About the book

Her secret led her to him, only to take her further away...

Ceana Morvell sees her quiet life as a healer collapse, in the blink of an eye.

At the sight of her parent’s desecrated graves, her heart breaks in two. Handed a key by her grandmother and bid to protect it at all costs, she is forced to flee under the cover of night.

Raghnall MacCramhain, Laird of Mhaol Chaluim, struggles to protect his territory from English attacks. When a stunning but secretive healer appears at his doorstep, he finds it hard to focus on anything but her.

Unable to resist their passion, the couple surrenders to their overpowering desire. But as their bond strengthens, Ceana’s presence attracts unwanted attention…

When a hooded figure attacks Ceana and leads her to a secret place, she is given one sole choice: surrender the key or watch her grandmother perish. As she gazes upon a face she knows all too well, realization dawns: not only her time with Raghnall is over but she has also just stepped into the lion's den.

 

Chapter One

Scottish Borders, 1350


Ceana Morvell was walking in the forest.

It was a path she knew well. One which she and Maighread Morvell, her grandmother, would walk each day, collecting plants and herbs and enjoying one another’s company.

 They lived in a quiet corner of the Scottish Borders, several miles from their nearest neighbors and ten miles from the village of Kirklinton, where Ceana had been born. The death of her parents had brought her to live with her maternal grandmother and life in the countryside was all she had ever known.

The day was bright and sunny, a gentle breeze blowing through the forest and Ceana’s mood was high. She loved these walks to visit her parents’ graves.

The oak tree, the ash, the elder, the … now what is that? She thought to herself, pausing by a tall, spindly tree with light green leaves, ah yes, of course, a beech. How could I nae recognise that, and she tutted to herself.

The forest held no fear for her, just a sense of closeness to the two people she had never known but thought so often about. She would ask her grandmother what they had been like and Maighread would tell her of their kind and gentle ways and that she took after her mother especially.

Ceana often imagined what her life would have been like had they lived. Would she have lived a more normal life in the village of Kirklinton? Perhaps by now she would have been married or even with child. But the thought held no sorrow for her.

She was content to remain unmarried, happy in her grandmother’s company and she in hers. Her grandfather had died many years ago, long before Ceana had been born and her grandmother seemed as content to remain a widow as she had surely been happy as a wife.

Now, what was that song I was singin’ the other day?

She came to a gated path which led across the meadows towards the village.

Ceana began to sing snatches of a little song which her grandmother had lately taught her. It was about a lass who goes off to sea and sails far away into the islands, only for her lover to follow her and declare his love, but a tragic end awaits them, as the sea dashes their ship upon the rocks and they end their lives together, clinging to one another in the waves.

 Her grandmother was a healer. A woman possessed of great wisdom and for whom nature was as familiar as her fellow man. Not only was Maighread Ceana’s grandmother but she was also her closest friend. Out in the countryside, Ceana had lived a sheltered life and she knew little of the ways of the world but she had seen much through her grandmother’s eyes.

A year ago, her grandmother had saved the child of crofters across the border and even the priest had admitted it was a miracle. The child had been dying from a fever and the parents had begged Maighread to help. She had spent days searching the forest for the plants she needed and walked through the night to minister to the child, who had made a full recovery.

Still, there were mutterings against her, but her grandmother had told Ceana she would rather be accused of witchcraft than see an innocent child laid in its grave when the chance to help was given. Ceana could not help but admire her for that, and as the tower of the kirk at Kirklinton came into view, she offered up a silent thanksgiving for the woman who had so shaped her life through her love and care.

The track emerged from the forest and out onto farmland which straggled the moors to right and left. Kirklinton lay in a dell, sheltered on all sides by the rolling hills of the borderlands. Back to the south lay England, and Ceana had crossed the border to reach the village.

She had never asked her grandmother why they lived south of the border but Maighread had always been adamant that it was there they would remain. She had no connections to the English and it was rare that any Englishman sought her grandmother’s wisdom. But the borderlands were often in dispute. A no man’s land between the kingdoms, where men vied for power and the threat of attack hung over them each day.

But such conflicts had nothing to do with Ceana and her grandmother, content as they were to live a simple life in the forest, living off the land and keeping as far away from the troubles of the world as possible. Ceana paused just outside the graveyard, looking around her for the Scotch Broom her grandmother had asked for. She could see its distinctive yellow flowers on the far side of the graveyard, a great clump, which she hurried over to, picking off the flowers which her grandmother would make into a tonic.

She began to hum to herself once more, her earlier embarrassment now forgotten and once she had collected enough of the flowers, she turned to cast her eyes over the graveyard towards the kirk.

Her parent’s graves lay together on the other side of the kirk. She picked her way through the gravestones towards them, being careful not to step upon the grass immediately in front, for she was superstitious about graveyards, despite her grandmother’s insistence that they held no fear. Ceana was unsure what she believed. She knew of the Christian religion, though her grandmother had never practiced it and she had always wondered why her parents had been buried in the consecrated ground of the graveyard.

