Much Ado About Highlanders (The Scottish Relic Trilogy)

BOOK: Much Ado About Highlanders (The Scottish Relic Trilogy)
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Dedication

To Linda Brown

Our cherished friend . . . and writer extraordinaire from the Land Down Under

Prologue

The Northern Coast of Scotland, 1494

The ship was nearly gone. All that was left clung to the sharp rocks of the reef. The timbers glistened in the sun like the ribs of a carcass picked clean.

Cairns stared at the low waves breaking on the stony shore. Around him masts, lines, and sails lay tangled up with casks and boxes and cargo.

And bodies. So many bodies.

He focused on the remains of the vessel that had broken apart in an instant. On a clear day in a steady breeze.

Perhaps his friends had not drowned. Perhaps they died when the ship came apart like dry kindling. The vessel had splintered into four segments with a sound so terrible that his ears still roared at the memory.

Wet and cold and exhausted, Cairns pulled out the leather pouch that hung around his neck. From it, he removed the broken piece of tablet. His fingers traced the ancient markings. So small you could hold it in the palm of your hand, but it held a special gift. Together, the four pieces of the tablet held a terrible power. No one had warned them how terrible. There was no way for them to know.

The stone grew warm in his hand. The power of it raced up his arm like sunlight breaking through a cloud. It drove sharply into his chest, and then came the second sight. His gaze swept across the littered shore. All along the beach, the spirits were rising from the dead. He didn’t want them to tell him how they died. He didn’t want to hear their confessions. He slipped the stone back into the pouch.

Cairns steeled himself for the task ahead. Moving along the inlet, he trudged from one body to the next.

None of them belonged to his three friends. He turned his face to the sea.

Perhaps they were still alive. Or perhaps they were dead at the bottom of the ocean. It didn’t matter. Long ago, they had sworn an oath. If they survived the journey, they would each safeguard one piece of the tablet. If they lived, they would travel to the farthest corners of Scotland.

Cairns knew what he had to do. Turning toward the mountains to the south, he began his journey.

Chapter 1

There was a star danced, and under that was I born.

Western Coast of Scotland

Fifty Years Later

The old saying danced in Kenna MacKay’s head.
When a man comes to a birthing, someone will die.

And yet, Kenna thought, if the man were a physician, right now that was a risk she’d gladly take.

She was in deep waters, and she knew it. She was no midwife. Her prayers were frequently ignored by the saints. And she had no interest in witchcraft. Regardless, she had to convince either God or Nature to lend a hand and turn this bairn around.

“Let’s get her to lie down with her feet pointing at the roof and her head down here.”

The young villager looked uneasily from the woman in labor to the contraption of wood and straw Kenna had assembled on the floor and followed orders.

“M’lady, have you ever done this type of birthing before?”

Kenna looked down into the frightened face of the mother. Three young children were waiting with the husband outside.

“Aye, I’ve helped with birthing.”

A fire pit in the center of the large room spewed too much smoke and heat. Kenna wiped the sweat from her brow and focused on what needed to be done. It was a struggle, but the two managed to move the pregnant woman into position.

“Our bairn wasn’t to arrive till next month. The midwife promised me she’d be back from visiting her sister. I had no trouble with the others.” A contraction cut the words short. The mother’s cries were followed by the wailing of children.

Kenna hoped her cousin Emily would be able to keep the family out of the cottage. Delivering a baby wasn’t part of the plan for their day when the two of them left Craignock Castle early this morning. But arriving here and hearing the laboring woman’s cries, Kenna had vaulted from her horse and come inside the cottage to help. That was hours ago.

“I’ve heard the midwife say women die when the bairn is turned this way.”

Without thinking, Kenna reached up and pressed the pouch hanging under her dress against her chest. Her mother’s lucky healing stone felt warm against her heart.

“The midwife is wrong. She hasn’t had my schooling. I’ve been trained by the nuns of Glosters Priory on Loch Eil.” A bit of exaggeration was excusable considering the pregnant woman’s distress. Setting bones, stitching wounds, and tending to the sick at the priory’s spital house were the extent of Kenna’s training, but many women passed through the priory. They talked. They shared stories. Some had a great deal of experience in birthing, whether it was with their own bairns or with helping others. She recalled one long, involved story a woman told of turning a breech baby by raising the mother’s hips above her head. Kenna prayed that wasn’t a tall tale.

She touched the woman’s stomach, feeling, pressing gently, speaking softly, encouraging mother and child to do right by each other. If she’d only paid closer attention, Kenna thought, to what the woman had said.

She searched back through her memory. The contraption only helped so much. She had to convince the bairn to turn around. Kenna focused on the stretched skin of the mother’s belly. Her hands warmed. Wherever she touched, she felt the bairn move beneath her fingers. She massaged and coaxed the unborn child, whispered soothing words.

