Warrior of the Highlands
Page 3

 Veronica Wolff

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“C'mon, beautiful.” Danny pushed his way back between their brothers to undo the top of the sweater still buttoned tight around her neck. “Loosen up a bit.”
“A beer will help!” Gerry shouted from the table, raising his glass in a toast and flashing a wide, gap-toothed grin. His free hand fumbled with the crumpled pack of cigarettes he wasn't allowed to smoke inside.
“Yeah. Doc!” Jimmy shouted. He beamed at her from his seat, his arm wrapped tight around his girlfriend Maggie. Haley had to laugh at the sight of him - the tips of his ears already red with drink. They protruded almost comically from his head, accentuated by his buzz-cut hair, regulation cop just like Dad's. “Get in out of the cold.”
“Yeah, it's colder than a nun's t ”
“Gerald Patrick!” Her father's voice boomed from the other end of the bar. “Jesus. Mary, and Joseph, boy. You kiss your mother with that mouth?” He approached Haley, a pint in one hand, a basket of curly fries in the other, and leaned down and bussed her on the cheek. “My day has greatly improved with the vision of you. darlin' girl. I'm glad to see your work could spare you of an evening.”
More than forty years had passed since her dad had stepped off the boat from his native Donegal, but he'd never lost the warm Irish burr in his voice.
“And I take it Mom's at bridge night?” Even though they'd all stayed local, Haley's mother had been unhappy to see the last of her kids leave the nest and had taken up all manner of hobbies since. And their mother had been the only one surprised by how much fun she was having now.
“And where else?” Danny ushered Haley to a seat.
“Time to focus, people.” Gerry poured himself another.
“Gerry has twenty bucks on the over,” Danny said, glancing at the television.
“He's crazy.” Conor looked at his sister intently. “What do you say? You've always been good at picking the line. Will the game go over fifty-four points?”
Haley took a deep pull of her beer while she considered. “Dallas hasn't gotten their running game going yet.” she said with the same gravity with which she approached her scholarship. “I think it's going to be a shoot-out, so yeah, I'd side with Gerry on this one.” She raised her pint to the brother in question.
“Listen up!” Jimmy reached over the table and stole Gerry's lighter from his hand. “Hey, attention, people.” He clinked the old metal Zippo on the side of his glass. “I said shut up, you dips.” Jimmy swatted the nearest brother on the head.
“What the- ” Danny recoiled, and smoothed his hair back down into his ponytail.
“Apologies, ladies.” Jimmy ignored Danny and nodded at the women. “But we have an announcement. Maggie, love?”
His girlfriend shyly pulled her hand from beneath the table. Directing her words to Haley, she said, “We were waiting for you to get here. I wanted you to be the first… the first to hear…”
“You'll have a new sister!” Jimmy shouted, and was at once drowned out in cheers and a few female shrieks.
“Really?” Haley leaned into her, genuinely pleased. “I've got to see the ring.”
Colin spoke above the din. “And when are you going to make an honest woman of yourself', Doc?”
Haley didn't deign to give him a look, and merely kicked her brother beneath the table. She held Maggie's hand, shifting it under the light, setting the small diamond to twinkling. “Oh guys, it's beautiful.”
Maggie's sweet face bloomed into a smile. Between the strawberry blonde curls that framed Maggie's delicate heart-shaped face and the six-two length of her swarthy brother, Haley couldn't wait to see what their kids would look like.
“And look,” she wriggled her ring off and angled it up to the dim bar light. “Jimmy knew my size, and even inscribed it for me.”
Haley took it from her, focusing on the tiny script. “James loves Maggie.”
“The lout couldn't think of anything more creative.” Gerry said.
“Shut up.” Jimmy threw his brother's lighter back at him.
“Her fingers are small.”
“No.” Haley frowned at them. “It's simple and perfect. It says it all.” She turned to Jimmy. “It's lovely. Just perfect.”
“Blessings kids.” Her father raised his glass in a toast.
“May the road rise up to meet you… ”
“Get comfortable.” Gerry leaned low over the table and winked at Haley.
“May the wind be always at your back.”
“And here we go,” Danny muttered.
“May the sun shine warm ”-
A roar erupted in the bar, and all eyes went to the TV screen. The Patriots had scored a touchdown, and soon everyone's attention was back on the game.
James loves Maggie Haley thought, warm inside at the thought of it. Jimmy was a good guy, he deserved every happiness. Her eyes were on the screen, but her mind began to drift.
