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Authors: Highland Groom

Sarah Gabriel

BOOK: Sarah Gabriel
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The Highland Groom
Sarah Gabriel

For Jason and Jeremy,
brewmeisters extraordinaire,
and for all the wonderful readers
who make writing novels so worthwhile:
thank you.

So wondrous wild, the whole might seem The scenery of a fairy dream.

—Sir Walter Scott,
The Lady of the Lake

Contents

Prologue

Just before dawn on his thirteenth birthday, Dougal MacGregor climbed…

Chapter 1

“Did you hear that?” Patrick MacCarran glanced up the long…

Chapter 2

The woman moved like a dream through the mist, lovely…

Chapter 3

MacGregor stopped short, and the girl bumped into his shoulder.

Chapter 4

Through drifting fog, Fiona could see the cottage ahead, tucked…

Chapter 5

Drone and melody filled the air, cresting off the mountain…

Chapter 6

In the crystal-clear morning sunshine, Dougal stood in the yard…

Chapter 7

Dougal glanced down at Fiona MacCarran as she smiled, nodded…

Chapter 8

Under the unsteady flicker of a lantern, Fiona dipped pen…

Chapter 9

Rain drummed on the windows of the schoolhouse, and the…

Chapter 10

Dougal sat alone at one of the four tables in…

Chapter 11

“I am going across the glen with Annabel to her…

Chapter 12

Feet pounding, skirt hems lifted, Fiona ran just behind Dougal…

Chapter 13

“Pol has gone with his brother to hide the parts…

Chapter 14

After a hot, soothing bath, while the dogs kept watch…

Chapter 15

“You saw her?” Fiona stared up at him.

Chapter 16

“When we play the ba’ this time,” Dougal told his…

Chapter 17

“The game is going well,” Fergus said, as someone shoved…

Chapter 18

“What the devil, Hugh—and Eldin,” Dougal growled. “I should have…

Epilogue

Fiona read another rhyme aloud for her students, and paused…

May 1807
Scotland, the Central Highlands

J
ust before dawn on his thirteenth birthday, Dougal MacGregor climbed a hill behind his father, whose steps were long and sure. Tall for his age, Dougal kept pace and glanced around in the half darkness, where the trees and rocks looked as insubstantial as the surrounding mist. Though the climb was risky even in daylight, his father knew every step and misstep of the paths over the hills, having been born in the glen below; John MacGregor, laird of Kinloch, was a shepherd, a farmer, and a clever smuggler.

Proud to be Kinloch’s son and the newest keeper of the family secret—his father would reveal it that very morning—Dougal hurried behind.

Where the hill met the mountain the way grew steep, but Dougal and his father had the strong legs and good lungs of Highlanders used to long miles. His late mother, Anna MacIan, had often
said that the son was even more handsome than his brawny, dark-haired father. Dougal wanted to be as fine a man one day, watching over the people of Glen Kinloch in the same fair manner that his father did.

He wanted to be a smuggler like John, too. The free trade put coin in poor Highland pockets, though lately new laws and regulations made the enterprise more dangerous. But Dougal would rather run whisky over the hills and outwit the revenue men at every turn than go to school. Books and learning were not half as enjoyable as leading gaugers on a merry chase by moonlight to the shores of the great loch, where sloops waited to take whisky kegs down the loch to the river, and out of Scotland entirely. Dougal had accompanied his father and uncles on a few runs, when a swift and clever lad was a boon to the work.

But his father did not want that life for his son. John MacGregor was adamant that Dougal be educated. He declared dusty books and stiff collars in Dougal’s future, not illicit exporting, and to that end, John had saved every spare penny, even most of his modest inheritance, so that someday his son could attend the university in Glasgow to become a lawyer. Education and personal wealth were the only ways to save Glen Kinloch, John often said; if the laird could guarantee their well-being, the people of the glen could remain in their own homes, tending their livestock and brewing whisky for their own use, without the need for smuggling.

For generations, Dougal knew, Highlanders had been forced from their homes due to the greed of wealthy men who often were not Scots, but bought acreage and overran the hills with wool-producing sheep or turned land into shooting preserves. Clan chiefs with funds could save their lands—but Glen Kinloch was a small, poor lairdship.

So dry books and neck cloths would be part of Dougal’s future: in a few short years he would go to the city university and leave the glen, and all he loved, behind. Until then, he attended the little glen school whenever there was a dominie—currently they had a sour-faced man hired by Kinloch, who personally paid his fee. Quick to learn but disinterested, Dougal preferred tending the herds and fields with his father; even more, he liked the excitement of the smuggling runs.

