Claiming her Highland Birthright Preview

About the book

Her fate lies engraved upon the medallion left by a father she never knew...

On his deathbed, Fiona Wheatley’s father reveals a shocking secret: she is not his child by blood. Left with only a medallion to lead her, Fiona embarks on a journey to Scotland to discover her birthright.

Determined not to repeat his father’s mistakes, Calum MacGreogair, Laird of Winterdale, struggles to rule justly and cease the war with the English. When a beautiful Sassenach with a strange story comes looking for his help, he feels compelled to offer her what she asks for. Including his heart.

Resolved to discover the truth about who her father was, Fiona and Calum must brave the hostile environment of the castle. And the whispers in the walls. When their only clue leads them to the house of a murdered man, an old document makes Calum realize that the culprit hides in ages-old hatred. A hatred that has set its sights on the last link: Fiona.

Prologue


Scotland, 1660


The castle exploded with hostility. Lisa crouched beside the mossy stone wall, gasping for air. She was run ragged, worn out, but wasn’t done yet.  One way or another, she would outrun the devil who was chasing her.

Soldier’s leather boots slapped against the flagstones as they marched aggressively through the courtyard. The thin ray of moonlight gleamed on their long halberds held high ready to strike. Liza held her breath.

Where is he? He should have been here by now!

Already her mind played with the possibility of the worst-case scenario, but she had to put that aside.

He will come, I am sure of it.

She knew she could not stay hidden in the darkness behind a set of old wagon wheels leaning against the stables. They hadn’t found her here yet, but they would if they kept searching like they were.

How could they have known? We were supposed to be gone by now!

The castle gates were so close. She could see them, on the far side of the stables, taunting her. Through the gates she could see the edge of the forest in the cooling light. That was her chance. In the forest, she could disappear, but she couldn’t leave without him. He would show yet, she was sure of it.

“She isnae here!”

“Keep lookin’ ye sods! The Laird will have yer heads! Shut the gates! If she’s here, we’ll find her!”

“No,” Liza breathed out, watching the heavy metal portcullis come crashing methodically down between her and her escape. She was trapped.

Liza took a series of deep breaths, trying to steady herself. She had to move. They were going to find her if she stayed put. But where to go? All corners of the castle courtyard were swarming with soldiers, marching about with their pikes and halberds like some damn parade in the middle of the night.

It was becoming clear to her that she might not escape, and the thought filled her with such dread that she felt another burst of adrenaline within her, forcing her to her feet. She stood with her back against the stable wall, hugging the shadows of its overhanging roof, taking long drawn-out breaths with the smallest possible amount of noise.

If I can make it to the kitchens, I stand a better chance of hiding. Perhaps I can slip out with the chicken feed come dawn.

It was not much of a plan, but it was better than standing next to the stable until she was caught, put on trial, and executed. Most likely by a burning at the stake. That was not much of a plan at all.

“Ready now Liza,” she muttered to herself, tracking a squad of soldiers as they passed by her once more. Her bright green eyes flashed like a cat’s in the night as she tucked her hair back behind her ears.

“Steady now.”

Now! Go! Move! Her body obeyed, and she forced herself out from her hiding place. Liza dashed across a moonlit patch of yard, not daring to look up, and threw herself flat against the next wall.

The door to the kitchens was within her sight. It was a dangerous stretch of open yard, but there was nowhere else to go, and she had to move fast. She was more exposed now than she had been against the stable wall.

Before her body froze up once more, Liza pushed on, and darted for the kitchen door. She ran on the balls of her feet, trying not to make noise, and kept her gaze locked on her destination. Almost there!

“Oy! Look there!”

“Don’t let her get away!”

“Blast it!” Liza seethed through her gritted teeth as she slammed against the wooden door. They had seen her. No need to play it quiet any more.

She threw the entirety of her weight against the door with a grunt, and the door gave way, clapping open against the side of the brick passage. She began to sprint through the corridor, taking the sharp left and flying down the small flight of stairs into the kitchen’s main room, and she froze.

A woman was standing there, beside one of the large wooden cutting tables. She was dressed as a servant, and it looked as if she had been cleaning up from the night’s meal. She looked at Liza with what seemed to be fierce curiosity and calculation, and Liza noticed a large scar that ran along the woman’s left cheek, leaving off just beside the crook of her mouth.

Liza was heaving for breath as she stood at the base of the stairs. She was a complete mess. Her garments were horribly dirty from her weeks in the dungeon, her hair fell down in sweaty strands, clinging to her face and her neck, and her face was bright red from the cold autumn air.

“She went down here!”

“Hurry!”

“Please,” Liza whispered, looking desperately at the woman standing between her and some sort of hope of escape. “They’ll kill me.”

“Ye must hide,” the woman said sharply, stepping forwards and tugging at Liza’s cloak. “Hurry, the cloak.”

Liza slipped the garment off, unsure of why, but this was not the time to ask questions. As the woman took the cloak from her she beckoned to the large sacks of potatoes that rested in one of the kitchen corners.

“Hide there,” she said. “Be quick.”

Liza clambered over the lumps of burlap as she clawed her way into the crook of the corner. She saw the woman throw open one of the kitchen windows, and toss the cloak out of it, and just as Liza ducked her head down beneath the tops of the potatoes, the soldiers burst in.

“Where’d she go?” they challenged the woman with growling menace.

“Talk! Now!”

“Out the window,” the woman replied in a shaky voice.

“Yer nae serious,” one of the soldiers protested. “That’s too far a drop.”

“Look!” another shouted. “I can see her! She isnae moving.”

“Come on!” the authoritative one commanded. “Step quickly now! Rouse the hounds!”

Then the feet all went away as fast as they had come, hurrying to find their quarry which they now believed to be at the base of the castle wall. She dared not breathe for the noise it might make as she shrunk further and further down into the dark corner piled high with potatoes.

“Stay there until morning,” she heard the woman say, and then she heard the heavy kitchen door swinging shut behind her. All was still. She was safe, at least for now.

Liza finally let out a deep, gulping breath, feeling her heart race as the oxygen flooded into her lungs. She could breathe again, and it felt wonderful. She wanted to scream and laugh and jump for joy at the feeling of evading capture, but she knew she could not.

She had to nestle into those potato sacks, as uncomfortable as they were, and pretend as if she were a church mouse, hiding away for fear of extermination.

The night seemed to last an eternity as she cowered there. She began to count the individual stitches of the burlap sacks that she could see by the moonlight coming in the open window, which the guards had not bothered to close.

She could hear them outside the castle, yelling and searching as their hunting hounds howled away into the night. They would not find her, of that she was confident. The urge to sleep was intensely powerful as she settled in. The thrill of the chase was wearing down, and in its place she was left with utter exhaustion.

Yet she could not sleep, not if she wished to escape this terrible castle and to live. She would not be snuffed out by this bloodthirsty madman they called a laird. She was stronger than that, smarter than that, so she stayed awake until dawn.

When those first rays of sun broke into the kitchen, she felt it fall upon the top of her head, as if summoning her to action. It was such a feeling of warmth and happiness that she nearly cried as she struggled her way out of the potato pile.

As she stood upright, she felt all the horrendous cramps that she had accrued overnight to their fullest extent, and she winced to straighten herself in the empty kitchen.

With dawn came the servants to work, and she knew she didn’t have much time. She looked frantically around for something she could use, anything, to aid in her cause.

There! The egg baskets were all stacked along a countertop, awaiting their morning carriers. Liza had to move fast, so she grabbed one of the baskets and a baking apron, hurriedly tying it at the waist. She tried briefly to make her hair less wild, less likely to attract attention, but she was unsure of how well her efforts actually came across.

Regardless, it was time to go. She knew the hen houses were in the outer yard, just past the main gates but still inside the wooden fortifications that surrounded the old castle town. The castle itself was not a military position. In that strange new age of tall-masted sailing ships and gunpowder, castle walls had become largely obsolete, yet people still clung to their old ways of life, clustering up around a series of old stone buildings.

