About the book
He was cursed never to find love. But fate had different plans...
When Hilda Leighton visits the Highlands for the first time, she discovers she has been set up in a marriage scheme. But even though her opportunity to marry a Scottish Laird is considered great, she tries to avoid it at all costs.
Camden Aragain, Laird of Troudel, is the right hand of Robert the Bruce. Though he is every woman’s dream, a curse cast upon him many years ago has made it impossible for him to fall in love. Until he sets eyes on the breathtaking Hilda.
Fate brings them together and a new adventure begins, for both of them…
But when they fall victims of abduction and Camden is left to die, Hilda learns of an old foe...a ghost from Camden's past that will endanger not only their lives but the future of Scotland as well.
The fog had lain heavy in the morning. Atop a hill overlooking the Bannockburn, the Scotsmen stood in their ranks. Their banners hung from their posts, soaked in the morning dew, and beneath them long pikes stood in bristling lines. The air was still in the mist, and all the warriors come that day stood silently, overlooking the fog-hidden banks of the Bannock Burn.
Camden brushed a strand of his flaming hair back behind his ear, his face caked with bright war paint and his eyes squinting with a lethal seriousness at the calm grass before them.
“Are ye thinking about yer brothers?” Camden’s father spoke beside him. The two of them looked very much like father and son, save for Camden’s father’s beard stretched near to his waist, which was carefully braided. Camden, on the other hand, sported a clean face, showcasing his strong jaw and a nose that had been broken once or twice.
“Aye,” Camden answered bitterly, feeling the hilt of his sword with the tips of his fingers. “I should have been with them.”
“If ye had, ye would be dead.”
“Perhaps they wouldnae be.”
“Live not in the past, me son,” Camden’s father clapped him on the shoulder. “We are here now to avenge them.”
“Or to die,” Camden said softly. He ran his finger along the edge of his sword hilt, collecting the dew there on his fingernail. Then he kissed the drop of collected condensation against a bright English rose that sat tucked into his Highland garb.
From the rose he brought his finger to his face and touched what remained of the dew to his lips. It was cold, and he could smell the lightest essence of the rose on the water’s residue.
“Look,” Camden nodded down to the misty riverbanks. “The English are come.”
On the English came, their bright banners flapping in the breeze, the heavy hooves of the horses hammering down against the earth, tearing away clumps of sod and mud as the constable urged his company forwards. The horses heaved their hot breath, and for Roger Horseley, that fearful English captain, time slowed, as if a few grains of sand had clumped together at the neck of the hourglass.
Roger was no stranger to fear, for he had befriended it at a young age. Time and time again, that childhood friend had pushed him through harrowing encounters, driven him through the Scottish rebels, and on to victory. Roger had devoted his life to the English army, to his King, and now on that failing June day he drove his horsemen onward once again.
Roger leveled his lance again, hearing the call of his soldiers, and his fighting spirit welled within him. Once more he would break the Scottish lines, and once more he would distinguish himself before his betters.
Beside him rode Lord Robert de Clifford, adorned in all his fine plate mail, his crest shining out in the sun’s shadow. Lord Clifford raised his sword. With it bellowed the trumpets of his retinue. On he went! On towards the Scots! His men were behind him, crying out their terrible war chants, descending on the huddled masses of Scottish spears.
Roger bellowed a mighty cry, his knights rallying behind him. The Highlanders were in sight now, their tight schiltron formation taunting the horsemen to do one better. They were cheering, bracing their long pikes against the earth, flexing their jaws so with the sounds that their caked war paint chipped at its creases.
“For England!” Roger screamed through his steel visor, his limbs shaking from his horse’s footfalls. His knights were there, Lord Clifford was there, he saw the banner of Lord Beaumont strike out on his right, and the Scottish screamed once more.
The English knights struck.
What exactly happened, Roger could not be sure. What he could discern was being flung from his saddle, his horse falling away below him, and then a terrible impact against the ruined earth.
His arm burst out in wrenching pain as he tumbled backwards, his shield ripped from its perch by the long reach of a Scottish pike. The screams were all around him, echoing through the steel confines of his plate helmet.
Roger struggled to stand, heaving himself up from the mud, his arm useless and the wind gone from his lance lunges. He gasped for life, drawing forth his sword with his one good hand, and tried to make sense of what was around him.
The cavalry charge had failed. Roger’s spirit sank into his plate armor boots as he watched his knights plucked from their saddles by the Scottish spears. A Scotsman, breaking from his formation, charged Roger with his pike held from the waist.
Roger slapped the spear away with his sword, cringing from the pain, but lost his balance, falling backwards against the carnage. The battle-hungry Scotsman stood over him, raising up the spear’s point, and Roger thought his life done with.
But it was not to be. For Lord Clifford, himself dismounted in the collision, came then to Roger’s aid, his sword shining with the setting sun, and the Lord cut the Scotsman down.
Lord Clifford grabbed Roger’s flailing hand and with great effort helped the constable to his feet.
“Stand!” Lord Clifford shouted through his visor. “Stand in the name of King Edward!”
All around them, the Scots took the English knights down from their horses. Roger could see that the charge was lost, but still the brave Lord Clifford fought on as the Scots surrounded him on all sides.
“Clifford!” Roger screamed, waving his good arm in the air to retreat, but he could not be heard. Lord Clifford’s armor stood out among the pleated plaids of the Scottish ranks, and to him his warriors flocked. English footmen grouped together on Clifford’s command, driving ever into the Scottish lines.
“Break them! For England! For England!” Clifford was incessant, waving his bright blade, again leading his men nowhere he would not go himself. Roger felt a surge of fire within him, inspiring heat that washed away the brutal pain in his left shoulder. He could not abandon that English hero, not in that thick hell, and so he went forward into the fray.
In that chaotic clanging of crude weapons, the Scottish held. Then, at least in the minds of Roger and all the other English commanders, the Scottish did something they had never done before. They began to push their wicked pikes forward, grinding their circular schiltron formations deeper into the mess of English knights, unseated and shaken.
