The Highlander’s Redemption – Excerpt
The wind ripped mercilessly across the bleak, rolling moorland, driving the icy sleet straight into the grimly-set faces of the Jacobite forces ranged opposite. Calumn peered through the haze of smoke at the ragged Highland line in a desperate attempt to make out the Macleod colours, but it was useless. There was no doubt Rory was among them somewhere. Best not to know exactly where.
The big three inch guns pounded across the narrow gap which constituted no-man’s land. The air was acrid with the stink of gunpowder. Calumn’s ears rang with the noise – the tumultuous blast of artillery, the drums, the snorting and whinnying of the Dragoon’s horses stationed on the left flank. And above it all the eerie banshee wail of the wind.
He readied his company of fusiliers for battle, rousing the men, straightening the line, barking last minute orders. His heart was pounding so hard he could hear it even above the thud, thud, thud of the guns. He was afraid, but not of death. He cared not a jot for his own life, but he was terrified nonetheless. Terrified that he would look up in the heat of battle and come face to face with his brother.
A spine-tingling roar, starting low and rising to a crescendo, as if from the maw of a thousand lions, carried across the moor from the Jacobites. A fearsome, chaotic line of Highlanders, standards flying, began to charge. Calumn automatically checked the fixing on his bayonet. Saw Cumberland give the signal. Gave his own company the nod. And slowly, inexorably, moved forward into the hellish fray.
A shot whistled past his ear. Traitor, traitor, the voice in his head sang out, yet onwards he went, step after disciplined step, towards the heaving mass of wild-eyed clansmen in their plaids. His feet sank into the brackish water of a burn. The wounded screamed, crumpling beside and in front of him. The ferrous smell of fresh blood rent the air, mingling with the heart-wrenchingly familiar scent of sodden wool coming from the filleadh begs worn by the Highlanders. With leaden arms, he raised his musket, aimed, and fired. High. Mutinously high. Far above the heads of the men who were his kin.
A riderless horse bolted in front of him, the high pitched whinny like the scream of a frightened child. He saw the Macleod colours directly in front of him and paused, frantically searching, seeking Rory’s distinctive mane of gold hair, the exact same colour as his own. A hissing noise, which he thought at first was the wind changing direction, made him look up just in time to see the murderous glint of metal arc through the air towards him. In time to turn away from its fatal path. But not in time to avoid it completely. The heavy, double-bladed claymore sliced into the flesh of his belly, the force of the impact sending him flying backwards into his own line. Finally, he saw Rory. As he cried out his brother’s name, his legs gave way beneath him and he felt himself falling, falling, falling…
Calumn woke with a start as he always did, sweating profusely. The dryness of his mouth told him he had been shouting in his sleep. Trembling, like a man with the ague, he reached for the decanter of whisky he had taken to keeping on the nightstand by his bed, gulping down a generous dram of the fiery golden liquid. He touched the large scar which weaved a jagged path across the taut muscles of his abdomen. The physical wound had long since healed but on nights like this the scar felt burning hot, inflamed and aching, as though he had been branded by an iron.
Eventually the vivid memory of the nightmare faded. Calumn slumped back against the damp pillows, clutching his glass. The furious beating of his heart slowed. The sheen of sweat on his chest started to dry.
But other, less visible scars still burned, deep in his psyche. The all-pervading sense of desolation. And the heavy blanket of guilt which enveloped his soul.
Edinburgh, July 1747
Madeleine Lafayette huddled forlornly in the entranceway of a close, the narrow passageway leading to the tenements which Edinburgh’s residents called home. Even in the dim glow cast by the flare of the nearby brazier which served as a street light, it would have been obvious to any passer-by that the young woman was no native Scot. Her slim figure was clad in garments of a decidedly foreign cut, the dark blue tippet she clutched around her shoulders woven in an intricate design that was neither plaid nor stripe. Her flaxen hair showed almost white in the ghostly light, but her skin had neither the pallor of the city dweller nor the swarthiness of the Gael. Rather it was translucent, like a pearl tinged with colour by the sun. With a generous mouth the soft pink of coral and slanting green eyes under fair brows, she had the appearance, against the grey of the city’s sandstone and granite, of an exotic sea-creature out of her element.