The castles stood mostly as a testament to the nobility of nations now, but this one in particular was a stain on the canvas. This place had brought her terribly close to death, and she meant to leave it forever.

One thing nagged at her incessantly as she walked with her head down through the same door she had burst through the night before. Why hadn't he come? What happened? Has he forsaken me?

They had planned to leave together, but he had not come. She knew something was terribly wrong, but there was nothing she could do about it. She could only carry on, and hope that he was waiting for her somewhere, somewhere safe just beyond the horizon.

She walked steadily toward the gate, the basket clutched before her, staring down into the weaving. It moved up and down with each of her steps as she drew closer. She could not bear to look up.

There were soldiers everywhere. She could hear them. They seemed oblivious to her, going about their day, as if the excitement of the night before was all but forgotten. But for her it was still real, still playing out, and her heart was nearly beating out of her chest as she reached the gatehouse.

She was so close, she could taste freedom. The shadow of the portcullis came overhead, and she could feel it bring down the temperature around her on that grey, hazy day.

Just keep walking. Don’t look up. Just keep walking.

“Lass!” a gate guard called out to her as she passed through. She felt her heart drop to her stomach. She was caught. There was no way out of this one. All she could do was run, or turn to the man speaking at her. She was ragged and exhausted. She couldn’t outrun soldiers. Not in that state. She would have to gamble, and what a gamble it was.

“Yes?” she asked, turning to the  guard, hugging the basket against her stomach even tighter. It was the only thing she had left, and it brought her some sort of confidence. Everything in that moment rested on the egg basket. If they saw through her disguise, it was all over.

“Early start, eh?” the man asked, leaning up against the castle wall. His filthy fingers picked at the scabs on his chin, and his unkempt hair fell down behind his ears, one of which was missing a good portion.

“Pardon?” she asked, confused by his question. She wanted to run, to tear away, but she couldn’t. They could run her down in a heartbeat.

“Where are all yer friends?” he asked, bobbing his head toward the kitchen and leaning his halberd up against his shoulder.

Suddenly Liza remembered the large stack of egg baskets and felt foolish for not waiting for the crowd of servants to blend in with. She had acted too fast and rash, and it was about to cost her life. She could feel the fear welling up, but she tried with all her might to force it back down.

“Like you said,” she offered with a weak smile. “Early start.”

“Bring me an egg will ye,” he said gruffly, seeming to lose interest in the interaction.

“Of course,” she said, and began hurrying away.

“Oy,” she could hear the other gate guard behind her. “She isnae Scottish. Ye daennae think…”

“Shite!” the other one balked.

Blast! I was so close!

She began to quicken her pace, walking briskly through the outer yard, tossing the egg basket aside. It had served its purpose.

“Hold up, ye!” the first guard shouted after her. “Oy!”

She broke all her composure and began to run at an all-out sprint as fast as her tired cramped legs could carry her. It was all she could do to keep moving, every last ounce of her being, for if she stopped, she was dead.

“Stop that lass!” they finally shouted, and the yard around her began to turn. She knew they were all looking at her, and there were soldiers moving toward her, but she would not stop.

The picket opening was just before her, but two guards stood in her way, leveling their pikes to form a sinister gate. She could not go that way. As she ran she looked around for anything, anything at all that she could use to escape.

Without the time to contemplate, driven by sheer survival, she angled her run for a cottage set up against the side of the picket. With a less than graceful leap, she clambered atop a cart resting against the cottage wall, then onto the roof, and from there she thrust herself over the top of the wooden picket, not stopping to gauge the drop.

She came down hard on the dirt, and it hurt all to hell, but before she could even contemplate the pain she was up again and making a mad dash for the forest. If she could make it to tree cover, she would be safe. She wasn’t going to die there.

They were moving out of the town now to come after her, she could hear the horses. Liza knew that her opportunity for escape was becoming slimmer and slimmer by the second, and she screamed out at the top of her lungs as she pushed herself to even greater exertion.

Then, as if a curtain of calm suddenly fell over the whole of the world, she burst through the tree line and into the woods. The sky, moments before so vast and empty, was a golden and red awning spread out before her as the trees lost their leaves one by one. She could hear them still, but they were quieter now, although that was no reason to stop.

She charged on, the underbrush reaching up and tearing at her arms and legs, ripping ribbons in the skirts and sleeves of her garments without the protection of her traveling cloak.

It was frigid, and she would have noticed and suffered for it had she not been driven by a sheer mountain of spurting adrenaline and the will to survive.

A creek came into view, and she dove for it, letting the freezing water wash up all around her and soak her to the bone. It was the only way to keep the hounds off of her trail, and so she did not hesitate.

She climbed up onto the far bank, water running down the tips of her hair and the ends of her elbows. Then she felt the cold, as the sodden fabric clung like plaster to her skin, and she shuddered, her teeth rattling together.

Steam came up off the top of her head in great clouds as she pressed forward, hearing the sound of hunting hounds behind her and their terrible masters spurring them on. She just had to make it a step further, then another, and on and on, she carried herself, not dwelling on the raging fire of hurt within her chest or the protest of her limbs.

Liza did not know how long she ran. It seemed forever, and yet, it also seemed to be but a fleeting moment. Nothing seemed quite real anymore when she finally tripped on a twisted root and went down hard into the leaf-ridden forest floor.

As her body hit the ground, she felt the toll of the escape catch up in one sinking moment. She could go no further. She let out a deep, ragged breath, sending the leaves before her face into a flutter as she sank into the dirt.

She tried to push herself up to her knees, but as she did she began to wretch horribly, and cast the acid of her stomach out upon the leaves. The sour taste shocked her senses, and she gasped for air as her body shook. Then she slumped down with her back against a great oak tree, letting her head lull over to one shoulder.

No more. I’m done. I tried.

There was a simplicity in that acceptance. There was nothing left to worry about. She was done. Nothing was coming after. It was liberating, in a way, and she found herself chuckling as her head rolled to her other shoulder.

“I’m done,” she said aloud, glancing up at the dappling tree tops. “That’s it. No more.”

Liza shut her eyes. It felt so good to shut her eyes. She didn’t have to run anymore. She smiled as she muttered to herself, letting the few random rays of light shine down upon her face.

“It’s over.”


Chapter One


Pearlbarrow, England, 1680


Fiona snapped a twig beneath her boots as she picked her way through the bush around her. The spring was coming on in full, and all the seasonal blossoms were booming around her, causing her to flash a brief smile in appreciation.

She was a fair young woman with light brown hair, tucked up in a bonnet above her cloak. Her cheeks were rosy from the outdoors, and above them sat a piercing pair of green eyes that flicked about in search of her objective.

Over her arm she wore a small woven basket, within which she had placed numerous herbs and mushrooms, and on her hands she wore a deli-cate pair of leather gloves.

Fiona stepped slowly through the woods, scanning the earth with her eyes like her Father had taught her. She had learned that the forest could provide everything one needed, and she meant to make the most of it. She was in no position to neglect anything, not now.

The stakes were too high.

The springtime sun came through the tops of the trees in a beautiful, nonsensical pattern, and it brought Fiona a sense of warmth as the sun alit upon seemingly random leaves, igniting a beautiful mosaic of natural splendor.

Fiona stooped and scooped a large lump of fungi from its perch upon an old soggy log. Here they were all but forgotten, alone in a sea of green and brown and blue, but in her basket, they were the center of attention. They were the last ingredient she needed, and the most important.

With all of her ingredients gathered, she started off back for town. It was not a long way, but it was long enough to warrant a stiff marching pace. She didn’t have all day, after all. She had things to do, some of them in-credibly important.

She breached the tree line sometime after, and saw the sun starting to descend the way it did in the evenings over the top of her village. It was a humble space, nothing exciting, but it was home.

