My Fierce Highlander Excerpt
Scottish Highlands, 1618
A stiff breeze carried the scent of bruised grass and blood on its icy breath.
Gwyneth Carswell dropped into a crouch and peered through brambles at the tartan-clad bodies, a dozen or more, lying in the dusky gloaming. While gathering herbs earlier, she’d heard the sounds of battle—men shouting, steel clanging, horses screaming.
A chill shook her. The men of the MacIrwin clan, her distant kin, lived and died only for a skirmish. Her sheltered upbringing in England had molded her into the person she was, a lover of peace, but she’d been in the Highlands long enough to expect brutality at every turn. Thank God her son had stayed in the cottage with Mora.
“More senseless death,” she whispered, yearning to run and hide in the cottage, curl up beneath the blankets, and forget she was a healer. Forget all the drained blood and horrifying wounds that would never heal.
But she must not. She must again face death all around her. Dread and nausea rising within her, she covered her nose with a handkerchief. After peering about to make sure she was alone, she crept onto the soggy moor and forced herself to look at the butchered bodies of her cousins…and their enemies. Who had they been fighting?
Pressing her eyes closed to block out the slit throats and other mutilation, she murmured a prayer, both for their departed souls and for strength that she might keep going.
Please, allow me to save the life of at least one.
A haunting groan floated on the breeze. A sign? Her prayer answered? Gwyneth froze, listening. The groan sounded again, straight ahead.
She rushed to the far edge of the clearing.
Daylight dwindled, but she knew she’d never before seen the injured man, a large warrior with long dark hair, obviously from the enemy clan. She could not tear her gaze from his clean-shaven face, smeared and spattered with blood. Never had she seen such a striking man. But something more captivated her, something she could only sense with her woman’s intuition. She yearned for him to open his eyes, but he didn’t.
Blood soaked through his white shirt and fine, pale-blue doublet.
Kneeling on the damp ground, she attempted to press her hand against his chest to feel his heartbeat, but a rolled-up parchment lay in her way within his doublet. She removed it and checked his heart. The thump was slow but strong and steady.
Her eyes locked to his face again. Enticing, yes, but still an enemy.
Wary of him and what message he carried, she stripped the ribbon from the missive and flattened the thick paper. In the dim light, she could barely decipher a few of the Gaelic words inscribed in bold letters across the top.
A peace agreement? Had the MacIrwins ambushed them? She stared down at the man again, lifted his hand and found a seal ring on his finger. A chief?
For a second, it seemed the very ground had a pulse. The vibrating sensation disoriented her.
Distant hoof-beats grew louder and thundered in her direction—the MacIrwin reinforcements coming to finish off their enemies. Her pulse roared in her ears.
If they discovered this man hanging onto life, they’d cut his throat. Especially if he was a chief who wanted peace. Gwyneth crammed the parchment back inside his doublet and stood.
She grasped the thick leather belt that held the man’s plaide in place at his waist and struggled to drag him a few feet into the yellow blooming gorse and weeds. Good lord, he was heavy, comprised of honed warrior muscle. Another tug, then she rolled him down a short incline and behind the bushes, praying all this shifting wouldn’t worsen his injuries. She spread her dull-colored skirts and plaid arisaid over him to conceal the visibility of his light-colored doublet in the dusk.
Her body trembling, she gently bit her knuckle to quiet her chattering teeth. Please, do not let them find us. She hardly dared to breathe.
The horses’ hooves thumped over the grass, and the riders yelled in Gaelic—mostly vows of revenge against the cursed MacGraths.
Through the bushes and gorse, she watched as they loaded the dead bodies onto horses.
Several minutes later, the MacIrwin men rode away. After a while, silence descended and naught could be heard but the nearby stream and a faraway owl. Gwyneth calmed by slow degrees.
Taking a deep breath, she rose on shaking legs. The man lying at her feet was so large she couldn’t move him again, not alone, uphill, for the strength that had come with fear had ebbed.
She ran up to the stone cottage, her feet tangling in the rocks and low-growing plants.
