Loch Moidart, Scotland, September 1619
A blade glinted from the torch-lit gloom of the dungeon.
Neacal MacDonald jerked to move aside, but rough, constricting ropes bound his wrists and ankles, tearing into his stinging flesh. He gritted his teeth and waited for the next blow from MacRankin's beefy henchman. He'd been paid well to wrench, twist and pull the truth from Neacal.
The man grabbed Neacal's hair, yanking it until pain shot through his scalp and neck. He held Neacal's head at an odd angle while another beast sliced a hot blade down the side of his face. The blinding pain consumed him
"I'll kill you! I swear it!" Neacal roared, jerking at the ropes. If he could free himself, he would strangle every last one of them with his bare hands. But he couldn't. The ropes had been knotted too tightly.
They yelled questions and vile names, but he could no longer comprehend them. Sharp pain ripped through every inch of his body from the deep cuts, the bruises, the broken bones.
Their voices died away and, in the silence, another shadow fell across him, wavering in the torchlight, followed by the gritty crunch of boots on stone and the hiss of a steel blade against leather. He braced for the impending agony, his muscles stiffening…
Something warm, wet and friendly flicked over his face. Neacal jolted awake, out of the nightmare, gasping for breath… in his own bedchamber at Bearach Castle. Home… dear God… not a dungeon. His dog licking his face. The Irish wolfhound's bristly fur tickled, and his tongue washed Neacal's forehead.
Damnation! This was why he avoided sleep until pure exhaustion claimed him. The nightmares were too real, the memories too close. Two years was not long enough to forget; two hundred wouldn't be.
"Dunn? Saints." Exhaling a breath, Neacal looped his arm around the huge dog's neck, thanking Dunn silently for dragging him from the grip of the hellish dream-memories.
His heartbeat slowed and he crossed himself. Thank God, he was free, not back there in MacRankin's torture chamber. How he wished he could forget the past. Mayhap then he would appear halfway normal. But, nay, he was not blessed with ignorance or a faulty memory. Each night he must revisit the torture again… and again.
For now, 'twas over, and so was his slumber for the night.
The wolfhound maneuvered half his seven-foot-long body onto Neacal, washing his face again with his large tongue.
"Aye, I'm awake now, you lapdog." Neacal pushed him back, then ruffled his fur.
Dunn sat on the floor, panting.
Hell, the dog was his only close friend or family here at Bearach Castle. He had uncles, aunts and cousins, but his parents and older brother were all dead. His sister, Maili, had married and gone to live with the MacKenzie clan.
And his own clan, the MacDonalds of Moidart, expected a madman to lead them?
"They're more insane than I am," he muttered.
Dunn gave a soft woof and stared at him intently.
"Aye, I'm bloody well doing my best." He had to succeed as chief, for his father's sake. Da would want him to lead the clan and enlarge their forces, make them strong and safe again. This was the last thing—the only thing—Neacal could do for a man he'd admired above all others. Grief and regret clawed at his chest again. If Neacal hadn't been working for King James—and if he hadn't trusted a woman—his father would still be alive and Neacal would've never been tortured.
Unable to withstand the bed or the memories a second longer, he shoved himself up. Sharp pain stabbed through his left arm and shoulder. Halting, he ground his teeth. The bone had been broken during his capture and, although it had knitted back together, it still pained him. Muttering a curse, he worked his arm to loosen the muscles, then washed his face in the basin of cold water. He shoved his hair back and dried his face with a cloth.
Hell, he needed to be away from here. Aye, this had been his home from birth, but Bearach now felt like a prison. Confining. Suffocating. How he would love to savor the fresh air and expansive vistas of the Highlands and sea. His body yearned to climb a mountain… or swim across the loch. Physical exertion was the only thing that quieted his mind. Then, he could rest for a time.
After putting on his clothing and weapons, he silently opened the door.
Holding the lantern aloft, he found his bodyguard, Leith, asleep and sprawled against the wall of the corridor. Shaking his head at the guard's laxness but at the same time glad for it, Neacal closed the door softly and stepped over him. He didn't want any company at the moment.
Under the cover of the predawn darkness, he slipped out through the empty kitchens and, using his key, through the postern gate. He carried his usual weapons—sword and dirk, along with a bow and arrows. Dunn trailed him quietly down to the rough, lapping edge of Loch Moidart.
