Highland barbarian, p.1
Highland Barbarian, p.1Part #1 of Highlander series by Ruth Ryan Langan
Ruth Ryan Langan
Harlequin Books edition – 1990
Copyright 1990 Ruth Ryan Langan
Digital Publication 2014 by Ruth Ryan Langan
Cover design by Tammy Seidick Design
Digital formatting by A Thirsty Mind Book Design
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To my mother, Anna Beatrice Curley Ryan.
In case I’ve forgotten to tell you lately how much I love you.
And, of course, to Tom. Always to Tom.
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A quotation from John Fordun’s “Chronicles” in Skene’s Celtic Scotland, from 1363 to 1384, states:
The highlanders... are a savage and untamed nation, rude and independent... comely in person but unsightly in dress, hostile to the English people and language... and exceedingly cruel. They are, however, faithful and obedient to their crown and country....
That quotation fascinated me. And as I researched, I discovered some who could have been my ancestors. I admit that I fell in love with these highland barbarians.
Scotland – 1561
The line of mourners stretched as far as the eye could see. The men, women and children of the MacAlpin clan waited patiently to pay their respects to their fallen laird, Alastair MacAlpin. Dressed in simple peasant garments of rough wool, their hands callused from lifetimes of hard labor, they had left their fields and herds and trudged for miles to the manor house of their chief.
Seventeen-year-old Meredith, his eldest daughter, sat beside his body to greet her people. Her thick dark hair, the color of mahogany, had been brushed into silken waves that fell to her waist. Her green eyes occasionally misted with tears that were quickly blinked away.
Beside her sat the younger ones, sixteen-year-old Brenna, with hair the color of a raven’s wing and eyes that rivaled the heather that bloomed on the hill, and fourteen-year-old Megan, whose copper hair and gold-flecked eyes gave her a glowing radiance that shamed even the sun. Though it was Brenna’s nature to be serene in the eye of the storm, it was the first time Meredith had ever known her youngest sister, Megan, to be so subdued.
One by one the people paused to offer their condolences and to pledge their loyalty to Meredith, the new clan chieftain.
“You had a fine teacher, lass.” The gnarled old man, Duncan MacAlpin, wiped a tear from the corner of his eye and placed a bony hand on the girl’s shoulder. “You’ve learned your lessons well. You’ll do the MacAlpin proud.”
“Thank you, Duncan.” Meredith steeled herself against the pain. There would be no public display of weakness. What her people, and especially her younger sisters, needed to see now was strength, dignity, hope. Later, when she was alone with her grief, she would give in to the overwhelming need to weep.
The clatter of horses’ hooves sent the chickens squawking and clucking in the courtyard. The door to the manor house was opened to admit Gareth MacKenzie and a dozen of his men. The MacKenzie land adjoined the MacAlpin land to the north, then stretched for miles until it met the river Tweed.
“My condolences, Lady Meredith.” Gareth MacKenzie bent low over her hand, then turned to study the still form of the MacAlpin. “You know, of course, who murdered your father?”
“Aye. Cowards. Highwaymen who struck under cover of darkness and hid behind masks. Duncan here said there were more than a dozen.”
“You saw them?” Gareth turned a piercing gaze on the withered old man.
“I was bringing Mary back from a birthing at our nephew’s farm. By the time I realized what was happening, they were gone. And the MacAlpin was drenched in his own blood.” The old man choked back a sob before adding, “Mary and I brought him here in our wagon. But even my Mary’s medicines could not save him!”
“Did you get a good look at any of their horses?” Gareth’s hand hovered inches above his sword, and Meredith was touched by the vehemence in his tone. Though their lands had been adjoining for generations, she had never before been witness to Gareth’s concern for her father’s welfare.
“Nay.” The old man’s voice broke. “It was too dark, and my eyes are growing dim. But my arms are still strong enough to wield a broadsword with the best of them. A few minutes sooner and the MacAlpin would still be alive.” He touched a hand to Meredith’s shoulder and added softly, “Or I’d have died alongside him where I’ve always been.”
“Don’t dwell on it, Duncan.” Meredith stood and wrapped her arms around the man who had been her father’s right hand since they were lads. “You and Mary did all you could.”
“Those were no highwaymen,” Gareth said in a voice loud enough for all to hear.
A murmur went up among the crowd.
“What are you saying?” Meredith turned to study him while keeping an arm around Duncan’s shoulders.
“It was the Highland Barbarian, Brice Campbell.”
Meredith stiffened. The very name Brice Campbell sent terror through the hearts of all who heard it. He was a Highlander, and rumored to be the most feared warrior in all of Scotland. The Lowlanders, and especially the Borderers, found themselves under attack by both the English and their own neighbors in the Highlands.
