Highlander’s Veil of Deceit – Emilia C. Dunbar

In the windmill’s ruins, in the loft where the wind pushed the great gears to turn the stones below and crack the grains the village grew on golden hillocks, Annabella twitched… Her legs moved in her sleep as she ran from nightmares and monsters. But even in her sleep, she knew these were not the creations of a fevered fantasy; they were real, and they were lodged in her memory with the destruction of the village! She turned and thrashed in the scant shelter of the mill. The large gears stood in mute witness like rounded and spiked tombstones as the screams of her parents filled her ears. There was nothing to block the sound; it came from within her, from every muscle twitch and whimper. In her mind, the screaming never ended, and she was trapped in the nightmare until finally, she could refain her senses. Annabella sat up, gasping. She felt her breath burn in her lungs, shivering at the cold sweat that covered her. Trembling hands reached to cover her heart as she fought to get the screams out of her ears. Light poked through the small window where the driveshaft hooked to the arms of the windmill, but so thick was the dust, and so early the hour, this light was lurid and red…the color of blood. And still, the screaming never stopped. The concussive bang on the wall of the windmill was what finally dragged her from the last vestiges of the nightmare. The horse. Her horse. She had left the animal downstairs tucked in beside the remains of the big grinding wheels. The mare had been lathered and foaming from their flight from the village, from the raiders and the monsters who’d pursued her.

She was clearly not happy and kicking wildly at the walls. Annabella rose up. The daylight didn’t change as she woke. It was still blood red. This was the color of death, the red of fire. She coughed then and belatedly realized what it was that made her throat burn and her lungs ache. She flew to the window and peered past the axle of the large arms. Fire! The woods were aflame, and the grass around her was catching. The fire was spreading like blood in water, and the windmill was beginning to smolder in the intense heat. She rolled to the edge of the loft and hung off the ladder a moment before dropping awkwardly to the floor.

She felt the jolt through tired and aching limbs, and had to shake her head a few times to clear it. The horse was wild and kicking out in panic, trying to free itself. Her hooves clattered over the old grist stones as she ran in circles. Even from here, she could see how her eyes had gone wild. Her screams echoed throughout the old mill. She rushed down and tried to calm her, but she was past that now. The smell of fire was in her horse’s nostrils, making her panicked and dangerous. The door to the windmill was across the stones and still closed. The wild horse was running in all directions, trying to find her way out. The saddle and blanket had been trampled on, and the frightened animal kept tripping on the leather and losing her footing.

She would soon break a leg if she didn’t calm, and worse, they would both burn if Annabella didn’t get the door open. Using the ladder to lever herself to her feet, she ran to the large door and grabbed at the bar holding it shut. She’d been relieved when she’d set the thick block of wood to jam the door shut—a little security after fleeing the raiders. Now her haven had become a devilish trap, a death sentence for human and animal both. Annabella flung the heavy wood up on one end and felt the wind empty in her lungs as the horse slammed into her from behind, pressing her against the door that refused to give. The other side of the bar was still in the bracket. She pushed herself to her feet, forcing heated air and smoke into her lungs as the horse reared, and one platter-sized hoof set a divot in the door where her head had been a moment ago. Blind and unable to catch her breath, she flew at the other side of the door, her hand slipping on the wood as she struggled to pry at the bar and set it free. The smoke began curling under the door, and with a muted whoosh overhead, one of the great arms of the windmill caught and began to burn brightly. She could see it clearly through the holes in the thatch, raining ash and embers down around them both.

She got herself under the bar and threw it in the air. It hit the horse, but the panicked animal paid it no heed and kicked out, one hoof striking the millstone and sparking. She pulled the door hard; it resisted, as the wood was swollen and stuck. As it opened, reluctantly and painfully slow, the fire greeted her like the lake of hell the priests assured her awaited the faithless. The horse, seeing a way out, a chance for freedom, bolted, pressing past the open door in a burst of madness, and made for the freedom from the fire. Annabella lunged and grabbed the mane, pulling herself onto the beast’s back as it went past, her skirt high enough to have a grip with her knees and burying her face in the horse’s strong neck. She could never have made it under ordinary circumstances. Why had she unsaddled the beast last night? Fear had given her feet wings and even now taught her fingers to clutch at mane and sinew until she was one with the horse in a way she’d never been before in her life. She cried out as the horse dragged her back against the half-closed door as they left. She could feel the drag of the wood through her shirt, the scratches of the rough wood, and the drag threatened to peel her off the gelding’s back.