From his place in the cluster of it all, Roger saw Lord Beaumont’s banner fall. His billmen, those ranks of English soldiers armed with their hooked farming tools, were overtaken, and the English left began to crumble under the Scottish pike advance.
“Withdraw! Withdraw! Back to the King!”
And that was only the first day. They called the field Bannockburn, for it stood betwixt the so-named river and the great heights of Stirling Castle. It was there the English army, under Edward II, bivouacked, then retreated to in disbelief.
Then the morrow came, trumpets tearing apart the stillness of the morning mist, rising the astounded Englishmen from their beds, and Roger watched with horror as the Scottish host – Robert the Bruce’s grand army –marched down from their hill, pikes bristling in the dew. King Edward's nephew quickly formed the vanguard, and threw forward the Welsh levies. Roger saw Lord Clifford, rallying forth his men in line behind the Earl of Gloucester. Roger himself wrangled round his infantry, shouting out commands, and the Scottish army collided with the Welshmen.
Down the levies went beneath the Scottish pikes, and the English heavy infantry surged into the fight under Lord Clifford’s shining standard.
“To Gloucester!” Roger cried, and he went into the mayhem with his sergeants behind him.
Roger’s arm still suffered from the previous day’s injuries, and he found himself helpless to lift his shield, yet he swung on with his sword arm as best he could.
The Scottish army churned onward, pacing further into the English lines. The blast of trumpets caused Roger to twist, and he saw King Edward’s remaining host—every spear and sword at the ready—march into the melee.
Swords rang on axes and hauberks, while pikes shot through plate armor, and English arrows rained down overhead, raking the rear of the Scottish ranks. Roger struggled on, yet he found himself only losing ground. Roger craned his neck above the din to see the shape of the field, knocking a spear point aside, and saw the state of King Edward’s bannermen.
Roger saw the English failing, pushed further and further back by the menacing huddles of Scottish pikes. It was a feeling of serenity and disbelief that washed over him. Something he never thought possible was happening. The Scottish men were taking the day.
The English resolve began to fail as still the schiltrons came on, raking deep into the English masses. But still Lord Clifford stood as a beacon of bright hope for all those who would not yet lay down their arms as the Scottish formations broke apart to pursue the first of the fleeing English.
In that moment, a landless Scottish noble drove at Lord Clifford with everything he had, seeking to break what was left of the English defense, and the two came at each other where the fighting was thickest.
The duel was brief and savage, and at the end of it a strapping young Highlander, hair wild and matted with blood, eyes burning with a savage ferocity, watched his father fall to Lord Clifford’s blade. Grasping up his family’s claymore, that young Scotsman came at Lord Clifford with a fearsome Northern fire, driving the baron from his stance. Twisting backwards, Lord Clifford stumbled in the quagmire, raising up his sword to protect himself, but it was too little against the striking strength of the tenacious Scotsman.
With the first blow that the Highlander struck, the English rose he wore in his garb fell from its perch. The second blow he struck ended the life of Lord Robert Clifford, lord of Appleby Castle, and Lord Warden of the Marches.
The English broke. The mixed masses of levy billmen turned and ran, and when they turned around they saw Scottish light cavalry harrying their escape. Roger could see King Edward’s banner, that King Edward II, riding off towards distant Stirling Castle, and so could all the army. The battle had been lost.
“To our victory!” Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots, held his cup aloft in Stirling Castle’s great hall. As he raised the toast, the amalgamation of surviving Scottish Lairds cheered and hollered and drank. They had won the day, a victory the likes of which they had only ever dreamed of, and yet it had come to be.
“Hail Scotland!” the King beamed.
“Hail!” the nobles chorused back.
Camden sat towards the rear of the hall, staring down into his reflecting ale. He did not share the mood of his fellow noblemen, for he replayed the closing moments of the battle over and over again through his mind’s eye.
“We stand here, dear friends,” the King of the Scots went on. “All havin’ lost ones dear to us. Dear to our country, and to God. So let us now praise the valor of our departed. Hail!”
“Hail Robert the Bruce! King of the Scots!” a Laird shouted out, and the hall erupted into cheers and applause.
“Silence now,” the Bruce calmed the room. “I could not be yer King or friend if I dinnae reward those who served Scotland and God faithfully. Is it so?”
The Lairds smiled and cheered and pounded their fists on the long wooden tables. Camden knew what they wanted; they craved more land and castles and war booty, more prisoners to ransom, and more glory for themselves—all desires that Camden could not bear to entertain in his current state. For all of those things seemed trivial to Camden as he sat silently, raising his cup when required.
He sat idly by as one Laird at a time was called before the King, and given great gifts of lands and bounty from the sacked English camp. Camden craned his neck up to look at the great windows near the ceiling, but he could see nothing into the blackness of the night.
“Camden of Aragain,” the Bruce’s voice broke Camden’s distant thoughts. The King was speaking to him, and he fumbled to adjust appropriately.
“Me King,” Camden rose from his seat only to kneel before Robert the Bruce.
“Me knights have told me that ye ‘re the man who slew Lord Clifford in single combat, is it true?” The King looked down to him with a warmness that Camden has never seen on the warrior monarch.
“Aye, I slew the man,” Camden said, staring down to the flagstone floor. “Though, I dinnae need to remember it.”
“Humility is the mark of a great leader,” the King said, and Camden raised his gaze. “In recognition of yer bravery in battle, as the one who slew Lord Robert Clifford, a man who was me enemy for many long years, yet who also instructed me in the ways of war, I, Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots, grant to ye, Camden of the house Aragain, the fief of Troudel, with all her rents and tenants.”
“Me King,” Camden bowed his head again, nearly breathless. He knew many of the Lairds in the room would have killed for the keep at Troudel, and he had not thought to receive any reward in the first place. “Ye dae me a great honor.”
