Trouble with a Highland Bride

Copyright © 2014 by Amanda Forester

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Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™

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To love—the only thing that truly matters. And to Ed, my one true love.

One

Alnsworth Castle, 1358

“The English are coming!”

A terrified herald ran through the castle making his pronouncement to the gasps of the castle populace. It was the most interesting thing that had happened all day.

Gwyn dropped her wooden sword and ran out into the courtyard. She had been practicing swordplay in a spare storage room against a vicious sack of barley, her needlepoint utterly forgotten. She raced up the stone stairs to the wall walk, along with Highlanders from the many clans who had gathered at Alnsworth Castle for the May Day celebration.

The English marched into the far side of the valley, several miles away. It should have been a fearsome sight, but Gwyn could not help but be excited at the prospect of adventure. She was always being sheltered from any real danger, and now here she was in the middle of it. Bells rang to warn people, and many of the populace began to run inside the safety of the caste gates as others in the castle prepared the battlements.

“Get everyone inside!” commanded David Campbell, Gwyn’s brother and the laird of the Campbell clan. “Get those battlements up! Step lively now!” They had been expecting the English to come for years. It was Gwyn’s good fortune that she was visiting the castle when they finally came to play.

“David!” cried Gwyn, pointing to people running toward the castle, some of them still a mile or two away. “They may no’ make it back to the castle in time.”

“If any o’ ye lads are hearty o’ heart wi’ a swift mount, go for those who are far afield!” David commanded.

Gwyn did not need any further incentive. Though he had unfortunately said “lads,” Gwyn was certain he was using the male pronoun in a generic, not specific, sense. Anyway, it would not do to tease him about semantics now, with him so busy defending the castle. She had a swift mount and feared nothing.

Within minutes, she had suited up with her shabby, discarded pieces of armor, two mismatched gauntlets, a hauberk too small for most men to wear, and a dented helm. She ran to the stables and grabbed her mount amidst the chaos, riding out with several other men intent on rescuing the stragglers.

Her horse was strong and Gwyn was a swift rider, so she quickly outpaced the others. She raced across the valley and arrived first at a group of children. A young lass who looked to be in her early teens was running as best she could with a toddler in her arms. Beside her were a young boy and girl.

“Give me the bairn,” yelled Gwyn through her helm. She was starting to get hot even though it was a cool day. “We must make haste. The Sassenach are at yer heels!”

The girl handed over the baby and helped the younger ones mount up behind Gwyn. The horse could carry no more. Gwyn met the eyes of the girl. How old could she be—thirteen maybe? Only four years younger than Gwyn herself.

“I will come back for ye,” promised Gwyn, reading the girl’s silent plea. “Keep running toward the castle.”

Gwyn’s ride back to the castle was not as fast. She had a squirming child in one hand, the reins in the other, and small children listing one way then another behind her. When she finally arrived at the gate, she left the children with a serving maid and spun around to make one more trip.

“Dinna go!” yelled someone. “The English are too close. The gates must be closed!”

“There still be wee ones in the fields,” cried Gwyn. She kicked her mount and raced out of the gates.

The English were marching in swiftly, closing in from the far side of the valley. The bright sun glinted off armor, shields, and the tips of their pikes in a display both impressive and terrifying. Mounted knights approached first, followed by divisions of soldiers marching in tight, precise formations. These were not serfs rounded up for a melee; these were seasoned warriors, experienced and deadly.

Gwyn leaned forward, galloping across the valley as fast as she could. She hoped the girl had been able to put some distance between her and the approaching English soldiers. It would not go well for her, a young lass caught by an army of men. Finally, Gwyn spotted her. She was struggling across the fields and did not see the English scout crouching in the tall grass behind her.

“Run!” yelled Gwyn.

The English scout sprinted toward the girl, who screamed and broke into a run. Gwyn raced to the girl, pulling up so sharply the horse reared. The scout was almost upon them, but Gwyn reached out for the girl, pulling her up onto the horse. The English soldier grabbed for the girl, but Gwyn kicked him hard with her boot and the man fell back with the girl’s shoe in his hand.

Gwyn urged her mount onward, and they raced back to the castle. Ahead, the castle gates were closing. Gwyn leaned forward, willing her mount to run faster to slip inside before the gates closed. But, no, they were too late. Gwyn was forced to pull up short as the gates closed before her.