Grimly, she allowed the door to scrape the flesh from her body. It was a sight better than burning, and she trusted the horse to find a way out for them both. Flames leaped and danced, joyously mad, flinging themselves skyward in a fest of chaos and destruction. Tendrils reached her skirt, lifted her hair. Some of the ends caught and smoldered and melted as the horse plunged through a nightmare scape of flame and devils that rose and fell in an orgy of devastation. The smoke was worse than the flames. It hung to the earth as though reluctant to rise. It defied vision, clung to her nose, and choked her mouth. The ash flew in brightly lit embers and landed on horse and rider. She didn’t dare release her tenuous grasp on the mane to swat out the embers embedded into her clothing, into the horse’s mane, onto their skin where the fire soaked in and died in the sweat.

Her mount bolted, the movements random and wild. She plunged through the fields, dodging and rearing patches of flame, and doubling back again and again in a dizzying dance of fear. The fire seemed at times to lead her, then to double back and choke off the only exit until the poor beast frothed at the mouth and, in the end, charged through the flame itself. Behind her, she heard another scream. It was the scream of wood and cloth, the devastation of a landmark. The windmill was ablaze now, a towering brand. The scream was the foundation cracking, the structure dying, and the mill falling into itself. The trap was sprung, but Annabella and her horse were already free of the deadly grip. The giant structure fell in on itself as though deflated. Its burning face arched over its collapsing body, the huge arms breaking free and spinning over the ground like a wheel, crumbling and spreading the blaze further.

She held on to the mane, and her legs went numb pressing against the withers as the horse plunged toward the river and the relatively cool air. To call it a river was a charitable name, but it was wide enough to keep the flames away from them, even if it wasn’t deep. The mare ran into the night, flickering flames eating the grain and the mill. The last of her village shone in the water, a burning reflection of everything she’d ever known, shattered by the harsh slap of each bloodied hoof. Annabella wept. Her family lay behind her. She had seen them taken before she fled, but if they were held by the enemy still or had been killed, she didn’t know. Her village—her father’s village— and its people no longer existed. She was all that remained of her home. Her family and everyone she’d ever known lived now only in her mind as she was clutching a panicked, runaway horse through splashes of water and mud.

How she managed to hold on even when the smoke removed the last of her breath, she would never know. She slipped into a numbness, curling up into herself. Her mind ran from the pain and refused to consider a future. The horse ran on, blind panic leading the way. Take me anywhere but here. W 1 illiam McFarlane ran his hand through his short blondish-brown hair and forced a smile on his face and turned his head slightly so as to appear to be listening to his bride-to-be. As it turned out, Aileen Cunningham had plenty to say as she went into elaborate details about her favorite discourse: herself. In the few minutes they had been riding together, he had become painfully aware of her every moment of life as a child and of all the grandiose things her parents had denied her, no doubt born of sheer cruelty. He also learned of her future dreams, most of which seemed to involve acquiring more grandiose items, apparently to be given to her by her future husband. While wedding her, as their parents had agreed, would enrich the coffers, William was beginning to wonder if she would impoverish them with her tastes.

“…and a wee carriage”—she flung her head back, the carefully coiffed hairs staying rigidly in place—“riding sidesaddle is such an untenable torture, you have no idea. ‘Tis far better to hae something small and civilized one can depend upon.” “Ye drive, m’lady?” William paid scant attention to the conversation, but he tried to direct the conversation on to newer paths, ones less likely to break the treasury, and if her mind was on her favorite topic, he could be spared the list of items she felt were owed to a woman of her station—even though she had none. What she did have was a dowry, and a handsome one, which included a sizable bit of land perfect for his people to occupy. “Oh…well, no, not as such, but dinnae they come with a man to handle the reins?” Her hazel eyes looked up at him with the purity and the guilelessness of a child. Unfortunately, she also had the discipline of a child, which was to say, none. Does she honestly believe that men come with purchases of conveyances, as though a driver is little more than an extension of the cart? He cursed the horse he rode and the stableman who gave him such a useless mount for the day. The mare was impressive, white as the driven snow and trained to lift her feet brightly. She gave the impression she was prancing on tiptoe in a parade, as though showing off to royalty and a fine cheering crowd. The prance took a toll on his backside, and he was already tired of the bouncing in the unforgiving “dress” saddle.

He tried a different tactic. “Thank ye for coming out for a ride. I know it cannae be easy, riding sidesaddle. I trust yer faither had no objection?” She laughed. It was meant to be light, but the scorn in it was thick. “Him? Why should he care? This arrangement between us was his idea. Well, and your father, the laird. I dinnae think they’ll care overly much tha’ we’re alone. We have an escort.” William looked over his shoulder at the eight armed men behind them, four from each of the fathers sent as protection for the young couple.

It was as she said. They were hardly alone, to be sure. He had been in battles with fewer men at his disposal and won them, too. He gritted his teeth and kept the smile going from sheer stubbornness. Aileen was beautiful, likely the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Her hair looked long and luxurious, though it seemed too afraid to move from its pins and stays. She even had a lovely neck—long and straight and graceful. The sort of neck a man might want to kiss were the lady soft and willing. Oddly enough, though, it was surprising to him that she had a small mouth. When he turned away, he quite forgot the size, for it seemed vast and bottomless; a repository for the multitude of words which spilled from it.