“Rise, Laird of Troudel,” the King beckoned Camden to his feet. “Yer family is an old and proud one, and I mourn for ye faither who fell today. I mourn for ye brothers, who marched with Wallace. I mourn for all the proud Scottish families that bleed faithers and sons.”
“So I am glad, nay, I rejoice, to take a new Laird and noble house under me arms, for now that the battle is won, we must rebuild our great country, and replace those who we have lost. For if ye had been greetin’ alongside yer faither this day, such a line of bravery and pride would be gone like so many others.”
“No more can we afford to lose whole families. So here I shall decree, that no Laird, be them without an heir or next of kin, to whom they may bestow their estates, shall yet join the army on the field of battle. Let it be known here and across me Kingdom.”
Camden tried to piece the words all together. It seemed a rather large joke on him from The Almighty, delivered straight through the mouth of the King. He had lost his family, been granted a castle, and then barred from marching in the King’s army. He could not fathom any of it, in truth, and so he silently bowed to the Bruce, unsure of what to do next.
“Be seated, Laird of Troudel, and take speed to find a wife!” the King laughed out as he raised another toast, and the feast resumed in much of its merriment as Camden sunk back to his seat, suddenly a very rich man.
He could hear the congratulations raining down upon him from the nobles around him, as well as feel the underhanded jealousy and questioning, but luckily he found their attention swayed by Robert the Bruce’s sudden announcement.
"Bring on the Englishmen!”
The room cheered again as the wounded and bedraggled English soldier was brought forth on a leash. Camden could see that the man’s drooping shoulder was a result of untreated injuries, and the thought left a sour taste in his mouth.
“Who kens this man?” the King of the Scots called out, taunting the constable.
“I ken him, me King!” a Laird shouted out, standing abruptly. “He’s Roger Horseley, I seen him over the border last winter, ridin’ out with Clifford himself!”
“Are ye a knight, Horseley?” the Bruce asked down to the wounded prisoner.
“No, your grace,” Horseley croaked. “I am a constable in my liege’s army.”
“Have his head!” a Laird shouted, and several others joined the chorus. Camden looked back into his cup.
“Me Lairds,” the King quieted the hall again. “The man before us served his King faithfully. For this, I will set him free, to seek out his own path, for allegiance to one’s King is a man’s utmost duty before God!”
“Kill the ruddy Englishman!” the call came again.
“Silence!” the King bellowed, and so the hall was still. The discontent on his Laird’s faces was clear, and Camden watched the stillness intently. Then a crooked grin crept over Robert the Bruce’s lips, and they were all suddenly reminded of his violent and conquering nature, as the King of Scots ordered that Horseley lose an eye before being sent back to the English. After the deed was done and the poor soldier taken away, the Bruce laughed on and shouted,
“Now bring on the traitor, William of Sowles! There’s a man whose head I can grant ye!”
Camden frowned and stood to leave the hall as the Lairds celebrated to see a beheading, and slipped out the great doors into Stirling Castle’s courtyard.
He walked slowly to the ramparts, looking down on the great field where flickering pyres still burned the corpses of English horses.
“Ye steady there, lad?” a familiar voice caused Camden to turn his head, and the first smile he shed all day came to his face as he saw the tall frame of Kenneth Innes, Laird of Elmiron, coming up the stone steps towards him.
“Uncle?” Camden squinted in the torch light.
“There ye ran off to,” Kenneth remarked. “Missin’ the beheadin’.”
“That’s fine enough,” Camden replied, taking his Uncle in an embrace.
“I’m sorry about yer faither, lad, he was a good man.”
“A better man than me,” Camden looked again to the smoldering field. “I have become a Laird in the blink of an eye for killin’ that bastard. I dinnae kill Clifford because I knew who he was, I killed him because he killed me father. Now I cannae march with the King because I’m the head of a noble family, and I want to avenge me brothers who fell against the English, once at a time, until I am the only one left.”
“The English will soon sue for peace,” Kenneth said, turning to share Camden’s view. “The war will soon be over.”
“The war will never be over,” Camden said, frowning.
“Nephew, breathe the still air for a moment’s time, I beg ye,” Kenneth pleaded. “Ye have been given lands and a castle from where to rule them, and told by the King to find a wife. Live that life that’s been given ye, eh?”
“And what life’s been given to all those lost souls?” Camden nodded towards the smoldering grounds before the Bannockburn river.
“Look, lad,” Kenneth turned Camden round to face him. “If ye dwell on injustice, ye will never sleep a night again in yer life. Our world is cruel and hard, full of death and darkness. It ain’t fair, and it ain’t goin’ to become so, so stiffen up, find a bloomin’ wife.”
“Yer the bloody man who slew Lord Clifford, the bane of us Scotsmen! Granted the fief of Troudel for yer bravery! There’ll be lasses callin’ from far and wide, ye will have yer pick from all of Southern Scotland! Stand up for yer faither’s memory, and yer brothers. Show them they died for more than Scotland, but for the family as well, eh?”
“You would make light out of the darkest canvas,” Camden said and sighed. “The way it seems, I have been rewarded greatly for being the last of me kin alive, and I cannae say if that is a reward I want.”
“I know ye grieve,” Kenneth clapped his nephew’s shoulders once more. “Take time, but not forever. Life is short.”
As Kenneth spoke, the doors to the great hall creaked open and the ruckus poured out into the courtyard. Camden frowned, his mood souring by the moment as he watched the drunken Lairds and their footmen parade a severed head atop a pike.
“Stirling Castle!” one of them boomed. “I give ye the traitor William of Sowles!” To which the garrison atop the castle walls cheered out and waved their banners in the night’s sky.
“Short indeed,” Camden whispered, and the newly landed Laird of Troudel walked away, searching for a quiet place to drink alone.
The road was not much more than a wide path, trodden between the tall stalks of lowland grass winding over the moor. When the road had begun at the gates of Edinburgh, it had been broad and often traveled, but turning off at the crossroads some thirty miles south of the city, the path had become the wagon-scarred trail that the retinue now followed.
