Sneak Peek: The Lady of the Glen

The Lady of the Glen by Michelle Deerwester-Dalrymple

Prologue: On Learning a Lesson

Elayne exited the MacLeod keep in a swirl of plaid and fury. Her cousin, Young James followed right behind her and fell back as she visited her rage on him.

“What did ye do, just standing there like a fool?” she hurled at him, her gray eyes flashing. “Ye were here to support me in my claim to Ewan!  What ails ye?”

James cowed back farther from Elayne’s tall frame, stammering an incoherent response as the priest stepped into the muggy air. He lifted his chest in Elayne’s direction, preparing for her insults.

“And ye!” Indignation shot through her with an uncontrollable, rabid fever. “What did ye do?  Ye stood there in front of that witch and did nothing?  Could ye no’ see the woman is a witch?  I showed ye the herbs!  Ye saw with your own eyes the way she witched Laird MacLeod.  Ye even started to condemn her, why did ye halt?”

Elayne’s voice rose to a crescendo that grated on Father MacNally’s every nerve. Father MacNally summoned all his patience and training as a priest to calm himself before he spoke to his Laird’s daughter.  Caught in the web of loyalty to his Lord Christ and loyalty to his Laird James MacNally, clan loyalty would, of course, lose.  Plus, someone needed to finally put the spoiled harpy in her place, and he was truly the only untouchable man in the clan to do so. While he would incur the legendary wrath of the MacNally, the Laird could do nothing about Father MacNally’s treatment of Elayne. This most recent escapade was the final straw.

Haud your wheesht, lass!  How dare ye speak to your priest and elder in such a manner?  What has your father no’ taught ye?”

Elayne’s braying fell quiet as the priest clutched her arm and dragged her towards their horses. Anger and exasperation radiated off Father MacNally, rivaled only by the embarrassment that Elayne visited upon him. Jealously he could understand, as well as taking action if one was wronged, but falsely accusing a woman of witchcraft because she married the man Elayne wanted to wed?  That bordered on hysterics. She put both Ewan MacLeod and his wife, Meg, danger; in addition, she risked the reputation of himself and the MacNally clan. Her thoughtless actions led Elayne down a perilous path. Now Father MacNally needed to set her straight ‘afore it led to her own destruction.

“Aye, your father has spoiled ye for far too long,” he growled at her. “He has let ye have run of the keep and of himself, surely out of guilt for his motherless daughter. Ye are supposed to be a lady, lass, one who brings respect to your clan, but this?”  He waved a heavily clothed arm towards castle MacLeod, “This was unacceptable. Ye have reached the apex of repugnant behavior.”

Her wide, gray eyes held notes of fear and bewilderment. “What?! Ye agreed to come with me!  Ye said the situation had merit! Ye said —”

“I ken what I said!” Father MacNally hollered back.  “And I said it based on your misleading rantings!  Ye neglected to tell me ye planted your handkerchief?  That she was invited to the keep and expected to leave when the old Laird passed?  That ye called her a witch with no real cause, other than she had what ye wanted?  That is covetousness and envy, Elayne!  Two mortal sins and ye participated in them without accountability!”

Father MacNally threw her toward her mare as the insipid James scrambled toward his own gelding, wanting nothing more than to hide under a rock.

“What, I did no’ such a thing! How dare ye —”

She did not expect the sharp smack that landed across her face, the priest’s small hand leaving a stinging red reminder on her cheek.  She gasped and placed her hand over the mark, her delicate features a mask of pain, surprise, and horror.

“Ye need a stronger hand, Elayne.  We will ride home, and I shall expect ye at the kirk forthwith for your confession and penance. Ye will need to think on your selfish, willful behavior as ye scrub the floors of the sanctuary, cleaning both it and your dark, sinful soul.  Only then will ye be clean enough to enter your father’s house, apologize for embarrassing him, and mayhap, mayhap, ye will see the error of your spoiled ways and begin your life anew.  Ye can nay have what ye want, Elayne. Ye can only have that which the Good Lord Jesus Christ gives ye.  Get your arse to the kirk now, and I will meet ye in the confessional.”

Finishing his cutting speech, the small man leapt nimbly onto his horse, gave a harsh glare to Elayne and her erstwhile cousin, and kicked dust into her face as he rode off back to MacNally lands.

