About the book
A horrible secret became the shield of their love...
Lady Marion Bewforest has been living a lie.
When on her twenty-first birthday her parents confess that she was found in a barn as a babe, she vows to uncover the truth behind her identity. Even if it means embarking on a dangerous journey to the Highlands with no return.
Trapped in a betrothal he never wanted, Fionnghall MacIosaig, Laird of Gille Chriost, longs to be free. When an English lady of unknown descent appears on his doorstep, he is forced to face his greatest foe yet: his own self-control.
Desperately in love with a man she can't have and with no solid leads to aid her in her quest for answers, Marion is left with one choice: to flee.
With more enemies than friends, Marion and Fionnghall's future hangs by the threads of the blanket her parents found her in all those years ago. Until a life-threatening accident opens their eyes to a clue right under their nose: a pair of woven initials and a secret ancestry..
Ackworth, England, 1522
“I’m what?!” Lady Marion Bewforest gasped, unable to believe her own ears.
“Ahem… Marion, dear, you are adopted, we’re not your real parents,” said the Earl of Ackworth, who was sitting at the breakfast table together with Marion and the Countess of Ackworth.
“But sweetheart, it does not mean that we love you any less! You are as loved as if you were our own flesh and blood,” said the Countess, trying to hold in sobs that were rising from her throat.
Marion couldn’t breathe. Her whole life, all 21 years to the day, had been a lie. She wasn’t what she thought she was. She wasn’t who she thought she was. Her head was spinning.
“Who are my parents, then? And if you love me as your own flesh and blood, why have you been lying to me my whole life?” Marion said, after being finally able to inhale again.
“We were only trying to protect you, dear. Your mother and I wanted to wait until your 21st birthday to tell you. Until you were old enough to understand,” the Earl said, resuming his breakfast.
“When you were but a few months old, our stable boy, William, found you in our barn wrapped in a blue tartan which was clearly Scottish fabric. That’s all we know, honey,” the Countess said with a little sob let out of her lips when she reached out her hand to touch Marion’s. Marion pulled her hand away.
“So, instead of being honest with me from the beginning, you chose to lie? How can you teach me about honesty, about sincerity and kindness, when you have knowingly told a lie?” Marion said slowly, as if she were picking each and every word carefully.
“Dear daughter—” started the Earl, but Marion interrupted.
“Clearly, I am not your daughter!” Marion said, her head spinning. “I want to go find them. I want to know why my parents abandoned me! And more than anything, since my entire life is based on nothing, I need to get some real answers.”
The Earl gave her a sympathetic look over his morning porridge and scratched his head. The Countess had covered her face with her hands that were glimmering with rings.
“Marion, darling, you know I would do anything for you. But I cannot abandon my seat to start a journey that is doomed to fail. There is no way of knowing where to start looking for them, or if they are even alive,” he finally said, apologetically.
“Mother? You will come with me, won’t you? I deserve to know the truth!”
“Sweetheart, I so very much wish that were possible. You know my health… A long journey would be the end of me,” she said hysterically, trying to keep the sobs down.
“Very well. I will go by myself. William will come with me, I’m sure of it,” Marion said.
“No, daughter. I simply must deny it. You are not allowed to go and that’s the end of it,” the Earl said, this time with a stern voice that he used when he gave orders to his men.
Marion rose up from her seat. Without a word, she turned around and headed up to her room, leaving her parents to glance at each other with worried looks.
There was a ball in the manor in honor of her birthday in the evening, and she wanted to think before she had to head to the ballroom and be kind and full of smiles. If she wasn’t Lady Marion Bewforest, then who was she?
And from Scotland, no less! I’ve heard the stories from Scotland. Can I really be one of them?
She hurried through the dim corridors.
She reached her room and threw herself on the bed. She buried her head into one of her silk pillows and let hot tears pour out of her eyes. She was sobbing from the bottom of her heart, while her entire life flashed in front of her eyes. All the birthdays, all the promises, all the loving words—all a big fat lie!
If they could lie about something like this, what else are they hiding? And why would my parents abandon me? Why would they do that?
Marion was muffling her cries into a pillow so Rose Keenan, her old governess, wouldn’t hear. Miss Keenan was like family, which is why she had stayed at the manor even years after Marion didn’t need a governess anymore.
But Marion still preferred her not hearing her sobs. She would have asked too many questions.
The sobs started to quiet down as the hot flush of anger became just plain old irritation. She wiped her face and thought about the ball. There was a brandnew red gown with delicate slippers in her wardrobe, waiting for her to put them on and dazzle each and every person who looked at her. Marion’s warm complexion and dark brown, long hair matched perfectly with the tones of the gown.
Her best friend, Edith Hall, would be arriving today. Marion looked forward to meeting her, as she would surely know what to do. She’d comfort her with understanding words and make everything better.