Home was a cluster of some twenty houses around a well, with larger plots of land stretching out beyond that in every direction where people raised sheep and goats. As the sun began its descent above the thatch roof-tops, Fiona smiled to survey such a land. She loved it. More than anything.

“Fiona!” that familiar, sweet friendly voice she knew so well drifted about her ears, and she turned to see her red-haired friend skipping up the hill to her, hoisting up the bottom of her skirt. “You’re back then?”

“Cheers, Ag,” Fiona called down, giving half a wave. “I am back.”

“How is he?” her friend asked, drawing up alongside and catching her breath a step. “Still going at the potions?”

“Whatever will help,” Fiona said, her smile fading fast. “He is in a bad way.”

“You know you have our prayers, Fiona,” Ag said, touching her arm ever so slightly.

“I thank you, of course,” Fiona answered back, trying to resurrect that slim smile for her friend’s sake. “But prayers do not make for a sure result, I have found.”

“Don’t tell my Mother so,” Ag said, rolling her eyes. “Come, I will show you down,” and she locked her arm with Fiona’s, and began leading her down into the village.

“No, I certainly won’t,” Fiona said, cracking into a real smile for the first time in weeks. She did not have many friends in this world, and she only had one true friend. The woman beside her never failed to make her smile, and she loved her for it, among a million other reasons. “How has she been keeping?”

“Agatha!” a shrill older voice called from across the village green. “Agatha! Get home now, girl!”

“Right on cue, isn’t she?” Fiona said, a true smile breaking forth as she cocked her head.

“She is bloody good at that,” Agatha said, frowning. “Give your Father our love and prayers,” she said, turning back to Fiona. “I will see you come morn.”

“Indeed,” Fiona said, patting the top of Agatha’s hand. “Good evening.”

“And you,” Agatha said, crossing the green and marching inside past her Mother’s blatant look of shock and fury. Fiona watched her friend go and let out a smile.

Then she turned to the door before her. It was nothing special, just a wooden door set against the side of a mud wall house in the dreary north of England, neglected by money and people in power. It was just a one room house with a thatch roof, and it was just a door, but Fiona knew what lay within.

She loved her Father with all her heart, and she wanted to go to him and brew the potions that would ease his pain, but she did not want to watch him die. And yet she had to, for he was her Father, and there was no one else.

“Father?” she asked hesitantly as she pushed the door open. “Father, are you awake?”

“Fiona,” a sickly, roughshod voice came floating through the dim, smoky room, across the single table and past the smoldering hearth, round the cooking pot and over the single bookshelf to hit Fiona’s ears.

“Is that you?”

“Yes, Father,” she said, carefully shutting the door behind her and lowering down the oaken latch. “How do you fare?”

“Oh, I’ve felt better,” he laughed out in a horrible retching cough from his place on the bed, separated from the main space by a thin curtain. “Come here, girl.”

“I brought many ingredients,” she said, setting the basket down on the central table and opening clasps of her cloak. She hung it on a small board of pegs fastened beside the door, warmed her hands by the fire for a brief spell, and then turned her attention to the curtain.

Fiona took a breath to compose herself, straightened her skirts, shook her head, and blinked hard three times. Then she pushed the curtain open and knelt down beside her Father’s bedside.

He was terribly frail. Layers of wool blankets had been draped over him in the small wooden cot. A lamp hung above the bed flickered as it swung slightly back and forth, its chain creaking with each initiation of movement to the other side of the beam.

He lay on his side beneath the blankets, shivering and sweating. His skin was pale, and there were awful bags beneath his eyes, yet on his face he held a smile as Fiona came in and knelt down beside him.

“Lay back,” she said, dipping a nearby rag in a bucket of water by her feet.

“As you say,” he grunted, rolling over onto his back. As he did so, his hands came up to his chest and clutched at the ends of the blankets.

“Here we are,” she said, laying the cool damp rag over his forehead. “Are you faring any better than you have been, do you think?”

“Oh, Fiona,” he groaned, cracking a smile. “I know the score for what it is.”

“You mustn’t speak that way,” she shot back, turning to a small glass bottle on a shelf. “You know that you will be fine in a number of days.”

“It is important to be confident in the things that you do,” he replied, stifling a bit of a cough as he spoke. “But you must also accept reality when it is before you so blatantly.”

“Still your library speak, thank you very much,” she said, casting him a look over her shoulder before returning her attention to the bottle. On a small spoon she carefully collected four drops of liquid from the small vessel. “Open up then,” and she poured the solution down his throat while he tipped his head back.

“Bloody awful, that stuff,” he complained, wiping his lips.

“Now sleep for an hour or so,” she said, rising up. “I must tend to the stew.”

“Do what you must,” he said, closing his eyes and tipping his head back against the propped-up pillows. “I shall not be going anywhere.”

Fiona smiled, placing the small bottle back on the rough wooden shelf. She went back through the curtain and walked over to the table where she had set her basket. She hated to see him so weak. She had never known him to be weak, in body or mind, and yet now it was all he could do to get off that cot.

She began taking a few of her ingredients and pulverizing them with a medium-sized mortar and pestle. She knew she could bring him back to health, if she just tried a bit harder, she could save him.

Then he gave a horrible, retching cough from the other side of the curtain, and the sound was like heaving through a rattle. As he did so, she dropped her tools and clamped her hand over her mouth, feeling tears welling up and spilling down her cheeks.

Fiona was running from the truth. Her Father was dying. The sick-ness had come over him a week ago, and if he was going to recover, then he would have begun feeling better by now.

She was a healer, as he had taught her, and she had been so confident in her ability to save him, but as the days went by she realized more and more that she had lost this battle, and it devastated her.

All her life, he was all she had ever known. Her Mother had died in childbirth, so she had been told, and he had raised her on his own. He had taught her the ways of the forest, and the natural healing remedies that had been practiced for endless generations. He had taught her to read, write, run, fish, hunt, heal, and laugh.

Now, as he lay in his sickbed, coughing away the last dregs of his life, Fiona felt terribly scared and alone. Without him, she wasn’t sure what she had left. Just an old hut full of memories.

She wiped her tears away as his coughing subsided and went back to her task, methodically grinding stone on stone and watching the mush-rooms become a fine powder. It was a soothing process for her, and she often took great joy in the preparation of medicine. But on that evening, it was not a joyous task, rather a most welcome distraction from the grim re-alities of her world.

After she prepared the medicine she turned her attention to the small cooking pot over the fire. The rabbit stew was simmering over the fire, and the smell, though not outright amazing, still made her mouth water.

What I wouldn’t give for a bit of salt.

The evening passed in an uneventful fashion. Fiona made a few more vials of medicine, ate two bowls of stew, and then hunkered down at the table with one of her Father’s herbology books. There was always some-thing to learn, she found, in those old pages. That, and they had no other books to read.

Then, when the moon was at her peak, Fiona woke suddenly. She had fallen asleep with her face on the pages of the book, her body slumped on the bench, and she blinked a few times as she squinted in the dark house–the only real light was coming from the smoldering, dying fireplace.

Then she heard the wheezing that had woken her, and she rose hur-riedly, fumbling to get her legs swung back over the bench. He was making horrible sounds, hacking and groaning, and she ran to his side, tearing through the curtain wall.

“Father,” she said, quickly kneeling down beside him and touching her hand to his head. His skin was so hot, she felt as if she could have cooked upon it, and she began to feel horrible despair taking hold of her heart. “No, no, let me get the medicine.”

“Leave it, girl,” he croaked, as the coughing died down for a moment. “Leave it.”

“I won’t,” she insisted, trying to wipe the tears away from her face and looking about frantically for the vial of medicine. “We must get you well.”

“I said leave it, leave it alone,” he mumbled, shaking his head. “Let nature take her course,” he said, rolling his head back on the pillows. “Go into my chest.”