Breathing hard, Gwyneth burst through the door, the bitter scent of peat smoke and tangy drying herbs replacing that of fresh air. “Mora, did you hear the battle?”
“Aye, I reckon they were fighting the MacGrath. ’Tis always a blood feud betwixt them.” Her friend and fellow healer bent over her knitting, her gray head wrapped in a white kerch. The fire smoldering in the center of the room provided little light.
“One man still lives. He’s been knocked out, but his breathing is strong. We must bring him here and see to his injuries.”
“Who is he?” Suspicion laced through Mora’s thick brogue.
“I know not.”
“One of the enemy?”
“Mmph. I won’t be helping the MacGraths.”
“A dozen men are dead. For what purpose? All this fighting is madness!”
“Easy for you to say, English. Lived here nigh on six years, you have, and still you ken naught of our Highland ways.”
She knew enough about their violent way of life and hated it. Gwyneth glanced at her five-year-old son sleeping in the box bed on the other side of the room and lowered her voice. “I would die before I’d let Rory become one of them, giving up his precious life over a senseless dispute.” She had to find a way to take him out of the Highlands before Laird Donald MacIrwin forced him into the ranks of his fighting men. “And you’re right, I cannot understand so much bloodshed over nothing.”
“’Tis not for naught. The MacGraths killed Donald’s brother ten years past. Then there was the time the MacGraths claimed a goodly portion of MacIrwin land. We don’t take the stealing of land lightly.”
How could her friend be so cold? “This man who yet lives is carrying a peace treaty. He wears a seal ring and appears to be the chief. Aside from that, he’s human and we’re healers. If I can save a life, I will, whether he is friend, foe or beast.”
“Aye, you with your gentle lady’s heart. You’ll get us killed. What if Donald finds out?”
A chill raced through her at that thought. “He rarely comes here.” Though the clan chief was her second cousin on her father’s side, no fondness existed between them.
“’Tis a bad feeling I have about this. You’ll regret it.”
“Do you not think the MacGraths will exact a severe revenge against us all if the MacIrwins kill their chief? He wants peace, as we do.”
“Well, this is not the way to go about it. I’ve been around a few years longer than you have, Sassenach.”
“I will drag the big brute up here myself, then.” She yanked a blanket off the bed, left the cottage and strode down the hill once again toward the glen. The stones slid and rolled beneath her slippers and bit into her feet. If Mora wouldn’t help her, she’d do what she could for the man.
Something all-consuming rose up from her soul and railed, refusing to allow him to lie there and die. Though his body looked powerful, he was helpless now. As helpless as a child, helpless as little Rory. All this man’s fearsomeness at her mercy, she was awed by the power she held over him, to help him reclaim his strength and his life…or let it drain away. That would be a sin far worse than any she’d ever committed, of which she had many. The peace treaty and something deep within her proclaimed his life was worth saving a hundred times over.
Gwyneth crouched behind a patch of thistles at the edge of the glen and listened for MacIrwins. The only sound was the wind hissing through the pine needles and the splash of the stream.
A rock clattered down the slope behind her. Startled, she turned to find Mora approaching with a wood and linen litter. “Verra weil, English. I reckon I cannot let you do all the healing by yourself. And we’ll be needing this to haul his big arse up the hill.”
Gwyneth arose, suppressing a smile. “I thank you for your kind heart, Mora.”
“Mmph. Where is the heathen?”
“I hid him in the weeds and bushes so they wouldn’t finish him off.” She led Mora across the small glen to the MacGrath.
Mora knelt over him. “Aye, his breathing is strong. He may yet survive.”
They rolled him onto the litter. Laboring under his considerable weight, they dragged him toward the cottage. Full night had fallen, making their arduous trek up the hillside even more difficult.
“Good heavens, he must weigh twenty stone.” Mora huffed and gasped.
“I’m in agreement.” Gwyneth’s arms and legs ached from her efforts.
“This one didn’t starve the winter.”
Mora started toward the cottage.
“Let’s hide him in the cattle byre. ’Twill be safer should Donald come by,” Gwyneth said.
Mora narrowed her eyes. “You’re being mighty canny of a sudden.”
