Claimed by the Highlander
By Julianne MacLean
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2011 Julianne MacLean
All rights reserved.
Scottish Highlands, July 1718
The dream startled her awake mere minutes before the siege began.
Gwendolen MacEwen sat up with a gasp and turned her eyes to the window. It was only a dream, she told herself as she struggled to calm her breathing. Later she would call it a premonition, but for now, she was certain it was just the trickeries of sleep causing this terror in her heart.
Giving up any notion of slumber, she tossed the covers aside, sat up on the edge of the bed, and reached for her robe. She slipped it on for warmth against the predawn chill as she rose to her feet and padded to the window, lured to the leaded glass by a faint glow of light on the horizon.
A new day had begun. At last. She closed her eyes and said a silent prayer that it would bring her brother, Murdoch, home from his travels. The MacEwens needed their chief, and if he did not soon return and claim his birthright, she feared someone else would — for there had been some talk of discontent in the village. She'd heard it from her maid, whose sister was married to the alehouse keeper. And after the dream she'd just had ...
The horn blew suddenly in the bailey.
Unaccustomed to hearing such a clamor while the castle still slept, Gwendolen turned from the window. What in God's name ...?
It blew again, a second time. Then a third.
A spark of alarm fired her blood, for she knew the meaning of that signal. It was coming from the rooftop, and it spoke of danger.
Gwendolen rushed to the door, flung it open, and hurried up the tower stairs.
"What's happening?" she asked the guard, who was pacing back and forth through the early morning chill. She could see his ragged breath upon the air.
He pointed. "Look there, Miss MacEwen!"
She rose up on her toes and leaned out over the battlements, squinting through the dim morning light at the moving shadows in the field. It was an advancing army, approaching quickly from the edge of the forest. Some were on foot, others mounted.
"How many men?" she asked.
"Two hundred, at least," he replied. "Maybe more."
She stepped away from the wall and regarded him soberly. "How much time do we have?"
"Five minutes at best."
She turned and locked eyes with another clansman, who exploded out of the tower staircase with a musket in his hands. He halted, panic-stricken, when he spotted her.
"They came out of nowhere," he explained. "We're doomed for sure. Ye should escape, Miss MacEwen, before it's too late."
Immediately incensed, Gwendolen strode forward, grabbed two fistfuls of his shirt, and shook him roughly. "Repeat those words again, sir, and I will have your head!" She swung around to face the other clansman. "Go and alert the steward."
"Just do it!"
They had no leader. Her father was dead, and their current laird of war was a drunkard who was not even within the castle walls, for he'd been spending his nights in the village since her father's passing. Her brother had not yet returned from the Continent. They had only their steward, Gordon MacEwen — who was a brilliant manager of books and numbers, but no warrior.
"Is your weapon loaded?" she asked the flustered clansman. "Do you have enough powder?"
"Then take aim and defend the gate!"
He hurried into position, while she looked out over the bailey below, where her clansmen were finally assembling in answer to the call. Torches had been lit, but everyone was shouting in confusion, asking too many questions.
"MacEwens, hear me now!" she shouted. "An army is approaching from the east! We will soon be under attack! Arm yourselves and man the battlements!"
Only in the hush of that moment, as all eyes turned toward her, did she realize that she was still wearing her dressing gown.
"You there!" She pointed at a boy. "Arm yourself with a sword! Assemble all the women and children. Take them to the chapel, bar the doors, and stay with them until the battle is ended."
The boy nodded bravely and dashed off to the armory.
"They are MacDonalds!" a guard shouted from the opposite corner tower. It was Douglas MacEwen, a good friend and able swordsman.
Gwendolen gathered her shift in her hands and ran to meet him. "Are you certain?"
"Aye, look there." He pointed across the field, now shimmering with mist and morning dew. "They carry the banner of Angus the Lion."
Gwendolen had heard tales of Angus MacDonald, forsaken son of the fallen MacDonald chief, who had once been Laird of Kinloch. He had been a Jacobite traitor, however, which was why the King granted her father Letters of Fire and Sword, which had awarded him the right to take the castle in service to the Crown.
There were whispers that Angus was the infamous Butcher of the Highlands — a renegade Jacobite who hacked entire English armies to pieces with his legendary death axe.
Others said he was nothing but a treacherous villain, who was banished to the north by his own father for some secret, unspeakable crime.
Either way, he was reputed to be a fierce and ruthless warrior, faster and more ferocious than a phantom beast on the battlefield. Some even said he was invincible.
This much was true at least: he was an expert swordsman, who showed no mercy to warriors and women alike.
"What in God's name is that?" She leaned forward and squinted, as a terrible sense of foreboding poured through her.
Douglas strained to see clearly through the mist, then his face went pale. "It's a catapult, and their horses are pulling a battering ram."
