Wicked Highland Spell (Preview)

Chapter One

Drumnadrochit, 1594

“Hurry up, lass!”

“I am moving as fast as I can, Ma,” Maisie said breathlessly as she followed her mother out of the small cottage.

It had rained earlier, and the mud made squelching sounds with every step they took. The night was dark, and every sound echoed like they were walking through an empty tunnel. The wet and cold clung to them like webbed fingers reaching out into the night to swallow them.

The wooden gate banged shut behind them, and Maisie jumped in fright and clamped her hand over her chest. “Thing scared the life out o’ me.”
Her mother grabbed her hand and pulled her deeper into the pitch darkness. They were barely breathing when she stuck her head out, searching the narrow path for signs of life.

“‘Tis nae a braw night for healing,” she hissed. “It’s all wet and muddy, I can barely move properly.”

“Ye ken we had tae come see him,” Maisie replied to her as she inched forward, her heart in her chest. “He did nae look so well the last time, an’ his poor mother did nae ken what else tae do.”

“I ken that, child,” her mother snapped, and pulled the blanket scarf over her head.

“I hope he is well enough now,” Maisie said with concern.

“‘Tis nae the lad we best worry about now,” her mother said as they started off hastily down the path. “We need to get back home quickly.”

Panic gripped them as they moved faster, looking behind them for any signs of trouble. It was dangerous to be out at all, and the sounds of hounds barking in the distance did not help their worry. That was sure to be the King’s men on their nightly quest to find the healers they called witches to add to the mountain of scorched bodies they had already burned.

“They are coming!” her mother cried as she started running. She was a plump woman, and with the mud pulling at her soaked tartan, it was getting harder for her to move quickly.

“Maybe we should hide,” Maisie suggested as the barking cut through the night.

They both froze. The sound was much too close for comfort, and with great reluctance, they turned onto a narrow lane, right into the path of a bearded man wearing a scowl and carrying a torch. Their eyes connected, and Maisie was instantly rooted to the spot.

“Over here!” the man bellowed into the night, signaling his company.

“Quickly now, child,” Maisie’s mother said as her voice trembled, and she grabbed her daughter with shaky hands. They pushed through the wooden fence to their right, which led to a yard in the clustered village. As soon as they had squeezed through the narrow opening, bearing the brunt of the rotting wood scratching against the sleeves of their tartans, they spotted the others. The once dark night was littered with torchlight as the angry mob spotted them and started running.

“There they are!” someone yelled. “Burn the witches!”

“Ma!” Maisie cried as she clung to her mother who pulled her along. “We have tae run faster, or they will catch us!”

Maisie’s breath came out in ragged gasps, and her mouth was parched dry despite the damp air. Her chest burned as she ran, her wicker basket tucked under one arm, and her mother’s hand in the other. She knew the village well, but she was not sure if they would get away that time.

Their pursuers probably knew where they lived. They’d seen their faces, which meant home was no longer their safe place. The angry mob had only one thing on their mind – burning them at the stake.

The panic swelled in Maisie’s chest as they turned a bend that led to a neighbor’s yard she knew well. They were very familiar with the layout of the village, perhaps even better than the people chasing them, which gave them their only advantage. They had to pass through a grove of trees, and the low-lying branches clawed at their faces and slapped against their arms like they too were inanimate accomplices of the evil that chased them.

“Och!” her mother exclaimed as she stopped suddenly.

Maisie, caught off guard by her mother’s abrupt stop, felt her body snap back like new stockings. “Ma, what is it?”

“Caught me foot on a wee branch,” her mother said and pulled herself upright again. “I lost some of me herbs.”

“We can nae think about that now. We must go before they catch us. Ye ken well what they will do,” Maisie reminded her.

The woman nodded sadly, tucked her basket under her arm, and scurried after Maisie who plunged into the thick darkness like she was a part of it. The barking and shouting were close, and fear gripped her with every step. The wet, night air seemed to be pulling her back. She was running breathless, but she did not feel like she was moving.

Once they hit the clearing, she stopped and surveyed the village. There were no signs of their pursuers. “Okay, quick, Ma,” she said as they stole from the woods and ducked between the alleys. “We need tae get home right away.”

