The Secret of the Highland Tower (Preview)

Chapter One

“Ye will never hike Ben Deamhain alone, William! Dinnae be foolhardy!” Kal exhorted his elder brother, “Ye are the Laird now, after faither’s passin’, and ye cannae be as free with yer liberties and careless pursuits as ye were in the past.”

William waved his younger brother away with a gesture that made Kal feel like a summer insect that irritated him, “Listen to yerself, Kal, ye sound as scared as an old woman. That’s the reason why those ancient tales were spread, ye ken, so that brave men would be struck with fear and hold back from the adventure.”

Kal and William had returned from their foster home at McCain Castle over three years before. They had been well treated by Laird McCain. The two children who had ridden away from their beloved home’s thick stone walls were no more. In their place were tall, strong men, their muscles honed and bulked by years of hunting, riding, and battle training. They knew how to handle swords and bows with equal skill and could shoot the eye of a hare from the seat of a cantering horse with careless ease. William was the bigger of the two, standing well over six feet tall in his bare feet, but he had inherited his father’s bulk to go with it. At the age of two and twenty, he was already starting to show signs of his partiality to feasting and ale around his waist. Nevertheless, he was still an imposing-looking man, and his beard grew thick along his thrusting jawline.

Kal was only slightly shorter than William, which still placed him amongst the tallest men in any room. But there, the brothers’ resemblance stopped. Kal had the same wideset shoulders their father’d had, but his broad chest tapered down to a hard-muscled, trim waist and athletically slim hips. When Kal buckled his sword around his waist, there was no need for him to suck in his breath. His sword hung down and slapped against his well-toned leg muscles, which were clearly visible under his trews or kilt. Kal’s leather boots were always scuffed and scarred from long days of riding and hunting. He loved following his falcon as it flew far above his head in the sky, seeking out prey far below.

The only physical traits Kal kept from his days in the nursery were his hair and eyes. His pitch-black hair swept back from his brow and was kept out of his eyes with a leather thong tying it back behind his shoulders. His black-lashed eyes reminded merchants’ daughters in the village of oriental sapphires about which they had heard sea captains tell. After a hard day’s hunting, Kal would gallop through the village, his dark hair escaping its binding, allowing an errant lock of hair to fall over his face. The startling blue eyes could be seen from underneath that black mane, and every maiden would feel as though his gaze struck them with a heat and faster heartbeat.

It was his ruggedly handsome beauty that was both a blessing and a curse for Kal. It made men underestimate what he was capable of in sports and battle, something which they would very quickly learn was a mistake. However, it also made Kal a butt for many jokes and comical banter on the training fields and alehouses.

“Ye are too pretty to be lethal in a fight,” the men would scoff, most of their comments fueled by the envy they felt when their wives and sweethearts sighed and swooned when Kal rode by.

“I will surely prove ye wrong, Sirrah,” Kal would reply, fingering the sword at his side.

But news of Kal’s fighting expertise preceded him, and his quarry would always back away with an abject apology and deep bow. He was, after all, the second son of Laird Kenneth.

“I shall approach that devilish mountain alone and on foot,” William informed his brother, “but I shall ride on Gabrielle while in the forest and walk her through the areas where the tree boughs hang too low for riding.”

Kal had given up trying to change his brother’s mind. One month after their father had died, William had made changes in the castle and implemented new policies. This was to be expected from a man who had no affiliation toward his original home. Fostering was not just meant to provide young boys with an outside education, but to also foster closer ties with neighboring Lairds. It was a good system that created a strong line of defensive castles along the southern edge of the Highland mountain ranges. Every Laird was united against any army attempting to encroach from the south, east, or west. The stark ridge of mountains at the north had always prevented anyone from marching over.

“What about the loch, brither?” Kal couldn’t help supporting William; now he knew there was no chance of changing his mind, “How will ye cross over and take Gabrielle with ye?”

“I’ve heard tell that a fisherman’s croft lies on yon loch’s shores,” William stated with confidence, “the man can hold and stable Gabrielle, and lend me his boat to boot! His croft lies on the edge of our domains, nae so? He can do his liege a service in this small way.”

“And the marsh-what say ye to that pestilent bog?” Kal wanted to check his brother’s strategy, to see if he could find a hole in it, although the entire enterprise reeked of braggadocio in his opinion. Still, as Laird, it would be a great honor for his brother to hike to the mountain and claim its land for his very own. No one had ever been able to do that before, not for hundreds of years.