Edith was the exact opposite of Marion in many ways. Marion may know how to hold an interesting conversation, how to bat her eyelashes to make men notice her, and how to keep her Ladylike grace wherever she went. But for Marion, it was all a learnt behavior. For Edith, on the other hand, it was in her nature.
She was the sweetest young girl in England and her blonde curls and blue eyes attracted everyone. Men gravitated towards her and her shyness, and women loved her because she never said a bad word about anyone.
A sharp knock on the door interrupted Marion’s thoughts. She quickly sat up and composed her face to cover any traces of sadness and anger.
“Come in, Rose,” Marion said.
“Lady Marion, time to get ready for your ball! We must make sure you look absolutely dashing, of course, you always do. The Earl of Brookville is coming. I bet you will be happy to see him, won’t you?” Miss Keenan went on while she fetched a bowl of water and a hair brush.
The Earl of Brookville was certainly a handsome man. He was young and wealthy, qualities to which Marion was not opposed. He had been wanting to court Marion for a long time and to Marion’s happy surprise, her father had given him Marion’s hand.
“Why, of course I will,” Marion said. “Do make me the prettiest girl in the room, Rose, will you?” She spoke with a gentle smile and let Miss Keenan go on about the ball.
I’d best push this out of my head until I’m alone.
Marion egged Miss Keenan on by asking her questions to keep her talking.
In a few hours’ time, Marion was ready and she was admiring her own image in the mirror. Her long, dark brown hair was combed and flowed like a waterfall over her shoulders. The dark eyebrows seemed to bend over her deep brown eyes like a bird’s wings. The red gown looked stunning on her, and she couldn’t help but feel a little bit better about herself.
Marion waved Miss Keenan out the door and soon followed behind her. She was headed to the ballroom, where most of the guests would already be. The excitement of the ball cheered her up a notch—she couldn’t resist a nice ball with happy people and great food.
The ballroom was on the first floor, so she descended down the cold stony spiral staircase, holding up the gown to keep herself from tripping. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she heard wonderful music coming from at the end of the corridor. People were chattering and laughing.
She hurried towards the happy voices and entered the ballroom. As soon as she did, everyone turned to look at her. She felt her heart leap—she loved the attention.
“Happy Birthday, Lady Marion!” everyone yelled in unison.
“Thank you everyone, thank you very much for coming to celebrate my 21st birthday with me. Please, enjoy the music, dance, and of course, don’t leave here hungry!” Marion said and everyone applauded.
The ballroom looked exceptionally beautiful this evening. It was filled with hundreds of candles and wild flowers. Dozens and dozens of different colored ribbons were hanging from the walls and the ceiling.
Suddenly, she felt a tight squeeze around her, as a set of tiny white hands grabbed her waist.
“Happy Birthday!” Edith wished and kissed Marion’s cheek.
“Edith! I’m so glad to see you! I trust you are doing well?”
“Very much so, darling, I have met the most interesting man here tonight, for which I should probably thank you,” she said and pinched her arm playfully. “Mr. Alby said you have spoken kind words about me!”
Marion laughed and immersed herself into a conversation with her best friend. The uplifting feeling in the room made her push her worries aside and decide that she would think about them later.
The eventful day had almost made Marion forget one of the main reasons she was so excited for the ball. Almost, but not quite. The Earl of Brookville, Albert Byron, was due to visit with his uncle and aunt, who were very good friends of the Earl and Countess of Ackworth.
Marion would never forget the day she had been introduced to the Earl of Brookville by her father. He was to be her betrothed and the union was very welcome to the Earl of Ackworth, as it would make Lady Marion a Countess. Marion, on the other hand, didn’t so much care for the titles.
She had seen some of her friends married off to old Barons and Counts who were the most boring people she had ever met. Secretly, she had been afraid that her marriage was going to be the same, married to an awfully boring old man with a boring and uneventful life.
Fortunately, the Earl of Brookville was neither old nor boring. When he had met Marion at a wedding that took place in York, Marion had immediately thanked the Lord for her parents’ good taste. The Earl of Brookville was a tall, well-dressed man with strawberry-blond hair and childlike eyes full of sparkle. He was polite and formal, and during the short talks Marion had with him, she had discovered him to be well-read and educated.
What more could I hope for?
Marion searched for him with her gaze wandering among the ballroom full of people.
She didn’t have to wait long for him to appear. He was making his way through the crowd and as he reached Marion, he bowed deeply, sending Marion’s heart to flutter like a butterfly.
“Why, Lady Marion, you look most wonderful tonight! May I have this dance?” he asked, his arm held out. Marion took his hand and flashed an excited smile over her shoulder to Edith, who was standing beside her, talking to the new beau of her own.