Maisie had heard about the other people that had been caught and the horrible things they had done. As she clung to her mother, her chest burning and her eyes peeled, she was afraid to even blink. Her entire body was in survival mode, and she could barely think above the pounding of her head and heart.

“We should nae be running like this,” her mother said breathlessly as they climbed the small incline just below their cottage. “All we did was help out a wee lad in pain.”
“It is nae time tae be thinking about that now, Ma,” Maisie told her as she glanced behind her. The barking was in the distance, but she knew the hounds would find their scent soon enough. It was not the time to be thinking of anything but running and hiding.

“I am an old woman, me child. I can nae run like ye,” she complained as she hobbled as fast as she could. “Even now, me poor back hurts so much, I can hardly keep up anymore.”

Maisie wanted to comfort her mother, but she did not have the luxury of that. Their pursuers were already close to finding them both, achy back or not. They could not stop. She was not even sure she could make it to their cottage without being discovered, which meant she had to enter from the back – the long way round.

They dashed through the alleyways like thieves in the night, stealing away to their own home. She was far too young for all that running, and even younger to be burned alive.

Her red hair escaped her shawl as her feet moved like those of an antelope in flight. She was about to make her way across the glen that would bring her up the hill yonder, leading to the narrow path behind their land, when she spotted the torches again.
“Hold on, Ma,” Maisie said and grabbed her mother’s hand.

She leaned against the broken stone column that used to be the old church, holding her breath, and praying they had not been spotted. At least that party did not have the hounds.

“Nothing here!” she heard someone shout.

“Ye ken how these witches are,” a gruff voice responded. “Maybe disappeared or turned into a toadstool. Keep looking.”

“They will nae get far tonight,” his comrade answered. “They are close.”

Maisie watched as the men walked away, but she did not dare move. Their cottage was a little distance across the glen, and she was afraid of being dragged back by angry hounds and rabid humans hungry for the smell of burning flesh.

She would not give them the satisfaction, but her feet would not budge. Fear had paralyzed her, and she leaned against the stone structure, clutching her bodice as her legs grew weak.

“Ye can nae faint now, lass,” her mother said. “The cottage is just yonder. We can nae stay here, or they will find us fer sure.”

“I ken,” Maisie said as she struggled to breathe. Her head felt like it had swollen to twice its size, but she could not remain rooted to the spot. Her pursuers were relentless. They would not stop. “Come on.”

She did not dare look to the right or the left as she scurried across the glen, her head low and the shawl covering her, allowing her to blend into the night.

The door banged against the stone wall as Maisie pushed it with all the strength she had left, and Graham ran to the door when he heard the crash. “Uncle!”

“What is the matter with ye, lass?” he asked, his eyes wide with fright.

“The King’s men,” Maisie replied breathlessly, clutching her throat for much-needed air. “They are after us. We can nae stay here.”

“The King’s men? After ye? Why?” Graham asked, his dark eyes piercing hers as he clutched her by the shoulders and shook her.

“Ye ken well,” Maisie’s mother scolded as she peered out the window. “We are healers, and they dae nae ken how we do what we do, so they believe we are something else.”

“Och!” Graham cried and hurried to the window. He peered outside for any sign of the enraged mob. “I told ye not to go.”

“Ye ken well I can nae see the poor lad in pain and do nothin’,” her mother replied. “We had tae go.”

“And look at what it cost ye,” Graham snarled, his long beard swishing across his chest. His bald head glowed from the torch perched on the stone wall and magnified his shadow behind him, so he seemed to fill the room. “Quick, get some things together. Ye have tae leave now!”

“I ken,” Maisie replied and busied herself with wrapping up some loaves of bread with cheese, a bottle of milk, some jam, and some herbs she kept in a small sack. “Ma, get some clothes.”

“That’s what I am doing, lass,” her mother said and waved her off. “And ye, Graham. Ye have tae come with us. They will hang ye if they ken ye live with us.”

Graham sighed as signs of worry creased his brows. “Och!” he exclaimed and slammed his fist onto the wooden table in anger. “Fine.”

Maisie was still wrapping the parcel together when they heard a loud commotion outside. “In there!” someone cried.

And Maisie’s heart almost caved. A frantic shriek escaped her, and all three of them charged toward the back door just in time to hear the front crash to the ground.
“Seize them!” a voice boomed in the night, already pronouncing Maisie guilty of having compassion.