“What would old Nursie say about the marsh again,” William cast his memory back to their days in the nursery, “ ‘keep yer eyes on the ground in front of ye, and nae look at the mountain’?”

Kal nodded, “Aye, she says that’s the key to surviving Mount Demon, as the southerners translate its name.”

“Then that’s what I’ll be doin’ then,” William said cheerfully. “Here’s a scroll with me instructions for the keep of the castle whilst I’m away. I’ve made ye steward in me stead. Ye can sign any documents for me until I return, and the men shall obey yer orders as though they come from me own mouth.”

“I am loath to wish ye Godspeed on the morrow, Will,” Kal said with a heavy heart, “I have a pricking in me thumbs which tells me this mad venture is fraught with risk.”

William clapped his younger brother on the shoulder and laughed at his gloom, “Ye worry t’much, Kal. Wish me good luck for a safe journey and speedy return, and when I do come back, it will be to glory and praise. I will be the first man in Highland history to venture up the mountain and see what secrets it hides. Perhaps I shall bring two spritely lasses back with me, to be our faerie brides.”

“Your journey flies in the face of all the caution and advice our faither bade us heed before he died, William. Even Laird McCain commanded us both to listen to the warnings and never cross over into Demon Mountain territory. There must be a reason for these dark omens.”

“Whatever they are, I shall be sure to tell ye when I return. Tarry not to bid me farewell on the morrow-I depart before dawn.”

“Will ye nae take a few men with ye, brither? Just to be safe,” Kal pleaded with William for the final time.

“And lose me chance at making it alone? Nay. Besides, Kal, if Ben Deamhain is indeed occupied by a malevolent being, they will look upon a solitary traveler with more kindness than they would a whole troop. Fear not, I say, because I am creating a legend of me very own with this brave venture.”

Kal sighed, shrugged his shoulders, and gave up.

Let the cards fall where they will. Perhaps William needs a good thrashing in battle to set him straight and lower his crest a peg or two.

The thought of his indefatigable brother never returning to McCowan Castle was unthinkable. Kal clasped his brother’s forearm with his hand, and his brother did the same. For a brief moment, their arms and hands formed an unbreakable chain. Then the two men went their separate ways, and Kal walked slowly back to the north tower where his chambers lay.


One month later, the great hall of McCowan castle was in an uproar.

“After all, we told ye both about the dangers of that cursed mountain, ye thwart our advice and allow yer brither to walk heedlessly toward death!”

Thus, shouted Laird McCain, and an angry murmur of agreement could be heard in the crowds of advisors and counselors behind him.

Kal stayed calm. He fully expected to see his brother stride into the great hall at any moment, his broad shoulders shaking with laughter at the upset he had caused.

“Aye, ye ken I speak the truth, Kal,” Laird McCain spoke in a more reasonable tone, “all the washerwomen and nursemaids think to fill young lads’ heads with these incredible phantasies of enchanting fairies and women too beautiful for men to comprehend, but this is what it leads to! When yer faither and I begged ye never to visit the mountain, do ye think we were jokin’?”

Kal shook his head. He was still in denial about his brother’s mysterious disappearance. Yet he had the scroll with William’s last wishes and commands inscribed on the parchment in black ink, proving there had been no conspiracy or attempt to usurp his brother’s place.

“The stories exist, in truth, because naeone-naeone, I tell ye-has ever come back from the mountain! William was surely nae so proud as to think himself the exception to this terrible rule,” Laird McCain was deeply troubled with the way things had been left. He desperately needed Kal to sanction the building of new forts along the Cairngorm mountain range, as William had agreed to do.

The Laird stood up on the dais where William’s great carved chair stood empty, “Gentlemen, gentlemen! And gathered clergy too. We need to come to some agreement on how to proceed.”

A young groom stepped forward, “Please it, yer Lairdship, but Gabrielle, Laird William’s horse, came back to its stable last night. It was injured and made filthy from weeks of hard living, but the mare will live.”

A scribe interjected, “Was the beast saddled? Did she still wear her bridle? Perhaps our Laird was hit from his mount by a low hanging branch, and even now lies in the forest awaiting rescue.”

Laird McCain held up his hand in a commanding gesture. The muttering and whispering around the great hall ceased.

“There will be nae rescue party going on a fool’s errand tryin’ to find Laird William, ye hear me? He will return on his own accord or never at all. We cannae have troops of men scouring the forests, lochs, and mountain on the vague hope they come across him.”