***

Elayne MacNally departed Broch Lochnora, her head low, her spirits defeated. Her father had forbidden her to come. But she defied him, grabbed her cousin, the priest, and the horses, and explained her concerns about Meg and how the lass charmed Ewan with her witchy magic.  Her cousin remained dubious, but the priest seemed almost over-eager at the prospect of witch hunting. When Ewan kicked her out, she was shocked not only at Ewan but that her priest departed so willingly, then reprimanded her instead!  She believed she was right, so right, that Meg was using witchy powers on Ewan. It was obvious! But she must have charmed more than just Ewan — that MacLeod clan, too.

In this moment, though, she considered that she had made a mistake, perchance a grave mistake.  Now she must return home, alone, with no prospects, the reputation as a harpy, and face the wrath of both the priest and her father. She was uncertain which she dreaded more.

Reaching the crossroads between her home and the kirk, she reined her horse to a stop. James had ridden ahead, most likely to throw himself on the mercy of her father and beg his forgiveness, the cretin. Everything inside her roiled at the prospect of facing the priest but facing her father frightened her to the depth of her core. Perhaps Father MacNally could offer some penance that would speak to her father’s sensibilities and temper his ire. She sighed in defeat and nudged her golden mare towards the church.

Inside, colored light from the overcast sun dappled through the stained-glass window over the altar. Normally bright and cheery on sunnier days, the light of the church reflected her current emotional state. Rejected by her would be fiancé, reprimanded by her priest, and awaiting punishment by her father, Elayne felt a sense of lowliness unbeknown to her. She always attained what she wanted, either by commanding others or bending others to her will through her position as lady of the manor.  Now that was all ripped from her, and her mind ached from the prospect of it.

Had she been engaged to Ewan? Elayne assumed so since they were bordering clans and both the oldest children of Lairds. Was she wrong to think such notions?  And what of her commanding the priest to evaluate Ewan’s new wife as a witch? Everything pointed that way, at least to Elayne. But maybe his wife was just a meek girl who captured his heart?  Maybe Ewan MacLeod didn’t want a brash woman. Elayne sighed deeply, acknowledging her lot.  She knew her reputation — it was difficult to miss in the Highlands.  Few men wanted a willful woman. Elayne stared at the crucifix hanging above the altar, a sense of hopelessness and loneliness falling over her. Mayhap she would not wed at all. Especially after rumors of this latest escapade made its way through the villages, who would want her then?

The door to the confessional was closed, letting her know that Father MacNally was seated behind it, waiting for her confession over this day.

And Father MacNally’s animosity showed with her penance.  Scrub all the pews?  She thought the penalty did not fit her sin; unfortunately, she was not in a position to argue with the priest. As it was, once she exited the confessional, Father MacNally all but sprinted from his side and out the door of the sanctuary which slammed accusingly behind him. She cringed at the sound, and the stained-glass windows shuttered in his wake.  She did not need to ask his destination — he was reporting on her to her father.

Pushing up her sleeves and twisting her dark hair up on her head with her handkerchief, she took this time scrubbing to evaluate herself. Elayne caused her father much strife in her twenty years on this earth. For so long he had put up with her willfulness, her brash, demanding ways, that she feared this may be his breaking point. Surely never before did her behavior merit a lecture and a penance such as she received today.  As her dread for meeting her father increased, the more attention she gave her work.  The longer this cleaning took, the better, thus her movements were sluggish, taking as much time for each task as she could. In the closet behind the sanctuary, she paused after finding the bucket, sat after tossing the rags in, then sauntered to the well for water.

Scrubbing itself was not difficult, but her back ached from bending over each bench, and taking frequent breaks elongated the process which did not bother her in the least.  Late in the afternoon, the last of the pews shone under the colored light filtering past the intricate glass, and she dropped onto one of the benches, the damp of the pew seeping through her skirt to chill her skin.  She brooded over the last fortnight, trying to understand what she had done.  Why had I gone so far with my accusations?  Why was I convinced Ewan was supposed to wed me?  Was this my comportment all the time, forceful and unpleasant?  Violent even? she wondered to herself.

As a leader in her clan, Elayne was granted much leeway — by both the clansmen and her father. She ran her father’s keep, helped with accounting, wrote his letters, and she had grown to behave in a manner reflecting those responsibilities, but perchance she deceived herself. Perchance she needed to re-evaluate her life, her behaviors, her expectations, and that inner reflection weighed heavily in her chest.  Elayne felt not only saddened by the events of the recent days but muddled.  What is my place in life now? 

