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chapter one

highland soul

England 1349

   Anger rode high in Ramsey MacLaren when a guard lashed a fellow Scotsman for dropping a load of stone on its way to the crumbling south wall of Draught Castle. Ramsey pressed between the guard and his fallen comrade. The leather whip snapped around Ramsey’s forearm. He offered a clenched-tooth smile to his friend while blood dripped from his arm to the ground. With his fingers locked onto the leather strip, he shoved the enemy back, distracting the guard from the other man.

   The guard backhanded Ramsey then walked away. “Ye’ll pay for that, Scottish filth.”

   Ramsey breathed in through his nose then out through his mouth before turning to his friend. “Let me help ye, Thomas,” he said, pulling the man up.

   Thomas stared at the open gash on his arm. “The bastard should die, taibhse. They all should die.”

   Ramsey wiped blood from his chin. “Aye, Thomas.” And if he had his way, they would die. He’d take pleasure in peeling the skin from the bodies of every Sassenach soldier there.

   Three guards returned.

   “Back to work,” one hollered at the other prisoners who’d gathered to watch the action.

   Two grabbed Ramsey’s arms, pulling them behind his back. They muscled him to the whipping post where they secured his wrists in manacles. Ramsey tightened his muscles against the first lash, holding back a groan when the whip cut into his skin. Over the raised voices, he heard the wind shift as the leather sailed through the air and landed with a loud whack and sharp sting on his back.

   When Ramsey didn’t fall, one guard slammed his face with a meaty fist. Ramsey shook his head. A second punch blurred his vision. He heard his nose break. The world went black.

   He didn’t know how long he’d hung on the post, but when he opened his eyes, dusk had arrived.

   As night descended, the other prisoners marched back to their cells. Pain lanced through Ramsey with every movement as the guards dragged him to his cell. Two guards held him upright while a third one shackled him to the wall.

   The overweight guard who’d delivered the lashes grinned. His foul breath made Ramsey want to gag.

   “You’ll hang there all night.”

   Ramsey spat in the man’s face.

   The guard punched him in the gut. “Mayhap you’ll be dead by morn,” he snarled then left the cell, clanging the door loudly.

   Aching legs barely held him up, relieving the stress on his shoulders and arms. Sweat and grime stung the cuts the manacles made in the skin around his wrists. Ramsey inhaled through his nose and released a slow breath. Surviving another day in hell has merit, doesn’t it? he asked himself on a daily basis.

   Rats scurried along the walls. “Waiting for me tae fall asleep?” he muttered. “Eager tae feast on me flesh?” He’d killed a few of the vermin earlier, so the other rats fed on them for a while. His nose had gone numb from the smell of waste and blood.

   Desperation hung like a noose in this place, growing tighter until he couldn’t breathe.

   The dampness from the littered floor seeped through the holes in the sheepskin that covered his feet. The lashes on his back burned, making him shudder. Dirt and sweat magnified the stinging wounds. His fury and hatred kept him pushing the boundaries, kept him baiting the wrath of others.

   At twenty years, he’d started his mission to prove himself to his chastising brothers. They’d goaded him on to greater things, as did The MacLaren, his father. Duncan, the eldest, complained of Ramsey’s ineptness with a sword. Shawe and Ronnie jumped him from the most unexpected places to toughen him up. The MacLaren looked down his nose with disappointment at his youngest son.

That arrogant young man was long gone, laid low by the Archbishop of York. Robert Stewart and Patrick Dunbar, the cowards, fled the Battle of Neville’s Cross early, leaving King David to fight alone. Ramsey planned to hunt down Stewart and Dunbar, remove their heads, and stake them on a pike for all to see.

   Every time he closed his eyes, Ramsey relived the battle with great detail. He staved off sleep as much as possible, but it came, nonetheless.

   As a member of King David’s force, Ramsey stationed himself on the hill, his left hand gripping a freshly sharpened sword, ready to attack. His right hand held a dagger.

   The wait was agonizing. He wanted to get on with it.  A large Anglo-Saxon cross stood a few feet from his position. He bowed his head and prayed for a blessed victory.

   The battle raged. Outnumbered, the Scots’ formations crumbled.

   A white-clothed female floated in the shadows. The moonlight danced off her hair and turned her pearly smile sinister. Her long skirt billowed in the windless night.

   “Ramsey,” the siren voice called. “I feel your pain and hunger.”

   “Away wi’ ye!” He dared not be drawn in by the witch’s beauty. The price, his soul, was too steep.

   “Why do you bother worrying over the others? The pain is great. Each day it gets worse,” she crooned.

   “And each day, I shall bear it,” he swore.

   The scrape of the metal cell door sliding along the floor woke him from the dream and screams from those who lay dying.

