About the book
He never hunted for love, but he became her prey...
Miss Charlotte Bolton is certain that there’s nothing worse than having the most cruel Captain of the British Army as a father. Until she meets the one Highlander she should have stayed away from: her father’s most hated enemy.
When his mother was viciously murdered by Adair Bolton, Edward MacAlpein, son of the Laird of MacQuarrie, made it his life mission to destroy him. When the woman he stumbles across him in the woods turns out to be the Captain’s daughter, he decides to use her against him. A plan that backfires majorly when he falls hopelessly in love with her.
With the entire English army and her father’s wrath hunting them, they have no choice but to turn to Edward’s family for shelter. Shelter in the Castle's darkest dungeon. An eye for an eye, a life for a life, and death is but the easy way out for them…
Edward MacAlpein moved with the easy grace and wary step of someone who had been raised in the wild and rugged hills and woods of the Scottish Highlands. His footsteps were sure and deliberate, moving steadily, always placing his heel to the forest floor first. He was careful to never use the same route back from his excursions two days in a row, as he did not want to leave any trail to follow.
He picked his way through the tangled beech trees, his broad muscular frame pushing easily through the brush, using his sword every now and again to clear a particularly stubborn bramble.
He was a tall, strong young man, with shoulders so wide and a chest so deep that he looked as if he could pull an ox-cart. His sandy blonde hair, grown to shoulder length since he had been sent out on his mission, was currently hidden under the hood of his travel-stained cloak.
As he stalked through the beech wood, he sung softly under his breath, whilst overhead the wind in the leaves of the trees acted as accompaniment.
“I am a prisoner far from home,
But if ye’ll only steal the key,
I’ll take ye where the grass grows green,
And make of ye a great lady.”
Dusk was falling over the wooded hill country of the English Middle March like a soft spell as he walked. Gradually, as the sun dipped westward, the shadows in the beech forest lengthened. The shadow of each gnarled, ancient tree ran into the one next to it until they pooled like ink around the boles.
Edward scratched at his stubbly beard as he moved through the copse. Despite the loveliness of the fading afternoon, it seemed that his mind was set on taking him down a melancholy track. That song, that had sprung unbidden to his mind just then, had been one that his father, the Laird of MacQuarrie, had been particularly prone to sing to his wife.
Ah, Mither, how I miss ye. A year has passed, and yet the wound is as fresh and as raw as if ye were taken from us yesterday.
With this thought, the cold melancholy that seemed to fill the pit of his stomach warmed, grew hot, and hardened, like tempered steel.
Aye, she was taken. “Taken” is the word right enough. I shall take that which is due the MacQuarrie clan in return––vengeance.
Edward MacAlpein was, as his name suggested, the son of Tormad MacAlpein, the Laird of the MacQuarrie clan. There was a simple and good reason that the son of a Scottish Laird was out, over the Anglo-Scots border, in the rugged country of the Middle March. He had been sent out to track down and observe the man who had kidnapped and murdered his mother; a Captain of the English army, a certain Adair Bolton.
At the thought of the man who had so callously and savagely abducted his mother and put her to death, Edward’s usually warm brown eyes went cold. He gritted his jaw and smiled a bitter smile, vowing silently to avenge Aisla MacAlpein’s memory for what might have been the millionth time.
As the night’s chill started to creep out of the ground, a mist began to rise off the tributary of the River Rede that flowed through this particular copse. The rising haze diffused the rays of the last couple of hours of daylight, sending fingers of golden sunlight spearing through the black trunks of the beeches.
It was Edward MacAlpein’s favorite time of the day. It was the changing of the guard, when the sun gave up her place in the sky to her cousin the moon.
Edward’s mother had always told him that twilight was the stretch of time in which the sun, hidden behind the horizon, exchanged the news of the day with the moon, who was on his way to rise. He pushed through a tangle of ferns and stepped deeper into the mist that was rising quicker off the river now.
The smell of damp pervaded the air as Edward moved closer to the River Rede. Beechwood sickeners–a toxic, brittle, red-capped toadstool found only under beech trees–carpeted the forest floor. Edward spotted a few of the rather gruesome, and aptly named, beefsteak funguses growing from the sides of a couple of the older trees.
“There was a farmer’s son,
Kept sheep all on the hill;
And he walked out one May mornin’
To see what he could kill.”
He chanted this old rhyme now, as he moved on through the wood, trying to calm the sudden angry pounding of blood in his ears by listening to the sounds of the birds settling down to roost for the evenings. It was a trick that his father had taught him for if he was ever stressed or out of sorts.