Another, much older, inscription popped into her head. Just who would dedicate a dagger to their sweetheart? “For JG, with love from Ma-”
J. Not a lot of J names in Scotland. Haley wracked her brain. She decided it was safe to assume the recipient had been a man. Maybe John. Though, Scotland in the seventeenth century, the Gaelic version Iain more likely would have been used.
No, she thought, he was in all likelihood another James, or Jamie.
But Ma would be harder to pin down. You'd have Mairi, Malveen, Margaret, Marsali…
“James loves Maggie!”
“Hey Mag!” she heard Gerry tease. “Give your new brother some sugar.”
“ With love from-”
“Magda?” Haley exclaimed. The bar had fallen momentarily silent and everyone turned to her, but for Gerry, who was scanning the bar for whomever this new girl might be that his sister was greeting.
“Sorry. Just thinking.” Haley hid her face in her glass as she took a big sip.
“You need to focus, ” Colin scolded her.
“You need to will them to win, Haley.” Conor nodded somberly in agreement.
JG, she thought. James Graham's wife was named Magdalen.
But the dagger was dated 1675. Graham had been hanged at least twenty years before that.
She shook her head. She was grasping at straws.
JG could be any one of thousands of men.
But how many of those would have the resources to buy such an extravagant weapon?
“Hey Doc.” Gerry snapped his fingers in front of her. “Earth to Haley.”
“I tell you, she needs to focus.” Colin gravely shook his head.
“Huh?” Haley looked at them blankly. “Oh, yeah, yeah.” Shifting, she stared blindly at the flat screen hanging in the corner.
Maybe the piece was misdated.
But it was a flintlock pistol. Anything prior to 1650 would probably have used a wheel lock mechanism.
“I have to go.” Haley stood suddenly, screeching her chair along the sticky barroom floor. She was going to drive herself crazy. There was no way on earth that dagger had belonged to the famous war hero, hanged in Edinburgh in the middle of the seventeenth century. She needed to buff the rest of the thing off; she'd see it was Margaret or Marjory or Martha who'd given the strange gift, and then she could stop spinning out. She swore to herself she'd once and for all focus on her dissertation. Just as soon as she figured out this one little mystery.
Her pronouncement was immediately met with grumbling and dire predictions.
Danny stared at her in disbelief. “It's bad mojo to leave before halftime.”
“You have only yourself to blame if they lose,” Colin said.
“Aren't you going to celebrate with us?” Jimmy attempted, in the most masterful tack of all.
“No, really, guys. I need to chase something down.”
“We'll only release you if you're referring to a male student in that school of yours.” Gerry stretched his leg along the side of the table as if to halt her escape.
“Stop fooling around,” Conor said, “and sit your butt down. Doc.”
“Really. Sorry everyone.” Haley reached over to give Maggie a big hug. “Welcome to the family.”
“She's really leaving?” Conor asked his father in disbelief.
“God help her!” Danny shouted.
“Leave the girl be.” Her dad nodded sagely. “She's got more important affairs to tend to than a mere football match. Our Haley knows what she needs to do.”
Haley scampered back out into the cold, winding her scarf about her neck as she went, the sound of hooting, cheering, and teasing about “affairs” sounding at her back.
Chapter Two
Argyll, Scotland. 1646
The branches of the old rowan barely bore his weight as he scaled them, and yet the wind in the leaves made more of a rustle than MacColla. It was a moonless night and he felt his way, clinging closer to the trunk as the branches grew thinner and more fibrous with his ascent. Just as the treetop began to stoop with the burden, he saw the roof materialize from the darkness.
It was a ruinous old structure nestled among the trees, a stout, near-windowless tower house, despite its grand title of Inveraray Castle. During the day, wooden steps bypassed the ground floor to lead to the entrance via the great hall on the second story. As such, invited guests wouldn't have to endure the unsightly cellars and vaulted kitchen, and the uninvited would be denied entry when the staircase was retracted at night.
MacColla's laugh was low and quiet. He would, most assuredly, be considered among the uninvited, and yet the fools must've thought some removable steps to be adequate security, for there were no guardsmen to be seen.
There were no suitable windows to climb to from the ground, leaving the roof as the second best access point. He studied it from his perch. A dormer bearing a single door was the only thing that interrupted the silhouette of the sharp peak. A low stone parapet flanked a thin walkway along the roof's edge, presumably to prevent guardsmen from falling the five stories to their death. Faint starlight shimmered in small patches all around, captured by the night's dew.