Neacal filled his lungs with the crisp, salty breeze. A hint of autumn's drying leaves and pine needles tinged the air. The cleansing freshness washed over him, loosening some of the tension from his body, quieting his mind. The tide slid its way out to sea, and the wet sand lay exposed beyond the rocky shoreline. Wanting to leave no tracks, he avoided the sand and walked several hundred feet over rocks and around a bend for privacy. He didn't need an audience when he stripped down to his skin for a swim. Dawn light glimmered at the horizon when he and Dunn waded into the cool water.
His clan would be vexed at him for slipping away with no company or guard except Dunn, but he didn't give a damn.
Prior to being inaugurated as chief a few weeks ago, Neacal had lived a solitary existence for over a year and had come to rely on no one but himself and his dog. While he'd resided on the island, Eilean Fraoch Dubh, he'd climbed the mountains of craggy stone every day. Each time he did, he grew faster until he could run up the mountain and scramble quickly over the boulders.
If some enemy wished to kill him now, let them try. He would put up a good fight.
He escaped into the freedom of a long swim in the sea loch. Since 'twas only September, the saltwater was not overly icy.
When he waded from the water, the chill wind blew over his wet skin, making him feel vibrantly alive. On shore, Dunn shook himself off, spraying water from his bristly fur, while Neacal pulled on his shirt and belted his plaid into place.
After donning his baldric, he picked up his bow and quiver full of arrows. He quickly made his way up the stony hillside toward the round, wool-stuffed plaid target he'd set up at the top, backed by rocks. From here he had an excellent view of the castle and the loch below. Seeing no movement, he focused on the target, some hundred yards away, nocked an arrow and let it fly. Bullseye. Dunn lay patiently nearby while Neacal released a dozen arrows, lining them up in the row of red squares of the plaid.
After collecting his arrows and preparing to shoot again, he noticed a movement from the corner of his eye. He stared down toward the loch. In the distance, four galleys sailed at a brisk pace from the sea toward the castle. Even though the breeze filled the square white sails, the oarsmen rowed as if they were in an all-fired hurry.
"Who the devil is that?" Neacal growled, heading down the hillside.
Chief Aonghus MacDonald of Sleat stood upon the oaken galley while the twenty oarsmen rowed it along the calm waters of Loch Moidart. The gray stone walls of Bearach Castle came into view in the distance. He ground his teeth as greed for the well-fortified tower house twisted his gut.
"'Tis a damned fine castle," Sleat told Hamish, his second son, standing beside him. The lad was brawny and an inch or two taller than him.
"Aye." Hamish's black hair blew in the morning breeze and his dark eyes narrowed, focusing on the large structure. At one and twenty, the lad would soon be ready to lead his own clan, while Sleat's eldest son, Rupert, would inherit the Sleat Peninsula.
"It stands in a strategic location, guarding the entrance to Loch Sheil," Sleat said.
Hamish nodded, then glanced around. "I like it here." His calculating gaze reminded Sleat of himself twenty-five years ago. They strongly resembled each other and, if anything, Hamish was even more devious than he was himself.
Sleat grinned. "You'll be a strong chief for this branch of the MacDonalds, son."
"Of course. I'm nay worried about these MacDonalds. I'm more concerned about their new allies, and our neighbors, the MacKenzies. 'Twas only a few weeks ago they cut short our visit to Bearach and kicked us out on our arses."
"Aye, the damnable MacKenzies," Sleat growled. "They'll nay ken anything about it. We're doing naught but generously offering our help to Neacal."
Several weeks ago, the former MacDonald chief—also Neacal's older brother—Elrick, had taken Chief MacKenzie's brother hostage. Instead of paying the steep ransom Elrick so desperately coveted, the MacKenzies had killed Elrick along with many in the clan during a siege.
'Twas all before Neacal had arrived and taken over as chief.
"My man on the inside says the MacKenzies left a fortnight ago," Sleat said. "Taking that witch Maili with them."
Hamish smirked. "I ken you wanted to marry that bonny young witch, Da."
Sleat shrugged. "Ba! Who needs her?" He didn't want a lass distracting him from his ambitions for his sons.
His spy inside Bearach was starting rumors and whispers among the clan and servants about their new chief. Soon, no one would support Neacal. 'Twould be easy to overthrow him, for most of the clan already believed him mad and unfit to lead them.