   The guard sneered as he unhooked the steel manacles hammered into the dungeon wall. His elbow bashed Ramsey in the mouth. “Damn, you’re still breathing.”

   Ramsey dropped to his knees and spit out fresh blood before raising the brow over his unswollen eye. “Sorry tae disappoint ye.”

   The guard kicked his midsection.

   A second guard slammed the iron bars closed. “We should kill the rebel Scot.”

   “He is more stubborn than most, but I shall break the animal. The whipping post will knock the fight out o’ him. I like the challenge.” The men turned and strode away.

   Ramsey got a measure of amusement from the fact that the English bastard actually believed that.

   He shuffled across the floor on stiff legs, holding his aching stomach with one hand and rolling his other shoulder to get better movement. His two new cell mates, brothers, cowered in the other corner. He didn’t blame them. They were but children.

   Bloody fingers fumbled along the cracks to find the jagged rock hidden there. He slashed a single mark on the stone wall next to so many others. They covered two full walls of his cell from top to bottom.

   Two years, eight months, and seventeen days of capture.

   Ramsey stared at the blood-stained rock before closing it in his hand and settling on the floor. For the thousandth time, he cursed the reckless behavior that caused his capture.

   A harsh voice called, “Yo, Scottish pig. Here be your slop.” A guard tossed sparsely filled tin plates and cups to the dirt floor. His new cell mates grabbed theirs and scooted out of sight.

   Ramsey carefully rolled to his side and pushed himself up. With chin held high, he limped on wobbly legs to the cell door where the guard held a water bucket.

   “Bring your cup lest you get no drink.”

   Ramsey scooped the tin cup from the floor, shook it out, and held it fairly steady as the guard hastily ladled water into it. Turning, he snatched the plate from the floor and sat down to eat while the two young boys got their cups filled.

   Most days he considered going without. The oat and meal passed as food only on a good day. The water was the color of piss and tasted just as foul. His swollen tongue and dry-as-a-dirt-bowl mouth ached for cool, clean water. Memories of fresh air and the taste of real food withered away with time.

   Tattered clothing hung loose on his diminishing frame. Smashed and past broken fingers ached in the damp cold. The cell door keys jingled every time the guard’s arm swung for another lash or punch, mocking him.

   Relinquishing his fight seemed a low blow to those who died fighting the battles against the English king attempting to seize Scottish lands and command its people.

   His declaration to hunt down the cowards meant he could never go home to Balquhidder, for his clan remained faithful to Stewart.

   Hours of working in the scalding sun darkened his skin and siphoned his energy.  His fingers, hands, and arms ached from lifting heavy blocks all day, but his muscles had grown more defined. The scratchy shirt scraping against yesterday’s gashes stung. He lay on the patch of floor, awaiting sleep. “Damn.”

   During sleep, the buidseach called to him. Though she appeared in white, he believed her to be a black witch—an evil witch—wanting to take his soul.

   “It be hard tae sleep wi’ her wailing in your head.”

   Ramsey recognized that voice and raised his head. In front of him shimmered an eerie gray figure bouncing against the filthy stone background. “Niall?”

   “Aye.” The figure smiled.

   Ramsey glanced at the other two inhabitants of the cell who stayed by each other. Thankfully, they slept.

   He shook his head. “I be tetched in the head. This place has taken me wits.”

   Niall, a previous cellmate who’d died weeks ago, chuckled. “Nay, lad. Ye be as sane as I.”

   Ramsey’s brows shot up. He tilted his head. “Ye be dead, Niall—dead.”

   “Tae be sure, though I kin tell ye I be not happy aboot it.”

   Ramsey barked out a laugh then quieted and cast another glance at the brothers to make sure they did not wake to see him talking to no one.

   “I have come tae warn ye.”

   Ramsey’s stomach seized, threatening to expel his meal. Sure now he’d lost his mind from being imprisoned for so long. “Warn me about what, Niall?

   The shimmering form paced the confines of the cell. “The one who comes tae ye when ye sleep.”

   Ramsey narrowed his eyes. “What do ye know o’ her?” he whispered.

   Sighing, Niall answered, “She be cunning and evil.”

   Ramsey admitted to himself that Niall was correct. Evil surrounded the beautiful woman.

   Ramsey jammed fingers through his filthy, matted hair and propped against the wall. “What does the buidseach want?”

   “She wants power.” He paced back and forth.

   “Why does she come tae me?” Ramsey brought his legs up and planted his feet on the floor to rest forearms on his knees.

   Niall ran his hands down his face. “I dunna know.”

   Ramsey leaned his head against the stone wall. Finding it hard to keep his eyes open, Ramsey lay down. “I have nothing for her, Niall. It be good tae see ye.”

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