Taming the Highland Wolf by Fiona Faris

Prologue

Duntrune Castle, Seat of Clan MacGregor, May 1528

Laird Callan MacGregor slowly and painfully sat up in bed. He felt almost sewn to the mattress; it took so much effort to get up to his elbows. He couldn’t open his eyes yet; his head hurt too badly.

“Bloody Hell,” he said, listening to the sound of his raspy voice. His throat was so dry, and his tongue felt like a rock in his mouth. He rubbed a hand along his forehead, a pounding coming and going in a rhythm. He slid his hand down his face until it hit his clipped beard. He grimaced and tried to think back to the evening before. What had he been doing? It took a few seconds for his mind to catch up with him, and even still, he could only see flashes of images.

“Och, the wedding,” he said, remembering that he had been feasting and drinking at the party with his new wife, Leslie Frazer, the new Lady MacGregor. But then, that was it. He frowned. No lovemaking? Nothing? He shook his head a little, trying to remember, but it only made his headache worse. He put another hand up to his head and gasped when he felt wetness there.

Slowly, he opened his eyes, looked down, and saw blood on his hands. He gasped again, his heart bursting into life, his body forgetting the headache and the pain it was in.

“I…” He began and then froze when he saw who was lying next to him or, rather, what had happened to her. He saw Leslie, his dear wife, laying back as if she were sleeping except for the dark red line at her throat.

“Nae, nae, nae!” He called out and scrambled from the bed, nearly slipping on the dagger on the floor. His dagger. He picked it up, getting even more blood on his hands, and stared at his dead wife. “What is this?” he asked, hoping it was a nightmare and praying that it would be over soon. They had just been married; all was going to be well; they were going to start their lives together. But now, she was cold, her vacant eyes staring up into nothing. His new wife was dead.

But why?

Callan couldn’t move; he was frozen to the spot, his eyes on Leslie. Only hours before, he remembered her smile as they repeated the words from the priest, holding hands. Callan had looked into her lovely green eyes then, knowing that he was making the right choice, choosing her as his wife. More and more images started moving through his mind. He remembered his happiness at that moment, how he and Leslie had discussed what their new lives would be like, and now it was just over. Finished. He hadn’t known her long, but he had known that he wanted to make her his wife. She was good and kind and loving. She would be a good leader.

Would have been.

Finally, movement returned to his limbs, and he slowly moved around the bed. He reached out for her hand, his own trembling as his fingertips touched her cold skin. “By God, Leslie, who has done this tae ye?” he said, his voice a whisper, tears coming to his eyes.

There was a knock at the door, and then it swung open, two maids entering. Their eyes were down as they walked in, but once they looked up, they froze, their eyes wide. It was only seconds, but time slowed as Callan watched them. They both opened their mouths, in unison it seemed, and screamed when they saw Leslie on the bed, blood covering the sheets and Callan. He reached out to them and stood up, but his feet wouldn’t move. They refused to get him there, to stop the maids from screaming. They hurried away from him, screaming as they went, calling out, “Murder,” to the halls and corridors.

In seconds, people appeared at the door, and Callan faced them. His brothers were at the head of the group, breathless, their hair ruffled, partly undressed. The rest of the crowd was the guards and other guests from the wedding, all looking on in horror. Thayne and Glendon, his two brothers, stared at him first; then they looked at Leslie’s dead body. Thayne was the taller of the two, and his hair was dark, like Callan’s, but he had far more battle scars across his cheeks. Glendon was the most jovial of the three and the youngest, with bright hazel eyes.

“Callan, what happened?” Glendon asked, his eyes wide with surprise and fear as he stepped forward, his eyes on Leslie’s lifeless body. He gasped. “How terrible! The poor lass!”

Callan tried to speak, to defend himself, but he still felt caught between reality and a nightmare, and his body and mind weren’t quite catching up with him. His eyes filled with tears again, and, for the first time, he felt a tear slip down his cheek in the presence of his younger brothers. Thayne, the older of the two, was watching him with sadness. “Callan, who has done this? Did ye see who did this?” Thayne’s eyes fluttered to the dagger in Callan’s hand. Out of instinct, Callan dropped the dagger, and it clattered to the floor, so loud among the silent people. Callan could see that the guards awaited Thayne’s orders; for if Callan was seen to be guilty of this horrible crime, Thayne was the next oldest.

“Brother, it wasnae me. Ye must ken that,” Callan said, his voice sounding weak as he spoke. He shook his head, knowing just how guilty he looked, blood on his hands, and a dagger in his grasp. Thayne watched him for a few more seconds.

