Authors: Marie Laval
Her body tensed and she threw a nervous glance towards the door. She slid further into the bed, curled into a ball and pulled the covers over her head.
This was silly. Of course, McGunn wasn't about to barge into her room! She was well out of his reach, and in another day and a half, two at most, she would be reunited with Cameron and take her place by his side at Westmore.
The thought filled her with such sudden, overwhelming panic her mouth went dry and her heart raced frantically. Would Cameron still be angry with her or had he forgiven her? Would she find the frosty-eyed stranger who had boarded the
, his face pale, his mouth twisted in a cruel scowl, or the handsome and witty man who had courted her?
She turned in the bed again and memories of their three wonderful weeks in Algiers flooded her mind.
Together they'd strolled the shaded lanes of the Jardin d'Essai â Algiers' enchanting new public garden overlooking the bay. They'd explored the Kasbah's narrow lanes, bought slices of juicy watermelon and melt-in-the-mouth honey and almond pastries from street stalls, and taken barouche rides in the hills outside Algiers or along the coast.
Cameron had been an attentive, devoted suitor with exquisite manners and dazzling charm. No man before him had brought her fresh bouquets, written poems which compared her eyes to a starry night. Akhtar urged caution and said it was a mistake to wed someone after such a short length of time. But he was an old man. What did he remember about being young and in love?
As for Malika â¦ Rose swallowed hard as tears stung her eyes. Malika had disliked Cameron intensely, even going as far as inventing shocking lies about him. Cameron said Malika was jealous and, as much as it pained her to admit it, Rose thought he was probably right.
It didn't matter anymore. Malika was dead, buried in the little graveyard at Balnakeil. She would never smile, dance, or climb up orange trees with her again to get to the juiciest fruit. What had happened to her friend after they last argued, and who had killed her?
She clasped her fingers tightly together and listened to the sounds of laughter and talking until late during the night.
âWhy are these people screaming and shouting?'
Rose pressed her nose against the window. The coach slowed to a walking pace as they entered a small village.
âAnd look at these poor children standing barefoot in the snow!'
Her travelling companion cleared his throat.
âIt looks like the hamlet is being cleared.'
A cold fist tightened around Roseâs heart.
âCleared? You mean to say that odious man, Arthur Morven, is here?'
Her travelling companion nodded.
âI think that's him over there,' he said, pointing to a thick-set man wrapped in a dark grey cloak who sat on a black horse, away from the crowd.
As the coach reached the centre of the village, the noises of men shouting, women and children wailing and dogs barking became deafening. At the centre of it all, a dozen men ran around, holding torches or clubs and shoving people out of the way as they kicked down the doors of cottages, beating the animals and cattle with sticks and setting fire to houses.
On the side of the road, a little boy sat alone in the snow in blood-spattered clothes. He looked straight at Rose through huge, tear-filled eyes as the coach drove past, held his hand out and called, â
MÃ thair, MÃ thair!
âWhat is he saying?' Rose asked.
âI believe he wants his mother. She must be around here somewhere, gathering what's left of her things.'
With a cry of outrage, Rose pulled down the door handle and flung the door open. Enough was enough!
âWhat are you doing, are you mad?' The man next to her shouted.
âIâm going to talk to Morven, and make him stop this once and for all!'
She leapt forward, missed her step and landed on her knees but the snow cushioned her fall. Jumping to her feet, she pushed past a gang of young men who cheered as yet another house collapsed in a burning pile. Thugs, that's what they were, and from the smell of whisky lingering around them, they were drunk too.
âHelp me. Please, someone help me! My grandma's still in there.'
A woman beat her fists against the closed door of a nearby cottage. Plumes of smoke escaped from under the door, through the gaps in the shutters.
The woman ran to Morven who sat impassive on his horse, and clutched at his booted leg.
âPlease, sir, I beg ye. Help me get her out, she's eighty-five and bed-ridden.'
He shook his leg so hard he kicked the woman in the chest and she stumbled backward with a cry of pain.
âThen the old crone's lived long enough and I'm doing you, and her, a favour.' He coughed and spat into the snow next to the woman.