“Listen to yer surroundin’s, lad,” he would tell Edward, “and try and identify every livin’ beast and bird that ye can hear.”
Edward could hear the sleepy trilling of a pair of wood warblers, the last tired taps of a woodpecker in the distance, and the sporadic song of what he half-guessed to be a hawfinch near at hand.
“And sing blow away the mornin’ dew
The dew, and the dew.
Blow away the mornin’ dew,
How sweet the winds do blow.”
He closed his eyes and breathed deep of the woodland air. The rising fogs played merry hell with his senses. They swirled sounds around; the vapors gathering in close and dampening the forest noises down before clearing again, so that he could hear the distant sound of squirrels skittering through the branches.
Edward bent to check one of the many snares that he had set throughout this belt of woodland. This particular trap had been set off by some small creature, but it had not managed to capture the little beast. Edward replaced the leaves and light brush that he had used to disguise the snare and then moved on.
He sang the next verse of the ribald old song under his breath and allowed the dying sunlight to flicker over his closed eyelids.
“He looked high, he looked low,
He cast an under look;
And there he saw a fair pretty maid
Beside the watery brook.”
Suddenly, the background noises of the wood ceased abruptly. The birdsong died, the snap and crack of twigs breaking and the rustle of leaves–as unseen denizens of the beech wood moved through the undergrowth–ceased. For one who had spent much of his youth running around woods much like this one, the sudden cessation of noise was like the sounding of an alarm bell.
“What the––” Edward said, falling automatically into a crouch.
Then he heard it. A voice.
A woman’s voice.
It was the last thing that Edward had expected to hear out amongst the misty beeches at eventide. He had made sure that his camp was deep within the forest, well away from the English camp–in which he suspected Captain Bolton to be lurking–that he had been spying on for the past few days. He had made sure to leave no trails, and not even the keenest English soldier would venture this far for firewood.
Am I imagining it, then? All this dwelling on me poor mither has got me hearin’ fair voices that are nae there, perhaps?
He held his breath. Then, without a doubt, he heard the voice again. The mist would not allow him to hear the words, nor even what tongue or accent they were spoken in, but he could tell that it was a woman’s voice and it seemed to be addressing something or someone.
He thought that he might have heard the words, “Come now, what is the matter with you?” but he could not be sure.
Suddenly, the eerie, breathless silence was split by a shriek of pain that rent the air like breaking glass.
It was a cry that Edward had heard often in his time watching the English troops, as they moved their way through the countryside, occasionally crossing the border to harass and pillage a Scottish settlement.
Unable to curb his instinct to help someone that might potentially be in trouble, Edward took off through the trees. He moved with caution and stealth, nonetheless, and, clad as he was in the garb of a hunter, he quickly disappeared from all but the most wood-crafty eyes and moved off towards the direction of the cries.
Charlotte moved unhurriedly through the gathering gloaming, the slanting fingers of golden sunlight reaching through the dark trees to run their ethereal fingers across the dark blue hood and cloak that she wore. She carried a large, wicker foraging basket under one arm and hummed quietly to herself as her pale blue eyes darted about the forest floor.
“Where are you? Where are you?” she muttered to herself in between her humming.
She was looking for plants and herbs that she might be able to use in the production of poultices and medicines. Her inquisitive eyes, as pale blue as the finest aquamarine stones, darted eagerly around the forest floor, ran up the trunks of the beech trees and flicked from overhanging branch to overhanging branch.
“Ah!” she suddenly exclaimed, her eyes fixing on a point some twelve feet above her. “I see you, mistletoe!”
There, hanging above her from the branch of one of the younger-looking beech trees, was a great tangled ball of green ivy-like leaves and stems. Interspersed among these leaves were berries of gleaming, translucent white.
“I could certainly use you,” Charlotte said, in her clear English accent. She had a warm, almost melodic voice. It was a voice that hinted at a kind heart, and had more than a little mischief running through the center of it.
The young Englishwoman was a voracious reader and, to go with this appetite for literature, she was also possessed of an extremely curious nature. Recently, she had been reading an interesting volume that she had picked up in a nearby border township. It was a slim, handwritten book that was focused on the local Highland flora and its many uses in the art of healing.
“Druidh-lus,” she said, recalling the Gaelic word that had been scrawled in the little book. “Druid’s herb: a fine and excellent herb for the combating of afflictions of the nerves,” she continued, reciting the part of the passage that she could remember.
Above her, the bright white berries shone in the midst of the dull green leaves. Charlotte smiled as she recalled another part of the passage.
