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Aine MacLean is forced into an arranged marriage with Sir William, Chief of Clan Munro, yet her heart belongs to a handsome young warrior in her father’s guard. She must leave Durant Castle, the home of her birth on the Isle of Mull, and travel across Scotland in a perilous journey to her husband’s home on Cromarty Firth. William agrees to a year and day of handfasting, giving Aine an opportunity to accept him and his clan. He promises her the protection of Clan Munro, however, Aine experiences kidnapping, pirates, and almost loses her life in the River Moriston. She doubts the sincerity of William’s promises and decides to return to Durant Castle when the handfasting ends. William determines to win Aine’s heart. Will the brave knight triumph in his fight for the bonnie lass?
A Highland Emerald is the third book in the award-winning Highland Treasures series. It tells the story of Aine MacLean and William Munro, and is the prequel to A Highland Pearl.
A Highland Emerald
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:9
Isle of Mull
Isle of Mull
My father sat in his usual chair in front of the crackling fire, staring at the flames with dim eyes, a fur robe wrapped around his broad shoulders, the deerhound curled at his feet.
“Where are you going, Aine?” he asked with his back turned toward the stone, spiral staircase where I stood. “Come, sit with me for awhile.”
I pushed the arisaid from my shoulders, letting it drop to the floor, then stepped over the wrap, making my way to the stool where my mother’s embroidery frame stood. I took a seat and watched the flames.
Without turning his head, my father, Lachlan Og MacLean, eighth chief and fourth Laird of Durant Castle, asked, “Where are you going?”
“How did you ken ’twas I?” He never ceased to amaze me with his uncanny knowledge of events around him although his eyes, so dimmed by injury, saw very little.
“I heard the rustle of your skirts.” He extended his hand for me, so I rose and hugged his neck. He smiled, embracing my arms. “And I ken your scent, lass. ’Tis so like your mither’s. You use the same scented soap as she.”
“Aye, but from so far away and with the smell of burning wood and dog in your nostrils?”
“Your odor is a different pleasantry among the usual burning wood and dog. It stands out in my memory as does the pleasant odor of your mither.”
He smiled broadly, showing still straight, white teeth beneath a greying beard. I could almost feel his penetrating gaze upon me as in the days before his sight was taken in battle.
He asked, “Where are you going this dreary night?”
“Here, Da. To sit beside you and talk of the feast on the morrow.”
“Don’t try to deceive me, lass. I heard the sound of your arisaid dropping to the floor. You are planning a tryst, I feel certain.”
His dimmed gaze pierced through to the depths of my soul.
“I could see the turn of your head toward him each time he spoke at the evening meal.” A line formed between his brows and a shadow darkened his face. “You are to marry the Munro.”
“I dinna love William Munro.”
My voice began to rise, and I struggled to control the cry climbing from the depths of my heart. “I wanna marry him, Da. You promised I could wed for love, not convenience.”
The cry emerged from my lips. I buried my head on his shoulder and sobbed.
“Come here, lass.”
Da rose, grabbed my hand and pulled me to face him, wrapping his powerful arms around my shoulders. He stroked my hair and planted a kiss atop my head. Disturbed, the great dog stood.
My heart ached to please Da, I loved him so. His tender embrace brought back memories of my childhood when he comforted me after a fall or some aggravation caused by my three older brothers. We stood for a long while.
He gently pushed me away, looking into my eyes and planting a kiss on my forehead. “I only want the best for you, sweetling. Your my heart, you ken. I dinna wish to leave this world without you being in the care of a good mon. The Munro is a good mon.” He hesitated then added, “With wealth and title.”
I looked into his faded blue eyes that once shone with the brilliance of the azure sky on a sunny day. He could only see the outline of my face while standing close, now. “If you truly desire the best for me, you’ll let me marry the love of my heart, not some bloat because of his title. Titles mean naught to me, Da.” Tears streamed from my eyes, wetting my cheeks. I pulled away from his grasp, swiping at the wetness with a smock sleeve.
“The Munro is a good mon and a fierce warrior. ’Tis nae better for a husband. He’ll be here on the morrow. We’ll have a feast to celebrate your marriage.”
“He’s old. I’m only eighteen summers. I shan’t attend.” Sometimes the stubbornness of my nature overtook good sense. I knew not to speak to my father in such a manner. He also possessed an immovable streak, and his word overruled my desires.
