Scottish Highlands, July 1718
The dream startled her awake mere minutes before the siege began.
Gwendolen MacEwen sat up with a gasp and turned her eyes to the window. It was only a dream, she told herself as she struggled to calm her breathing. Later she would call it a premonition, but for now, she was certain it was just the trickeries of sleep causing this terror in her heart.
Giving up any notion of slumber, she tossed the covers aside, sat up on the edge of the bed, and reached for her robe. She slipped it on for warmth against the predawn chill as she rose to her feet and padded to the window, lured to the leaded glass by a faint glow of light on the horizon.
A new day had begun. At last. She closed her eyes and said a silent prayer that it would bring her brother, Murdoch, home from his travels. The MacEwens needed their chief, and if he did not soon return and claim his birthright, she feared someone else would—for there had been some talk of discontent in the village. She’d heard it from her maid, whose sister was married to the alehouse keeper. And after the dream she’d just had …
The horn blew suddenly in the bailey.
Unaccustomed to hearing such a clamor while the castle still slept, Gwendolen turned from the window. What in God’s name…?
It blew again, a second time. Then a third.
A spark of alarm fired her blood, for she knew the meaning of that signal. It was coming from the rooftop, and it spoke of danger.
Gwendolen rushed to the door, flung it open, and hurried up the tower stairs.
“What’s happening?” she asked the guard, who was pacing back and forth through the early morning chill. She could see his ragged breath upon the air.
He pointed. “Look there, Miss MacEwen!”
She rose up on her toes and leaned out over the battlements, squinting through the dim morning light at the moving shadows in the field. It was an advancing army, approaching quickly from the edge of the forest. Some were on foot, others mounted.
“How many men?” she asked.
“Two hundred, at least,” he replied. “Maybe more.”
She stepped away from the wall and regarded him soberly. “How much time do we have?”
“Five minutes at best.”
She turned and locked eyes with another clansman, who exploded out of the tower staircase with a musket in his hands. He halted, panic-stricken, when he spotted her.
“They came out of nowhere,” he explained. “We’re doomed for sure. Ye should escape, Miss MacEwen, before it’s too late.”
Immediately incensed, Gwendolen strode forward, grabbed two fistfuls of his shirt, and shook him roughly. “Repeat those words again, sir, and I will have your head!” She swung around to face the other clansman. “Go and alert the steward.”
“Just do it!”
They had no leader. Her father was dead, and their current laird of war was a drunkard who was not even within the castle walls, for he’d been spending his nights in the village since her father’s passing. Her brother had not yet returned from the Continent. They had only their steward, Gordon MacEwen—who was a brilliant manager of books and numbers, but no warrior.
“Is your weapon loaded?” she asked the flustered clansman. “Do you have enough powder?”
“Then take aim and defend the gate!”
He hurried into position, while she looked out over the bailey below, where her clansmen were finally assembling in answer to the call. Torches had been lit, but everyone was shouting in confusion, asking too many questions.
“MacEwens, hear me now!” she shouted. “An army is approaching from the east! We will soon be under attack! Arm yourselves and man the battlements!”
Only in the hush of that moment, as all eyes turned toward her, did she realize that she was still wearing her dressing gown.
“You there!” She pointed at a boy. “Arm yourself with a sword! Assemble all the women and children. Take them to the chapel, bar the doors, and stay with them until the battle is ended.”
The boy nodded bravely and dashed off to the armory.
“They are MacDonalds!” a guard shouted from the opposite corner tower. It was Douglas MacEwen, a good friend and able swordsman.
Gwendolen gathered her shift in her hands and ran to meet him. “Are you certain?”
“Aye, look there.” He pointed across the field, now shimmering with mist and morning dew. “They carry the banner of Angus the Lion.”
Gwendolen had heard tales of Angus MacDonald, forsaken son of the fallen MacDonald chief, who had once been Laird of Kinloch. He had been a Jacobite traitor, however, which was why the King granted her father Letters of Fire and Sword, which had awarded him the right to take the castle in service to the Crown.
There were whispers that Angus was the infamous Butcher of the Highlands—a renegade Jacobite who hacked entire English armies to pieces with his legendary death axe.
Others said he was nothing but a treacherous villain, who was banished to the north by his own father for some secret, unspeakable crime.
