My Highland Warrior – Miriam Minger

By God, am I tae wed or not?” No answer came as Gabriel MacLachlan’s impatient roar echoed around the cavernous great hall, his mute and wide-eyed entourage staring at him as if he had grown two heads. Mayhap he had. Swearing under his breath, Gabriel glanced at his russet-haired cousin, Finlay MacLachlan, who shrugged his massive shoulders. The other three hardened warriors who had accompanied him from the training field— his kinsman, Alun MacSorley, and the strapping black-haired brothers who had been Gabriel’s fast friends since childhood, Cameron and Conall Campbell—cast looks at each other and then shrugged as well. “Didna you tell me the woman awaited me in the hall?” Alun nodded, his broad, scarred face streaked with sweat and grime. Yet he had no sooner opened his mouth to speak when Gabriel spun around at the commotion behind him. His steward, Tam, stout as a herring barrel and huffing from exertion, caught up with him and leaned upon a trestle table to catch his breath. “Laird…och, Laird, forgive me! She wouldna wait here but insisted she be taken directly tae the chapel. All is in readiness for your wedding, the priest, the proper documents waiting tae be signed—” Gabriel’s vehement oath silenced Tam, whose pale blue eyes grew as large as his mouth was round. Swiping his callused fingers through his damp hair more dark brown than red, Gabriel stormed past the astonished steward while his four witnesses fell into grim-faced step behind him. He had appointed his trusted captains as such when he heard the news that his expected visitor had arrived. Taller than all of his men, Gabriel lunged up the tower steps three at a time, more than eager to be done with the unwanted ceremony. The heavy oak chapel door gave way with one fierce thrust, slamming into the wall and causing the boyish-looking priest, Father Timothy, to jump and cry out. Gabriel paid no heed as the young man scurried behind the white-clothed altar, but stared instead at the tiny wizened woman in a nun’s habit who looked as if the barest breeze would topple her. Gabriel saw that she trembled, her face as pale as death, but she lifted her chin and stared steadily back at him in a manner that filled him with grudging admiration.

“Laird…” Tam said in a wheezing voice as he pushed his way past Gabriel’s men into the cramped chapel to make introductions. “Your bride by proxy, Sister Therese from the Carmelite order near Dumbarton. Sister…my honored laird—” “Gabriel MacLachlan.” His steely pronouncement ringing in the chapel, Gabriel spared the barest nod at the priest and took his place beside the silent nun who stood no higher than his elbow. Sister Therese shifted slightly away from him, no doubt as uncomfortable to be so close to a man as that Gabriel knew he reeked from training his warriors for battle. The small room stank of sweat, dirt, and horse manure, the air stuffy and warm. When Sister Therese suddenly seemed to sway, Gabriel caught her arm, the flesh and bone as insubstantial as a twig. “I willna faint, Laird,” she said in a shaky voice, still trembling beside him. “I will see this thing done, poor wee lass. May God protect her.

” Gabriel said nothing, but the look he gave Father Timothy made him rush through the wedding ceremony as if in fear of his life. Gabriel barely heard the sacred words, or Tam’s labored breathing, or Sister Therese’s murmured prayers from lips as thin and dry as parchment. Paupers cannot be choosers. The thought rang in his brain like a great iron bell tolling across the countryside, while the recent memory of Seoras MacDougall’s self-satisfied laughter churned in Gabriel’s gut. “How more fortunate could any man wish tae be?” the earl had declared with an amused grin while his richly dressed courtiers had snorted and snickered behind their sleeves. “A fat dowry that will surely restore that heap of crumbling stones you call a castle and my bonny sister, Magdalene, as your bride.” Snickers erupted into guffaws, Seoras’s massive torchlit hall ringing with mirth. “My father’s precious wee Princess, or so he called her. I remember her as more a pest before she lost her wits, but a lunatic will breed the same as any other wench. She’s all yours now, MacLachlan, and for no greater price than that you and your men protect my lands against that usurper Robert the Bruce and his followers.

What say you, man? Will you do it?” All laughter had suddenly ceased. Everyone waited with bated breath upon his answer while the man whose clan to whom Gabriel’s forbears had sworn fealty leaned forward in his chair and stared shrewdly at Gabriel… “Laird?” Father Timothy’s quavering voice brought Gabriel sharply back to the ceremony, his own voice sounding cold and hollow to his ears. “Aye, I take Magdalene MacDougall as my wife.” The priest audibly sighed. Sister Therese none too subtly eased her arm from Gabriel’s grasp, although she still mouthed her prayers while the necessary documents were signed. Indeed, as the old nun had intended, she had seen the thing done. Gabriel was wed. Without waiting for the benediction or any words of congratulations, he pushed through his men and stormed from the chapel. Aye, God protect his bride…and God help him. “H C H A P T E R 1 eaven help us, Reverend Mother, Magdalene’s naked in the fountain!” Sister Agnes squeezed her eyes shut against Sister Tabitha’s frantic cries.