There were some twenty guardsmen, all dressed in thick gambesons that somewhat resembled a uniform. Beside them, they held long spears as they rode, the ends of which were adorned with fluttering blue banners. In the center of the slowly moving assembly sat two distinguishable individuals, for they did not share the dress and gear of the guardsmen.
They were wealthy; anybody could see that from afar. Trotting proudly on their expensive steeds, the aging man and his beautiful daughter looked lazily on to their distant destination with a small cart of baggage trailing behind them.
“Is that it?” the young woman squinted at the castle on the horizon, and the sun reflected against her green eyes. She brushed a stray strand of her black hair aside from her face, and straightened her back to catch a better glimpse.
Sitting straight, one could gather that she was a tall woman, and her height seemed to accentuate her fine English frame.
“Mustn’t it be? Bloody wide country,” her father replied with a snort, looking between his daughter and the far away castle. “It cannot be another.”
“No, it certainly cannot,” she smirked.
“Hilda, why did you not heed my wishes and travel with the baggage? Riding on horseback …”
“Is good enough for our guardsmen, is it not so, Francis?” Hilda directed her question to the captain of their guards.
Francis was a gruff sort, wearing worn ring mail over his leather cuirass, but he was nothing more than what was expected of him. He and his company were sellswords, and they had had their share of adventures before entering into the service of Hilda’s father. Francis sported a striking scar across his cheek, a memory of wars past, and it stood out in an odd fashion as he smiled at Hilda’s comment.
“Certainly, Miss,” he said without turning back. He kept his eyes scanning about the lowland grasses, ever vigilant against what danger may be lurking. “Though it is much safer in the wagon.”
“You see?” Hilda’s father puffed out his chest. “We are in enemy country, dear, there may be brigands or scoundrels about.”
“Enemy country?” Hilda scoffed. “I see no enemies.”
“Then you ought to look closer, My Lady” Francis pointed to the silhouette of a Scottish retinue making their way to the castle, far off to the North.
“How can you be sure?” Hilda felt cautioned by the sight of another band, but she knew that no harm would come to her. Never in her life had she ever truly had cause for concern, and the sight of the distant Scotsmen excited her in a strange way.
“They are Scotsmen, there is no question,” Francis kept his eyes locked on the small group as they began to disappear beneath a slight rise.
“How many are there? Are they armed? Will they attack?” Hilda’s father shot out nervous questions as he tugged at his tunic. “How many can they be? Can we take them, Francis? Will they attack?” Hilda could see her father growing increasingly agitated by the second. There was a clear and dominating fear taking hold of him.
“Not likely, my lord,” Francis went on. “Elmiron is just yonder, and they cannot be more than ten.”
“We must hurry, in any event,” Hilda’s father looked like he was on the verge of a breakdown. “I would never have come so far North had I not needed a wine buyer.”
“If you wish to remain here, I am capable of attending the event in your stead,” Hilda said and winked.
“One day you will rue your wit,” her father smiled back at her with loving warmth. “Nay, we shall press on to Elmiron, and perhaps we shall meet these Scotsmen there.”
“As you wish,” Francis bobbed his head as the party continued to move, and he glanced back to Hilda. Hilda smiled as she and the soldier exchanged half mocking glances.
As they drew upon the last rise before them, they could see the majesty of Elmiron Castle, shining out against the moor. Anyone could see that the fortress had been made ready for the feast, even from half a mile away. Banners streamed from the ramparts and parapets, and masses of wagons and common folk thronged the small town before the castle gates.
The party, at the crest of the hill, saw the last of the Scotsmen’s retinue trickle into the castle. Hilda was struck by the reception the vague Scotsman received at the gates, hailed and cheered and ushered through. He seemed to be a hero, and Hilda could not make anything out about him other than his striking red hair and his strange banner flapping above his horsemen as he rode into the castle.
“Father, who is that?” Hilda peered down onto the procession.
“I do not know,” he frowned as he spoke. “I must discover it, for he is clearly of import.”
“That’s the banner of House Aragain, milord,” Francis bit his lip and spat from his saddle. “A wolf dancing in a garden of roses.”
“Aragain?” Hilda cocked her head. “I have heard not of his house.”
“Aragain?” Hilda’s father looked shocked. “Not Camden of Aragain? They say he is the man who killed Lord Clifford.”
“So they do,” Francis spat again. “There’s a Scotsman I’d like to kill myself, if it’s not too bold, Mister Leighton.”
“Ha!” Hilda’s father laughed out as they descended into the castle town. “Well said, Francis, well said.”
Hilda frowned at her father’s comment, but knew better than to press the issue. Instead she bit her tongue, something she did quite frequently, and rode on in silence. She knew his tone would change when confronted by Scotsmen in the great hall.
They came to the gates and were met by Scottish soldiers in padded leather, their long spears standing straight at their sides. The soldiers waved the small party to a stop, and Hilda looked up to the banners of their host above them. The sigil of House Innes was a stag before a tower, a symbol of how far the noble House had risen through the war for Scottish independence.
“Hold there!” one of the soldiers spoke up to Francis. “Here for the feast?”
“Aye,” Francis looked down, and Hilda could see the visible disdain he carried for Scotsmen. “The esteemed merchant, Neville Leighton, and his daughter, Hilda Leighton.”
“Right. Go on then,” the soldiers waved them through, unceremoniously. As they passed beneath the portcullis, Hilda saw Francis lean over to her father.
“Poor excuse for guardsmen,” the soldier grunted.
“Well said,” her father agreed. Hilda sighed audibly, but her small protest was washed out by the sound of the clomping hooves.
Hilda had seen many castles in her life, and so when she looked about the bustling courtyard she was not struck by anything of import. The walls rose up around them, ringing the pocketed world of industry and festivities. They were shown to their rooms, and Francis oversaw the brief movement of baggage indoors. Then, as was expected of her, Hilda prepared for the feast with the help of a handmaiden and waited patiently in her allocated chambers until she was fetched for the festivities. Hilda hated waiting, yet she did what was expected of her.
