A Dark Christmas Knight
Thick, black smoke clogged the air as the thatched roofs on dozens of cottages burned. Villagers shouted or cried, and the sharp ring of clashing steel filled the air. Dougal de Gifford, fourth Laird of Yester, raised his sword to block the wide swing of one of the scoundrels raiding this village. He and several of his men had been inspecting nearby fields when word of the raid reached them. He’d raced here to save his people and found the village engulfed in flames with several dead.
Sweat trickled down his brow and stung his eyes. He blinked to clear them and blocked another hard swing. All around them, his people ran, trying to find refuge between the fighting and raging fires. Christ, he had to put an end to this attack swiftly. The clouds promised snow and his people would need food and shelter.
The raider growled and struck harder. Dougal met the man’s sword with a powerful swing, knocked the raider’s arm wide, and thrust. The man dropped and fell to his side. Dougal spun to find his next opponent.
A score of men attacked the village. They carried swords and axes, but their gambesons looked thin with no chain mail. Most lay dead or dying around the village. Dougal brought just six men besides himself, not expecting such numbers in the raiding party. He spotted one of his men down by a fence, his shoulder bleeding. The rest still fought.
An angry yell bellowed to his right. Dougal raised his sword as he registered the flash of steel. The man barreled into Dougal, knocking him several steps back. Foul body odor and rank breath washed over Dougal. He choked and turned his face away, only to breathe in smoke. He coughed, then shoved the raider back.
The man slashed his sword. Dougal blocked the blow. He needed to keep this one alive. Someone ordered the raid on his lands and Dougal would ken who put his people’s lives in jeopardy. He ducked the next strike and landed a solid punch, knocking the man back. The raider raised his weapon and charged, taking them to the ground.
Dougal felt the sharp burn of steel bite into his arm as they went down.
“Ye should have... died,” the man rasped as his eyes glazed. Blood stained the edges of his mouth. A moment later, he slumped.
Dougal pushed him aside and drew his sword from the man’s gut. When they’d collided, the raider landed on Dougal’s raised blade. Damnation, the man was dead. He kicked the raider’s sword away and turned to take in the battle.
Four of his six men were still standing among bodies of the raiders. Peter, the youngest of them, lay unmoving in the middle of the lane. Dougal’s heart clenched. The lad couldna be dead. He was like a brother.
Dougal met the gaze of the captain of his guard. Graeme Grey was a few years older than Dougal, and glints of silver peeked through the thick brown hair at his temples and in his beard. His skin was well tanned and thick muscles roped his shoulders, arms, and chest. Lines creased the corners of his eyes and forehead from laughter and his deep concern for the people of Yester. It was those last two traits that meant the most to Dougal. Graeme was the only man to make him laugh and the man’s love of Yester matched his own.
Dougal headed toward him. “Peter?”
“Lad just got the sense knocked out of him. Might help if ye ask me,” Graeme said.
He felt a flood of relief. “It might at that.” Peter was young. Full of the boisterous energy and the immortality of youth, mixed with the swagger of a newly knighted male. An endearing and annoying trait.
“Check the rest. See if any live. We have to ken who’s behind this.”
Graeme motioned to a knight to start the search, then ordered the other two to round up villagers to help put out the flames.
Dougal wiped the sweat from his brow and took in the carnage. At least half a dozen villagers lay among the dead, two of them women. Children cried and clung to their mothers and several of the elderly wept at the loss of everything they owned. “Whomever did this is a dead man,” Dougal swore.
A little boy of no more than four summers ran past, tears streaming down his sooty cheeks. A young woman chased after him and caught the boy not two steps away. Her gaze collided with Dougal’s and her eyes widened. She yanked the child into her arms and hurried off.
His heart sank at her reaction. It was the same everywhere, no matter that they were his people. Every one of them feared him. Even many of the people who served in his castle. He muttered a curse for his father, then turned his back to Graeme.
“I’ll take Peter back to the castle.”
“I’m a hindrance here. It will take many to put out the fire and find supplies. More will help if they doona also fear me.”
Graeme swore. “Get yerself tended as well. Ye’re bleeding.” He looked pointedly at Dougal’s arm.
He glanced down to see blood soaking through his gambeson and leather armor. Dougal frowned, only vaguely remembering the bite of the blade in the heat of the fight. “I’ll wrap it in a moment.”