“He’s no’ old, Aine. A few years your senior, but no’ old by any means. When he’s my age, then he’ll be old.”
I continued to sniff, wetting the front of his léine.
“All right, Aine. If that’s the way this game is to be played. You’ll be watched until after the celebration and the Munro departs.”
The words spewed from Da’s mouth. A sinister, dark shadow cloaked his face. Muscles twitched in his jaws and his hands clenched in tight fists. I stepped back. He abruptly turned, making his way up the stone steps to the upper story bed chambers, feeling the wall for security. When his foot struck the arisaid I’d dropped on the stair, he reached down, seized the garment and flung it with a vehemence I rarely witnessed from him, and continued up the staircase. The large dog followed at his heels.
Not knowing what to do, I grabbed the arisaid, wrapped it closely around my shoulders, pulled the hood over my head, then ran toward the door of the great hall. Ellic waited in the garden. I wanted to be near him, feel his embrace, and listen to the sweet words he would whisper in my ear.
I pulled on the large oaken door, reinforced with bands of iron, and stepped into the damp, grey air of gloaming. The large figure of Da’s luchd-taighe, Sion MacLean, filled the portal when I tried to close the door. He put up a massive arm, keeping the door from closing. I stared at him, and he back at me.
“Did Da send you to watch me?” I asked the huge brute.
“Aye,” he answered, stepping out of the keep, but leaving the door open.
“I’m going to meet Ellic Garvie, in case you are wondering. He waits for me in the stables, so be sure to report my tryst to Da. He kens, anyway.” Ellic Garvie, one of the warriors in Da’s slaugh and a member of his luchd-taighe, held an attraction for me and I for him. I turned on my heels.
He grabbed my arm, jerking me toward the door. “You’re no’ going to the stables this eve.”
I tried to pull my arm from his powerful grasp, but he held tightly while pulling me toward the door.
Pushing me inside, he said with a hiss, “Stay put, lass, or Laird MacLean will lock you in your room.”
I didn’t answer, only returned his gaze. The big oaf. The door closed in my face, and I heard him walk away. Giving the guard time to leave the keep’s vicinity and enter the outer bailey housing the stables, I carefully opened the large door to squeeze through so only a slit of light shone on the cobblestones, closed the door, then made my way to the garden enclosure beside the keep. Upon entering the garden, I glanced back to make certain no one followed, then took the rose-lined garden path to the very end. Ellic’s dark form emerged from the shadow of an apple tree beside the stone wall. I rushed into his strong, powerful arms. He pulled me close, and I buried my head on his chest. Tears fell from my eyes, wetting his jacket.
He held me away, my eyes met his in the last light of gloaming. Their dark color grew darker and ominous as his lips brushed mine with a tender caress. I could not help but respond. The kiss grew harder, more passionate until he pushed himself away, holding both my arms.
His ale-tainted breath fanned my face. “I love you, Aine. You must come with me to Oban. My aunt works at Dunollie House as the lady’s maid. We’ll be married there and I can join the slaugh of MacDougall and perhaps become part of his luchd-taighe. The Lord of Lorne provides well for his people.”
My voice hitched remembering Da’s words. “I canna. Da is having me watched now. The Munro is arriving on the morrow for our marriage ceremony.”
He looked around. “Where is your guard?”
“I sent him to the stables looking for you, but I feel certain he will come here soon.” His lips hushed my words, taking my breath away. I turned my head from his and snuggled into his broad chest, feeling the prickly wool of the great plaide draped over his shoulder on my cheek. “I love you so,” I whispered.
He took my chin, raising my face to his. “Then come with me tonight.”
Suddenly a vision of my life wed to William Munro flashed through my mind. He was an older man and lived a long distance from Durant Castle, my home. I wanted a young, powerful warrior like Ellic. Da may disinherit me and no longer call me his daughter, but my heart could do naught else.
“Aye. I will come with you. Tell me the way.”
“Who is your guard?” He stepped back, rubbing his chin in deep thought.
“The brute, Sion. He will ne’er let me slip by him to meet you.”
Ellic grew silent, then backed to the stone wall, pulling me with him and gathering me into his arms. We kissed as a full moon rose in the east, casting white, silvery light into the garden. The light glowed around his light brown hair, making strands of it shine. The thought of leaving him to marry another twisted the inner most part of me into a tight knot. I knew at that moment, I could never marry the Munro.
