew her bow from the saddle scabbard. She found her footing, adjusted her stance, reached over her shoulder, and slid an arrow from her bow sack. The whole world went quiet as she positioned her fingers on the string, looked down the length of the arrow and aligned it with her target—a rebel Scotsman who was just about to swing a mortal blow to one of her escorts.
Relaxing her grip on the string, she let the arrow go.
It hit its mark, dead center. The rebel’s eyes went wide. He peered down at his chest, dropped his sword, and collapsed to the ground.
While the British soldier rose to his feet and scrambled to reload, Larena fired off three more arrows in rapid succession. Meanwhile, the violence of the skirmish was escalating to an alarming degree. The soldiers were leaping off their horses and fighting the kilted rebels with knives and sabers.
No, this cannot be happening.
Larena’s mind screamed with images of her father swinging from the noose if her protectors failed to deliver her to the castle in time. She reached faster into her bow sack and took aim to end the skirmish as quickly as possible.
Another shot rang out and Rupert spooked beside her. He reared up on his hind legs, pawed the air, and let out a high-pitched squeal. Larena was knocked off balance just as she let loose another arrow that twanged into a tree.
“Easy now!” She tried to reach for Rupert’s halter, for she couldn’t let him run. He carried the King’s pardon in the saddle bags.
It was no use. Her horse bolted into the wood.
!” she cried. “Come back!”
She ran after him, but only managed a few steps before another shot was fired from the road and a searing pain reverberated inside her skull. She grimaced and pressed her palm to the side of her head. When she looked at her hand, it was covered in blood.
Nausea welled up inside her.
Fighting to resist an oncoming wave of dizziness, she staggered to the side, made an effort to grab onto something, but her knees buckled beneath her. She dropped her bow and the next thing she knew, she was tumbling down a steep embankment. Twigs and branches snapped noisily while foliage cut into her flesh and bruised her flailing body as she crashed into a grove of saplings, grunting with agony the entire way.
Suddenly the world stopped spinning. All was quiet except for the chatter of a squirrel somewhere in the treetops. Larena could do nothing but lie on her back on a cool bed of moss, blinking up at the swaying canopy of leaves overhead, listening to a creek babble nearby, while pain throbbed in her bones.
Get up, Larena. You must.
But alas, her body would not respond.
She heard no more sounds of combat. The fighting must have stopped. Who was the victor? she wondered dimly. Perhaps they would come looking for her.
For a long while she lay among the trees, contemplating her fate until another fog rolled through her mind and she couldn’t keep her eyes open.
This can’t be how it ends, she thought with terrible, aching regret.
She had come so far.
I’m sorry, Father. I wanted so badly to save you.
Finally, she let her eyes fall closed and wondered if the stories she’d heard about death were true. Would she see a bright light? Would it take away the pain? And would her mother be waiting there to welcome her?
Relaxing back in the saddle, Darach MacDonald couldn’t help but wonder about the strange dream he’d had that morning, just before dawn. He’d dreamed he was a hawk, soaring high over the mountains, flying home again.
Later, when he rose from bed and gathered up his weapons for the day, something had felt different. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he’d sensed that everything in his life was about to change.
Had it been a premonition? Or just a meaningless dream to remind him of his regrets?
Either way, it did not diminish his surprise six hours later when he was combing the forest on a routine scouting mission with his brother Logan, and heard shots fired in the distance.
Darach reined in his mount and turned to Logan who rode beside him. “Did you hear that?”
“Aye, I did,” Logan replied, stopping as well.
They sat quietly on their horses. It had been a stagnant and uncomfortably muggy day, but suddenly a breeze whispered through the treetops. Darach closed his eyes and lifted his chin to savor the coolness on his neck as he listened carefully.
Nothing happened for a few seconds, then another shot rang out in the distance, followed by the angry shouts of men.
“Sounds like a monster of a brawl,” Logan said.
“Aye,” Darach replied, gathering up the reins. “It’s coming from the old cart road, back that way. We’d best have a look.”
It was their duty as scouts for their laird, Angus the Lion of Kinloch Castle, to keep watch over his lands. Most days were tedious and uneventful as they circled the distant perimeter—around and around continually, day after day—as these were peaceful times. Not much happened at Kinloch.
But something felt different today…
Urging their horses into a canter, they rode through the forest for half a mile or so to reach the road. By then the gunfire had ceased and the forest had gone quiet again.
“Which way?” Logan asked as they paused on the road, their horses tramping around skittishly. “I don’t hear anything.”
Darach looked north, then south. For a brief moment they lingered, listening for some indication of the direction of the skirmish. Then finally something broke through—a sound, far away at first, then it grew closer.
Darach raised a hand. “Do you hear it?”
It was the rumble of approaching hooves. They both turned as a riderless black horse dashed around the bend, galloping toward them as if the devil himself were on its heels.
At the sight of Darach and Logan on the road, the harried beast skidded to a halt and reared up.
” Darach vaulted lightly off his horse, dropped to the ground, and took hold of the dangling reins. “Easy now, soldier. Settle down. Trouble’s over.”