A few protests were heard from the court’s younger members, but the older men nodded their heads wisely in agreement.

Laird McCain continued, “Now, me wife and Kal’s mither are sisters, and this makes me close enough kin to consider meself entitled to an opinion on how to go forward.”

Again, the hall buzzed with excited voices: what was Laird McCain about to announce?

“Therefore, I will be swearin’ Kal in to take his brither’s place. If any man has an objection to this course of action, I suggest he go bile his head in a cauldron of broth. McCowan Castle needs a Laird, and by the grace of God, Kal has been spared to take William’s place.”

He turned to the corner where Kal stood watching the courtiers and counselors, “Come forward, Kal, and take hold of yer family’s mantle.”

As though in a dream, Kal strode into the middle of the hall.

“Approach the dais, Kal,” Laird McCain commanded, and Kal stepped forward, “Swear after me that ye shall treat yer vassals fairly. That ye will be the last man to leave battle and the first man to advance at the trumpet’s call. Yer domains are linked to the safety and prosperity of this land, our incomparable Highlands. Now kneel.”

Kal took a knee in front of Laird McCain, “Ye were a good foster son, Kal, albeit a sometimes reckless and hotheaded one. Now, bear the title of Laird Kal McCowan of this castle proudly. Ye may rise.”

Laird McCain draped the McCowan plaid around Kal’s wide shoulders. Everyone in the great hall let out a cheer.

“Go forth, Laird Kal McCowan, and only do good from this day forward.”


Chapter Two

“I dinnae care what folks say, Abigall. I will continue searching for me brither until me last dying breath,” Kal said to his old nurse as she stood beside his horse, wringing her hands together with anxiety.

“Dinnae ignore me, wee Ghillie Dhu,” Abigall begged Kal, “How many useless trips have ye made since Laird McCain made ye chieftain? Ten and nine? Twenty? Ye’re nae even sure in which direction yer brither headed.”

“I’m sticking with north, Nursie, just like the legends say,” Kal smiled down at her. Abigall had been a constant ally since he took up the mantle of Lairdship, but she would not accept Kal’s commitment to finding William, or at least discovering what had happened to him and avenging his death.

“How many men are ye takin’ with ye this time?” Nurse asked.

“No more than last time. I have two boats on the water at the loch. We use them to cross over and then moor the boats on the other side, next to the marshlands,” Kal’s men knew the treacherous bogs like the back of their hands after so many hikes through it. This would be the twenty-first search party launched to look for William. The problems that had stopped them from going further than the other side of the marshes had been the thick fall and winter mists. It was late spring now, and Kal had high hopes making it all the way up Ben Deamhain.

Nurse ignored him. She was busy calculating the number of search party expeditions on her fingers, “Stay here yet awhile, Kal, I need to consult the runes afore ye leave.”

Kal dismounted from Gabrielle and followed Abigall back into the castle. He was interested to hear was she predicted for this venture. The nurse was schooled in the arts of divination, and no canny soldier would hold back from hearing if he were to face fair or foul fortune. Kal’s dreams had been disquieting of late; he wanted to see if nurse could interpret them.

“Sit down, Kal,” Abigall ordered, as she went to the window to shutter out the light and then grabbed a handful of dried herbs and threw them on the fire. It crackled and emitted a faint smoke. Nurse shook her bag of runes stones and cast them on the table in front of where Kal sat.

“This is the twenty-first time ye go in search for yer brither. The numbers ‘two’ and ‘one’ are sacred. ‘Two’ signifies trust, unexpected aid, and close bonds. ‘One’ represents change and new beginnings. The saints believed that our guardian angels use these numbers together to send us messages. Tell me yer dreams of late, Kal.”

Kal screwed up his eyes as he thought back to the nightmare which had jolted him awake that morning, “I saw William lyin’ on the mountainside. His plaid was torn to pieces and scattered to the four winds. He held his hands out to me as though beggin’ for help. An evil wound was carved into his forehead, and the blood was drippin’ down into his eyes.”

Nurse patted Kal’s hand, “Yer guardian angel is sayin’ ye will discover yer brither’s fate on this venture. The stones and bones tell me this time ye will wander far away from the steps of normal men, kind men, and this pathway will not only lead ye toward an unspeakable evil but also closer to yer destiny,” Abigall looked at Kal closely, “are ye ready to face yer fate, Kal?”

