Highland Promise – Mary McCall

Once upon a time in the city of Cana, a wedding feast drew friends and family from far and near for a wondrous celebration. Clamorous toasting went on for hours as guests vied for the most elegant words in wishing the newly wedded couple a life of joy. Mary watched her young nephew rake his fingers through his disheveled curly locks for the third time in as many moments—his grimace and hair so at odds with his festive garb. Gathering her robes about her, she hastened to his side as his distress touched her tender heart. “James, your pain calls me. What mars your happiness on this joyful day?” “My own stupidity,” he replied morosely. He raised a rueful gaze to hers. “Forgive me, my gracious aunt. My father-in-law bade me perform one task for this feast. He shall soon learn what a fool has entered his family.” “What task were you given?” “I procured the wine.” He shook his head in a self-deprecating gesture. “But alas, I paid too much for not enough. The wine stock will soon deplete, and my failure will be known.” She placed a gentle hand on his arm.

“Worry not. I shall see to the matter and no one shall know. Now go back to your bride and rejoin the feast that none may suspect a problem.” James took her hand and kissed her cheek. “I place my trust in your generous heart and bid you thanks now. For upon your words my spirits lifted, and I know all will be well.” As he made his way back to his bride, Mary sought her son. She found him among the guests and pulled him aside. “My son, they have no more wine.” “My time is not yet come,” he replied quietly.

She simply stared at him expectantly. She knew her son’s heart held more compassion than her own. He would not let his cousin’s embarrassment be known. When her son finally sighed and resignation flickered in his eyes, she turned to a servant. “This is my son. Do whatever he tells you.” Confident all would be well, Mary returned to the celebration. As the evening progressed, gladness raised her mood and maternal pride filled her being. The guests were united in complimenting the superiority of the wine her son had provided. Later that night, Mary knelt and addressed thanks to Yahweh for the gift of her son to the world.

A sudden burst of light flashed then mellowed to a golden blue glow. She smiled into the angelic countenance of her heavenly guardian. “Gabriel, my holy friend, I sensed you would come this night. Has my presumption angered our God?” The warrior angel’s features softened with a smile. “Mary, most blessed of women, you could never cause Him anger through an act of generosity. I bring you tidings and blessings from our Father in Heaven. He wishes to reward you for your absolute faith in your son. Thus it is ordained in the centuries to come that all children consecrated to your spiritual care will receive the power to touch and heal the most hardened of hearts, restoring lost faith, as long as your children remain true to their Lord and God.” And thus it began—this unseen gift that would lead to the salvation of so many. This is the story of one such gift-bearer… Prologue ‘Twas unheard of for an English baron to show preference to a daughter over a son, especially his firstborn son.

Baron Garrett of Hawkhurst was going to break tradition. The sight of his daughter’s broken, mottled, and battered flesh sent fury roiling throughout his body until his bones ached. He had failed her. He stifled the angry tremor in his hand and placed battle-worn fingers on her pale brow. She didn’t stir. Her maid had given her a potion to make her sleep. Garrett remembered his initial reaction to his daughter’s tragic arrival in this world and how he had nearly missed knowing her. His wife died in childbirth twelve years past. He had tried to ignore the babe, blaming her for his loss. He had even refused to have her baptized.

In his opinion, murderers deserved Hell. His resolve broke nine months later. He went to the garden his wife had planted in honor of God’s Mother, hoping to feel his beloved’s spirit there. Instead he had found his daughter at play while her nursemaid sat on a bench in the shade of an ivy trellis. The babe half-walked and halfcrawled after a butterfly and nearly landed herself in a thorny rosebush. Without hesitating, Garrett had grabbed the child with the intention of handing her to her nursemaid along with a reprimand to pay closer attention. The babe squealed and giggled with delight as she soared into the air—the sound so joyful and full of life. Aquamarine eyes, so like her mother’s, sparkled and gamboled with his. She was a vision of his beloved Brenna, the Celtic beauty who had made the years of war and bloodshed worthwhile. Aye, Brenna had given his life purpose.

After her death he had none. He cursed both God and fate while ranting over his loss. He closed himself off to all others until a stony wall encased his heart. He had sworn to never again let it beat for another. As he beheld his child, he sensed Brenna’s presence. He could no longer deny this babe for she was the last gift to him from his beloved. He cradled his daughter against his chest and inhaled her sweet baby scent. Curiosity entered her eyes, but she showed him no fear. With a big, calloused finger he gently stroked her silken cheek. The babe grasped his finger in a possessive grip and smiled.