He danced unusually fluidly, leading Marion on the dance floor in a way that made everyone turn their eyes at the soon-to-be couple. She enjoyed the dance, and her smile was not forced anymore—rather, the closeness of the Earl made her heart race and cheeks blush.
But she couldn’t shake the nagging feeling in the back of her mind.
After her dance with the Earl, Marion curtsied and thanked him for the wonderful dance. She needed to find Edith and tell her about the day’s events.
I can’t hold this in any longer! I just have to find Edith and it’ll all be all right.
She found Edith still chatting with Mr. Alby—they sure had become close in only a few hours’ time.
“Edith, darling, may I speak with you for a moment?” Marion said as she touched her shoulder for attention. Neither of them had noticed Marion’s arrival, as they were both very deep in conversation.
“Ah, Lady Marion, the rose of the party!” Mr. Alby said. “Miss Hall and I were just having the most interesting conversation about their new mare, it seems she has been giving the grooms quite the runaround. Miss Hall is the most wonderful young lady—I don’t know how I can possibly part with her tonight!”
“That’s such a pleasure to hear, Mr. Alby. I do think very highly of her myself. If you’ll excuse us for a moment—I hear a girl should always give her beau a chance to miss her, after all,” Marion said with a big smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. She adored Mr. Alby, but he had the habit of being quite intense.
Marion grabbed Edith’s hand and they made their way through the crowd and out the ballroom doors.
“Marion, what’s going on?” Edith asked, while Marion was leading her through the dim corridors.
Marion didn’t respond, but instead, opened a heavy wooden door to their left. They stepped into a small library, that the Countess often used as her personal study.
“I’ve held this in the whole day and I simply cannot do it any longer!” Marion exhaled and told Edith the whole conversation between her and her parents.
“Oh, dear, that is certainly a lot to take in,” Edith said and patted Marion’s hand that was resting in hers.
“Why would they leave me? Papa won’t let me go and find them, he says it’s too dangerous. But how am I supposed to live the rest of my life, knowing what I know?” Marion sobbed and wiped a stray tear off her cheek.
“Your father is right, Marion, going to Scotland alone would be foolish. Your family loves you and your life is very sheltered and secure. And you are to marry the Earl of Brookville, no less! You are loved, and that’s all that matters. Besides, it’s not like you can just hop on your horse and go find them.”
Regret Is A Lousy Friend
Without knowing it, Edith had given Marion an idea. If her father wouldn’t let her go find her parents, she would simply have to take matters into her own hands.
It was in the middle of the night, and everything was quiet. The whole manor was sleeping. Marion stepped quietly into the barn where her horse, Bells, was half-asleep in her stall.
She saddled her up and walked her into the muddy yard. Her hands were trembling a little bit. She was about to leave behind the only world she had ever known, the only people who had ever loved her.
A shadow of doubt covered her mind and for a brief moment she thought of going back.
No. I’m doing this tonight.
She pushed the blue tartan with her initials deeper into her bundle. She had grabbed it before leaving her room—maybe it would help her find her parents.
She mounted Bells and hurried her outside of the manor gates. She glanced back for a second.
I’m sorry, Mother and Father. I will be back—I promise.
She asked Bells to trot faster.
The night was still and quiet, but Marion didn’t notice it. She felt the fresh night air on her face and her hair unraveled from its bun. The men’s saddle she had picked over her own saddle felt strange under her legs and her thighs started to tire.
The sun started to peek through the clouds in the horizon after what felt like hours to Marion. Her legs were shaking and the adrenalin in her veins started to disappear.
“Whoa, Bells,” she sighed and slowed the horse down to walk. When she had grabbed the tartan and escaped in the night, she had been determined, rebellious even. Now, Marion felt doubt for the very first time.
Which way am I supposed to go? Maybe the villagers can point me in the right direction.
Marion kept riding towards a small village she saw on the horizon.
The sun was up when Marion finally reached the edge of the village. The air was filled with the chatter of women buying vegetables and apples at the market. She saw a little girl feeding clucking chickens in front of her house and heard men greeting each other.
Marion pulled her hood up to cover her face. She didn’t want anyone to recognize her. Walking slowly, not wanting to draw attention, she passed small stone houses. The houses had colorful flower beds in the front yards and freshly smelling herbs and vegetable gardens. Many houses had muddy pig sties in the back and she could hear the pigs splashing around in their pens having breakfast.
This reminded her about her own stomach, that made loud noises in protest. Soon she reached the edge of the village and found a well in the middle of a square. She hopped off her horse with stiff and aching legs. Now would be a good time to have some food and give Bells a well-deserved break.
Miss Keenan ran down the stony cold stairs towards the breakfast room. She was a heavy woman who rarely ran anymore, so her breathing was labored and wheezing.
