The Highlander's Crusader Bride: A Scottish Medieval Romantic Adventure
Born in the Holy Land only a few years after the Third Crusade, half-Armenian, half-Scot Arbela MacLean is a true daughter of the desert, beautiful and untamed. Trained to be a warrior to avoid her gentle mother's fate, Arbela has honed her skills with Turkish bow and arrow, sword and throwing darts—and dreads the day her father choses a man for her to marry.
Caelen MacKern's first marriage formed an alliance, and he did not grieve when his spoiled, immature bride passed away. He has agreed to marry again—against his better judgement—for the men, means and coin to recover from a devastating pestilence that all but wiped out his clan.
Though more than a little resentful at finding himself forced to remarry, Caelen's proposal to Donal MacLean's headstrong daughter nevertheless piques her interest. Each will receive what they want most from life—the ability to live as they please without interference from a meddling spouse.
Will their marriage of indifference bring them the happiness they seek? Or will they encounter love?
Release date: October 24, 2017
Publisher: Short Dog Press
Print pages: 346
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The Highlander's Crusader Bride: A Scottish Medieval Romantic Adventure
The Holy Land
County of Tripoli
Late fall, 1221 A.D.
The pungent smell of burning pitch and the screech of steel on steel dominated the afternoon. Crouched behind a merlon, Arbela MacLean took aim at the siege tower inching toward the castle and launched another flaming arrow toward the lumbering wooden target. Consumption by fire endangered the poorly constructed battlement. The men pushing it crowded behind shields to avoid arrows, stalling their advance.
The group manning a battering ram at the gates fared no better. Screams pierced the sounds of battle as a cauldron of heated sand tipped, pouring its burning contents through a chute built into the barbican, showering the men below. While enemy shields deflected much of the sand, Arbela knew it didn’t take many grains to slip into clothing, searing skin as if on fire.
Her father’s men repeated the oft-heard battle cry from atop the wall. Ever since Saladin had retaken Jerusalem and slaughtered all the inhabitants, this had become the call to arms of all Latins in the Levant.
“Arbela!” her brother Alexander shouted, drawing her attention from the gates.
He and Phillipe de Poitiers fought several Turkish warriors who had scaled the curtain wall, a ladder propped against the top. Arbela pulled four arrows and placed them in her right hand for rapid firing. Drawing her bow, she hit the enemy atop the ladder under the arm as he reached for the wall, sending him tumbling backward, disrupting his follower’s ascent. She fired the next three arrows in rapid succession, striking an equal number of warriors, her movements fluid and deadly. Alex and Phillipe finished off the remaining invaders who had achieved the wall’s summit.
Alex offered her a brief salute of thanks, then used his war hammer to shatter the top rungs of the ladder. He, Phillipe, and two other men pushed the ladder along the wall until it fell, its occupants plunging to the rocky ground below. As Arbela fitted another arrow and sought a target, the Turks abandoned their tower, fire consuming it as they fled. She turned to the gates and struck down the few remaining fighters. Their tenacity was to be lauded—their tactics, however, were not.
In the distance, the remnant of the invading army withdrew over the hills, likely headed from whence they came. After four days of attempting to breach the gates and walls, it appeared they’d given up the fight. This marked the third such attack they’d endured this year, each more desperate than the last. The Turks seemed to grow overconfident and more numerous as the months passed.
Alex removed his helm and coif, a triumphant grin beaming across his face. His black hair and deep brown eyes sparkled. As twins, he and Arbela shared the same coloring and similar features.
“I look forward to a hot meal and soft bed tonight, sister mine.”
Phillipe strode toward them, sword in hand, enemy blood spattered on his tabard. “Aye, ’twill be a welcome change to a cold supper and keeping watch on the wall.”
“I long to trade my haubergeon and gambeson for a long soak in a hot tub.” Arbela pulled the short mail shirt and padded jacket, wet with sweat, away from her skin. She led the others down the stone stairs of the outer wall toward the keep. As soon as her feet touched the bailey, two dogs, one black, one sable, tackled her.
“Off! Ye two beasties! Leave off!”
Phillipe and Alex laughed as they left her rolling on the ground with the dogs and strode toward the hall.
“Toros, Garen, sit!”
The two dogs dropped their haunches in obedience, tongues lolling, anticipating her next command. Arbela rose and dusted herself off.
