Authors: Madelyn Hill
Table of Contents
The Wild Thistle Trilogy
SOUL MATE PUBLISHING
Cover Design by Anna Lena-Spies
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BY MADELYN HILL
For the Love of a Gypsy
Heather in the Mist
WILD THISTLE TRILOGY
I want to thank the women who have fought
for their beliefs, for love, their lives, and injustices.
May your strength be infused into those
you love to carry on your memory and your courage.
Highland Hope wouldn’t have been possible without the inspiration of the many kick-ass women who lead the way for all of us. Historically, there are strong women, women who lead and risk all for their convictions. Women who trained and fought for their clan, land, and country. With their heart and courage, I found myself writing about three women who are linked because they are sisters, but are decidedly unique and independently strong.
For The Wild Thistle Trilogy, I drew upon historical women such as the Celtic Queen Boudica, Countess of Ross who led her troops during William Wallace and Andrew de Moray’s battles with the English. Isobel, Countess of Buchan left her husband, took the finest war horse and fought for Robert the Bruce, and Black Agnes who not only fought with Robert the Bruce but also defended her castle against the Earl of Salisbury for months. I was inspired by their strength and dedication and that fact they did not allow a man to tell them “no”.
There are so many women in history who have led by example, too many to list, but here are a few of my favorites; Joan of Arc, Golda Meir, Mother Theresa, Anne Frank, Susan B. Anthony, Harriett Tubman, Rosa Parks, Queen Elizabeth, and Sandra Day O’Connor.
Scottish Highlands, 1703
The waves swept across the ocean in unrelenting scrolls of terror as the water of the Sound of Sleat boiled like a witch’s cauldron. Hope MacAlister stood watching the sound, afraid their presence would tempt the angry sea further as its rage competed with the battle between her clan and Clan Mungo just outside the keep. Metal clashed, then thunder boomed. She grimaced as men screamed. Beside Hope, Faith looked from the tower; her chin barely reached the top of the crenellated barrier between her wee body and the sheer cliff below. Their sister Honor, their father’s favorite, stood beside them. Her eyes wide with fright, her five-year-old lips trembling. Hope held onto her hand, crooning a few words of reassurance, her twelve-year-old maturity marked her as the bravest of the sisters.
Their maid Nora screeched above the roar of the whipping wind as her portly form bustled toward them. She gathered them into her outstretched arms and herded them away from the sea. “Lasses, come, yer mother has me scouring the keep for yer wee hides!”
Weeping breached the broad doors protecting the laird’s rooms. At once, the girls glanced at each other, nervous and afraid. With a hearty shove from Nora, they crossed the threshold. Faith, a bold and curious lass of eight, dragged her sisters further into the darkened chamber.
“We’re doomed,” their mother moaned, her body hunched over a figure on the mammoth, canopied bed. “They’ll take all from us.”
Hope rushed forward and patted her on the arm. “Tell me, Mother. Why are you crying so?”
Catriona MacAlister lifted her head and wiped at the tears channeling down her face. Her bright blue eyes faded by the redness, her usually porcelain skin was ruddy. Strands of golden yellow hair escaped her veil and mussed around her grief-stricken face. “My angels.”
Honor gasped and attempted to crawl upon the bed. With help from Faith, she pulled herself up and began wailing. Her sisters’ gaze followed her pointed finger and tears began to thread down their freckled faces.
There lay their father, the strength of their lives and Laird of Clan MacAlister. Blood crusted his pale brow, mangled his auburn hair.
At Honor’s cries, his eyes slowly opened. All ’twasn’t lost, it appeared, for their great oak of a father still lived, unlike the many clansmen who hadn’t survived the war with Clan Mungo.
“Ah, here’s me women,” he rasped beneath a grimace of pain.
They all came closer, eager to be near him despite his battered state. His right hand clasped his wife’s face as his left pulled Honor closer. “Me loves, ye have tae be helping yer mother now, ye ken?”
Honor’s wails stopped, yet tears still overflowed her lashes.
Hope took her father’s hand from her sister’s into her own. “Aye. We’ll do our duty to the clan.”
Faith nodded her head, obviously too frightened to speak.
“Remember, lasses. Through Hope, Faith, and Honor, ye can rule.”