Finally, her father appeared, dressed in his fine feast clothing, wringing his hands in excitement.
“Are you prepared, Daughter?” he walked past her and looked out of the window, surveying the castle grounds below. “This is an important evening.”
“As you have said,” she remarked, disheartened. “I am prepared for what need be.”
“What troubles you?” he turned, seemingly startled by her reproach. “All the way from London you were joyous to see Scotland. But as soon as we departed Edinburgh, I feel you began to carry sadness in your heart.”
“It is true, I took heart to see the wide North, but since arriving you and Francis have had nothing but disdain for the people here. How can you hope for me to marry one of the countrymen that you put down with perpetuity? How can that be?”
“My dear daughter,” Neville sighed, moving to Hilda’s chair. “I know that these Scotsmen can be brutish and strange. But you must understand that Scottish independence can never hold. Soon, within our lives, we will see it fail, I have full faith, and when it does, it is the English who must own Scottish lands, or on and on the wars will spill. So when I ask you to marry a Laird, I am asking for the sake of our King and country, you understand?”
“And to find someone to distribute your wines,” Hilda rolled her eyes.
“Come now,” Neville looked cross. “You will play your part.”
“Yes, Father,” as often as she fought against it, Hilda realized her legal position as her father’s property, and so inevitably she always did his bidding.
The feast was a boisterous affair. Hilda looked around and was shocked at the blatant drunkenness and revelry as the Scotsman imbibed. All through the hall, Lairds and their brothers drank heavily, while mixing in the merriment pranced English, French, and Italian nobility of various statures.
Hilda felt trapped in her fine dress as the feast unfolded around her, unable to raise her arms above a crook in the fabric. It was claustrophobic, closing in on her, and she could barely hear the conversation her father was having with an older, clearly rich, woman.
“Yes, of course, my daughter Hilda,” Neville said, and Hilda blinked herself back to the moment.
“Milady,” Hilda preformed a stiff curtsy.
“Oh dear, you are a precious thing,” the lady smiled warmly at Hilda. “How do you find the Lowlands?”
“They are truly beautiful, milady,” Hilda fumbled, completely at a loss in the conversation. I don’t even know who I’m talking to.She saw her father shoot her a wicked glance.
“You are the most kind of hosts, Lady Innes,” Neville bowed his head.
“Please,” Lady Innes turned to Hilda, smiling still. “You may call me Marjorie.”
“You are most kind, Lady Innes, er, Lady Marjorie,” Hilda was out of her element. The expensive gowns of other wealthy ladies swirled around her, and she felt tall and brooding, standing out awkwardly above everyone of her sex.
“Your father tells me you are searching for a Scottish husband?” Marjorie took Hilda gently aside and began to walk with her through the hall. To their left, harpers played their tunes and stomped their feet, while on the right the banquet tables were being descended upon.
“It is not that I am searching,” Hilda said.
“I understand the way of things,” Lady Marjorie shook her head slightly, taking Hilda’s arm in hers. “But I feel that you do not look forward to your wedding the way that all the rest do.”
Lady Marjorie nodded to a gaggle of ladies, fawning over a tall rugged Scotsman who seems to be sulking in the corner. Hilda was taken aback as she realized it was the same red-haired Scot that she had seen riding into the castle before them. Camden Aragain.
“Who is that?” Hilda asked, nodding towards Camden.
“Why, that’s my nephew,” Marjorie commented. “He sits and he sulks despite all the attention paid him.”
“I have heard that he killed Lord Clifford at Bannockburn, is it true?”
“Ask him yourself,” Marjorie winked. “But do not expect much of an answer.”
Marjorie led Hilda towards Camden’s corner. The sea of wealthy women parted with daring glares in Hilda’s direction as she came into their arena.
Hilda could feel their venom through their eyes boring into her. Who am I, this tall lanky English girl, to play their games?
“Ladies,” Marjorie smiled politely as the crowd filtered away from them, and then pushed Hilda slightly forwards. “Camden, I should like you to meet somebody.”
“Eh?” Hilda watched the young man raise his face to his aunt, lazily setting aside his ale. “Me lady,” he said with a nod.
“This is Hilda Leighton. Her father is an important merchant from London. Hilda, my dear, this is my nephew, Camden of Aragain, Laird of Troudel.”
“My Lord,” Hilda bowed her head again, but when she brought it back up, Marjorie had disappeared. “Where did–?”
“Aw, leave it,” Camden chuckled, gesturing to the bench. “She won’t stop ‘till I’ve a wife and bairns.”
“We have that in common,” Hilda smirked. She had never heard so thick a Scottish accent, and something about it washed over her in a pleasant way.
“I havenae seen ye before,” Camden remarked, as if only half interested. Hilda found herself slightly annoyed by his arrogance.
“And?” Hilda challenged him. Camden seemed to perk up.
“And what?” he gestured with his hands. “Are ye here to win me heart? Many have tried.”
“Rather for you to win mine, I would imagine.”
“And how will that go?” Camden teased back, folding his arms. “I’ve not such luck the last few times.”
“You are in a sorry state,” Hilda was growing cross with the drunk, famous, extremely handsome, supposedly legendary warrior. His attitude was boorish and crude. Who is he to speak down to me?
“I have been, these past three years,” Camden sighed, tilting his head back in boredom.
“I think it is no wonder you have not yet found a wife. If you’ll excuse me?”
“Where are ye goin’?” Camden sat forward quickly, nearly spilling his ale. Clearly he was not accustomed to seeing a lady walk away so swiftly, and this made Hilda hide her grin.
“Away from a drunken bore,” Hilda shot back, twisting the edge of her lips into a tight smirk.
“Oy!” Camden leapt to his feet. There was a twinkle of excitement in his eyes at her attitude. “Who’s the bore then?”
“He’s the drunk one,” Hilda smiled fully, enjoying the bit of banter despite the fact that she found Camden rude and obnoxious. She left him swimming in her rebuke, and darted through the feast hall to her father. She found him talking with a grim looking, one-eyed Englishman.