Yet it was his father’s wish—and worse, his laird’s—that he marry her. So, much as he hated it, he would do as duty required and make her his own. The idea was about as appealing as riding into the lake in midwinter. He was well-assured that he could make the marriage a success. He would make it a success no matter how hard this proved. To do so was his duty, especially if he was to be laird when his father passed. He considered Aileen surreptitiously as they rode. She is a bonnie lass, to be sure, and a man could do worse with less. She’s nae bright, nor does she hold any truck with charity or compassion as far as I ca’ tell. So be it.

If she were cold, he would do his best to warm her. If she were greedy, he would sate her as best he could without selling his lands. There would be a compromise, but he would see to it that the alliance was written, if not in stone, then in flesh and bone. Besides, his heir would be the unification of their families. With this in mind, when it was time to take the holy vows, he would do his part to make the alliance work. “I wanted to ride with ye today…” He changed the topic to the one no one had discussed since the girl and her parents arrived. The betrothal. Ultimately, it was already arranged. She had made the arduous journey as she had been bid, and they must be wed before her parents could return to their home. But there were formalities needing to be observed, and he wanted to know what he was in for.

He was also going to have a badly bruised tailbone from the damn prancing horse. He missed the destrier, though riding out with a lady on a warhorse was not exactly ideal when it came to courtship rituals. The stallion was dun-colored, thick, heavy, and ugly. It was also a smooth ride, and followed the lead as though able to read a man’s mind. “I wanted…” He cleared his throat and tried again. She’s a beauty. He kept that thought foremost, reminding himself there was a benefit of marriage to one such as she. Only, why was it that her beauty suddenly seemed a consolation, as though he would be getting the lesser end of a bad bargain? “I accept!” She clapped her hands and jumped a little in her saddle. Her palfrey thought ill of the movement and danced sideways. The movement was enough to make her grab onto the mane tightly and fight to stay on.

Good heavens, she could not even ride properly. She’s a bonnie lass…she’s a bonnie lass… “I only meant that…” In the distance, down by the river, a flash of dirty gold caught his eye. It looked as though a wave had been transformed after seeking the shore and was now deflecting the flow of the water. He squinted to see better against the glare. “My lord?” Her voice was flat, confused. She traded her gaze from him to the river and back again. When he glanced back at her, he could not help but note her expression had clouded and was becoming increasingly hostile. “My lord!” William stretched, but could see little. Something wasn’t right. He spurred his mount into a run.

At least this took the jarring walk away, the faster speed proving much smoother. He pointed the horse’s head into the light. He could hear the men and presumably his erstwhile fiancée running behind, but he wanted to be first, to see what lay half swept onto shore, half still in the water. His impression had proven true. The form he had seen had been a woman after all. Nay, merely a girl; young, though not a child. It was her blonde hair that streaked from the river that caressed the embankment, bright in the sun. William threw himself from his mount and, heedless of the mud, knelt down beside the lass. She was pretty, though not the studied beauty behind him, still on her horse. Under the mud, she held a natural beauty of her own.

As he carefully turned her over, he saw she wore a simple dress, sodden and clinging to her body in ways which pleased the eye though to note it felt wrong somehow with the way she lay so helpless. He focused instead on the blue fabric, noting the fine stitching, the quality fabric sturdy enough to not tear despite what the wearer had been through, though it was distinctly singed in spots. A lass who comes from means, then, he thought. He reached out to lay his hands on her neck. It was slender, but more muscled, the skin soft and warm. He felt for a pulse, and her neck throbbed under his fingers, though faint. “Harris!” He called his man’s name without looking up, knowing by now his man was surely there. “She lives. Take her back to the castle and into the hands of the healers.” “Aye, sir, we have her.

” “You were saying?” Aileen’s voice interrupted their conversation, peevish and complaining. William looked up from the transfer of the found girl to Harris’s horse. He’d forgotten that his betrothed was even there. “Something happened to the lass to leave her washed upon the bank in such a way.” He pulled himself into his saddle, pausing once settled to look upstream. His brow creased as he concentrated, as though doing so would enable him to see what he could not. “She has been burned afore tumbling into the water. If ‘tis an invasion, we must ken what the lass does.” He wheeled his horse and held back the reins. “I wouldnae cut our time short, if it werenae most urgent, which I ken ‘tis.

Yer men can escort ye back to the castle. For the sake of my people, I must hasten to deal wi’ the matter.” With a bob of his head meant to replace a proper bow, he kicked the horse, and the little show pony dug into the loam and ran. William cringed to think of the repercussions of this day, yet it was worth his father’s censure to get away from her, at least for a time.

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