Once Sleat and his men neared the small island upon which Bearach Castle sat, his clansmen jumped into the shallows and dragged the galley onto the wet sand. The other three galleys followed. Sleat leapt onto the packed sand and they hastened up the rocky bank toward the portcullis. Glancing up, he admired the strong walls of the keep. One day soon, it would be theirs. Of a certainty, Neacal was not an acceptable chief for this branch of the MacDonalds, even if he was the former chief's son. This clan would thank Sleat soon enough for finding a fitting chief for them.
"What the hell does Sleat want?" Neacal growled, striding across the damp sand toward the castle, Dunn following. Sleat was no better than a common criminal and had tried to rape Neacal's sister, Maili, only weeks ago. Despite Sleat being a MacDonald, and a very distant cousin, Neacal trusted the bastard about as much as he trusted a viper.
Neacal arrived to stand before the portcullis as Sleat and his men leapt off their galleys and climbed the sloping rocky bank from the shore.
"The chief has returned!" guards inside the walls shouted. He frowned, glancing around. Had the clan truly been that concerned over his absence? He couldn't get used to dozens of people knowing his every move.
Moments later, around fifteen of his guards and clansmen moved in behind him. He nodded his thanks, though he did not mind facing Sleat and his followers alone. He counted over three dozen of Sleat's men, but was not concerned about being outnumbered. More men would rush from inside the walls if this turned into a skirmish.
"What do you want, Sleat?" Neacal demanded.
The man paused ten feet away, breathing hard, his smirk almost hidden by his blackish gray beard. His dark eyes communicated his malice clearly enough. "Is that any way to greet a cousin?"
Dunn growled, though he didn't move from his steadfast position beside Neacal's leg.
"'Tis the way I greet the man who attempted to rape my sister. You're not welcome here."
Sleat gave a short laugh. "I didn't attempt to rape anyone."
Lying bastard! No one abused his wee sister and then laughed about it. A sudden heated rage burned through Neacal. The urge to fling his dirk into the whoreson's throat near overwhelmed him. He ground his teeth, trying to force the anger back.
"My sister would not lie!" Neacal said through clenched teeth, fury beating hard against his throat and his ears, urging him to kill the knave.
Dunn's growl intensified. Neacal grabbed his leather collar.
"Aye, you'd best keep your cur off me or I'll gut him," Sleat said.
"Touch my dog and I'll gut you!" Neacal growled. And he would. No empty threats here.
Steel hissed against leather as the men behind him drew their weapons.
Sleat forced out a chuckle. "I was jesting with you, lad." His gaze ran over the men behind Neacal. "Can we talk in private?"
"I have no need to hear anything you have to say."
"Aye, I'm thinking you do." Sleat smirked. "While I'm mightily impressed by these fifteen soldiers you have here, I'm wondering if that's all you've got."
Neacal clenched his fist, forcing himself not to draw his sword. The glimmer of battle rage was taking hold inside him. "Want to find out how many more soldiers wait just inside the gate?"
Sleat snorted and shook his head. "Despite what you believe, I'm nay here to fight you, lad. I liked your da. We're still allies, are we not, you and I? We're both MacDonalds."
The man must be more insane than Neacal, if he thought anyone could believe that line of horse dung. "No one mistreats my sister."
Sleat sighed. "We're back to that, are we? Did no one tell you? I was betrothed to the lass. We were practically married. I was merely pursuing my husbandly rights."
"That is a lie!" Neacal's whole body tensed, his instincts demanding that he palm the hilt of his sword and run the man through. "Maili didn't agree to the match."
"But Elrick did and that's all that mattered. He was chief at the time."
His elder brother had been cut from the same cloth as Sleat. No wonder the two had gotten on so well. "Women have a right to refuse when they ken the man will be an unfit husband."
Ruthlessness again glinted in Sleat's narrowed eyes before he forced a tight mock smile. "Well, cousin, I'm here to make amends and help you."
"Help me?" Neacal snorted. With friends like him, who needed enemies?
"Aye. Many in your clan were killed during the MacKenzies' siege. I've brought you two dozen of my best-trained soldiers. They'll help you defend the castle until you can rebuild your own garrison."
If any of his other allies had made the offer, Neacal would've taken him up on it, but he would never trust Sleat. Did the man think him daft? He often wondered if Sleat coveted Bearach Castle. Aye, something in his gut told him the man was greedy beyond measure. One of Sleat's sons stood beside him, looking like a younger version of his father. He was no better than Sleat. Mayhap worse, in truth. Knaves, the lot of them.
