Unchain the Highlander’s Heart by Kenna Kendrick

CHAPTERONE

Mull of Kilchurn, Spring, 1715

Peace so often follows a storm. The crashing waves, the devastating winds, the driving rain, and then… all was calm. Such was the scene that morning on the Mull of Kilchurn, where the seabirds arced above the cliffs, and on the wide, sandy shore, the remnants of a ship lay wrecked, smashed into a hundred pieces by the force of the sea, which had churned it up and dashed it on the rocks. It was a scene of devastation, but among it, one survivor remained.

He was lying on his back, barely conscious, the sea washing over him, the foam of the gentle waves dyed red by his blood, seeping from a wound at his side. Suddenly, he gave a start and sat up, dazed and confused. He let out a cry, which echoed across the deserted beach, and rolled onto his side, vomiting up seawater and coughing violently. He clutched at his side, staggering to his feet, before collapsing again onto the sand.

“Help me! Someone, please, help me,” he cried, but no answer came –he was all alone, and the cliffs merely echoed back his desperate cries, the birds floating overhead, and the waves washing gently on the shore.

He looked around him in dazed confusion, unable to remember what had happened or where he was. The sun was shining, a blue sky above promising a peaceful day, the storm giving way to calm, as though nature had not made known her full and destructive force but a few hours before. The crew was gone, swept overboard by the force of the waves, and pulled down into the depths. The ship’s cargo–brandy and tea–was scattered across the sands, ruined, save for a few chests which had somehow survived the storm and now lay washed up on the beach.

“What is this place?” he gasped, his head throbbing with pain, the wound at his side smarting.

He looked desperately around him for some sign of familiarity, for something to cling to in the wake of the nightmare into which he had emerged. All was calm, placed, and peaceful, but in his mind, the storm still raged, a storm which prevented him from knowing even who he was or why he should find himself in such a strange and remarkable situation…

* * *

Murdina MacFadden knew every detail of the ceiling in her chambers above the great hall at Kilchurn Castle. She had spent hours staring up at it, lying on her bed, her eyes wide, gazing up to the ceiling, where a crack ran across the plaster from right to left. There was a cobweb in one corner and the remains of what had once been an ornate fleur-de-lis painted at the center. Murdina had gotten to know every detail of that ceiling in the past few months–when her own company had been preferable to that of anyone else’s. She would shut herself away in her chambers and stare up at the ceiling for hours on end, longing for the past to change, and for peace in her suffering.

Now, she sighed and rolled onto her side, a tear running down her cheek at the thought of her dear sister. It was always the same. She would shut herself away and think of Aoife, lamenting the loss of her dearest friend, a loss which could so easily have been prevented if it were not for the wiles of that wicked man. Her sister had taken her own life, heartbroken at the discovery of her betrothed’s affair with another woman–a woman to whom he was now married. Murdina would not mention his name, but the loss of her sister had left her in the depths of despair, despair from which she believed she would never recover.

A knock now came at the door, and Murdina brushed the tears from her eyes and sat up. She did not like to be disturbed, but she knew she would be missed having skipped the midday meal. Her younger sister, Ella, now called out to her, knocking again, so that Murdina had no choice but to get up and answer the door. She would have preferred to be alone with her thoughts, her grief for Aoife still as raw as it had been on the day when they had discovered her lifeless in her chambers, a moment which Murdina would never forget.

“Sister, why dae ye torture yerself, so?” Ella asked as Murdina opened the door to her.

“I just want to be alone, Ella,” Murdina replied, and Ella stepped forward and put her arms around her.

“Tis’ better if we are all of us together. Dae ye nae think? We are grievin’ too, we all are,” she said, but Murdina shook her head.

The pain of Aoife’s loss seemed unbearable to her, while her other two sisters seemed almost able to accept it. Her father, Andrew MacFadden, the laird, had emerged from mourning and was even now riding out on the hunt with the rest of the clan. Murdina felt she was the only one who still honored Aoife’s legacy, and she was determined not to let go of her sister’s memory.

“Ye and Freya were nae as close to her as I was. Ye daenae understand,” Murdina replied, shaking her head sadly.

Aoife had been her closest friend, the bond of sisterhood and friendship as one. She loved her more than anyone else in all the world, and in losing her, it had felt as though a part of her was lost, too.

“Dae ye think we daenae mourn her, too?” Ella asked, sounding hurt at the suggestion.

Murdina made no reply–she had not asked for Ella’s sympathy, content, as she was, to be alone with her thoughts.

“I was nae hungry,” she said, by way of a response to Ella’s visit, and her sister sighed and shook her head.

“We are worried about ye, Murdina–all of us. Father will come and see ye later. He told us so before he rode out this mornin’ on the hunt. Ye cannae hide yerself away like this forever. Life must go on,” she said, but Murdina looked at her angrily.