“If ye doona, I’ll bring out yer chain mail when I return to the castle.”
Dougal narrowed his eyes at Graeme. “Are ye telling yer laird what to wear now?”
His friend laughed. “It is my duty to protect ye and yer line. Another attack like this and yer line might die out with ye.”
Dougal sighed. He was well aware of that. Anticipated it, even. Superstition ran deep in people. Fear of the unknown clouded their minds and hearts. Add in the memories of his father and rumors of the activities Dougal enacted in his hall, and he had no hope of finding a wife. Most women ran in fear from him, like the lass chasing the child a moment ago. Those that didna only wanted a taste of the darkness surrounding Dougal. Fascination and the desire to brag about time spent in his bed drove them, naught more. None truly saw him for the man he was. None saw Dougal, fourth Laird of Yester, who worked tirelessly to protect and care for his people.
“Ye need to take a wife,” Graeme continued. “Sire an heir or three. Fill that drafty castle with love and the laughter of children.”
Dougal tried to picture such a scene. A bonny wife at his side and merry children. Even his imagination couldna supply the hope. “That would take a Christmas miracle.”
His captain clapped him on his good shoulder, a smile breaking wide across his face. “God willing.”
Dougal gripped the back of his neck. “Have William make the litter while I ready my horse.”
“Aye. Doona worry. Yer people will be safe.”
But too many wouldna be in their own homes. The fire had devastated the cottages.
A few minutes later, William finished tying the hastily made litter to Dougal’s mount. “It should hold the lad until ye reach Yester,” he said, swiping a lock of dark blond hair from his eyes. Several strands had fallen out of the tie that held his hair back. William was as steadfast as any man he’d known. Taller than most and strong enough to knock a man flat with a single punch, he sent many a man running in a fight. “He has a good heart, despite being a pain in my arse. I doona want to lose him,” William said.
“I’ll have him tended to,” Dougal said.
They walked the horse over to Peter and lifted the young man onto the canvas stretched across the wood frame and then tied him with scraps of linen to keep him from slipping off while they rode the few hours back to Yester.
Dougal tied and knotted a scrap of linen around his wounded arm, then mounted his palfrey. “These people will need food and shelter afore it snows tonight. Send them to Wester.” It was the closest village. “Make sure they are housed and fed. We will send additional supplies from the castle tomorrow to supplement what they’ll need for the winter.”
“Doona worry, Laird. Just see to yerself and our young friend Peter,” Graeme said.
He nodded and spurred his horse into an easy trot. People ducked their heads or turned away as he passed. One made the sign of the cross. Dougal ground his teeth. Their reactions never changed. It didna matter that he fought to save their lives and their village. That he provided extra food and shelter for them. They still feared him and always would. He shouldna be disappointed. Hardening his heart, he started home.
Graeme’s words haunted him. He was almost certainly the last laird of Yester. He hadna lied about a Christmas miracle. No woman would ever want him. Not with his father’s legacy shadowing his every move and rumors that Dougal followed his da’s path. He squashed the hope and longing for a family down to the deepest parts of his heart and tried hard not to think about them.
He was still fighting his thoughts an hour later when a loud whistle sang out. White-hot pain flared in his left shoulder. The force knocked him back, and he almost lost his seat. Dougal gripped his mount with his knees and reached for his shoulder in a haze of pain. His fingers met a wooden shaft. Another whistle sounded. He yanked the reins, turning his horse aside, and the second arrow pierced his right thigh. Blood flowed through Dougal’s fingers like a little red river and his eyesight dimmed as blackness threatened to take hold. He spurred his horse faster, one weak hand clinging to the reins. He had to make it back to Yester castle. Their lives depended upon it.
Dougal sagged forward and held tight to his mount as another arrow whistled through the air.
Slaine de Morham took a deep breath and raised a shaking hand to knock on the door to her father’s solar. Hamish de Morham rarely summoned her to his personal chambers and those times he did were etched in her memory. Her father ignored her most days unless he needed her to tend to his guests. Even then, he barked his instructions to her while passing in the hallway or in her chamber. He saved their harshest encounters for his solar.
What had she done to displease him this time? She swallowed and knocked louder, stomach churning.
“Come,” Hamish said.
