The Highlands, Spring of 1344
They were just children. Five boys, ranging in age from eight to ten and two and not one of them had any sense of direction. But what they lacked in that regard, they certainly made up with fierce determination and tenacity. And rock throwing skills.
At first, Findley was certain the boys were nothing more than a ruse to keep suspicion away from some group of men, cowards more likely than not, who had actually stolen the thirty head of cattle. Who would hang a group of lads that young for stealing cattle? Let the lads take the blame, and mayhap a beating, instead of placing guilt where it should really lie.
But the more Findley, his younger brother, Richard, and their good friend, Tall Gowan, interrogated the thieves, the more Findley believed their story: They had stolen the cattle, not only to feed their people, but also to prove to their mum they were indeed fine warriors. The only thing the lads would admit to was the fact that four of them were orphans who had been adopted by a fine woman named Maggy and that their clan had been wiped out by a pox years before. They refused to divulge much else.
Now Findley and his men were leading the boys and the cattle down the small hill toward their home. Findley shook his head, pitied with the sight before him. One hut made of mud with a thatch roof surrounded by a few tents -- all of which had seen much better days -- sat between a meandering river and a dense forest.
A small garden sat near the edge of the forest to the south of the home. Chickens picked away at the dirt. Not far off stood a small, fenced area that apparently housed the three plow horses the reivers had managed to use in their theft of Angus McKenna’s cattle.
Although the small farm was not nearly as grand as the castle that Findley and his men called home, it was still clean and tidy in appearance.
Several very auld women sat around a long trestle table, chatting away as they appeared to be mending clothing. The smile on the oldest looking woman -- if such a thing were possible as they were all rather ancient looking -- disappeared as she saw the men and boys approaching on horseback. Her wrinkled face, brown from years of exposure to the sun, looked more like a dried apple with tiny eyes attached to it. If looks were arrows, Findley and his men would have died instantly from the glare she shot at them. Within moments, the other women who sat with her, followed suit with glares of their own. Clearly Findley and his men were not welcome here.
The chickens squawked their contempt and displeasure as Findley and his men disturbed their late morning feast. They went scattering about as the group walked their horses through the yard. The boys sat tense and nervous on their mounts, casting each other looks of despair and dread. Findley supposed they were anxious about seeing their mum and owning up to their transgression.
As they drew nearer, one of the old women left the table and disappeared inside the hut. Moments later the door flew open with a loud bang and the most beautiful auburn-haired lass Findley had ever seen came running out. His mouth suddenly felt quite dry and his heart thrummed rapidly for several long moments.
She stopped dead in her tracks at the sight before her. Three large Highlanders sat atop massive steeds and they had her boys. Her stomach tightened as her emotions bounced from relief at seeing her sons alive to anger that they’d left their home without a word to anyone.
The Highlanders alarmed her. Reflexively, she slowly dropped her hands to her sides to make certain her sgian dubh was still in her pocket. Her first inclination was to demand they let her boys go. If that didn’t work, she was not above thrusting her knife into each man’s heart.
She eyed Findley and his men suspiciously as she stood motionless some twenty feet away.
“I take it these reivers belong to ye, lass?” Richard asked as he dismounted. He flashed a smile that normally made young lasses giggle and twitter, for he was considered a very handsome man. His smile apparently had no such affect on the woman standing before them. Her face had turned to stone as she continued to stare.
The two youngest boys, each of whom had been riding with an older brother, slipped down from the horses. They went running toward her, happily crying out. “Mum!” as they flung themselves around her waist. She hugged them closely, never once taking her eyes off the men.
“Who are ye?” she asked, her voice catching slightly as she fought back her burgeoning fear. Strange men coming to her home was never a good thing.
“I be Findley McKenna,” Findley said, finally finding his voice as he dismounted. “This be me brother, Richard,” he said with a nod in Richard’s direction. “And that be Tall Gowan,” he said with a nod toward his friend. Tall Gowan smiled and bowed slightly at the waist before he, too, dismounted.
The three older boys quietly slid down and stood by their horses. “Mum,” said the oldest before realizing he didn’t quite know how to explain the chain of events that led to this moment.
“Robert,” she said, still clinging to the smaller boys. “Ye are well?”
“Aye, we’re well. They’ve done us no harm,” he said, looking first at the men then down at his bare feet. He and his brothers stood side-by-side, hands shaking as they waited for the skelping to begin.
“Collin? Andrew? Does he speak the truth?”
The boys nodded and muttered ‘aye’.