Gwyn stared at the locked gate. Could she truly be trapped outside? But, no, the gates began to open again to allow the Highland warriors to meet the English army. Gwyn sighed in relief and slipped past them into the castle.

“Thank ye. Ye saved my life,” breathed the girl, slipping off the horse to reunite with her family.

Gwyn attempted to contain her glee. A real lady would not enjoy such excitement. A real lady wouldn’t go running into danger. But of course, no one had ever accused Gwyn of being a real lady.

Her brothers, David, Finn, and Gil, passed her, riding out of the castle to confront the English soldiers. They were resplendent in their armor and the Campbell surcoats. Even Rabbie, only thirteen, rode alongside, carrying their standard high. It was hardly fair that even Rabbie, the baby of the family, was now encouraged to do things that Gwyn, a lass, would never be allowed to do. The Campbells were followed by Laird Douglas and his knights, Grant and his knights, Laird Maclachlan and his knights, along with others. They galloped toward the English troops with a flag of parlay. Several of the men who had ridden to save the people in the valley followed behind their lairds and Gwyn followed suit.

If David knew she was following behind, she would catch it something fierce, but with so many men from different clans and her own blond head hidden beneath her helm, she judged the risk of being caught minimal. She kept to the back of the pack but still edged close enough to hear what was said.

It was a sunny spring day with a brisk wind that spoke of weather ahead. The English soldiers stood a ways off in perfect formation, an unmoving, inhuman mass. They were the best fighting force in the world, and everyone in the valley knew it. Yet the Highlanders were a fearsome lot and despite many attempts had never been conquered by their strong English neighbor. If it was to be a fight, it would be a bloody one.

The knights all stopped about twenty yards from each other. Silence fell on the valley. Gwyn held her breath. David had always said the English would come someday to try to take Alnsworth Castle back under English rule. That day had come.

The castle was the inheritance of Lady Isabelle, an Englishwoman, and thus went to David when they were wed. The Scots has used the castle to defend Scotland in the most recent war between the two countries. The castle, though on the border between England and Scotland, was in English territory. And the English wanted it back.

“Hail, Alnsworth Castle,” cried an English lord when they were within bowshot of each other. “I come with a message from His Majesty the King of England and France. You are inhabiting the castle and grounds belonging to Sir John Lockton. It is hereby demanded that you remove yourselves immediately or a state of war will exist between us.”

“I am the Laird Campbell,” bellowed her brother at them. “I am the rightful master of Alnsworth Castle through marriage to Lady Isabelle, the Countess o’ Tynsdale. I dinna recognize yer claim of ownership.”

“Alnsworth Castle was granted to Lady Isabelle’s cousin, Sir John Lockton, by His Majesty King Edward the third.” One of the mounted knights held aloft a scroll.

“Yer king is not my king. I dinna recognize his authority over me, my people, or my land. However, I am willing to negotiate a settlement for this fine castle following the terms I have set.”

The knights conferred. “What are these terms?” asked a younger knight.

Campbell nodded to a knight from the Maclachlan clan, who took up a bow. Gwyn gripped her reins. Was it to be war?

The knight released his shaft and it flew true to the wooden shield slung at the side of one of the knights. It stuck into the wood, a small bundle of papers wrapped around the arrow shaft. He had shot their terms in a message attached to the arrow, now stuck to the shield.

“Who are you to make demands of us on English soil?” cried one of the English knights. “You are trespassers here! You must leave at once. Alnsworth belongs to the Locktons by decree of the king. Leave at once or be forced out like any other base thief.”

Without thinking, Gwyn urged her mount forward. The English scum had insulted her brother. If there was to be a fight, she was going to be in it, whether her bother approved or not. Fortunately, David kept a cooler head than her.

“My, but yer words so quickly turn to threats. But this is the English way, no?”

“Enjoy your mocking words, knave,” growled the Englishman. “They will soon be all you have to eat. When you are ready to discuss terms for your surrender, let us know. Until then, we will consider you our enemy and a state of—”

“Wait!” One of the English knights rode forward, removing his helm.

Gwyn’s jaw dropped. The man was surprisingly young, with dark hair and chiseled features. It was wrong to have such a handsome man be her enemy. If there was any justice in the world, her enemies would all be troll-like. But the man before her was the most bonny lad she had ever seen.

