Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Highland Thistle

Kidnapped by pirates, Highlander Arabella Fraser fights to free herself, rescue her fiance' and return home in time to save her father from the gallows.

Complete at 100,000 words.


Chapter 1

The Scottish Highlands, 1584

As usual, Arabella Fraser ignored her brother’s cry to slow down and be careful. Instead, she leaned low in the saddle and slapped her heels hard against the mare’s slate-colored flanks. The animal sped up, pulling farther ahead of Douglas and his mount. The heather and gorse on the hillside flew past in a pink and yellow blur. An ancient fence of stacked fieldstone stood before the riders, losing a long, slow struggle against time and gravity but still presenting a formidable challenge.

At the last second Douglas Fraser pulled back on the reins, stopping his mount. Arabella continued forward, driving straight at the wall. With a whooping yell, horse and rider soared over the barrier. Douglas held his breath as the mare came down hard, nearly launching his sister from its back. True to form though, she stayed mounted and brought her horse firmly under control before glancing back at him with a triumphant grin.

Douglas led his horse along the old stone wall to a section where it had long ago crumbled into a low pile of moss-covered rocks. Though three years older at two-and-twenty and as strapping a man as any in these Highlands, he had never been able to match his sister’s skill--or daring--in the saddle.

“Very well, Ara, I yield! You win! Again,” he added, shaking his shaggy head.

His sister led her horse back to him at a jaunty trot. Arabella's usually fair cheeks were flushed with excitement and her blue eyes burned with the exhilaration and danger of the race. The sun's rays sent streamers of light through her dark red tresses, untied and uncovered, causing the tangled mane to glow as if afire.

“Your hat,” he said, handing her the dusty bonnet retrieved from the bushes. “And quit gloating. I let you win as a gift, an early wedding present.”

“Oh bother,” she told him with a lilting laugh. “You have never beaten me over that wall and you never will.”

“What I meant was, I let you ride the faster horse today, that's all,” he said as they headed back toward home at a more leisurely pace.

“Of course, dear brother, and I thank you for allowing me the honor of riding my own horse this fine day. And by God a lovely day it is!” She gazed ahead to the village of Errogie, nestled snuggly on the shores of Loch Mhor, and beyond this to their family home Ban Tigh. To the south towered the Monadhliath Mountains, the blues and grays and browns of their peaks raking the sky and disappearing into the mist, while to the north and west the Great Glen spread as far as the eye could see.

“I really wish you would not ride so recklessly,” Douglas told her. “Your fiancĂ© would have my hide if I brought you to him in pieces. That is, if father did not slay me first.”

“Bah! My Duncan would do no such thing, broken hearted though he would certainly be. He is a lamb to be sure, despite this ill reputation you and your pub mates seem determined to hang about his neck.”

“Aye, so you have told me afore. And I will tell you again he well earned that reputation in a score of duels and then some. Word is he is a formidable man with a blade and, from what I hear, has a temper to match.”

“A score of duels, is it now? Why, the number grows each time I hear it!” Arabella said. “Sure’n Duncan took part in a few contests during his University days but he is no crazed berserker. And correct me if I am wrong but have I not heard tales of you clashing blades a few times during your days in Paris?”

“Youthful indiscretions they were and well behind me now,” Douglas answered stiffly.

“As with my Duncan.”

“If you say so,” he muttered. His sister guessed his next words and she shot him an angry look, for he had spoken them more than once. Still, he could not keep from asking the question again. “Ara, love, are you certain you know what you’re doing? 'Twas all so sudden.”

“Really, Douglas, how can you ask such a thing and with the wedding less than two weeks away? Duncan Campbell is a good man from a good family, a fine catch for any lass. Do you know he is next in line for the Thanedom of Cawdor? After his brother Colin, that is.”

“Do not be so quick to bury their father, Lord John. He is not much older than our own dear gaffer.”

“Oh, prithee forgive me! Of course I meant no disrespect to Lord Campbell. I only meant that Duncan is--”

“Second in line for the Thanage of Cawdor, with greater prospects yet.”

“I speak not of his fortunes, or future fortunes, but of his character, brother. A title and a bit of land mean nothing to me and you know it.”

“Easy, Ara, I intended no affront. Still, you cannot deny that Cawdor is a magnificent estate, not a drafty auld bothy on a wee piss of land like our home.”

“Ban Tigh is not a bothy! It is a lovely and stately auld manor, perhaps more--venerable--than some but no less grand and as charming as any. And father’s estate is no wee plot. Besides, as I said, such things mean nothing to me; I would marry Duncan were he a poor tinker with no prospects at all.”

“Like me,” Douglas said, a wry smile on his handsome face.
Arabella hated to hear him speak so of their family fortunes, yet she could not deny their father had suffered greatly these last few years. The same could be said for most Highlanders in these times.