Oh dear! Oh dear!
She wobbled forwards.
Earlier in the morning, she had knocked on Lady Marion’s door to help the young Lady get ready for breakfast. Instead of finding Lady Marion fast asleep, she had found an empty bed. Miss Keenan knew her little madam inside and out, and immediately thought that something was wrong. She had hurried around the house from room to room and even told William to swiftly check the stables for Lady Marion. But she was nowhere to be found.
Servants weren’t supposed to know the business of the masters, but Miss Keenan prided herself on her excellent hearing and sharp eyes. And a little eavesdropping never hurt anyone. She was well aware of the surprising news that the young Lady had received, even though she had tried to hide it from her.
Miss Keenan reached the breakfast parlor and found the Earl and Countess enjoying their breakfast.
“Scuse me, My Lord,” Miss Keenan said, still panting from all the running.
“Whatever is the matter, Miss Keenan? You look upset,” the Earl asked, confused.
“My Lord, My Lady, I should not be bothering in the midst of your breakfast, today’s porridge is exceptionally delicious… but My Lord, the young Lady is nowhere to be found!” Miss Keenan explained, grabbing her chest.
The Earl and Countess listened quietly when Miss Keenan explained the events of the early morning. The Countess let out a faint sob and the Earl started giving out orders to other servants. A few of his men were to go after Lady Marion and no one was allowed to say a word about this to anyone in town. What a shame it would be if anyone heard that the young Lady had escaped in the middle of the night, alone without a chaperone. It would ruin her reputation and engagement to the Earl of Brookville.
The whole manor was buzzing with worry and the servants were whispering to each other in the hall. By the end of the day, every servant in town would know what had happened—their masters none the wiser.
Marion was back on her horse, headed north towards Edinburgh. She had met an older, tired-looking woman at the well who had pointed her in the right direction. Though she had been very friendly and polite, Marion had noticed that she had looked at her clothes, knowing immediately that she was upper class and that something was up.
Before the woman in the smudgy clothes had had a chance to ask any questions, Marion had thanked her and left.
As the day went on, Marion took many breaks. Every few hours her legs would get tired and she would stop and walk Bells forward instead of riding. The journey advanced slowly, and Marion was sure that someone from the manor was already looking for her. She couldn’t afford to stop, not yet, not so close to home.
The sun started to set and it was soon to be dinner time. Marion had reached fields and all she saw around her were hilly meadows. The road squirmed on like a snake, disappearing behind the hills. She was tired and decided to stop for the night.
Marion let Bells graze in the meadow, while she sat down by an old oak tree. She exhaled deeply and rubbed her swollen legs. The wind had picked up since yesterday and the breeze felt good on her face. She let her gaze wander around the meadows, while her mind was back at the manor.
Oh, Mother, please, please don’t be angry with me.
She was feeling the same sting of guilt she had felt before.
Papa will be so disappointed in me.
She pushed these thoughts aside and opened the cotton towel of food. It was nearly empty already. One carrot was left with a splash of water in the flask.
She was now angry at herself.
How could I be so stupid?
Marion ate in silence, absentmindedly holding onto the corner of the tartan. Her fingers were tracing the threads that made her initials—S.M.
I wonder what my last name was? Maybe this will help me get started… though it is not much to go on.
Marion drifted to sleep.
The next morning, she woke up hungry. She hadn’t eaten well the day before and riding the whole day had taken a toll on her. The sun was barely above the horizon when she stood up and dusted herself off. Sleeping on hard ground was a new experience for her and her muscles were sore.
Where can I get some more food? I have no money with me.
Marion grabbed Bells’ reins. She mounted the horse and started north.
Begging would not be all right… I am a Lady, after all, and what if someone recognizes me? They would tell my parents and I’d have to return home.
She was passing a line of beautifully kept stone houses on the right.
The houses were small, but well-kept and homey-looking. They were close together and she saw pig sties behind some of them and heard the pigs sloshing around in their muddy pens.
The gardens in the front yards were nurtured and growing many vegetables. She could see carrots, potato beds, apple trees and plums…
Marion got an idea that immediately squeezed her stomach.
Should I? It would only be a few apples. No one would know.
She slowed Bells down a little bit.
She made the decision in an instant. She dismounted Bells quietly and stepped over the little wooden fence that was marking the yard of one of the stone houses. She reached the low-hanging apples and stuffed a few of them in her bag.
Wait… what am I doing? A Lady doesn’t steal!
She dropped the red apple she was holding. Marion felt hot tears filling her eyes with moisture, as hunger pressed her stomach like a heavy rock and tiredness flushed over her.
I can’t do this. Father was right. There is no way I can do this alone.
She started heading back towards Bells, who was grazing grass next to the little fence and waiting for Marion.