Slaine opened the door and slipped inside. Bright morning sunlight spilled through the narrow windows, letting in the frosty December air. The hearth fire crackled and sparked, fighting against the chill in a battle to warm the room. The heady scent of evergreens filled the air from the thick boughs hung over the hearth to celebrate the upcoming Christmas festivities. Hamish’s prized tapestry of his best hunting party covered one wall, helping to hold the warmth in. A collection of shields from the last century decorated another, as well as racks of deer antler. Two wooden chairs with plump pillows sat close to the hearth with a table and silver chess set between.
Her father sat at his sturdy wood desk, quill scratching out some correspondence. Age threaded silver through his wild red hair and beard and added girth to his barrel chest and torso. The delicate feather looked small in his meaty hands as he wrote. He didna look up.
Slaine clasped her hands in front of her and waited. The last time she was called here, she’d made the mistake of interrupting him in her impatience. The red handprint on her cheek had lasted an hour. She’d had worse at his hands and kenned not to repeat past errors. No, my specialty is in creating new ways to infuriate him, she thought with a silent huff.
Not silent enough, it seemed. Hamish frowned at her as he looked up. “What was that, girl?”
“I said naught, father.”
He put his quill down and stood. “Ye’ll tell the staff to prepare for Laird Ramsey’s arrival in a sennight.”
A chill whipped through her, freezing out any warmth the cheery fire tried to provide. “Laird Kennar Ramsey?”
“Aye.” Hamish crossed his arms and studied her, inspecting her from wavy reddish-blonde hair to booted feet. “Ye’ll need to clean yerself up. Do whatever women do to prepare for their vows. Sew a new gown and the like.”
“Ye canna mean—”
He dropped his arms and rounded the desk, menace pouring from his harsh features. “Aye lass. Ye’ve known since birth that yer duty is to increase the de Morham holdings and power through marriage. Ramsey has promised a stretch of his estate in exchange for yer hand. This alliance will bring the notice of the king himself. Once I’ve established the only safe road between the borderlands and Edinburgh, the de Morham name will be on everyone’s lips.”
“But with Ramsey? Father ye saw his bride last year. The poor woman looked—”
“Sickly. She died soon after. And it’s to our fortune that she did. Ramsey needs an heir, and the woman was barren. Ye’ll do yer duty to him as often as required and give him a son, ye hear?”
Slaine sputtered. The woman hadna looked sick, she’d looked terrified of her husband and Slaine would swear she’d seen dark bruises at the edges of the woman’s gown where the fabric brushed her neck and wrists. “His first three young wives died, Da.” Her voice rose with every word. “People say the first two only gave him female heirs. He murdered them because of it.”
“Then ye’d best sire a male,” Hamish bellowed.
“And if I refuse?” Slaine sucked in a sharp breath and took a quick step back. Damn her tongue. Why could she never think before she spoke?
Her father gripped her upper arm and shook her hard. He raised his other fist. “Defy me in this and I’ll kill ye myself. I swear it to ye, Slaine. I took no disrespect from yer mother and I for damn sure willna continue to take it from ye. I’ve allowed yer silly little rebellions in the past because ye were a child. Yer a grown woman now. If ye do anything to make Ramsey break this agreement, ye’ll be wishing ye’d shared his bed. I’ll give ye twenty lashes in the damn bailey until yer blood runs in rivers.”
He shoved her away with a snarl of disgust.
She stared at him in horror. “Ye care more for the Morham name than yer own daughter.”
“Yer a woman. I doona expect ye to understand. Land means everything, girl. A man is in competition his full life for recognition. I made the de Morham name what it is now. Not my da, and not my elder brother that he doted on, giving him everything and leaving me...” Hamish spat on the floor. “When they died, I swore I’d do better, and I have. I will do whatever is necessary to build up the de Morham fortunes. Even the king will ken our name.”
“Aye, I ken well. I am but a pawn in yer chess game.”
Hamish turned red. “Go tell the staff to begin preparations and see to yerself. Ye have a sennight to come to terms, but ye will do yer duty to this family. Test me in this and I’ll give ye lashes now.”
She took a small step back toward the door, then another. Her clammy fingers found the door handle behind her and pulled it open.
Hamish resumed his seat, picked up his quill, and returned to his correspondence without another glance.