“Dearest Douglas, please do not begrudge Duncan or his family their fortunes. Earl Arran's vile policies have hurt all the Highland lords, including the Campbells. You know they have opposed him just as vigorously as our father, perhaps even more so if the rumors are to be believed. They have simply been more fortunate than us in certain matters. Oh, you have done it again and I feel once more I am to blame. If I have touched on a wound, forgive me. You know I do not know half of what I am saying half the time these days. All the planning and details and preparations for the wedding and our trip to France have me much befuddled of late."

“Worry not, sis," Douglas said as they entered the paddock behind the manor house.

“The fault is mine for being so thin-skinned about it. But since you did bring it up, I have to ask again: why do we have to have the bloody wedding in France? What is so wrong with Scotland?”

“There is nothing wrong with Scotland! I am a Highland girl through and through and there is nowhere in the world I would rather wed than right here. Paris was Duncan's choice and I am respecting it. Besides, ‘tis where we first met.”
Douglas saw the look in her eyes and knew she would rather have had the wedding in Scotland and was likely no more pleased about the upcoming trip than he. He let the matter drop.

They reached the rear courtyard and walked their horses into the old stone barn. Arabella and Douglas stabled their own mounts, as they had been doing since their father had let his last groomsman go nearly a year ago. Douglas remained behind to tend to a neglected gate repair and Arabella went on alone.

She gazed up at the squat, timber and stone structure with great affection, ignoring the large flakes of fallen whitewash and mortar dotting the ground like so much snow. She had missed the old house and her family terribly while she had been away in France these last several years.

Her home had always been full of love, even in the difficult time after her father, Sir William, divorced her mother. Luckily, Arabella had been too young at the time to be aware of the scandal this caused, or the greater scandal that followed when Lady Elizabeth gave birth only six months later to Arabella’s half-sister Alexandria. It did not help matters any that Elizabeth’s new husband proudly and publicly claimed the child as his own. The fact that he was none other than Earl Arran ensured no one would contest his paternity--or Sir William's shame.

And though Elizabeth all but ignored Arabella and Douglas after her marriage to the earl and the birth of Alexandria, their father more than made up for it.

“Ah, there she is!” William announced as Arabella entered the house. He sat in the great room at one of the long dining tables, surrounded by plates, glasses and silverware samples and was nearly buried under piles of fabric swatches, a dozen varieties of French and Scottish flowers, wine lists, menus and an even more substantial stack of bills and invoices seeking payment for it all. He pushed everything aside and stood to embrace his daughter with a warm hug and an even warmer smile.

“Riding again?” he asked, looking concerned. Arabella said nothing. “Auch, daughter, now how would you look attending your wedding black and blue and broken from a fall?”

“Pish posh, father, I have not been dismounted in years. Besides, ‘twas but a short ride, not too fast and with only a wee jump here and there. But what is all this? Should not all of these details have been decided long ago? We leave tomorrow!”

“I know, I know!” he moaned, plopping back down and grabbing one handful of flowers and another of cloth. “There are so many things left yet to be decided; I know not how I will manage!”

“Move over,” she told him, taking a seat on the long bench next to him.


It was well past midnight when the two finally finished their work and retired. Nonetheless, old Thomas, Sir William’s valet, dutifully awoke them at dawn so they could begin their journey to Cawdor Castle. A paltry four servants accompanied them, the only ones who could be spared from the already too few tending the manor and its grounds these days. In addition to Thomas came Robin and Christopher, who served in the fields and would perform the duties of porters and grooms of the chamber at the wedding, and dear old Bess, originally Arabella’s nursemaid and now simply her maid.

The first of Arabella’s bridesmaids, Mary MacBain, joined them as well. Molly, as she insisted everyone call her, lived nearby in the shire of Ault-na-goire, was the same age as Arabella and had been her dearest friend since before either could walk. Both sported the same mane of fiery red hair, though Molly stood several inches shorter and carried several more pounds. The boys loved her curves, though, which she proudly displayed by often wearing scandalously low-cut bodices.

The girls had not seen each other for nearly two months and hugged and kissed and danced a hastily-improvised jig around an imaginary cask, much to the consternation of Douglas who had to remind them three times they had a schedule to keep before they finally mounted their horses. As soon as his back was turned though they stuck their tongues out at him, giggling merrily. They then took up their same conversation from two months ago in mid-sentence as if there had been no break at all.

Arabella would never say as much but felt far less enthusiastic about her other bridesmaid, Alexandria, who was to meet them in Nairn. It was in that port the wedding party would board the ship that was to carry them to France. Arabella had always made an extra effort to be friendly to her half-sister for, regardless of their parent’s feelings toward each other, the two girls were kin and that meant a great deal to Arabella. Regrettably, Alexandria often met her efforts with something between icy indifference and outright rudeness.

Still, the girl had at least agreed to take part in the wedding, even if she had only done so at the very last moment. Arabella told herself she had done so purely out of familial love and support and not the opportunity to visit Paris with its multitude of handsome men and fabulous parties.