Either way, he was reputed to be a fierce and ruthless warrior, faster and more ferocious than a phantom beast on the battlefield. Some even said he was invincible.
This much was true at least: he was an expert swordsman, who showed no mercy to warriors and women alike.
“What in God’s name is that?” She leaned forward and squinted, as a terrible sense of foreboding poured through her.
Douglas strained to see clearly through the mist, then his face went pale. “It’s a catapult, and their horses are pulling a battering ram.”
She could hear the heavy, muted thunder of their approach, and her heart turned over in her chest.
“You are in charge here until I return,” she told him. “You must defend the gate, Douglas. At all costs.”
He nodded silently. She patted him on the arm with encouragement, then hurried back to the tower stairs. Seconds later, she was pushing through the door to her bedchamber. Her maid was waiting uneasily by the bed.
Gwendolen spoke without flinching. “We are under attack,” she said. “There isn’t much time. You must help gather the women and children, go straight to the chapel, and stay there until it is over.”
“Aye, Miss McEwen!” The maid hastened from the room.
Closing the door behind her, Gwendolen quickly tore off her robe and dropped it, without a care, onto the braided rug. She hurried to the wardrobe to find clothes.
Just then, a sudden, violent pounding began at her door, as if an animal were bucking up against it.
“Gwendolen! Gwendolen! Are you awake?”
She halted in her tracks. Oh, if only she were asleep, and this was still the dream, playing tricks on her mind. But the sound of alarm in her mother’s voice quashed that possibility. She hurried to answer the door.
“Come inside, Mother. We are under attack.”
“Are you certain?” Onora looked as if she had already taken the time to dress for the event. Her long curly hair was combed into a hasty but elegant twist, and she was wearing a crisp new gown of blue and white silk. “I heard the horn, but thought surely it must be a false alarm.”
“It isn’t.” Gwendolen returned to the wardrobe and pulled a skirt on over her shift. “The MacDonalds are storming the gates as we speak. There isn’t much time. They have brought a catapult and battering ram.”
Onora swept into the room and shut the door behind her. “How utterly medieval!”
“Indeed. They are led by Angus the Lion.” Glancing briefly at her mother with concern, Gwendolen hunted around for her shoes.
“Angus the Lion? Forsaken son of the MacDonald chief? Oh, God help us all. If he is triumphant, you and I will be doomed.”
“Do not speak those words in my presence, Mother,” Gwendolen replied. “They are not yet inside the castle walls. We can still keep them at bay.”
This was, after all, the mighty and formidable Kinloch Castle. Its walls were six feet thick and sixty feet high. Only a bird could reach the towers and battlements. They were surrounded by water, protected by a drawbridge and an iron portcullis. How could the MacDonalds possibly overtake such a stronghold?
She longed suddenly for her brother Murdoch. Why wasn’t he here? He should have come home the moment he learned of their father’s death. Why had he stayed away so long, and left them here without a leader?
Her mother began to pace. “I always told your father he should have banished each and every member of that Jacobite clan when he claimed this castle for the MacEwens, but would he listen? No. He insisted on mercy and compassion, and look where it got us.”
Gwendolen pulled on her stays and her mother tied the laces. “I disagree. The MacDonalds who chose to remain here under Father’s protection have been peaceful and loyal to us for two years. They adored Father. This cannot be their doing.”
“But have you not heard the ugly rumors in the village? The complaints about the rents, and that silly debacle over the beehive?”
“Aye,” Gwendolen replied, tying her hair back off her shoulders with a simple leather cord. “But it is only a small number who feel that way, and only because we have no chief to settle disputes. I am certain that when Murdoch returns, all will be well. Besides, those who chose to remain never supported the Jacobite cause to begin with. They do not want to participate in another rebellion. Kinloch is a Hanoverian house now.”
She got down on her knees and reached under the bed for the trunk. It scraped across the floor as she pulled it out.
“No, I suppose it is not their doing,” Onora said. “They are farmers and peasants. This is the vengeance of the warriors who would not take an oath of allegiance to your father when he proclaimed himself laird two years ago. That is what we are facing now. We should have known they would return to take back what was theirs.”