His eyelids closed as a stuttering breath brushed past his lips. His hand went limp as it fell from his wife’s face. All four females stared as if eager to hear him speak again, touch them with his infallible spirit of life.
Catriona began keening with such heartache the girls could barely stand to stay in the chamber.
The great Laird of Clan MacAlister was dead.
God help them all.
Ten years later . . .
Clansmen lowered the casket into the ground with the help of thick ropes. A heaping pile of dirt and stones stood to one side and a crowd of mourners to the other. The soft keening of Nora’s voice filled the air as wind whipped the dark tendrils of Hope’s hair about her face.
How she dreaded this moment. The time after death when everyday life returned to normal as the bailey filled with people scurrying to attend their duties. ’Twas as if her mother’s death weighted them no longer, yet the grief still tormented Hope, still sat deep in the pits of her stomach and heart. How could she stand to manage? Her mother had guided her in leading the clan in lieu of her father for nearly ten years. Lady Catriona MacAlister now lay dead after a brief illness, never again to council her daughter in the politics of clan life or even give a hug so filled with love, Hope kept it wrapped about her for the better part of the day.
By Saint Gertrude, she was alone, save her sisters, both younger and possessing no interest in her worries. The elder councilmen waited in the wings, ready to snatch any security she’d gained right from beneath her ghillie-covered feet. She suppressed a shudder at the thought of the clan council and their edicts.
As her mother’s ancient maid completed the mourning song, her gentle soprano voice sang the last note as final as the closed lid on Catriona’s casket. Hope looked to the hole in the ground and almost succumbed to tears pooling behind her lashes. Her sisters stood nearby, not flanking her as she wished, but slightly behind as if they loathed sharing her responsibilities and burdens. Faith snuck her hand beneath Hope’s elbow and gave a squeeze. With a barely perceptible nod, she acknowledged her younger sister’s support, as little as it was, all the while caressing the hilt of her favored sword.
Summoning all the strength left in her body, she bent down and grasped a handful of dirt. The scent of loam drifted toward her and mingled with the heather that flew along the path of the ardent wind. The aromas reminded her of heritage and duty.
Remember, lasses. Through Hope, Faith, and Honor, ye can rule
By Saint Margaret Mary, she didn’t ken why her father’s words came to her now. During the trying times of her leadership, she had come to loath the motto he whispered before dying. It relentlessly sparked in her mind at the most inopportune moments. As she squeezed the moist earth against her palm and tossed it into the grave, an empty feeling consumed her, then fear and uncertainty pushed it aside. Would she be able to uphold her promise? Hope stood and watched her sisters reach from behind and toss their handfuls of dirt.
Would she do right by them, she fleeting wondered? God, she prayed so.
A bagpipe began to skirl the familiar mourning march as they headed back to the main hall of Wild Thistle Keep. As they passed the stone palisade surrounding the bailey and those who inhabited it, the piper stopped. A heavy silence, save the echoes of footfalls, bore unbelievable weight upon her shoulders.
Surely the elders of the clan council would force her to relinquish her position as Laird of Clan MacAlister. They’d fought her mother hard and fierce for control. Yet, Catriona had bared her teeth and shown insurmountable strength for such a wee woman. ’Twas like her, to take a stance and become as deeply rooted as an oak in her belief. In the end, the council relented and allowed Hope to rule under her guidance. Why? Hope ’twasn’t certain, but she kenned they’d be eager to share their reasoning.
Now that her mother was gone, she had one option.
She needed a husband.
Aidan MacKerry gazed upon the broad perimeter of the keep. To breach it would prove difficult, but difficult was his favorite kind of task. He rested his hand on the horn of the saddle. The leather creaked beneath the shifting of his weight and Wolf looked back at him.
“Patience, lad,” he said to the animal. “We’ll have our due.”
Wolf appeared dubious, if a horse could manage such an expression. Aidan had similar doubts, but the idea of being laird had filled him for as long as he could remember. His father, proud and strong, had foretold of this moment at his passing nearly a year ago. Aidan never warmed to superstitions like many Highlanders, but the memory of his father’s last words sent chills up his spine.
Despite his grief, a smile tugged on his mouth. Aidan was a warrior, broad of shoulder, long of limb, and winsome of face, if the women of Clan MacKerry were accurate. Not that it mattered. He’d been summoned by the clan council to Clan MacAlister and that helped him accept his father’s superstitious beliefs.