“Use it as a charm against witchcraft, as a protection for newborn bairns being stolen away by fairies, and to help keep the vigor in the marital bed,” she intoned, and laughed to herself.
Her smile faded, as she thought how handy its pulses slowing qualities might be in the case of her father. She shook her head, as if she could shake off the very thought of the man, like snow from her shoulders.
She trudged on through the drifts of fallen leaves, her mind suddenly preoccupied with what awaited her back at the camp. She did not wish to go back, but the light was fading fast and she knew that it would not be long at all before she was forced to return.
Just as she had reluctantly decided that she best be turning back, she skirted the base of a hoary rowan tree and stopped in her tracks. There, in the middle of small clearing, sitting and looking as lost and wretched as any creature she had ever laid eyes on, was a fox cub.
She had never seen a fox up so close, let alone a cub. The little animal’s fur was a bright, unsullied auburn, with a cascade of white running from the bottom jaw of its pointy muzzle down to its chest and belly.
The fact that it did not run away the instant that it clapped its piercing amber eyes on Charlotte convinced her that the fox cub was injured. She halted by the rowan, her hand resting upon the silvery gray bark of the tree that many Scots believed to be the most magical and useful. Many believed that it kept witches away, whilst the wood could be used to stir milk to stop it souring. Whatever its many real and perceived qualities might be, the rowan was a sacred tree in Scotland and cutting one down was thought to invite bad luck.
“Come now, what is the matter with you? What are you doing out here all alone, hm?” Charlotte asked it in her soft, kind voice. “Surely, your mother will be wondering where you are?”
Charlotte cast her eyes around her, but could see no sign of a vixen anywhere near.
“Well, perhaps I could take a look at you, and see if I might be of any assistance?” she ventured. She took a tentative step towards the animal, which cowered back a little in the small nest of leaves that it had rucked up around itself.
Charlotte lay down her foraging basket and dropped to her haunches, moving forward cautiously so as not to spook the cub. She made sure that she did not look directly at it, as she knew that direct eye-contact was the animal equivalent of going at another person with your fists raised.
After a few moments of careful, constant inconsequential chatting about the weather and what she had been up to that day, Charlotte managed to get within reaching distance of the little cub.
“That’s right,” she told it, smiling slightly. “You’ve got nothing to fear from me.”
She reached out her hand tentatively, thinking that she would at least get a hold of the cub by the scruff of the neck so that she could give it a quick examination.
As quick as a striking adder, the little cub lashed out at the hand that was edging closer and closer to it. There was a whirl of sharp, bright white teeth, a high-pitched screeching snarl––like a domestic kitten doing its best to be a mountain lion––and a rending of cloth.
Charlotte fell back with a shriek that, when she thought back to the incident later, she was embarrassed to recall. She clutched at her arm and let go a brief wail––more out of shock that the cute little creature would attack her like that than from the pain.
“Why?” she gasped, casting a reproving glance at the cub, but the animal was gone. Only a rustle in the bushes away to her left spoke of its flight.
Charlotte looked down at the torn sleeve of her dress. There were four perfect red lines visible through the tear in the fabric, running down the back of her forearm. Even as she brushed a finger hesitantly over the claw marks, bright red blood suddenly bloomed from the thin wounds.
Well, I suppose that goes to show that the little thing was probably more lost than hurt.
The way that the crimson blood suddenly oozed out, reminded Charlotte of when she cut herself with her father’s belt dagger whilst trimming kindling when she was younger. The knife had been so sharp that it had taken a few seconds for the blood to even begin to start flowing, despite Charlotte being able to see into the meat of her own finger.
She clamped a hand to the claw cuts. Ironically, despite being on a foraging quest to find medicinal herbs, she had nothing at hand that she could easily make use of as a bandage.
A small sob of frustration broke from her then; aimed more at what she saw as her own ineptitude than the pain or hurt of the wound.
There was another rustle behind her, from the same bit of brush into which the fox cub had disappeared.
“Are you back to finish me off?” she asked bitterly, turning. She would not have been surprised to see a furious vixen eyeing her coldly from the undergrowth for scaring her young.
However, as her eyes alighted on the bushes, she saw, quite clearly, that what had emerged from the forest was no desperate, angry creature of the woods. No, this was something quite unexpected.
Charlotte’s mouth sagged as she saw the young man push his way out of the dense woodland shrubbery. She had spent much time watching the native Scottish fauna since she and her father had come to the borderlands for his “work”–anything to get out from under her father’s feet.