Shivering, Madeleine hugged her tippet closer. At the top of Castlehill she could see the dark hulk of the castle looming, forbidding and – as she had discovered to her dismay – impregnable. Perhaps it had been a mistake, coming all this way alone with no contacts and no plan, nothing save the one objective in her mind. To find Guillaume.
The exhilaration of her impetuous flight and the trials of the rough sea voyage with the Breton fishermen had prevented her from thinking too much – about the danger she was courting in coming here alone, the overwhelming odds which were stacked against her, or the terrifying possibility that despite all her certainty she was wrong. That Guillaume really was dead.
No! He was alive. He must be alive.
Above her, from the castle ramparts, someone barked out a staccato order. Footsteps rang out over the cobblestones as another rushed to obey, then silence descended again.
At home in Brittany her father would be asleep, for in the summer months they both rose with the sun. She loved those early morning rides around the estate, checking on the progress of the year’s planting. The scent of dew-drenched grass beneath the hooves of their horses mingled with the tang of salt and the sweet smell of the crops in the fields. By the time they returned for breakfast, the mist from the sea which hung over the land like a cloak of the finest lace would have burned away to reveal the clear azure of the Breton sky. Here in Edinburgh the air smelled so different, of stone and people and dust and dirt. Though she knew the slate-grey North Sea was only a matter of miles away, she could detect no trace of it. A pang of homesickness clutched her.
Guillaume had been here, in Edinburgh. She knew that much from his early letters home. This morning, landing in the port of Leith just to the north of the city, the castle had been her first thought. She’d made straight for it, for she’d been told that Jacobite prisoners were held there still. The discovery that she could not gain entry had been a blow to her hopes. The sensible thing then would have been to look for lodgings, but she had been unable to tear herself away, tormented by the thought that Guillaume might be just yards away on the other side of those thick walls. An endless stream of people passed in and out of the garrison, but all were checked by the vigilant guards. By the time Madeleine had concluded that she must enlist the help of someone with legitimate business there, it was dusk and the city gates were locked. With no clue as to how to go about finding a bed for the night, she fought the urge to shed some tears of self-pity.
She wondered how Papa had reacted to her flight. Perhaps he was regretting the harsh words which had triggered it. He had been so changed since Maman died, throwing himself into the management of the estate as if he needed to fill the void in his life, leaving no room for dealing with his grief. At home, he had retreated into his shell, like one of those hermit crabs she and Guillaume used to race across the sands, teasing them with sticks to make them scuttle forward – though mostly they went sideways.
Without doubt Papa would be furious to find her gone, knowing full-well whither she had come, though she had left no note. Recalling the extent of her wilfulness, Madeleine shuddered.
A burst of hearty laughter startled her out her reverie. A group of soldiers were staggering up the steep incline towards their barracks. Instinctively, she shrank back into the gloom of the passageway, but it was too late, they had spotted her. Three of them, clad in the distinctive red coats and white gaiters of the British army, loudly and raucously drunk.
“What have we here lads,” the largest of the group said with a lascivious grin. Faced with a pair of large green eyes set in a strikingly lovely face framed by white-blonde hair, he whistled. “A beauty, by God.” Grimy fingers grasped Madeleine’s chin, forcing it up so that he could examine her face. “What’s your name darling?”
“Laissez-moi, let me go,” Madeleine said haughtily. She was frightened, but not overly so. They had obviously taken her for a lady of the night, and would leave her be when they realised their mistake. She shook herself free.
The man laughed and tried to snake his arm around her waist. “Give us a kiss,” he said, manoeuvring Madeleine so that her back was against the sandstone of the close wall. The other two joined him, grinning and egging him on. She could smell the ale on their breath, the dirt and sweat on their bodies.
Now she was afraid. There were hands on her, touching her face, her hair, her breasts. She struggled. “Let me go,” she said again, her voice betraying her fear, but the man merely tightened his hold, so she kicked out, her foot in its sturdy boot making contact with his shins.
He yelped. “You little wild cat, you’ll pay for that.”