She mounted Bells and kicked her to trot. Though Marion may have thought about heading back, Bells was still heading north, as if she was saying “Let’s go, we can do this!”
Marion’s head was buzzing and cloudy from guilt, hunger, and regret.
Oh, God, what have I done?
Marion squeezed the reins in her blistering hands.
I have stolen. Stolen! I stole food from a family who probably needs every bit of it to feed each mouth in it.
Marion felt guilt taking over her emotions again, and she tried to get rid of the feeling by shaking her head furiously. It didn’t help.
What would her mother and father say? They would be so disappointed, so angry.
Marion felt a lump rise up her throat. She felt horrible for stealing and for leaving.
Maybe I should turn back.
No, I have to find my parents. I need answers. I cannot turn back, I cannot! How could I live a sheltered life, knowing what I know and having such a big unanswered question in my mind, a hole in my heart?
She convinced herself to go on.
The day dragged on, as did the next one. She stopped more frequently and asked for directions wherever she could. The ever-growing hunger was still pressing in her stomach, making her nauseated and clouding her already tired mind.
Next time, she was more careful. She would only sneak into a garden in the middle of the night, when she was sure the families were asleep. Marion never took more than what she needed, still feeling uneasy about taking from someone else. But to her surprise, though she still felt a hint of guilt, stealing got easier each time she filled her stomach.
By the fourth night, she thought she couldn’t be far from Scotland anymore. The scenery had changed, and the meadows were gone. Instead, she saw flatter moors, stony roads, and very few houses along her way.
The exhaustion started to take over her, and she felt her sore legs and arms. It became harder to keep her eyes open, so she dismounted and let Bells go and graze again. Marion leaned against a thick tree, letting her eyes close and her hands feel the hard, rocky ground beneath her.
The long journey, sleepless nights and lack of food finally got the best of her. She burst into tears and cried with all her heart.
Where am I supposed to go now? I don’t even know where to start! I don’t even know their names! What if they won’t remember me? Or will not want to see me?
Marion was sobbing into her hands.
Oh, what have I done? I left without a goodbye, talked back to my loving parents and acted like a common woman. I have stolen and disgraced the entire family. What will they think of me? Will they even take me back?
She kept sobbing uncontrollably, until a more horrifying thought entered her mind.
The Earl of Brookville… after he hears of what I have done, he will not marry me, that is certain. And no one else will either, for that matter. Oh, I will be an old maid, forever a burden to my parents.
Marion had ruined her life as she knew it.
Even if she were to return now, the damage was done. She had no other choice but to keep going, and hope that her search would produce results. At least she would have answers, she would know where she came from. And upon her return, she would beg for forgiveness from everyone. But she would think about that later, when the journey was over.
The sobs finally slowed down and ended as she drifted to sleep.
Marion woke up abruptly. She heard voices of men. She took a quick glance towards the road and saw a band of six men moving along the road.
“Ye’re such a dobber!” she heard one of the men yell and slap one of the other men on the back.
Oh no. I am in Scotland. They must be Highlanders!
Marion tried shifting herself behind the tree without making a sound, but in vain. They had noticed her.
“Oy! There’s a bonnie lass, sittin’ over there, she is,” she heard a rusty voice say.
A New Ally
The border of Scotland, 1522
All the drowsiness of Marion’s mind was gone in an instant, and she sprang to her feet. But before she got a chance to grab her bundle with the leftover food and tartan in it, a tall, scruffy-looking Scottish man, named Bill, with ginger beard and hair pulled it from her reach.
She turned around to grab Bells, but another man had taken the horse by the reins. Bells didn’t like this strange man, and she reared and pulled back. Marion quickly yelled,
“Let her go!”
Laughter broke out as the men rounded Marion. Bill, the man with the ginger beard, was digging through her bundle, clearly disappointed that there was nothing of value in it. The other man was still holding Bells, who had calmed down a bit and was looking nervously around with her ears moving rapidly.
An older man, Connor, small and skinny with long, tangled hair and sharp eyes stood further away, holding three horses by the reins. Two of the men, still sitting on their horses, looked at the last man, who had dismounted and was making way towards Marion and the other men.
Marion took a few steps back, pressing her back against the tree. Each of the men were quiet, as if they were waiting for something. Her heart was pounding so fast she thought it was about to burst out of her chest. She had never been this scared in her entire life—after all, she had heard about the barbaric ways of the Highlanders. But she wasn’t going to let any of them see how terrified she was.
“What do we have here, a young lass? And an English lass fer that matter,” said the man, Jack, who was walking towards Marion.
He reached Marion and she looked up at his face suspiciously. He was very tall, with curly dark brown hair and a serious face. His shirt was dirty and ripped at the seam, and Marion was wondering what the red stains on the shoulder were. Maybe blood?
