Prisoner of the Highlander – Kate Robbins

The incessant pounding on the portcullis rang in her ears. Annabella Beaufort squeezed her cousin Joan’s hands and prayed it would be all over soon. Though she had been told there was no way the “filthy Highlanders” could penetrate the castle’s defences, she had to give them credit for their persistence. “Will they never back down?” she asked her cousin—the queen consort. “I have never known a Scot or a Highlander to back away from anything. But I fear my husband has infuriated this particular lot one too many times,” she said, while rubbing her heavily pregnant belly. “And you believe we are safe here in the chapel, so close to the gates?” “I believe we would be safe anywhere inside these gates. They will not be permitted entry unless my husband wishes it, no matter how much clamour they create.” Annabella hoped that was true, but the pounding had not let up for hours. They were not allowed to walk the battlements of the castle, so could not see just how many men posed this threat. She and her cousin had been exploring St. Margaret’s Chapel when the attack had occurred, and had been instructed by passing guards to bar the door from the inside. They should have returned to Linlithgow Palace to pass their noon meal an hour ago; instead, they were holed up in a tiny chapel with the constant clanging outside. Surely this was how madness began. And then it stopped.

The queen looked at her with raised eyebrows. Annabella went to the door and placed her ear against it. She could not discern any individual sound outside, rather a growing roar of men shouting and steel clashing against steel. The windows to the chapel were all stained glass, depicting various persons of importance to Scotland including St. Margaret herself, St. Columba, and St. Andrew. Seeing what was going on outside was not easy, but Annabella had to know. She stood on her toes, and then leaned left and right to peer around the image of William Wallace in order to gain a better view of the outside, to no avail. “Do you think they found a way through?” she said, turning toward her cousin who was now doubled over.

“Cousin! Please tell me the babe does not come early!” The older woman drew in several short breaths and then slowly straightened her body. “It has passed and was only a twinge.” The last thing Annabella wanted at that moment was to bring a babe into the world. Not that she would not know how, but she’d witnessed it before and this was Joan’s eighth. Still, so much could go wrong and this small chapel was no place for it, especially with an attack happening just outside. Annabella turned back to the window. Shapes moved about, but the vibrant coloured windows would not permit a clear view. When Joan doubled over again and the air hissed through her teeth, Annabella turned and reached for the door. “No! You must not open that door. We do not know who is outside,” Joan warned.

“If we stay here out of sight, the danger will surely pass us by.” “I will not allow your child to come into this world on a cold stone floor. I am no midwife, and you need help. I shall peek out and see if there is a way to acquire a guard’s attention.” “Please be careful. I do not want to give birth here, either, but I would rather live to do so wherever it may be.” Annabella could not argue with that. She turned her head and leaned toward the door again. This time there was no sound for her to decipher. She carefully lifted the round metal latch on the wooden door and pulled just enough to peep through.

There did not appear to be anyone near the cannons nor along the main cobblestone walkway. She pulled the door open and stuck her head out. The sun shone so bright she had to squint to see the battlements. She could almost find humour in how she might appear to anyone who might be looking her way. But there was no one about. Annabella swung the door wide and stepped out onto the stairs. The walkway leading to the portcullis appeared abandoned. Where could everyone have gone in such a short time? The air was warm, and a gentle breeze lifted her unbound hair. A noise behind her made her turn to the left and look out toward the end of the battlements. Three guards ran toward her.

Thank God! She had not wanted to encounter a Highlander. She’d been told of their savage ways and how they were wont to rape and pillage. Surely God would judge them harshly when their time came. When the men had almost reached her, they stopped. All three were large men; the Scottish guards were each impressive, but these were larger still. And one in particular was even more so. He turned in her direction and walked toward her. “Will you assist us?” she asked him. “Us assist you?” he asked with raised eyebrows and a smirk. His hair was flaxen and his green eyes sparkled like gemstones.

“Yes. My cousin, the queen, is with child and needs a midwife.” The man’s smile disappeared. As if on cue, Joan let out a mighty cry from within the chapel. She stumbled out through the door. “I can ride. I want to return to the palace now.” “But that is a long ride, and in your condition we should go to the infirmary here,” Annabella said, wrapping her arms around her cousin. Joan leaned forward. “You there.