“Well, I know if he finds us hiding his enemy, he’ll likely fly into a violent rage.”
“Aye, and kill us all,” Mora grumbled.
Gwyneth shoved the dread away and ignored her friend’s pessimistic view. “We shall hide him well.”
They dragged the MacGrath into the stone byre, which stood several yards from the cottage, and rolled him onto a wool blanket on the hard-packed dirt floor.
After a trip to the cottage, Mora lit several fir roots in order to find his wounds.
“A bonny lad, he is,” Mora proclaimed.
Lad, indeed. Rory was a lad. This giant was a man full grown. But bonny, yes. In the soft flame-light, his midnight hair, his equally dark brows and thick lashes captured Gwyneth’s attention.
Open your eyes.
They would be dark too, would they not? Dark as tempting, dangerous sin in the blackest night. Beard stubble shadowed his authoritative jaw and framed his sensual mouth.
I am going daft, noticing such things at a time like this.
Forcing herself to ignore his face, she unfastened the brass brooch shaped like a falcon that held the upper part of his blue plaid in place over his shoulder, removed the brown leather pouch-like sporran from his waist and dropped the brooch inside.
“Do you not think he’s the laird?” Gwyneth raised his strong hand to show Mora the seal ring, the heat of him seeping beyond her skin.
“Aye, I’d wager he is the young laird. I’ve never laid eyes on the man afore now. Though I recollect hearing of the old laird’s passing sometime back, and he does favor him. ’Course all the MacGraths have a certain dark look about them.”
Gwyneth tugged the ring from his finger and placed it in the sporran.
“His clothes are of fine material.” Mora pushed the doublet open. “And would you look at this.” She pulled a gleaming brass-hilted dagger from inside the garment, near his armpit.
She used the sharp weapon to cut his bloody clothing away from his upper body.
Holding her breath, Gwyneth could but gape as each inch of skin and sculpted muscle was revealed. Among the multitude of scars on his chest, two long shallow sword cuts oozed blood. A lead ball from a pistol had grazed his shoulder, leaving a furrow of torn flesh.
She would stitch him up so he would heal, good as new.
A slice in his plaid alerted them to another wound. Mora unhooked his leather belt and eased his kilt down to reveal a cut to the right side of his lean waist close to his pelvic bone.
Wanton excitement stirred within Gwyneth at the sight of this enemy Scot’s near-naked body. I should close my eyes, look away. He is a patient. Heat seared her from the inside out.
Though she’d attended to many an unclothed man after a skirmish or during sickness, she had never seen a man so beautifully formed. God had certainly smiled upon him.
“’Tis shallow,” Mora said. “He’s lucky they didn’t strike his vitals.”
They cleaned his wounds with a wash of royal fern steeped in clean water, stitched up the deeper cuts, then smeared them with a paste of fern and comfrey.
“My, but a fine-looking man he is, aye?” Mora smiled and winked. “Reminds me of my own big Geordie afore he passed on.”
Indeed, fine-looking was too mild a term, in Gwyneth’s estimation but she ignored the question. She would not have Mora know of the embarrassing effect the man was having on her.
Most men of her acquaintance were the same—arrogant, cruel, and harsh. Whether fancy English gentlemen or braw Scottish warriors, they only thought of their own superiority and how they might wield power over others. Women were naught but chattel and thralls. By helping to save this one’s life, she was gambling, hoping to win peace.
“Och, here’s what ails him most.” Mora examined the Scot’s head. “He’s bashed his skull and good.”
“Let me see.” Gwyneth knelt on the dirt floor above him. His hair was sticky with blood, and a knot swelled on the back of his head. “It seems to have stopped bleeding.”
“Aye. Not much to be done for it, anyway.”
Nevertheless, Gwyneth cleaned the wound and applied the herbal paste as best she could in his thick hair. She concentrated on her task more intently while Mora covered him with a blanket and worked his plaid out from under him. Gwyneth tried not to think about his nakedness beneath it. Surely it was a sin to hold such thoughts.
“We’ve done all we can for him. He’s in God’s hands now. ’Tis off to bed, I am.”