“What is a young English lass doin’ all the way in Scotland by herself?” Jack asked.
“I am heading up the road, to visit my relatives,” Marion lied, hoping they would let her go if someone was waiting for her.
To her surprise, the whole band of Highlanders burst into humorless laughter. Even Jack, the man standing in front of her, flashed a crooked smile.
“Up the road, eh? Lass, there’s nothin’ up the road fer days. Ye must be lost,” Jack said, eyeing Marion up and down, which made her suddenly feel like he could see through her clothes. She felt the hot rush of her blood racing to her cheeks, hoping the men wouldn’t notice it. Reflexively, she tightened her cloak around herself.
To look at a high-class woman in such a way! Marion felt disgusted and her breathing suddenly became shallow, like she couldn’t take a deep breath to reach the bottom of her lungs.
Her heart was pounding and she had no idea what to do. The men had surrounded her, she was all alone, and they could do anything to her. They could kill her. They could shame her in the most unimaginable ways. She was terrified and all she wanted to do was to get on Bells and ride as far away from these smelly men as she possibly could. But she was rounded by the men, one of them still holding onto Bells’ bridle.
“I… I am in Scotland looking for my parents. I found out I am adopted and wished to find my real mother and father. Sir, you may be right, I may very well be lost, as I don’t quite know where to start. The only clue I have is the blue tartan in the bundle one of your men took from me. I’d appreciate him giving me my bundle and horse back, so I can carry on,” she said with a shaky voice, turning to look at Bill, the ginger-haired man who was still holding onto the bundle.
Jack turned around with a blank face, reaching out his hand towards the ginger man, who murmured something and walked closer, handing the bundle over.
“This tartan? Ye havenae much to go on, dae ye?” he said, pushing the blanket back in the bundle and handing it over to Marion. “Let’s take her to the Laird, he will ken what to do with her,” he continued, this time speaking to his crew.
The ginger-haired man, Bill, stepped closer. He was now so close to Marion that she could smell his breath that stunk of alcohol. She twitched her face while he whispered, “Jack, don’t ye reckon we should have a wee bit of fun first, eh?”
A flush of fear and shame filled Marion and blushed her cheeks. Suddenly, she wasn’t afraid anymore, she was outraged, offended. She didn’t think twice, and it happened like a reflex, she spit in his face.
Bill backed up, taken by surprise. He wiped his face on his dirty sleeve. “Ye may be English, but ye act like a whore!”
Marion took this opportunity to turn around. She was going to run, run until her feet couldn't carry her anymore. Anywhere was better than here.
But before she had taken two steps, she felt a big hand on her arm. It grabbed her and pulled her back.
“Let me go, you monsters!” she yelled, fighting back with all her power, which made no difference.
Jack lifted her easily over his shoulder as if she were a bag of flour and carried her towards the road. No amount of kicking and screaming helped. Marion was tightly held on his shoulder until he set her down by the men’s horses.
“Lass, we’re nae goin’ to hurt ye. We’re goin’ to the Laird’s castle, and ye will come with us. It’s dangerous fer a young bonnie lass like yerself to stay here in the moors. Besides, ye are an English lass in Scottish territory. Ye could be a spy fer all we ken,” Jack said with a gentler expression than before.
Marion looked around suspiciously. The men were mounting their horses now, as if they had forgotten she was even there.
“Fine. But I want Bells,” she said, pointing at her horse.
Jack chuckled, and lifted Marion up onto her white mare. He then grabbed Bells’ reins while he mounted his own horse and kept holding on to them tightly.
The caravan of six men and now one displeased English lady started on the road.
“Where are we going?” Marion asked Jack, who was sitting on a dark bay horse, riding in front of her and still holding on to Bells’ reins.
“To Gille Chriost, little lass,” Jack answered shortly.
That doesn’t tell me much.
Marion thought it better to not ask any more questions. After all, she didn’t care where they were going, she wanted to leave and continue her journey.
Wherever they were going, she hoped the Laird would be a reasonable man who would let her go. She had heard of the Highlander’s ways and barbaric fights with the English before. She had even heard of the women who had been at a wrong place at a wrong time.
Well, Jack and his men didn’t hurt me—maybe the Laird will listen to reason, too, Scottish or not.
The journey lasted for hours and Marion was starting to get too tired to be scared and worried anymore. She wasn’t used to long rides. Hunger pressed her stomach like a rock and she was thirsty. The men around her acted like she wasn’t there. They talked to each other and laughed loudly, as if Marion was just another horse in the pack.
Just as Marion was about to open her mouth and tell Jack she wanted a break, she saw a high wooden wall peeking around the bend. The gate was closed, and in front of it she saw two armed guards. They lowered their swords and hurried to open the gate as the band of Highlanders and Marion approached.