So this was how her husband's factor replied to pleas for mercy. He was a monster, a criminal.
Rose squared her shoulders and marched up to him. Quivering with indignation, her breath short, she looked up into the man's ruddy face and met his blood-shot blue eyes.
âI order you to help this poor woman, right now.'
âAnd who might you be, my darling?' Morven's gaze travelled slowly, leisurely, from Rose's face down to her boots, then up again, in a way which made her blood boil and her face grow hot.
âI am Lady Rose McRae, and I order you toâ¦'
âLady Rose McRae, hey?' he cut in. âI'm sorry, darling but the only Lady McRae I know is Lady Patricia.'
Rose let out a frustrated sigh. No one here would know about her, since Cameron was keeping their wedding a secret until the ball.
âAnyhow,' the big man resumed, âI'm only obeying my lord's orders. He wants me to clear the strath of all these damned tenants before the end of the week and that's exactly what I'm doing.'
Did he dare claim that Cameron had ordered this? Rose swallowed hard and pointed to the flames which now licked the walls and roof of the house.
âBut you can't leave an old woman trapped inside this house. Sheâs going to die!'
Morven leant sideways towards her and she caught a whiff of his tobacco-smelling breath. âThat'll be one less mouth to feed; one less pauper on my lord's register.'
Rose stepped back with a cry of rage.
âYou and your men are no better than murderers. Rest assured that I'll tell my husband all about this. Your days as Factor are numbered.'
If she had hoped to shock him, she was disappointed. He stared at her for a while then his fleshy lips twisted into a thin, cruel smile.
âWe'll see, my darling, we'll see. For now my work here is done and I bid you a good day. Oh and by the way, I'll tell my Lord and Lady you're on your way when I next see them.'
He bowed his head in a mock salute, gave his horse a sharp heel kick and rode towards the mail coach. Rose saw him gesture to the guard who jumped down from his seat to talk to him. The men spoke for a couple of minutes then Morven rode away. His gang of men dispersed too, taking to their horses and starting in a rowdy convoy out of the burning village.
Rose looked at the pieces of wood, some half-burnt, charred and smouldering, that lay on the snowy ground. Grabbing hold of a thick, sturdy looking stick, she ran to the burning house the woman was still trying to get into.
âGet a stick and help me! We'll break the door down,' she instructed, before ramming the club into the door as hard as she could. It took the two of them and several attempts before the door cracked open and fell back.
âGrandma? Where are ye?' The woman shouted as she took a few steps inside.
Rose followed her cautiously, lifting her skirt right up to shield her face from the intense heat and thick black smoke. There was a loud whoosh sound when the roof caught fire and cinders started raining inside the cottage and onto her hair.
âI can see her. She's over there.' The woman darted forward, oblivious to the fire roaring around her.
There was nothing Rose could do. It took only a few seconds for the ceiling to collapse, engulfing the cottage, the woman and her grandmother into flames. She ran out and slipped to the ground, tears streaming from her burning eyes, and coughing so hard she could hardly catch her breath.
She didn't have the strength to protest when the post-guard lifted her in his arms and carried her away from the burning heap of rubble.
âWhat did you think you were doing? Are you crazy?' he shouted. âYou could have been killed.'
Her ears still filled with the thunderous roar of the fire, she hardly heard him. He put her down on the snowy ground and she raised her head to look at the fat, grey clouds in the sky above, saw white flakes swirl as they fell slowly to the ground. Sick and gripped with panic, she closed her eyes and shuddered uncontrollably.
These were ashes from the ruined village â from the houses, the people and animals Morven had set fire to â falling on the ground and all over her. Choking her.
Only when she felt wetness and cold slipping against her cheeks and into her neck did she realise it wasn't ash falling, but snow.
âWe have to go, my lady,' the guard said, âor we'll be late in Borgie.'
Numb, exhausted, she nodded and followed him to the coach. Before she climbed on board, she turned to survey the devastation her husband's men had left behind, the looks of desperation on people's faces as they searched the smoking ruins of their homes for whatever they could salvage.
âWhere will these people go now?'
