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A sweet romance blossoms amidst feuding and war. With her reputation at stake after being accused of practicing witchcraft and hated as a member of a rival clan, Maidie considers leaving Clan Munro and returning to the home of her birth in Clan Cameron. Fierce battles, a tragic encounter, and a handsome clan chief compel her to make crucial decisions in this haunting romance set in the 16th century Highlands of Scotland.
A Highland Pearl
“Who when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” Matthew 13:46
The Village of Drumainn, Ross-Shire
Scottish Highlands 1508 A.D.
Maidie rode behind the young warrior on a horse galloping toward the castle. She removed one hand from around his trim waist to pull her wrap closer against the biting wind then secured the kertch trying to fly from her head. The old Cameron scarf was the only one she could find before rushing out of the cottage when Tavish pounded on her door. She replaced her hand, trying not to mind his grimy clothes and gamey smell, and held her bag of precious herbs with the other. Tavish guided the horse between several tenant crofters coming and going from the castle.
The wind whistled through large birch and oak trees lining the road. Leaves of gold, red, yellow, and brown rustled in the wind then floated to the ground. Maidie enjoyed the walk to the castle this time of year, when a lass needed a midwife, but today she could not think about the beauty. She looked back at Sven, who rode behind Maighstir Tam, and held to a small leather bag filled with various implements she used in her work. A chill ran through her, not only from the wind, but also from the dread of seeing the terrible wounds of the injured.
They pulled to one side of a wide wooden bridge leading to the outer bailey of Fàrdach Castle to let a wagon pass. Tavish waved to the guard in the barbican as their party entered through the large, steel-studded oak gates, under the portcullis, and into the outer bailey. The bailey teemed with the life of humans and animals. Their various buildings, dwellings, and shelters lined the curtain wall.
Tavish steered his horse dodging roughly dressed people, went through a second gate in the curtain wall, then across a bridged moat to the quieter inner yard. He waved to a guard on the rampart, and guided his horse to the door of the castle’s keep. Stable boys rushed to take the reins of both horses. Tavish quickly dismounted, then helped Maidie to the ground. She held her bag with a firm grip. He then assisted Sven and Tam from their horse. Large green eyes in the ashen face of her wee son searched hers. She patted his small hand and rubbed his mass of red hair. He tried to smile, giving her a small gift of comfort.
“All will be well, Sven,” she said to reassure him. Not since watching his father die from wounds he received in a battle with Clans MacKenzie and Cameron had she seen such fear in her son’s eyes.
“I dinna wish to go inside, Mam.” The boy drew back from her touch.
“You may stay out here then. Just dinna leave the bailey.” Maidie took Sven’s bag then handed both to Tavish. She cupped the small boy’s chin in her fingers and kissed the lined forehead. “Stay close. Mayhap there are other children close by.”
“Yes, Mam. I will.” His half-smile gave her a sense of relief.
“Just stay close.” Maidie turned and walked toward Tavish who held the heavy wooden door open. Tam followed as they entered the great hall of the keep.
Tavish closed the door with a thud. Maidie stood for a moment so her eyes could adjust to the dimness. Light rays from the small upper windows glinted off the weapons, armor, and heraldry displayed on the stone walls. Lifeless eyes in the heads of boar with long tusks and red stags with huge racks of antlers stared at her from above the weapons.
Although a large fireplace with a glowing fire stood on each of the four walls, the air felt cold and damp. The smell of dirt, blood, human waste, and unwashed bodies blended together into a noxious odor causing a revolt in her stomach. She swallowed a rush of nausea with a gulp. Wounded warriors lying atop rush pallets lined the floor. A servant rushed to the maighstir, pulling him toward a blood-soaked pallet where an unconscious man lay.
Tam began administering last rites to the warrior. Loud groans and cries came from the wounded. One pallet lay apart from the others. Angus MacKay, the castle physician, hovered over it. The laird must be lying there. He made no sound.
Tavish pushed her toward the pallet. “The laird needs your help, Madam.”
She hesitated. “Angus is there with him.”
