About the Author
Hannah Howell’s first book was published in 1988, and she has since published dozens of captivating romance novels, sometimes under the pseudonym Anna Jennet. She is widely admired for her breathtaking Scottish and English historical romance novels, such as the recent Highland Conqueror. Her website is www.hannahhowell.com.
Read an Excerpt
A Highland Romance
By Hannah Howell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Hannah Howell
All rights reserved.
Scotland, Spring 1430
"Young Eric is gone."
Balfour Murray, the laird of Donncoill, looked up from the thick venison stew he had been savoring and frowned at his sergeant of arms. The heavily muscled James looked dirty, weary, and pale with concern. It took a great deal to unsettle the placid James, and Balfour felt his insides tighten with unease, effectively killing his appetite.
"What do ye mean—gone?" he asked, rinsing out his mouth with a large swallow of hearty red wine.
James swallowed hard, shifting his feet slightly and making a soft rustle in the fresh rushes scattered over the floor of the great hall. "The lad has been taken," he confessed, eyeing the tall, dark laird of Donncoill with a mixture of shame and wariness. "We were out hunting when we were surrounded by near to a dozen men. Colin and Thomas were cut down, God rest their brave souls, but they accounted for twice their number ere they fell. I told Eric to flee for there was a breach in the enemy's line. He and I rode through it, but the lad's horse faltered. Ere I could aid him, they had captured him. They fled with him. I was no longer of any interest to them, so I hied back here."
"Who took the boy?" Balfour demanded after ordering a young page to go and find his brother Nigel.
"'Twas Beaton's men."
That Sir William Beaton would cause him trouble was no surprise to Balfour. The laird of Dubhlinn had been a thorn in the side of the Murrays for many a year. That the man would take Eric was a shock, however. Eric was the result of a brief liaison between their father and one of Beaton's late wives. The man had callously left the infant exposed on a hillside to die. It had been simple chance that had brought James along that same path as he had returned from a hunt. The tiny Eric had been wrapped in cloth with the Beaton colors, and it had not taken his father long to discover who the child was. That Beaton would leave a helpless bairn to die appalled all of the Murrays. That the man would try to so callously murder a Murray enraged them. The Beatons had always been an irritation. At that moment they became the enemy. Balfour knew his father's hatred for Beaton had run deep, a hatred increased by the sudden and very suspicious death of the woman he had loved. The resulting feud had been fierce and bloody. Upon his father's death, Balfour had hoped for some peace. It was painfully clear that the laird of Dubhlinn cared nothing for peace.
"Why would Beaton want Eric?" Balfour suddenly tensed, gripping his heavy silver goblet so tightly that the ornate carvings on the side cut into his palm. "Do ye think he means to murder the boy? To finish what he tried to do so many years past?"
"Nay," James replied, after frowning in thought for a moment. "If Beaton wanted the laddie dead he would have sent his dogs to kill Eric, nay to just take him as they did. This took planning. It wasnae any chance meeting where a few Beatons and Murrays crossed paths and the Beatons decided 'twas a fine time to cull our numbers. These men were waiting and watching for us, for Eric."
"Which tells me that we have grown dangerously careless in our guard, but little else. Ah, Nigel," Balfour murmured as his younger brother strode into the great hall. "'Tis good that ye were found so swiftly."
"The lad ye sent to find me babbled something about Eric being taken?" Nigel sprawled on the bench at Balfour's side and poured himself some wine.
Balfour wondered how Nigel could look so calm. Then he saw that his brother was gripping his goblet in the same way he was, so tightly that his knuckles had whitened. There was also a hard look in Nigel's amber eyes, a look that had darkened them until they were nearly as dark a brown as his own. Balfour doubted that he would ever cease to be amazed at how well and how completely his brother could control strong emotion. He succinctly related what little he knew, then waited impatiently for Nigel to stop sipping at his wine and speak.
"Beaton needs a son," Nigel finally said, the coldness in his deep voice the only hint of the fury he felt.
"He cast Eric aside years ago," Balfour argued, signaling James to come and sit with them.
"Aye, for he had years left in which to breed himself a son. He failed. Scotland is littered with Beaton's daughters, those born of his wives as weel as those born of his mistresses, whores, and even of poor unwilling lasses who had the ill luck to come within his reach."
James nodded slowly and combed his fingers through his graying black hair. "And I have heard that the mon isnae weel."
"The mon is rapping, loudly, on death's door," Nigel drawled. "His kinsmen, his enemies, and his nearest neighbors are all closing in on him. There is no one he has chosen as his heir. He probably fears to choose one, for that mon would surely hasten his death. The wolves are baying at his gates and he is desperately fighting them back."
"When he left Eric on that hillside to die, he told the world and its mother that he didnae believe the bairn was his," Balfour said.