“Hilda, there you are,” Neville gestured to the man he was speaking with. He was a tall, well-constructed specimen with a brooding face and a fine tunic, and he was quite blatantly missing an eye. “This is Sir Roger Horseley.”
“I greet thee,” the soldier bowed deeply. Hilda could see that he was a somber man, scarred both inside and out from a life of war, and yet there was a darkness about him, something that could consume even the kindest of souls. He was the same as every other old knight she had ever met.
“It is an honor to meet you,” she smiled and curtsied.
“Sir Roger Horseley was the last defender of Stirling Castle after Bannockburn, you know, the only one who wouldn’t surrender. A good show, man, truly,” Neville kept up his blabbering, always waving about with his hands when he was trying to make himself seem larger and more important.
“Thank you, Mister Leighton,” the old knight clearly soured at the mention of Bannockburn, as any present Englishman would. It had been a poor showing on their behalf, or so Hilda had heard. In her position, little news of battle and war reached her searching ears.
“What brings you to Scotland, Sir Horseley?” Hilda gave him the respect he was due, but no more.
“Just a bit of a venture,” he said dismissively. “My name is Roger,” he added. “Feel free to use it as such.”
“Of course,” Hilda smiled politely. All these knights, lords, and ladies never want to be called as such. How strange it all was.
“Honored guests!” a voice boomed out from the high table, and all turned to see the Laird of Elmiron, Kenneth Innes, standing to address his guests. The hall fell largely silent, awaiting his speech.
“I thank ye all for being’ here,” Kenneth Innes called out. “As ye all know, we gather here to celebrate the third anniversary of oor victory at Bannockburn!” The hall erupted into fist pounding and hollering, and Hilda frowned at the blatant drunkenness.
“Let us all hold up our goblets to our King! Bruce the King!”
“Bruce the King!” the Scottish bellowed back, but Hilda noticed her father and Roger had not joined in.
“Now I’ve had me minstrels write a ballad, and I’d like to share it with ye all! Should ye like to hear it?”
“Aye!” cried the Scots, and the English present flinched.
“But first! We must recognize a hero in our midst!” Kenneth went on. “Me own Nephew! The man who killed Lord Clifford! Camden o’ Aragain!”
The Scots cheered again, pounding their feet against the floor. Hilda saw Camden as he was put in the center of attention. She saw that he hated it, that he squirmed with discomfort and anger, or was it dissatisfaction? She had thought him to be the type to soak in such praise, but instead she saw him hide from it, and she was intrigued by this wrinkle in what she thought was his character.
So The Innes gave the mark, and his harpers launched into a revised ballad to the tune of Robert Bruce’s own composition. Hilda, her father, and Sir Horseley were horrified by what they heard. It was the most blatant insult to the English monarchy, and it was done with joy on the minstrel’s faces.
“Should this song ever be heard in London, I—” Neville trailed off, truly in shock at the music.
“I shall take some air,” Hilda announced, and whisked herself out of the hall quick as she could, not looking at the boisterous Scotsmen celebrating their victory.
Hilda walked out of the hall and drew her shawl around her as the crisp northern air whisked through her. Thinking herself alone, she walked to the ramparts and looked out over the festive soldiers below. Each Laird had brought their own retinue, ranging from five to fifty men, and now all of them reveled together in the castle yard while the nobles did the same indoors.
“Ye dinnae like the tune?” Camden’s voice startled her, and she jumped a bit to see him emerging from the shadows further down the wall.
“I found it brutish and uncouth,” Hilda fired back. I will not be intimidated by this ruffian.
“As did I,” Camden sighed, drawing nearer, but he stopped ten paces from her and turned to watch the night sky.
“You did?” Hilda blinked.
“It’s all hogwash, isn’t it?” the Scotsman went on. “A bleedin’ stain.”
“How do you mean?” Hilda could not help but be drawn to him in that moment, and she took several paces towards him.
“I’ve been fightin’ all me life,” Camden turned to face her. “Fightin’ the English, fightin’ the Irish, fightin’ the Welsh. I’ve seen enough of it, I dinnae need to hear it over supper.”
“Are you not a patriot?”
“Oh aye, I’ll bleed for Scotland. But I won’t suffer nonsense.”
“Such as the ladies that flock to you?” Hilda asked coyly.
“Ha,” Camden summoned a smile, the first time Hilda had seen him do so. She was struck by his fine face in the moonlight, and found herself becoming more receptive to what he was saying. “They won’t leave me alone.”
“You’re the man who killed Lord Clifford, after all,” Hilda decided to test him further. Was everything she had heard about him untrue?
“Aye, I killed him,” Camden’s face darkened. “After he fell in the mud.”
Hilda was speechless. If what he said was true, then Clifford should have been awarded the right of ransom, rather than be killed. To deny ransom, after your opponent was beaten, was directly contrary to chivalric values.
“I killed Clifford for he killed me faither,” Camden shot out, unapologetically. “And I’d do it again, if it were not for this fame that I do not crave.”
“I am sorry for your father,” Hilda said, studying the Ηighlander’s complex gaze.
“Do ye still think me a drunken bore?” Camden squared his shoulders. “Or have I redeemed meself?”
“You’re certainly not a bore,” Hilda smiled at him, and he smiled back. There in that moment she felt a strange spark of attraction, one that may have always been there but had disguised itself as curiosity and annoyance.
“I’ve only had a wee bit of drink,” he laughed.
“Miss Hilda?” Francis’s voice came from behind them, and Hilda saw the old man at arms coming up the steps towards them. “Is everything well?”
“Yes. I am fine, thank you, Francis,” Hilda remarked.
“Evenin’,” Camden bobbed his head. “Who might ye be?”
“I am Francis of Sandwich, Miss Hilda’s house guard.” Hilda saw that Francis’s hand rested not so gently atop the hilt of his sword.