“I am Sir John Lockton,” called the young man. “Heir to Alnsworth Castle after my fair cousin Isabelle. Let us send forth envoys to discuss your terms for a peaceable solution. I am reluctant to take up arms against the kinsman of my cousin, yet once roused to anger, the army under the Lockton flag will never be defeated.”

“’Tis the youngest among ye that has the most sense,” called David. “I will agree to send an envoy tomorrow to discuss terms. Until then, enjoy the hospitality of my valley. Good day to ye, Sir John.” David spun his mount as did all the knights, and Gwyn hustled to do the same and ride off before she could be spotted.

She could not help but look back once more at the handsome knight. Truly, it was a pity to waste such fine features on an Englishman.

Two

Gwyn Campbell had never been accused of being a dutiful daughter, though she had been accused of many other things. It was hardly fair. She had been born into a family with an overabundant sense of honor and adherence to duty.

Gwyn Campbell was different. She laughed louder, played harder, and was more intently interested in most things. Her brother once commented she would have made a fine lad if she weren’t quite so loud. She wasn’t sure how to take that. She had studied medicine with her sister-in-law Isabelle; she learned to ride from notable horsewoman Aila Graham; and even when she asked to be trained at swordplay with the (mostly repentant) raider Morrigan, her brother did not bat an eye but arranged for her to be sent to train.

She needed something to fill her days, and embroidery surely was not going to do it. Everyone knew that. Nobody even tried to chastise her to be ladylike. They seemed content if she didn’t break anything. The only thing she had been denied was a request to join the choir. Gwyn dearly loved to sing, but everyone else was just as passionate to avoid her dubious musical talents.

She knew her family considered her less than feminine—and apparently unable to carry a tune—but still it was a disappointment when her brother arranged for marriages for her twin older sisters, and not her. Her brother must think her unfit for marriage.

Gywn strode up the castle stairs, the long dirk she called her table knife slapping her thigh as she walked. Maybe he was right.

“I’m seventeen,” Gwyn complained as she walked up the stone stairs. “Seventeen! I am certainly old enough for a husband.”

“I was married with three bairns by seventeen,” said one of the maids as she walked by with an armload of linens.

“Just my point…wait, three?” Gwyn paused on the stairwell.

“Blessed with twins my second go-round. Husband was a’feared to go again, says he’s worrit I might go for three.”

“There is some logic to it,” conceded Gwyn, and she proceeded up to the tower.

Her sister-in-law Isabelle stood on the ramparts, her face to the setting sun, the wind teasing her veil and playing with her black hair. Isabelle was an Englishwoman, it was true, but none who met her ever questioned why Laird Campbell married her, for Isabelle was as great a beauty as any man could hope to meet. Isabelle smiled in greeting for though she was vastly more ladylike than Gwyn, she was also patiently kind.

“Looks like they are settling in to stay a while,” said Gwyn, scanning the valley floor before them. The English army was setting up camp, erecting their tents in the failing light. Small pinpricks of light in the growing darkness were beginning to emerge around the campsite as the soldiers lit their campfires.

“Yes,” said Isabelle with a sigh. “We are besieged.”

Gwyn had never been in a siege, but the thought of being trapped in the castle for months until their food ran out and they were forced to surrender out of starvation and illness was not a pleasant one.

“Rather a straight fight than a siege,” said Gwyn.

“Yes, you are not alone in that sentiment. All of the Highland clans who have come for the May Day celebrations have pledged David their support if he wishes to march out against the English.”

“Good! Let’s go!” exclaimed Gwyn, wondering how she could sneak in and join the war party.

“Would you send David, your brothers, and your clansmen so quickly into battle?” Isabelle gave her a sidelong glance, and Gwyn knew she was heading for lecture.

“Aye?” Gwyn was honest at least.

Isabelle turned back to the English soldiers, a few hundred strong, making camp on their doorstep. “Somewhere out there is my cousin, Sir John Lockton. He is the heir of this castle after me.”

“But this is yer castle, Isabelle. Ye lived here for years. Why should ye give up what’s yers only because ye married David?”

“Would you have David live out his years here in Northern England, ignoring his home and his clan so he can defend this castle from the English?”

Gwyn frowned. David had been away too long as it was. They had only come down to visit a few weeks ago along with several other clans for the May Day celebrations. David had invited the lairds to join him because he knew if he left the castle undefended, it would be retaken by the English.