She did not look back as she scrambled through the slippery backyard and dashed toward the thick grove in front of them. Torches blazed in the night as the cries rang out behind them.

“Oh!” Maisie’s mother cried as she slipped and fell.

“Ma!” Maisie cried and tried to run back to her.

Graham grabbed Maisie around the middle, her arms and legs flailing as he pulled her back like a hapless puppet. “No!” he cried and tried to run with her under his arm.

“If ye go back, they will get both of ye.”

“I can nae leave her,” Maisie screamed. Tears rolled down her face as she watched the angry mob descend upon her mother.

They grabbed her and bound her as Graham ran away into the forest with Maisie tucked away under his arm like a sack of potatoes.

“No! No!” Maisie cried. “Let me go. We have to go back!” she wailed as she squirmed and tried to get away from him.

But Graham continued running as fast as he could. Maisie could not understand why he would just leave her mother to the King’s men. He knew what they would do to her. She craned her neck to see, but the only visible thing in the dark were the specks of light as her uncle whisked her away.

When Graham finally set her down, she crumpled into a heap against a large, oak tree. “They took her,” she sniffled and rubbed her burning eyes. “They will kill her. Why did you nae go back for her?”

Graham sighed and knelt in front of her. “I ken, lass,” he said. “But I could nae go back for her. It would have been too dangerous for ye, and me,” he said and stood again. He placed his hands on his hips and stared into the darkness like he could see something she could not.

“I ken,” Maisie sniffled and wiped under her nose with the hem of her scarf. “What am I going tae dae without her?”

He sighed again and slipped his arm around her shoulder. “Ye will nae be alone, lass,” he told her. “Ye still have me.”

She stood and fell into his embrace, her tears drenching his overcoat. She felt all her tiredness seeping into him as he held her. She needed rest, but she was not allowed to have it. Not if she kept practicing healing. The country did not take too well to things it did not understand. Maisie did not understand it either, but she had inherited it from her mother – they simply knew which herbs were better for different sicknesses.

Even though they had helped a lot of people, the rumors still flew around the country, and they were constantly hunted. It was exhausting.

“Come,” Graham told her and helped her to her feet.

“I have tae go back,” Maisie cried and pulled on his arm.

“Maisie, are ye mad? They will kill ye along with yer mother if they find ye,” he warned. “We have tae leave here.”

“I need to ken what happened to her,” she sobbed. “Please, Uncle. I must ken. I can nae keep running not kennin’ if she is well or…”

Graham sighed and looked around him, the darkness swelling around them. “Follow me.”
He led her through a thicket of trees to one of the places known for the burnings. Maisie wanted to throw up. She did not know what she would do without her mother around, and to know that it was all because of the special gifts they had that people just did not understand. They were not hurting anybody or turning anyone into toads. She wished they could have left them alone.

“Wait here,” Graham said and disappeared over a mound.

Maisie stood alone, hugging herself, the loaves and cheese she had left home with forgotten. She could not eat even if she wanted to. The lump in her throat would prevent her from swallowing. She looked around wildly at every cracking twig or rustling leaf, anticipating her uncle’s return, but all that greeted her was the blanket of darkness that seemed all too eager to embrace her. Her body quaked, and she barely felt herself breathing. Her mind started to race that she would get caught if she stuck around any longer when she heard movement to her right. She jumped up, her eyes peeled and her breath still, when she saw that it was her uncle.

“This way,” Graham called to her.

She breathed a momentary sigh of relief as she joined him, pulling the thick cloak over her head. They could not go closer to the site, but Graham managed to find a place where they could see what was happening.

Maisie’s heart sank when she saw her mother bound to a pile of wood.
“Please!” her mother shrieked, piercing the night with her cries. “Have mercy!”

“Shut up, witch!” someone spat. “Begone with ye!”

Maisie’s heart ached to watch as her mother’s wails traveled to her ears and cut at her heartstrings. She wished at that moment she was a witch, and that she could free her mother. But all she could do was watch as tears cascaded down her cheeks.

“I curse all of ye!” she heard her mother yell after a couple of minutes of endless torment. “Ye will all burn in hell for this! I curse all of ye!”

Maisie watched as one of the men approached with a torch and touched the base of the pyre. The flames leaped forward, lapping at the wood, and climbed the stacks to her mother. They must have doused her with something, as she was instantaneously engulfed in flames, and her shrieks were deafening.