It puzzled her and she was musing upon that very subject, as she rounded the corner of the kirk and came in sight of her parent’s graves. But what she saw next caused her to cry out in horror and she rushed forward towards the graves, tears filling her eyes.

***

The graves had been desecrated, the simple stones which marked them smashed and pushed over. The ground in front had been disturbed, dug up, as though someone had been searching for something. Ceana rushed forward, throwing herself down on the ground and weeping at the sight which she now beheld. Her parent’s graves were always well-kept and she had picked wild flowers in the forest to place upon them.

Who could have done such a terrible thing? Who could have been so cruel? Oh, wicked world and wicked people.

She was sobbing, clawing at the disturbed earth, her clothes becoming muddied and dirty. Tears ran down her face and she looked around her, lest there be any signs of the person responsible. But the graveyard was quiet and she could see no one around her, and heard only the sound of the breeze blowing in the trees above and the sounds of birds chirping to one another in the branches.

Her parent’s graves were the only ones to have been desecrated and a tremble of fear ran through her, as she wondered who it was who had targeted her family in such a way.

Did someone hold a vendetta against her grandmother, or a long-held grudge against her parents? ‘Tis all so horrible, she thought, shaking her head.

They had been dead these twenty years past and not once had an incident like this occurred—why now?

Ceana did her best to replace the disturbed tufts of soil and grass. She righted the stones, though one was smashed beyond repair, and laid the posies of flowers on top of the graves, whispering a silent prayer to herself, as she stood looking down at the desecration before her. She sighed and wiped her eyes, a deep sense of sadness pervading her, and she shook her head, as a fresh tear ran down her cheek.

“I am sorry, Mother, I am sorry Father. I will find who did this, I promise ye,” she said out loud, but there were only the trees and the birds to hear her, the deserted graveyard growing suddenly eerie and foreboding.

Tears ran down her face once more as though about it and it seemed as though the innocence of her childhood was now lost. Her parents’ memory was sacred to her and now it had been destroyed by an act of terrible vandalism.

How I miss ye, Mother, how I miss ye, Father and yet I did nae even know ye.

She hurried through the forest, wanting to tell her grandmother what had happened immediately. She would know what to do and perhaps she would have an idea of who was responsible. A sense of threat now hung in the air, and despite the familiarity of the path, Ceana felt scared to be walking alone as darkness began to fall.

She felt a rising sense of panic within her and looked back, as though expecting some hideous monster to pounce upon her from the darkness. She was startled by the sound of the owl, hooting in the trees above and its sound was like a warning to her, urging her to turn back from some danger ahead. But instead she pressed on, hurrying through the forest, until at last her grandmother’s cottage came into sight.

Grandmother will know what to dae, she always kens what to dae.

***

Ceana was surprised to see no light in the windows of the cottage.

There was no sign of life in the cottage, which was unusual, and as she approached through the trees she paused, peering nervously through the darkness. Perhaps her grandmother had already left for her walk and forgotten to light the candle. Or perhaps she had already taken to her bed, though it would be unusual at such an early hour.

Ceana wanted to call out for her, but something within her prevented it. In the distance, the owl hooted through the trees, causing her to be startled once more, and pull her shawl tightly around her. Cautiously, she approached the cottage, glancing nervously behind her. The gate into the little garden, where her grandmother grew herbs, was open, flung back on its hinges, though the door ahead was closed. Ceana drew a deep breath and walked forward, straining her ears for any sounds coming from within.

Tis strange, where are the lights? Grandmother always leaves a candle for me, but she is never out at this hour.

Should I call out? Surely she is here?

As she peered through the darkness, she was about to call out for her grandmother, when a hand clasped around her face pulling her back from the door, which swung shut behind her, plunging the cottage deeper into darkness. She tried to struggle, thrashing her arms about wildly, her heart racing within her.


Chapter Two


“Be quiet, Ceana. All will be well, I promise ye, but ye must dae as I tell ye now,” her grandmother said, and Ceana let out a sigh of relief, almost collapsing onto the floor in relief, knowing her grandmother to be safe.

“Grandmother,” she hissed, “what is wrong, is there some trouble? A terrible thing has happened—the graves have been desecrated. I have hurried home as quickly as possible. Someone has smashed them to smithereens and dug deep into the ground. They touched none of the other graves, only that of me parents. Has somethin’ happened here, too?”

Her grandmother was silent for a moment, seeming to digest this new information with interest, as they stood together in the darkness. Ceana was desperate to know what had happened and why her grandmother, who had appeared to be normal that morning, should have taken on such bizarre behavior.

“Smashed, ye say? And the earth disturbed,” she said, and Ceana nodded. “They must have been lookin’ for it,” her final words directed more to herself than Ceana, whose puzzlement grew further.