“Ye wish to retreat? Give the castle back to the Sassenach?” Gwyn caught herself. “Begging yer pardon, Isabelle.”

Isabelle smiled. “I fear nothing can acquit me of being born English.”

“Nay, I dinna mean no disrespect.” Gwyn once again cursed her mouth for prattling along before her head caught up with her words.

“I wish for peace,” said Isabelle, surveying the soldiers before her. “I value it more than these stones. Remember this castle was as much my prison as my refuge. When I finally left, I was free. I do not choose to be bound by this castle once more. My life, and my home, is with David.”

“So ye are going to give them the castle?” Gwyn was incredulous.

“We hope to enter into negotiations for an equitable settlement,” corrected Isabelle.

Loud banging noises interrupted their discussion, and both ladies looked behind them into the large courtyard of Alnsworth. Men in Highland plaids and little else were building something on one side of the field.

“What on earth are those daft men doing?” asked Gwyn.

“They are building the viewing stands, I believe,” said Isabelle with a bemused smile.

“Viewing stands? Dinna tell me David is going forward wi’ the tournament?” The clans had come for the prospect of a May Day Robin Hood tournament, but even Gwyn had expected the festivities to be canceled in view of the impending crisis.

“Yes, David has told the lairds we are proceeding even with our unwanted guests.”

Gwyn shook her head. “Daft man.”

“Do not judge him so harshly. Remember we are host to many proud clans who have brought their best warriors.”

Light began to dawn for Gwyn. “So David means to distract the warriors from starting a fight before he has time to negotiate.”

“You are a bright one!” praised Isabelle. “My only question is whether my cousin will be willing to accept a settlement.”

***

Sir John Lockton, whom everyone, including his own mother, called Jack, sat at the table in the newly erected main tent. He was surrounded by his uncles as they debated strategy for reclaiming Alnsworth Castle from the Highland invaders.

“Let us begin to dig trenches and set up caltrops along the edge of the castle,” said his uncle Herbert. “When they march out, they will be wounded before they even reach our line.”

“But wouldn’t deploying caltrops around Alnsworth wound our own feet later when we take the castle?” asked Jack. He received the icy stare he was growing accustomed to from his four uncles. Despite the fact that when his father had departed this earth Jack had inherited—technically making Jack in command—his uncles barely tolerated him. They had sworn fealty to him in a lavish ceremony and then promptly ignored him.

Being only twenty years of age, Jack had a long way to go before he earned the respect of his uncles. Complicating matters, none of his uncles could forget that if something happened to Jack, they would be the ones to inherit. It did not make for congenial family relations.

“Our victory must be decisive,” said Uncle Reginald, pounding his fist on the table. “We need to send a message to the Scots we will not tolerate their incursions nor the theft of our lands.”

“But Laird Campbell did not steal the castle. It was the inheritance of Lady Isabelle, and she brought it to the marriage,” said Jack, earning him another glare.

“Once we have conquered Alnsworth,” continued Uncle Eustace, “we can push on into the borderlands and reclaim Ettrick Forest from the barbarians.”

“But I thought we were simply here to reclaim the castle,” said Jack. “You want to start another war with the Scots?”

“Perhaps you should close your lips and listen when your elders are speaking,” said Uncle Ralph in a sly, condescending tone.

Jack bit his lip and stood up. His father would never have allowed his brothers to speak to his son in such a manner. But his father was dead now. It was up to him. “But what of the terms they sent us?” asked Jack, pulling the Scots’ parchment from his hauberk. “I have read over the proposal and they are willing to part with the castle, providing we supply remuneration. They appear ready to negotiate. I believe we can resolve this to everyone’s satisfaction.”

“The only satisfaction I will have is when every murderous Scot lies in his grave,” growled Reginald, who would have been the eldest had Jack’s father not preceded him. It was an injury of birth order Reginald had never forgiven.

“But why fight and risk the lives of our own men when the Scots are ready to hand over the castle?” asked Jack, attempting to bring reason into the discussion.

“They want gold and shall have none,” growled Herbert.

Ralph grabbed the parchment from Jack’s hand. “This is not even good enough to wipe my arse.” He flung the parchment into the fire, where the flames leaped up and consumed it.

“But what of the negotiations tomorrow?” asked Jack.