“What do you want from it?” she asked, trying to still the tears from her reddening eyes.
Fiona crouched down and opened the small wooden box beside the bed and opened the latch. The chest was full of odds and ends, some fold-ed bolts of cloth, and a fresh pair of leather boots. It wasn’t much, but it was about all someone could hope for in a place and time such as theirs.

“In the boot,” he groaned, pointing with one finger, his eyes flicker-ing. “A parcel.”

Fiona reached her hand into one of the boots and was confused to find a small cloth package. She had never known her Father to be the kind to keep secrets, or to hide things away. She pulled the parcel out and found it to be a small, folded pouch of cloth.

“Is this it?” she asked, holding it up.

“Open it,” he croaked.

Fiona undid the cloth wrapping slowly, unsure of what she could ex-pect to find. It was heavier than she had expected. As the last corner came away, she gazed down at a round, silver pendant on a leather cord.

It was a strange piece of jewelry, expensive to be sure, and worth a good bit of coin for the silver it was made from, but the symbol in the cen-ter threw Fiona off. She did not recognize it. It reminded her of the Celtic images she had seen in books, hailing from the wild and rugged North–the country they called Scotland.

“It was your Mother’s,” he said, smiling as much as he could. She looked up at him with confusion, excitement, and sorrow all at once. He rarely spoke of her, and his actions were indicative of someone that did not think they would have another chance to reveal whatever it was they want-ed to. Yet she was enthralled by this strange pendant, and the mystery that attached itself to the piece of jewelry. “It should be yours.”

“Then you shall give it to me when you see fit,” Fiona protested, now crying openly. There was no concealing the grief that flooded her being.

“Take it, girl,” he hacked back, shaking violently in his bed. “I am dying.”

“No–”

“We both know it, I taught you better than to ignore it,” he shot back, pulling the blanket up closer. The room was terribly dark, the dying fire-place casting long shadows over every wall. “Now listen,” and he reached out for her hand. Fiona took hold of it, clutching his frail fingers with the pendant in her palm.

“What is it?” she whispered through her grief.

“When your Mother came to me,” he wheezed, “she already carried you within her. She made me swear I would never tell you…” and he broke off into a coughing fit, continuing when it had subsided, “but you should know.”

“What are you saying?” Fiona asked, cocking her head. None of this made any sense.
“I am not your Father, girl,” he said softly, “that piece is from your real Father, wherever he may be. He was a Scotsman, perhaps he still is I suppose.”

“No, that is not true,” she protested, crying even more now. “You are my Father. You always have been.”

“I love you, child,” he said, looking upon her fondly. “Always stand your ground, do that for me.”

“I will,” she cried, and held his hand tighter.

“You’ll be all right,” he said, casting one last caring smile her way. “I’m sure of it.”

“How? I cannot do any of this without you, do not go.”

A strange look then fell over his face, and all the muscles in his face relaxed. His eyes opened wide, and he opened his mouth to speak, but he faltered.

His voice came in a scattered, grizzly tone, and Fiona could not make out any of the words. They were far too suppressed by whatever had hold of him then. His hand tightened around hers, and his arm began to shake, true confusion on his face.

Then his head fell back, and he died.

***

The funeral was the following day, and it was a crowded affair. It seemed every man, woman, and child that had ever called upon her Father for his healing services, and their relatives, had come to town to pay their respects.

He had been much loved by all, and an integral part of the communi-ty for many long years. He had delivered children, cured infections, and of-fered help even when people could not pay for his services. Of course, his charity had left the house and his finances not in the best of shape, but he had helped countless people, and in that, he had been satisfied.

This was the story Fiona heard time and time again as people circled past to grip her hand and offer their respects. By the end, all the stories had seemed to blend together into one grand narrative that she cherished, and yet also broke her heart, for he was not there to share it with her.

They laid him to rest in the churchyard beside her Mother, whom Fiona had only ever known through the headstone. Now there were two graves for her to visit there in the cemetery.

When all the bustle was over and done with, Fiona felt utterly ex-hausted. She dragged her feet heavily up the little hill to her Father’s house–to her house–she would have to get used to that and leaned up against the door.

It was stuck, as it was about half of the time, and Fiona did not have the energy to force it open. Instead, she leaned up against it, and began to sob into the wooden planks, lightly flailing her fists against the sealed por-tal, lamenting her loss. Now she truly was alone.

“Fiona,” her friend’s voice came from behind her, and she turned her head to see Agatha approaching with a parcel.

“Oh, this bloody door!” Fiona cursed, kicking at it once more and stubbing her toe. “Blast!”

“Come on then,” Agatha said, drawing up beside her. “We’ll do it together. On three, one, two, three!”

Together the two of them forced the door open with a victorious crash, and they tumbled into the small house in a rather fumbling fashion.

“What’s that you’ve got there?” Fiona asked, nodding to the parcel, trying to think of anything besides the tears that she could not quite keep back.

“My Mother made you some bread,” Agatha replied, laying it down on the table. “The pious one that she is. Come, you should sit down.” To-gether they sat on the benches across from one another, and Fiona held her head in her hands.

“What am I going to do, Ag?” Fiona asked, shaking her head, watch-ing her tears drip onto the table.

“Well,” Agatha said. “You should start by eating something.”

“I have no appetite,” Fiona muttered.

“That may well be,” Agatha shot back. “But you should still eat something.”

“Perhaps,” Fiona said, flicking her eyes toward the loaf of bread that Agatha was unwrapping. Then her eyes flicked back to the curtain, now hanging open, and the empty bed. “But before anything, I must burn those sheets. They may have some sort of contagion attached. Consumption can be resilient. And I will not sleep on them.”

“What, now? Is that a good idea?” Agatha asked, clearly trying to steer Fiona onto any other subject of thought.

“It must be done,” Fiona said, simply shrugging. “I’ll gather them up. Clear the pile out back, will you?”

“Very well,” Agatha said softly, and went out of the house.

Fiona pulled the blankets and sheets together in a bundle, taking one last look at the space where she had tried to nurse him back to health. Her eyes fell upon the pendant. She had set it aside on a shelf beside the medicine the night before, and not thought much about it until that moment.

As she started to dwell upon it, it began to consume her. She had ignored what he had told her, largely because she did not want to dwell on it and partly due to the chaos of the day. But now, void of any other distraction and confronted by the physical reminder of his words, the thought be-came everything.

Behind the house, Agatha had cleared the small burning pile of charred wood and set up the base for a fire when Fiona came out lugging the pile of sheets behind her. Without speaking, and with tremendous talent, Fiona struck up a fire and began to pile it high with wood.

They stood there in silence for a time as Fiona added the bedding to the fire and watched it burn. Then she pulled the pendant from her cloak and looked at it in the flickering flame.

The symbol was enticing, mysterious and strange. It spoke of her Mother’s life in a way that she had never considered. What sort of strange adventures did she have?

“What’ve you got there?” Agatha asked, warming her hands by the flame.

“It was my Father’s,” Fiona answered, handing it over for inspection.

“I’ve not seen it before,” Agatha replied, admiring it in the firelight. “It is quite interesting.”

“I had not either before last night,” Fiona replied, taking the pendant back. “But he told me, well…”

“What did he tell you?”

“He told me that he was not my Father,” Fiona announced, and by saying the words she cemented the thought within her. There was no running away from this.

“He said what?” Agatha said, clearly taken aback. “What d’you mean?”

“He said that my Mother was with child when they met,” Fiona went on. “And that she made him swear never to tell me. This, I suppose, was a gift to her from my real Father, whoever that may be.”

“That is all quite shocking,” Agatha said, shaking her head. “I know not what to say, nor to make of it.”

“Nor I,” Fiona said, looking back down at the pendant. “I’ve half a mind to throw this in the fire.”

“Don’t do that.”

“I won’t, I just mean, well, I don’t know. I don’t know anything right now, it seems,” Fiona said, sighing. “I have nothing left.”