The young man reminded her of a stag somehow. He was proud, exuding a certain indefinable nobility, and yet he moved warily, as if his usual state of being was to be on edge.
But, my he is handsome–at least, he has the body of a man in the prime of his life. It seems that he is more muscular than any man in the English army; such broad, strong shoulders and arms that could pick me up without so much as straining…
Even with a cloak on, Charlotte could see the slabs of muscle that made up the man’s chest. Through her surprise and shock, she wondered wistfully why it was she could not meet an Englishman of that sort to whisk her out from under her father’s dominion.
He was built like a warrior out of the old tales that she had heard told around the campfires at night; tall, broad, and powerful-looking. There was an air of command about him that she could not quite explain, a quiet sort of authority.
He had the hood of his cloak pulled over his head to try and keep out the rising mist. Charlotte could not make out too much of his face, but it seemed that he had a strong jaw and powerful features. Peering closer, she could make out the glitter of his eyes.
Charlotte got to her feet slowly. She was not quite sure what to make of this man who had suddenly appeared in her midst. Clearly, he was not a member of her own party. He was dressed simply, in weather-stained breeches, shirt, and cloak. His boots, strangely, looked to be of fine make, which made her doubt whether he was as simple a man as she initially thought.
Charlotte stood there, clutching her arm, feeling the blood run slowly through her fingers, down the back of her arm and onto the back of her hand.
For a long few moments, neither one of them moved or spoke. They were frozen in a tableau that could have been quite easily used as the inspiration for a woodcut for one of the folk stories that Charlotte’s mother used to tell her: the lost princess being stumbled upon by the mysterious stranger.
Only, I am no princess and, as for this man, I have no idea what sort of person he might be.
She shifted slightly, moving towards her dropped foraging basket. It had been her mother’s. If this stranger turned out to be a rogue, she still hoped to be able to grab the basket before she made a dash for freedom.
As she took a step towards the basket, pain shot up her arm. She gave a little yelp and felt her knees sag slightly, as if they had suddenly turned to water. She hissed and clutched at her wound. Clearly, the fox cub’s claws had cut deeper than she had initially thought.
The stranger took a step towards her then. Charlotte tensed instinctively. The man, seeing this, raised his hands in a placating way. Then, reaching slowly upwards, he pulled back his hood so that Charlotte could make out his face.
Well, the doubt is removed, he is handsome. Very much so.
His face, though honest, was slightly weathered and tired-looking. There was a thin white scar running through one of his eyebrows.
Even though she was still weighing up whether to flee or not, Charlotte paused at the sight of him.
It gives him something of the look of a rogue or bandit, a man who lives by his wits and by his sword.
Unexpectedly, she found excitement prickling her insides.
His hair was thick, blond, and fell to his shoulders, but was slightly tangled and wild.
In the manner of one who has spent more than a few nights sleeping outside.
His jaw was, as Charlotte had suspected, a strong one, and covered in a short beard. His eyes, now that she could see them clearly, were brown and guarded. His whole demeanor was wary. Charlotte had the distinct impression though, that despite his slightly wild outward appearance and circumspect air, here was a man that would––hopefully––do her no ill.
Though I would never presume to be so foolish as to guess at the workings of a man’s heart. Not after the way my own father treats me…
“Are ye all right there, lass?” he asked.
Charlotte recoiled instinctively. The man’s broad Scottish brogue was thick enough that she could have slathered it on her morning slice of toast.
A slight frown creased the stranger’s handsome face when Charlotte did not reply.
“Lass?” he prompted her. “Are ye all right? I thought I might’ve heard ye yell back there? What are ye doin’ out here, anyway?”
Still, Charlotte did not know what to say. She opened her mouth, but no sound came out.
Then the man saw her arm and the blood that had started to drip off of her fingertips and patter onto the leaves at her feet.
“Ach, ye’re hurt!” the man said, and moved forward.
Charlotte took a couple of stumbling steps back at this point, almost tripping over the hem of her cloak.
“You’re–you’re a Scot,” she said.
That seemed to bring the man up short, as if she had caught him out in something.
His guarded brown eyes searched her face for a minute and then he gave her a slight smile. “Aye,” he said, slowly. “Aye, that I am. Ye’re nae just a bonnie lass, then–if ye’ll pardon me fer sayin’ so–ye’re a perceptive one too.”
Charlotte had the rather uncomfortable feeling that this man, this rascal, was making fun of her. Bizarrely, she felt herself blushing.
“Who–who are you?” she asked.
The man raised his eyebrows at this, but did not answer. Instead, he held out his hand to her. It was in the exact same way that Charlotte had held her own hand out to the fox cub, she could not help but notice.