At that instant, the stone cracked and his heart beat with love once again. He realized this child was more than a gift from his wife. She was sent by God to restore his faith and give meaning to his life. He turned abruptly and with a purposeful stride proceeded out of the garden. Passing the lists, he called to his commanders, Arlic and Bryce, to follow him. Arriving at the chapel, he slammed open the door and entered, pausing to allow his eyes to adjust to the darkened sanctuary. Father Valens jumped to his feet. The lanky cleric stared at him as if he carried in a sacrificial goat. Garrett couldn’t blame the priest. He entered holding the daughter he had shunned followed by two sweaty warriors fresh from the training field.

He wasn’t about to explain himself to anyone, except to say, “Baptize her now. Arlic and Bryce will stand as godfathers.” Father Valens looked from Garrett to the commanders to the babe and back to Garrett. “And who stands as godmother, Baron?” Garrett stared thoughtfully at his daughter and remembered his departed wife’s special devotion. Brenna had said that the Blessed Virgin was so beloved by God that with a glance she could restore faith to the most hardened heart. Hadn’t his daughter just done so for him? He returned his gaze to the priest. “You will consecrate her to the Blessed Virgin. She has already claimed the babe.” If Father Valens thought the baron was addle patted, he didn’t say so. He nodded and asked, “By what name shall she be known?” “Faith,” Garrett said decisively.

“My daughter’s name is Faith.” From that day onward, the sight of father and daughter together about the holding became commonplace. He doted on her, providing for her from the best of his coffers. Her education by the finest tutors and priests included everything a fine lady needed to know to manage a large holding. She excelled at languages, reading, writing, mathematics, legal codes, catechism, weaving, and any number of subjects appropriate to a lady of her caliber—and some mayhap not quite suitable. Faith’s beauty grew with each passing day until Garrett declared her more beautiful than her mother. Her aquamarine eyes were most extraordinary. The color actually changed with her moods from cloudy blue to stormy green. But hers had an inner beauty too. With her openly generous nature, she was adored by everyone from freeman to serf, or so Garrett thought.

When she turned eleven, Father Valens died. She’d grieved his passing for he was like a favored uncle to her. The priest sent as a replacement was a domineering and rigid zealot. Garrett didn’t care for Father Abernathy. After a few of his ranting sermons, Garrett stayed away from Mass except for those said before battles and on feast days. If only he knew then what her shrewd and keen-eyed maid had just disclosed, his daughter might have been spared much. Father Abernathy showed Faith respect openly, but she came to dread the confessional. The priest had her spending so much time reciting litanies that she had permanent bluish-red spots on her knees and often went nights with little to no sleep. Over the next year, the priest assigned her so many fasts that Faith became pale and wan. She never complained for she thought him a holy man and he had told her the Seal of the Confessional bound her as well as him.

Garrett had worried over his daughter’s growing listlessness and questioned her. She always assured him she was well. He castigated himself now. He should have pushed harder and made her tell him the truth. Had he but known the hate that dwelled in his eldest son’s heart, Faith wouldn’t be suffering such pain and disgrace. Garrett had provided both his sons, Rawlins and Leland, with the finest of everything. Their education actually exceeded Faith’s because it included the art of warfare. Leland was quiet and scholarly and Garrett admitted he didn’t understand him. Rawlins was another matter. He was rash, impulsive, quick to anger, and vengeful.

As Garrett’s firstborn, Rawlins should have had everything he desired, but he always wanted more. He coveted the time and love Garrett bestowed on his daughter. Rawlins hid his jealousy well. Over time, it festered and grew until rage consumed him. Even pallor couldn’t hide Faith’s exquisite features. Rawlins developed unbrotherly feelings for her. Having heard many of Father Abernathy’s sermons, he also discerned the cause of his sister’s malaise. A cruel plan formed in his mind. He called upon several friends for help. Then he waited for three days after Garrett had left the holding to join King Henry at White Tower.

By the time the messenger from Hawkhurst arrived at court, the damage was already done. Garrett mounted his charger and raced home, fear for Faith pushing him onward without rest. Gazing now at his daughter’s battered form, Baron Garrett of Hawkhurst made a decision. He could have forgiven his eldest, but not for this. Garret had already committed a great sacrilege by flogging the priest and sending him into exile. Next he would send his eldest son and his friends across the northern border to meet the Angel of Death. One England, September 1110 Perpetual damnation might not be so bad. Might even be her wisest option. Mayhap she should go back and forget this plan. The Almighty knew she could die if she stayed and saw it through.

For if fear thumped any harder at her heart, her ribs might crack and her chest explode. From her hiding place in the forest, Lady Faith of Hawkhurst watched the cloud of dust move ever closer. The outlines of giant warriors riding the biggest horses she had ever seen came into view. Swallowing hard, she dug her fingernails into her palms and tried to suppress the panic gnawing at her insides. It would be too late for the Highlanders if she didn’t make herself move. And hadn’t she rushed out here just to warn them of her brother’s unscrupulous intentions? She didn’t know why Leland wanted to kill these men or how he knew they were coming, but they were surely the answer to her prayers. “I will be brave,” she muttered, clenching her fists tighter. “Lord, now I am lying to myself, for I am a coward. But I am their only chance, and heaven help me, they are mine!” She took a deep breath and hurried through the forest toward the overgrown Great North trail that sliced through her brother’s property. Twigs and underbrush snagged at her gown’s frayed hem.