Slaine’s heartbeat pounded in her ears, drowning out all sound as she fled. He could deliver the damn message to the kitchen staff himself. She would have no part of this agreement.
Sprinting up a flight of steps, she barreled into her bedchamber. How could he do this to her? Did he have no love at all in his heart? She was his daughter! Not his servant. Slaine heaved in a breath, then another. A tear slid down her cheek. She swiped the back of her hand across it. No, she wouldna cry. Crying never helped. The only way out of this mess was to leave Morham before Laird Ramsey arrived. She heaved another breath, feeling as if the walls closed in around her. God, she had to get away. Had to think.
She fastened her cloak around her shoulders with shaking fingers. The forest called to her heart. Often, it was the only place she found tranquility. She desperately needed that feeling now. She descended the stairs, bypassed the kitchen, and ran straight through the open bailey.
No guards called out as she darted through the open gates and hustled down the dirt path leading towards the woods. A thin layer of snow from a couple of days past still lay in patches on the brown grass as winter moved through the Scottish hills. Above, clouds gathered and darkened, whispering the possibility of another storm in the hours to come.
Slaine ducked into the shelter of the trees and rested her back against a thick oak, dragging air into her lungs. Each inhale burned, and every exhale blew white clouds in front of her face. She closed her eyes and calmed her breathing. Think, Slaine. She wouldna marry Ramsey. The thought made her shudder. Not only because of the wicked rumors of the murders of his past brides, but the man was as old as her father. His black eyes made her recoil whenever they lingered on her. She’d never survive a single night in his bed. She’d vomit on the man.
Slaine walked, following a narrow forest path, drawing her cloak tighter against the biting cold. The muted light that penetrated the tree canopy darkened as the storm clouds moved in, casting deeper shadows in the dense foliage. She had no coin of her own. Her father didna allow her any money and she dare not ask for some or she risked drawing his attention. If Hamish de Morham suspected her plan to run, he would lock her in her chamber until Kennar Ramsey arrived to take her as his bride. Slaine trembled, feeling the cold seep through her limbs into her heart.
Where could she go? Almost everyone she knew lived in the castle or the nearby villages. Her steps slowed. Nay, not everyone. Her cousin Mairi lived near Inverness. They’d been close as children until Hamish refused to allow his sister Mathilde, Mairi’s mother, to visit ever again. Slaine couldna remember why and her father refused to speak of it. She’d only seen her cousin and aunt once in the intervening years, when they’d traveled to Jedburgh Abbey for the king’s wedding.
Mathilde and Mairi would take her in, but the journey to her cousin’s home would be arduous. It would take days to ride there. A woman traveling alone risked rape and death should any brigands find her. The verra things she ran from with a marriage to Ramsey.
Slaine bit her lip. It would be her choice. More than anything, she wanted control of her own life, like her friend Danella once had. The freedom to choose who she loved and married.
The wind picked up, and the temperature dropped. Slaine huddled deeper into her fur-lined cloak. Going to family was her only option. If she stayed, her future would be tied to Ramsey, for however long he allowed her to live. She had two, mayhap three days to gather what supplies she could.
Shadows darkened the path. She paused inside the tree line at the edge of the forest and looked out over the vast frozen landscape. Icy grass stretched in every direction, broken only by clumps of bushes, and in the distance, Morham Castle. This stretch of forest was at the edge of their land where it bordered Yester, the land of their closest neighbor.
A small white flurry landed on her cheek. Slaine brushed it away and wrapped her cloak tighter around her. The wind whipped dry, dead leaves around her feet, and above, the clouds darkened to a foreboding gray. She couldna get caught in the forest with no food or shelter. There was no guarantee anyone would notice that she hadna returned.
Just as she stepped out of the tree line, a rider came into view as he crested the hill on Yester land. The horse pulled something behind it. Slaine squinted. A litter? Was there a second man?
Suddenly, the rider swayed, tipped, and fell from the horse. He lay unmoving in a heap with an arrow shaft protruding from his body.
Slaine didna stop to think. She sprinted for the man. She didna have any of her healing herbs, but mayhap she could help him. The run seemed to take an eternity, and the snow fell in a few tiny flurries. She cursed. Would his body temperature drop too low before she reached him? Slaine passed the faded boundary stone that marked Yester land and scampered up the hill. The horse shied a step as she neared, but stayed by the man’s side.