“I ken, Callan. It couldnae have been ye.” The people, who had stood speechless before, now cried out in anger.

“Look at the dagger!” one man called.

“She is one of us!” A Frazer relative said, pointing at Callan accusingly. “Ye cannae let him go! The Frazer laird will have tae see this!”

Glendon opened his mouth and then closed it again. Thayne looked pained as he watched the crowd and then looked back at his brother. Callan knew what he would have to do.

Thayne then said to the guards over his shoulder, “Take him tae the dungeons. He will await trial there until we can find whoever did this evil deed. Take him kindly, men. He is nae the usual prisoner, and he is nae the guilty one! Remember that, all of ye.” Thayne had raised his voice and stared back, defying anyone who would reply. The crowd fell silent again, and a sad-looking Glendon pulled away from the crowd, leaving soon after Thayne made his pronouncement.

Callan’s heart fell, and he nearly collapsed to the ground, but the guards came and held him up, dragging him away. Callan called out, but no words came, only sounds of pain. His heart was heavy with grief, and his body felt so dense and tired that he could barely hold himself up as he was pulled toward the dungeons, a place a laird never thinks he will go himself in his own castle.

* * *

Darkness filled the dungeons, and there were only two trembling candles that hung on the wall, illuminating only small squares of the room. Callan was feeling better now in body, if not in spirit. He was pacing his moist cell, wracking his mind for what could have happened. It didn’t make any sense. Of course, he didn’t kill his wife, but who would wish to? He knew that Clan MacGregor didn’t have enemies that would wish to kill off a woman from the Frazer clan or prevent his marrying one. It was all so strange.

The blood had dried on his skin now, and he rubbed a hand over his rough beard, trying to piece things together. He caught sight of the red stains on his skin and paused for a moment. Could he have done it? It was true that he remembered hardly anything after the feast. And it was not the drink; he had been so busy speaking with well-wishers that he’d barely had a chance to drink enough ale to put him in that kind of state.

Feeling lost and confused, he sunk down to the ground, thumping onto the hard, cold dirt of the dungeon floor. He looked about him. There were no other prisoners with him, and he felt lonelier than he ever had before. He almost felt pity for the men he and his father had placed in the dungeons. What a morbid, tragic place. It made him feel as if it were the only place in the world, near to the very bowels of hell.

He was lost in sad thoughts when he heard a struggle not far off in a passage leading to the dungeon. There was a screech of metal, along with grunting, groaning, and then something heavy hitting the ground. Callan sat up and leaned forward, clutching the cold iron of the cell doors. “Who’s there?” he called into the gloom.

No one answered, but footsteps were getting closer, coming his way. He shrunk back a little, wondering if it was the Frazer men who had come with the laird’s family for the wedding. Perhaps Laird Frazer wished to beat a confession out of him. He felt grim at the thought, but he flexed his muscles anyway, ready for a fight.

In a matter of seconds, the owners of the footsteps made themselves known, and the men held a finger to their lips when they spotted Callan’s surprised look. “Kendrew? Ervin?” Callan whispered. “What in the bloody hell are ye doing here, lads? How did ye get here?”

“Ye ken how. The secret passage, of course. We knocked the few guards down on our way, and here we are, ready tae help ye,” Ervin, the younger of the two brothers, smiled at Callan with relief.

Kendrew cleared his throat. “Come. There is nae time tae waste in talk. It is time we left, afore more guards come tae make sport of us and run us through.”

“Nae on my watch,” Ervin said, his eyes narrowing.

Callan was speechless. His friends had come to rescue him. Kendrew frowned as he focused, shoving a thick key into the iron lock of Callan’s door. Callan leaned forward. “Ye mean that ye both believe me? That I didnae kill Leslie?”

“Of course, we believe ye! Why should ye do a thing like that?” Ervin said kindly, and Callan sighed with relief. Kendrew nodded.

“There is nae sense in ye doing such a thing on yer wedding night. Besides, ye donnae have it in ye tae kill a woman. None of us do, I should hope.” He shuddered, and Callan did as well. That meant Leslie’s murderer was the type of man who did have it in him, and that was not a character Callan wished to know. He couldn’t really think of anyone he could imagine guilty of such a heinous and brutal crime.

“Ah!” Kendrew cried as the lock clicked, and he swung open the door. “Laird MacGregor, it is time we get the hell out of here.”

“I couldnae agree more,” Callan said, racing after his friends. Kendrew had thrust a blade into his hands.