“His brother asked for you. You must help now.” Tavish grabbed her arm with his free hand and pulled her toward the stricken laird.
She resisted. “So many others need my help.” She counted only three other servants and the laird’s sister, Davina, caring for the wounded.
“Angus can help them.” Tavish tugged on her arm once more. She reluctantly followed. “The tanist said Laird Andrew asked specifically for you to come to his aid.”
“He asked for me?” Maidie pulled against the arm holding her. “He looks unconscious.”
“He’s only resting now. Angus gave him a potion to ease his pain.” Tavish jerked once more.
Maidie reluctantly let him pull her to the pallet that held Andrew Munro. Angus turned to her when they approached, his face covered with a scowl. The castle physician left quickly, making his way to another of the wounded men.
A voice came from the darkness on the far side of the bed. “Thank you for coming Maidie Cameron Munro. As you can see for yourself, my brother needs your attention.”
Maidie’s hand went to the very first thing a Munro noticed— her kertch of Cameron colors. The large form of Gavin, tanist of the clan, rose from the shadows. Filth caked the russet hair tied away from his grimy face with a leather thong. A dirty linen léine hung in shreds from his shoulders and arms. The upper end of his great plaide, now stained with gore, wrapped around broad shoulders with a long dagger sheathed on a wide leather belt at his waist.
“I fought many wearing those same colors this verra day,” he said with heavy brows knit together in a dark, frightening scowl.
Maidie could only shake her head in response. Her stomach churned at the sight and sound of him. Then she looked down at the man lying on the pallet. His face held the green pallor of death she had seen before on the dying. His body, covered with a filthy plaide, trembled. Long black hair, fanned about powerful shoulders. She knelt beside the trembling form, and lifted the plaide. A hand went to her mouth when she uncovered the gaping wound across his abdomen.
A loud gasp escaped between Maidie’s fingers. “Ach! Saints in Heaven! Why didn’t Angus stitch this wound?” She pushed the plaide away from the open wound, leaving it to cover only the lower part of the chief’s torso.
His powerful dark-haired chest lay bare, rising and falling with labored breathing. Maidie noticed the large legs bulging with muscles from the constant training for battle and fighting required for survival. The same dark hair spanning his chest covered his legs and arms. She understood why the local people called this laird, An t-Seabhag Dubh Ferarann Dhòmhnaill, The Black Falcon of Ferindonald.
“Andrew wanted your good stitching to bind his wound. I suppose he remembered the fine job you did on Davina’s arm when she slipped and fell against the rock.” Gavin searched Maidie’s face.
“Why isn’t Davina here?” Maidie looked across the hall at the younger sister of the Munro brothers.
“She’s lending her aide to Randal. He’s dying.” Gavin licked his cracked lips. A look of anguish crossed his face. He turned to Tavish. “Thank you for fetching the lady.”
Tavish nodded, placed the bags next to Maidie and turned to leave.
She caught his arm. “Thank you, Tavish. Will you take these herbs to the kitchen and ask the cook to grind them into powder, then mix all except the mint together with just enough water to make a paste. The mint is to be steeped in a tea and poured into two cups.” She handed the larger bag to him.
“Yes, Madam.” He turned to leave with the sack in hand.
She sat the smaller leather bag down on the rushes covering the hard earthen floor. “May I have a stool, please, and some hot water with soap and towels?”
“Fetch the things for the lady and make haste.” Gavin told Andrew’s servant, who stood next to him. Others of the luchd-taighe or household men, stood close by watching their chief.
Maidie examined the instruments Angus set out for her—a needle, silk thread, and a small dirk—while Gavin stood by watching. She turned the dirk over then handed it to him.
“Would you take these away, please? I will use my own.”
The tanist nodded his head toward a large, dirty warrior. The man grabbed the implements and took them to Angus, who assisted the wounded across the room. Angus snatched the devices, and then turned to glare at Maidie.