She could hear the heavy, muted thunder of their approach, and her heart turned over in her chest.
"You are in charge here until I return," she told him. "You must defend the gate, Douglas. At all costs."
He nodded silently. She patted him on the arm with encouragement, then hurried back to the tower stairs. Seconds later, she was pushing through the door to her bedchamber. Her maid was waiting uneasily by the bed.
Gwendolen spoke without flinching. "We are under attack," she said. "There isn't much time. You must help gather the women and children, go straight to the chapel, and stay there until it is over."
"Aye, Miss McEwen!" The maid hastened from the room.
Closing the door behind her, Gwendolen quickly tore off her robe and dropped it, without a care, onto the braided rug. She hurried to the wardrobe to find clothes.
Just then, a sudden, violent pounding began at her door, as if an animal were bucking up against it.
"Gwendolen! Gwendolen! Are you awake?"
She halted in her tracks. Oh, if only she were asleep, and this was still the dream, playing tricks on her mind. But the sound of alarm in her mother's voice quashed that possibility. She hurried to answer the door.
"Come inside, Mother. We are under attack."
"Are you certain?" Onora looked as if she had already taken the time to dress for the event. Her long curly hair was combed into a hasty but elegant twist, and she was wearing a crisp new gown of blue and white silk. "I heard the horn, but thought surely it must be a false alarm."
"It isn't." Gwendolen returned to the wardrobe and pulled a skirt on over her shift. "The MacDonalds are storming the gates as we speak. There isn't much time. They have brought a catapult and battering ram."
Onora swept into the room and shut the door behind her. "How utterly medieval!"
"Indeed. They are led by Angus the Lion." Glancing briefly at her mother with concern, Gwendolen hunted around for her shoes.
"Angus the Lion? Forsaken son of the MacDonald chief? Oh, God help us all. If he is triumphant, you and I will be doomed."
"Do not speak those words in my presence, Mother," Gwendolen replied. "They are not yet inside the castle walls. We can still keep them at bay."
This was, after all, the mighty and formidable Kinloch Castle. Its walls were six feet thick and sixty feet high. Only a bird could reach the towers and battlements. They were surrounded by water, protected by a drawbridge and an iron portcullis. How could the MacDonalds possibly overtake such a stronghold?
She longed suddenly for her brother Murdoch. Why wasn't he here? He should have come home the moment he learned of their father's death. Why had he stayed away so long, and left them here without a leader?
Her mother began to pace. "I always told your father he should have banished each and every member of that Jacobite clan when he claimed this castle for the MacEwens, but would he listen? No. He insisted on mercy and compassion, and look where it got us."
Gwendolen pulled on her stays and her mother tied the laces. "I disagree. The MacDonalds who chose to remain here under Father's protection have been peaceful and loyal to us for two years. They adored Father. This cannot be their doing."
"But have you not heard the ugly rumors in the village? The complaints about the rents, and that silly debacle over the beehive?"
"Aye," Gwendolen replied, tying her hair back off her shoulders with a simple leather cord. "But it is only a small number who feel that way, and only because we have no chief to settle disputes. I am certain that when Murdoch returns, all will be well. Besides, those who chose to remain never supported the Jacobite cause to begin with. They do not want to participate in another rebellion. Kinloch is a Hanoverian house now."
She got down on her knees and reached under the bed for the trunk. It scraped across the floor as she pulled it out.
"No, I suppose it is not their doing," Onora said. "They are farmers and peasants. This is the vengeance of the warriors who would not take an oath of allegiance to your father when he proclaimed himself laird two years ago. That is what we are facing now. We should have known they would return to take back what was theirs."
Gwendolen opened the trunk and withdrew a small saber, then rose to her feet and belted it around her waist. "Kinloch is not theirs now," she reminded her mother. "It belongs to the MacEwens by order of the King. Anyone who claims otherwise is a traitor to England and in breach of the law. And surely the King will not allow this powerful Scottish bastion to fall into the hands of enemy Jacobites. We will soon have assistance, I am sure of it."
Her mother shook her head. "You are very naïve, Gwendolen. No one will be coming to our aid, at least not in time to save us from having our throats slit by that savage rebel, Angus MacDonald."
"Kinloch will not fall to them," Gwendolen insisted. "We will fight, and by God's grace, we will win."
Her mother scoffed bitterly as she followed her to the door. "Don't be a fool! We are outnumbered and leaderless! We will have to surrender and plead for mercy. Although what good it will do, I cannot imagine. I am the wife and you are the daughter of the clansman who conquered this castle and slayed their chief. Mark my words, the first thing the Lion will do is take his vengeance out on us!"