On the other side of the street, Calumn Munro was returning from an evening in his favourite tavern down in the Cowgate where the whisky, which came from the landlord’s own illegal still, was mellow, and the company convivial. As he made his erratic way home, a woman’s cry for help pierced the balmy night air, causing him to halt abruptly.
Across the road, at the foot of Castlehill, a group of men were bundling something – or someone – into a close. Despite the potent effects of the whisky swirling around his brain, Calumn’s body was immediately on full alert. He strode purposefully towards them, his long legs covering the short distance effortlessly, his golden hair and the heavy skirts of his coat flying out behind him. When he arrived his fists were already clenched in readiness. There were three of them, soldiers in uniform he saw with disgust, surrounding their victim. He caught a glimpse of pleading eyes and fair hair, noted that the woman was young and extremely pretty. She was also struggling frantically.
Concern for her plight and loathing for its perpetrators filled his mind and fuelled his body. With a roar like a battle cry, Calumn launched himself at the soldiers, with nary a thought for his own safety. He took the largest of the three first, hauling him clear of his intended victim before landing his own mighty fist smack in the middle of the man’s face. With immense satisfaction he heard the crunch of bone. A swift follow-through with a double punch to the abdomen, and with a whoosh of breath the man collapsed, moaning. Calumn turned his attention to the other two, fighting dirty, using his feet as well as his fists.
Heart pounding, legs shaking, a cold sweat breaking out on her brow, Madeleine leant back against the wall and took deep, gulping breaths of air while in front of her, in the narrow space, her rescuer set about the soldiers with a devilish fury. He was a tall man and, beneath his expensive evening clothes, a very well-built one, with broad shoulders and powerful thighs. His hair, the colour of ripe corn, unpowdered and untied despite his formal dress, flew out in a bright halo of colour behind him as he dealt efficiently with her assailants. Of his face she could make out little, gaining only a fleeting impression of cold menace.
A cruel blow to the jaw took his second opponent out. A vicious kick and an arm-twisting had the last one at his mercy. On the stairway which wound its way from the close up to the first of the tenements, a man appeared in a nightcap brandishing what looked like a poker. Her rescuer glanced up, telling him curtly to go back to bed, at the same time frogmarching the third soldier out of the close and hurling him into the gutter. Madeleine forced herself to move. Quickly retrieving her small bundle of belongings from beneath the stairwell she picked her way over the comatose bodies of her attackers out into the street where her rescuer waited.
“Are you all right,” he said anxiously, his voice a soft, attractive lilt, very different from the harsh tones of her attackers.
Madeleine nodded. “Yes, thank you,” she managed through lips made stiff with fear. Seeing he was not yet convinced, she tried to reassure him. “Truly, I’m fine, I took no hurt.”
The tension in him eased, his mouth curling into a smile, the fierce lines on his face relaxing, so that she saw he was young, perhaps five or six and twenty, and almost unfairly handsome. His eyes were dark blue, his smile engaging. Despite her ordeal, she could not but return it.
“Calumn Munro,” he said with a flourishing bow, “I’m happy to have been of service.”
“I’m most happy to meet you Monsieur Munro,” Madeleine said with a curtsey which was almost steady.
“You’re French,” Calumn exclaimed in surprise.
She was enchantingly pretty, all big green eyes and silken hair, with a mouth made for kissing. Alone, at such a late hour and in the vicinity of the castle, he had assumed she must be a courtesan, but looking at her more closely he wasn’t so sure. Of a certainty, she was no common harlot. “May I know your name, Mademoiselle?”
“I am Madeleine Lafayette.”
“Enchanté.” His exertions, on top of the whisky, were beginning to take their toll on Calumn. He needed his bed, but he could not simply abandon the poor lass to the whim of the next group of soldiers who were even now making their raucous way up the hill. “Let me escort you home, Mademoiselle,” he said, proffering a gentlemanly arm. “It’s not safe for any woman to be out on her own here at this hour.”
His knuckles were bleeding. There was a bruise forming on his cheekbone. She saw now what she had not noticed before, that he was – albeit charmingly – in his cups. “I am thinking that you too should be in your bed, Monsieur,” Madeleine said, “you look as if you have had too much wine.”