The gille soon returned with a stool. Davina came close behind with a kettle of boiling water and a bowl. A maidservant followed Davina carrying towels and a small piece of lye soap. The articles were placed on a clean linen cloth beside Maidie, who reached into her bag and drew out the long needle and thread. She placed both in the boiling water. When satisfied they were clean, she took them out, placed them on a clean linen cloth, then washed her hands.
Davina discretely removed the soiled plaide from Andrew’s body and replaced it with a clean towel, covering only his private parts.
“I’ll need someone to hold him so he doesn’t move.” Maidie looked up at Gavin.
He motioned toward two of the larger servants. “Help hold the chief.”
The two knelt beside the laird and held his shoulders. Davina knelt on the rushes to hold Andrew’s legs while Maidie began washing the chief’s abdomen around the wound, being careful not to let the water seep into the open gash.
“Angus washed his wound,” Davina told her.
“Doesn’t hurt to be too clean, Davina,” Gavin said. “A wound like Andrew’s can easily fester.”
“Do you have some whisky?” Maidie searched his face. The question was unnecessary. Many of the lairds distilled whisky on their lands. The liquor provided libation for the residents of the castle, but most went to the burghs, generating income for the estates.
Gavin nodded his head toward one of maidservants standing beside Davina. The girl left and returned with a cut-glass flask of amber liquid. She handed the flask to Maidie who wet a clean cloth with the whisky and rubbed a large area around the wound. Gavin’s eyes followed her every move as she carefully threaded the needle to begin the tedious task of stitching the gash, one small stitch at a time. He probably wanted to make certain she did nothing to further endanger the chief’s life. Andrew moaned, turning his head from side to side, but did not open his eyes.
“If he wakens, try to put a drop or two of whisky between his lips,” Maidie said glancing toward Gavin. “And hold tight to his shoulders and legs. I dinna want him moving even a wee bit.”
Maidie worked tirelessly. Her neck began to ache. She straightened and rubbed an especially sore spot. Gavin left to check on the men Angus and his assistants attended. Only Randal had wounds more severe than those of the chief. The warriors would recover to fight again, and mayhap lose their lives in the next battle.
Randal died. Maighstir Tam gave last rites in time. Now, the tanist must go to Anne and tell her of Randal’s death. They were newly wed, Randal and Anne, with a bairn on the way—another bairn with no da. Gavin’s father, Chief William Munro, had been killed three years prior in the same battle her beloved Kenneth was mortally wounded. The clans seemed determined to carry on the feuding. The thought gave Maidie pause. Gavin turned to stare at her as the maighstir covered Randal’s face with the warrior’s plaide. Maidie felt heat rush to her throat and turned back to the stitching of the chief’s wound. She must not let anything distract her. The chief’s life depended on her skills.
Maidie straightened, glancing toward Gavin. He squatted down and patted a warrior’s arm, then spoke to the wounded lad who moaned at his feet and tried to speak, “Save your strength, lad. You fought a good fight this day. We’ll soon have you home to your family with properly tended wounds.” The young man managed a half-smile. Gavin gave him another pat, then stood and returned to stand over her. She could feel his eyes.
Maidie took a last stitch, cut the thread with a small dirk she carried in her bodice, and looked up at Gavin. “I’ll need your help with his holding.” She turned to the servants. “Hold tight, for he’ll try to flay his arms.” They secured their grip on Andrew’s large arms. To Davina she said, “Try to hold his head still.”
Davina went quickly to kneel over Andrew, holding his head between her hands.
Gavin knelt down at his brother’s feet, pinning both to the floor in a firm grip. The chief’s powerful frame became tense and taut. If he had not lost so much blood, the restraint they gave would not be enough to hold the man to the floor. Hopefully, they could keep him down.
Picking up the flask of whisky and in one quick movement, Maidie poured some over the newly stitched wound. As she expected, Andrew roared, filling the great hall with reverberating sound. Tasks stopped, heads turned, and all except the wounded man quieted. He tried to kick his feet and flay his arms. Everyone held tightly to his limbs. The roaring diminished to a loud groan, then subsided and he grew quiet, exhausted from expending so much energy.