“Come.” She snapped her fingers and each dog took up position beside her—Toros on the right, Garen on the left—nosing her hands. Each dog’s shoulder reached slightly above her knees, their furry tails and bodies wriggling with delight. Thus flanked, Arbela made her way toward the chapel where she would pray for the dead and ask forgiveness for taking life. She prayed to never grow so callused that killing—even in self-defense—would become commonplace. After cleansing mind and soul, she rose to do the same for her body.
* * *
“You look lovely, my lady, considering you’ve spent the past several days fighting the cursed Turks. I prayed for your safety daily, and the Almighty saw you through the siege without so much as a scratch.”
The older woman crossed herself then finished braiding Arbela’s hair and affixed her hijab. Arbela, dressed in a flowing thawb—the one-piece garment commonly worn by both men and women—and loose salwar pants, sat patiently on a cushioned stool. Her clothes, constructed not of linen or cotton, were of embroidered silk, marking her as nobility.
“Thank ye, Aunt Zora. Ye are a treasure.”
Arbela flashed a look of gratitude to her mother’s elder sister. After Arbela and Alex’s mother passed, Zora had offered to live with them and provide female guidance to Arbela. The thought brought a smile to Arbela’s lips. She had spent most of her childhood chasing after her brother, the two of them making a goodly amount of mischief. Aunt Zora had the patience of a saint, though, at her age, Zora was more grandmother than aunt.
After finishing Arbela’s ablutions, the two women descended the stairs, the noise from the hall expanding with each step. Supper in the great room carried a joyful mood as the residents of Batroun gathered to celebrate their victory. Donal MacLean, Baron of Batroun, had ordered a pair of fatted sheep cooked on a spit and a cask of his best wine to be served to all, as each played an important role in repelling the infidels.
Her father occupied the central chair at the high table with Alex seated on one side, and Farlan, his captain, on the other. Phillipe, the third son of Bohemond IV, Prince of Antioch, Count of Tripoli, and her sire’s liege, sat next to her brother. He had fostered with them for years, growing up with Alex, the two of them inseparable. Truly, Arbela viewed him as a second brother, though not as close as her twin. He was a good man and a better knight.
Arbela sat at Farlan’s side as her sire stood and raised his cup. The hall grew quiet in anticipation.
“To victory!” the people roared.
“A MacLean!” Gordon, one of her father’s knights toasted. The cheer was chanted thrice by everyone in the hall.
Her father drained his cup, then sat and turned to his captain as the crowd returned to their festivities, disquiet etched on his face. “The attacks grow bolder.”
Farlan, who had accompanied Donal from Scotland years earlier and had as much experience as any in Saracen tactics, paused before answering. “We protect the pass of Saint Guillaume. Its worth is well known to both pilgrims and traders.”
“Och, ’tis plain enough why we attract attention from the Turks. The question is, who is behind these assaults, and why do they keep coming?”
“Likely a nobleman wishes to make his reputation as a powerful caliph. By attacking holdings in the region, they may find a weakness and draw more followers with their success, no matter how small. Papal attention remains on Egypt and ridding the Iberian Peninsula of the Moors. This is widely known, so there is no expectation of another crusade on this soil in the coming year.”
Donal scratched his whiskers, dark red now peppered with gray. “Aye, but with each attack, the castle’s reputation of being impenetrable grows.”
“Begging yer pardon, Laird, but no fortress is impenetrable.”
The baron grinned widely. “Agreed. But the Romans knew what they were about when they laid the foundations for this keep. Sheer cliffs on all sides with a small approach from the east gives the advantage of spotting an enemy well in advance, with only one option for entrance. ’Tis mayhap a wee barony, but we have the most secure holding in the Levant. Only size limits how much food we can store over a long siege.”
Arbela entered the conversation. “Who fancies himself the next Saladin?”
The older men turned their attention to her question, a frown marring her father’s face.
“Mayhap the better question, daughter, is who among the Turkish leaders doesnae wish to emulate Saladin by driving out all Latins from the Holy Land?”
Firm in her da’s confidence of her logic, Arbela met his gaze. “Aye, but all three attacks have been undertaken by the same leader.”
Her sire’s dour expression gave way to a knowing grin. “What makes ye say that, lassie?”