“Yers. I didnae wish tae see it left behind in the room. What a waste of a great warrior’s weapon. This is the dagger as well. I ken perhaps it doesnae have a good memory, but yer Father gave it tae ye, and so…,” he trailed off.

Callan smiled at his sour friend, who had a kind heart once all was said and done. “Nae need tae explain. Ye are a good man, Kendrew. I owe ye.” Ervin led the way down the passage, and they turned to a fake stone wall, pushing it open to slip inside. Callan’s father had shown it to his children when they were younger to help them escape in case of a castle takeover, and Callan had shown his friends. It would be their freedom now. His blood rang in his ears, and sweat poured down his face as he moved quickly after a day in the dungeon with no food, no water, and the weight of grief on his heart.

The secret passage was slightly wider than the passage from the dungeon, and it yawned open toward a sluice gate at the back of the castle. Once there, it was easy enough to open if they worked together to lift it. He could see a pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel, and he assumed it was the moon, but once they arrived, breathless and bathed in sweat, he saw who it was. With torch in hand, Thayne looked more regal and laird-like than Callan had ever seen him. But the torch was trembling a little, and Callan felt for him. What would he have done if he’d seen Thayne in the same position, standing over his dead wife with a knife in his hand?

Callan wondered why Thayne was there. Would he try to stop them? But he didn’t look angry, just resigned. Thayne remained silent for a few seconds as he looked upon the three bedraggled men through the gate. His scrutinizing gaze finally fell upon Callan.

“Callan, ye ken that ye must leave this place.”

“Aye.” Another silence.

“What can ye remember about what happened?”

“I am innocent, Thayne. Surely ye ken this. Surely ye donnae believe that I could be capable of such a thing, especially nae tae a woman I just made my wife! I remember nothing. Just waking up with a headache like nae other and finding Leslie next tae me, blood on my own hands.” His voice caught. It was the worst day of his life, and he would never forget such a scene for as long as he lived.

Thayne’s jaw clenched. “Nae, I think ye are innocent. There is some villain afoot, and perhaps they drugged ye tae keep ye unaware until ye awoke, looking like the guilty party.”

Callan relaxed. A little. He was glad his brothers didn’t think him a killer. “Yer right. That is the only explanation. But why, Thayne? Why should someone wish tae kill Leslie and make me pay for it? It doesnae make sense!” He could feel pressure behind his eyes. He had lost his whole life, and he had no way of knowing who had been the cause of it. He waited until his brother spoke again. Kendrew and Ervin exchanged looks.

“I believe ye are innocent, Callan, but I cannae prove yer innocence. Yer were seen by so many with yer hand on the weapon that slew yer wife, and her blood was upon ye.” Thayne swallowed, looking Callan dead in the eye. “The clan will never forget what ye have done. Neither will the Frazer clan. Ye will need tae leave and never return in order tae avoid what they will ask for.” Another brief silence ensued. “Yer head.”

Callan nodded; the truth of his new circumstances settled into his brain. He had woken up that morning after sleeping like the dead, and now everything had changed. He stepped up to his brother and reached through the gate to put a hand on his shoulder. His heart ached in agony at having to leave the life he had with his brothers, as well as the life he had planned for him and Leslie. He had not yet left, but he felt the pain inside him growing. “I understand,” even though he didn’t. It wasn’t right; it wasn’t fair that he should have to leave, lose his position, his wife, lose everything in a matter of a day, all because he was falsely accused. “Ye will let us go then?”

“Aye.” Thayne’s face looked like it was made of stone, but Callan could see a flicker of pain in his brother’s eyes. Thayne bent down to lift the gate. “Help me.”

The men followed his orders in silence, helping to lift the gate until they each could slip out from underneath. It made a sound as it went down, but it had been so often used by them as children that it was not loud. Thayne said, “Go. Take Kendrew and Ervin with ye. I have had horses brought for ye.”

“Ye kenned that this would happen?” Kendrew asked, incredulous.

“Of course. A man doesnae desert his best friend.”

“Thank ye, brother,” Callan said to Thayne. Thayne nodded.

“Go. Ye donnae have much time. Go!”

Kendrew led the way, Ervin behind him, and before Callan turned away, his brother said, “Goodbye, Callan.”

“Goodbye, Thayne. Give Glendon my parting words.”

“Aye. And take these with ye. Ye will need some money,” Thayne added, handing Callan a small leather pouch. Callan looked at Thayne for another second, and then he followed his friends into the night.