With the sanctuary clean, only one task remained for her today — to return home and face the wrath of her father.  She wrung out the scrubbing cloths, noting the worn, twisted fabric reflected her inner turmoil, and left them hanging to dry on the bucket in the sunlight outside the church doors.  For the first time in her life, dread filled her completely as she began her short journey back home.

Chapter One: It’s Not Good to be the King

Methven, West of Perth, 1306

 “Ride, my King! Ride!” Declan MacCollough shouted at Robert the Bruce, slapping the Bruce’s horse with the flat of his hand.  Startled, the horse sprang into action. The Bruce and a few of his soldiers rode west, away from their foes, into the blinding sunset.  Declan shielded his eyes to watch them leave, and once they were out of sight, he turned to rejoin the fray. A sudden, sharp pain burst on his shoulder, and he fell heavily to the ground, blacking out as he went.

His crusty eyes peeled open as he awoke in the barber surgeon’s tent, lucky to be alive, he knew, and he wanted to keep it that way. Declan’s days passed as he healed, and he learned the conflict between supporters of the Bruce and Comyn’s allies had ended badly. Many of Comyn’s followers were displeased that King Robert the Bruce lived and was in hiding from his enemies. Many eastern and lowland clans announced their displeasure as they retreated toward their homelands, raising concerns with the Highland clans that remained loyal to the Bruce. The battle, for certain, may have ended, but the ire between the clans and with England had not. MacCollough dreaded to think of what Comyn’s clans and allies may try next.

The message for him came as he rested on the barber’s pallet, waiting for another hot water treatment on his shoulder to prevent us from setting in. Thus far, the treatment was successful, as Declan poked the wound gently with one long finger. His head snapped up when he heard someone approach the tent, and a young lad from the northeast raced in, nearly tripping over Declan with the pressing missive. Declan managed to focus his less-sore eye to peer at the letter, written by one of his father’s clansmen, informing Declan that his father had passed into God’s good graces (which Declan sincerely doubted) earlier in the month. Declan, if he could be found alive, was needed at the keep to take his place as Laird of the clan.

Declan shuddered at the words. That task was one Declan did not anticipate or desire. If he put aside the disturbing memories of his father, the sense of loss he felt since his mother left, and the disaster of a clan he knew awaited him, that still left him with the fact he was now laird to one of the most uncivilized group of men in the Highlands. He must somehow put the situation of his clan to rights. He waved the young messenger away with one hand as he rubbed a burgeoning headache with the other.  The idea of going home, however, did have some appeal. Many years at the side of a war-torn King wore on a man, and Declan was ready to go home, no matter its condition.

His journey back to MacCollough land was long and cool and gave him time to assess his current circumstances.  The heat of Scottish politics and early summer pounded on Declan, making him wish for the Highlands all the more. The failed diplomacy under King Robert the Bruce regarding Comyn, followed by his horrible loss at Methven, left a hefty weight upon Declan’s shoulder, which still ached where the surgeon atempted to repair it after the solid hit from a broadsword. He should be dead; most of the clans thought he died on the battlefield, and for now, he was content for it to remain that way.  Indeed, his mortality and aching shoulder were the least of his concerns.

***

In his ruminations, Declan failed to consider that, of those Highlanders who thought him dead, the numbers may also include his own clan. He had not seen his homeland in nearly a decade.  His physical appearance no longer resembled that of a young man. Once these realizations occurred to him, Declan sighed heavily.  He would have an uphill battle with his clan just bringing it back under control, but to accomplish that feat as an unknown stranger? His stomach roiled at the prospect. As if returning home after his occupation under the King was not daunting enough.

His service under Robert the Bruce began when his father sent him to the king to learn warfare, “to make him more a man,” his father claimed.  Declan’s whole body was bruised and damaged in becoming “more of a man.” Instead of taking the time he needed to rest and heal completely, here he was riding his broken body, and if he were honest with himself, his broken spirit too, back to a place that had truly been hell on earth when he was a lad.

At least his work with Robert the Bruce netted him some sense of pride and imbued sympathy with the king, who promised to help locate his mother. More years than he cared to count had passed since she left, “abandoning him” his father oft-argued, and Declan retained no real memories of her. The Bruce claimed he had resources to help find her, even if it meant waiting until the Highlands settled after the battle at Methven.  The Highlands always seemed to be embroiled in some sort of war, civil or not, and Declan did not anticipate the Highlands settling anytime soon.