“Sion will drink and make merry along with the others at the feast. He’ll sleep instead of watch at your door, then you can slip out and meet me by the postern gate.”
“What of the guards at the postern gate? Da will have extra posted during the festivities with so many warriors inside getting drunk.”
“Fret no’, my men and I will take care of the guards. A birlinn is ready to take us across the Straight of Mull to Dunollie.”
The thought of leaving with Ellic made my heart thump until I felt certain he could hear its beating.
“Now go. Sion will find us soon, and you shouldn’t be seen with me.” He gave me one last lingering kiss, then pushed me toward the garden gate.
I hastened down the path, glancing back for one last look at my love, but he was gone. The bright moon lit the pathway out of the garden. I emerged, but did not see Sion in the bailey. Suddenly, a large hand grasped my arm, pulling me along toward the keep. I tried to jerk free, but could not escape the clutches of the powerful guard.
“So you sent me on a wild goose chase to the stables while you kept the tryst in the garden. Laird MacLean will be anxious to hear all about it.” He pulled harder.
“Stop you big oaf! I’m no’ a sack of barley to be drug about.” I wrestled, yanking at his grasp once more and tried not to budge from the spot, but he kept pulling until I stumbled.
We reached the keep’s entrance. He pinned me in front of him while using both hands to open the heavy door, then pushed me through the portal. I tripped on the threshold and fell to the stone floor, bruising my hands and knees. Sion grabbed my arm, pulling me up and dragging me to the stone staircase. Several of the luchd-taighe milled around the great hall. Some glanced our way, but said nothing. They never interfered with another’s orders. I saw none of my family. Sion followed me up the stairs then to my bed chamber. Opening the door, he pushed me through.
“I’ll send for Breda to care for you, for you’ll no’ be coming out until the feast on the morrow.” He stood, eyes stormy. “I’m sorry you fell. I dinna mean to push so hard, but what I do and tell you is for your own good. The Laird is determined to keep you away from Garvie or whom ever you’re meeting.”
We continued to stare at each other. Determination rose like bile in my throat. “Do you understand, m’lady?”
“Where are my brothers? They’ll no’ let this unfair treatment continue. I wish to speak to Gillian.”
“Sir Gillian is telling Garvie of the laird’s wishes. Since the mon is a member of the MacLean’s guards, he’ll be allowed to stay and enjoy your marriage feast. Make nae mistake, m’lady, he will be watched.”
The door slammed closed, and my face burned with rage. Where are my brothers and my mother? They would never allow such rough treatment inflicted on my person. Surely, they would come to my rescue if they knew. Surely. I flung myself onto the bed, sobbing. My tears wet the coverlet, so I sat up on the side of the feather mattress, reached for a hand kertch on the small table, and blew my nose. Removing the arisaid and flinging it to the floor, I examined my bruised hands, then pulled up my heavy skirt to look at my knees. A small cut bled on one knee, but they were mostly scrapped and blue. I dabbed at the cut with the hand kertch.
A knock sounded. “Who is it?” I rose and rushed to bar the door if necessary. Sion was not coming back into my room.
“’Tis Breda, Lady Aine. I’ve come to help you prepare for bed,” the maid called through the door.
“Come,” I answered with a sob.
The door opened slowly. Breda entered and observed my cut, bruised knees. She searched my eyes, hers filled with anxiety. “I’ll fetch the healer, Lady Aine. That cut should be cared for.”
“Nae, Breda. Washing with a clean cloth is all that’s needed.” I dabbed at the blood. “Rinse this in the basin, then wash the cut again. I believe it’ll be much better with the cleansing.”
Breda took the cloth, poured water from the pitcher into the bowl, then rinsed the cloth. She brought it back and began to rub on the cut knee. The cold water felt good, and stopped the bleeding. She rinsed the kertch and rubbed several times, washing my knee after each rinsing.
Handing me the cloth, she said, “I’ll empty this bowl and fetch more water. Are you certain you dinna wish for me to call the healer?”
“Nae. Bring my mither, and if you see my brothers, send them also.” I needed their broad, understanding shoulders to cry on. My brothers usually took my part in any squabble I had with Da and Mam. Da complained they spoil me ’til rotten, which in truth they do. One major problem my siblings’ overprotectiveness afforded was their interference with beaus and suitors. No man is good enough for their young sister, and Da encouraged this attitude.