“Lookin’ for what, Grandmother? Will ye nae explain what is goin’ on to me? Are we in danger?” Ceana said, but her grandmother suddenly grabbed her by the arm, pulling her roughly towards the door at the back of the cottage.

“There is nay time to lose, Ceana. We must hurry now, be quick, follow me,” Maighread said, pulling Ceana along with her.

“Ye are hurtin’ me, Grandmother, where are we goin’?” Ceana said, as her grandmother hurried her out of the door and into the little yard at the back of the cottage.

It was here they kept the chickens and a pig, whose slumber was disturbed by the opening of the back door and who began oinking loudly.

We are goin’ nay where, Ceana, ‘tis ye who must leave. Be quick now,” her grandmother said, and to her surprise, Ceana saw that her old horse Dewney was saddled and waiting for her.

Ceana turned to her grandmother, taking her by the arms, the moonlight now illuminating her face.

“Please, tell me what is goin’ on, Grandmother. Why are ye sendin’ me away?” Ceana said.

“There is nae much time to explain, Ceana. To explain it all would take a lifetime, but there is a great danger comin’ and we must make ready for it, before it overwhelms us. I daenae know who desecrated the graves, but it was surely this that they were lookin’ for and we must keep it secret and safe,” her grandmother said, and from her pocket she drew a package, wrapped tightly in a bundle of cloths.

“What is it?” Ceana asked, unrolling the cloths to reveal an ornately decorated key. It was heavier than a normal key, its length decorated with jewels and made of silver and gold, metal which caught the moonlight. From its handle there hung a chain of clasps, and Ceana could never recall seeing it before, though the way in which her grandmother talked of it surely meant it had great importance attached.

Ceana gasped, and almost dropped it in her astonishment. But her grandmother pressed it into Ceana’s hands, placing the chain over her head.

“Ye must keep it secret and safe at all costs, Ceana. Daenae let it fall into anyone else’s hands, however much ye trust them,” she whispered, tucking the key beneath Ceana’s tunic, as Ceana looked at her in astonishment.

“But I cannae just leave ye grandmother, nae like this,” Ceana said, looking desperately at her grandmother, who placed her hands firmly upon Ceana’s shoulders.

“Listen to me, Ceana. I ken this is a lot to understand, but there are forces at work against us, powers ye cannae yet understand. We are in danger, we have always been in danger, and this key must be kept safe at all costs. I have always tried to protect ye, to shelter ye from the outside world. But now that world is comin’ closer and the only way to protect us both is for ye to flee now,” she replied.

“But where am I to go? Will I see you again?” Ceana asked, as tears welled up in her eyes.

The key felt heavy around her neck, as though she were now shouldered with a burden too great to bear. She had no desire to leave the safety of the cottage, nor to leave behind her grandmother. The task ahead appeared overwhelming and she began to weep. But her grandmother held her firmly and spoke with firmness and determination.

“Ye will see me again, Ceana. Flee far from here across the border and into Scotland. I have packed food and provisions for ye. Make for safety but daenae ever show the key to anyone, ye promise me?” her grandmother said, looking Ceana straight in the eyes, a forceful look upon her face.

“Aye … I … I promise ye, Grandmother. But I still daenae understand why this has to happen and why so suddenly. Come with me, we will hide together from whatever threat this is ye speak of, for how am I to know of it if ye daenae explain it?” Ceana replied.

“There is nay time to explain, Ceana. But know this, I love ye and that love is stronger than any force of evil in this world. Ye will prevail, I promise ye. Keep the key secret and keep it safe. Now go, ye must go, flee into the night,” her grandmother said, pushing her towards Dewney, who whinnied, as she climbed onto his back.

The burden of responsibility now rested heavily upon Ceana, and she felt terrified for what was to come. So sudden had this been and so shocked by the events of the day was she that she felt quite overwhelmed. But there was something else within her too, a sense of loyalty and love for her grandmother, and a trust which overcame the doubts within her heart.

Ceana loved her grandmother beyond anything else and she knew that her grandmother loved her, too, with that same love, a love which would never ask her to do anything other than what was right. She summoned all her courage, steeling herself for whatever lay ahead and looking down at her grandmother. She took a deep breath and nodded.

“I daenae understand, Grandmother. But I will dae as ye ask and I will keep the key safe, I promise,” she said.

Her grandmother nodded, reaching her hand up to Ceana and taking hold of hers. She squeezed it tightly, their eyes meeting, a look of grim resolution upon her face.

“That is all I ask, Ceana. Know that I love ye and that everything I have done is because of that love. Ye must go now. Make all haste, we have already wasted too much time. Make for the road north, but keep to the forest paths until ye are certain nay one is followin’ ye,” her grandmother replied, glancing around her nervously.

Ceana was about to reply when on the breeze there came the unmistakable sound of horse’s hooves, riding at speed in the distance. Her grandmother pricked up, looking anxiously up at Ceana.