And while the King’s promise intrigued him at his basest level, the actual prospect of finding the woman tore at the hole in his heart. He had settled his grievances with his mother in his mind long ago — locked thoughts of her away so they no longer hurt to touch. To unlock that part of him was like abusing a bruise that would never heal. He prefer to never meet his mother again.

And as for memories of his father, well, those he locked away as well, lest he allow the past to repeat and form his own future. Declan’s greatest hope for his life was to become a man entirely unlike his own father.  Pushing these painful memories to the back of his mind, he lifted his face to the heavens, hoping the cool Highland air would provide respite for his fevered head.

The smell of the village reached him long before the village itself came into view — rotting animal flesh, garbage, and general debris hung heavy in the air of the dank moor that led to BlackBraes from the west, so unlike the sunlit glens from east and south. As he considered his current position and that of the clan, he promised himself he would physically clean up the clan as his first cause of action.

Villagers stared at him as he passed through the main gate of Castle MacCollough. Declan tried nodding at his people as he rode, but their empty faces did not respond in kind.  He noted filth and disrepair as he entered the inner bailey and could not stop the groan that rose from deep in his throat. The men of the clan were accustomed to the coarse life of the last several decades, he knew.  Pausing his horse at the inner bailey of the manse, sweating and sore, he decided he needed significant help if he were to make his clan refined again.

***

Clan Dunbar near Dornach Firth

 The meeting had gone much longer than Laird Baldie Dunbar of Sutherland anticipated. Firelight flickered low in the hearth; in an hour, the fire would burn out unless someone added more wood or peat, and that was the last thing Dunbar wanted.  He ran his hands through his graying hair in aggravation and fatigue. All he wanted at this late hour was his bed.

Ross stood at the side of the table, veins popping out of his forehead. His hatred for Robert the Bruce only grew with the recent message he received about those who helped him escape the English after the disaster at Methvyn, using simple trickery again.  Ross repeatedly questioned Bruce’s mental capabilities to anyone who would listen, and since he commanded the floor now, they had to listen. Baldie Dunbar did not like what he was hearing, however. Ross’ complaints bordered on treason.

Baldie finally reached his breaking point. “Donald!” he yelled at Ross.  He may have been tired and achy, but he was still a large man in his own right. Everyone at the table quieted.

“Ye canna mean what ye are saying. What ye speak of is treason, at least while the Bruce is still king.”

“Ye dinna see, Baldie! He should no’ be King!  Once we have him — either disposed or dead — we won’t have committed treason. The man doesna even have an actual claim to the throne. He canna defend us from the English. He is the worst Scotland has to offer!  And this MacCollough, he helped the Bruce escape capture. We wouldna’ be in this position if it wasn’t for that lad! Do ye no’ see how that makes him a de facto traitor himself?  I have it on good authority that if MacCollough doesna send the Bruce to his castle, the decrepit pile of excrement that it is, then he knows where to find the pretender, if the MacCollough yet lives.”

Baldie rubbed his hair again. He understood Ross’ opinion, and on some level, dealing with MacCollough might help find the Bruce. But at this point, the Bruce was king, and they needed to do what they could for the cause of Scotland under his rule. And throwing accusations at a low-level Laird who probably knew little about the Bruce’s whereabouts served no purpose.  Baldie was so tired of these battles between clans which did nothing but further weaken the Scottish cause.  He told Ross as much.

“Donald, I respect ye as a friend and peer, but what you speak of does nothing for Scotland. I willna be a part of this. ‘Tis madness! Now, ‘tis late, and I am weary. I will take my leave. Ye can do what ye feel is necessary, but for my clan, we are shifting our alliances to focus on the Scottish cause and that alone. I can tolerate these fractious escapades nae longer.  If ye are wise, Donald, ye will follow suit.”

With that, Baldie Dunbar rose and retreated to his chamber for much-needed sleep. A restful evening eluded him as he ruminated on this conversation with Donald. Baldie’s thoughts kept returning to Donald’s eyes — the more the old Laird spoke, the more disturbed his visage became, his eyes growing dark and hooded throughout their conference. Baldie had known the man for years, but Ross’ reaction the recent events with the Bruce, and Laird MacCollough specifically, gave Baldie cause for concern.  Donald always appeared to be strung differently than most men, and Baldie feared that the old man final lost all his senses.

Donald Ross and his compatriots were gone when he entered the hall the next morning, and a chill coursed through Baldie’s wame at what Ross would do, and who would help him do it.

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