"Eric looks more like his mother than a Murray. Beaton could claim him. Aye, few might believe him, but there will be naught they can do for the lad was born of Beaton's lawful wife. A tale of a fit of blind jealousy would be all that was needed to explain away his claims that our father had cuckolded him. The mon is cursed with unthinking rages, and all ken it. They might question that Eric is truly born of his seed, but none would doubt that Beaton could become so enraged he would turn a bairn out to die, even one of his own."
Balfour cursed and shoved his long fingers through his thick chestnut hair. "So the bastard means to put young Eric betwixt him and his enemies."
"I have no proof of all of this, but, aye, that is what I think."
"When I put what I ken of the mon together with all I have heard of late and what ye think, it sounds too much like the truth to argue. Eric is too young to be thrust into that nest of vipers. He may be safe as long as Beaton is alive and fear keeps his men loyal to him, but the moment the mon is too weakened by his ailments to be feared or he dies, I dinnae think Eric will survive for long."
"Nay, mayhaps not even long enough to see the bastard buried. We cannae leave the lad there. He is a Murray."
"I wasnae thinking of leaving him with the Beatons, although he has as much claim to what little Beaton leaves behind as any other. I was but wondering how much time we have to pull him free of Beaton's deadly grasp."
"Mayhap days, mayhap months, mayhap even years."
"Or mayhap merely hours," Balfour said, smiling grimly when Nigel shrugged, revealing that he thought the same.
"We must ride for Dubhlinn as soon as we can," James said.
"Aye, it would seem that we must," agreed Balfour.
He cursed and took several deep swallows of wine to try and calm himself. There would be another battle. More good men would lose their lives. Women would grieve and children would be left fatherless. Balfour hated it. He had no fear of battle. In defense of his home, the church, or the king, he would be the first to don armor. The constant bloodletting caused by feuds was what troubled him. A lot of Murrays had died because his father had loved and bedded another laird's wife. Now they would die to try and save the child of that adulterous union. Although Balfour loved his brother and felt the boy deserved to be fought for, it was just another part of a long feud that should never have been started.
"We will ride for Dubhlinn in the morning, at first light," Balfour said finally. "Prepare the men, James."
"We will win, Balfour, and we will get wee Eric back," Nigel assured his brother as soon as James had left the great hall.
Balfour studied his brother and wondered if Nigel truly felt the optimism he expressed. In many ways Nigel was just like him, but in just as many ways he was so different as to be a puzzle. Nigel was lighter of spirit, just as he was lighter of coloring. It had never surprised Balfour that Nigel had a greater skill with the ladies, for Nigel had the sweet tongue and charming nature he himself lacked. Nigel also had the gift of fine looks. Balfour had often gazed at himself in the looking glass and wondered how one man could be so brown, from his dark brown hair to his dark brown eyes to his swarthy skin. He sometimes had to fight the sour taste of envy over Nigel's appearance, especially when the ladies sighed over his younger brother's thick reddish brown hair, his amber eyes, and his golden skin. Now, as in so many times in the past, Balfour was drawn to share in Nigel's more hopeful view of the coming battle. His own feeling, however, was that they were all marching to their deaths and could quite easily cause Eric's death as well. Balfour decided he would try to settle his mood at some place in between the two.
"If God is with us, aye, we will win," Balfour finally said.
"Saving a sweet lad like Eric from a bastard like Beaton ought to be a cause God will shed His favor on." Nigel smiled crookedly. "Howbeit, if God truly was paying close heed, He would have struck that adder dead many years ago."
"Mayhap He decided that Beaton was more richly deserving of the slow, painful death he now suffers."
"We shall see that the mon dies alone."
"All ye have said about Beaton's plans makes sense, yet the mon must be completely mad to think that it will work. Aye, he may be able to get others to believe that Eric is his son, or, at best, nay to question it openly. For all his scheming he hasnae considered our wee brother Eric. The laddie might be slight of build and sweet of nature, but he isnae weak or witless. Beaton's plan cannae work unless Eric plays his part as told. The minute the mon eases his guard, the lad will flee that madhouse."
"True, but there are many ways to secure such a slender lad." Nigel sighed and rubbed his chin as he fought yet again to control his emotion. "We also ken that there are many ways to cloud the truth in a person's mind. Grown men, strong, battle-hardened knights, have been forced to confess to crimes they never committed. Confessions were pulled from their lips that then cost them their lives, sent them to deaths that were neither swift nor honorable. Aye, Eric is strong of spirit and quick of wit, but he is still nay more than a slender lad."
"And he is alone," Balfour murmured, fighting the urge to immediately ride for Dubhlinn, sword in hand, screaming loudly for Beaton's head on a pike. "Come the morrow, whether we win or lose, at least the lad will ken that he is not alone, that his clan is fighting for him."
Dawn arrived cloaked in a chill, gray mist. Balfour stood in the crowded bailey of Donncoill and studied his men, struggling to push aside the dark thought that some of them would not return from this battle. Even if Eric was not beloved by all of Donncoill, honor demanded that they free him from their enemy's hold. Balfour just wished that there was a bloodless way to do it.