Slaine dropped to her knees. Thank god, he still breathed. Gently, she rolled him onto his back. He moaned and his eyes fluttered as he gasped in a pained breath. Blood seeped from his chest and left shoulder where the arrow struck far too close to his heart. A second arrow was lodged in his upper right thigh.
Her heart thundered. If she tarried, he’d die. Slaine unsheathed the knife on her belt and flipped up the hem of her gown. Before she could slice through the fabric, a rough hand grabbed her wrist. She looked up in surprise. He’d regained consciousness, and when their eyes met, Slaine’s world spun.
Laird Yester stared at her through eyes glazed with pain.
“I never... expected ye, angel,” he rasped. “Thought the... others would... come... take me to... hell.”
“Shhh,” she soothed, and set her knife aside. She swept a lock of dark hair off his brow with a trembling hand.
His features smoothed and his eyes closed. He slumped back into unconsciousness.
Slaine’s belly fluttered as she let out a shaky breath. She hadna seen him in over a decade. When Laird Yester inherited his title and lands, Hamish held a large banquet in neighborly welcome. Although she knew now that it had been her father’s way of assessing Yester for any weakness he could exploit.
That night, Slaine spied Laird Yester sitting quietly at her father’s side as she snuck a couple sweet treats for later. That moment had etched itself into her memories.
In her world, where men were boisterous with laughter and drink, and scuffles were common, Laird Yester’s quiet intensity captivated her. He didna join the revelry, didna smile at all, and when he spoke, the loud music muffled his words. He’d seemed uncomfortable, and for the first time, Slaine wanted to help someone, to make them happy. She felt a flush of embarrassment as she remembered following him to the privy that night, and when he exited, offering him one of her sweet rolls. At first, she thought he’d been angry, but as he’d reached for her honeyed treat, his lips turned up at the corners, gifting her with a soft smile. The only one he gave throughout his visit. Her heart had galloped in her chest and she’d skipped back to her chamber, all other treats forgotten. That night, her childhood dreams of playing in the streams or running through the forest turned into fantasies of a knight with dark hair who rescued a princess from angry dragons and made her his queen.
Now, he lay at her side, once more needing her aid. Slaine stroked her thumb over his cheek. The short growth of his whiskers abraded her skin in a delightful way. All traces of youth were gone from his face and he’d grown into a handsome man. So braw, that she wondered what it might feel like to be held in his arms. Slaine slumped and reached for her knife again. She’d never ken what it would be like to marry a man like her dream laird. Her da made certain of that.
Slaine sliced away a couple strips of her underskirt to use as bandages. Laird Yester might never be hers, but she could help him once more. And perhaps, if she was lucky, he’d grace her with another smile.
A low moan came from her left, and a man stirred on the litter.
She checked Laird Yester’s breathing to make certain it was steady, then hurried over to the second man. He was younger, closer to her own age of twenty, with thick brown hair and a few freckles. He opened his eyes and blinked several times, then winced and raised a hand to the back of his head.
Slaine brushed his hand aside and ran her fingers over his scalp, finding a large knot. He hissed in a breath and glared at her.
“Hurts,” he grunted.
“I imagine so. Ye have a lump there.” His eyes seemed clearer, though lines of pain bracketed them. “Can ye sit up?”
He nodded, then grimaced. Slaine loosened the scraps of fabric holding him to the litter, then wrapped an arm around his back to help him up.
“Steady now. Doona be standin’ yet.”
He huffed but mumbled an agreement.
She quickly returned to the laird’s side. Damn, she didna have any yarrow to hold the bleeding.
“Shite,” the other man whispered. Then he was there, kneeling on the other side of the laird. “Will he live?”
Slaine pressed some cloth to the shoulder wound and eyed the arrow. “God willing. Can ye help me... what’s yer name?”
“Peter,” the young man said. He was tall and a bit lanky, but had kind brown eyes.
“I’m Slaine,” she said. “We must remove the arrows and keep him warm.”
Peter gingerly touched the knot at the back of his head. “I dinna ken if I can make it back to Yester.”
“If we can get him back to my home, I have herbs that will aid in healing.”
Peter removed his cloak and tucked it around the laird. “Tell me how to help.”
The snow fell in earnest now, and Slaine wiped the droplets from her face. “Help me get him on the litter.”