New York Times
bestselling author Hannah Howell traverses the embattled border between England and Scotland, where two warring families prolong centuries of discord…
Storm Eldon was first caught up in the war between England and Scotland as a young girl, when she and her family were held hostage by their sworn enemies, the MacLagans. Years later, Storm finds herself trapped in the clutches of her Scottish adversaries once again. Now she must fight to preserve her loyalties, guard her virtue, and resist the charms of Tavis MacLagan, her handsome Highland captor…
Praise for Hannah Howell and her Highland novels
“Few authors portray the Scottish highlands as lovingly or colorfully.” —Publishers Weekly
“Another classic.” —Romantic Times
A cool wind blew across the battlements, nipping at the skirts of the women gathered there to watch the men of Hagaleah ride off to battle. As they had so often in the past, they were riding to meet the Scots, most particularly the clans MacBroth and MacLagan, ancestral enemies of the Eldons of Hagaleah and the Fosters of Fulaton. The rising sun reflected off their armor as they rode away across the moors to do as their fathers had done and their fathers before them, on into the mists of time.
Lord Eldon’s wife sighed, mostly in envy and anticipation of a long, boring wait for the men to return. She was his second wife, a young girl from a prominent Sussex family. Lady Mary Eldon was beautiful, spoiled and heedless. Having grown up in the verdant, peaceful south, she had little understanding of the constant state of warfare along the border or the danger of raids. In her mind the battle would be as a tournament, something glorious and exciting.
“I intend to watch that battle, Hilda. I see no reason for us to be marooned here.” Hilda stared at her mistress in amazement. “My lady, you cannot. Think of the danger.”
“Nonsense. There is a wellcovered knoll within sight of where the battle shall take place.”
She turned and proceeded back into the keep, her small retinue at her heels frantically trying to talk her out of her rash plan yet not make her angry. Lady Eldon’s anger was swiftly becoming legendary. She did not like opposition of any sort, as many of the keep’s servants had discovered to their cost. None of those following the headstrong Lady Eldon wished to lose their privileged positions.
To their horror, the lady’s cousin, soon to wed Lord Foster’s heir, also thought the idea a good one. The unthinking young ladies were turning the venture into a picnic. Mary ordered food to be packed and even instructed the nursemaids to bring the children, six in all, including Lord Eldon’s two by his first wife. The hope that the few men left behind would stop Lady Eldon vanished quickly as servants scurried to hitch up carts and open the gates. A sizable entourage was soon heading for the knoll overlooking the battlefield. Only the older servant women and Lord Eldon’s eldest child, a daughter, remained somber. The other women, lady and servant alike, and children began to act as if on an outing to the fair.
Little Robin Foster, a plump boy of eight with blond curls, tugged at Storm’s braid, thinking yet again that the color was an odd one, rather like marigolds in that it was a red that was near to orange. “Why must we stay here? Cannot we sit with the ladies, Storm?”
Storm looked at the boy from her height of two years’ seniority, her amber eyes scornful. “No. ’Tis safer here. We can hide amongst the bushes if need be. This is a foolish move for my new mother to make. We should be tucked up in the castle, not frolicking within the grasp of the Scots.”
“But the Scots will be fighting down below, sister,” piped up Andrew, her sixyearold brother, his fiery red curls thrashing in the breeze. “I should like to see our father in battle.”
“Aye, and we would be seen too. We with our hair as bright as any beacon.
You can see well enough from here.” She quieted all protests from her five underlings with one sweeping glare. “Now, listen all of you before the harsh sounds of battle drown out my words. If I say to move, ye move and go where I tell ye with no wailing. Think ye not that the Scots would like to catch their enemies’ spawn?”
“You are frightening us,” protested fouryearold Matilda Foster, her hand nervously twisting her blond braid.
“’Tis as well. Ye will move faster if need be. Here now, the armies prepare to face one another.”
At first it was much like a pageant as the armies aligned themselves to face each other. The gleam of steel, the waving of pennants and the ringing of armor stirred the audience upon the hill. It all looked glorious, even aweinspiring. A person could not help but be moved by the sight, but then the cries of “Foster! Foster!” “Eldon! Eldon!” “MacBroth! MacBroth!” and “A MacLagan! A MacLagan!” roared through the air, the battle was engaged and things changed with ominous speed.
The armor still rang as sword hit sword, but now there were screams as it was pierced. Steel soon lost its gleam as it was covered with blood and the mud churned up by so many men and horses. Formation was all but forgotten as man grappled with man, knights upon horses wedged their way into the battling mass of infantry and the wounded were, when possible, dragged, carried or assisted to the rear in the hope that they would live for another battle.
As the fighting spread, flowing outward to the sides, the knoll was no longer safe. It was placed more to the Scottish side of the field, the enemy edging ever nearer to the now silent onlookers. Even the more bloodthirsty of the women began to falter as the increasing heat of the day strengthened the scent of warfare, the light summer’s breeze bringing along with it the smell of the fighting men’s sweat and blood. The children made no complaint as Storm began to edge them toward the bushes.
Suddenly matters took a dangerous turn. A group of battling men reached the base of the knoll. Within moments, a band of Scottish knights were racing toward the knoll to assist their harried kinsmen. The Fosters and the Eldons were falling back under the bludgeoning force of the Scotsmen.