She took a deep breath before speaking. “Come here,” she told them.
Solemnly, as if their feet were encased in stone, the boys went and stood in front of her. She eyed each of them for a moment before opening her arms and pulling of them to her. Tears began to stream down her face and she trembled as she held them. The boys’ shoulders finally relaxed and they returned her embrace.
After a few moments, she let them loose and wiped the tears from her eyes with the backs of her hands.
“I swear if ye ever do that to me again, I’ll skin each of ye alive!” she seethed. “What on earth possessed ye to leave in the middle of the night like that?”
Each of the boys took a few steps away as she thrust her hands to her hips and glared at them. “Do ye have any idea the fright ye put me through?” her voice rose, angrier than she could ever remember being with them. “Do ye have any idea how we’ve all worried over ye? No’ knowin’ if ye be dead or hurt or kidnapped?”
She began pacing in front of them and the more she yelled, the more the boys’ shoulders sagged. They kept their gaze firmly planted on the ground as their mother continued to chastise them.
“Of all the foolish things to do! And for what purpose? Where on earth have ye been and what have ye been doin’?” She aimed her last question at her oldest son, Robert.
He cleared his throat before answering. “We went to get a cow.”
Maggy stared at him, quite baffled. “What?”
“We went to get us a cow.”
Her brow furrowed into a deep crease. “A cow? And how did ye plan on buyin’ a cow when ye’ve no’ a coin to yer name?”
Robert started to speak but thought better of it.
“Speak the truth, Robert, do no’ stroll around it,” she said bluntly. “Ye went to steal a cow.”
Robert stood upright, squared his shoulders and looked his mum straight in the eye. “Aye, we did.”
Maggy eyed him for a moment, hands once again resting on her hips. “I’ve taught ye all better than that.”
“Aye, ye have, mum. But --”
She wouldn’t allow him to finish. “But? There be no but. Stealin’ is wrong and ye ken it! There be no reason on God’s earth to be stealin’!”
Robert found the courage then to speak his mind. “Aye, stealin’ is wrong, but ’twas more wrong listenin’ to me brothers’ and me family’s stomachs growl all the time from hunger! I could no longer stand to listen to it!”
“So ye took it upon yerself to go steal a cow?” she demanded. Aye, she understood well enough how he felt, for it angered and saddened her to no end to listen to the hungry stomachs of all those entrusted to her care. But that didn’t mean she could allow her sons to steal.
Robert decided it would do him no good to continue to speak on the matter. His mum’s mind was made up and there would be no explaining it to her.
Maggy looked at Findley. “If ye plan on hangin’ me sons, I’d ask that ye hang me instead.”
Her sons gasped and began to protest at her offer to take their places. Findley and his men however, threw their heads back and laughed. “Nay, lass, we do no’ plan on hangin’ any of ye!” Findley said after he got his laughter under some semblance of control.
Maggy was not amused. “Whatever ye plan on doin’ to me sons, I ask that ye let me take their places. Whether it be a skelpin’ or other form of punishment.”
Findley shook his head, unable to to stop smiling at the beautiful young woman, before it finally occurred to him that she was quite serious. Apparently she had dealt with men less kind, less honorable than he. “Lass,” he said as he walked toward her. “I’d never beat a child, or a woman, no matter what their transgressions might be.”
He could tell from the fear that flashed in her eyes that she did not believe him. He also took note that she had slipped her hand into the pocket of her dress. “I’d have done the same, to feed me own family, if the circumstances were the same.” He stopped just a few feet from her and crossed his arms over his chest with his feet spread apart.
One only had to look at the scrawny forms of the boys and the gaunt faces of the auld people around him to sum up the situation. This was a disparate group of poor people, thrown together under less than desirable circumstances. And the beautiful woman standing before him was doing her best to take care of them and teach the lads right from wrong.
“I ask that ye show yer lads a bit of compassion, lass, fer they were only trying to take care of their family, like good men do.”
Maggy Boyle wasn’t sure what to make of his impassioned speech. But there was something in those brown eyes of his that told her he meant what he said. There was something there, in that thoughtful smile of his that held a promise, an assurance that she hadn’t felt in a good number of years. Mayhap this man could be trusted.
The Highlands, Autumn 1344
’Twas not long after the heather had bloomed that Findley McKenna and three of his men left Castle Gregor on their journey northeast. Had they been on horseback, and not driving heavy wagons, they could have arrived at their destination in three short days instead of the five it was taking them.