"I thank you but I cannot possibly accept your offer," Neacal said. He could pretend diplomacy as well as the blackguard. 'Twas obvious he wanted to get a couple dozen of his own men into Bearach.
"And why not?" Sleat demanded. "What will you do if a larger clan attacks?"
"I do not make enemies as readily as you do."
"Very few would dare to be my enemy," Sleat sneered.
Neacal barely held back a laugh. "You've wasted your time coming here. I have many allies. Have no worries about the strength of my clan."
"You're making a mistake, lad. If your da were here, he'd tell you the same. 'Tis dishonorable to insult another branch of the MacDonald clan."
"Do not dare bring up my da! We both ken what he thought of you." Neacal glowered at the whoreson. If his da were here, he'd tell him to chase the bastard back to his galleys. "You don't ken the meaning of honor. If you did, you wouldn't have treated my sister as you did. 'Twas you who insulted another branch of the MacDonald clan. Ours."
Sleat laughed. "You're weak, Neacal, allowing a wee lass to dictate who your friends and enemies are, letting her interfere in the business of running a clan and castle. The truth is you have few skilled soldiers. If you wish the castle to remain undefended, then so be it. Send no urgent missives begging me for help when someone lays siege to this place."
"Have no fear of it."
After one last smug smile, Sleat turned and strode away, back down toward the shore, his glowering men following.
If anyone were to attack, 'twould no doubt be Sleat himself. And when he did, Neacal had to make sure his clan was ready to fight.
Anna Douglas descended the stairs and entered the great hall of Bearach Castle to break her fast, noticing immediately the servants and MacDonald clansmen were in an uproar. As one of the traveling minstrels who'd arrived a fortnight earlier, she was not a member of the clan and had no right to pry into their business. But she did wonder what was afoot.
Taking a seat on the bench beside Jules, a ginger-haired lad of seventeen who traveled with them and played the flute and other instruments, she asked, "What is happening?"
"The laird disappeared," he whispered. "They wondered if he was taken hostage and were organizing a search party when some other chief named Sleat arrived."
"An enemy?" Anna asked.
"What about the laird?"
No sooner had the words left her mouth than the entry door opened and Chief Neacal MacDonald strode in, his long black hair damp. She could not help that her gaze devoured his tall, lean and muscular form in the belted plaid. He had to be the most beautiful man she had ever seen, despite the jagged scar which marred one side of his face… and his infuriated expression.
His large, shaggy brown dog followed. Clansmen surrounded the chief, asking a hundred questions at once. He answered a couple of them before impatiently moving through the crowd. His stark, blue-eyed gaze darted to Anna and burned into her. Her breath halted. She felt trapped, her secrets and her soul laid bare.
Not stopping, he disappeared up the steps.
"Heavens, he's a strange one," her fellow singer, a matron named Harriet, muttered on her other side.
Anna frowned, her breath slowly returning. "I think he is simply misunderstood," she murmured. No one knew what secrets lurked behind those haunted blue eyes of his. The servants whispered that he'd been tortured by an enemy clan, but she did not know the details.
One part of her craved knowing everything about him, while the other urged her to pack up her meager belongings and leave immediately. Something about him frightened her. 'Twas not that she feared he would physically harm her. Nay, it was in the way he watched her intently when he thought she didn't notice. With those perceptive, intelligent eyes, he might see beneath her surface… he could discover the secrets she hid that no one could ever find out if she wished to live. Her stomach ached so severely she didn't think she could eat, but she forced down a few bites of the porridge.
The mysterious chief had barely spoken to her since she had arrived at Bearach. But why would he? She was naught but one of the five traveling minstrels, hoping to sing for their room and board. Not much better than beggars, in truth, but at least they provided a service wherever they stayed—entertainment. They made people laugh, clap and dance. She was glad to bring people joy, even though she experienced little of it herself.
The laird might order them to leave at any time and they'd have no choice but to do as he bid. They depended upon his hospitality and generosity. She didn't even know whether he enjoyed their music or not. Often, he arose from the table and left the room whilst they were playing, saying not a word to anyone.
At other times, she noticed him staring at her while she sang, his deep blue gaze sharp as the dirk he carried at his belt. He seemed a lethal blade himself at those moments. And his look of raw anguish distracted her so much she had to look away and focus on someone else in order to remember the words of the song.