Gwendolen opened the trunk and withdrew a small saber, then rose to her feet and belted it around her waist. “Kinloch is not theirs now,” she reminded her mother. “It belongs to the MacEwens by order of the King. Anyone who claims otherwise is a traitor to England and in breach of the law. And surely the King will not allow this powerful Scottish bastion to fall into the hands of enemy Jacobites. We will soon have assistance, I am sure of it.”
Her mother shook her head. “You are very naïve, Gwendolen. No one will be coming to our aid, at least not in time to save us from having our throats slit by that savage rebel, Angus MacDonald.”
“Kinloch will not fall to them,” Gwendolen insisted. “We will fight, and by God’s grace, we will win.”
Her mother scoffed bitterly as she followed her to the door. “Don’t be a fool! We are outnumbered and leaderless! We will have to surrender and plead for mercy. Although what good it will do, I cannot imagine. I am the wife and you are the daughter of the clansman who conquered this castle and slayed their chief. Mark my words, the first thing the Lion will do is take his vengeance out on us!”
Gwendolen would not listen to any more of this. She moved quickly out of the chamber and into the corridor, where she paused to adjust her sword belt. “I am going to the armory to fetch a musket and powder,” she explained. “And then I am going up to the battlements to fight for what is ours, in the name of the King. I will not let Father’s greatest achievement die with him.”
“Are you mad?” Onora followed her to the stairs. “You are a woman! You cannot fight them! You must stay here, where it is safe. We will pray for our lives and think of a way to contend with those dirty MacDonalds when they break down your bedchamber door.”
Gwendolen paused. “You can stay here and pray, Mother, but I cannot simply sit here and wait for them to slit my throat. If I am going to die today, so be it, but I will not depart this life without a fight.” She started down the curved staircase. “And with any luck, I will live long enough to shoot a musket ball straight through the black heart of Angus MacDonald himself. Thatyou can pray for!”
* * *
By the time Gwendolen reached the battlements and took aim at the invaders on the drawbridge below, the iron-tipped battering ram was smashing the thick oak door to pieces. The castle walls shuddered beneath her feet, and she was forced to stop and take a moment to absorb what was happening.
The frightful reality of battle struck her, and all at once, she felt dazed, as if she were staring into a churning abyss of noise and confusion. She couldn’t move. Her fellow clansmen were shouting gruffly at each other. Smoke and the smell of gunpowder burned in her lungs and stung her eyes. One kilted warrior had dropped all his weapons beside her and was crouching by the wall, overcome by a fit of weeping.
She stared down at him for a hazy moment, feeling nauseous and light-headed, as cracks of musketfire exploded all around her.
“Get up!” she shouted, reaching down and hooking her arm under his. She hauled him to his feet. “Reload your weapon, and use it to fight!”
The young clansman stared at her blankly for a moment, then fumbled for his powder.
Gwendolen leaned out over the battlements to see below. The MacDonalds were swarming through the broken gate, crawling like insects over the wooden ram. She quickly took aim and fired at one of them, but missed.
“To the bailey!” she shouted, and the sound of dozens of swords scraping out of scabbards fueled her resolve. With steady hands and an unwavering spirit, she reloaded her musket. There was shouting and screaming, men running everywhere, flocking to the stairs …
“Gwendolen!” Douglas called out, stopping beside her. “You should not be here! You must go below to your chamber and lock yourself in! Leave the fighting to the men!”
“Nay, Douglas, I will fight and die for Kinloch if I must.”
He regarded her with both admiration and regret, and spoke in a gentler voice. “At least do your fighting from the rooftop, lassie. The clan will not survive the loss of you.”
His meaning was clear, and she knew he was right. She was the daughter of the MacEwen chief. She must remain alive to negotiate terms of surrender, if it came to that.
Gwendolen nodded. “Be gone, Douglas. Leave me here to reload my weapon. This is a good spot. I will do what I can from here.”
He kissed her on the cheek, wished her luck, and bolted for the stairs.
Hand-to-hand combat began immediately in the bailey below. There was a dreadful roar—close to four hundred men all shouting at once—and the deafening clang of steel against steel rang in her ears as she fired and reloaded her musket, over and over. Before long, she had to stop, for the two clans had merged into one screaming cataclysm of carnage, and she could not risk shooting any of her own men.
The chapel bell tolled, calling the villagers to come quickly and assist in the fight, but even if every able-bodied man arrived at that moment, it would not be enough. These MacDonald warriors were rough and battle seasoned, armed with spears, muskets, axes, bows and arrows. They were quickly seizing control, and she could do nothing from where she stood, for if she went below, it would be suicide, and she had to live for her clan.