“I …” Ceana began, but her grandmother slapped the horse, causing him to rear and canter out of the yard.

“Go, Ceana, I will distract them,” she called, and Dewney charged away with Ceana on his back. She cast a final desperate glance behind her at the woman she loved and now was forced to leave.

***

The forest was dark, the moonlight failing to penetrate its dark canopy, with a sense of foreboding hanging over it. Ceana urged Dewney on through the trees, only pausing when she had ridden about a mile from the cottage.

She was breathless, her heart racing, and her stomach sick with nausea. She took several deep breaths, the weight of the key around her neck seeming heavier than it surely was. She had so many questions and there was so much her grandmother had not told her.

What was this key and why did it hold such importance? She had never seen it before in her life. Her grandmother had never made any mention of a key or secret. A key must have a keyhole, but Ceana had no inkling as to where such a keyhole might be found. It was surely an ornate door, perhaps in the palace of a king or noble.

Or perhaps it was the key to a chest of treasure or fine jewels belonging to some grand lady. But then why would her grandmother possess such a thing? Certainly, there was no such lock within their humble cottage and Ceana had never seen such an ornate treasure before, let alone been tasked with its care.

What was all this talk of keeping her safe and protecting her? From whom? Their life together had never been anything but quiet and peaceful, her grandmother’s simple life and gentle ways undisturbed by outsiders. Together, she and her grandmother were happy. Even at the age of twenty-one, Ceana had no desire to leave the safety of their cottage in the woods. The wider world seemed harsh and unforgiving, but she had always wondered what life would have been like had her parents lived and raised her in the village. It seemed that now, like it or not, she was about to find out.

Ceana breathed heavily, glancing nervously around her as the trees seemed to loom menacingly overhead. Dewney whinnied and stomped his feet. She patted his mane, grateful for the comforting presence of the horse and the safety which he afforded. Had she been on foot then she would surely have been caught by whoever it was that she and her grandmother had heard riding towards the cottage.

But who were they? A shudder of horror ran through her, as she wondered whether whoever it was had meant them harm. Her grandmother had seemed worried, scared even. Ceana had never seen that in her before, and it terrified her. For if her grandmother could be scared, then what hope did she have?

As her breathing eased, Ceana looked around her nervously. The forest seemed darker than usual, more foreboding, as though at any moment someone or something would jump out upon her. It no longer felt like home, but a place of danger with threats lurking on every side. She patted Dewney’s mane, turning the horse along the trail away from her grandmother’s cottage and towards the north.

“Come now, Dewney. We must get away,” she said, urging him to canter.

***

Ceana crossed the Scottish border just as dawn was breaking over the hills beyond. It was a wild and lonely landscape, quite different from the forests which lay behind her. Here, heathers stretched endlessly before her, the undulating hills scattered with the occasional solitary tree, sparse and barren in comparison to the lush farmland of the south.

It had a rugged beauty to it, the air fresh and clear, as a gentle breeze blew in from the west. Far off, she could just make out the high mountains which lay to the north, their craggy peaks appearing foreboding, against the shimmering purple heather around her.

She had ridden through the night, and was now some fifteen miles or so from her grandmother’s cottage. It may have seemed a short distance, but to Ceana this was a new and unfamiliar world, one in which she had no idea whether danger or threat lay close. She knew nothing of Scotland, only that her grandmother had lived there once, choosing for reasons of her own, to move south of the border and find her home amongst the English.

These were wild places, populated by warring clans and unruly men, whose only law was the sword and the need to survive. Ceana reined Dewney in, reaching into the saddle bag and drawing out a loaf of bread. Her grandmother had packed ample provisions for several days and she ate hungrily, a wave of exhaustion and fatigue passing over her. She patted the horse’s mane as she ate, glancing warily around her lest she not be alone.

“This is a fine thing and make nay mistake, Dewney,” she said, sighing to herself.

The key was feeling heavier around her neck and she wondered about stowing it into her saddle bag. But her grandmother had been adamant that it must always remain with her. Though she did not understand its purpose, or why such an object should have thrown them into such chaos and danger, Ceana knew that her grandmother would never have burdened her in such a way had it not been entirely necessary and for some greater purpose than she could understand.

But where to go now? The road ahead wound its way off into the hills beyond. Ceana knew that it would eventually lead across the lowlands and on towards Edinburgh. But Ceana had no money, and no sense of what she might do if she even managed to arrive there.

Right now, Ceana was exhausted. She had not slept since the night before last and she knew that she needed to sleep if she was to think out a plan and keep the key safe as her grandmother had instructed.

I must rest, else I shall have nay resolve for anythin’ more. I am too tired to go on now.

Sighing to herself, Ceana led Dewney to a tree on the edge of the copse, tethering him up and patting his nose.

“There we are, Dewney. I will bring ye some water from the stream over yonder and see here, me grandmother has packed ye some oats. Ye are a good horse,” she said, patting him on the nose.