The sun shone brightly in the bright blue autumn sky. A whisper soft breeze caressed the deep crimson, gold and purple trees that spread across the Highlands. No other season was as beautiful as autumn in the Highlands, well, other than winter, spring and summer.
Although there was plenty of time before winter would arrive, Findley was quite eager to get to the reiver camp before the fall rains set in. It was difficult enough making their way across the lands by wagon in good weather and he had no desire to travel through mud and muck with wagons hopefully full of people.
For days now he had been quietly mulling over in his mind what he would say to Maggy. He needed to convince her, and what remained of her clan, to return to Castle Gregor with him. He prayed that she and her people would be glad for the offer of a safe and permanent home.
It had taken very little effort to convince his chief and the clan council that this small band of people were in serious need of assistance. Findley had appealed to the chief’s strong sense of honor and duty toward the less fortunate, but he had personal reasons for wanting to bring them back. He was quite certain that he had fallen in love with the beautiful mother of five. That, or he had lost his mind all together.
At the moment, he was leaning more toward insanity, for how could a person fall so hopelessly in love with someone after only a few hours together? It had not, by any stretch of the imagination, been a romantic interlude they had shared. Nay, ’twas far from that for most of the time had been spent with Maggy scolding her sons for stealing, for skulking away in the dark of night and terrifying her beyond measure. She had admitted to Findley that day that her biggest fear was the boys had either been kidnapped for ransom or taken as slaves. Either way, she would not have had the means necessary to procure their freedom.
She had apologized repeatedly to Findley and his men for her sons’ stupidity and apparent lack of morals. Between apologizing and scolding her sons, there had been little time for anything even remotely resembling romance. There was just something about the woman, that even as she scolded her sons, he found intriguing. He could not have told anyone what that something was, only that he felt drawn to her.
At some point after leaving the reivers and their beautiful mother, the image of Maggy’s dark auburn hair and bright green eyes began to creep into his thoughts. If he thought about it long enough he would surmise that those thoughts began to creep in approximately one minute after saying good-bye. It was all downhill from there. For some God-forsaken reason he was consumed by her.
Even when he had taken a dirk to his side in a battle against the English in the summer, his thoughts had been of Maggy. As he lay on the bloodied battleground, clinging to life, his last thought before losing consciousness had been of her. He fought death as fiercely as he had fought any battle in his life just so that he might live to see her again.
Findley and his men, Richard, Patrick and Wee William drove the wagons as fast as the rocky terrain would allow. As far as Findley was concerned they couldn’t go fast enough. The longer they rode, the more anxious he became, and he could only pray that Maggy and her people would listen to reason and agree to his offer.
It was early afternoon when they crested the small hill near the River Clyde that Maggy’s clan called home. Something was wrong. Very wrong.
Death lingered in the air. He and his men caught the distinct odor and instantly drew their broadswords. As they pulled rein and stopped the horses, their eyes scanned the sight before them. Findley’s heart pounded with fear and dread as he threw on the wagon brake and leapt down from his seat. Destruction and death lay before them.
Nothing remained of the hut where the auld had at one time slept save for the charred wooden frame and three bodies burned beyond recognition. Bile rose in the back of Findley's throat as the anger simmered.
Wee William stood beside him, shaking his head while Richard and Patrick searched through the remains.
“I’d say it happened at least two days ago. Maybe three,” Wee William said in a hushed, reverent tone.
Findley could only nod his head as his mind raced and stared at the dead bodies at his feet. He could only pray that they wouldn't find Maggy or her boys among the dead.
Patrick and Richard walked toward the river and found two more of the auld lying dead along the bank. Findley and Wee William soon joined them. The final death toll was put at seven. There was no sign of Maggy or her boys anywhere.
It was Richard who finally asked the question that Findley couldn’t. “Where be Maggy and the lads?”
Findley couldn’t respond, his heart wouldn’t allow him to go there, to think of the possibilities of where Maggy and the lads could be. He bent and studied the tracks left in the mud and judged there had been at least ten on horseback. The tracks led in from the east and apparently left in the same direction they had arrived.
“Who ye think coulda done this?” Wee William asked to no one in particular.
Just then, a gust of wind swept down from the hills, scattering bits of dust and leaves. A small scrap of cloth landed on Wee William’s foot. It was as if God Himself had answered the question. Wee William picked up the cloth and studied it closely for a moment. His jaw set as anger filled his eyes for he’d recognize that bit of plaid anywhere. He handed it to Findley for his inspection. It took only a moment for him to come to the same conclusion.