The large oak door opened with a bang. My brother, Young Lachlan, strode to the bedside and pushed Breda aside, examining my knee. He took both my hands, turned them over, then looked into my questioning eyes.
“I’ll speak to Da about Sion, “ he said with shards of light glinting in his eyes.
“Nae. Please dinna make matters worse with my father. These are naught but scratches.” I didn’t want my brothers interfering in my relationship with Ellic. They probably knew about our courtship since they knew all the comings and goings in Durant Castle. My brothers were Da’s eyes and ears now.
“You ken the Munro is coming to finalize the marriage contract.” Young Lachlan dropped my hands, lifting my chin to search my eyes.“What are your feelings on the matter, Aine?”
“I care no’ to meet the mon, much less marry him. He’ll take me away to that godforsaken place on the other side of Scotland he calls Ferindonald.” Tears brimmed my eyes. “Away from my family and home. Away from you, Lachie. I dinna care if he’s titled and Da is no’. I’ll no’ go with him.”
“I’ll speak to Da this eve, before the Munro arrives. you’re a beautiful woman, Aine. Surely he can find a suitor closer to Durant.”
I buried my head in his wool plaide and wept, wetting the garment.
He stroked my hair for a long while, then pushed me away and planted a kiss on my forehead.
“Take care of your wounds, now.”
Lachie turned on his heels with his sword clanking in its scabbard around his waist. Breda began washing the cut on my knee again. She was a good caretaker and I planned to keep her with me wherever I may go, especially if the object of my journey happened to be Fàrdach Castle on the Cromarty Firth.
Mother pushed past Lachie in the doorway. He addressed her, then moved on. She rushed to me, taking the wet ketch from Breda and wiping the wound on my knee. She examined the cut, then turned to the maid and told her to fetch, Màdra, the healer. I tried to tell Mother I did not need the healer, but she would not listen.
“You may get blood on your night shift and bed linens. The cut needs a bandage and the scrapes need plantain salve.” She searched my eyes. “Perhaps willow bark tea for pain, also.”
“Mam,” I protested. “The wounds are small. I dinna need willow bark tea or anything else.”
Mother told Breda to fetch the healer anyway. The maid left, gently closing the door while mother took a clean shift from the trunk at the foot of the bed and told me to stand. She assisted with the laces of my kirtle, then took the garment over my head. She did the same for the blouse, and hung both garments from a peg on the opposite wall. I grabbed the shift from the bed and put it over my head. Although a fire blazed in the fireplace, the air felt cold on my body. I moved closer to the fire. A knock sounded on the door. Mother answered, then Breda and Màdra entered the room. Breda held a mug.
I sat in a small upholstered chair beside the fire while mother took the other. Màdra quickly examined my hands, opened her leather healer’s bag and withdrew a small glass container of salve. She spread the cool balm over the scrapes and bruises on my hands with nimble fingers, then raised my shift and examined the cut on my knee. Shaking her head, she wiped the seeping blood away with a clean cloth, smeared plantain salve on the cut, then placed a clean cloth over the wound, tying it in place with another, larger strip of linen.
Màdra searched my eyes, then motioned for Breda to hand me the mug. “I can tell by you’re eyes, your in some pain, m’lady. Please drink the willow bark tea.”
I looked at Mother who nodded. I could not fight the three of them, so taking the mug from Breda, I drank the bitter tea. The nasty brew would help me sleep and get the rest required to resist the demands of my father. I rose and walked toward the bed. Breda placed the mug with the remainder of the tea on the bedside table, pulled back the bedcovers, tucked the coverlet under my chin, then pulled the fur blanket on top of me.
Mother stood beside the bed, brushed the hair from my face, and kissed my forehead. “Don’t hesitate to drink the remainder of the tea if you wake up and feel pain.”
I hated being treated like a bairn. “Mither, I am fine. Please stop treating me like a bairn.”
“You’ll always be my little lass, Aine. No matter how old you are.” She took Breda’s arm, and the three women left my room.
I lay in bed searching the plastered ceiling, thinking of Ellic, and waiting for the potion to take effect on my wakefulness. Mayhap I should do as he asked and slip away with him in the birlinn to Dunollie House then beyond. Someplace unknown to my family where we could live in peace the rest of our lives. Maybe I would do just that.