Maisie collapsed to the ground, her hands over her eyes. She could not watch, and she wished she could not hear.

“I am sorry,” Graham said as he fell beside her. “I wish things were nae this way.” Maisie had never seen her giant of an uncle weak before, and when he crumpled to the ground next to her, his broad shoulders rocking as he sobbed, she melted into his arms.

“I can nae believe she is gone,” Maisie cried as her body rocked violently with grief. “What am I going tae do?”

“Curse them all,” Graham growled and released her. He stood and faced the mob. The only sounds they could hear were the crackling of the fire as it devoured her mother, and Graham balled his fists and slammed it into the earth. “Barbarians!” he cried.

“They will nae get away with this, I swear it on my life.”

His words scratched at her already raw emotions, evoking more tears. Maisie could barely find the strength to stand. The smell of burning flesh drifted to them on the mound and years of her mother’s kind face flitted before her mind’s eye.

“Come on, lass.” Graham sighed and reached down to pick her up. She was only a small thing, and her flaming-red hair that matched her spirit was consumed by the night as he lifted her, and she hung against him, almost lifeless.

Maisie could barely manage a coherent thought as her head rolled back and forth against her uncle’s chest as he walked. But the one thing she knew was that her life would never be the same again.

Chapter Two

“Laird, they are waiting for you in the main hall!” a frantic Fiona cried as she pushed the wooden door in and entered her master’s bedchamber.

“Let them wait,” Creighton said as he stood by the window, his back turned to her and his eyes scouring the land that was now his to rule.

Laird of Castle Urquhart. It did not even sound right. He knew the title would pass to him one day, but now that it had, it did not seem to fit him as snugly as it had his father.

He stared out at the vast expanse of pale green on the moors as the heavy morning mist shrouded the thatched roofs of the cottages below. It gave off a dark and ominous feeling, and he clenched his jaws before he turned.

“It is nae a braw time to be back home,” he said and walked over to his bed.

“It does nae matter, Creighton,” Fiona said as she hurried to get him undressed. “Ye are back now, and things will have tae change.”

“I wish I was still back in France,” he sighed. “Things were uncomplicated then.”

She stopped moving and stood in front of him, her brown eyes burning into his. “Stop that nonsense!” she spat as her nostrils flared. “Ye are the only one who can govern this clan, and ye ken it well,” she said, her arms gesticulating for emphasis.

Creighton turned and smiled at her. Fiona had been his maid since he was a child, but she had grown to be so much more than that. He considered her one of his best friends. She was always the one behind him pushing him when he doubted himself, and he would always cherish her.

“I have heard how they talk about me,” Creighton sighed. “No one thinks I have what it takes tae take over the clan after my father.”

“And since when did ye give a rat’s arse about what anyone thinks, huh?” Fiona asked and placed her hands on her hips. She was a foot shorter than him, which meant she had to crane her neck to get a good look at his six-foot-two frame.

Creighton smiled and placed his hand on her shoulder. She had pale skin that was practically flawless, and eyes so bright it caught the attention of many a man wherever she went. The bonnet she wore hid the soft, golden hair underneath, something perhaps only a few people like himself had seen when she removed it in moments of safety. She was a beautiful woman, and he wondered at her never choosing a husband.

“What would I do without ye?” he asked.

She slapped his hand away. “Ye would likely wither away in a dram cellar somewhere.”

She smiled. “Now, how about ye get dressed, and get this over with?”

He chuckled. “Bossy are ye nae?” he teased.

“I will leave the bossing to ye, Laird,” she said and did a low courtesy before she started giggling.

“Ye fancy yerself to be funny?” He laughed louder, his deep baritone bouncing off the stone walls.

She grinned and handed him the green and black kilt. “Put this on. An’ do not forget the brooch. They will kill ye for leaving it out.”

Creighton grunted as he walked over to his bath. The water was already warm, and he stripped down and stepped into it.

“I am getting tired o’ seeing that arse.” Fiona giggled.

“Stop looking.” Creighton chuckled and slipped into the water.

She walked over to him and knelt next to the bath, her chin resting on her hands against the edge of the tub. “I missed ye when ye went to France.”