Arbela nodded at his challenge. “Each attack learned from the previous. The men we faced in the past few days did not make the same mistakes the others did, nor did they use the same tactics. The important question is, how will this leader maintain his ability to draw followers to his cause if he continues to be defeated? I would think this aspiring warlord will pick lower hanging fruit for his next attack. Mayhap a holding further inland.”
Donal clapped Farlan on the back. “Now ye see why I need to find her a husband. When Prince Bohemond realizes her worth, he’ll replace me with my daughter, here.”
Arbela dropped her head to her hands and groaned aloud. “Marriage again? I do not wish to be married, Da.”
“’Tis a woman’s fate to marry and breed sons, Bela.” Alex sat upright, arms folded, his smug expression telling the story they’d had this argument before. Arbela narrowed her eyes at him, wordlessly threatening retaliation. Phillipe remained quiet, taking neither side, though his lips twisted in a partial smile.
“And who would have guarded yer back today, dear brother?” Arbela quipped. “The Prince and Clan MacLean would be in mourning this eve had I not been ready with a bow to even the odds.”
A knight in her father’s service approached her da from behind, a missive in his hand, interrupting any further talk of marriage and women’s duty. The baron broke the wax disc and opened the parchment.
“My sire’s seal,” Phillipe observed.
Donal nodded agreement as a frown replaced his previous mirth.
“What does the Prince say, Da?” Alex leaned close to get a glimpse of the message.
“It says we are to leave for Antioch on the morrow. Phillipe is to be wed and the Prince seeks my counsel on a matter of some importance, though what, he dinnae say.” Donal lifted his head and called to another of his men. “Amhal!”
“Yes, Albarun?” Her da’s dark-skinned castellan bowed briefly.
“Sir Phillipe, my family, and twenty knights are to depart for Antioch at first light. See to the preparations at once.”
“As you wish, Albarun.” With a turn, Amhal shouted orders in rapid Arabic, putting all servants within hearing into motion. Though an Arab, Amhal was Copt rather than Muslim, and had proven his worth a thousand times over, easing the way for her father to hire people to work the land and to establish local connections for trade. They now turned away people seeking work due to her father’s reputation, as few Latin nobles treated their servants as well.
Donal’s pronouncement muted the celebration as news of Phillipe’s nuptials spread, and speculation about the Prince’s summons began.
Arbela rose from the table. “Da, might I be excused?”
Her sire stood and waved for everyone to continue, then gestured for Arbela to follow him. He escorted Arbela to his solar on the second level. He indicated a chair and poured them both wine while she sat, arms crossed, preparing for the lecture certain to come.
“Arbela, ye know ye are as precious to me as my next breath. After yer ma was cut down by a Turkish sword, I swore I’d never allow ye to be helpless. I’ve encouraged ye to train alongside yer brother. Ye take to the training like a hawk to the wind. Ye’ve a keen mind for logic and tactics. However, ’tis time ye considered yer future, and ’tis not as one of yer da’s men-at-arms. Yer brother and Phillipe both earned their spurs this year and will soon go their own ways. ’Tis time for ye to seek a husband.”
Arbela twisted her archer’s thumb ring and calmed her breathing as she attempted to push emotion aside and gather her thoughts. “Aye, Phillipe and Alex earned their spurs, and were I a son instead of a daughter, I would have earned them as well. I am better with a bow and dagger than either of them and have skills they know nothing of.”
Donal shifted uncomfortably in his chair and ran his fingers through his thick silver-shot auburn hair. “But ye arenae a man, ye are a woman. No matter how much ye wish otherwise. Dinnae remind me of the Hashashin training ye received from yer ma’s kin. Had I known yer uncle practiced the black fighting arts, I wouldnae have allowed ye to spend so much time with them.”
“What need do I have of a husband, Da?” Arbela asked, attempting to distract her da from his speech against training she’d found fascinating. “What have I to offer a man? Do ye think a husband will allow me to fletch arrows? Lead the hunt? Sharpen his sword or mend his armor? I cannot embroider, nor can I weave.” She knew she was running out of time before her sire lost his temper and ended the conversation.
He dismissed her arguments with a wave of his hand. “Ye have followed Amhal about since ye were a wee lass. He has taught ye all ye need to know to run yer own home. Ye love Farlan and Elspeth’s children like they were yer own.”