“You have me,” Agatha said, tucking her arm into Fiona’s. “I shall always be here for you.”

“Thank you,” Fiona said, choking down tears once more, then gulped down her sorrow, putting on a brave face and sniffling. “Shall we have a drink then?”

They left the fire to burn as the night came on in full, and they went into Fiona’s cottage. She went to the shelves above the fireplace and took down a large clay jug, from which she poured each of them a healthy serving of wine.

They clunked their wooden cups together silently, and each drank deeply for a moment. Fiona let the warmth of the drink wash down her throat and embraced the loosening that came with it. She felt like she could finally breathe, and she let out a mighty sigh.

“What will you do?” Agatha asked. “Will you stay here?”

“Where else have I to go?” Fiona asked back, taking another drink of wine. “What else is there to do?”

“Anything,” Agatha replied. “Everything. You are a healer, you can find work anywhere.”

“Not a very good one I suppose,” Fiona said, glancing back toward the now-naked bed.

“Stop that,” Agatha shot back. “Don’t you dare do that.”

“You are right,” Fiona said, shrugging. “I know you are right.”

“What of this pendant, he said it was from your real Father?”

“Yes, but he did not tell me who it was. I am not sure if he knew. Ei-ther way, what good is it?”

“It was your Mother’s,” Agatha said. “That alone is worth something.”

“I know nothing about her, he only really ever told me that she was a healer as well, and a good one at that, but nothing more.”

“This symbol,” Agatha mused, “it looks like nothing I am familiar with.”

“Nor I,” Fiona said, bobbing her head and trying to blink her eyes free of tears. “Though if he was Scottish, I would assume it came from there, somewhere in that vast country.”

“What on earth was she doing up there?” Agatha wondered aloud, looking at the pendant more closely. “Your Mother, I mean.”

“Who is to say?”

“Do you think he is still alive, this mystery father of yours? He could-n't be that old, could he?”

“I hadn’t thought about it,” Fiona lied. She had thought about it a lot. It was practically the only thing she could think about, and yet the truth of it all was terrifying to her. Her entire life, as she had ever known it, had been an illusion. Now, she had the chance to wipe away the fog from the mirror and look within.

“It is a violent country,” Agatha muttered, picking up the pendant once more.

“No more than ours, I suspect,” Fiona said, reaching for the wine pitcher. “Violent world, really.”

“No need to be cynical.” 

“Isn’t there?” Fiona countered, and Agatha gave her a playful yet scolding look and refilled her own cup. Then Fiona had an idea. One so plain and simple that she was surprised she had not thought of it before. It all made sense.

“I could seek him out.”

“What are you on about?” Agatha asked, blinking.

“I could seek out my Father. Surely whoever made this pendant would remember it. Here, look,” Fiona flipped it over and pointed to a small etching on the back. “This is the maker’s mark. Surely I could find him.”

“Don't you mean we?” Agatha replied.

“We?”

“Come now,” Agatha said, rolling her eyes. “I’m not going to let you wander the world all alone now, am I?”

“Let me understand,” Fiona said, laying her hands flat on the table. “The two of us, off on some grand adventure like some sort of dreary poem?”

“Poetry is a wonderful thing,” Agatha teased, sliding the pendant back over the table to Fiona. “But in short, yes, that is what I propose. It was your idea, after all.”

“You are good for a laugh, aren't you?” Fiona scoffed with a smile. 

“We could never really do it, could we?”

“Oh come now, why not?” Agatha asked, leaning forward. “There is nothing stopping you.”

“What about money?”

“You have all of his now, don’t you?” Agatha said, bobbing her head toward the chest. “He wanted this for you, why else would he have told you?”

The thought gave Fiona pause as she stared down at the pendant, resting coolly on the table. But why had he kept it hidden all these years? What was the secret so terrible and fateful that had died with her Mother? These thoughts grew and grew within her at an unchecked pace, pulling her faster and faster down the rabbit hole of ‘what ifs’ and ‘how dids’.

“Perhaps you are right,” she finally said in a mulling tone. “What else is there for me to do? Live here? I’d rather not.”

“This place is a dung pile,” Agatha agreed. “What is there to lose? You can even find work as you go with your skills, need be.”
“If they don’t hang me for a witch,” Fiona said, cocking her head.

“Hush up,” Agatha waved her hand while she poured them each more wine. “Then it’s settled. We should leave tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Fiona balked. “So soon?”

“The longer you sit in this house, the more likely it is you won’t ever depart,” Agatha informed her, pushing her cup across the table. “And be-sides, my Mother has a set of suitors coming in from the farms tomorrow. I won’t marry a farm boy if it’s the last thing I do.”

“I see what this is about!” Fiona laughed. It felt so good to laugh. She had thought for a moment that she would never laugh again.

“Nonsense. I will see you in the morn then,” Agatha said, rising from the bench. “Rest, try to at least.”

“I shall,” Fiona replied, glancing up at her friend. They shared a warm look, and then Agatha went out into the night.

Fiona looked down into the pendant for a long while as the fire dwindled. She thought of her Father, whom she had just buried, and of the life they had shared so happily, and she thought of her Mother, and won-dered just who she had been.


Chapter Two


Winterdale, Scotland, 1660


Liza washed her hands in the basin beside the table. She was set up in a small room with basic amenities and had just finished sorting through all of her remaining medical supplies. They were fast dwindling. Before long, she would have to visit an apothecary, though where she would find one in this empty countryside was another matter.

She went out of her room to the common space and threw a rough cloak around her shoulders that was hung by the door. Then she took the long ladle hanging beside it, popped the lip of the barrel standing beside the door, and spooned herself a nice portion of cider.

With the warmth of it in her chest, she stepped out the door into the day. The countryside here was vast and imposing, but there was a beauty that Liza found appealing. It was a bit cold for her tastes, but the cider went a long way in that department.

“Morning Liza,” a stable boy said, hurrying toward some neglected chores.

Liza smiled to see him go and looked around the village. She had not been there long, only a month, but she had enjoyed her time there. It would soon be time for moving on, but she would hold fond memories of this place. It had been one of her better stops.

There was some sort of commotion coming from the far side of town, and Liza squinted out to make a better picture of it. There was a cart rolling in, and people were running around it, shouting about something or other.

As the cart came closer a man came sprinting up to her, out of breath, sweating, and his shirt boasted bloodstains. Liza did not know what had happened, but she knew what she would have to do.

“You the healer?” the man gasped, buckling over.

“What has happened?” Liza asked, kneeling down to him.

“Trade caravan attacked,” the man huffed out, catching his breath. “My friend, he’s shot.”

“Get him inside,” Liza said, standing quickly. “I must make ready.”

Liza ran to the back room and fast began unpacking all the equipment she had just put away. She was not a surgeon, not by any means. She was a healer, more talented with sicknesses and common ailments.

However in a moment of need, she would not shy from the task of saving a life, no matter how unlikely the outcome. She unfurled her parcel of instruments, quickly sorting through the contents for the tools she needed. She brought the water basin aside and set it there next to her tools, and through the window she saw the stable boy running past once more.

“Boy!” she shouted, and he stopped still in his tracks at her tone. “Fetch boiling wine! Now!”

“Come on man, nearly there!”

“Christ!”

Liza turned around to see the wounded man being carried in. His friend had him supported on one side, and his other drooped in blood-soaked clothes.

“Get him on the table!” Liza snapped. She was making ready as fast as she could and struggled to help lift the man onto the wide wooden table she had eaten breakfast off of not two hours ago.

“Blast that hurts!” the man howled, clutching at his hip.

“Get your bloody hands away from it and let me see,” Liza swatted the man’s hands away. “You! Hold him!”

The man’s friend clamped his wrists down to the table and Liza bent down to examine the wound. It was the work of a musket ball, no doubt about that. Liza clicked her tongue nervously.

“I hate muskets,” she muttered.