“I’ll bring justice,” Aidan said as he tilted his head to the sky, hoping his father would hear him. “You have my word on it.
As I pledge
They’d waited for this day, together, Aidan and his da. When the MacKerrys had taken them in after their banishment, his father accepted they’d be no longer be part of MacAlisters’s sept clan, but MacKerrys’s. Aidan kenned it troubled his da, as if he’d given away a piece of him with their clan. But he wanted to push away the harsh memories, the betrayal of a wife, and the fact he’d never be laird.
Aidan wiped his eyes of weariness. He’d ridden long and hard to arrive on this day and his muscles tensed beneath anticipation and strain. He gauged the horizon to determine if he could make his presence known before nightfall. The sun had dipped low into the tree line, shadowing the lay of the land and making the descent from the hills treacherous. He shifted his weight in the saddle once again. Uncertainty wasn’t a trait he was known for, but the desire to grasp the lairdship nearly overrode common sense.
In the end, the descent along with crossing the bridge to the rocky peninsula proved too ambitious for the evening.
He dismounted and grabbed the roll from behind the saddle. He loosened the girth and removed the saddle. Wolf lowered his head and began grazing on the sweet spring grass beneath his hooves. Aidan chuckled as he wiped the sweat from the animal’s broad back.
Anticipation brought his gaze to the keep once again. Although his father discussed his rightful place within the clan, he’d never spoke of anyone, not even of the laird or relatives they’d left behind. No matter how much Aidan pushed for the information. ’Twas an awkward position, barging into the keep without information. Information which could keep him safe and help support his cause. Aye, he’d the letter from the council. ’Twould allow him entry and the ear of the current laird. And if the laird tried to fight, so be it.
It mattered not. He’d travel into the fiery regions of hell to be laird of Wild Thistle Keep. Aye, and ’twas a fine keep, large and secure. Over the crenellated stone palisade peeked four towers; one decorated by the MacAlister badge and those of their sept clans. He assessed the guards walking along the battlements and he saw the glint of steel, perhaps an arrow, from the slits in the tower. He nodded, giving full approval of the current laird’s attention to security. These were troubling times in the Highlands, and it never paid to be careless.
He’d heard rumors about the laird. ’Twas said the laird was a woman. He’d kept the rumors from his father, lest the man expire on the spot after hearing such news.
“A woman,” he spat. “Never.”
He rubbed his bristled chin. Mayhap, ’twas why the council summoned him, they were tired of being led by a woman.
His gaze lit upon the keep once again. A female strolled over the battlements, away from the vigilant guards. He watched as she reached behind her head and released her hair. The wind took it away in a gusty wail and the dark tresses waved behind her with abandon. Who was she? He wished he could get closer to see the face of the woman silhouetted against the dusk sky. Aidan sighed, knowing pursuing any woman ’twouldn’t be wise. There could be no distractions to his quest. After one last look toward the keep, he unrolled an extra tartan and lay upon it.
Sleep evaded him, but his thoughts did well to fill his mind. Aidan had never been given his due, his father often reminded him. Not from the MacKerry clan and most certainly not from Clan MacAlister.
“Now,” his father had whispered just before his death. “Ye must go to them now, me son. I ken in me gut the time is right. Take back what the greedy bastard stole from us.”
Aidan had nodded, grief still felt like a stone of frustration and sorrow. “Not to worry, Da,” he’d said with a rasp in his voice. He’d tucked Liam MacKerry’s tartan close beneath his chin and knew time was scarce for the auld man.
In the morning, his father was gone and Aidan’s welcome among Clan MacKerry had worn too thin to keep him there a moment past the burial.
He rubbed his eyes free of the remembrance of his father’s death. Aidan reached into his sporran and retrieved the foolscap with its intriguing message which arrived just before he left MacKerry territory. Fine sand was still suspended in the dried ink scrawled across the thick paper, yet the words gave him reassurance.
If ye wish to lead Clan MacAlister, the time is now. Take heed and do not speak of this to anyone. I will seek you, when you arrive. The council awaits you, our rightful laird.
He fell asleep beneath the cloak of the star-pierced sky and the unfamiliar feeling that here, he belonged. His father had deemed it so, supported by the mysterious letter asking him to come to Wild Thistle Keep.
On the morrow, he’d set his plan in motion to claim his birthright.