Arbela shook her head and opened her mouth to reply, but her father halted her with a lifted forefinger.
“I may have been a poor younger son of a Scottish laird when I took up the cross and followed King Richard, but I am now a baron of a small but important holding, serve a powerful lord, and have made a fortune twice over in trade. Ye have royal blood from yer ma’s side, and a very large dowry to ensure ye are considered by every nobleman’s son in the Levant.”
The look in her father’s eyes and the determination he wore marked her defeat. She would have to consider another strategy. “My dowry will ensure men will see only what they stand to gain, and ignore the woman.” Melancholy filled her voice.
“Ye are approaching twenty summers, daughter. ’Tis past time for ye to marry. I will find ye a husband who willnae try and break yer spirit, but ye will obey me. I will seek the Prince’s counsel on the matter and see ye married before the next year is out.”
Arbela rose, made her curtsy, and quietly left her father in his solar. She padded down the hall to her chamber, Toros and Garen in her wake, her heart throbbing painfully. Marriage would mean she’d have to give up the life she loved and submit to a man who cared naught for her—only for the color of her father’s coin. Briefly, she considered running away to her mother’s people but knew they would allow her fewer choices than her sire had. Misery threatened to settle like a shroud. The journey to Antioch she’d greatly anticipated only an hour before, now loomed like a trip to the gallows.
Western Highlands of Scotland
Caelen MacKern glanced around the hall at the solemn remnant of his people. Little more than half his clan remained alive. The worst of the outbreak was over, but Clan MacKern had been devastated by what their healer called mezils. They’d spent the day burning bodies as winter made the rocky earth too hard to dig proper graves for all. As laird, he could not risk seeing more of his people sickened by this scourge from allowing the bodies to linger for burial, so they bid fare thee well to kin the old Viking way.
He nodded thanks to the serving lass whose sweating brow and flushed face suggested she was barely out of the sickbed. The smell of pottage wafting from the bowl she set before him was a welcome change from the stench of disease and death lingering in the castle. Caelen reflected on the faces now gone, many he’d known since childhood—either theirs or his own. Though the pestilence had affected everyone, it hit the eldest and youngest the worst. He pulled a long draught of ale to wash down the bitterness of loss before devouring his humble meal.
The door to the keep opened and closed with a snick. Spurs jangled on the flagstones. Caelen glanced up. “Rory. ’Tis good to have ye home. What news do ye bring from the MacLean?’
Caelen nodded to the serving lass to bring his captain a bowl and mug. Rory offered her a smile of appreciation for the food and drink. “Thank ye, lass.”
He dropped into his seat. “The MacLean is dead.” He allowed the words to settle before continuing.
Caelen scowled. “Dead? How?”
Rory took a bite then gestured at the near-empty hall with his spoon. “Same curst affliction that ravaged our people.”
“Damn. We dinnae need our agreement with MacLean to get pushed aside whilst they sort out a new laird. Any talk about who ’twill be?”
“I spoke with their elders. Two on the council died from the illness, and another recovers slowly. They sent word to the Prince of Antioch inquiring of Donal MacLean.”
Caelen absorbed this news, trying to remember the man behind the name. “A younger son who took up the cross, aye?”
Rory nodded. “They say he attached himself to Antioch after Richard returned to England and has served him ever since. They have nae idea if he lives, and if he does, if he be willing to return and lead his clan. The elders say he is next in line and the last of his da’s blood. If not him, things get a wee bit murky, and mayhap bloody.”
Caelen frowned as he considered Donal MacLean. Caelen would have been merely a gleam in his da’s eye at the time Donal went on crusade. He had no personal recollection of him.
“After more than thirty years living amongst Franks and Saracens, is the man still a Scotsman?”
“Fair question, Caelen. Fair question. I dinnae think the MacLeans know the answer. Howbeit, they dinnae have a good alternative handy. The auld laird’s first two sons cocked their toes up afore they did more than breed a daughter each. Both lassies married outside the clan. With so many sick or dying, I think the MacLeans are content to tend their own and wait to hear word from Outremer. If not Donal, many cousins with equal claim to the title will fight like dogs over table scraps. A Clan MacLean distracted by internal strife leaves us vulnerable.”