Maidie swiped an arm across her face, using a sleeve to wipe moisture from her eyes. She looked at those around her, still holding their place on Chief Munro’s limbs. “You may release him now. He’ll be fine.” They stood slowly. Maidie watched Gavin. He squatted on one knee beside his brother with a look of anguish about his face. Questions burned in his hazel eyes.
She spoke before he asked, “I have no answer for your question. Your brother’s life is in the Lord’s hands. I will pray for his full and speedy recovery.” Gavin nodded in understanding. Maidie kissed the small gold cross hanging on a chain around her neck and bowed in silent prayer.
A servant appeared with the paste of herbs in a bowl. Another held two cups of steaming mint tea. Maidie took the bowl and placed it beside her. She reached into the leather sack to draw out a small cloth bag. Loosening the string on the bag, she took out a tiny amount of finely ground poppy leaves. With her finger she stirred the powdered leaves into both cups.
“Leave one cup of the tea here for the chief and give each of the wounded a sip or two from the other. It will help their pain.” She took the cup from the attendant.
The servant left to administer the second cup of tea to the other wounded. Maidie scooped some of the mixture from the bowl with two fingers and gently smeared it on the laird’s wound. Groaning, he moved his dark head from side to side.
She finished and then asked help in binding the wound. Looking at Gavin, she asked, “Would you help me bind the wound? He needs to turn on his side so we can pass the bandage underneath.”
Reaching into the cloth sack, Maidie pulled out the roll of white linen strips. Beginning with the abdomen, she began to wind the bandage around Andrew’s large frame. Gavin pushed his brother over to one side. He groaned. Maidie passed the roll of bandages along Andrew’s back. Gavin turned him to the other side while Maidie pulled the roll over the side and abdomen. They repeated the process twice more, until she felt enough cloth covered the wound.
“Please lift his head and let me put a wee bit of this tea between his lips,” she told the servant at Andrew’s shoulder. The man held the chief’s head up. Maidie pressed the cup of tea to his lips. The fine straight mouth remained closed. Davina moved to take the servant’s place. She held the head of her brother in her lap and gently raised him enough to drink.
“He’s in great pain. I can tell from the set of his body. Can’t you do something?” Davina turned her eyes to Maidie. The girl’s eyes darkened to the deepest black with the misery she felt.
Maidie reached into the small cloth bag and took out more powdered poppy leaves. She sprinkled another small portion in the cup of tea and stirred with her finger, then placed the cup to the laird’s lips once more.
Davina spoke to her brother, “Andrew, please open your mouth and drink the tea. It’ll help you feel better.” The lips did not move. “Please, I implore you!” Davina shook the broad shoulders.
Grey eyes glazed with agony, opened to stare at Maidie. She was taken aback and shuddered. Never had she seen such eyes. Unlike the dark ones of his brother and sister, the eyes of Andrew Munro belied his nickname of Dubh. The hair of his head and covering his body was indeed black, but his eyes of soft clear grey appeared almost silver in color.
“M’Laird, if you would open your lips and swallow this tea, you will feel better in a wee bit,” Maidie spoke gently.
The mouth opened to take the cup between its lips and sip the tea. He coughed and winced. The eyes closed once more. His body tensed, becoming rigid, but soon relaxed and grew limp.
Maidie spoke to Gavin, “He needs to be washed and taken to a comfortable bed.”
“I’ll see to his washing,” Davina spoke while gently placing Andrew’s head on the pallet. She stood and told the gille or young servant, “Bring clean water and more towels to the laird’s chamber,” then turned to Maidie who stood. “We are forever in your debt, Madam. Will you come daily to check on my brother and see to his welfare?”
“Yes, Lady Davina. I’ll come,” Maidie promised. She handed Davina the cup of tea. “See that he drinks several sips more when he awakens. It will keep the pain at bay.”
Gavin turned to Maidie. “I’ll escort you home, Madam. I must take Randal to his family and tell Anne of his passing.”
“Ach! Sven. I forgot he waited outside in the yard for me. He will be frightened.” She turned, grabbing her bags and rushed to find her son.