“And who is this we have here, then?” a voice came from the trees behind her.

***

Ceana was startled, spinning around in horror, as she came face-to-face with a group of men, who had been sitting amongst the trees. They were soldiers of a sort, with swords slung at their sides and some insignia or other emblazoned on their tunics. They were looking at her with interest, and the leader, the one who had spoken, had a smile on his face, though one which Ceana did not care for at all.

“I am about me own business,” she replied. “I did nae realize there was anyone here. I merely wished to rest in the trees a while. I have had a long ride, but I shall find another place. I am sorry to have disturbed ye,” and she turned to untether Dewney, trying not to let the fear sound in her voice.

“Now, wait there just a moment, lass. Ye are goin’ nay where, nae until ye have given us an explanation of who ye are and where ‘tis ye are headin’ to in such a hurry,” he replied, and the others laughed.

“Aye, ‘tis rare we meet a bonnie lass like ye out on the road all alone. Where have ye come from? Where are ye goin’ to?” another of them asked, standing up and dusting himself down, before approaching her.

Ceana swallowed hard, backing away towards Dewney, as the man circled her with interest.

“Me … me business is me own,” she replied, “and … and who are ye if ye wish to ken so much about me?”

“We are soldiers loyal to the Laird of Mhaol Chalium and he, Raghnall MacCramhain, doesnae take kindly to strangers on the road north,” the first soldier replied, he too circling Ceana with interest.

The second soldier began rummaging through her saddle bags, taking out food and blankets, examining them with interest. Ceana was thankful she had not stowed the key inside them and she watched nervously, wondering what would happen next.

“I wish only to be left alone. I am nay threat to ye or yer Laird. Me business is me own and I would keep me own counsel and allow ye to keep yers,” she said, as the soldier looked at her with a puzzled expression. Ceana had heard tell of such men, the Lairds of the borders. The war mongers of the north, men who delighted in warfare and violence and for whom the rule of the sword was law. Her grandmother had told her tales of such deeds and of how the clans had fought one another for centuries. But she had never heard of Mhaol Chalium nor of Raghnall MacCramhain

“Tis ill-advised for a lass to take this road alone. Danger lurks on every side. Ye could be set upon English soldiers on the wrong side of the border, or clansmen with dark hearts and wicked intentions. ‘Tis nae safe for a lass,” he replied, and once more the others laughed.

“And I suppose ye are nae such men?” she asked, and he shook his head and smiled.

“Ye will have to trust us,” he replied, “ye have very little choice but to,” and he smiled at her.

“I … I have business to see to. I … I have come from England to … to visit relatives. I make for Edinburgh and they shall worry if I daenae arrive safely,” Ceana replied, trying desperately to find a reason to leave the copse and ride north away from these men who seemed so intent upon stalling her.

“Ye cannae, the Laird doesnae allow such things, and we would be neglectin’ our duty if we allowed ye to pass. Though perhaps …” he said, turning to the others and smiling, “ye may have something to offer us. If ye are travellin’ to Edinburgh then surely ye have money, perhaps even jewelry. We are poor soldiers and anythin’ that ye can give us would be welcome,” and he caught hold of her arm.

Ceana struggled, but his grip was tight and he pulled her close towards him, his face turning suddenly menacing.

“I … I have nothin’ of worth to give ye, please, just let me go,” she replied, but the soldier shook his head, and pulled her close towards him.

“Then it seems that ye will be comin’ along to meet the Laird then, lass. Come now men, this lass is comin’ with us. We cannae sit here all day, besides, ‘tis too dangerous for ye to continue along the road. A lass like ye all alone, ridin’ this lonely way. If ‘tis nae us who takes ye then it shall surely be somethin’ much worse. Ye will nae be harmed but if ye cannae pay yer way then ‘tis to the Laird ye must pay a visit,” he said, laughing, as the soldiers gathered up their weapons and made ready to leave.

There was no point in struggling, for she could never hope to outrun ten well-armed men. Instead, she was taken arm in arm by two of them, Dewney led behind her. Their horses were tethered some distance away below a ridge, and had she been more alert to her surroundings, Ceana may have seen them from the track before her capture. As it was, she now found her hands tied and she was slung roughly over one of the horses, the lead soldier ordering their immediate departure.

“We will make Mhaol Chalium by breakfast if we ride hard, men,” he called out, mounting himself on the horse next to the one Ceana was slung across.

“What about my horse? What about Dewney?” she cried, but the man just laughed.

“Daenae worry about yer horse, lass. He is here. The Laird can always use a new horse in his stables. If I were ye, I would worry for yerself, nae for yer horse,” the soldier replied.


Chapter Three


They were heading north, moving swiftly along the road and Ceana could recognize nothing of the countryside they were now passing through. It may as well have been the other side of the world, so foreign and remote did it feel. They passed over the heathers and splashed through gushing streams, the road rising gradually higher, until eventually she could see the whole border country spread out before her.