“Let me take a wee look at that arm, lass,” he said, giving her an encouraging smile. “How in the world did ye manage that out here? Did ye run across a wulver or something like it?”
“A wulver? What in the world is one of those? I’ve never heard of such a creature,” Charlotte replied.
The man snorted. “It’s naught but a legend, lass,” he replied. “A legend that comes down from the far north o’ Scotland, from the Shetland Islands. Folk tell o’ a man-shaped beast, covered in short brown hair, but with a wolf’s head.”
To her astonishment, Charlotte found that while the man had been talking, she had moved towards him without consciously being aware of it.
“That sounds completely horrid,” Charlotte said.
“Ah, that’s where ye’re wrong, miss,” the handsome Scotsman said to her. “The wulver is nae one of those beasties that thrives on the taste of human blood.”
He took her arm gently in his large, callused hands–a hunter’s and outdoorsman’s hands, Charlotte thought them–and inspected the perfect gashes down the back of her arm.
“It has a kind heart,” he said softly, as he ran a finger around the claw marks. “As is sometimes the case though, it is judged wrongly afore it has time to make its good intentions kenned.”
He looked up suddenly at Charlotte then, and she found herself captivated by those warm, brown eyes. She also saw, down in their depths, the distrust and the–
Something else. Something secret. Something that has hardened his heart, maybe?
The evidence of the man’s distrust rekindled the general cynicism that she was supposed to feel towards all those who came from Scotland. It was a mistrust and doubt that her father had tried to instill in her ever since she had been a young girl, so that everyone that she met from north of the border was instantly a subject of suspicious scrutiny.
Charlotte pulled her arm out of the man’s hands, wincing as she jerked it free of his tender grip. Then she said, “It was no wulver, sir, but a fox cub that I thought was injured.”
To her consternation the man snorted again and shook his head. Then, seeing the ruffled look on her face, he tipped his head back and laughed. One of the beams of hazy sunlight that was lancing through the trees caught him full in the face and turned some of the strands in his blonde hair to molten gold.
“A fox cub did this to ye?” he said, once he had gotten himself back under control. “Good God, lass, but ye want some lookin’ after and nay mistake, eh?”
“I thought it might be hurt,” Charlotte said, defensively.
“And ye went and stuck yer hand right in its maw, judgin’ by the state o’ that arm of yers. And ye never thought that the cornered or the injured animal is the one around which ye need tread most carefully?”
“Well…I–that’s not the…” Charlotte said.
The man cocked his head at her in a very annoying, overly superior way.
Especially for someone who is doubtless no better than a run of the mill hunter or tracker or woodcutter.
“Aye,” he said. It could have meant anything.
In an attempt to change the subject, Charlotte gestured at the young Scot with her good hand and said, “You do not look the typical Scotsman, do you? Where is your kilt and the, ah, the, you know, the little bag that they carry on the front of their belts?”
“Sporran?” the man supplied.
“That’s it. I was expecting more tartan,” Charlotte blustered. “That’s why you took me a little unawares, I suppose.”
The cocksure smile that had adorned the man’s face slid from it like mud from a boot.
“Aye,” he said again. “Aye, I suppose ye might say that I’m dressed fer the work that I’ve ahead o’ me.” He looked down at his worn, but well-made, breeches and plucked at them. “Besides, England is nae the place to be wearin’ such garments, perhaps. Especially nae in the present climate. Especially nae on the very border of the land that it hopes to rule.”
Charlotte stared at him. He sounded far more educated and worldly than she might expect a hunter to be.
He is not telling me something.
“Lass,” the man said, waving his hand about him and finishing by pointing it at the bleeding arm that she was cradling in her other hand, “the night is settin’ in. Come wi’ me now, and I’ll take ye to me camp.”
He stepped forward and took Charlotte’s upper arm in a grip that was at the same time gentle, but firm. It was a grip that spoke of a man who was used to taking charge, to getting his own way when he needed to.
Charlotte squirmed slightly. However, she may just as well have tried to squirm out of an iron shackle, so strong was he. He was not hurting her, but she was loath to let a stranger take hold of her. Thanks to her father, she did not trust men easily.
“It’s nae far,” he told her, raising his scarred eyebrow at her wriggling.
“That, sir, is not the point,” Charlotte said, trying to sound affronted, though it was hard under that penetrating stare. “What if I do not want to come with you?”
The Scot snorted. “And what will ye do? Stay out here amongst the prowlin’ wild things? I must say, it’d probably make fer some fine entertainment for an onlooker, but it has nae gone very well fer ye so far.”