“When they send their knights, we will invite them into a tent and take them by force, outside of the prying eyes of the castle,” said Eustace with a malicious gleam in his eye.

“But that is treachery,” cried Jack. “They negotiate with us under a flag of truce.”

“They are Scots,” dismissed Reginald. “They are trespassing on our land and shall be treated like the squatting curs they are.”

“I do appreciate all your advice,” said Jack carefully. This was his army; he was supposed to be their commander, whatever his uncles might think. “I shall consider your words carefully before I make a decision as to how to proceed.”

His four uncles exchanged glances with each other and then stared at him, their eyes glittering in the candlelight. Jack stood up taller, determined not to show fear before his large, warlike uncles. If they attacked, he could hardly defend himself from them all. “Since you suggested the use of caltrops, I will go and see if there is a place they can be deployed that would injure our foe without risking injury to our own footmen.” Jack edged for the door, forcing himself not to run from the tent, though his heart was pounding.

“Yes,” said Ralph, his voice like gravel. “Go.”

Jack turned on his heel and left, trying to remember it was his idea to leave, though he felt dismissed from the presence of his uncles. He wished again that his father had lived longer, but unfortunately his sire had been killed in the most recent war with Scotland. The Scots were a barbaric people, everyone knew that, but he hated to lose English lives if there was another way to accomplish their goals. He knew all too well the pain of loss.

He waited for darkness to claim the valley and requested his squire assist with his armor. He wished to use stealth but would not risk a stray arrow catching him unaware. He took a canvas bag full of caltrops for his mission. He held one of the spiky things in his hand with disgust. It was a twist of iron with four spikes so that however the nasty thing fell to the ground, one of the spikes would be standing straight up. It was good for wounding soldiers’ feet and hooves of destriers, but bad for times of peace, when the hidden things could continue to wound innocents long after the battle was done.

He considered taking a few men with him but discarded the idea. It was a shame, but he felt safer alone than with the soldiers he was supposed to command. He knew some were loyal to him in respect to his father, but others, those who joined the force under his uncles, he did not trust in the least. Even with the men who had served his father, he did not know whom he could truly trust. So he went alone under cover of darkness.

It was a dark night, but his eyes were keen, able to see well enough by the sliver of moon. Jack snuck around the side of the valley, where the foliage was greater, avoiding the eyes of watchmen standing above on the castle walls, their torches winking in the darkness. Jack smiled in spite of himself. Sneaking up on this castle was the most enjoyment he’d had since he began this ill-fated trip with his uncles. He was free, and adventure was before him.

Jack crept forward cautiously to the left of the main gate under the cover of some trees—tall pines, large oaks, and silver birch. Smaller trees and shrubs, such as dogwood, spindle, and elder, snagged on his armor as he attempted to approach the castle without notice. He wanted to take a look at the castle for himself. It was, after all, his inheritance. Well…his inheritance after Lady Isabelle, but she had married a Highlander, so her right to hold an English castle was forfeit, at least in the eyes of the crown. Of course, Isabelle’s husband, the powerful Laird Campbell, might have a different perspective.

In truth, Jack hardly needed another castle, but when the king asks for a favor, you do it. His father had been a great favorite, not only successful in battle but well-liked at Court, and the king had lavished the rewards. With the passing of his father, Jack inherited several estates and an embarrassing amount of gold and riches. His uncles, on the other hand, had supported his father but had not been as richly rewarded, leaving Jack the only obstacle between them and enormous wealth.

Jack kept to the trees, creeping closer. It was a fine castle, nicely situated. It was built on high ground, on one edge of the valley, with steep stone cliffs around it on three sides and the valley stretching out before it, making the valley the only practical point of approach. It was on defensible ground; its walls were thick and its vantage from above impressive. He did not wish to stand at the bottom of those walls during battle with all sorts of unpleasant things falling down from above. It would be good to be the master of this fortress, and all the more meaningful to claim something that he had won on his own, not just inherited from his father…if he could manage to evict the current tenants.

As he snuck closer to the castle, he noted a small gate to the side. Silently, he crept up to it. It appeared unguarded. It would not do to have soldiers sneaking in or out for food, armaments, or supplies. He slung down his bag of caltrops and tossed a few on the forest floor a few feet beyond the door. A slight movement had him scurrying back behind a large tree.

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