"Come, brother!" murmured Nigel as he led their horses over to Balfour. "Ye must look as if ye hunger for Beaton's blood and carry no doubt of victory in your heart."
Balfour idly patted his warhorse's thick muscular neck. "I ken it and ye will ne'er see me waver once we mount. I had but prayed that we would have a time of peace, a time to heal all wounds, gain strength, and work our lands. There is a richness in this land, but we ne'er have the time to fully harvest it. We either neglect it to ride to battle, or our enemies destroy whatever we have built, thus leaving us to begin all over again. I but suffer from a deep weariness."
"I understand, for it has afflicted me from time to time. This time we fight for Eric's life. Aye, mayhap e'en his soul. Think only on that."
"I will. 'Tis more than enough to stir the bloodlust needed to lead men to battle." He mounted, holding his horse steady only long enough for Nigel to get into his saddle, then began to lead his men out of the bailey.
As he rode, Balfour did as Nigel had suggested and thought only of his young, sweet-natured brother. Soon he was more than eager to face Beaton and his men sword to sword. It was also far past time to put an end to the man and his crimes.
Nigel fell from his horse, one arrow protruding from his chest, another from his right leg. Balfour bellowed out a fierce curse, fear and anger strengthening his deep voice. He dismounted and pushed his way through his beleagured army until he reached Nigel. Even as he crouched by Nigel's side, uncaring of how he was exposing himself to the deadly rain of arrows from the walls of Dubhlinn, he saw that his brother still breathed.
"Praise God," Balfour said and signaled two of his men to pick up Nigel.
"Nay, we must not cease just because I have fallen," Nigel protested as he was carried to the greater safety at the rear of the army. "Ye cannae let the bastard win."
Balfour ordered his men to prepare a litter for Nigel, then looked down at his brother. "He won this battle ere we had arrayed ourselves upon this cursed field. The mon kenned that we would come after Eric, and he was ready." He grabbed a white-faced page and pulled the boy away from the other youths huddled near the horses. "Have the retreat called, laddie. We will flee this land ere we are all buried in it."
Nigel swore vociferously as the boy hurried away. "May the bastard's eyes rot in his face."
"Defeat is indeed a bitter drink," Balfour said as he knelt by Nigel. "Howbeit, we cannae win this battle. We can only die here. That willnae aid young Eric. Dubhlinn is stronger than I remembered or had planned for. We must flee, lick our wounds, and think of another way to pull our wee brother free of Beaton's grasp. Ye two lads," he called, pointing to the two largest of the terrified pages. "Come and hold Nigel steady as I pull these arrows free of his flesh."
The moment the two boys flanked Nigel and grasped him, Balfour set to work. As he pulled the first arrow out, Nigel screamed and fainted. Balfour knew that would not completely free his brother of the pain, however, and he worked as fast as he dared to remove the second arrow. He tore his own shirt into rags to bind the wounds, wincing over the filth on the cloth. His men were already in full retreat by the time he got Nigel on the litter, and he wasted no time in following them.
Defeat was a hard, bitter knot in his belly, but he forced himself to accept it. The moment he had ridden onto the open land surrounding Dubhlinn he had sensed that he had erred. His men had rushed into the attack before he could stop them. Beaton's defenses had quickly proven to be strong and deadly. Balfour was both saddened and enraged by the deaths and injuries suffered by his men before he was able to pull them free of the slaughter. He could only hope that this folly had not cost him too dearly. As they marched back to Donncoill, a carefully selected group of men watching their backs, Balfour prayed that he could think of a way to free Eric without shedding any more blood, or, at least, not as much blood as had soaked the fields before Dubhlinn on this ill-fated day. Looking down at the slowly rousing Nigel, he also prayed that freeing one brother would not cost him the life of another.
The chilling sounds of battle cruelly destroyed the peace and pleasure of the unusually warm spring morning. Maldie Kirkcaldy cursed and hesitated in her determined march toward Dubhlinn, a march that had begun at her mother's grave three long months ago. As her mother's shrouded body had been lowered into its final resting place, she had sworn to make the laird of Duhblinn pay dearly for the wrongs he had done them. She had carefully prepared for everything—poor weather, lack of shelter, and lack of food. She had never considered the possibility that a battle would impede her advance.
Maldie sat down at the edge of the deeply rutted wagon track and scowled toward Dubhlinn. For a brief moment she considered drawing closer. It might be useful to know which one of the bordering clans was trying to destroy Beaton. She shook that tempting thought aside. It was dangerous to draw too close to a battle, especially when one was not known to either side. Even those who were trailing their clansmen, known to friend and foe alike, risked their lives by lingering too close to the battle. There was, however, always the chance of meeting with Beaton's enemies later, she mused. All she had to do was convince Beaton's enemy that she was his ally, and a good and useful one at that.
Excerpted from Highland Destiny by Hannah Howell. Copyright © 1998 Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
What People are Saying About This
"A brightly colored plaid that is sure to capture [listeners'] hearts everywhere." -Romantic Times
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Nothing much happened.