Down below, was a small village and at the base of the far-off hill, nestled amongst trees and next to a gushing waterfall, its trail wending down the hillside, there lay a castle. It was a formidable-looking place, its squat and solid keep surrounded by a high wall, built of grey rock through which led a great gate, with a banner fluttering above. Ceana shuddered, a tear in her eye, as she wondered now what her fate would be.

“And if I refuse to go with ye to wherever wicked place ye intend to take me??” she asked, and he laughed

“To Mhaol Chalium? ‘Tis nay wicked place, lass. ‘Tis the seat of the Laird. He will be very pleased to meet ye, I am sure,” the soldier replied.

“I told ye, ye are makin’ a mistake. I am nay one, just a healer from the south,” she said, but the soldier only laughed again.

“That is for the Laird to decide, lass. Ye will meet him soon enough and I am sure he will have questions for ye. ‘Tis nae often that we return with such an interestin’ prize as ye,” he replied, laughing. “Come now men, breakfast awaits us and the thanks of silver for this lass, who I am sure the Laird will be very happy to meet.”

Ceana tried her best to sit up, but her hands were bound, and she almost slipped from the horse, as the party of soldiers arrived at the great gates of Mhaol Chalium. From the battlements above came a cry, a soldier’s voice echoing through the early morning air. A mist hung about the castle and through it, Ceana could vaguely see the man’s outline far up above, as she struggled with the ropes that bound her.

“Hail there, soldiers of Mhaol Chalium, identify yerselves, which patrol are ye?” the one above cried out.

“‘Tis Andrew Macready and his men, fresh from the heathers. Inform the Laird that we have a gift for him, a gift he will be very pleased to receive,” the soldier called back, as the others laughed.

 “The Laird has not yet risen. What gift is it that ye have for him?” the one above called back.

“He will see soon enough. Open the gates, my men are hungry and eager for rest,” the soldier replied.

The gates were slowly opened, creaking on their great hinges, as the grim courtyard beyond was revealed. Ceana was shaking with nerves, but gradually there was coming over her a determination to survive. These men had not yet harmed her, even though they had deprived her of liberty and mistreated her. They could have killed her, but instead they had decided to make her a trophy, a fact which might be used to her advantage.

She knew she must remain strong if she was to prevail and gradually an account of herself was forming in her mind. Perhaps she could use this situation to her advantage and find a way to secure herself help for the future. The Laird may be a reasonable man, though she feared that he could be a tyrant. Only time would tell.

Inside the courtyard, the men unsaddled their horses and Ceana was pulled roughly down from the horse. She was unsteady on her feet, her body aching from the uncomfortable ride across the heathers. They cut loose the cords which bound her hands but as the gates of the castle closed behind her, Ceana knew there was no hope of escape.

The walls towered high up above her, and the keep stood forebodingly in front. She wondered if anyone had ever escaped from this grim and lonely place, as around her the soldiers of the guard eyed her with interest.

“What is this ye have brought here, Andrew Macready?” one of them said, looking with interest at Ceana, who kept her head bowed down, refusing to catch the gaze of any of them.

“A gift for the Laird. She was makin’ her way across the heathers alone. We told her ‘tis a dangerous thing to be doin’ for a young lass,” Andrew replied and the other laughed.

“And so ye thought ye would take her out of danger by bringin’ her here?” the other replied.

“The Laird will see to her, I am sure,” Andrew said, and more laughter ensued.

“Take her inside then, the household will be rousin’ by now and if she remains out here then she will distract the men from their duties. ‘Tis nae often that they see such a bonnie wee lass within these walls,” the other replied.

“The men will dae well to keep those thoughts to themselves. ‘Tis the Laird to whom she goes,” Andrew replied, and he took hold of Ceana’s arm and led her towards the doors of the keep, as around her the soldiers murmured and whispered to one another.

But whether it was a natural reaction or the necessity of the situation in which she now found herself, Ceana had found a new courage within herself. She would not be intimidated by these men nor by their all-powerful Laird, whoever he may be. She would tell the story which had begun to form in her mind, a story to keep her and the key safe, one which she hoped her grandmother would be proud of.

***

The castle keep was dark and poorly lit, the occasional flaming torch upon the wall, or candle burning in an alcove. There were few windows, arrow slits to the outside which, despite the brightness of the early morning sun, allowed little light to enter the grim passageways she was led down.

There was much hustle and bustle going on and servants were hurrying back and forth, whilst clansmen and soldiers went about their early morning business. Ceana was not used to so many people and several of them stared at her in curiosity as they passed, her presence clearly a point of remark.

They came to a flight of steps, wide and hung on either side with tapestries, at the top of which were a pair of double doors over which hung a large coat of arms. Here they paused, and Andrew turned to Ceana and looked her up and down, a smile upon his face.

“The Laird will be pleased to greet ye, but speak only when ye are spoken to. I shall introduce ye. Remain outside the Great Hall with the others and I shall call ye in,” he said, and she nodded.