Charlotte narrowed her yes at him, but ceased to struggle. As soon as she stopped trying to get away from him, the man produced a length of rough fabric from his cloak and wound it about her arm to help stop the bleeding.
“I have some herbs and other bits that I might make a poultice fer ye,” the Scotsman said, in a slightly gentler voice.
“You know how to make poultices?” Charlotte asked.
The man looked a little taken aback at the change of conversational tack.
“That’s right,” he said.
In an instant, Charlotte decided to go along with this man.
After all, the alternative is to head back to my father at the camp.
Charlotte had been told, on many occasions by her father, that all Scots were savages––little better than the beasts. She did harbor a slight suspicion as to what it was that a Scotsman was up to in a wood on the English side of the border, but she pushed this doubt aside for the moment.
She extended her good hand out to the Highlander.
“My name is Charlotte,” she said, simply and shyly. “And if you could help me with my injury, I would be much in your debt.”
The handsome, rugged Scotsman looked even more bemused than he had at any other point in their talk. However, he slowly extended one of his own arms and took Charlotte’s dainty hand in his rough one.
Charlotte could not help but notice how warm it was.
“Edward,” he said, his voice gruff. “Me name is Edward.”
Edward led the young woman–Charlotte, he reminded himself–away from the river, where the mist was thicker and up a slight incline. Despite his offer, she would not give up the hold that she had on her basket.
His legs were a great deal longer than Charlotte’s and he had to keep reminding himself to slow his pace so that she could keep up. She was also looking quite pale, which might have had something to do with the wound, but Edward thought more likely to do with the fact that she was allowing herself to be led through an unfamiliar wood by a man she had met only a little time before.
As if she were privy to his musings, Charlotte suddenly asked him, “Tell me, are you a trustworthy man, Edward?”
Edward stopped for a moment. He stepped over a fallen log and waited for Charlotte to catch up with him. He offered his hand to her.
“I think,” he said, slowly, “that the surest way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him. There’s nay other way that I can see to see if he is true or nae.”
“That could be quite a risk for a young lady, don’t you think?”
“Maybe. I’m nae sayin’ that trustin’ always pays off. Ye do not always get what ye’re after. Sometimes ye can turn yer life into a nightmare. That said though, fer me, the risk of trustin’ wrongly is always outweighed by the fear of not doin’ anythin’ at all.”
Charlotte gave him a look from under her long lashes, some of her dark curly hair falling over her face as she stepped over the fallen tree trunk. Edward caught himself staring at her for longer than would probably be considered right or proper.
All jestin’ aside, she is one of the bonniest lasses that I think I have ever set me eyes upon. As fair and sparkling as the freshest spring mornin’.
Quickly, he realized that he had been staring and dropped the woman’s hand before she reprimanded him. It was clear to him, from their initial conversation, that she thought about as highly of Scotsmen as she did about animals that mauled her.
They carried on walking through the beech wood, making their way up the slight gradient. They skirted a natural wall of blackthorn shrubs, the plants’ impenetrable, close-knit branches and sharp thorns making it impossible to walk through.
Edward knew that the young woman was not hurt badly–a fox cub is capable of only so much after all–and so he took the opportunity to check a few more of the snares that he had set up near to his camp. In two of the simple noose traps he had set he found rabbits, and he pulled these free. One of the animals was still alive.
At least I shall be able to feed this lass before I send her on her way, and nae appear quite so rustic as all that.
Before he had even stopped to consider how such a thing might affect the young Englishwoman with him, he held the exhausted creature up by its hind legs and hit it a hard blow at the base of his skull with his hand, severing its spinal cord. The rabbit died instantly, going as floppy in his hand as if it had no bones at all.
Edward glanced quickly over at Charlotte but, to his surprise, the young woman looked as unperturbed by his actions as any farmer’s wife ever had.
Whatever this strange waif might be, a farmer’s wife is certainly not it.
The sun had almost set now, and the clouds above were suffused with a gorgeous pink tinge. They had walked far enough up the gentle hill to be above the mists that sat heavy in the river valley now. The light of the sun stained the cloud and mists in a myriad of warm colors: red, purple, and salmon orange.
“Me camp is nae much further, Miss––Charlotte,” he said. He attached the two conies to his belt and trudged on.
After a little while, they rounded the pair of alder trees that marked the gap in the blackthorn hedge, and Edward led the way down into a shallow dell. When Edward had found the place a few days previously, it had reminded him of the set of a giant badger––or the lair of a dragon.