“Missed ye, too.” He sighed. “But ye had Jamie. I am sure he made up for all o’ the trouble I’d have given ye.”

“Och!” she said and waved him off. “Jamie was much too busy for the likes of me.”

Creighton laughed, but there was no happiness in him. He’d only returned to Scotland a year ago to take care of his father when he’d gotten ill. As the months rolled on, he knew his father was not going to get better, and his time abroad had come to an end. He had to remain at Castle Urquhart as its Laird.

His father had been a hard man – not the kindest, and certainly not the most loving. But he was his father, and he’d spent the last couple of weeks mourning his death. The time for mourning had come to an end, and some things needed to get done, and he had to be the one to do it.

He sighed and stepped out of the bath. Fiona helped him get dressed, smoothing his long black hair back and tying it with a ribbon. He stood like a giant next to her as he pulled her in and kissed the top of her head.

She disappeared toward her quarters as soon as he stood in the long stone passage. He held onto the small sword dangling on his hip and could easily trace the markings of the Lennox emblem on the hilt.

Creighton sucked in a deep breath and walked off. His footsteps echoed in the hollow tunnel as he made his way to the main hall where the elders had gathered. They’d come to ratify his ascension to Laird, but even from afar, he could hear the grumblings of disapproval.

When he entered the archway and stood above the two stone steps that descended into the room, a hush came over it as all eyes turned to him. He was happy to see at least two friendly faces. Brodric, his ever-faithful sword-master, and Jamie, his right-hand man, and friend for life. He was sure to have at least two votes – if voting even mattered.

He was the rightful heir to the clan, and unless he surrendered that, then they had to accept him. Their acceptance, however, would make it easier for him.

“I did nae think he could find his way to us,” a sour-faced man spat when he saw Creighton, but he spoke louder than he realized. Creighton heard him and flashed him a disapproving look. He recognized the man as Laird Mackenzie, head of one of the largest clans on that side of the coast. Their opinion of him, however, did not matter. Whether they liked him or not, he was their Laird.

Creighton clenched his jaws and stepped down, making his way to the head of the gathering. “Now that I am here,” he said, spreading his arms before he sat, “shall we?”

He knew he was in for a great many protests, but he could handle it. Brodric raised his brows at him and then nodded his approval.

Jamie was the first to stand from his seat next to Creighton. “As ye all ken, Creighton is the rightful heir to the Lennox clan. That’s indisputable. Frankly, I am not sure why we are gathered here. There is nay a thing tae talk about.”

Creighton smiled to himself. He was not surprised by Jamie’s words – he was always quick to defend him and was always generous with the truth.

“There is plenty tae talk about,” Baron Weiss ranted. “What does the lad ken about being a laird? Why he was almost still a bairn when he left.”

Several nods were circulating the room and hushed whispers. Creighton pinched his chin and surveyed his subjects. “And ye think ye could do a better job?”

“Of course!” the baron cried and toyed with his silk neck scarf. “What do ye ken?” he asked and glared at Creighton.

“Does it matter?” Brodric chimed in from his relaxed posture on the wooden chair. “He is the heir.”

“It does!” someone else piped in, a long, thin man who was a wealthy farmer. “In case ye haven’t noticed, the lands are constantly ravaged by other clans seeking power. The clan Lennox needs a strong leader so they will nae prey on us. We dae nae need a boy who barely remembers the Highlands.”

“He grew up here, on these very lands,” Jamie jumped in. “He kens it well.”

“No one kens who he is!” the baron persisted. “He has been living in France for years! He will fail as a laird!”

Creighton’s chest tightened as he listened to the men talking about him like he was not there.

“Our enemies ken nothing o’ him,” Alderman MacIntosh, a thin and lanky man, commented.

“They will laugh at us. We need someone who is feared, like his father before him. Look at him!” he declared as he stood and pointed to Creighton.

Creighton slammed his fist onto the table and rose. “What about me?” he asked and glowered at the man. “Ye think me a boy because I lived somewhere else fer a few years? Is it fear ye want?” he asked and walked over to the man.

“All am saying is, ye can nae rule the people if they think ye weak,” the Alderman said as his lips trembled. Creighton towered over him, inciting the very fear they claimed he lacked as a leader.

“I am not weak!” he snarled. “This is my home, and I will nae let it be overrun by other clans.”