“Ah, Christ save me!” the man screamed, writhing about.

“Shut your howling!” Liza barked. “Christ won’t save you ‘til after you’re dead so you best make do with me. I’m going to take this ruddy ball out of you, so help me, and I need you to be brave right now. Can you do that?”

The man looked at her with clear surprise, and he nodded as he gritted his teeth in pain.

“Don’t you dare call for your Mother because you ain’t dying,” Liza ordered, handing his friend a stick. “Have him bite this.”

The stick went between his teeth and he clamped down hard as Liza cut away the patch of his clothes in the way. The wound was vicious, but it was not beyond her capabilities.

“The bullet is stuck just above your hip, I’m going to pull it clear,” Liza said, grabbing up one of her instruments. She poured a splash of water over the area, trying to clear it of blood but without too much success.

“Brace yourself now,” she said, more to herself than her patient, and with a quickness she pulled forth the bullet, much to the discomfort of the man lying on her table.

“Christ!” he howled, spitting out the stick. “Is it gone?”

“Put that back!” Liza commanded. “I’ve got to go back in for the shirt.”

Once more she fished inside, and this time she pulled the small patch of cloth that had been taken in with the bullet. If left unattended, it would cause a fatal infection. Then it, too, was free, and the bullet and patch of shirt rested together in a small tin pan.

“It’s done,” she said, leaning back against the wall, breathing heavily. The moment the operation ended, all the nerves she should have felt came flooding forward, and she felt complete and utter relief at her success. No doubt her patient did as well.

The boy came with the boiling wine and she cleaned the wound once more, then wrapped the man’s lower torso in a series of bandages. She then gave to him a vial of medicine that would lower any chances of the infection, and just as she was about to smile for a job well done, she heard more shouting from outside.

“Other survivors?” she asked, glancing to the man standing at the end of the table.

“We were the only ones.”

“Keep him there,” she nodded to her patient, now passed out. Then she splashed her hands in the water basin, trying to clean at least a bit of the blood off, and went out the door the see what the shouting concerned.

She was confronted by five men on horseback, sabers hung at their sides and muskets strapped to their saddles. Their leader seemed to be quarreling with one of the villagers who was blocking his path at the base of the hut she was staying in.

“Ye!” their leader snarled, seeing her standing there in the doorway. “Ye’re  harborin' prisoners of our Laird! We would haeve them from ye!”

“Prisoners? What nonsense are you on about?” Liza shot down to them. “I am a healer! These men are in my care! Now go away!”

“Watch yer tongue, lass!” the leader snarled, kicking his horse a few paces toward her. “We will take our Laird’s property. We haeve heard of ye, healer, going from village to village, spreading yer vile magic!”

“You are the worst sort of man!” Liza spat back. “These men were part of a trade caravan. They are nobody’s prisoners. And I am no witch. But you already know all of these things, don’t you? You know that you are in the wrong, so leave us in peace.”

“Brave words indeed,” the leader said, the volume of his voice falling. “But I would haeve tae be braver than ye to disobey me Lord. He has claimed these men as prisoners, for they are English traders on Scottish land.”

“There is no war between the nations. You must let them go,” Liza protested.

“Nae right now at any rate,” the leader replied. “But that is nae me place to say. They’ll be coming with us, and so will ye.”

“I am going nowhere with you,” Liza protested, crossing her blood-stained arms.

“The Laird has put out a bounty on witches, as well as thieves,” their leader said.

“By witches and thieves do you mean doctors and merchants?” Liza shouted back at him. She would not surrender so easily, though, as the five horsemen slowly marched up the hill toward her, she realized she did not have many options at her disposal.

“I donnae haeve tae mean anything,” the leader said, drawing up alongside her, towering over her on horseback. “It’s up tae the Laird tae decide these things.”

“Then you are no better than he,” Liza retorted as the horsemen dismounted.

Then a clatter was heard as the uninjured man from within tried to burst through the window, landing sorely on his rump, and scrambled to make a run for the trees not too far distant.

The leader of the horsemen clicked his tongue, sounding unsurprised, and coolly slid his musket from its resting place. He struck a tiny piece of flint to ignite the fuse, raised the weapon, and pulled the trigger. With a blast of smoke and sound the man went down.

“Monster!” Liza hissed at him. “You will burn in Hell!”

“Perhaps, if it’s real,” the man replied snidely. “Noo go on lads, fetch the prisoner. And git her in irons. The Laird will want tae see her, nae doubt.”

“Aye, sir,” a few of them mumbled as they went inside to collect the injured man.

“You will pay for this,” Liza said. “Who are you?”

“Me name’s  Giles,” he replied, stowing his firearm. “Ye can curse me name all ye like if it makes ye happy. But I’m nae the one ye should be cursing.”

“And who should I curse then?” Liza asked coldly, locking eyes with this brigand of a soldier with no morals.

“It is Laird Winterdale that gives thae orders. It’s Laird Winterdale that will pass judgement on ye. And it’s Laird Winterdale,” he said, his face working into a sort of twisted grin, “who is the true monster.”



Chapter Three


Pearlbarrow, England, 1680


Fiona woke to a pounding at her door. She had slept on the bench once more, the wine jug empty in the center of the table, and the pendant clutched in her hand. She opened her eyes slowly, trying to sort out who could be pounding away on her door so early.

She could see the tendrils of morning light coming through the window slats, and she could tell from experience that its color indicated an extremely early rise.

“Wha–” Fiona mumbled as Agatha burst through the door.

“Fiona, do you not lock your door at night?” Agatha asked, exasperated.

“Agatha, it is too early,” Fiona mumbled, shaking her head and trying to sit straight.

“Did you sleep on that bench?” Agatha asked, cocking her head. “Have you forgotten?”

“Forgotten?” Fiona blinked the sleep from her eyes, then she looked down at the pendant in her hand, and it all came flooding back. “You were serious?” she asked, staring hard at her friend.

“I was,” Agatha said, nodding, “come, let’s be off.”

“I was not,” Fiona scoffed. “This is ridiculous, two women, all alone, off to Scotland? We know nothing about the country nor fighting.”

“Who said anything about fighting?”

“It is dangerous in the wilds!” Fiona protested.

“You have spent more time in the wilds than anyone I have ever known,” Agatha said, rolling her eyes. “You cannot back out now.”

"Agatha,” Fiona stuttered, “it was fine for a laugh, but you cannot mean it in earnest. We simply cannot!”

“What will you do instead, hm?” Agatha asked, leaning in with her hands on the table. “Will you become the town healer? Live here alone in this house? Never marry because men are scared of you? Look over to that empty bed and cry? You need an adventure, my friend, as do I. My Mother has been in this hamlet all her life, and I do not mean to become her.”

“Men are not scared of me!” Fiona snapped back.

“They are, you know it to be true,” Agatha replied. “Men around here at least. I want to see Paris and Lisbon, the Colonies, even! And I know you do as well, how many times have we spoken of such?”

“Many times,” Fiona said, letting Agatha’s words sink into her and begin to take hold.

“Now is the perfect time. You have nothing left to hold you here. No one left here besides me. But you might have someone out there, just maybe, there is someone who can still be your family. And if I go with you, then you really have no reason to stay now, do you?”

Fiona just stared at her old friend for a while, blinking and processing the speech. It was all quite a lot to take in, and yet the more she rolled the words around in her head, the more they made sense. Why else had her Father given her the pendant before he died? He wouldn’t want her to sit there and wallow. Why else had she thought of it the night before? It was often said, the drunken one speaks the sober one's mind.

“I suppose not,” Fiona said after a very long while of looking between her friend and the pendant in her palm. That symbol was calling to her, crying out for her to come and find its source. She would find it, she was sure of it. “Let us make ready.”

Agatha’s face broke out in sheer joy, and she ran and hugged Fiona tightly. Then they began a hasty set of preparations, essentially ransacking the cottage for anything that could be of use to them in their journey.

