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By Amanda Scott
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Lynne Scott-Drennan
All rights reserved.
The Highlands, November 1753
The body of James of the Glen swung gently to and fro in the evening breeze, a stark black shadow against the sun now setting beyond the mountains of Morven and the western shore of Loch Linnhe.
The eerie sound of creaking chains stirred a shudder in the second of a string of ten riders passing through Lettermore Woods in the direction of the Ballachulish ferry. Not that the party meant to cross into Lochaber, for they did not. They were making for the hill pass into Glen Creran, and Mary Maclaine, riding away from her old life into a new one, was already enduring second thoughts.
The effort required not to look at James's body contributed to her depression. The gruesome sight brought back memories not just of James but of Ian, gentle Ian, whom she had loved dearly and whose death had been so sudden and violent, and just as unfair as poor James's had been.
"Don't dawdle, Mary love," the party's leader said. His tone was coaxing, but it held a note of impatience. "We've hours of travel ahead, and there is no use looking wistfully at James of the Glen. Wishing won't stir his body back to life."
"I know," Mary said. "I just wish they would cut him down. It's been more than a year, after all, since they hanged the poor innocent man."
"No one knows better than I do how long it's been," he said with a teasing look, "but I'll warrant the devilish Campbells will leave him there till he's dust."
He was a big, broad-shouldered man with curly fair hair, and she supposed most folks would think him handsome. He was undeniably charming, for although it had cost him a year's effort, he had charmed her into agreeing to marry him despite her firm belief that with Ian Campbell dead she would never marry any man.
Her gaze shifted involuntarily back to the corpse hanging in chains near the high road. All who traveled between Lochaber and Appin had to pass the gibbet. Moreover, its elevated position made it visible to folks along an extensive stretch of Loch Linnhe and Loch Leven, as well.
From where she was, she could see the great square tower of Balcardane Castle on the hillside above Loch Leven, beyond Ballachulish village. The sight stirred more memories of Ian, for the castle had been his home. His father was the surly, too-powerful Earl of Balcardane, and his brother was Black Duncan Campbell, a man of whom many folks went in understandable fear. Mary was not one of them, but she had no wish to think about Black Duncan. Such thoughts as she had of him were wicked, for she could not help blaming him for Ian's death.
"I wish we could just cut James down and bury him properly," she said abruptly, forcing her gaze back to her fair-haired companion.
"It would be as much as our lives are worth to try," he said. "That's why they are there." He gestured toward the hut where soldiers guarding the gibbet kept their food and pallets, and could take shelter from the elements. Smoke drifted upward from their cook fire now, and a man stared at them from the hut's doorway.
Mary remembered when the authorities had built the hut, a month after the hanging. Its very presence had been and still was an unmistakable sign that soldiers would remain a good long time to see that no one cut the body down.
Without another word, her companion urged his horse to a canter. She knew he wanted to be over the hill pass before darkness descended, but she could not help resenting his urgency. Had he presented himself at Maclean House that morning as he had promised, instead of waiting until nearly suppertime, or had they taken one of the faster routes up Glen Duror or south through Salachan Glen, they might have reached their destination well before dark. He had arrived late, however, and still had insisted upon taking this more circuitous route.
Through habit, Mary kept her resentment to herself. When one had long depended on relatives for one's bed and board, one did not express feelings freely. Instead, one tried to prove useful, to present as light a burden as possible.
Mary was deeply grateful to her aunt, Anne Stewart Maclean, for years of care. Lady Maclean was neither a gentle nor a tender woman, but she was capable, kind; and strong, and their kinship was close. Not only had she been one of Mary's mother's six elder sisters, but her husband, Sir Hector, had been chieftain of the Craignure branch of Clan Maclean. Thus, Mary was a double cousin to Diana and Neil, Sir Hector and Lady Maclean's children.
Despite the marital alliance, the Craignure branch and her own family, the Maclaines of Lochfuaran, had enjoyed only brief periods of amity. However, after the deaths of Sir Hector and two of her brothers seven years ago at the Battle of Culloden, followed by the even more untimely deaths of her father and remaining siblings shortly thereafter, no one had remained to protest when Lady Maclean had appeared out of the blue one day to take Mary away to live with her.
Seven years she had lived with her Aunt Anne. Seven years of being brave and cheerful and trying not to be a burden when the very times were burdensome. Men said luck came and went in seven-year intervals, and Mary thought that might well be true. Although she recalled little of her first seven years, living with her large family at Lochfuaran on the Island of Mull, she thought they had been generally carefree. The second seven had been horrid.
In her eighth year, like a bolt of lightning, tragedy had struck, carrying off her mother and the two of the six elder sisters who were nearest Mary in age. The three had died swiftly, one after the other, during an influenza epidemic.