Her sleeve caught on a low branch, tearing her tan work kirtle. She stifled an unladylike curse while jerking her arm free. Dashing to the side of the trail, she asked forgiveness of Almighty God that such an oath even entered her mind and promised to say a litany later. As an afterthought, she thanked the Lord that her slick, black hair hadn’t fallen from its tight knot and that the stain that mottled her flesh wouldn’t come off with the sweat of exertion. Some nun she was going to make. Her whole life was a living deception. The sight of the six gigantic Highlanders bearing down on her changed her prayers. She begged her Creator to let her live to see the day’s end. Honest to God, they were the biggest and fiercest men she’d ever seen. Bridling her trepidation, Faith held up both arms and waved at the men as they rode near.

“Halt!” They didn’t slow and clearly intended to pass her by. Her eyes focused on their mounts’ mighty turf-tearing hooves. The beasts could easily kill her, but if the Highlanders didn’t halt, they would die. She couldn’t let that happen. She needed their help as much as they needed hers. Faith dashed into the middle of the trail and lay down, stretching her arms above her head to cover as much of the path as possible. Pounding hooves drew ever nearer and competed with her frantically drumming heart. She tightly clamped her eyes shut. Oh Lord, please make them stop! The pounding came to an abrupt halt amidst whinnies, snorts, masculine grunts, and jangling confusion. Faith opened one eye.

The thick nostrils of a mammoth gray horse blew hot air in her face. She rolled away from the beast, releasing a shriek. The mare reared, her forceful hooves thrashing the air. Her master cursed in a foreign tongue and brought the horse under control. Then the warrior turned and pierced her with slate gray eyes that could freeze a summer pond. He spoke harshly in what she assumed must be his heathen Gaelic language. He had dark hair with a tendency to curl that flowed over his shoulders. She thought sending him ahead alone might be a good plan. Surely his glare could fell her brother’s entire army. Faith jumped to her feet and backed away, looking at the other men.

They appeared civilized in dress, wearing trews and tunics with bright plaids angled across their chests sash-style. She had expected them to be half-naked heathens from all the stories she had heard. Though only one of them had a beard and seemed a normal-sized man, all their garments displayed snugness of fit that proclaimed brute strength. And it was brute strength they appeared to be barely restraining at the moment. All these Highlanders had ferocious faces and looked as if they would like to take turns using her for sword practice. Her gaze fell to their mounts, less than three arm-lengths in front of her. One, a big black stallion, lacked a rider. She wondered if the horse had eaten his master. From the beast’s fierce expression, she worried he might think her his next meal. Faith took another step back and cleared her throat while her wideeyed stare fixed upon the horses.

“You must not go farther down this trail. An ambush awaits you.” The man with gray eyes perused her body, then spoke gibberish to the others. They snorted and grunted in reply. Faith knew she looked a fright. The padding that expanded her girth and the flour that dulled her complexion and hair made her ugly enough on a normal day. After her hurried trek through the woods, she could only imagine the additional damage from dirt and rents. “One of you must speak English.” How could she make them understand the danger if they couldn’t understand her words? Another warrior with white blond hair and hazel eyes barked an order, then nudged his mount to pass her. She scrambled out of his path as her heart raced.

“Rats! You are heathens after all. How can I help you if you do not understand God’s English?” They all jerked their mounts to a halt and glared. The gray-eyed warrior rode toward her and stopped an arm’s reach away. Her eyes focused on his steed’s flaring nostrils, and she gulped. Warm blood oozed from her palms as her fingernails dug deeper, but she held her ground. He leaned forward and pierced her with his gaze. “God had nothing to do with the making of English, lass. ‘Tis the Devil’s own tongue.” Why, the brutes had understood her all along. She glared up at him.

“Then I should wonder that you choose to commit such a grievous sin by speaking it. Surely the Almighty will send a lightning bolt from heaven and render you dead at any moment.” He snapped his mouth shut and his glower grew fiercer—a feat she’d have not believed possible if she hadn’t seen the transformation. She’d had enough and settled her hands on her hips. “Do not dare go mute on me, you big lummox. I have risked my own neck by coming here. ‘Twould be safer for you to skirt this holding and cut through Baron Rothley’s land. ‘Twill add but a few hours to your journey, and you will be alive when you return to the trail on the other side.” The other giants converged on her. They didn’t scare her as was their obvious intent.

Their mounts had already accomplished that for them. Surrounded by several tons of sinewy horseflesh, she labored for breath and sweat popped out on her brow. “This is a trick. The lass is lying,” another warrior said.

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