That particular morning, he looked forward to learning the Kinloch secret, a legend so closely guarded by each generation of the laird’s family that Dougal had heard only part of the story; it involved the rescue of a fairy long ago, a fairy promise, and the gift of a recipe for a magical whisky made only by the lairds of Kinloch. Now he would learn the rest.

“Come ahead, lad,” John whispered, and led Dougal up the steep hill. Trees crowned the ridge, and far above, the mountain peak loomed through the mist. “Look for the markings that show the way.” He paused, gesturing toward the ground.

Dougal knelt where clusters of heather sprigs were thick and newly green, not yet blooming
where they spread over earth and gray rock. “What marks?” he asked.

“Fairy footprints. See, just there.” John pointed. In the pale rock were marks of tiny feet marching all in a row, heading up the mountain.

Dougal blinked in awe. “Did the Fey come by here?”

“May have,” John answered. “The fairies leave their mark wherever they walk or dance, and their footprints show the way to fairy places. Only a few can actually see the marks.”

“I see them. You do, too.”

“The MacGregors of Kinloch have the gift, and we know the secret of this place. Come ahead.” He led the way upward.

The sky was lighter now, the rock walls of the hills rising to one side, and to the other, the vast expanse of the glen below looked like a bowl of mist. Dougal looked around. “Da—can the revenue men find us up here?”

“Not in this fog. And the gaugers rarely come up this high, being Lowlanders too weak for the climb.”

“But I feel as if someone is watching us.”

“It is only the mountain fairies. The Fey will not harm us. Come up to me,” John said, beckoning as he helped Dougal climb over a cluster of boulders.

A glint on the ground caught his attention. Seeing a small, shining stone, Dougal stooped to pick it up. The crystal was of the sort called cairngorm; its peaty color glowed in the soft dawn light.
He dropped it into his jacket pocket and walked on. “Da, tell me again about the gift.”

“The Kinloch gift? Long ago, the first laird of Kinloch and his wife were walking on this very mountainside, when they came upon an ailing fairy woman, about to give birth. They delivered her babe and gave her a dram of whisky made in their own still. Later her husband visited and gave them a gift—the secret of making a magical brew.”

“Fairy whisky,” Dougal said. “A magical brew that men would kill for.”

John huffed. “Your uncles have been speaking out of turn again. True, our
uisge beatha
is legendary, and the secret of making it is known only to the lairds of this glen, who guard it at any cost. Others covet this whisky and would have it—but Kinloch’s fairy brew must never be sold for coin. Only sharing it freely will keep our luck with the Fey. You must remember that always, when you are laird.”

Dougal nodded solemnly. “I will. It is never to be sold, only given away, and I will guard the secret with…my life.”

“And remember this—great riches will come if ever the fairy whisky is sold, but greater consequences will follow. Besides,” John said with a shrug, “our own Glen Kinloch brew is excellent stuff, and earns us enough coin to live by.”

Now and then Dougal had a sip of their regular Glen Kinloch whisky, though he had never tasted the secret brew. “What is so different about the fairy whisky?”

“It has powerful magic, and must be sipped with care. Even a dram can bring on a sort of madness. Not all are affected by the magic. Some consider it simply an excellent whisky.” He winked. “Look there.”

Blinking in surprise, Dougal saw a small glade of birches tucked in a level place on the slope. Dawn light slanted through mist and trees as he and his father entered. Their footfalls crushed grass, and the only other sound was the keen cry of a hawk somewhere overhead.

In the pale light, Dougal saw a hazy glow of blue: thousands of bluebells were scattered along the ground in a dense carpet beneath the trees. Their delicate bells drooped gracefully on slender stalks as he and his father walked among them. Dewdrops shed on his legs and kilt hem. He had seen wildflowers in profusion, but never like this.

John MacGregor took a silver flask from inside the folds of his plaid. Handing that to Dougal, he withdrew two more flasks. “Now we will collect the fairy dew, which gives the whisky a special magic. First we fill three silver flasks, and when we pour it later for the brew, we will have captured far more than these three seem to hold.”

Dougal looked dubiously at the swath of bluebells. “Collect dew from these wee flowers? That is impossible. And it is a task for girls,” he added with disdain.

John laughed. “We do not take it from the flower petals. Follow me.” He waded through the blue
bells toward some birch trees, pushing aside flower stalks with his boot to expose a natural well in the ground. “There is magic here, so it is said.”

The opening in the earth was as wide across as a laundry kettle, edged with rocks and crowded by flowers and grasses. Walking closer, Dougal peered down to see the dark reflection of the water. Natural springs like this were common enough in Scotland. He frowned, still doubtful.