She clenched her folded hands as tightly, her head bowed in fervent prayer. “We tried tae catch her, but she was too quick on her feet! One moment she was walking quietly with Sister Hestia—well, she first ran after a lovely wee butterfly, then splash! Water everywhere!” Sister Agnes pressed her curled fingers to her forehead, less in supplication than that a dull throbbing had begun between her brows. Opening her eyes, she stared at the plain gold crucifix atop the altar while Sister Tabitha buzzed around her like a plump, agitated bumblebee. “Off went her gown! She stripped every stitch of clothing from her body! Now she dances and laughs—” “Poor crazed child. Let her laugh while she may.” With a resigned sigh, Sister Agnes rose with Sister Tabitha’s assistance from kneeling upon the cold paving stones, her knees aching. Her heart ached, too, pity filling her. She had prayed long and hard for guidance, wondering how best to tell Magdalene MacDougall of her marriage by proxy. Wondering if the young woman would fully comprehend her words. Somehow Sister Agnes must prepare her, and it seemed the time had come.

After, of course, they managed to coax her out of the fountain… “Reverend Mother, you must hurry!” Her plain, pinched features stricken with alarm, Sister Hestia flew toward Sister Agnes and Sister Tabitha as they left the chapel and turned into a walkway. “Word has just come that riders approach the convent! They’re heavily armed, too, with crimson banners flying. Do you think it’s him?” “Jesu help us.” Sister Agnes hastened along the walkway and descended the steps leading into the courtyard with a nimbleness that belied her threescore years, the two younger women hard upon her heels. Shielding her eyes from the bright afternoon sun, the late spring day unusually warm, she beheld a scene of pure bedlam. A dozen drenched nuns surrounded the large circular fountain where Magdalene cavorted like a water nymph, her laughter filling the air as she eluded every outstretched hand. “Reverend Mother, what shall we do?” cried a young nun in shrill frustration, soaked to the skin. “She’s as slippery as a trout!” “Sister Hestia, fetch a cloak—quickly!” Sister Agnes turned back to the melee as the gangly nun rushed to obey. She winced as another nun made a valiant lunge at Magdalene only to tumble sidelong into the waist-deep pool. Feminine shrieks echoed around the courtyard while Magdalene giggled with delight and twirled in a spray of glittering droplets.

At any other time, Sister Agnes might herself have laughed at the sight. Her indulgence of her highborn charge knew no bounds. Yet riders were fast approaching… Swept by fresh pity, she hastened to the edge of the fountain as the other nuns stepped aside and eyed her with relief. Magdalene spied her, too. A brilliant smile lit her lovely face, but then she jumped behind the cascading water as if to hide from the one woman who had usually been able to reason with her. “Magdalene, I need you tae climb out of the fountain. Will you do that for me, child?” A defiant fling of wet tawny-blond hair greeted Sister Agnes’s urgent plea. Magdalene sank beneath the pool’s surface for a brief moment only to resurface in an exuberant burst of spray, her glistening tresses clinging to her slender torso. Sister Agnes wiped the cool moisture from her face and wondered in awe if mythic mermaids were ever so fair. Yet what good was incomparable beauty to the poor soul? Sister Agnes had decided long ago that Satan’s own treachery had played a part in turning a young woman so physically blessed into a wretched lunatic.

Thankfully, Magdalene acted like the sweetest child most times, as easily pleased by simple delights—a butterfly, a flower, a trill of birdsong—as she went docile as a lamb to her bed at night. Yet sometimes she would erupt into unpredictable fits of wildness where they never knew what she might do. Fearing this afternoon’s chaos was one of those occasions, Sister Agnes reached out her hand in another attempt to coax Magdalene from the water. “We’ve important visitors drawing near tae the convent, child. It wouldna be a fit thing for them tae see you unclothed. Please take my hand. Magdalene…please.” Sister Agnes could not guess whether the quiet urgency in her voice or that Magdalene had begun to shiver made the young woman wade toward her. Chilled fingers touched hers, and Sister Agnes grasped them with firm gentleness. “Good, good, that’s my sweet lass.

Climb out and Sister Hestia will cover you with a cloak.” Sister Agnes nodded to the tall nun, who approached cautiously. The rest of the women stood frozen in place, no doubt holding their breath for fear Magdalene might defy Sister Agnes at the last moment. To her immense relief, she watched as Magdalene threw one lithe leg over the edge of the fountain and then the other. Sister Agnes held fast to her hand as Sister Hestia whisked the black garment around Magdalene’s shoulders. “That’s fine, Sister Hestia, now step away. Here, child, hold the edges together tightly and soon you’ll be warm.” With sea green eyes as wide and trusting as a babe’s, Magdalene did as she was told while Sister Agnes allowed herself a long, slow breath of relief. Yet the battle was not won. She still had to tell Magdalene about her marriage, and those riders would surely arrive at any moment.

Sending a silent prayer heavenward, Sister Agnes drew the young woman toward a stone bench close to the fountain. “Come and sit with me, Magdalene. We must talk.” At Sister Agnes’s words, the nuns scattered to the recesses of the courtyard and huddled in groups, some wringing water from their sodden clothes while others folded their hands to pray. Sister Agnes drew Magdalene down beside her, very much aware of the nervous glances thrown their way. She ignored them and focused upon the innocent soul who had grown so very dear to her after four years at the convent. Intense maternal feelings welled inside her, and she enfolded Magdalene’s free hand in her own. “Dearest child, where shall I begin? I told you visitors were coming soon. They ride here tae see you, Magdalene.” Sister Agnes felt her throat close with emotion.

She waited for some response, but a trio of brown swallows dipping and darting high above the convent roof had distracted Magdalene. Urgently, Sister Agnes touched her cheek to regain her attention. “You must listen tae me, Magdalene! The riders come for you. They must take you away with them—” “Away?”

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