After a short while they had put together a knapsack consisting of some basic food supplies that would last them a number of days, a small sack of coins from her Father’s chest, a few vials of assorted medicines, and some extra clothes in case the wind picked up. It was not much, but it was all they needed for a journey.

It was a terribly foolish thing to do. The countryside near the Scottish border was notoriously dangerous. Tensions between the two nations were once again on the rise, and some said war was inevitable.

They had no weapons, or any way to protect themselves. They had only one horse, so they could not ride at a full pace and would have to alternate who was riding. The danger of being robbed or worse and left with nothing was an incredibly real one, and yet they were going to go anyway.

And go they did, stealing out of the cottage as some of the first people were moving about the village. They took Fiona’s horse from the ramshackle stable beside the house, kitted him quickly, and took the long way out and around the village to avoid any unnecessary confrontations with those they knew. And just like that, they were away.

“Ready then?” Fiona asked, looking at her friend as they stood upon the edge of the village.

“Not sure I can be,” Agatha replied. “But I'm ready to try, aren't I?”

“I suppose I am as well,” Fiona said, smiling at her friend. “Well then. Let's not delay any longer.”

“You are the one who started talking,” Agatha said, rolling her eyes. And so they began their journey.

The day turned out to be a beautiful one as the spring time came to its fruition. They made their way North along the wide dirt road that so many merchants and travelers used, passing many disgruntled farmers and their mules or flocks of sheep.

They had taken this road before, but never so far, and the both of them looked about with astonishment at the vast beauty of the countryside. They had long lived in a small hamlet, secluded by the valley it inhabited from the rest of the wide world.

Now, on a country road, as it wound up and over some of the rolling hills, they took in such views the likes of which they had never even imagined. Fiona had spent many hours in the woods, searching out ingredients, but never had she climbed up and out of their wooded valley. Now, as she did so, she wondered how she could have been so foolish never to do so before.

“It's beautiful, isn't it?” she said, resting a spell to survey to land.

“I suppose,” Agatha replied. “Though there are a great many trees for my liking.”

The spring gave the hills a great bright sheen as the light struck the dew-laden grass, and the both of them could do little but to ogle at the rolling hills and scattered patches of wooded areas. It was amazing to the both of them at just how far one could see from the tops of those hills.

They were terribly close to Scotland, they had been all their lives. Their hamlet was situated just twenty miles south of the border area, but being removed from the main road, they saw none of the traffic and very little evidence of a mercantile route at all.

They resolved to make it to Scotland on the third day, so as not to cross over the border as night came on. That, they correctly decided, would be more dangerous, as more unsavory types were likely to be found out and about in the night, especially now that it was a bit warmer.

“I feel like I'm driving on to market day,” Agatha huffed out, planting another foot on the road.

“What have you ever sold at market?” Fiona asked, grinning.

“Oh, plenty,” Agatha retorted, rolling her eyes.

“Come, on,” Fiona said, glancing around the woods on either side of them. “Let's stop here for the day.”

Fiona was practiced in making camp and had done so many times with her Father while out and about in the woods before his passing. He had taught her much about surviving in the wilds, more than she had ever imagined until she was in the forest without him.

On the first evening they made a camp several steps off the road in some scattered trees and had tried to take turns on some sort of watch, but both had fallen asleep and awoke the next day sorely disappointed in themselves, though unharmed and undisturbed.

Having practically marched ten miles the first day, they confidently stepped out onto the trail and immediately found themselves aching and sore. Never before had they walked so much in one day. They both did much walking in their everyday life, but never a sustained march down a dirt road for such a distance.

Still, they pressed on, much to the protest of their feet and legs. The horse did not seem to mind in the least, and they both envied him for it.

Oh, to have four legs right now rather than two.

It was a strange thought, and not one that Fiona ever had before, but then again she had never walked so far. The scenery was beautiful, and while their feet screamed out at them they were also filled with a great sense of fulfillment and adventure.

Then they crested another rise as the afternoon wore on and saw far down the road a cluster of horsemen, trotting slowly toward them at a traveler’s pace. It would not have been anything to be concerned over, were it not for the bright red uniforms they sported.

“Soldiers,” Fiona said, looking up at Agatha on the horse.

“English soldiers.”

“Could be Scottish,” Fiona countered. “They wear red too.”

“Do they really?”

“We have the same King,” Fiona shot back, rolling her eyes. “Have you forgotten?”

“Still a different country.”

“Same King,” Fiona stuck with her argument, but began to worry. She had heard stories of soldiers doing horrible things to travelers. And yet there were also good stories. Sometimes they helped people.

“Should we get off the road?” Agatha asked, sounding nervous.

“It’s too late,” Fiona replied, looking back to the approaching squad of men. “They’ve seen us. If we go off the road they’ll think it strange and follow us.”

“So what do we do?” Agatha asked, fidgeting in the saddle.

“We go forward,” Fiona said, sucking in her breath, “and hope for the best. We stand our ground.”

“God help us,” Agatha muttered, and the two continued their pace.

Fiona felt her heart pounding in her chest as the soldiers came closer. This could well prove to be the end of their tremendous adventure, and she felt entirely foolish to have put both her and Agatha in such a position. Agatha did not know any better than to march straight down the road, but she did. They should have gone off road, through the woods, but it was far too late for any of that now.

Each step brought them closer to the possibility of harm, and yet there was no escaping it as it bore down upon them. She could do only as her Father had told her, stand your ground.

The soldiers rode straight past, and one of them gave them a friendly nod of his hat as they did so. Fiona let out a bursting breath of relief, as did Agatha, and the two of them began laughing together as they continued on, now diverting their path from the road and skirting alongside it through the brush.

They camped once more and went through greater effort to ensure their safety during the evening, though the earlier false alarm had given them confidence, and they felt good about everything they were doing. Then the morning came.

“Up ye are then, lass,” a gruff, male, Scottish voice said, and Fiona’s eyes flew open in fright. A tall, uniformed man stood over her, looking down with his hands on his hips. Rather than the breeches of the English army, he wore a kilt beneath his red coat. “Come on, time tae wake up then.”

“Who are you?” Fiona asked, raising herself to her elbows. Just then, Agatha stirred awake from the noise, and promptly screamed at the top of her lungs.

“Easy there lass, I ain’t gonna hurt ye,” the man protested, raising up his arms.

“Agatha, calm down,” Fiona said, pulling herself to her feet. “What is going on?”

“Come across ye sleeping,” the man said, folding his arms. “Thought ye looked a wee bit exposed, thought I might look over ye for the rest o’ the night. Thought it would be the decent thing tae dae.”

“You are very kind to do so,” Fiona said, pulling her cloak tightly around herself. She did not trust this man, something about him was amiss, but what, she had no idea.

“Thought perhaps I should be rewarded fer me protection when ye woke up, I did,” the man went on, staring at her with a strange danger glinting in his eyes. Now Fiona understood.

“You thought correctly,” Fiona said, nodding slowly, fishing into the knapsack for the bag of coins. “How much would your services require?”

“Well, how much ye got?”

“Are you robbing us?” Agatha asked incredulously, hopping up onto her feet. “You’re no soldier! A thief more likely, or a deserter!” Fiona shot Agatha a commanding look to shut her up, feeling her heart beat spike.

"Well, she’s right all counts, isnnae she?” the man jested, bobbing his head in Agatha’s direction. “Come on then, hand it over.”

Fiona tossed the man the coin purse, and it jingled as he caught it. He gave a grin and then turned toward the horse.

“No!” Fiona shouted. “You can’t have him too!”

“Why nae lass?” the man asked, walking up next to the horse. “Ye going tae stop me?”

“We might,” another Scottish voice caused everyone to turn in surprise. They were met by the sight of five uniformed soldiers, and a line of muskets leveled at the thief.

“Oh, ye’re a clever bastard ain’t ye Brude,” the thief said with a sigh, his hand dropping to his waist where he had a pistol belted.