Behind the gates, Marion could see a tiny town. They kept walking along a muddy pathway that lead to a busy square. She saw women walking around with their children. Children were playing with each other. The women were dressed well, but not as well as they were at Marion’s manor. Their clothes had seen better days, and suddenly Marion felt very self-conscious about her own gown that made her seem overdressed.
The muddy pathway continued between houses and they passed a blacksmith. Marion heard the sound of a hammer hitting metal somewhere deep in the shed and she could feel the warm wave of fire coming from inside as they passed the open door.
“They’re back, they’re back!” the blacksmith yelled in excitement and ran up to Jack, who leaned down to pat his back, smiling.
Marion was sincerely curious about this tiny town so far from everywhere else. It was like nothing she had ever seen before. She was used to clean and fancy towns with many shops and well-dressed people. Instead, this town looked like it was inhabited only by peasants, who had never seen silk in their life. Regardless, she saw many smiling faces, as if they didn’t care that their clothes were dusty and had patches on them.
There were vegetable gardens, pig sties, chickens and geese running around, and further away on a small pasture, she spotted a herd of sheep.
She was looking around this tiny town that was surrounded by tall wooden gates. It looked as if the mountain that rose above them on the north side was watching over the village, like a hen covering her eggs with her wings.
On her left, she could see the castle rising behind the blacksmith’s cottage and the town’s market. It was built mainly from grey rock, and it seemed very old. Green leafy growth had taken over the outer walls from the corners. The wooden window panels were open and even the front door was wide open. It made the otherwise gloomy castle seem more inviting.
Marion snapped back to reality when she heard sharp clanging noises ahead. She reached her head to the right, trying to take a peek behind Jack’s back to see where the noise was coming from. She saw two men ahead, fighting each other with swords.
Though Marion had never seen such an event before, she knew they weren’t really fighting. They were training. The yard was emptied around them and it was clearly an open space for practicing. The two men swung their swords in a fast pace and the men’s feet were moving so quickly, Marion found herself wondering how they didn’t trip over themselves. She had never seen anything like it and was completely mesmerized by the scene in front of her.
The young man was tall and dark haired. He was wearing a dirty white shirt that was halfway open, revealing a strong and muscular chest. The older man was now lying on the ground, defeated by the former. He had a long white beard and was wearing a thick wool jacket despite the warm summer air. Though clearly an older man, he didn’t look the least bit fragile.
The old man must be the Laird Jack was talking about. But who is the younger one? Maybe his son?
Marion glanced at Jack and decided it would be better if she talked to the Laird herself. She asked Bells to move up a bit, so that her horse was now standing right next to Jack’s big stallion.
She hopped off Bells and started towards the fighters. The older man stood up and dusted himself off. Marion took brisk steps towards him and curtsied stiffly.
“The Laird of Gille Chriost, I presume? My name is Lady Marion and I appear to have been kidnapped by your men. I would like to leave, if that wouldn’t inconvenience you too much,” she said with a hint of sharpness in her voice. She could have been half-way to finding her parents now, and this unexpected detour frustrated her, despite this wonderful little town’s charm that had mesmerized her.
The old man stared at her for a minute and then burst into a howling laugh.
“Me? The Laird? Lass, ye’re barking at the wrong tree,” he said and turned towards the younger, taller man, who was smiling a crooked smile.
The Laird of Gille Chriost didn’t look at Marion, but instead, spoke directly to Jack.
“Ye’re back. And in one piece,” he said with a sarcastic, but serious voice. He lifted his head and glanced at the band before turning his eyes back to his opponent.
“And ye brought a treat, I see,” he said.
Fionnghall chuckled to himself as this well-dressed, clearly high-class English lady spoke to Edgar, his sword maker. Sure, he’d make a great Laird, too—in another life.
“Jack, would ye like to explain why ye have brought an English lass with yer? Are ye tryin’ to get me in trouble?” Fionnghall asked, not looking at the woman dressed in red, who now looked a bit flushed on her cheeks.
He listened quietly, when Jack told him all about the little woman, found all by herself. Apparently, she was looking for her parents. Fionnghall felt a touch of sympathy in his often so quiet heart, but he brushed it away as quickly as it had come.
“I daenae care what she’s doin’. She doesnae belong in me castle. What if the Sassenachs find out she’s here? They’ll make our lives a living hell. Get rid of her,” Fionnghall said and turned around to walk back to his sparring partner, but Jack stopped him.
“Would ye really feel all right sending the poor lass back out by herself? Look at her, she’s not eaten fer days. She’ll be dead before the day is over. Yer of all people should know what it is like to miss yer faither and mother,” Jack said. No one else in the castle would ever talk to Fionnghall this directly, but Jack had known him since they were but babies.