“Everyone knows he and his men come down from the Highlands and strike, then disappear into the hills before anyone can catch them.”
“But why would the Campbell attack Alastair MacAlpin?”
“The land.” Gareth noted the hush that had descended over the crowd. “How many times have your borders been attacked in night raids in the past year?”
It was common knowledge that MacAlpin land had been attacked half a dozen times. Eight men had been killed and two boys under the age of ten. Crops had been destroyed, cattle stolen. And each time the looters had disappeared without a trace.
“ ’Twas the English. Everyone knows they are the ones who loot and pillage.”
Meredith frowned. “My father never mentioned the Campbell.”
“Not to you, perhaps. But he said as much to me.”
She was stung by his words. For as long as she could remember, she and her father had shared everything. With the death of her mother and then the murder of her little brother, Brendan, father and daughter had forged a bond of love and trust. Why would he have kept such a thing from her?
As if reading her mind Gareth said, “You’re young, lass. Alastair thought it too much of a burden to place on your shoulders. And so he confided in me and suggested that if anything should happen to him, he wanted to be assured that the MacKenzie clan would look out for you.”
“I can look out for myself.” She drew herself to her full height and turned away, dismissing him.
“I would not presume to intrude on your grief unless I thought it of the utmost importance.” Gareth touched her shoulder and drew her around to face him, knowing that the crowd of onlookers overheard everything. “But those under the protection of the MacAlpin must be assured that they will have a strong leader. If it is indeed Brice Campbell who killed your father he will not be deterred by a lone woman. Your father would expect you to form a strong union immediately.”
He saw her eyes narrow fractionally as she gave him a withering look. “You would speak to me of marriage before my father is even in the ground?”
As she started to turn away he said, “I speak of a merger of our two lands, our two clans, in order to fight the common enemy. It is a small sacrifice to pay for the safety of those who depend upon you.”
Meredith saw the looks that passed from Duncan to Mary, from one villager to another. Though no one spoke she could sense the fear that had suddenly taken hold. A seed had been planted. A seed of fear and rebellion. And she felt powerless to stop it.
“I am not suggesting that you marry me,” Gareth said, pressing his advantage. “Though as the eldest, it would be my right.” He saw her shiver and knew that he had touched a nerve. From the time they were children Meredith had sensed something unsettling about Gareth that she could not name.
Gareth dropped an arm about a young man’s shoulders and thrust him forward. The two were the same height, and the same coloring, with golden hair and tawny skin. “My younger brother, Desmond, has always been a friend to you. As husband, he would pledge the strength of the entire MacKenzie clan to your protection.”
Meredith saw the way the young man blushed. Desmond, dear, sweet Desmond, hated being made the center of attention. But he had always deferred to his older brother’s wishes.
“As my husband, Desmond would also acquire all the MacAlpin land.” Her voice was low, challenging.
Desmond always stammered when he was agitated. “Think...think you that the MacKenzies need your land?”
Meredith felt a wave of shame. It was well-known that the MacKenzie holdings were so vast that only Campbell land could compare. Still, the MacKenzie ambition was well-known. If not Desmond’s, then at least Gareth’s.
“I will speak of this no more until after my father has had a proper burial.”
Gareth smiled and stepped forward to lift her hand to his lips. “That is as it should be. On the morrow we will return with a marriage offer that will bring peace and prosperity to our borders.”
He seemed pleased when Desmond followed his lead and lifted Meredith’s hand to his lips. Moving smartly, he marshaled his men from the house. With a clatter of hooves they left the mourners to whisper and gossip among themselves.
~ ~ ~
“Stand still, lass. A bride should be calm and serene on her wedding day.” Morna, the old woman who had been with Meredith since her birth, fussed with the hem of the gown.
“Serenity is for Brenna.”
“Aye. You’ve always preferred to be in the thick of battle.” The old woman stood back to admire her handiwork. “Oh, lass. Your father would have been so proud.”
At the mention of Alastair MacAlpin, Meredith’s eyes clouded. Oh, Father, she prayed, looking out over the crowd that was hastily assembling, is this what you would have wanted? Am I to give myself to a man I do not love, in order to protect those I do?
She thought of Duncan, who along with his aged wife, Mary, had privately urged her to accept the MacKenzie offer. “Not for myself, lass,” he had said fervently, “but for my children and grandchildren. There’s been enough fighting among the clans. ’Tis the English we must fear. With enough strength we can stand up to their raids. If the MacKenzies can promise us peace and prosperity, we ought to at least consider it.”
There were others. They came in clusters of two and three to speak confidentially to their new chieftain, hoping to persuade her that there should be no more death and destruction. It was the look in the eyes of the old women that finally convinced Meredith. They had buried husbands and sons. Must they be condemned to bury grandsons as well?