Can you secure a carriage? You will escort me to the palace immediately.” The man scrubbed his beard as he considered them. “Hamish,” he said over his shoulder, “do you think you can secure a carriage for the queen and her cousin?” “Aye, Angus. I can.” “Do it then, man.” He stood at the base of the stairs and swept his hand toward the narrow cobblestone walkway leading out through the gates and onto the esplanade of the castle grounds. “Graham and I will accompany you out through the gates.” Annabella nodded and linked arms with her cousin, helping her along as swiftly as possible. Someone needed to teach these men some manners. They were in the presence of a queen and yet had not bowed to her.

Had she not been so concerned for Joan’s wellbeing, she would have taken the time to chastise them. “Did you help overpower the filthy Highlanders?” she asked, hoping the answer would be a resounding “aye”. It was an affirmation to which she was not well accustomed, though this part of the kingdom used it frequently. The two men exchanged a glance and grinned. “Aye, we have dealt with the filthy Highlanders. They will not be bothering anyone here again,” the one called Angus said. “I am relieved to hear it. Do you know what they wanted?” “They wanted their laird returned.” “Their laird? Is he imprisoned here?” “Aye, he was.” “He was released, then?” Talking to him was like pulling teeth! He did not appear to want to offer up any information freely.

When they were almost through the gates, Annabella risked a glance behind her. It was very odd that there were no other guards about. The sound of two horses and a carriage drew her attention back to the esplanade. “How did you manage that so quickly?” Angus asked. “Her carriage was already waiting for her. I relieved the drivers and told them we would see her safely to the palace ourselves.” Annabella could not imagine why the guard, Angus, found this funny. But laugh he did as he lifted the canvas flap at the back and pulled out the stepping stool to help them inside. Once she settled Joan onto the long padded bench and wrapped her legs in blankets, Annabella turned to the man. “Thank you for assisting us.

Please make haste, but have a care. That is, unless you want to bring a babe into the world with your own hands.” His eyes grew wide for a moment, then he nodded and let the canvas flap fall back into place. A few moments later, the carriage rattled along the muddy streets. It would take them a few hours to return to the palace this way, but as long as the babe stayed put in his mama’s belly, Annabella was happy enough to leave Edinburgh Castle behind her. * * * Angus MacDonald held the reins and guided the horses away from Edinburgh Castle, instructing Hamish to lose his guard uniform and make haste to Oban. He was almost afraid to breathe for fear that his good fortune would vanish, and at some point the real king’s guard would come rushing after them, having realized that he had just abducted the queen and her cousin. “Are we really doing this?” Graham asked, sitting beside him. “What choice do we have?” Angus lowered his voice to a whisper. “The king will not be reasoned with, and has left us with no choice but to resort to extreme measures.

” “Aye, but abducting his wife, who is about to give birth, does not seem very sensible. Are you prepared to be her midwife when the time comes? By the sounds of her cries back there, that time might not be too far away.” Graham was right. There was no way the woman could cross the Highlands in her condition, and Angus would not be responsible for the health of an innocent bairn. The cousin was another matter altogether. She had seemed pleasant enough and was more than comely, with her firm breasts and pouty little mouth. Her dark brown hair was curly and hung to her waist, bouncing as she walked along. Aye, she just might prove a fair exchange for his father. “Very well then, we will set her at Linlithgow and continue on with the other lass. Surely there is enough value in the cousin of the queen to force the king to release my father.

” “One would hope so. She is very beautiful.” Angus turned his head to regard his war chief and friend. “Are you developing designs on her already? That is not like you,” Angus said with a grin. In truth, it was very much like him, but Angus did not like the thought of the comely lass with his friend. “Do you care if I am? Surely you do not have designs for her.” Of course he did not. He was too busy trying to release his father and sort through the mess the auld laird had made before getting himself imprisoned. Plotting to usurp a king was not a good way to curry favour and keep the man off one’s back, by Angus’s estimation. And this king had proved more than troublesome.

