Warrior of the Highlands
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She tried to take her mind from it. Faced her father, watched his mouth moving, hearing sounds yet not registering words.
The men talked of battle, always battle. She expected more from them. More from Alasdair, especially. He was smarter, more level-headed than the rest. The only man in her family who knew how to read. Who was a visionary. A leader of men.
She wondered precisely what it was her husband had died for that day, at the battle of Auldearn.
It had been MacColla's great victory. So great, the bard Iain Lorn MacDonald sang a song to praise him. “Health and joy to the valiant Alasdair,” he'd written.
She wiped her damp palms along her skirts. She should be relieved, she thought. She loved her brother, and he still lived.
But when others slept, and she knew none could hear her in the darkness, Jean wept. She mourned her loss. Resented her brother his warring ways.
She shut her eyes, hearing the men speaking as if from a distance. Her hands were clenched, clammy, the nails that burrowed into her palms the only things that kept her tears at bay.
She felt a hand snake onto her lap. Warm and firm, fingers twined with hers. Giving her a squeeze.
Unclenching, Jean opened her eyes. Glanced to Scrymgeour, stalwart by her side.
And she knew then that he wasn't simply biding his time.
That he would be by her side to stay, if she wished it.
The thought gave her strength.
She tuned back into Colkitto, who roared on. “Campbell vows to take back this very land Clan Iain Mor so dauntonly only just carved back for ourselves.”
“'Twas Alasdair who did the carving, father,” Jean said quietly. She savored her anger now, and it brought frost to her words. She would will the family to moderation, if it killed her. “And I trust he'll soon return safe,” she added evenly, “with this Haley in hand.”
Colkitto glared at his daughter, silent. Tensing, Scrymgeour eased his hand from hers, nearer to the dirk hanging at his belt.
Jean shot him a quick, reassuring glance.
“Och,” Colkitto growled. “At ease, lad. My daughter's in no danger from me. 'Tis my son who needs a fair clouting.” His eyes lit at the prospect. He and his sons sparred and tussled at every opportunity, and if Jean knew her father, he'd not miss this one.
She feared her father was forgetting what he was about.
He grew old, well past seventy now, but he'd been a warrior in his day and considered himself a warrior still.
It wasn't his body that worried her. His skin fell slack, but it hung on muscles that remained as firm as bands of iron at his arms. It was his mind that Jean had been spending more time concerned about. His wits weren't as fast or as fit as they once were.
Colkitto increasingly spent the days in his cups, bored. Lately she'd had the grim thought that he'd as soon die in battle than spend one more day in their company.
“I've already negotiated surrender of Dunyveg. I'll not ”-
“That was before we were born, father. Thirty years ago.
The MacDonalds once again hold Dunyve g.”
The old man let out a slow hiss. Not moving his eyes from his daughter, he shouted for his wife. “Mary! More ale!”
Jean finally let herself flinch. Would he not show a little decorum? She stole a look in Scrymgeour's direction, shame keeping her chin cast low.
Her mother glided into the room, and Jean was reminded of what a beauty she'd once been. MacColla was an unusually large man, all her brothers were, and it was a trait they could only have inherited from their mother. Though Colkitto was tall, her mother was almost of a like height, still ramrod straight and strong despite her years.
“Aye, husband, we've ale to hand.” Mary smiled, and Jean was thankful for the elegant nod she gave Scrymgeour as she refilled his cup. “There is no need to bellow like a bull. I'm only just in the other room.”
She went to stand behind her husband's chair and placed a calm hand on his shoulder. “You may fashion yourself a king among men, my love,” she said, taking in the unadorned walls of the humble two -bedroom cottage, “but this home is a far cry from a castle.”
Face otherwise completely still, her eyes locked on Jean and she gave a sly wink.
Scrymgeour stifled a laugh, clearly shocked by Mary's impertinence.
Colkitto erupted into laughter, a thunderous sound echoing off the cold, stone walls. Her father had a broad, open-mouthed laugh, revealing teeth yellowed with age.
“To my Mary!” He lifted his newly filled cup. “Never have I known her to speak with forked tongue.” He craned his head to look up at her. “You' re as bonny as the day we met, beanag.”
He gave her a brusque nod before taking a deep pull of ale.
“And you, an duine agam” Mary replied. Reaching down, she took the cup from his lips for a sip. “I find you just as irascible.”