Her father and four other sisters had kept Mary away from the sickroom, of course, but one evening she had seen a shimmering image of her mother, and heard it say matter-of-factly that she was going to heaven now and to be a good girl. Minutes later, Mary's father had come in to tell the shaken, frightened child that her mother had died. Mary told her family about the vision, but everyone agreed that it had simply been a bad dream brought on by all the anxious activity in the house.
The deaths devastated the family, but Mary still had her big, protective father, four generally cheerful brothers, and four nurturing elder sisters to look after her. Then her sister Sarah married and died in childbirth along with her bairn. Their sister Margaret died the following year of a cut that putrefied, and the year after that, Mary awakened one night, sitting bolt upright in her bed, soaked with sweat and shaking. Her sister Eliza, then visiting cousins at Tobermory, had screamed out to her in a dream that she was falling.
In the dream, Mary could not catch her, and thus she wakened with the certain knowledge that Eliza lay dead. She told her brothers and father about the dream the following day, and several hours later word arrived from Tobermory that Eliza had fallen from a parapet while walking in her sleep. She had died instantly.
Years later Mary saw the faces of two of her brothers at what she believed was the moment each had fallen at Culloden, along with a face she later recognized from a portrait as her Uncle Hector. Her other two brothers, her father, and her sole remaining sister had died in the aftermath of that dreadful defeat, at the hands of the man Highlanders called Butcher Cumberland. Mary had witnessed their deaths, too, not by virtue of her gift but from the stable loft at Lochfuaran, where she lay hidden, quaking with terror, beneath a pile of hay. She had never revealed the horrible details of that day to anyone, and now the memory made her shudder again.
She had been fourteen then, and within a sennight her Aunt Anne had swooped in to collect her.
When the Crown seized Craignure and Lochfuaran as punishment for the rebel activities of their owners, Lady Maclean moved her little family from the Island of Mull to an estate in Appin country, owned by the exiled Laird of Ardsheal. Thanks to him, they had enjoyed shelter, food, and relative peace for a number of years at a peppercorn rent.
Then had come the Appin murders, rumors of new rebellion in the making, and the trial and conviction of James of the Glen. Mary still believed James had been guilty of no crime other than of being an influential Stewart in a land ruled by the English and the Campbells.
The murderer's primary victim had been a Campbell Crown factor hated by most of Appin country's residents. His second victim had been Gentle Ian Campbell. It stood to reason that the same villain had murdered both men, and Mary knew that James had had nothing to do with Ian's death. Indeed, she knew only too well who had killed Ian, for she had heard the tale from the murderer's own lips. The authorities knew, too; however, Allan Breck, a Stewart kinsman to her Aunt Anne and thus cousin to Mary herself, remained a fugitive from the law.
Now James and Ian were dead; her aunt and her cousin Neil had left for Perthshire a fortnight before to spend the winter with her cousin Diana, married more than a year now and expecting her first child; and Mary was on her way to Shian Towers to marry its master, Ewan, Lord MacCrichton.
It was after midnight when they arrived. For hours, riders carrying torches had lighted their way through the dark shadows of Glen Creran, aided by a half moon riding high above them, haloed by a misty ring. As they neared the castle, perched on its forested hillside, Mary saw thick mist rising from the loch below. Although she strained her eyes, she could see no sign of anything on the opposite shore that might be Dunraven Castle, which Ian had once told her had long been the seat of the Earls of Balcardane before they assumed ownership of the present Loch Leven castle, a prize of war forfeited by a hapless Stewart after the Rising of 1715.
They rode beneath a portcullis into a torchlit, cobbled courtyard.
"Tired, lass?" Ewan's quiet voice snatched her from her reverie.
"A little," she said. "I still don't understand why we rode so far, sir. We must have added nearly fifteen miles to our journey, for we cannot be but ten or twelve miles from Maclean House now. We've ridden right round half of Appin country."
"Aye, and if we did?"
A note in his voice held warning, but she dismissed it. She had known him a full year now, and he had been consistently charming and considerate to her. Thus she did not hesitate to say frankly, "I should have thought that having chosen such a long route, you would not have wished to leave Maclean House so late, sir, or that having begun so late, you might have chosen a more direct route."
He lifted her from her saddle, setting her down with a thump, but he did not release her. He stood a full head taller than she was, and his hands felt tight around her waist. He said, "Do you find fault with my decision, Mary?"
She could not mistake the warning note this time, and it occurred to her with no small impact that perhaps she did not know him well at all.
"It was not my intent to reproach you, sir," she said quietly.
"Good lass." He clapped her on the shoulder, then slipped an arm around her, urging her toward the entrance stairs.