Kal stood up, pushing the rickety wooden chair on which he’d been sitting back with a loud scrape on the stone floor, “I am ready for anythin’, Abigall.”

He strode out to the courtyard to where his small troop of men was waiting for him patiently. Kal mounted his brother’s old horse with one leap and gave the mare the signal to trot on.

Nurse stood in the courtyard, waving her kerchief in farewell. The last thing Kal heard as he cantered out of the castle gates was Abigall shouting out behind him.

“Remember, Ghillie Dhu-lucky numbers can bring both good luck and bad luck. Be on yer guard!”


Two weeks later, Kal and his men were able to make camp for the night a little way up the side of Demon Mountain. This was encouraging progress compared to the pitfalls they had encountered over the preceding seven months. The troop of men was happy to leave the buzzing midges, screeching crickets, and bellowing marsh toads below them as they climbed up the steep incline. They stopped upon reaching a sheltered rocky outcrop that shielded them from the brisk winds.

On Kal’s first exploration, his men had reached the shores lapping around the blackest loch waters they had ever seen, but only after spending several days hacking their way through many miles of overgrown forest trees. They had observed a fisherman’s croft a good three leagues away, but when they had reached it, the little stone structure was shown to be a burnt-out husk of a building, long abandoned by its inhabitants.

Ewan, his second in command, had looked closely at the scorch marks along the croft’s stone walls. He had stood up, saddened and perplexed by what he had seen, “Yer Lairdship, these are the marks of no ordinary fire-this poor shelter was deliberately set alight by some evil hand.”

“And the folk who lived here too afraid to rebuild,” Kal said thoughtfully.

The men had ridden back along the loch shores. And so, their first search party had ended. The next time, Kal ordered a horse and cart with two sizeable boats lashed on top to accompany them, and he had left the boats tethered on the near shore ever since.

At dusk, when the men pulled up their horses next to the protective rocks protruding out of the mountain’s northern face, Kal was tempted to order them to continue up the incline. The moon was full and would be bright enough that night to cast a shadow once it rose up into the night sky. But he was a fair captain and would never force his men to march or ride when they were hungry and tired. He allowed them to drop to the ground after tethering their horses to some windswept bush branches that poked out of the mountain’s side and watched as they lighted a fire using the kindling and flints they had brought with them.

“The way the mountain is risin’, yer Lairdship, seems to me we will nae be able to take our horses up much further,” Ewan said to Kal after offering him his canteen of ale.

Kal took a drink from the leather canteen and then tilted his head to see if they might be able to traverse the mountainside in ever higher circles instead of climbing up it directly.

“We’ll keep the horses, for now, Ewan,” Kal replied, and he saw his men turn their heads to listen to what route he had planned, “I think we should ride around the mountain in circles. In that way, we will have a better chance of scopin’ out as much of its circumference as possible and save the horses from climbin’ up in a straight line.”

The men nodded their heads in agreement and fell to chatting amongst themselves about the best ways of riding around the difficult mountain terrain.

“Take turns in mountin’ watch, one hour for each man, our usual method. I’m off to ride ahead and see if the ground stays level enough for the horses to walk,” Kal bestrode Gabrielle again, and the feisty mare shook her mane in greeting.

“Will ye nae have some broth, captain?” Ewan asked, “Ye have nae eaten since noontime.”

“I will eat some oatcakes in the saddle, I thank ye, Ewan,” Kal said and rode off.

The truth was that Kal wanted to be alone with his thoughts just as much as he wanted to scout out the surrounding lands. It would put some of his troop’s fears to rest if he could return to them later with good news about a shepherd’s cottage or helpful traveling farmer. No one from the McCain-McCowan stronghold encircled the Cairngorms to the south had ever ventured this far north or this high up the mountain. Vast forests and barren moors lay between here and their home. His men jumped and startled at every bird whoop or fox cry. If he rode ahead, it would clear his mind of the foreboding doom with which his mind was burdened.

His mount picked her way daintily over precarious rocks and shifty boulders, and Kal kept his ears sharpened for the sound of running water. When they had looked up to see the mountain standing before them at noon, it had been possible to discern foaming rivulets and cascading streams ribboning the mountainside. If they were to travel further, they needed to refill their empty water flasks.

The moon was almost fully risen by the time Kal found what he sought. A freshwater stream wended down the slopes and across his pathway. He stooped down to fill up his leather flask and then turned around to stare up at the moon. He sent up a fervent prayer to the heavens and begged for a sign or portent to signify his brother was still alive. Kal saw some of the bright constellations William and he would look at from the tower at their home and McCain Castle.