“For us, it can, aye, but nae for poor Aoife. What wickedness brought about her death–that man, he should pay for his crimes,” she exclaimed, turning back into the room as tears welled up again in her eyes.

“But ye cannae live yer life like this, Murdina. Tis’ nae what Aoife would have wanted,” Ella said.

“Leave me alone, Ella–ye daenae understand,” Murdina shouted back at her, and she slammed the door to her chambers in her sister’s face, throwing herself on the bed and weeping.

It was as though everyone had forgotten her sister–the period of mourning at an end and her memory confined to the occasional thought. But Murdina could not forget–she refused to forget–and in her anguish, her anger only increased against the man whom she blamed for taking her sister away from her, the man who had betrayed her beautiful soul, and in her eyes, was no better than a murderer.

* * *

It was clear to him that no help would come. His head was throbbing with pain, and he could remember nothing–not even his own name. It was as though everything was a blur–the world around him made sense as far as he could see, but he could find no reference to make sense of what was there–or of himself. He struggled to his feet, still clutching at his side, and staggered up the beach away from the shipwreck.

“I must have been on board,” he said to himself, though he could recall nothing of being so.

There were no bodies washed up on the shore, no sign of anyone among the wreckage. He was entirely alone, and the surrounding landscape appeared strange and unfamiliar. He was on a beach, with cliffs stretching up on either side to moorlands, where the purple heathers were dotted with straggly trees. He could remember nothing of where he had come from or where he was going, and he sat down on a rock and sighed, his whole body aching and the wound at his side smarting.

As he sat down, he felt something in his pocket, and reaching into his breeches, he pulled out a key on a chain. It was not like a normal key to a simple lock, but ornately made, gilded in silver, and with a chain–he looked at it curiously. There was a coin in his pocket, too. But again, this was no ordinary coin bearing the head of a Hanoverian king, but embossed with a phoenix, large and weighty–it seemed somehow familiar, but he could not remember why he had it and what it could mean.

He held the key, and the coin, in his open hands, looking down at them in confusion. It frustrated him to not remember, and he cursed himself for his stupidity. He felt a fool sitting there on the beach with no idea of who he was or where he came from. He tried desperately to remember, furrowing his brow in a vain attempt at recollection. But it was to no avail. He was sitting on a beach in a foreign land, soaked to the skin, wounded, and without a single memory which would prove useful–the situation seemed hopeless.

Now, he searched his pockets more thoroughly and drew out a parchment, which had somehow survived the worst of the water. It was sealed with wax and had been hidden between the hem of his breeches–concealed, though, from what, he could not remember. There seemed little point in respecting the wax seal in such circumstances, and he unrolled the parchment and began to read. The crest at the top bore the arms of a noble family–a lion and an eagle guarding a shield, embossed in red and gold, below which was a Latin inscription–the words too water damaged to decipher.

Much of the letter, too, was unreadable, the ink having run with the damp seeping through his clothes. It provided no clue about his identity, only adding to the mystery of who he was and why he should be carrying such a strange assortment of items about his person. He began to shiver, and his stomach was rumbling so that he knew he had to do something to help himself since no one else was to come to his aid. For all he knew, he was alone on an island, and any hope of rescue was in vain.

He got up and went back down the beach to the shipwreck. Several chests were lying about among the wreckage, and he prized one of them open, revealing dry clothes and blankets to his great relief. Another chest held ship’s biscuits–crude oatcakes made for the longevity of a voyage–and a side of cheese so that he was soon dressed in fresh clothes and his hunger satisfied. He tore strips from a shirt and made a simple bandage with which he dressed his wound, and though he could still remember nothing about himself, he did, at least, feel a sense of relief at having raised himself from the worst of his situation.

Having eaten and drunk from a spring that flowed onto the beach at the far side, he now made a survey of his surroundings. A path led up to the top of the cliffs, and the sight of it cheered him enormously–a path meant people, or at the very least some kind of animal, and taking with him as much of the food as he could carry, he made his way up the path and onto the moorland above. From there, he gained a far better perspective over his situation and could see, in the far distance, mountains rising majestically into the clouds. He was certain this was no island, and there seemed to be signs of habitation–a path leading across the moorlands and the remnants of a fire by a small copse of trees.

The wound to his side was painful, and he knew he could not remain out of doors for the night. The day was bright and breezy, and from the sun's position, he reasoned it was still the morning. His best hope would be to follow the path and see where it led to, and he set off across the moorlands, still trying desperately to remember even the smallest detail about himself and who he was. All he knew was that a shipwreck had brought him to this strange and unfamiliar land and that his best hope for survival would be to find its inhabitants–whoever they may be…