The next contraction left the mother sobbing and clutching for Kenna’s hand. “If I die here, my babies—”

“You will not die,” Kenna told her. “Now help me. Help your bairn. Let’s show this wee one the light of day.”

Kenna prayed that she was doing the right thing. She hoped that her confidence in herself was not misplaced. Many considered her gifted as a healer, as her mother had been. But eight years ago, Sine MacKay died giving birth to Kenna’s twin brothers. Gifts had their limits. Childbirth had the potential of being deadly in the best of circumstances.

Her fingers kneaded the woman’s stretched belly until they ached. Kenna made one last silent plea. Small ripples moved beneath the skin. What looked like a head pushed at her hand, making its position known before shifting in the mother’s womb.

Kenna held her breath as the woman cried out with another contraction.

“By the Virgin, I see the head,” the young villager shouted.

Moments later, the babe was born.

By the time the stiff skin that served as a door lifted and her cousin came in, the mother was back on the straw pallet and Kenna was handing the bairn to her.

The neighbor was busily gathering up soiled rags, but she stopped, eager to share the news.

“It was a miracle, m’lady. Lady Kenna showed the bairn which way to go, and the wee thing minded her. Saw it with my own eyes, I did. Turned right around at her ladyship’s bidding and came out the way the Lord intended. A miracle.”

Emily touched her on the arm and crossed the room.

The farmer’s wife kissed Kenna’s hand. “May the Virgin bless and protect you, m’lady. May you see your children’s children.”

Kenna took a coin out of her waistband and tucked it into the mother’s hand. A swell of emotion rose in her like an ocean wave, deep and powerful. Her voice shook as she spoke. “You must stay off your feet, do you hear me? Your labor was hard. You and your bairn both need time to recover.”

At Emily’s dismayed glance, Kenna looked down. Her sleeves were rolled up to the elbows. Her riding dress was soiled with blood and sweat and who knows what else. Locks of hair hung loose, having escaped the once tight braid. She led her cousin out into the fresh air.

Greeting them, the husband wiped the sweat off his face and moved a toddler from one hip to the other. Two other children, not much older, clutched at the man’s legs and gawked up at Kenna.

“Did she give me a son?” he asked.

Kenna’s hands clenched into fists. “So you heard the bairn’s cry. Do you not care to ask if your wife lives or not?”

“Does she live? Please tell me, m’lady. Does my wife live?”

“Do you want her to live?”

“Aye, o’ course. Her wee ones need her. I need her.”

“She could have died in there.” Kenna looked at the fields beyond the hut before turning to him. “She lives today, and she lives tomorrow. And she’ll live to see the harvest, if you make certain she rests now. Her work must wait, do you understand? You owe her that.”

The man nodded. “Aye, m’lady.”

As the neighbor came out carrying the basins and rags, the farmer and the children pushed past her and went in.

Kenna breathed in deeply. Two lives saved. Relief pushed through her as she gazed up at the bright blue sky for some time before looking back at her cousin. “Not exactly the leisurely ride we intended. Eh, coz?”

“What a blessing we were near!”

“Where are the men your father sent out to escort us?”

“While you were inside, I thought we would be here for a while. So I put them to work. Two are cutting up the fallen tree we saw down at the edge of the orchard. One was sent to the village to fetch the crofter’s sister.”

“What about the one you sent back to the castle?”

“Now I’m thinking he should be back in time for the christening.” Emily smiled. “I’m amazed you were able to manage it.”

“There were moments when I had my doubts.”

“But you’ve done this before?”

“Not alone. Only helped.”

“Is there much call for the midwife’s skill in a community of nuns?”

“With the English raiding to the south, more wounded have been showing up at our gates. Many are crofters. Like this one.” She glanced at the door. “They’ve been fighting to keep their villages from being pillaged and burned, but they can’t battle an entire army. So we see a lot of poor folk coming north. They’ve nowhere else to go. And amongst them, there are a few women heavy with child. And others who are experienced as midwives.”

Emily’s gaze swept over the southern hills. “The English are coming closer all the time.”

Kenna had witnessed too much suffering in recent months. She pushed aside the cloud of gloom.

“I need to wash.” She looked down at her dress. “Ruined, I think.”

“What does it matter? Come with me.”

Beyond the hut and down the hill, a stream weaved through a grove of trees, offering protection from any prying eyes.

“You never told the crofter if he had a son or daughter.”

“He had a son. But that news should be shared by his wife, not me.”

Kenna crouched at the water’s edge, and her cousin perched on a nearby rock.

“Helping with that birth. Watching a new life come into the world. Doesn’t it make you want to hold one of your own someday?”

Kenna stopped rubbing the hem of her skirt under the stream’s clear water. She met Emily’s gaze. The two of them had been more like sisters than cousins growing up. But they lost something when Kenna moved to Glosters Priory six months ago. “I try to not think of it.”

“Doesn’t the thought of having a bairn change your opinion of marriage at all?”