Like other tower houses built early in the previous century, Shian Towers was a tall, handsome combination of stronghold and dwelling house. Built in the shape of an ell with circular towers at every corner and angle-turrets projecting at the gables, it presented an impressive appearance. Shot holes pierced its walls, and projecting above the main entrance, in the angle of the ell, was a device called a machicolation, which Mary knew was for pouring unpleasantness on unwelcome visitors who managed to breach the curtain walls. The MacCrichton arms surmounted the door, which was huge, iron-bound, and located on the first floor level, twenty feet above the ground, at the top of removable wooden steps.
Ewan hustled her up the stairs and inside, past a stout, woven-iron gate or yett that provided further protection against an enemy attack. As another prevention from assault, door and yett opened onto twisting stone steps that led up to the great hall and down to nether portions of the castle that undoubtedly housed the kitchen and servants' rooms.
Holding her skirt up with her right hand, Mary used her left to hold the rope banister as she preceded Ewan and his men upstairs to the hall. The stairs were narrow and wound in a clockwise direction as such stairs nearly always did, so that a righthanded swordsman would always have the advantage defending his home against an enemy charging up the stairs.
In the great hall, a thin, fair-haired boy stirred up the fire and one of Ewan's men used a torch to light myriad candles in sconces, revealing a high-ceilinged chamber with dark paneling that Mary saw could use oil and some rubbing. Racks of lances lined one wall, but in accordance with the law they bore no metal tips.
"I suppose your family is abed and asleep at this hour, sir," she said, continuing to gaze about while she took off her gloves, pushed her hood back from her thick, tawny hair, and untied the strings of her long gray cloak. When Ewan did not answer at once, she turned to look at him.
He glanced from one to another of the three men who had accompanied them inside. Then, straightening, he said harshly to her, "There is no family here, lass, only ourselves, my men, and a few menservants."
Stunned, Mary exclaimed, "But how can that be? You said you were bringing me here to be married in the midst of your family, that I need not wait for my aunt and Sir Neil to return or for my cousin to recover after the birth of her child. For a year you've been saying that although your mother and father and younger brother are dead, you still had a large family to share with me. You said—"
"I've said a lot of damned silly stuff over the past year," Ewan interjected. "Not much of it was true, although it is true enough that I've got family to share. There are any number of them buried in our graveyard."
"You said you loved me," Mary said, shaken and trying to gather her wits.
"What if I did? Lots of lads say that when it will do them a good turn."
"What good turn? You know that I have no money or land, that I am completely dependent upon my aunt and my cousin Diana's husband for my keep. I don't even have a dowry. You said that you did not care about any of that."
"Ewan, I don't understand. Do you want to marry me?"
"Oh, aye. I don't want any misunderstandings later, and I've got to get myself a proper heir in any event, haven't I?"
"What misunderstanding could there be?" She was uncomfortably aware of the other men in the hall, and of the boy who had tended the fire and now squatted alertly near the wall by the stairs, but she had to find out what was going on.
"You don't need to know any more than that you will be my wife, lass, subject to my bidding."
"I don't think so, Ewan," she said, keeping her temper with difficulty. She was too tired to bandy words with him. "I thought I knew you, but clearly I don't, so I think I had better return to Maclean House at first light."
"Well, that's where you're wrong, Mary Maclaine. I've planned this for more than a year, ever since I learned about you, and I won't let you spoil it now. You will be my wife, like it or not, and that's my last word on the subject."
"Faith, sir, you cannot force me to marry you. No parson will perform the service against my will."
He smirked. "I've read the law, I have. We've no need for any parson."
"You still need my consent, however. A simple declaration of marriage, while legal if I agree, is useless if I contradict you, and even marriage by promise and consummation cannot be forced. One word of dissent from the bride turns that into rape, Lord MacCrichton." As she said the words, Mary experienced a distinct chill. What good were laws when one was miles from any help?
Ewan's smirk remained unshaken. "You know more than any woman ought to know about the law," he said, "but that will only make you easier to convince. Scottish law provides for all sorts of irregular marriages, my dear."
"I know, for I learned about most of them when my cousin married a man of the law," Mary said. "Hers was a marriage of promise."
"Still, you mentioned only two sorts. There is handfasting, as well. I know a good bit about that one, I can tell you."
"I am not living with you for a year and a day," she snapped, "just so that—"
"Whisst now, lower your voice, Mary, if you don't want to feel my hand across that vixen's mouth of yours."
"How dare you!"
Ewan slapped her, hard.
Her hand flew to her burning cheek. The slap had shocked her, for as a rule Highland men were not violent toward women or children. That trait was unique to Englishmen and Lowlanders—Sassenachs, outlanders. A Highlander might put an erring wife or child across his knee if one needed a stern lesson, but he would never use his fist or lift his hand to any other part of a body weaker than his own.
Excerpted from Highland Treasure by Amanda Scott. Copyright © 1998 Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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