Do ye see those constellations, brither? It will always be a comfort for ye to ken those constellations shine down on our mither and faither while they sleep the many leagues’ distance from us. Those stars are shining for everyone in the great Highlands and beyond. The Highland mountains are so tall that we are closer to the stars than the rest of bonny Scotland.

Kal could remember his brother’s words as though he was standing beside him now. They were still those two young boys who had sneaked out of their bedchambers and gone to stand at the tallest tower in McCain Castle.

 I feel as though me heart will burst with sorrow if I dinnae discover word of William. Please, if a guardian angel is watching over me, grant my prayer to find him. This uncertainty is killing me. Is he dead, captured, held against his will? If I dinnae find out, ‘tis better if I never return to McCowan Castle, so that my bones can join his on this mountain.

A nightjar gave a haunting hoot as it flew across the cold moonlit skies. Kal stiffened and strained his ears. He was sure he had heard an answering cry, but it was human. He waited, crouched on the ground, ready to spring into action the minute his suspicions were confirmed.

A thin cry of anguish traveled on the wind toward him. Kal gauged it came from his men’s camp and had vaulted onto his mare before the cry had even stopped and been blown away downhill by a breeze. Crouching low over Gabrielle’s neck, Kal urged the gallant mare to gallop like the wind in the direction of his soldiers’ bivouac.

He cursed himself for leaving his men while he scouted out the terrain. Any foe who struck with force in the dead of night must know these hillsides and mountain cliffs like the lines on the palm of their hand! Heedless to the dangers of riding so fast to face a nameless enemy, Kal sped over the stones that littered the mountainside. Large rocks dislodged and rolled downhill behind rider and horse on the steeper inclines, but Kal continued on.

He had wandered further than he thought, and it took many minutes of hard riding before he could see the dying embers of his soldiers’ fire. Kal slowed Gabrielle’s pace with a hard reining in, and she slackened her gait down to a trot, then halted. It was the smell, more than anything else, that made horse and rider stop. The mare tossed her head and gave a warning nicker, shaking her head up and down and nearly pulling the rein out of Kal’s strong grasp.

Every one of the six men Kal had brought with him lay slaughtered on the moonlit mountainside. He could tell at a glance that his men were dead-beyond the need of aid or nursing-their heads had been struck from their shoulders and bodies lay in disarray on the ground. They had been cut down as they ate and drank, with no word of warning. It was as though a lethal ambush had been waiting to catch the men off-guard. Kal felt his blood boil at the thought of his men’s anguish. The first thought that crossed his mind was this might be the same fate that befell his brother.

A frightened whinny sounded from downhill.

The horses! At least I can save them from harm. They will come to Gabrielle if I ride the mare down the mountain where my poor men’s horses can find her. I pray the Highland winds have blown away the smell of blood when I return.

It was many hours before the six horses had calmed down enough for Kal to approach them and lash them together in a troop. For the poor frightened beasts to be eaten by wolves were something Kal could not bear. The moon had risen high in the night sky by the time he had finished.

A high-pitched, shrieking wail penetrated the stillness and made Kal whip his head around, facing back up the mountain. That sound came from the charnel camp he’d left behind. It was a banshee’s wail, there was no doubt. Kal had never seen a banshee but had heard many stories about them from his nurse. He wanted to see one before he died. Kal tethered Gabrielle to heavy rock and began to creep silently back up the slope.

His stealth was not in vain. When he raised his head carefully to watch the campsite, a ghostly sight met his eyes. Kal had no doubt the woman he saw was an apparition from beyond the grave. She was indescribably beautiful with long, blonde hair the color of silver moon rays and skin paler than the white rocks and stones that surrounded her. Her hair formed a shining curtain of grey around her face, but when she shook it back over her shoulders, it revealed a womanly body designed to stop men in their tracks. The wind pressed the lady’s thin white shift to her skin and whipped her cloak away from her shoulders. For one moment, Kal was reminded of the statues of Greek goddesses that he had heard tell of from adventurous travelers who had visited the lands across the seas.

The woman bent over to pick up one of the soldier’s heads gently. She smoothed the bloody hair away from the face and wiped the gore off its forehead. A ghastly gash had been etched there. Seeing the cut, the banshee gave a sharp cry and let the head drop from her hands.

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