The women of the castle, already in a high state of tension, panicked when a cry from one of the Scottish knights indicated that they had been spotted. Screaming, they fled to their carts. A few Scots gave chase, trampling the bright blankets and scattering all the festive eating arrangements. In the confusion, Storm hustled the children off, remembering a shearer’s hut and deeming it a good place to hide, unwittingly shepherding her charges closer to the enemy.
The shearling was in a poor state of repair, but it remained a niche in which to hide. Storm guessed at her error when the tents of the Scots became visible, but there was no turning back for she could hear the swift approach of armed horsemen. Pushing the children within the doorless hut, she sat before them and, putting a hand on her knife, was ready to protect the smaller ones should they be discovered.
Scotsmen were soon returning from the field, passing the hut all unknowing of the treasure it held. Storm began to think they would escape detection when suddenly a small knot of men paused before the hut so that one could sit and rest. She easily recognized the laird of the MacLagans, for he had a number of distinctive qualities, not the least of which was his silver hair and the scar that ran the length of his face in a jagged line from forehead to chin. When his blue eyes, darkened by pain, met and held hers she felt her heart had stopped. Her mind conjured up a multitude of fates.
“Weel, look what we have here, lads,” Colin MacLagan drawled in a husky voice. “Look, Tavis.”
The young man turned to follow Colin’s gaze. His eyes, the blue of a summer morning’s sky and so clear in his swarthy face, fixed upon the children. When the tiny girl with her brilliant hair pulled a knife from a pocket in her skirts a smile brightened his harsh features.
“Now, lass, what do ye intend doing with that?” Tavis asked, his eyes dancing.
“Stick ye like a pig if ye come any closer,” Storm replied tersely, frowning fiercely when the other men seemed amused. “I mean it,” she warned when Tavis stepped closer.
“There’s no need o’ doing that, lassie. We are nae going to harm ye,” said the laird.
Storm’s eyes narrowed, for that rather contradicted the stories she had been told. However, even covered in mire and blood as they were, none of the men struck her as the sort to cook and dine upon children. The five youngsters clutching and trying to hide behind her skirts were plainly not so sure. It struck none of them as strange to look to Storm for protection; she was not only the eldest, but had always been the strongest one. Storm carefully considered her next move.
Tavis edged nearer to his father, saying softly, “What fool do ye think let them near the battle?”
“God knows. With that hair, methinks we may have some Eldon spawn. Strange little lass.”
“Aye. Cat’s eyes and that hair. ’Tis a wonder. I have never seen the like before.” He grinned at his father. “’Tis taking her awhile to decide whether or not to stick one of us.” They laughed softly.
“I want your oath,” Storm spoke up. “Your oath that ye and none of your men will harm us. Your word of honor.” She watched them carefully.
“Ye have it, lass,” the laird said gravely. “We will just be holdin’ ye for ransom.”
“Fair enough.” She tucked her knife back into her skirts and then scowled at the other children. “Will ye leave go my skirts? All your trembling is near to shaking my teeth loose.”
Two men helped the laird to stand, and Tavis looked at Storm, motioning her to join them.
Ushering the children ahead of her, Storm fell into step beside Tavis. When they reached the camp the surprise of the men there was plain to see. The Foster and Eldon men captured and being held for ransom became vocally upset, needing a few minutes of rough persuasion to quiet them. The children were kept near the laird and his sons, two more of whom had come to his side. They were barely settled before a tent when some men came up dragging an upset and untidy Hilda, who fell upon the children, hugging and kissing them as she wept copiously.
“Enough, Hilda.” Storm escaped her clutches. “Ye will surely drown us. How are the other ladies?” “They got away, lass. I could get none o’ the lot to help me look for ye.” “What were ye doing so close to the battle?” Colin asked Storm as his armor was removed. “My new mother thought to watch the spectacle.”
Contempt was heavy in her voice. “She and the Foster heir’s bridetobe and a number of servant women drove out to the knoll. ’Twas a picnic. Then, when your men drew near, the silly cows fled screeching. Seems only Hilda remembered we children.”
“And whose children do we have? I wish to be exact in me ransom demands.”
“Well, m’lord, ye have Storm Pipere Eldon,” she said with a curtsy, “eldest child of Lord Eldon, and his heir, Andrew. These two are Fosters, the heir’s two by his first marriage, Robin and Matilda. The brownhaired twins are my cousins, Hadden and Haig Verner. The lot are at Hagaleah for the Foster heir’s wedding in a fortnight.”
“B’God,” breathed the laird, “the future of both families in one catch. That woman should be thrashed within an inch o’ her life. ’Tis a fair ransom we will gain from this.” He turned his attention to his messenger, who would ride to Hagaleah with the ransom demands.
“Hilda, we children are well, but our men held there may need your nurse’s touch,” Storm suggested and watched with a half smile as Hilda forced her way to the captive knights, full of the importance of her errand, before turning to scowl at the way Iain MacLagan was tending his sire’s wound. “’Tis a right poor job ye are making of that,” she told the young knight. “’Tis like to kill him, not cure him.”