Authors: Samantha Holt
Her Highland Defender
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organisations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Edited by Em Petrova
Proofed by Destini Reece
Scottish Highlands, 1314
The sight of grey stone against steep green hills gave Blane Ross cause to ease his grip on the reins a little. He pulled the horse to a stop and dismounted, giving her a reassuring pat.
“Ye’ll get yer food and rest, never fear,” he assured her.
His stomach growled at the image his own words conjured. Steaming bowls of stew, a soft feathered bed. Och, he’d even take a straw pallet at present. His bones ached so deeply, he feared they’d never feel normal again. Five days of hard riding had taken its toll and, alas, at eight and twenty he was no young man anymore. Nevertheless, he still had his strength and determination. If he had to, he’d face down the English now, even with weary bones, and slaughter them all.
But he’d prefer rest at present.
And if he was to take on the Sassenach bastards, he needed all the strength he could muster. Blane wouldn’t give them the chance to escape again.
Hand shielding his eyes, he surveyed the loch below, cut deep into the hills and stretching for some distance. The sun cast shimmering ribbons along the flat surface of the water and reflected the gold spots of grass on the mountains.
Long and narrow, there was little flat land about the area but what tiny amount there was a castle and what looked to be a scattering of cottages occupied. The position of the keep worked well to keep out invaders. Whoever had built their castle here had chosen well. Armies would struggle to march down the steep hills and three sides of the keep were surrounded by the deep water of the loch. If his people had had such a place to take refuge, would their fates have been different?
The familiar angry swell made him clench his teeth. Blood, torn clothing, ashen and disfigured faces burned in his mind. He shook away the images. Not that he didn’t wish to remember them, for he did. The memories would come in useful when he lifted his blade to his enemies. But for the moment, he had to consider other things.
Dalma whinnied to remind him one of those things was her. She had done well but needed food and rest more than he. Blane hoped they would find a warm welcome at this keep.
Opting to direct her down rather than risk injury on the steep slopes, he muttered thanks for the dry weather. It would preserve any tracks and aid him in catching up with the group of English barbarians. The days leading up to their attack had been typical of the highlands—wet, cold and grey. But in some odd twist of fate, the very day of it had been glorious. Blane couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen such a clear and brilliant sky.
The days following might have been beautiful too. His kin would have appreciated it. But he could not—not when the sun-scorched grass and glinting streams ran red with blood.
By the time he’d reached the first of the cottages, he’d managed to calm his ire and worked to appear as harmless as possible. Not an easy feat with his great height. Some of his clan had claimed he had Norse blood in him though he looked as dark as any other Scot.
Nevertheless, these were dangerous times and with Robert the Bruce facing down Edward II in the lowlands, no stranger could be trusted, not even one who looked like a Scot.
He paused outside the first cottage, noting the closed shutters and doors. When he peered around the small hut, its white-washed walls discoloured with mud, he noted the same of all the other dwellings. Air whistled between them, surrounding him in a blanket of solitude, and he stilled. A wooden shutter squeaked and swung gently as though pushed by the hand of a ghoul. Aye, strangers were dangerous but he’d not expected to be greeted by a village of ghosts.
Where were the villagers?
He swallowed the hard knot in his throat. Blane prayed they hadn’t succumbed to the same fate as his clan. But, nay, there were no bloodstains upon the ground, no burnt buildings or upturned carts.
They were in hiding.
Was one man really enough to send a whole village into hiding? He listened carefully as he made his way up the single dirt track leading between the homes to the castle. Aye, there were sounds of life. The odd low of a cow and the faint murmur of voices.
Was he so very threatening? He was strong, aye, and a good fighter. The many battles he’d fought had trained him well but one man against an entire village? Even he was not so arrogant to believe he could approach in so obvious a manner and defeat them. Clearly someone here did not think the same.
As he neared the castle, he stared up at the three-storey building. It was built in two parts, one being added later he suspected. The first part was wider and stronger, with the later addition jutting out to one side. The stone was lighter, less worn. No moss clung to it.
Narrow arrow loops covered much of the bottom while wider windows were cut into the top level. A wooden gallery ran across the very top of the castle and he saw no defenders at the ready. The castle had been locked up too. Hiding instead of defending was the name of the day, it seemed.
A feminine cry made him swivel. On instinct, he drew out his sword. A child scurried across the mud in front of the cottages followed by a lass.
“Nay, Fergus,” she cried and snatched up the child who could have been no more than three summers old. She froze when she spotted him. Her eyes rounded. Clutching the child to her, she turned her back to him and used herself to shield the infant from him.
Her shoulders shook and he heard her utter tiny pleas. The words near shattered his heart. Had the women of his clan done the same when faced with the English marauders?
Slipping his sword into his belt, he dismounted and bid Dalma to stay before taking a cautious step forward. “Lass...” His voice sounded too gruff, too aggressive. He saw her shoulders jolt and her body tense. “I mean ye no harm.”
The dark-haired lass didn’t respond. She only murmured to the child who wriggled in her arms to get free. He took a step closer and her trembling increased.
“Lass,” he tried again. “I speak the truth. I’m no’ here to harm ye.”
Slowly, she eased the child down. “Run, wee one,” she urged and as soon as the boy’s feet touched the ground, he scurried off. She spun sending wild curls about her face. Pushing the mass of hair back, she lifted her gaze to his. Her eyes were an unnatural blue—not quite clear summer sky blue or deep ocean blue but a colour he could not place. They were haunting and did something strange to his gut.
“We have no riches here. Naught of value.”
“I dinnae want yer riches.”
“What is it ye want then?”