Fionnghall pressed his lips together and pondered for a moment without turning around. He didn’t want to seem weak in front of his men, but on the other hand, he didn’t care to have this English intruder in his castle, a Lady or not.
Well, I guess a night will suffice. Jack will be happy and I’ll get rid of the lass soon enough.
“Fine, Jack, have it yer way. She can stay fer the night. But she must be out by twilight, and ye will personally escort her to England,” Fionnghall said, still not looking at the dark-haired woman.
“Deirdre!” he continued, calling for a tiny young woman who was standing a bit further away, looking at the newcomer curiously.
“Aye, brother?” she said as she swiftly approached Fionnghall, looking at the English lady from the corner of her eye.
“Take the lass out of me sight,” he said and waved his hand somewhere towards her.
“Laird, if you don’t mind, I’d rather leave. I will be just fine on my own, thank you very much,” the lady snapped and crossed her arms over her chest.
Fionnghall stopped and turned slowly to look at her in the eyes. They were deep brown and full of fire. She surely was beautiful, though extremely annoying, and she had a sharp tongue.
“Ye’re goin’ to stay. Jack’s right, I will nae have yer death on me conscious,” Fionnghall said.
An English lass in me castle. God curse Jack and his heart.
Fionnghall returned to his opponent, getting ready for another round. In the corner of his eye, he saw Deirdre taking the English girl’s hand and leading her towards the castle. A bit of a spitfire, she was.
The interruption had messed with Fionnghall’s thoughts. He patted his opponent on the back and holstered his sword, heading back to the castle.
Dinner was about to commence and he needed to wash up. Funny enough, despite the cold breeze in the air, his chest felt warm. He kept turning his thoughts back to the new girl, remembering how well she tried to cover up her fear, her blush giving her away. He cracked a smile before catching himself.
No need fer such thoughts, ye dobber. She’ll leave. Like everyone else does.
Marion was sitting in a small but warm dining room at a wooden table, nibbling on her food on the plate. The windows were covered with purple curtains and dozens of candles lit the room along with the fireplace. There was a painting hung over the back wall and two shelves were set next to the fireplace. They were filled with glasses and painted porcelain. Definitely expensive things.
The food was a bit strange, not the same as she had at home. It was plain and simple, but that wasn’t why she had trouble eating. She felt her ears burning, as Deirdre was discussing with her brother Marion’s situation, furiously.
After Deirdre had heard Marion’s story, she had been shocked to the core. She had promised to make her brother let Marion stay and look for her parents. After all, she didn’t have anywhere else to go. Marion didn’t particularly care for this rude Laird that had practically kidnapped her, but she had thought of her situation and deemed that she needed a place to stay, and the help of a Laird would be useful. Whether he was rude and vile or not.
“Fionnghall! What would our faither say if he were here?” Deirdre demanded.
Deirdre was a small and fragile-looking young woman with long, dark brown hair. Deirdre was wearing a purple gown and there was a thin golden necklace around her neck. Her face was friendly and sweet, and her eyes were sky-blue. She was, in fact, quite beautiful. Marion guessed she was a few years younger than herself.
“He wouldn’t say anythin’ because he’s not here, is he, Deirdre?” he responded with a stern voice.
“Brother, ye caennae send her away. She has nowhere to go. Let her stay and find her parents,” Deirdre pleaded.
The Laird was quiet, eating his food as if he hadn’t even heard his little sister.
“Brother!” Deirdre insisted.
“She’s not stayin’ past twilight, Deirdre, and that’s the end of it,” he said calmly, still focusing on his dinner like it was the best meal he’d ever had.
“Look, ye wouldnae even notice she’s here. I’ll keep her company and help her find her parents,” Deirdre said. She hadn’t even touched her plate of food yet.
Marion felt awkward sitting beside Deirdre and listening to the conversation. On the other hand, all she wanted to do was leave and continue her search. Every second she spent at the castle was one second wasted.
But the Laird and his sister might be able to help me. At least I could use their library.
When the Laird still didn’t say anything, Deirdre sighed and spoke more calmly, this time with a hint of a smile on her lips.
“I ken ye’re tryin’ to not back down on ye word. Ye’re afraid it would make yer look weak. Like ye have a heart. But what kind of people would we be if we sent her back on her own? And, ye ken I can just keep her out of ye sight. But if ye send her away, I will remind ye every single day about her and what might have happened to her out there on the wild moors,” Deirdre said indifferently.
This seemed to have an effect on the Laird. Maybe he was growing a conscience, or maybe he just wished the conversation to be over.
“Fine. She can stay. But only because I ken ye can be such a pain, Deirdre. And as soon as she’s found her parents, she will be sent back to England, and that’s the end of it. And keep her out of me sight!” the Laird snapped and left the table, slamming the dining room door behind him.
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