Then she spotted him. Their leader. Angus the Lion, fighting in the center of it all.
She quickly loaded her musket and aimed, but he moved too quickly. She could not get a clear shot.
A scorching ball of terror shot into her belly as she lowered her weapon. No wonder they called him the Lion. His hair was a thick, tawny mane that reached past his broad shoulders, and he roared with every deadly swing of his claymore, which sliced effortlessly through the air before cutting down foe after foe after foe.
Gwendolen stood transfixed, unable to tear her eyes away from the sheer muscled brawn of his arms, chest, and legs—legs thick as tree trunks, just like the battering ram on the bridge. There was a perfect, lethal symmetry and balance to his movements as he lunged and killed, then flicked the sweat-drenched hair from his eyes, spun around and killed again.
Her heart pounded with fascination and awe. He was a powerful beast of a man, a superb warrior, magnificent in every way, and the mere sight of him in battle, in all his legendary glory, nearly brought her to her knees. He deflected every blow with his sturdy black shield, and swung the claymore with exquisite grace. She had never encountered such a man before, nor imagined such strength was possible in the human form.
She realized suddenly that her mother had been correct in her predictions. There was no possibility of defeating this man. They were all doomed. Without a doubt, the castle would fall to these invaders and there would be no mercy. It was pointless to hope otherwise.
She moved across the rooftop to the corner tower where her bedchamber was housed, and looked down at the hopeless struggle.
This had been far too easy a charge for the MacDonalds. To watch it any longer was pure agony, and she was ashamed when she had to close her eyes and turn her face away. She had wanted so desperately to triumph over these attackers, but she had never witnessed a battle such as this in all her twenty-one years. She’d heard tales, of course, and imagined the evils of war, but she’d had no idea how truly violent and grisly it would be.
Soon the battle cries grew sparse, and only a handful of willful warriors continued to fight to the death. Other MacEwen clansmen, with swords pointed at their throats, accepted their fate. They laid down their weapons and dropped to their knees. Those who surrendered were being assembled into a line at the far wall.
Gwendolen, who had been watching the great Lion throughout the battle, noticed suddenly that he was gone, vanished like a phantom into the gunsmoke. Panic shot to her core, and she gazed frantically from one corner of the bailey to the other, searching all the faces for those gleaming, devilish eyes. Where was he? Had someone killed him? Or had he penetrated the chapel to ravage the women and children, too?
She spotted him, at last, on the rooftop, clear across the distance, standing on the opposite corner tower. His broadsword was sheathed at his side, and his shield was strapped to his back. He raised his arms out to his sides and shouted to the clansmen below.
“I am Angus Bradach MacDonald! Son of the fallen Laird MacDonald, true master of Kinloch Castle!” His voice was deep and thunderous. It rumbled mightily inside her chest. “Kinloch belongs to me by right of birth! I hereby declare myself laird and chief!”
“Kinloch belongs to the MacEwens now!” someone shouted from below. “By Letters of Fire and Sword, issued by King George of Great Britain!”
“If you want it back,” Angus growled, stepping forward to the edge of the rooftop, “then raise your sword and fight me!”
His challenge was met with silence, until Gwendolen was overcome by a blast of anger so hot, she could not control or contain it.
“Angus Bradach MacDonald!” she shouted from the dark, outraged depths of her soul. “Hear me now! I am Gwendolen MacEwen, daughter of the MacEwen chief who won this castle by fair and lawful means! I am leader here, and I will fight you!”
It was not until that moment that she realized she had marched to the edge of the rooftop and drawn her saber, which she was now pointing at him from across the distance.
Her heart pummeled her chest. She had never felt more exhilarated. It was intoxicating. She wished there was not this expanse of separation between them. If there were a bridge from one tower to the other, she would dash across it and fight him to the death.
“Gwendolen MacEwen!” he shouted in reply. “Daughter of my enemy! You have been defeated!”
And just like that, he dismissed her challenge and addressed the clansmen in the bailey below.
“All who have taken part in usurping this castle, and are in possession of lands that did not belong to them—you must forfeit them now to the clansmen from whom you took them!”