“What answer did they give about aiding us against the MacGillonays?” Caelen braced himself for the answer.
Rory’s lips tightened at the question. “They said if auld Keith MacGillonay comes knocking on our gates with a host of men, they’ll gladly uphold their side of the agreement.”
Caelen rose and paced, opening and closing his fists in a mix of anger and despair. “Damn! Did ye tell them it has grown beyond thieving a few cattle and sheep?”
“Aye. I did. They say if MacGillonay declares open war on the Bull of the Highlands, they’ll be at our backs, but they willnae stir over stolen livestock and a burned croft.”
Caelen’s neck and face heated and he clenched his jaw, ignoring the nickname settled on him for his headstrong nature. “That croft had a family still in it when they fired it.”
“Och, dinnae ye think I told them this? It dinnae sway them. What will we do now?”
Caelen stopped his pacing and stared at the beamed ceiling above. “We will move our people on the northern outskirts into the keep for the winter and make certain we patrol our borders. Make the rounds random so we dinnae become easy to predict.”
Rory shrugged. “Our patrols will have to be only two or three men. We’ve nae enough men to send more and keep enough here to repel an attack.”
“’Twill have to do. Be certain to pair the younger lads with seasoned warriors.”
“Having our people close is what spread this damned sickness, auld Maggie says.”
“It has run its course. Better to take yer chance here than alone with a MacGillonay raiding party. There arenae crops to tend in winter, and their livestock can join the rest at the keep.” Caelen slumped in his chair, fighting off despair.
“Ye willnae take it amiss if I leave my wee sister, Brinna, with her great-uncle rather than bring her to the castle?”
“She has, what, six summers?”
“Nearly eight. After our parents died, Coll was the best choice for her. She loves the mountains and the sheep. I believe she is safe there.”
“’Tis yer decision,” Caelen grunted, his thoughts straying far from one wee lass to the larger concerns of the clan.
Rory slurped another spoon of porridge. “I hear wee Bram is feeling better, aye?”
Caelen smiled at the mention of his son. “Aye. The wee imp will be back to terrorizing the keep within a day or two. He had nae trouble telling his nurse he dinnae wish broth for supper and wouldnae stay abed.”
Rory ducked his head and drank deeply of the watered ale, avoiding Caelen’s gaze. Caelen tilted his head.
“Spit it out. I know ye’ve something in yer craw.”
Rory offered a grim expression, warning Caelen whatever his friend had to say, he wasn’t going to like.
“I dinnae wish to offend, Laird.”
Caelen drew his brows inward and shook his head. “Ye call me laird? Rory, ye and I are foster brothers. Whatever is on yer mind, say it.”
Rory took a deep breath. “Have ye considered marriage as a way to strengthen our clan and mayhap gain new allies?”
Caelen crossed his arms and stiffened in his chair. He should have expected such a statement. However, Rory knew how he felt about marriage—and why. After Bram’s mother died, he swore he’d have nothing more to do with marriage. ’Twas worse than a prison sentence. At least a dungeon was honest about what to expect.
Caelen’s hand struck the table, startling everyone in the hall. “Nae! I willnae submit to that piece of purgatory again.”
“Laird, ye know not all women are like Ruthie.”
Caelen glared at Rory. “I dinnae wish to hear that woman’s name again.”
“Aye, Laird. But consider yer own mother. She was a sweet woman with a kind heart and plenty of courage.”
“My da was a lucky bastard, though they fought often enough. If I make a new alliance through marriage, I will have no say in the woman’s character, but must take what is offered. Why would a clan give away a good woman when they can rid themselves of a viper? Such women promise one thing at the chapel then deliver something else entirely once the vows are made and cannae be broken.”
“Caelen, ye are my laird and my friend. I will do whatever ye command. But as yer friend, I have to say MacGillonay’s daughter clouded yer thinking and turned ye bitter toward women.”
Caelen grabbed the pitcher and refilled both their mugs. “’Tis where ye err, my brother. I am not bitter against women, only the curse of marriage.”
“Yer arrangement with Euan’s widow isnae what I speak of and ye know it.”
Caelen drained his mug and rose from the table. He had duties to attend and their conversation had done nothing to alleviate his dark mood.
“Be that as it may, ’tis the only relationship with a woman I am willing to have.”
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