Carrying his belongings, Gwyneth walked with Mora back to the cottage and hid his things in a rough wooden chest. She approached the bed where Rory lay. Relieved he’d slept through the commotion, she kissed his forehead and straightened. “I’ll go back out and sit with the MacGrath man for a short while.”
“Suit yourself. Best take your sgian dubh with you, just in case he wakes up none too happy about where he’s at.”
Gwyneth nodded and touched the dirk hidden in her bodice to be sure it was still there. She hoped she wouldn’t have to defend herself against a man she was trying to help. But, the truth was, she didn’t know him or what he might do.
Above the dark rounded peaks of the mountains, a quarter moon peeped through the clouds, providing the faintest of light for her to navigate the path to the byre. A whitish-gray mist crawled up from the glen, reminding her of the souls of the recently departed and giving her a chill. She inhaled the scent of rain before entering the tiny building and closing the door.
The handsome stranger lying insensible on the floor drew her gaze. The old plaid blanket did little to conceal his fine form, large and well-trained for battle, hard and heavy with muscle. She hoped she wouldn’t regret helping him. If he carried a peace treaty, surely he was a good man. A better man than Donald MacIrwin, at least.
Now, if only this MacGrath would awaken and return to his own lands, she would rest much easier. If he could somehow bring peace, she would be doubly grateful. But she feared there would be no peace as long as Donald MacIrwin drew breath.
Through the door, the haunting, fluted call of a curlew reached her. Gwyneth shivered. Mora had told her more than once that a curlew heard at night was a bad omen.
Gwyneth startled awake at a low rumbling noise, then realized it was thunder. Stiff and cold from lying on the hard dirt floor of the byre, she pushed herself to a sitting position while pulling her woolen plaid arisaid closer around her shoulders. Though ’twas June, the temperature never warmed here in the Highlands as it did in England. Rain pattered on the thatch, and thunder sounded again. At times like this, she missed the featherbed and cozy counterpane of her youth. And she would prefer a roaring fireplace to the single lit fir root which served in place of a costly candle.
The injured Scot shifted and mumbled.
She moved closer, touched his forehead and found his skin hot and dry. The fever had started.
May God protect him.
His recovery would take several days, if he survived the fever at all. He had to. He simply had to survive. She could not see such a strong, well-favored man leaving this life at so young an age. Surely, he was no more than five years older than her own three and twenty.
She pulled the cloth from the bowl of cool water, squeezed it out, and stroked it gently over his face. She wished to brush her bare fingers over his skin instead but squelched the urge. How silly of me. The linen snagged against his beard stubble. His dark lashes fluttered above his high cheekbones.
“Leitha,” he said, his voice a deep rumble. Though slurred, the word was clear. He jerked his head abruptly. “Nay, I cannot believe it.” After turning his face away, he stilled, as if he’d dropped into a deep sleep.
Who was Leitha? His wife? A sliver of envy made her bow her head in shame. The woman was sure to wonder where he was, perhaps even think him dead. Was he a good husband to her, or a rotten one like Baigh Shaw had been to Gwyneth?
She had found it no easy task being demoted from a wealthy English earl’s daughter to the wife and thrall of a low-born, violent Highlander almost twice her age with two grown sons who despised her.
Her father couldn’t have punished her any more thoroughly for her one unforgivable sin had he tried. All had been stripped from her six years ago. She possessed nothing of material value, no property or inheritance, not even a wedding dowry. Therefore, she had little choice but to stay where she was. Trapped in the godforsaken Highlands.
Thunder cracked overhead, and the MacGrath jerked.
Gwyneth washed his face again, smoothing the cloth over his thick dark brows and stubborn but appealing mouth. What would his lips feel like…? I should not think of such. She hated her sinful sensual side; it had already ruined her life.
His next string of slurred words were Gaelic, and the only one she understood was “athair.” Father. If he was the chief, then his father was surely dead. Was he seeing specters in his fevered dreams?
Near dawn, he became too quiet and still. She checked his breathing. When it didn’t seem as strong as before, she froze, then clasped his muscled forearm in her hands and said a prayer.
My Fierce Highlander © 2011 Vonda Sinclair