“Well, she is certainly well guarded,” Camden laughed, and Hilda followed his eyes as he looked Francis up and down.
“It is cold on the wall, My Lady,” Francis said.
“She has not mentioned it,” Camden seemed to accept Francis’s challenge, and Hilda sighed. Men are such beasts on occasion.
“It is cold, isn’t it Francis?” Hilda smiled politely at him. “I must return to my father, if you would both excuse me.”
“Of course, My Lady,” Camden frowned, but did not protest. Hilda saw the smile of victory on Francis’s face as he began to follow her back to the hall.
“I shall return to my father alone, Francis, thank you,” she said.
“Of course,” Francis bowed his head, clearly disappointed, and Hilda flashed a fast wink at Camden as she went back into the hall.
As she rounded the doorway, she caught one last look at the strapping young Highlander. He stood as a majestic silhouette against the pale moonlight, his red hair flying in the breeze, and Hilda felt her heart skip the briefest of beats.
Lady Marjorie Innes was less than thrilled with her husband’s performance at the feast. The morning after the festivities, she crossed the floor of the Laird’s chamber at a rapid pace, flinging open the heavy drapes and letting the morning light flood in.
“Ah!” Kenneth groaned out, his hangover clearly taking the better of him, as he twisted about in the bed. Marjorie stood with her hands on her hips, shaking her head at her husband.
“Up then, what have you got to say for yourself?”
“What?” Kenneth’s bleary eyes strained as he tried to familiarize himself with his very familiar surroundings. “Marjorie?”
“I told you not to play that composition, didn’t I? And you went on and did it anyhow. You enraged all of our English guests with that pomped up tune.”
“Oh, nay, I won’t hear it,” Kenneth rolled over again, smothering his face with his blankets. “Yer old friend Roger, he was bloody there. Fightin’ to keep us as slaves!”
“And he lost an eye for it. Need he be remembered every time, when I should like to host my old friends?”
“Aye,” Kenneth grunted from beneath his pillow. “He should.”
“I have matters to attend to,” Marjorie exited the Laird’s chamber bitterly, wringing her hands together in a moment of deep frustration. She moved through her castle halls until she found Neville Leighton and his daughter at breakfast.
“Good morrow,” she said, gracefully entering the dining chamber.
“And to you as well, My Lady,” Neville Leighton stuttered over a piece of bread. Hilda smiled with a bow of her head.
“I must apologize, Mister Leighton, for my husband’s choice in tune the evening last. It was wrong of him,” Marjorie spoke as she took a seat at the table, ushering in a servant holding a pitcher of water.
“It was unexpected, to be sure,” Neville nodded as if he were pleased by her apology. “But after considering it, I cannot take offense to what a Laird does within his own halls, in his own country, no less.”
“You are very kind,” Marjorie replied.
“You yourself are English.”
“Ye know that I am.”
“Does it stir you at all then, to see such a display?”
"Of course it does,” Marjorie said tartly. “But it is not my place to challenge my husband, is it?”
“No, I should say not,” Neville said with a chuckle. Marjorie saw Hilda roll her eyes.
“Tell me, did you accomplish your aim at the feast?”
“One of them, I did,” Neville looked sharply at his daughter. “A Laird, The Hawrick of Hawrick, has agreed to take on our wine trade, to his good judgment, may I add. I also had the good fortune of meeting an old friend of yours, a true war hero, Sir Horseley.”
“Yes, Roger and I go back many years,” Marjorie spoke as food and drink were laid out before her. “He was in the service of my late husband, the Earl of Chester.”
“I did not know you were previously married,” Hilda spoke up, suddenly interested in the conversation.
“My late husband, God rest his soul, died fighting against Wallace. I was foolish to think that I might see his earldom pass to our son, what between his quarrelsome brothers. So you see, I was forced to look elsewhere, to protect my boy. I just so happened to be fortunate enough to find Laird Innes.”
“I did not know you had a son, My Lady,” Hilda looked surprised. “And he is the heir to Chester?”
“Alas no, nor will he ever be. His uncles have seen to that.”
“That is tragic, to be robbed of one’s home,” Hilda said.
“But we have a new one now,” Marjorie became more chipper, trying to uplift the mood. “And it is a fine one, as fine as can be. Tell me, Hilda, did you enjoy the feast?”
“I did, My Lady,” Hilda grinned at the end of her words, as if lingering on a pleasant thought.
“And how did you find my nephew?” Marjorie watched for her reaction, and her heart fluttered to see the shine in Hilda’s eyes revealed.
“You mean Camden?” Marjorie could see Hilda trying to hide her feelings.
“I have no others, not any longer, at any rate.”
“He is very charming, in a Northern way,” Hilda finally said.
“Well said,” Marjorie cooed.
“Will he be joining us today?” Hilda asked, ever so innocently.
“I am afraid not,” Marjorie said. “He and his party have already left for Troudel.”
“Oh,” Hilda looked dejected.
Marjorie saw Neville angling to interject, and quickly switched the conversation. “So then will you be traveling to France? Now that you have found your buyer?”
“Why, yes, yes I will, just as soon as my guards are ready.”
“And will you be returning directly to Edinburgh after France?”
“Precisely,” Neville bobbed his head along, oblivious to Marjorie’s line of questioning.
“Allow me to make a proposition,” Marjorie leaned forward, folding her hands before her bowl. “Leave Hilda here with me while you travel to France. I could so use the company.”
“I beg your pardon?” Neville looked confused.
“I promise you she shall be perfectly safe and well,” Marjorie went on. “Not only will it bring speed to your travels, but it may allow me an opportunity to find her a Laird to wed, just as you desire.”
“You would do this for me?” Neville was warming up to the idea. She had him.
“Only if Hilda would wish it.”
“Father, I should like to go to France,” Hilda protested.
“Oh, France will always be there,” Neville snorted. “It will be time well spent, as you did not speak to but one Laird at last night’s feast.”