His father circled the well three times, murmuring in Gaelic. Then he looked at Dougal. “Walk thrice round the well and ask politely for your dearest wish, and the fairies will grant it to you.”

Dougal looked at him. “Have you done so before? Did it come true?”

“I wed my dearest love,” John murmured. “I have a fine son.”

“What did you wish for today?”

Smiling, John shook his head. “Your turn.”

Thinking for a moment, Dougal then traced careful steps around the well.
I wish to be a brave smuggler like Da, not a dull scholar
, he thought.

John lifted his arms. “MacGregor of Kinloch is here!” he said. “I ask that you help us collect the magical gift promised me and mine long ago. This is my son, who will one day be the keeper of this well after I am gone.”

Hearing the sound of rushing water, Dougal glanced down to see bubbles churning in the well. A spout shot upward, the water dancing with rainbows. In the mist rising from the well, small lights
soared up, circling around him. He stared in awe and delight, feeling delicious chills run all through him, so that his hair and skin tickled.

“The lights!” he said, looking up as they seemed to encircle him, then his father, flitting about and swirling away like leaves on the wind. “Do you see them?”

“I do,” John said. “They are sent by the Fey to tell us that they are here, and their magic is strong. I am glad that you see them as well.”

Dougal glanced around. “I have seen them before, but I thought it was a trick of the sunlight.”

His father smiled. “Sometimes it is just that, and so we must look carefully to determine if it is indeed the Fey, with a message for us, or a gift of magic.”

Then he dropped to one knee to fill his flask at the water spout. Dougal knelt and did the same, tipping the flask while the water leaped inside. When the three silver flasks were full, the bubbling spout subsided, and the tiny rainbow lights faded, too.

John stood, Dougal with him, and the carpet of flowers closed to cover the well. “And that,” John said quietly, “is the magical fairy water that is used to make
uisge beatha an Kinloch an sìth
, the Kinloch fairy whisky.”

Dougal nodded, feeling almost reverent. “Where are the fairies? I saw none.” He had hoped to see a few, having no idea what they looked like.

“The Fey are here. The lights told us that. If they wanted us to see them, they would have appeared.
Now listen, and remember. Circle the well three times to make your wish, then ask the Fey to bring up the water. Fill three flasks, and always leave a token of thanks.” John plucked a silver button from his jacket and set it beside the little spring.

Having only wooden buttons on his jacket, Dougal reached into his pocket for the small crystal he had found on the slope, leaving it beside the silver button. His father nodded in approval, and they turned and left the glade to walk down the steep hillside. As the sun rose higher, the mist burned away to reveal the long green glen with its meadow floor and sparkling river like an unrolled ribbon. Cozy houses were tucked in the hills.

“What did you wish for, Da?” Dougal asked as they neared home. Kinloch House, the old stone tower where he lived with his father, his aunt and uncles, and his little sister, Ellen, rose up from the low-lying fog, its stone crumbling at the edges, ivy softening the places where stones had broken. The place was three hundred years old and always needed repairs, but Dougal loved its familiar, quirky flaws.

“My wish?” John MacGregor shrugged. “I asked that my son be Kinloch’s finest and best laird someday, so that he could save the glen from any harm to come.”

“But Da,” Dougal said, “you are the best laird the glen has ever had.”

“I wish it were so, lad. What was your wish?”

“To be like you,” Dougal said.

John laughed. “Go ahead now,” he said. “Tell
your aunt Jean that we have returned with the fairy dew. Tell her to start baking and cooking, for we shall have a celebration. Tomorrow we will spread fresh barley to sprout, and begin our first batch of fairy brew together.”

 

Months later, John MacGregor was pistol-shot by revenue officers in the evening and died at midnight. The laird of Kinloch had been carrying four kegs of whisky in panniers on the back of a pony when the excise men had seen him. A known smuggler, he was given no chance to explain before he was shot down. He had not died defending his people, or even while trading Kinloch’s fine brew. Instead he had traded his life for a few casks of inferior peat reek whisky. The kegs were not smuggled; they were meant as a customary gift to the manse and the reverend.

His father’s unfair end troubled Dougal deeply, giving him nightmares in the darkness and hardening his heart during the day. He alone knew that his father’s wish at the fairy well had come true: the son was laird of Kinloch now.

In the years that followed, knowing that he could never become the finest laird—John MacGregor had been that—or the educated and wealthy gentleman his father had dreamed of for his son, Dougal found another way to honor his father as fiercely as the man deserved.

He became a smuggler the likes of which the hills had not seen for generations.

BOOK: Sarah Gabriel
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