“Only yer hospitality.” He skimmed his gaze down her gown and noted the finely woven green wool. Delicate gold thread patterned the neckline and sleeves. She was of import to this village then. “I ask for an audience with yer chief.”
“I cannae grant ye that.”
Blane peered at the women who he suspected was around a few summers over twenty. She could be the chief’s wife, he supposed.
“’Tis of vital import that I speak with him.”
She folded her arms. “And I’m telling ye ‘tis nae possible. What is yer business here?”
“I merely ask for a pallet for the night and some sustenance.” He wasn’t sure he wanted to inform her about the English mercenaries roaming the lands. He’d already scared her enough. It was information better saved for the clan chief.
Her gaze remained on his face, almost as though she was staring through him. “How am I to trust ye?”
Blane didn’t blame her for her reticence. He hadn’t expected a warm welcome, but why was this woman acting the gatekeeper instead of one of the men? If this wild-haired woman had been part of his clan, he’d be keeping her locked up behind the walls of the castle. With a narrow chin, delicate lips and those wide eyes, she’d make a fine prize for any warrior.
Cautiously, he curled his hand around the grip of his sword and drew it out. She flinched but held firm. Admiration filled him. Then he turned the blade and offered her the pommel. “I surrender my blade to ye.”
Eyes narrow, she eased out a hand and curled it around the grip. His blade was light, perfect for thrusting and swiping down enemies and this was no tiny female—half-starved mayhap, but tall—so she lifted it with ease, though he noted some hesitancy in her movements. Watching it carefully, she lowered the sword to her side and put the point into the ground.
“What do they call ye, stranger?”
“Blane of the Ross Clan from
“Ye’ve come a long way. What brings ye here? Are ye to join the fight against the English?”
Though he wasn’t headed to meet the English king’s men in battle. His fight was with these knight-errants who were taking advantage of Scotland’s war-torn state. They must have broken off from the army and decided a battle with the Scots wasn’t worth their time. Instead, they were plundering the weakest villages, taking what little wealth they had and slaughtering and raping in the process.
Better not to terrify the lass, though.
“What is yer name?”
“Ceana.” Her unnerving gaze came back to his face. “This here is the seat of the chief of the Malcolm clan.”
“Yer people need not hide from me. I can do little harm to ye on my own without my blade.”
“I am no’ foolish enough to believe that. Come, I’ll get ye food and drink and we’ll decide if yer to be trusted or no’.” She nodded toward a wooden stand. “Tether yer mount there. We’ll see to her shortly.”
She tapped his blade along the ground as she went and he bit back the urge to scold her. He’d have to sharpen the steel before he left. Ceana led him to the front of the keep where a narrow ditch ran around the base.
“Open,” she commanded at the top of her voice.
The sudden noise from her surprised him and he peered up at the ramparts to see if he could spot any defenders with their arrows aimed at him. But, nay, the castle still had the appearance of being deserted.
A small wooden drawbridge lowered across the ditch and the door opened. Ceana motioned for him to go in front, and he paused. Was he being lured to his doom by a beautiful woman? He wouldn’t be the first to succumb to beauty. But if that was so, she wouldn’t have been so reluctant to grant him entry.
Blane ducked into the curved entrance way and found himself confronted by a petite figure in a cloak. He noted the blade in her hand. Hell fire, mayhap she did intend him harm after all.
“Let him enter, Kate.”
The cloaked lass backed up and flicked down her hood. Damnation, two feisty lasses to deal with.
She motioned with her knife. “Enter.”
“I mean ye no harm,” he reminded Ceana, aware she had his blade and could likely run him through or at least cause some damage.
“We’ll see,” said Kate.
Her sister or close relative, he surmised. She had the same dark hair, brown and glossy, though hers didn’t have a wild curl to it. Her eyes weren’t the shame shade of blue either or at least he didn’t think so in the dim candlelight. But they were similar in height and build with that same narrow chin. This girl was younger, though. No more than six and ten summers.
Blane eyed his surroundings. They were in a narrow entrance hall with tall curved ceilings. An iron chandelier hung low and benches lined either side. A gallery spanned one side by the arrow loops. Defensively, it was a fine design. Should any enemy enter, they would be able to fire arrows upon them and create a killing field before they were able to gain further access.
But there were no defenders here. No arrow tips pointed his way. The only occupants appeared to be Ceana and her relative.
He ignored Kate and turned his attention back to Ceana. She did indeed have his blade pointed at him. “Yer alone here?”
“Where is yer chief? Yer defenders?”
“I’m the defender,” Kate said and Blane had to resist the desire to laugh.
“No enemy would fear that small blade,” he said over his shoulder.
“Ye should fear me. My father trained me well with a sword.”
He tilted his head to eye Ceana’s stance and how she gripped the weapon. Indeed, she was no stranger to a sword, he could see that much, but he also knew he could take it off her with ease and likely swipe down Kate before she even took a step.
Hands lifted in surrender, he stepped back so he could swing his gaze between them both. “I cannae blame ye for yer caution, but I swear to ye, I have no intention of harming ye. I’ve travelled long and hard and ask only for a place to rest. If ye can direct me to a stable, I’ll gladly take that for the night though I’d ask for some broth at least and water and oats for the horse.”
Ceana lifted the blade a little higher, closer to his throat. He shook his head. What would it take for these women to trust him? And who in the devil had left them alone?
“We should send him away,” Kate said. “He’ll only bring trouble.”
“We have trouble enough,” Ceana hissed.
“He looks like a savage.”
“I’m no savage,” he protested.
“Mayhap we should kill him. What if he brings friends back with him for revenge?” the younger lass said.
Blane shook his head. That would be just his luck. Killed by two wee lasses.