“Mind yerself now,” he said to Charlotte. “It’s a wee bit slick under foot.”
Even as he said it, the tired Englishwoman slipped on the leaves and mud and started to slide inexorably down the shallow slope. Before either of them could do a thing, Charlotte had slid right into him and almost knocked him off his own feet. Edward’s arms flailed about as he sought to keep his balance, his feet slipping on the damp foliage.
“Oh my–” Charlotte began, before her foot almost went completely out from under her and she latched onto Edward like a cat clasping its owner around the leg.
Edward tried to keep the two of them upright but, what with the young woman holding on to him like grim death, he slowly overbalanced and the two of them went sprawling, slithering down the incline.
Abruptly, all was still. Edward looked down. Charlotte was clasping him tight around the middle with her good arm, her legs hooked behind his own legs to keep herself upright. The two of them were a tangle of cloaks, skirts and limbs, with a basket and a pair of dead rabbits thrown in for extra measure, sprawled in the leafy, damp earth.
“Uh,” he said.
Edward could feel the young woman’s curly hair tickling his stubbly chin, his head was full of the smell of her, herbs, honey, and the rich earth of these hills. He was extremely aware of her body against his, lying as she was on top of him and squeezing him tight. He could feel the swell of her breasts against his chest, the press of her pelvis against…
“Um,” he repeated.
He felt Charlotte’s death grip on his body relax somewhat. Then she pushed herself hurriedly away from him. She struggled to her feet, gasping as she put weight on her lacerated arm in her haste. She almost toppled over backwards again in her rush to extricate herself from him.
I do not ken if I blame her neither. Chances are I do not smell as fresh as she does.
In truth he had washed in a stream that morning, but he doubted whether that really counted.
“Are ye all right?” he ventured, as Charlotte backed away, patting down her skirts and trying to push her unruly hair out of her eyes.
God, but she does nae half look pretty when she’s all flustered like this.
“I’m–yes, I’m–quite–are we here, are we? We’re here?” The words tumbled out of Charlotte as her alabaster face was shining red in her embarrassment.
“Aye,” Edward said, getting a little more slowly to his feet. “Nae quite how I would have wished to welcome ye to me camp, but aye, this is it.”
He unfastened the rabbits from his belt and tossed them on the ground. Then he watched as Charlotte looked about her.
Nae too impressed, I’ll warrant.
Her eyes took in the cave entrance, at the ring of stones and the charred remains of the fire that Edward had lit the previous evening.
Whilst her eyes were taking in the meager and humble camp, Edward was surreptitiously scrutinizing Charlotte out of the corner of his eye. As he knelt down by the empty fire place, pulled a handful of dry kindling from the little store that he had gathered and began to arrange it, he watched her covertly.
An interestin’ enigma, this one. Speaks and moves like someone who is used to the finer things in life, yet I found her lost and bleedin’ inside a wood near the most hotly contested border in the land.
He started to strike at the pile of kindling with his flint and steel.
The more he looked at her, the more he realized just how beautiful she was. Though she was now caked in mud, blushing and had more than a few leaves tangled through the back of her hair, Edward still thought that she would have outshone most of the young women that he knew to shame.
Even if they’d spent the entire mornin’ gettin’ themselves ready, I doubt that there’d be a one that could hold a candle to this lass.
The flawless pale skin, the eyes as blue as the finest lapis lazuli, full lips that reminded him somehow of summertime fruit, and dark, wild hair that seemed to encapsulate the very Highlands in its untamable perfection.
“Ach!” Edward sucked his thumb where he had burned it. Whilst he had been gazing at Charlotte from the corner of his eye, he had not been concentrating on what he had been doing, and a tongue of flame from the kindled wood had given him a friendly lick.
“Oh my goodness,” Charlotte said, taking an uncertain step towards him, “did you burn yourself? Are you all right?”
Edward gazed up at the woman, silhouetted against the fading sky.
“Aye,” he said, “I’m grand. Never better.”
He realized he was grinning like an idiot. He cleared his throat and tried to get his face back under control.
“Ye on the other hand, Miss Charlotte, have sustained a grievous wound!” He smiled kindly at her, holding out his hand once again.
“You’re teasing me,” Charlotte said in her crisp English accent.
Edward nodded. “Oh, aye. I told ye that ye were a lass with plenty of arrows in yer quiver, did I nae?”
Charlotte opened her mouth to say something, but Edward beat her to it.
“Reminds me o’ somethin’ that the wee Blue Men might have been attributed to.”
“The wee Blue Men?” Charlotte asked, incredulously.