“I’m nae sharper than the next lad,” the one he had called Brude said, stepping forward. His uniform was slightly different than the others, and Fiona figured him for the one in charge. As she looked at him, she realized he was the one who had tipped his hat their way the day before. “But ye are just daft.”

“Who d’ye think shoots first then?” the thief asked.

“We haeve five guns on ye, give it up man,” Brude shot back.

“Aye but most those bullets will hit this here fine horse,” the thief retorted. “I’ll get ye before ye reload, take yer sword, and butcher all the rest.”

“I dinnae think so,” Brude growled, looking down the length of his musket.

“Ye want tae take the bet?” the thief said, grinning. “I’m a betting man me’self.”

Then a gunshot rocked through the patch of trees, and musket smoke filled the air temporarily as Agatha let out another terrible scream, and the thief fell dead to the ground like a sack of stones thrown into the ocean.

“So am I,” Brude said, handing over his musket to one of his men.

“By God!” Agatha cried out. “What, what, what happened?”

Fiona watched this man intently as he checked the dead thief on the ground. He retrieved the coin purse and tossed it back her way.

“That’s yers, isnae it?” he said, and began checking the rest of his pockets.

“Thank you,” Fiona said, sliding the coins back into her cloak.

“You shot him!” Agatha balked.

“I did,” Brude said, nodding. “Now what are the two o’ ye lasses doin’ out here all alone?”

“He just, he just–” Agatha muttered, clearly trying to wrap her head around everything that had just happened.

“We are traveling to Scotland,” Fiona said confidently. She knew she had to stand her ground. If she showed weakness, this man could be just as likely to rob her as the dead thief on the ground.

“Ye are in Scotland,” the man said, standing up from the thief and giving his body a kick seemingly for good measure. “But what for?”

“When did we cross into Scotland?” Fiona asked, blinking. There had been no formal border that she remembered.

“I’m nae sure,” Brude shrugged. “Nay a true border, is there? Changes all the time. But now ye’re in Scotland, and the question is, why are ye here?”

“We are looking for someone,” Agatha said, seeming to bring herself back around a bit, but she was still a bit pale.

“Who?” Brude asked, switching gaze between the two of them.

“A silversmith,” Fiona said, trying to make herself look bigger than she truly was.

“They ain’t got silversmiths in England?” Brude asked, cocking his head and planting his hands on his hips.

“Not this particular one.”

“What’s his name? Perhaps I haeve heard o’ him.”

“We…” Fiona considered inventing a name for a moment, in order to seem not as lost as they were, but she realized that he truly might have heard of this man, or perhaps recognize the maker’s mark on the back of the pendant. “We do not know his name.”

“Ye daennae ken his name?” Brude balked. Then he threw his head back and laughed heartily, his hands rising and falling upon his stomach with each bellow.

“You are very rude, sir,” Agatha scoffed back, moving over to stand beside Fiona.

“We know his mark, here, see for yourself,” Fiona said, pulling the pendant from her cloak and gesturing for Brude to take a look at it.

“Let’s see here then,” he said, calming his laughter. He took up the pendant in his hand and glanced over the back of it, studying the mark. Then he slipped it over in his palm and gave the surface a quick look, but as he did so, his face immediately changed, becoming extremely serious, and he said, “Where did ye get this?”

“My Father gave it to me,” Fiona stated, becoming nervous about his reaction. He seemed to have recognized the symbol, and it seemed to mean something to him. Something serious.

“Yer Faither, is it?” Brude asked, his voice falling to a serious tone.

“Yes,” Fiona replied, “what of it?”

“What a strange day this is,” Brude said, shaking his head.

“What is he on about?” Agatha asked Fiona, leaning into her shoulder.

“I have no idea,” Fiona whispered back, becoming increasingly nervous about everything that was happening.

“Well, then,” Brude said. He seemed to be mulling over his decisions in his head, and then he appeared to have come to one. “I think ye both shuild come wae me.”

“Whatever for?” Fiona protested. “Just hand me back my pendant and we will be on our own way.”

“I daennae ken the maker’s mark,” Brude said, flipping the necklace back to her. “But I ken the symbol it sports. Daennae protest, come with us, and ye shall be closer to the man ye seek, I am sure of it.”

“How can you say so if you do not know the mark?” Fiona was resisting this as best she could, but at the end of the day, there were five armed men asking her to come with them. It was hard to find a way out of that situation.

“Ye can ride yer own horse, yer friend will ride with me,” Brude announced. He had, apparently, arrived at his steadfast decision. “Daennae fight me on this.”

Fiona looked back to Agatha, and with their eyes they seemed to agree that this was the only real way forward. They nodded to one another, and then Fiona looked back to Brude, saying, “Very well. So be it.”

They mounted up in the order that Brude had described and kicked off down the road. Compared to the pace they had been trodding on foot, the horse ride was incredibly fast.

The vast countryside around them whizzed past as their horses trotted on, moving them further and further toward their unknown destination. Fiona did not know what to expect.

Where could we be heading? What had the symbol meant to this soldier? And what had it meant to my Mother?

***

They came around another bend in the road, between two mounds of earth sloping up on either side, and they saw it. It was a grand castle, sitting high above a quaint little Scottish town. Fiona could see three towers of different heights, rising up from the boxy frame made by the walls and the buildings. The windows were large and extravagant, shining out with the reflection of the sun finding its place for the day.

But more startling than the great building, reaching up for the sky before them in all of its grandeur, were the banners that hung from its parapets and walls.

The largest of the banners hung from the greatest of the towers, flapping ever so slightly in the breeze. It was a grey backing, with a great blue symbol in the middle of it, taunting Fiona, telling her to come closer, but not promising answers. It was the same symbol that her pendant bore, and it decorated the walls of a great Scottish castle.

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  • I would love to read the rest of this book. I’m hooked on it , I love Scottish books. Have been to Scotland and have family there.

  • Dear Miss McKenna,

    Wow, what a preview! Three whole chapters worth! From your letter, I was expected to see a prologue and one chapter… just enough to grab me and make me want more.
    The story is off to a wonderful start. The symbol looks familiar to me — of course, I’ve seen a number of symbols employing the Magic of Three … I know it’s a favorite symbol — I have a couple books on symbolism here. Anyway, one of the meanings of the symbol from my lore stuff is a reference to the Triune God – the idea of God being both “Manifest” (as the universe), and “Unmanifest” (as the darkness of the Void – or as the Holy Spirit that drifts among the stars), and the third element as the “Ground of Being” on which “He Stands”. Sorta kind of. In fewer words… it means “Cosmic Balance” (Well, that’s my little Two Cents Worth, anyway.) 🙂
    Anyway I love Scottish Highlands romances – the men in the stories are either really heroic, or despicably evil. *grin* This looks like a tale I will enjoy reading to the end. Thank you for the nice (and generous) preview!

    • Wow, what great details and references! Love it! I will try to research these symbols more 😀 So glad you enjoyed the first part of the book ❤

  • The story line is totally engrossing and all consuming. I can’t wait to read it to find out what awaits Fiona and Agatha when they arrive at the castle. What dark secret will they uncover? Will it be the dangerous Laird Liza escaped?

  • I can’t wait until oct 16th. I enjoyed the preview very much ! I love a good mystery and the Scottish Highlands ! Thank You, Kathy

  • I lived the first 3 chapters. I am beginning to wonder if Fiona’s mother is Liza.. and the man who she was raised with found Liza in the woods and nursed her back to health.
    It is only a hunch though..
    I can’t wait to readd the rest.

  • This is one of my favorite previews. The rest of the book is definitely going to be worth reading. I’m looking
    very forward to the finished book.

  • Great story so far! I can’t wait till Friday. The girls have been very lucky. Of course if you think of the odds of a murderer being on the rd at the same time and place it would be much lower than a theif. Love it so far.

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