“Not too much wine, too much whisky,” Calumn corrected her gravely. “Let’s get you home. Come now, which direction?”
The words were very slightly slurred. She began to fear that he would collapse if they stayed here for much longer. “Which direction are you taking,” she asked, and when he pointed vaguely down the hill, told him that she too was going that way. She would see him to his own door and then claim to have lodgings nearby. She tugged on his arm. “Come along, Monsieur.”
“Calumn, my name’s Calumn,” he said, taking her bundle and throwing it casually over his shoulder before tucking her hand into his other arm. “En avant!” He seemed to rally, setting off down the brae with an easy grace, the loping stride of an animal built for speed, not the mincing step of a city man. Clinging to his arm, Madeleine had to run to keep up.
They crossed into the Lawnmarket, which during the day teemed with tradesmen selling butter and cheese as well as the wools and linens for which the place was famed. At this time of night it was eerily quiet, difficult to imagine that in just a few hours it would be nigh on impossible to get from one side of the street to the other without running the full gamut of maids, merchants and pickpockets.
At the far end, Calumn stopped at Riddell’s Court where his family kept rooms. “Where to now?”
Madeleine shrugged. “Not far. I can make my own way from here,” she said, trying for a confidence she was far from feeling. The reality of having to spend the night outside and alone was only just starting to sink in.
She reached for her bundle of belongings, but Calumn held on to it, seeming to notice for the first time what it actually was. “You’ve just arrived, haven’t you.”
Madeleine nodded reluctantly.
“And you’ve nowhere to stay?”
“No, but there is no need to…”
“You’d best come up with me then.”
Madeleine shook her head.
“I don’t blame you, after what you’ve been through, but you’ve nothing to worry about. Apart from anything else, I’m ft for nothing but sleep. I’ve a spare room with a lock on the door that you’re welcome to, and I promise I won’t try to take advantage. Word of a Munro.”
She had a fleeting sense of a shadow when he said his name, like a cloud crossing the sun, then it was gone. Weighing up a bed in a house and a door with a lock, against a draughty stairwell and a back-drop of late-night marauders, Madeleine was extremely tempted to accept his offer. Instinctively, she felt Calumn Munro was trustworthy. Had he not already proved himself a knight errant? She nodded her cautious acceptance. “You’re very kind, Monsieur.”
Calumn led her through the wrought iron gate which protected the close entrance into the courtyard and up the steep wooden stairs to the second of the building’s four storeys. He had some difficulty in fitting the heavy key into the lock, but eventually threw the door open with a flourish. “Here we are.” He pulled Madeleine into a narrow hallway and thrust the door shut behind them.
Inside, in the warmth, the after-effects of the whisky hit him abruptly. In the light of the lamp which burned on the table by the door, she watched the colour drain from his face. “Make yourself comfortable,” Calumn said, waving vaguely at a door almost directly opposite. “I’ll just stop here for a wee minute.” He started to slip down the wall.
Though she was taken aback by the rapidity of his decline, Madeleine gamely tried to catch him before he fell unconscious onto the floorboards. “You can’t go to sleep here.” Placing Calumn’s arm around her shoulders, she staggered as she heaved him upright. “Which is your chamber,” she asked, and then all but dragged him towards the door he indicated.
“No, no, I’ll be great where I am,” he mumbled in protest, but she continued to propel him forward, managing to reach the bed just before the weight of him pulled them both onto the floor. “You’re a fine lass,” he muttered appreciatively, collapsing backwards onto the bed without releasing his hold on her.
Madeleine tumbled forward, sprawling full length on top of her host. “Perfect,” he murmured happily, pulling her closer, one arm around her waist, the other hand proprietarily on her bottom, before falling instantly asleep.
Pressed tight against his body, Madeleine could not decide whether to be shocked, annoyed or amused. She could not move. Her head was tucked into the crook of his shoulder, her face pressed into his neck cloth. He smelled of clean linen and warm man. Different, but not at all alien or repellent as her attackers had been. Reassuring almost. It must be his size. He was not just tall, but solid muscle and bone. The contours of his body seemed to complement hers, as if they were two halves of something designed to fit. Her curves melded into his hollows. It was an unexpectedly pleasant feeling. Though she knew it was imprudent, she was not at all inclined to move just yet. Guillaume had never held her like this. That last day, before he sailed to the aid of the Scottish prince, he had not held her at all.