“But who’s tae believe ye?” Baron Weiss asked. “Ye do not have a reputation. It’d be better if ye marry into one of those wealthy and powerful clans and bind our kin together.”

“Yes,” some others mumbled as Creighton’s eyes widened. “Marry?”

“Yes,” Baron Weiss continued. “If ye marry into a well-known clan, and get a bairn, ah, then ye’ll be known fer sure.”

“We’d be stronger,” some others agreed.

“I will marry soon enough!” Creighton declared and walked back to his seat. “I will nae marry because ye think that’s the only way fer me tae look strong.”

“That alone tells us yer not fit to be Laird of this castle,” Baron Weiss snarled and shifted on his chair, his curly brown hair swishing against his shoulders. “A good laird does what is necessary fer his clan.”

Creighton paused and looked at the rest of the men gathered in front of him. They had already made up their minds, and to go against them would prove exactly what they were saying about him – that he was weak and incapable. They had skillfully played him, and his back was up against the wall. He had no problems with marrying. He knew he would have to marry, and likely to a lass from one of the other powerful clans. What he disliked was the way they made him look weak, like he needed a wife to appear capable. He could tell it would be the question he’d have to answer every day until he found a wife. And he had not even started looking yet.

“If it is a wife ye think I need, fine!” Creighton growled. “But dae nae ye dare think me weak! I may not be me father, but I will make me reputation in these parts. I will find a lass. Until then, there’s another business we need tae tend tae.”

He’d grown up with his mother and father treating each other like strangers. There had been no love between them. They’d married to unite two clans, and there he was, on the verge of doing the very thing he’d hoped he would not have to do. He was still a romantic at heart and had hoped his wife would have been a woman he could love. He was quickly thrust into a life he was not fully prepared for, but there was nothing he could do about it. Nothing that would not mean abandoning his clan. His hopes at love quickly fled his life, and in its place, only business. If his father were still alive, he’d have encouraged the same thing, and quickly. He’d have been front and center in pointing him out as a failure too.

Creighton sighed and wiped his hand down his face. He needed a whole bottle of dram. Or something else to clear his head.

Pegasus was the first thing that came to mind – his trusted horse.

“I am glad to see ye are disposed tae taking counsel, milord,” the Baron replied glumly, a smug smile spreading across his face. “‘Tis nothing new ye will be inventing. Why half o’ us in this here room got married for the same reason.”

Creighton’s greatest concern at that moment was where he could find a bride, but he was also sure there would be many suggestions from the council members. With any luck, some Lairds would come around with their daughters and one bonny lass would catch his eye.

When Creighton left the main hall, his was the only pensive face remaining. Brodric followed him.

“What are ye going tae do?” he asked. “I can visit some of the other lairds, see if I can find ye a lass worth looking at.”

Creighton chuckled. “That’s the best I can hope fer right now.”

“Ye ken this might happen when ye came back,” Brodric replied sympathetically. “That’s why I was with ye all those years in France. Make sure ye never lost yer way. And ye did nae do that,” he said and peered into Creighton’s eyes. “Now, ye just have tae do what is necessary.”

“I ken,” Creighton told him.

“It is nae the worst thing in the world, lad,” Brodric said as they stepped back to allow some council members to pass them by. “Have ye seen Baron Weiss’ wife?” he whispered and the two erupted into laughter.

“I see yer point,” Creighton replied, and they continued walking for a second in silence. After a while, they stopped, and Creighton pressed his hand down hard on Brodric’s shoulder. “Yer a good lad, ye ken?” he asked.

“I ken,” Brodric smiled.

“I am going tae go for a ride tae clear my head,” Creighton told him. “I will nae think about it fer now. There’s always tomorrow.”

“Dae nae fash, Creighton!” he shouted after him. “I will look out for ye.”

And Creighton did not doubt he would. When he’d decided to go to France, Brodric had not hesitated to go with him. And he’d stuck with him throughout all his brawls and awkward phases. He’d taught him the art of swordsmanship and had kept talk of the Highlands alive. Always. And it had come down to one thing nonetheless – the age-old, fool-proof way for their clan to move forward, simply by taking one step back.

If you liked the preview, you can get the whole book here

  • Juliana, you had me at the scorching cover! What a telling two chapters. Maisie and Creighton’s story already promises to be a grand adventure!

  • >