“That is the end of it, then,” Neville held up his hand, and it was done. Hilda stood up abruptly and stormed from the hall. “She’ll come around,” he said absently, looking back to his food.
“She has a strong personality,” Marjorie remarked, watching Neville with slight disgust.
“That she does,” he chuckled, as he spoke through a mouth full of food.
“Perhaps it would be of comfort to her if you left some of your guard behind?”
“Right you are,” Neville gestured with his knife. “I shall leave Francis to look after her with five men.”
“That should be sufficient,” Marjorie smiled. Everything was falling into place. “When will you be departing?”
“This afternoon, should it please.”
“My husband is also journeying to Edinburgh, and he will be traveling with my friend, Sir Roger Horseley. Would you like to accompany them?”
“I should like that very much,” Neville sat up. “Would it be permitted? I should not want to intrude.”
“It would be so,” Marjorie assured him. “I shall speak with them. It can be dangerous, so close to the border here.”
“So I have heard. We sailed to Edinburgh, for we would not take the risk of Highland raiding parties. They come in droves, harrying York and everywhere around it. It won’t stand, I say.”
“It certainly won’t,” Marjorie got up to leave, having accomplished all she set out to.
“Thank you, My Lady, for your kindness,” Neville said, as she was leaving.
“Of course,” she smiled half a grin, and was gone from the hall.
Hilda was outraged. All her life she had wanted to see France, and she had come so close, only to be ripped away from the privilege. And for what? Matchmaking with a Highlander? True, she had enjoyed Camden’s company well enough, but not near enough to marry him. She had never enjoyed anybody’s company to that extent.
In fact, she often questioned the merit and importance of marriage, as she did now, knowing that it still made no difference in the path set out before her.
She stood over the gates of Elmiron, watching her father ride out with Laird Innes and Sir Horseley, surrounded by all the typical horsemen and waving banners.
It was a strange time in the British Isles, while open war still waged between the Scottish and the English, but there was no English army left. In a half-realized ceasefire, harrowing raids were launched again and again into Northern England, while scattered English sergeants struck back where they could.
But still, in all the chaos, an English knight could ride beside a Scottish Laird and a Norman merchant.
“Are you sad to be left behind?” Francis stood beside her, sword arm ever ready.
“Of course I am,” she said bitterly.
After she watched her father fade into a speck on the horizon, Hilda went back into the castle where she thought she might find a moment alone. Alas, Lady Innes seemed to be waiting for her.
“There you are,” Marjorie came up beside her and slid her arm into Hilda’s. “Did you watch them ride out?”
Hilda nodded and then said, “I’m not sure why. It’s the same sight every time.”
“So it is,” Marjorie walked her down the hallway, stopping Francis in his tracks with a stern look. That brought a bit of life back into Hilda’s cheeks.
“Earlier you mentioned your son, where is he now?” Hilda asked, curiosity always getting the better of her.
“I wish I knew,” Marjorie responded wistfully. “He took a company of soldiers over the border to raid the farms around York, or at least that’s what he told me. I know not where he goes, but I have not yet heard word of his death or capture, so I must remain hopeful.”
“So it is true, that the Scots still raid England,” Hilda had not wanted to believe her father’s dominating narrative about Scottish aggression, but it seemed to her that some of it had been founded in reality.
“Dear girl,” Marjorie said plainly. “Everybody raids everybody all the time. It will never stop. King Robert the Bruce, after his decisive victory, what does he do? He marches his army to Ireland. They say his brother is King there, Edward Bruce of Ireland. I wonder how long it will last.”
“You do not support the Bruce?” Hilda was stunned by Marjorie’s blatant speech, and yet she was impressed at the lady’s individuality.
“I support my husband, as is my duty,” Marjorie replied. “As it will be your duty.”
“It is not a duty I want,” Hilda confessed. “Truly. My father wishes to see me wed so dearly he has neglected my feelings entirely.”
“Such is the way with us, dear girl,” Marjorie led them to a balcony overlooking the castle grounds. “But it seems to me that you have not realized your own position.”
“My position is that I am property,” Hilda scoffed, but Marjorie broke out in a wicked smile.
“Your position is much more than you know,” Marjorie began. “You are the only child of a wealthy man who has no brothers, which means his entire fortune will pass to whomever you marry after he is gone, be it hopefully long from now. Such a distinguished English lady as yourself brings a great deal of validity to a Laird’s hall. You would be well treated.”
“But I do not care for my father’s fortune, nor for upkeeping my husband’s hall,” Hilda stressed. “How can I give myself to something that I cannot care for?”
“You may find yourself to care for it, in time.”
“I have heard that said before,” Hilda remarked with a grin. “Yet I still cannot believe it.”
“What is it you do care for?”
“Happiness, I suppose.”
“Sweet girl,” Marjorie patted her hand. “I do hope you find it. I saw that you seemed disappointed that Camden had left for Troudel already.”
“Did I?” Hilda felt a bit of warmth in her cheeks, and she felt foolish for betraying a feeling she did not fully understand, through her body language.
“Oh come, do not be shy,” Marjorie teased. “He is not one for feasts or company, I confess.”
“Yes, I certainly got that impression,” Hilda let a small smile show.
“Perhaps we should then pay him a visit,” Marjorie mulled. “It is but a long day’s journey on good horses. Do you like to ride?”
“I do, My Lady, although my father does hate seeing me on a horse.”
“Most men do,” Marjorie said. “Come, we shall leave on the morrow. Let us prepare.”
Hilda knew that this visit was being done purely for the purpose of putting together Camden and herself, for Lady Innes did not go to any lengths to disguise her intentions.
That sentiment disgusted Hilda, as it always had. She detested being shepherded around, showcased to various Lords who her father wanted to please. It made her feel inhuman. And yet, the thought of Camden’s young rugged figure still brought a strange jolt to her heart, enough to compel her forwards, not that she truly had a choice about any of it.
“So be it, let us journey to Troudel.”
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to see how this story ends?
The Highlander's Iron Lady is now live on Amazon!