Gwendolen would not listen to any more of this. She moved quickly out of the chamber and into the corridor, where she paused to adjust her sword belt. "I am going to the armory to fetch a musket and powder," she explained. "And then I am going up to the battlements to fight for what is ours, in the name of the King. I will not let Father's greatest achievement die with him."
"Are you mad?" Onora followed her to the stairs. "You are a woman! You cannot fight them! You must stay here, where it is safe. We will pray for our lives and think of a way to contend with those dirty MacDonalds when they break down your bedchamber door."
Gwendolen paused. "You can stay here and pray, Mother, but I cannot simply sit here and wait for them to slit my throat. If I am going to die today, so be it, but I will not depart this life without a fight." She started down the curved staircase. "And with any luck, I will live long enough to shoot a musket ball straight through the black heart of Angus MacDonald himself. That you can pray for!"
* * *
By the time Gwendolen reached the battlements and took aim at the invaders on the drawbridge below, the iron-tipped battering ram was smashing the thick oak door to pieces. The castle walls shuddered beneath her feet, and she was forced to stop and take a moment to absorb what was happening.
The frightful reality of battle struck her, and all at once, she felt dazed, as if she were staring into a churning abyss of noise and confusion. She couldn't move. Her fellow clansmen were shouting gruffly at each other. Smoke and the smell of gunpowder burned in her lungs and stung her eyes. One kilted warrior had dropped all his weapons beside her and was crouching by the wall, overcome by a fit of weeping.
She stared down at him for a hazy moment, feeling nauseous and light-headed, as cracks of musketfire exploded all around her.
"Get up!" she shouted, reaching down and hooking her arm under his. She hauled him to his feet. "Reload your weapon, and use it to fight!"
The young clansman stared at her blankly for a moment, then fumbled for his powder.
Gwendolen leaned out over the battlements to see below. The MacDonalds were swarming through the broken gate, crawling like insects over the wooden ram. She quickly took aim and fired at one of them, but missed.
"To the bailey!" she shouted, and the sound of dozens of swords scraping out of scabbards fueled her resolve. With steady hands and an unwavering spirit, she reloaded her musket. There was shouting and screaming, men running everywhere, flocking to the stairs ...
"Gwendolen!" Douglas called out, stopping beside her. "You should not be here! You must go below to your chamber and lock yourself in! Leave the fighting to the men!"
"Nay, Douglas, I will fight and die for Kinloch if I must."
He regarded her with both admiration and regret, and spoke in a gentler voice. "At least do your fighting from the rooftop, lassie. The clan will not survive the loss of you."
His meaning was clear, and she knew he was right. She was the daughter of the MacEwen chief. She must remain alive to negotiate terms of surrender, if it came to that.
Gwendolen nodded. "Be gone, Douglas. Leave me here to reload my weapon. This is a good spot. I will do what I can from here."
He kissed her on the cheek, wished her luck, and bolted for the stairs.
Hand-to-hand combat began immediately in the bailey below. There was a dreadful roar — close to four hundred men all shouting at once — and the deafening clang of steel against steel rang in her ears as she fired and reloaded her musket, over and over. Before long, she had to stop, for the two clans had merged into one screaming cataclysm of carnage, and she could not risk shooting any of her own men.
The chapel bell tolled, calling the villagers to come quickly and assist in the fight, but even if every able-bodied man arrived at that moment, it would not be enough. These MacDonald warriors were rough and battle seasoned, armed with spears, muskets, axes, bows and arrows. They were quickly seizing control, and she could do nothing from where she stood, for if she went below, it would be suicide, and she had to live for her clan.
Then she spotted him. Their leader. Angus the Lion, fighting in the center of it all.
She quickly loaded her musket and aimed, but he moved too quickly. She could not get a clear shot.
A scorching ball of terror shot into her belly as she lowered her weapon. No wonder they called him the Lion. His hair was a thick, tawny mane that reached past his broad shoulders, and he roared with every deadly swing of his claymore, which sliced effortlessly through the air before cutting down foe after foe after foe.
Gwendolen stood transfixed, unable to tear her eyes away from the sheer muscled brawn of his arms, chest, and legs — legs thick as tree trunks, just like the battering ram on the bridge. There was a perfect, lethal symmetry and balance to his movements as he lunged and killed, then flicked the sweat-drenched hair from his eyes, spun around and killed again.
Her heart pounded with fascination and awe. He was a powerful beast of a man, a superb warrior, magnificent in every way, and the mere sight of him in battle, in all his legendary glory, nearly brought her to her knees. He deflected every blow with his sturdy black shield, and swung the claymore with exquisite grace. She had never encountered such a man before, nor imagined such strength was possible in the human form. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Claimed by the Highlander by Julianne MacLean. Copyright © 2011 Julianne MacLean. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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