Highlander’s Kingdom of Ashes – Eloise Madigan

What if I told you that Sebastian Milligan knew if he didn’t time this right, it would all be over? He’d be thrown right back in the cell that he’d just spent a solid three years trying to escape. Or they’ll just chop off me head and be done this time. He had almost nothing to return to now. They were dead and gone. He’d known it long before the sympathetic guard had discreetly passed him the letter confirming it. He’d felt it in his soul. Sebastian had been just six-and-ten, trying his hardest to work the whole farm and support his frail widowed mother and younger sister – until the Laird and the farmer both had ruined it all. He’d done nothing wrong, not to anyone, but they’d taken his youth from him. It was no wonder his mother had died, her heart broken over and over, and no way to provide for herself or her remaining daughter. I’m sorry, Mam. But dinnae ye worry. I’ll fix it all. He pressed his back against the walls, trying to fight the building impatience that urged him to hurry forward now. But no. Jehan had carefully strategized this escape with him, and Sebastian wouldn’t dishonor the guard by not following the plan.

Besides, if he moved now, he’d have to hurt someone. He didn’t want to do that. The dungeons had taken much from him, but it hadn’t taken his soul yet. It might if I spend another day in here kennin’ they’re nae with me. His sister hadn’t even been three-and-ten when the guards came to take him away. Of course, he’d protested, but what had that mattered? They’d come for him in the middle of the night, dragging him out of bed in nothing but his nightshirt. Freya’s screams and his mother’s dry sobs still haunted his dreams. And then they’d tossed him in front of the Laird, and he’d been declared guilty without so much as a thought. Truth doesnae matter. Money does.

He pushed back against the wall, holding his breath as one of the patrolling guards stepped a little too close. If they saw him before the changing of the guards, it would all be over. But the taste of the night air was tantalizing on his tongue, so close after three years of nothing but the darkness and the dampness of moss and mold. He’d been lucky to come across Jehan. The immigrant guard had been intrigued by how this simple criminal was able to speak French. After many lengthy conversations, he came to believe in right to freedom. Jehan had agreed to help him in exchange for very little. And so, they’d devised a plan together, allowing Sebastian to slip out at precisely the moment the guards changed in the front of the prison. Jehan would stay behind, unconscious, with a black eye. Later, he’d insist Sebastian delivered the blow back in the cell.

“S’il te plaît, fais attention, mon ami.” Jehan had begged him just before entreating Sebastian to knock him out and make everything look as real as possible. Please be careful, my friend. Sebastian put his hand on Jehan’s shoulder. He didn’t have words to thank him properly, but he hoped the guard understood. With a grim smile and nod, Jehan had declared, “Fais-le!” Do it! A swing of his fist and a carefully planned route among the shadows between cells had gotten him this far. The guard would change in a very short time. After that, he’d only have a minute or two to make his escape before someone found Jehan, and the alarm was raised. Three…two…one…now! He bolted for the door, so close to a guard’s back that he could almost taste the sweat on him, but he didn’t stop. He ran faster, faster, and threw himself off the edge of the cliff and down into the water below.

It was ice cold and, had he not been prepared for it, he would have gone into shock right then and probably drowned. Sebastian forced his head above the water and swam as fast as he could. Above him, the yelling started, and he heard the noise of weapons and projectiles being thrown down to try to hit him. Swim faster, Seb. Freya needs ye! After what seemed like hours, freezing, soaked, and panting heavily, he reached the bow of the ship where the men Jehan had promised were waiting to smuggle him aboard. He was pulled out of the water in a fishing net and unceremoniously bundled into a barrel, where he would spend the next two days if the cold didn’t kill him first. Once they were on the open sea, he’d be free. The boat would take him to France, where he’d make enough money to come back and find his sister – assuming she was not wed or dead already. She must be six-and-ten now. Well, Jehan, soon enough, I’ll be back to return the favor.

He was stuck in a barrel, unsure if he’d even survive the journey. He was cramped, freezing, and sore as the boat began to rock. He was going to a strange country where he knew nobody, with not so much as a penny in his pocket. Despite all of this – or maybe even because of it – he faintly smiled to himself in the dark. For the first time in three years, Sebastian was free. And soon enough, he would have his revenge. 1 Here rests Margaret Doyle Far-traveled and beloved wife of Griogair Doyle, Laird of Frisean Adored mother of Alexander and Aurora Rest in Peace Every time Aurora read the inscription the words hurt like an open wound. Carved below it, in the tongue of her mother’s native land, were the names of the grandparents she’d never met. Had they reunited at last in heaven? She hoped so. During every visit, she ran her finger over the marble making sure no speck of dust was there.

I miss ye, Maither. Things are so lonely here without ye. Aurora was just two-and-ten when Margaret – or Maggie, as everyone knew her – passed, leaving a gaping wound that never quite healed. Almost immediately after the funeral, her older brother – thirteen years her senior – departed on an expedition to discover the country, eschewing everything left behind, including Aurora and their father. She sighed. Aurora knew her father loved and cared for her in his own special way, but he forgot how to show it. He met her basic needs over the last seven years, but seldom embraced her. The emotional abandonment hurt deeply. Maggie had deeply loved both her children. Perhaps Aurora’s father was trying, but no one can replace the special bond that only mothers and daughters can understand.