“Aye, we drink now.” Chuckling, Colkitto reached up to pat his wife on the cheek, then turned his attention back to the table. “But soon we fight. The MacDonalds have reclaimed Kintyre, and Campbell will not let it stand. Mark me, he will come at us, with blood on his mind.”
Blood and more blood. It was time for the fighting to stop.
Her father's bitterness grew with each passing day. As acrid as the accursed ale that he could no longer live without.
And Alasdair. Her brother was no longer a young man. It was time for him to think on other things. A home. A wife. He had nearly four decades behind him and still no life of his own to speak of.
He'd seemed captivated by that peculiar woman.
Jean wrapped her hands around her cup. The metal was cool on her hot skin.
A shadow of a smile flickered for an instant. Perhaps the stranger named Haley would be just the one to finally turn her brother's head.
Campbell cut his eyes to the right, discretely studying the man riding beside him. He congratulated himself on a wise decision.
Major Nicholas Purdon was a solid soldier. He received orders without question and appeared to relish the slaughtering of papists and fools.
Campbell gave the young man a rare smile and urged his horse into a trot. The flat grazing lands skirting the castle was pleasant terrain, and made for an easy approach. A peculiar spot to build a fortress, to say the least. But someone else's folly was his triumph.
Triumph. He allowed himself a smile. Campbell had wanted victory. He'd tried for it with a witch, but he'd finally found it with a soldier.
With Purdon at his right and one General Leslie at his left, he had mopped the countryside of MacDonalds. Together they'd chased MacColla and his family into a corner.
And together they'd slaughtere d MacColla once and for all.
“You're certain he's dead?”
“Aye,” Purdon replied, “the big man is dead.”
Could it be true? MacColla, dead. Campbell beamed. No MacDonald was a match for sixteen hundred of his best soldiers. Not even MacColla.
“Skipness was a rout,” Purdon continued, referring to the battle Campbell's men had just fought at Skipness Castle, on the upper reaches of the Kintyre peninsula. “'Twas a long siege, but Skipness is yours.” He nodded to the structure looming before them.
“I care not for the castle.” Campbell pulled back on his reins and looked up. Skipness was a stout, rectangular fortress, constructed of red and yellow stone. “A dour pile of rock, is it not?”
He didn't give the major a chance to answer. He'd noticed a knot of men, studying something on the ground. And then he spotted the black boots, sticking out in an unnatural sprawl on the grass.
Campbell quickly dismounted, leaving his reins dangling.
Men surrounded the body, but Campbell could tell by the silhouette that it was a large man who lay dead on the ground.
Purdon caught up to him as Campbell muttered gleefully, “I care not for castles, Major, when MacColla's head is for the taking.”
“And so you have it.” Purdon smiled. The throng parted and the soldier gestured to the body with a flourish.
“You fool.” Campbell's low curse was a snake's hiss. “This is not MacColla.” He nudged the man's head with his boot, turning it side to side.
It was a tall man, with black hair, and MacColla's arrogant nose. A man who looked like MacColla. “This is his brother.”
“Well… ” Purdon began, treading very carefully. “Isn't one son of Coll Ciotach the same as another?”
Campbell answered with his silence. His hand went to the sword at his side, and he was gratified to see a few of the men flinch.
The needle-thin steel made a satisfying whistle as he swept his blade diagonally before him. Then, in a single downward stroke, he knelt to plunge the sword in the throat of the dead MacDonald.
He stood once more, needing to wriggle his blade loose from the soil under the dead man's neck.
At last Campbell turned to the major. “No,” he replied. “Not the same. Now you will find MacColla. The real MacColla, and you will kill him. And you will kill his father. And you will kill his woman.”
Campbell gazed to the southwest. Shut his eyes to the sun, low in the sky. MacColla was out there. He'd have traveled further south. He'd be in sight of Ireland, and it would call to him.
Campbell would catch him before he could answer.
“We head south,” he said, “bleeding the country of MacDonalds as we ride.”
* * *
The witch lay naked in the dirt, hands stretched over her head, her body an offering to the moon. She was dimly aware of the brambles and rocks that dug into her skin. Dimly aware of her thirst. But the concerns of her body were not what drove her now.
Anger thrummed through Finola's veins. She'd depleted herself, doing the Campbell's dirty work. He'd taken her energy, her time.
Most of all, he'd taken her for granted. Feeding off her with the whimsy of a child.
But it wasn't a child's game he played at.
And if Campbell didn't know that yet, she'd be the one to show him.