The post-guard shrugged.
âThey'll find somewhere, a village on the coast, or Inverness, Dundee or Glasgow. But I gather most of them will make their way to Wrath. Lord McGunn won't turn them out. He never does.'
And he slammed the door shut.
âSo you're going after her?'
MacBoyd watched Bruce saddle Shadow from the stable doorway. Behind him the sky lit up with the first signs of daybreak â pale grey hues with a line of fire along the horizon.
âI have no choice. I need her to add weight to my
with McRae,' Bruce growled. âI must get her back here before she reaches Westmore and ruin my plansâ¦ or before she trips over a rock and falls down a cliff, or gets lost on the moors. The woman is a walking disaster.'
He paused and smiled. âThen again the other passengers might throw her out of the mail coach when they tire of her calling them monkey names or silly McNames.'
MacBoyd's eyes widened. âMonkey names? McNames? What on earth are you talking about?'
Bruce carried on buckling the saddle straps.
âWhen she doesn't say I'm a baboon or a macaque,' he explained. âShe calls me McGlumâ¦ or was it McGrouch?'
MacBoyd let out a booming laugh and slapped his big hands on his thighs.
âEither suits you, my friend, especially today. You've done nothing but rant and shout since you found out the lass didn't come back to the Lodge but sneaked out of the doctorâs house and boarded the mail coach all on her own and without anyone paying any attention.' He shook his head. âYou must admit she outwitted you.'
Bruce clenched his jaw.
âShe didn't outwit me at all,' he snarled. âBut she's resourceful, I'll grant you that.'
He glanced up at his friend. âStop grinning, it's not funny.'
âLord McGunn?' Agnes called from the courtyard.
MacBoyd moved aside to let her pass. Bruce arched his eyebrows. His friend's cheeks looked very flushed suddenly, and he wondered if there was some kind of attachment between him and the young maid. She looked pretty flustered tooâ¦
âI packed some warm clothing and some food, like you asked.' Agnes gave MacBoyd a timid smile as she brushed past him and handed Bruce two leather bags and a flask.
âI also filled your flask with the whisky from your study; I thought you might need it.'
Bruce thanked her and slipped the flask into one of the bags. Agnes shifted on her feet, hesitant.
âIs there anything else?'
She blushed more deeply.
âI put Lady Rose's shoes in your bag too â the pretty ones she lost in the village that you asked me to retrieve for her. I think she'd be glad to have them back.'
âYou asked Agnes to retrieve Rose's slippers?' MacBoyd arched his eyebrows.
âI wonder why I bothered. These silly shoes won't be any good in the snow,' Bruce muttered, aware of his friend's amused gaze. âAnyway, it's time I left. I should catch up with the post-coach later today. It can't travel fast with this weather. I'll take the ferry boat across Loch Eriboll then another across Tongue Bay, and after that I'll ride flat out across the moors.'
MacBoyd pointed to the pistol at his side. âI see you're expecting trouble.'
Bruce shrugged. âThere's no harm in being prepared, especially with Morven and his thugs roaming the roads these days.'
He slung a bag across his chest, led Shadow out into the courtyard.
âTake care of things in my absence,' he said as he swung onto the horse. âIt might be a couple of days, maybe more, before we come back.'
âDon't worry.' MacBoyd looked up at the sky and frowned. âGet yourself and the woman back here safely. Another storm's on the way.'
âAye, and we'll be right in the thick of it if I don't hurry,' Bruce agreed wearily. He bade his friend goodbye and rode out of the courtyard and onto the coastal path.
The coach had probably stopped at Tongue for the night. Its progress today would be hampered by the snow. If he rode hard and took short cuts, he'd catch up with it before the night â and the storm.
He rode like the devil, stopping only to take the ferry, rest the horse and have a bite to eat. As he travelled eastward the sky became heavier, lower, filled with threatening, lead-coloured and snow-laden clouds, but the storm held off.
It was late in the afternoon when he reached Borgie. Sheltering in a wooded valley on the banks of a fast flowing river, the village was on the main road to Melvich and the mail coach always stopped there.