The procession from Ban Tigh set out just as the first rays of sunlight shone over the rugged peaks of Carn Ghriogair. Their packhorses carried the numerous samples they had decided upon, along with nearly every stitch of clothing the Frasers owned and a score of other little items deemed necessary or appropriate for their journey or the wedding.

The weather proved cooperative during the two-day trip and everyone remained in high spirits. Upon their arrival at Cawdor Lord John Campbell himself welcomed them and did so as if they were royalty. He threw a grand feast that night for all and would have done so every night if they could have stayed longer. There was no time though, and bright and early the next morn the wedding party set out once more, this time joined by the Campbells and their retinue.

And a grand host it was, for in addition to the thane, his eldest son Colin and of course Duncan, they were joined by a troupe of minstrels, several gentlemen ushers including the distinguished Sir Robert Rose of Kilvarock and Sir Henry MacQueen of Tomatin, as well as valets, pages, cooks, potboys and servers, a seamstress and laundress and a host of others. The group now consisted of more than a half-dozen wagons and travel became much slower. Still, Nairn and the coast were not far from Cawdor and the group expected to arrive before dusk.

The air grew cooler and less settled as they approached the sea and now the sky doused them with an occasional drizzle. And though the showers dampened their heads it did little to dampen their spirits. Sir William and Lord John, both bachelors, genuinely liked each other and got along smashingly. The two gentlemen rode side by side at the head of the group, conversing as if old and dear friends though they had only formally met upon their children's recent engagement.

“Tell me, Sir William,” Lord Campbell said during a break in the rain. “Do you know if Arabella’s mother and her husband shall be attending the ceremony?” He asked the question quite innocently yet immediately regretted it, seeing Sir William’s jaw clench and his brow furrow. This passed almost immediately and William again became the picture of genial composure, putting on a friendly smile as he answered.

“Aye, I believe the lady intends to be there and of course you know that Alexandria will meet us at the ship. Her mother has, I understand, made other travel arrangements for herself.”

“And the earl?” Lord Campbell pressed.

“I think not. Something about ‘royal business’ preventing him, apologies and best wishes and all that rubbish.”

“I shall consider myself the more fortunate for it. The man is a damned snake if you ask me and I care not to see him.”

“We are of the same mind, brother.”

“I suppose of course you would be after, well, you know.” Most of the Highland lords knew Sir William to be an outspoken critic of Arran's, though few who did not know him well could say whether his real hatred was for the man or for his policies. His close friends knew it was both. “My disdain for the man is perhaps less personal, to be sure, and rather more political, if you will.”

“Aye, and I second you in that regard as well,” William said.

“He is just so…” the thane paused, searching for the right word. “So un-Scottish, if you catch my meaning. There is too much of France and England in him I say and too little of Scotland.”

“Verily, and well met, dear friend. If only our brave cousins at Ruthven had been more successful.”

“Softly, Sir William, softly,” the thane said quietly, drawing his horse closer to William’s and looking about nervously. “We must not be accused of treason, mind you.”

Despite being in the Highlands and among friends, Lord John felt uneasy speaking of the incident just two years ago when a group of Highland nobles led by Lord Ruthven, Earl of Gowrie, seized the young King James hostage during a hunt. The nobles had not been upset with the king so much as with his policies and the men who formed them, including Arran. The king escaped after a time and returned to power, though he judiciously refused to punish his kidnappers, dismissing the matter as little more than 'a disagreement between gentlemen.’

Arran, however, felt differently and grasped at any means to destroy everyone involved in the Raid, as well as those who did no more than sympathize with them. And as Lord High Chancellor of Scotland, he wielded the power and authority to do so.
After looking over both shoulders, Lord John reached into his pocket and withdrew a silver flask. “Here is to Ruthven.” He drank deeply before handing it to William, who did the same.

They had not but finished their toast when they heard the unmistakable sounds of horse and rider galloping fast toward them from behind. The image of Earl Arran with his legions of spies and king’s guards flashed through the thane’s mind before he recognized the rider as a man from his own household. He paused, bidding William and the others to continue while he allowed his man to catch up.

William removed himself to a discreet distance but went no further. He watched as the rider breathlessly whispered a message into Lord Campbell’s ear and saw the thane’s expression change from concern to joy and quickly back to grim concern. Lord John shook his head and William heard him tell the page he had thought correctly in coming to give him this news at once. His message delivered, the fellow turned his horse and began his journey back to Cawdor. Lord Campbell rejoined Sir William.

The two men rode in silence for some time before the thane finally shared his news with the old knight, who by then was on the verge of bursting with curiosity but knew it was improper to pry.

“Queer that we were but a moment hence speaking of the Ruthven lords,” the thane told him quietly. “For I have just learned they have once again put themselves deep into a het pint.”

“How now, milord? Do not tell me that dog Arran has discovered some cause to have them arrested?”

“Discovered? Hardly, for the Earls Mar and Angus have given the earl cause to have them arrested. By God, man, they have taken Stirling Castle!”

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