Aurora found comfort speaking out loud to her mother’s grave, but it was her lady’s maid, Greta Clarke, who was around to console her. “Greta’s been twitterin’ on about the farm lads again, Maither. I think at five-and-twenty, she’s longing to be wed, but doesnae want to leave me more alone than I already am.” Aurora thought it was unfair that such a good friend, as Greta had been, should stick around just to serve her. She wanted to see Greta live independently and even offered to set her up financially, but Greta always refused, claiming she would not desert her lady, even though all those around did. “Maither, I wish I could be half the woman that ye were. You knew Greta was such a good woman, and I’m so glad ye took her in,” Aurora went on with a grimace. I shouldnae be complainin’. At least I have a friend, and a brother and me Faither. Aurora’s mother was brave, much braver than her daughter thought she could be.

She’d gone against her parents’ wish and to live a life she’d dreamed of, and her experiences were the stuff adventure stories are made of. She’d been a child of a minor businessman who lived with his wife in the Lowlands. As a single woman of five-and-ten years, she had run away from an arranged marriage and fled to Europe. She used to tell Aurora many tales of all the countries she’d visited – Italy, France, Germany, and even as far east as the Ottoman country of Greece. Maggie’s unique coloring of blonde hair with tanned skin gave her an uncommon beauty that helped her on her way through the courts of Europe while she mingled with her supposed betters. Although sometimes she felt so out of her depth and would fall into despair. But nae for long, Maither. Ye taught us to be strong, just like ye were. Aurora’s mother had told the story of her travels a thousand times, and the story of her return a thousand more. Maggie had several brief courtships across the years, even almost wedding in another country, but her heart cried out for home.

After four years, she returned to Scotland. She didn’t go to her parents, unsure how she could face them after all this time, and instead began to travel through the Highlands. “And ye ken, me Darlin’,” she’d always tell Aurora, “It was the first place I felt like I might be home again.” She’d set up a shop and tried to keep a low profile, but of course, the introduction of an obvious traveler garnered attention. A year after arriving in the Frisean clan, the son of the Laird himself had approached her. “And from there, it was all so easy,” Maggie would say dreamily, casting an affectionate look in Griogair’s direction. “He loved me on sight, as I did him. We were wed within weeks. And we’ll never be apart again. Just like I’ll never leave you, my Little One.

” But that had been a promise that Maggie had not been able to keep. When the fever came, it cared not for Aurora’s mother’s bravery. It did not care that Griogair had no idea how to live without this woman. It paid no mind to the lost young man and the scared girl left behind. “But Mammy,” she’d sobbed. She’d forgotten at the moment that she was now a maiden of two-and-ten, retreating in her head to a six-year-old girl hiding in her mother’s skirts. “But Mammy, ye cannae die. If ye die, what’ll I do? What’ll Alexander do? We need ye!” Maggie didn’t spend many of her last moments lucid, but she was at that moment. She caressed Aurora’s hand and said, “Me Little Dawn Voyager, dinnae ye remember the stories?” The stories. Her mother had raised Aurora on stories from her travels, with tales of fantastic gods and mysteries from the east, and the discoveries still out there waiting.

“I do. But why do ye call me that?” Aurora asked. It always sounded strange to her, like a grand title she hadn’t yet earned. Maggie smiled. “Because of how ye were named. I gave ye the name of a goddess, one the Ancient Greeks knew as Eos before the Romans and their Empire renamed her. I gave ye her Roman name to fit better here. She brought the dawn on her chariot, me Darling, and so will ye.” “I dinnae ken what that means, Mammy,” Aurora had sobbed. She was no goddess! She was just a lost girl who would never see her mother again! Maggie had wheezed, obviously in pain.

“Do ye remember where yer brother got his name? “The conqueror,” Aurora said tearfully. “Aye. Alexander the Great took over half the world. Mammy, ye ken I love the stories. Ye ken I love the gods and the history and all of it. But what has that to do with the now? Ye’re gonnae die, Mammy.” “And when I do, ye need to keep livin’,” Maggie told her firmly. “Nae matter how hard it may seem. Yer brother will be Laird, but ye – ye have unprecedented freedom that many lassies dinnae get. I want ye to see all the places I did.

I want ye to travel. Be free. Promise me.” Young Aurora had swallowed and nodded. “I promise,” she’d agreed, though her stubborn side still protested to this fantasy. How can she talk of freedom when she’s takin’ me heart with her? Maggie seemed to relax at last, sinking back into her pillow. “Go, now, and rest. I will see you on the morrow.” “But I never did see ye in the mornin’, did I?” Aurora asked ruefully in the present. “But I ken what ye meant now.

I have this whole bright future ahead of me. It’s me duty, as the daughter of the Laird and also as yer own daughter, to make that future as bright as it can be.” She laid down the flower she had brought and turned back to the Castle. Her father would be expecting her; she had dallied here too long. She knew that Greta would cover for her – but for how long would that work? Faither doesnae want me visitin’ yer grave, Maither. It’s like he wants to forget ye exist. As if any of them could ever do such a thing. Aurora had her father’s green eyes and slightly paler freckled skin, but the blonde in her hair was her mother’s, as well as her strong brow and sharp jawline. The older she got, the more she heard whispers of how alike the late Madame Frisean she had become. Even more, so was Alexander.

Aurora’s older brother was their mother’s double if she had been a man, carrying almost nothing of their father in him except the muscular body of the Laird’s youth. Aurora was silently of the opinion that Griogair had been secretly relieved that Alexander was currently serving duties on the outskirts of the clan. The fewer reminders of his late wife, the better. She arrived back at the Castle a short while later, only to find Greta dithering about outside, waiting for her. As soon as the other woman laid eyes on her, she gave a cry of relief. “Aurora! Where have ye been?” Aurora wasn’t particularly tall, really, but she was on the higher side of average. That made it very funny whenever tiny Greta, whose bright red head stopped somewhere around Aurora’s nose line, approached to give her a scolding. “Ye ken where I’ve been,” she said in a quiet voice.



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