Edward, as a lad, had been more keen-eared for tales of mythical creatures and the great deeds of heroes, rather than those concerning the workings of nature that his mother often liked to tell him before bed. One of his favored ones, that he could still recall perfectly, was the story of the Blue Men of Minch.
“Do not tell me ye havenae heard o’ the Blue Men of Minch in England?” he said.
“Never,” Charlotte said.
“These Blue Men were said to live between the waters that separated the Isle of Lewis from mainland Scotland,” he started, just as his mother used to do. His mother had described them as wicked, crafty and dangerous folk and so, of course, were of the utmost interest to a young lad whose nature contained none of those elements.
“These wee blue-skinned rascals––also known as Storm Kelpies––were said to swim constantly around and about this area, just under the surface, which is why the sea was never still,” Edward continued. “They lay in wait for unsuspecting sailors to drown and, sometimes, could be seen waving their long gray-skinned arms in the air and performing tricks by jumping up and out of the restless waves.”
Edward smiled at the memory of his mother attempting to tell him these scarier tales. No matter how hard she tried, her grizzly faces always turned into smiles. Her dramatic, ghostly moans were always prone to dissolve into snorts of laughter.
“Folk would often blame wee injuries and mishaps they suffered by runnin’ water on the Blue Men, thinkin’ that they must have swam up the rivers. Injuries the likes that ye have.”
To his quiet delight, the faintest hint of a smile played around the corners of Charlotte’s lips, though she tried to hide it.
“Foolishness,” she said.
“Ah, maybe, but it made ye forget the pain fer a while, did it nae?”
“You have many stories about magical creatures, don’t you?” Charlotte replied.
“Did ye nae ken? Scotland is a land built on tall tales,” Edward said.
Charlotte’s little smile broadened a touch.
“Now, come here so I can take a wee look at that wound of yers, Charlotte,” he said, emboldened enough by that slight show of humor so that her name did not trip so awkwardly off his tongue, as it had before. “I do not imagine it will be so bad, but it’s best to clean a scrape like this as quick as maybe so that it does nae fester.”
Slowly, the young woman padded to the fire. Night was quickly descending now, as it was wont to do, and with the darkness came the chill. The dell was sheltered from the wind by the depression and the blackthorn hedges, but still the odd breeze managed to cut its way through at times.
Charlotte came and sat down next to Edward on the only thing that passed for a seat, a split log. By the light of the young fire, Edward carefully took the young woman’s arm in his hands and examined it.
“Hm,” he said, and that was all for the time being. Using a little water from a skin, he carefully wet the cloth of her sleeve so that he could peel it away from the four matching cuts on her forearm. He rolled the ruined sleeve up Charlotte’s arm.
“Just hold that there a moment, lass,” he said.
Gently, he washed the crusted blood and dirt from the wounds. It was as he suspected, they were good, clean slices.
“Lucky it was a wee pup, rather than some mangy old tod,” he said to her, turning her arm slightly more towards the firelight and throwing on another log.
“How so?” Charlotte asked.
“Smaller, cleaner claws,” Edward explained, washing a little more dirt away. “And sharper, too. They cut. Older animals are more prone to tear.”
“It’s happened to you?” Charlotte asked.
Edward had no chance at stifling his laughter, it came bubbling up so quickly. “Nay! Nay, I’ve never heard of even a bairn bein’ so foolish as to approach an animal in distress!” he chuckled. “But, I have seen huntin’ hounds sustain many such lesions. Wait here a moment.”
Edward got to his feet and walked off into the cave.
“Oh, yes,” he heard the woman call from behind him. “I’ll just stay here, shall I? It’d be hard to go anywhere else to tell you the truth, for I’ve no notion as to where I am now.”
Edward grinned as he rummaged through his small sack of provisions and supplies. He pulled out a couple of bundles of dried herbs and a pot of salve.
“So,” he asked over his shoulder, as he hunted for some raspberry leaves that he knew he had put somewhere, “do ye have a last name? Or is it just Charlotte?”
Edward pulled another small crockery pot from his bag, squinting at it in the gloom of the cave. He could not make out what it might be. He opened it to take a sniff.
“Well, seeing as you are playing the role of nursemaid, I suppose it is only fitting that we should be properly introduced,” came the Englishwoman’s playful reply.
She is warmin’ to me maybe? Perhaps she can yet be persuaded that nae all Scotsmen are ravenin’, heartless men of the moors.
“My name is Bolton. Charlotte Bolton.”
The pot of unguent fell from Edward’s nerveless fingers.
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