The buttons on Calumn Munro’s jacket were digging into her chest, and something else was pressing insistently against her further down. His hand tightened on her robe. She could feel his heart beating slow and steady through his jacket. She could hear him breathing, feel his breath on her hair. His proximity was making her hot. A trickle of sweat ran down the valley between her breasts. She realised what the something else was which she could feel through the layers of her petticoats. A shiver arrowed through her. She wondered how Calumn Munro would kiss her goodbye. His lips would not be cold. His arms would not remain straight at his side, she was sure of it.
Minutes crept by, and still Madeleine lay pliant on top of him, listening to his breathing in the dark of the room. She stopped thinking. Exhaustion rolled over her like a mighty breaker onto the beach. The temptation to close her eyes and give in to sleep was almost overpowering. Two days it had taken the fishing boat to sail from Roscoff to the port of Leith. She’d felt its rocking under her feet for hours after she had landed. The bustle and noise of the sailors and stevedores at the port had been intimidating. Edinburgh itself was smaller than she had expected, but much more foreign too. Had it been a mistake, coming here?
Beneath her, the tone of Calumn’s breathing changed and his grip on her loosened. Madeleine inched cautiously off the bed, back out to the hallway. Picking up the lamp, she opened the door at the far end and found herself in a large reception room with a huge fireplace. The boards were polished and scattered with rugs. Two enormous wooden chairs of carved black wood sat side by side at the hearth, with a settle opposite. Under the window was a chest of the same wood, the fittings brightly polished brass. A table and four chairs sat in another corner. Heavy rafters showed dark against the tempered walls, on which were two companion portraits. A fierce man in full Highland dress with Calumn’s deep blue eyes, and a woman, golden haired and very beautiful, equally stern. His parents, unmistakably. They were obviously a wealthy family.
A muffled groan drew Madeleine back to the bedroom where Calumn lay sprawled on top of the bedcovers. She ought to make him more comfortable. Placing the lamp carefully on the nightstand beside a decanter of amber liquor, she unlaced his shoes. He did not stir, so she unrolled his stockings. His calves were muscular and finely shaped. His legs, with their cover of dark golden hair, felt rough and warm. His feet were long and narrow. Bare, they made him look vulnerable.
The water in the china jug was cold, but she poured some into the bowl anyway, and found a clean linen towel which she used to carefully bathe his knuckles. She had nothing with which to bandage them, but judged they would heal more quickly exposed to the air in any case. The bruise on his cheek was purpling. At home she would have applied an arnica paste for the swelling.
Engrossed in her task now, Madeleine set about removing Calumn’s jacket, a more difficult operation, for the dark green velvet fitted tight across his broad shoulders. By the time she had finished she was out of breath. His silk waistcoat was easier. She unwound his neck cloth and placed it at the foot of the bed beside his jacket. His shirt fell open at the neck, giving her a glimpse of sculpted chest she could not resist touching. His skin was cool. A dusting of hair. Not an ounce of spare flesh. She should not be doing this.
With an immense effort, Madeleine she rolled Calumn to one side, tugged up the heavy counterpane and sheets, and rolled him back. He sighed and snuggled his head deeper into the feather bolster. His profile was so perfect it could have been sculpted, save for the tiny cleft in his chin. A long strand of gleaming golden hair caught in his lashes. Madeleine smoothed it back. It was surprisingly soft.
“Bon nuit, Calumn Munro,” she said, pressing a tiny kiss to his brow. Treading softly, she retrieved her bundle and opened the second door leading off the hallway. It was a small windowless chamber obviously intended for a maidservant, simply furnished with an iron bedstead, a wooden chair and a wash stand. As Calumn had promised there was a lock in the door and a key in the lock. Madeleine hesitated, then turned it. Quickly disrobing, she placed her shawl, dress and stockings on the chair and sank gratefully on to the rather lumpy mattress, pulling the rough woollen blanket over her. Within minutes she was asleep.
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