When she'd sung at his sister's wedding feast a fortnight ago, she'd become aware of Neacal's attention on her, and it had only intensified since that night.
The servants whispered that the former chief, Elrick, had been a terrible leader, but they were not certain Neacal would be any better, when it came down to it, for he suffered from madness.
Neacal quickly climbed the spiraling stone stairs to the top and shoved out the door to the ramparts. Drawing the cool breeze into his lungs, he watched Sleat's galleys being rowed away into the distance. The bastard might be leaving but Neacal's simmering rage remained. Damn the man! After his threats and taunts, Neacal was itching for a fight. The bastard would without doubt return another day, and Neacal had to make the clan ready.
Even seeing the beautiful singer in the great hall for a moment hadn't calmed his fury at Sleat. Anytime he looked into her green eyes 'twas like a quick punch to the gut. They called her Anna Douglas and that was all he knew about her.
And why should he wish to know more?
He'd avoided women since one had betrayed him. Aye, of course, he still craved a woman now and then, but he dealt with it through physical exertion and training. That was likely the only reason he'd noticed her specifically… she was a pretty lass and her voice dug into his soul. 'Twas so beautiful that, at times, he could not endure it.
"Forget about her," he growled through clenched teeth. But he knew he wouldn't. Seeing her face, hearing her sing… these sparkling jewels had latched themselves onto his mind and wouldn't be shaken loose, taunting him to want something more. What the hell was wrong with him?
At the soft footstep behind him, warning surged through him. He whipped his head around, hand flying to his dagger hilt. When he saw 'twas only Eonan, his manservant, annoyance gored a hole through his gut. He hated it when people sneaked up on him.
Eonan stared at him wide-eyed for a moment. "I left your breakfast in your bedchamber."
"I thank you. Tell Matthew to assemble the men in the bailey for training."
"Very good, m'laird." Eonan hastened back down the stairs.
'Twas time to strengthen the clan and ready them for future combat, for there would always be conflict between clans. And Sleat was not deterred from whatever his twisted goal was. In fact, Neacal would wager the man was even more determined.
Though he was not hungry, Neacal descended the steps to his chamber and ate part of his breakfast. Impatient to start the training, he gave the rest of his food to Dunn and left the room. One of his bodyguards, Leith, waited in the corridor.
"Ready for practice?" Neacal asked him.
"Aye, chief." He gave a brief bow, then followed.
In the great hall, he met his sword-bearer, Matthew MacDonald. "The men are gathering for training, as you requested, chief." He quickly looked away.
Annoyance twisted through Neacal yet again. Why the hell did Matthew have a difficult time looking him in the face? This had been the case since the torture. He saw his reflection in the polished silver mirror every day and in many a pool of water on a clear day. 'Twas true, a scar marred his face. Did this frighten people? Were they disgusted by it? He didn't give a damn.
He would be a good leader for them, even if it killed him. That was all that mattered.
A flash of blond hair several yards to his right snagged his attention. Mistress Douglas' green gaze met his and did not falter. The lass possessed more courage than most of his men. How could that be?
She held a violin beneath her chin but the bow did not touch the strings. She lowered the instrument and turned to one of the other musicians who spoke to her.
Muttering a curse, Neacal tore his gaze away and headed outside. He had far more important things to do than wonder about Mistress Douglas. The clan depended upon the strength of its men. Training them was something Neacal could do easily. No social graces required. He knew himself to be the best damned swordsman and archer in this part of the Highlands, and could train his men to be just as skilled.
He descended the steps into the bailey.
Dozens of his clansmen were gathered about and two—Gegrim and Parlan—were already sparring in the center with dull practice swords. He watched them with a critical eye, studying their postures and movements. Swordplay was an art form and something that came as naturally to him as breathing.
When Parlan caught sight of him watching, he faltered. Gegrim knocked him to the ground and held the tip of his sword an inch from his throat.
Neacal shook his head. Damnation! These men still needed a hell of a lot of training. He couldn't believe Elrick had ignored something of such great importance while he'd led the clan over the past year.
"Well done, Gegrim." Neacal held out his hand for the practice sword. Once the guard handed it over, Neacal said, "Rise to your feet, Parlan, and I will show you how 'tis done."
Highlander Unbroken © 2016 Vonda Sinclair