Gwendolen’s anger rose up again, more fiercely than before. “The MacEwens refuse!” she answered.
He immediately pointed his sword at her in a forceful show of warning, then lowered it and continued, as if she had not spoken.
“If that clansman is dead or absent today,” he declared, “you may remain, but I will have your loyalty, and you will swear allegiance to me as Laird of Kinloch!”
There was another long, drawn-out silence, until some brave soul spoke up.
“Why should we pledge loyalty to you? You are a MacDonald, and we are MacEwens!”
The Lion was quiet for a moment. He seemed to be looking deep into the eyes of every man in the bailey below. “Be it known that our two clans will unite!” He pointed his sword at Gwendolen again, and she felt the intense heat of his gaze like a fire across her body. “For I will claim this woman, who is your brave and noble leader, as my wife, and our son, one day, will be laird.”
Cheers erupted from the crowd of MacDonald warriors below, while Gwendolen digested his words with shock and disbelief. He intended to claim her as his wife?
No, it was not possible.
“There will be a feast on this night in the Great Hall,” the Lion roared, “and I will accept the pledges of all men willing to remain here and live in peace under my protection!”
Murmurs of surrender floated upward through the air and reached Gwendolen’s burning ears. She clenched her jaw and dug her fingernails into the cold rough stones of the tower. This was not happening. It could not be. Pray God, this was still the dream, and she would soon wake. But the hot morning sun on her cheeks reminded her that the dreams of a restless night had already given way to reality, and her father’s castle had been sacked and conquered by an unassailable warrior. Moreover, he intended to make her his bride and force her to bear children for him. What in God’s name was she to do?
“I do not agree to this!” she shouted, and the Lion tilted his head to the side, beholding her strangely, as if she were some sort of otherworldly creature he had never encountered before. “I wish to negotiate our terms of surrender!”
Her body began to tremble as she waited for his response. Perhaps he would simply send a man to slit her throat in front of everyone—as an example for those who were bold enough, or foolish enough, to resist. He looked ready to do it. She could feel the hot flames of his anger from where she stood, at the opposite corner of the castle.
Then the oddest thing happened. One by one, each MacEwen warrior in the bailey below turned toward her, and dropped to one knee. They all bowed their heads in silence, while the MacDonalds stood among them, observing the demonstration with some uneasiness.
For a long time Angus stood upon the North Tower saying nothing, as he watched the men deliver this unexpected defiance. A raw and brutal tension stretched ever tighter within the castle, and Gwendolen feared they would all be slaughtered.
Then, at last, the Lion turned his eyes toward her.
She lifted her chin, but his murderous contempt seemed to squeeze around her throat, and she found it difficult to breathe.
He spoke with quiet, grave authority. “Gwendolen MacEwen, I will hear your terms in the Great Hall.”
Not trusting herself to speak, she nodded and resheathed her saber, then walked with pride toward the tower stairs, while her legs, hidden beneath her skirts, shook uncontrollably and threatened to give out beneath her.
When at last she reached the top of the stairs, she paused a moment to take a breath and compose herself.
God, oh God …
She felt nauseous and light-headed.
Leaning forward and laying the flat of her hand upon the cool stones, she closed her eyes and wondered how she was ever going to negotiate with this warrior, who had already defeated her clan in a brutal and bloody campaign, and claimed her as his property. She had nothing, nothing, with which to bargain. But perhaps she and her mother could think of something—some other way to manage the situation, at least until her brother returned.
If only Murdoch were here now …
But no, there was no point wishing for such things. He was not here, and she had only herself to rely on. She must stand strong for her people.
She took one last look at them. Angus the Lion had quitted the rooftop and returned to his men. He was giving orders and wandering among the dead and wounded, assessing the magnitude of his triumph, no doubt.
A light breeze lifted his thick golden hair, which shimmered in the morning light. His kilt wafted lightly around his muscular legs, while he adjusted the leather strap that held the shield at his back.
Just then he glanced up and saw that she was watching him. He faced her squarely and did not look away.
Gwendolen’s breath caught in her throat. Her knees went weak, and something fluttered in her belly. Whether it was fear or fascination, she did not know. Either way, it did not bode well for her future dealings with him.
Shaken and agitated, she pushed away from the wall and quickly descended the tower stairs.
Copyright © 2011 by Julianne MacLean