The mere thought of giving herself to a man who did not hold her heart was appalling. But Meredith MacAlpin, whose ancestors could be traced to Kenneth MacAlpin, the first King of Scots, had been trained from infancy to put the needs of others above her own. This day she was determined to make the supreme sacrifice. She would marry Desmond MacKenzie. And she would find a way to love the sweet boy who had been her childhood friend.
She glanced at her two sisters, dressed in identical gowns of palest pink. She would do this for them, so that they could, for a little while longer, be young and carefree. So that the young men they fancied could grow to manhood and give them the lives they dreamed of.
~ ~ ~
“It is time.” As the strains of the harp lifted on the spring breeze, Gareth MacKenzie slipped his mantle from his shoulders and fastened it about his brother. “Wear the plaid with pride, Desmond.”
The two brothers embraced, then Gareth strode to the back of the church toward Meredith, a smile of supreme confidence lighting his features. “I would be honored to walk with you to my brother’s side.”
“I fear that honor is reserved for my father’s dearest friend,” Meredith said softly.
Ignoring Gareth’s outstretched hand she placed her fingers lightly on Duncan’s sleeve. The old man beamed with pride as Morna thrust a bouquet of heather and wildflowers into Meredith’s arms.
Brenna and Megan walked slowly, tossing flower petals along the floor of the cathedral.
As the music swelled, the old man and the beautiful young woman began the long walk up the aisle toward the young man who stood waiting at the altar.
~ ~ ~
The ancient stone cathedral stood in a green meadow. The nearby loch was swollen from spring rains. The sun was just rising above hills still silvery with dew. To the east, the Lowlands were smooth, with only an occasional hill marring the vast expanse of green. To the west, the Highlands rose up, stark and wild and primitive. More than a million years ago the ice age dragged glaciers across the land, forming sharp hills and steep valleys. Only the hardiest of souls dared to live in such a harsh environment.
As the strains of the harp echoed in the morning mist, eerie figures formed a ring around the cathedral. Some led horses, others were on foot. All carried longbows. One, obviously their leader, tossed a rope to the highest point of the spire. Testing its strength, he slung the longbow over his shoulder and began climbing. When he reached the high open window, he pulled himself silently inside and stood on the stone ledge.
~ ~ ~
The bishop intoned the words of the service, then turned to face the young couple. Lifting his arms in prayer and supplication, he gazed heavenward. The words died on his lips as he let out a gasp.
An arrow sang through the air. The young bridegroom seemed to stiffen for a moment, then fell forward. With a shriek Meredith fell to her knees beside him and watched in horror as an ever-widening circle of blood stained his mantle.
As the crowd came to its feet a deep voice rang out. “Any man who reaches for his sword shall die.”
Meredith turned and felt a dagger of fear pierce her heart. The man on the ledge above them was taller than any man she had ever seen, with shoulders wider than a longbow. He wore a saffron shirt beneath a rough tunic and, like a savage, was bare legged to the knees. His feet were encased in brogues and there was a mantle of dark homespun tossed rakishly across his shoulders. His dark hair was thick and shaggy.
Dozens of men dressed in similar fashion stepped into the cathedral. All of them held bows and arrows at the ready.
“I am Brice Campbell,” their leader said, and she was certain he smiled at the fearful murmur that erupted. His name was known throughout all of Scotland and beyond. Only rarely was he referred to by the name Brice Campbell. Those who feared him called him the Highland Barbarian.
“I have come to avenge the blot on my good name inflicted by Gareth MacKenzie. It is not I who raided your lands and slew your sons and brothers. And now that I have silenced the liar’s tongue, I declare this feud ended.”
Meredith gave a little gasp as she realized that Brice Campbell thought he had killed Gareth. As she touched a hand to Desmond’s throat and found no pulsebeat, she saw a movement from the corner of her eye. Turning, she watched Gareth duck behind a wooden pew and shamelessly pull Brenna in front of him as a shield.
Meredith’s heart leaped to her throat. Her beloved younger sister was the only thing standing between Gareth MacKenzie and certain death.
“So that you will all remember that Brice Campbell is a just man,” the voice from above intoned, “I will spare the life of Gareth MacKenzie’s bride.”
As the menacing Campbell turned to take his leave, an arrow sang through the air, fired from the protection of the pew. It narrowly missed its mark, sailing through the open window mere inches from the man’s head. Instantly Brice Campbell’s men unleashed a barrage of arrows, which brought down more than a dozen men on both sides of the aisle. MacKenzie and MacAlpin clanswomen became widows in the blink of an eye.
Highland Barbarian by Ruth Ryan Langan / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction / Romance & Love have rating 4.2 out of 5 / Based on42 votes