“Nay. Marriage is a sentence. A life sentence.”

“Not all marriages.”

Kenna recalled a time not too long ago when the two of them spoke dreamily of the men who would walk into their lives and steal their hearts.

“You no longer believe in love?” Emily asked.

“Love? Cupid
kills
some of us with those bloody arrows.”

“You don’t mean it.” Emily shook her head in disbelief. “Every woman dreams of hearing a man profess his love.”

“I’d sooner hear a dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.”

Emily laughed. “Kenna MacKay, you never used to be so stubborn with your opinions.”

“I’m not stubborn,” Kenna replied. “But it’s a topic I have no taste for.”

“You do recall that I’m getting married in a fortnight.”

“Why do you think I accepted your invitation and left the priory to be here? My plan is to steal you away, far from the clutches of your father and this ridiculous arranged marriage to Sir Quentin Chamberpot.”

“Chamber
lai
n
,
” Emily corrected, sliding off the rock and joining Kenna at the water’s edge. “And all arranged marriages need not be ghastly. Granted, he’s a Lowlander and a widower, but Sir Quentin Chamberlain is quite distinguished.”

“Distinguished by the possibility that he still has two or three teeth left in his head?” Kenna scooped up water and splashed it on her face.

“Come now, cousin.” Emily smiled. “He’s not that old.”

“You don’t know that. They haven’t even allowed you to meet him, have they?”

Kenna shook out what was left of her braid and ran her fingers through it.

“There was no time for us to meet. The arrangements were made when the Privy Council met at Stirling in the spring. But we have exchanged letters.”

“So he can read, too? What a catch!”

Her cousin laughed. Kenna removed her shoes and socks and put her feet in the water. Large splotches marked her sleeves, as well as the bodice and skirt.

“And I suppose they told you he has the muscles of Hercules and the handsome good looks of Adonis.”

“Let’s see. Sir Quentin is not too tall, not too fat, and altogether not unpleasant in his looks.”

“Please stop. I may swoon with envy.”

“You are the devil, cousin,” Emily said. “He has no heir. He’s a ranking member of the Dunbar clan. He can provide me with a comfortable life. I imagine I’ll have a peaceful life once I’ve given him a son.”

“A peaceful life? You’ll have no peace, living in the Borders. Not as long as the English king keeps insisting that our infant Queen Mary wed his own son.” She stood up, lifted her skirts, and took another step into the river.

“Careful. The current is strong. It’ll drag you down the river.”

Kenna’s head came around. “Heed your own words, Emily,” she said gently. “Don’t be caught in this torrent they’re pushing you into. Don’t marry him. Come with me. You don’t need him or this marriage.”

“You know that I cannot. I’ll never be as free as you. You and I are different.”

Emily stood up and shook her skirts. They were as clean and tidy as when they’d left Craignock Castle.

“You have the Highlands bred into your very bones. You have the independence of your MacKay heritage in your blood. My father and his father before him have been politicians, not warriors. And I’m an only child. I need to honor his wishes.”

“And what is it that your father is gaining from this union? Has he traded you away for a caravan of gold and jewels from this buggering Lowlander?”

“I’ve been told that Sir Quentin has agreed to send a company of Dunbar warriors to help protect our lands. Those English troops have been seen not two days’ ride to the south.”

“An even trade to get protection for the clan. That’s nonsense. Your father should still ask for a caravan of gold.”

Emily paused. “He is giving me away with a sizeable dowry.”

Kenna made her way out of the water. “What is he offering?”

“A ship.” Emily nodded slowly. “My dowry includes a ship.”

She looked warily at her cousin. “Where did your father get a ship?”

“I don’t know. But they have it hidden in a firth somewhere along the coast, I’m told.”

As Kenna bent down to retrieve her shoes, a movement by the line of trees drew her attention. But she had no time to shout a warning as a hood dropped over her head and a large hand clamped over her mouth.

A worktable was no protection. A fortress was no protection. A legion of armed warriors could provide no protection.

The abbot cowered in his seat, happy to be forgotten while the two Macpherson brothers argued across the room. But at every lull in the discussion, he was certain that they must be able to hear the fearful pounding in his chest.

If his heart stopped, at least he wouldn’t have to play his part in the Highlanders’ insane plan. Who was to say how the MacDougall laird would react to his involvement in this, forced though he was? He might very well just burn the abbey to the ground.

The abbot looked at the tapestry of Saint Andrew on the wall and said a quick prayer for delivery, however it might come.

The elder brother, Alexander, strode to a north-facing window and stared out. The man was tall and broad and powerful. The abbot had once seen the African lion they kept in the menagerie at Stirling Castle, and Alexander Macpherson moved with the same lithe grace as that king of beasts. And he was equally terrifying. As gruffly courteous as he had been so far, he had the steely eyes of a man who would take what he wanted. And God help any man who stood in his way.

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