There was no point in arguing now and certainly not in trying to escape. Ceana had no plan as she rode across the moorlands, no inclination of where she and Dewney might go to keep her grandmother’s key safe. Here was as good as anywhere and perhaps in all of this would come an opportunity to secure her safety. But she could hear her grandmother’s words regarding the key, to keep it secret and safe. She could feel its weight around her neck, but Ceana had no intention of telling this Laird, or any other man, of the treasure she possessed, and as the doors to the Great Hall swung open, Ceana steeled herself for what was now to come.

She was led up the steps and waited just outside the door, surrounded by the posse of soldiers who had taken her at the copse. She could see down the length of the vast hall, which was hung with portraits on either wall. Trestle tables ran the length of it and at the end, upon a raised dais, was the high table, behind which sat a man who could be none other than Raghnall MacCramhain.

He was younger than she had expected him to be, no older than about thirty, with a short beard and jet-black hair. He was far from the fearsome man she had imagined, for the soldiers had spoken of him in awe and it had seemed to Ceana that he was a man to be feared. Instead, what she saw was a kindly-looking man, who had just concluded some joke or other and was laughing heartily.

He was attractive, immensely so, tall and handsomely built. His black hair flowed down his shoulders and his eyes were bright and keen, like no man she had ever seen, his presence commanding, and despite the precarious nature of her situation Ceana could not help but be drawn to him, both by his looks and his mannerism.

“Ah, Macready, ye return from yer patrol, I see. What dangers have ye discovered on the border? Any signs of the English upon our lands? Yer men must be hungry, let them come and have breakfast with us,” the Laird said, pointing to the tables and a steaming vat suspended above the fire, which could only be porridge.

“An interestin’ night, Laird. Though nay English upon the road. ‘Tis rare now that they cross the border, nae when we guard it so well,” Andrew replied.

“Ye and yer men dae much to keep us safe, come and sit down, ye must rest,” the Laird replied, beckoning the man forward.

But Andrew paused, a smile playing over his face, as he glanced back towards the doorway.

“I have somethin’ for ye though, Laird. Somethin’ ye will be interested in, I am sure,’’ he replied.

“‘Tis an early hour to be presentin’ gifts, Andrew,” the Laird replied, laughing.

“‘Tis a person, nae a gift. We found her ridin’ on the road north. Where she was goin’ and what she was doin’ on our lands she wouldnae say. We couldnae allow her to go onwards, nae when the road is so fraught with danger, and so we brought her back here instead. A gift for ye, Laird,” Andrew replied and the Laird laughed.

“The gift of a lass at breakfast, ‘tis a fine way to begin the day. Very well, where is this mysterious lass? Perhaps she will tell us her story,” he said, and Andrew turned, beckoning towards Ceana, who walked meekly into the Great Hall.

A hushed silence now descended, and all eyes turned towards Ceana who once more began to shake nervously. She imagined that they could all see the outline of the key hung beneath her tunic and she thought that at any moment a cry would come and she would be set upon for her treasure. But none of the clansmen moved and she came to stand before the Laird, her eyes fixed firmly to the floor.

“Well, who have we here?” the Laird asked, and Ceana took a deep breath, her mind racing to form her explanation, one she knew could be the difference between life and death.

“She has hardly said a word, Laird. Nae since we found her. She wouldnae tell us her name,” Andrew interjected.

“Probably because ye scared her half to death, Andrew. Did ye set upon her? Take her by surprise?” the Laird said, his voice rising in anger a little.

“Nay, nay, Laird. We did nae harm her, but ‘tis nae safe for a lass upon the northern road, ye ken that, sir,” Andrew replied, but the Laird ignored him.

“‘Tis all right, lass. Ye are safe here. What is yer name?” the Laird asked, and this time Ceana raised her eyes to meet his.

He had a kindly expression upon his face, and appeared to radiate a genuine kindness. A man whom she felt she could trust, though she knew she must lie to in order to get what she wanted.

“Ce … Ceana, sir, Ceana Morvell,” she replied.

“See, Andrew. She will talk when addressed with kind words,” the Laird replied. “And where have ye come from, Ceana Morvell? Ye look tired and hungry. Bring some food for the lass and let her sit rather than stand before me. She is nae enemy, a fellow Scot,” he called to the servants, who bustled around to do his bidding.

Ceana was brought a chair and sat opposite the Laird, and a bowl of porridge was placed before her which she began to eat hungrily.

“Thank ye, sir,” she said, but he shook his head and dismissed her with a wave of his hand.

“‘Tis only a bowl of porridge, lass. But tell me, what is yer story?” he replied, as the other clansmen returned to their conversations, and a babble of voices filled the Great Hall.

“I … I am lookin’ for work. My … I am the last of my family and I have come north to seek my fortune. I was makin’ for Edinburgh when I came across yer men. I assure ye, I mean nay harm. Quite the opposite, in fact, for I am a healer. I know the ways of plants and herbs and I have much knowledge of the ancient ways,” she replied.

Ceana had determined to keep her lineage a secret and pretend her family to be dead. That way, there could be no suspicion as to her origins. Though in hindsight she realized it had been foolish to tell the Laird her real name. He looked at her with interest, as though the revelation that she was a healer could be of use to him.

“A healer? Ye know the properties of the plants hereabouts? Why were ye crossin’ the border? Ye did nae live south surely?” he asked, but she nodded.

“Aye, my family lived in … lived south, in England. The forests are richer, more abundant there but sadly my parents succumbed to fever and I am the last to be left. I couldnae remain there, nae when the place held such memories for me and so I determined to leave, to return to Scotland and look for work. I will gladly be on my way if ye return my horse and provisions,” she replied, her eyes meeting those of the Laird who nodded, looking at her with curiosity.

“‘Tis a brave lass who crosses the border alone. My men might be a little rough around the edges but they would never have harmed ye. But there are many who would, of that I can assure ye. Dae ye ken nothin’ of such men? The English soldiers who patrol their borders, they wouldnae treat a lass like ye well. And there are others too, men of wild and wicked clans, who care nae who they rob and maim. Ye are lucky it was we who found ye,” Raghnall said, his eyes still fixed intently upon her.

“I am grateful to ye for yer kindness, sir,” Ceana replied, “but I should like to get on my way.”

But the Laird shook his head.

“I cannae allow that, lass. Ye would be steppin’ into the lion’s den. We have had reports of English soldiers many miles into our land and of clansmen who have burned our cottages and laid waste to our crops. Nay, I cannae let ye go just yet, nae until I know ‘tis safe. Ye can remain here, ‘tis always useful to have a healer amongst one’s friends,” he replied.

Ceana was worried. She had thought he would send her on her way, allow her to leave. He seemed to believe her explanation, which at least had some truth to it. Her parents were dead and she knew more than most as to the healing properties of plants and herbs. Her grandmother had taught her well and Ceana knew she could pass any questioning he might have. But the thought of remaining at Mhaol Chalium filled her with a sense of foreboding.

“I … I daenae wish to impose upon yer hospitality, Laird. Ye have been kind to me and I wouldnae wish to trouble ye anymore. Allow me to depart. I will be quite safe, I assure ye,” she replied, but he shook his head once more and sighed.

“Nay lass, ye shall remain here awhile. I may have work for ye and then we can discuss yer passage north. Besides, would ye nae wish for a bed this day? Ye look exhausted. Have ye nae slept for a day?” he asked, and Ceana reluctantly nodded.

“I am tired, sir. That much is true. The … the worry of my parent’s death, the fact I couldnae save them despite my knowledge. That … that has weighed heavily upon me these past days. A bed would be a welcome thing and perhaps a further meal if yer hospitality can extend,” she replied.

“It can, lass. Ye interest me. I have nae met a healer like ye before. Usually they are wizened old women, bent over with a stick, and whom folk accuse of witchcraft. Ye are nay witch, are ye?” he asked, but Ceana smiled.

“Nay sir, only a woman who knows the way of plants. There is nothin’ more interestin’ about me,” Ceana replied, feeling the weight of the key hidden around her neck and wondering just how long she could fool this kindly Laird who seemed so intent upon helping her.

What will happen to me now?

She looked around at the Great Hall and the finery of the Laird’s home.

The higher we are placed, the more humbly we should walk

~ Cicero 


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50 COMMENTS

  1. I loved the review but I only read a little as I like to wait til the full book comes out! It sounds very intriguing!
    I love your books!
    Thank you!

  2. I’m looking forward to this book. The mystery of the key and the fate of her grandmother will be interesting to solve. As usual, another great story from you.

  3. I enjoy reading anything about The Scots. You have piqued my interest with a mystery of intrique in the first chapter.

  4. LOVED IT!!!! I can’t wait to read the entire book. This girl is very interesting to me. I already like the Laird.

  5. The beginning of the story pulls the reader in. Full of mystery and suspense of what lies ahead for Ceana and the laird. How will the story reconnect with her grandmother. I enjoyed the story this far and I look forward to reading the book.

  6. Ceana sounds lovely and the secret her grandmother, if she is her grandmother, hasn’t told her….. I cannot wait to read the rest!

  7. Loved it! I could not put it down. Since I have Scottish roots and I visited Scotland & Ireland in 2016 I could visualize it as I read.
    Thank you for allowing me to preview😊

  8. Sounds very interesting, can’t wait to read the rest of the story and find out what the key is for and what happens to Ceana during her travels.

  9. An interesting storyline I see a romance with the laird as her savior. I hope her grandmother survives and can not imagine what the key goes to perhaps she is royalty. You have definitely got me thinking. I can’t wait to read the rest of your story.

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