Between his new laws meant to strip the nobles of their power, and an attack at Inverlochy the year before, King James clearly had his sights set on the MacDonald lands. But he would not have them. Not while Angus drew breath; even then, he planned to come back from the afterlife and haunt the man. “We will need to rid ourselves of the carriage and continue on horseback if we are to put a good distance between ourselves and the Stewart before nightfall,” he said. “I will not rest until we reach Oban and can safely hide.” “We cannot go inside the palace walls, not even to the courtyard. How are we going to get the queen inside and keep the cousin without getting caught?” It was a good question. Angus would have to work it out before they arrived at the palace, and he would need to be sure the plan was flawless. “This babe will make his or her appearance before we arrive at the palace,” a female voice said from behind him. Graham jerked beside him.

“Damn you, woman, you near made me jump from my seat,” he said. She laughed—a pleasant, soft peal that sent a small tingle into Angus’s belly. “You should stay back there with her and see to her needs,” he said. “We will get you to the palace as swiftly as we can, but remember, you are the one who asked us to ride softly. You cannot have it both ways. Either we get you there faster, or we get you there in one piece.” “And is there no compromise to be had between the two?” she asked. Angus turned his head to meet her gaze. Her eyes were dark brown and her brow was arched, giving her a playful appearance. His gaze dropped to her mouth, which was curled into a smirk.

He found himself staring at it, wondering what she might taste like. “The only compromise I can offer is that I will get you there as quickly as possible.” The queen cried out from inside the carriage and the cousin let the canvas flap drop. Angus turned to Graham. “We must be careful what we say.” “Agreed. At some point when you come to your senses, you will realize that your hasty decision may have far-reaching consequences.” “That may be so, but in the meantime, we have a woman about to give birth in a carriage, and I for one am not interested in adding midwife to my list of titles.” Graham laughed, but stopped as soon as the queen cried out harder. Angus weaved the horse and carriage through the winding streets of Edinburgh and headed west toward the Royal Burgh of Linlithgow.

In his mind he kept track of the timing between the sounds in the carriage, trying to figure a way to safely see the queen to help while holding on to his beautiful pawn. “I have an idea,” he said to Graham when they were only a couple of miles from the palace. “I will stop just ahead and say there is something wrong with one of the horses. Then I will take the cousin and ride toward the palace. Hopefully, we will find someone along the way who can go help her.” Graham started shaking his head even before Angus had the next words out. “You stay here with her until you see riders approaching, then take the second horse and follow me as quickly as you can. We will meet at Oban on the morrow.” “Why do I have to stay? Why can I not ride with the lass?” “You sound like a spoiled child,” Angus said, grinning. “So help me God, Angus, if she has that bairn while I sit with her, I will have your hide.

” “Careful what you say. You know you cannot best me.” Angus pulled on the reins and brought the horses and carriage to a halt. “Why are we stopping?” Her voice preceded her face, which popped out through the canvas flaps. “My cousin needs a midwife. Your queen requires your assistance. Why are we stopping? Answer me, man!” Angus looked at Graham and tossed his head in her direction, then shook it. “Demanding little thing, are you not?” “I am cousin to your queen, you will do as I say. Now get this carriage moving again or I swear I will—” Angus turned toward her again. “You will what? I do not think that a woman of your size can do much damage to a man of mine.

One of the horses appears injured. Do you wish me to ride the beast to its death?” She glanced at the horses and then back to him. “What is wrong with it?” “I do not know, which is why I stopped.” Without looking back at her, he hopped down to pretend to inspect the horse’s hindquarter. “It is worse than I thought,” he said. He stood, then and released the horses from the carriage. Tossing the reins of one to Graham, he led the other around to the back of the carriage and then tossed the flap open. “It appears one of the horses has acquired an injury. One horse cannot pull a carriage of this size.” He tried to keep his face impassive.

“Can you ride?” “You are addressing the Queen of the Scots. Have you no manners whatsoever?” He glanced her way and then back to the queen. “Well? Can you?” She shook her head. Her cheeks were flushed and she was perspiring. Her bairn was definitely on the way. He was sure she would welcome a break from the rocking carriage. “Very well,” Angus said. “Graham, you stay here and guard the queen. Her cousin and I will ride hard for Linlithgow.” “My name is Lady Annabella Beaufort, and I do not wish to leave her,” the lass said.

Angus had not anticipated this, and tried to conjure a reason to convince her to go with him. If she did not, he would have to force her and he did not want a screaming woman on his hands. Not, of course, unless she was screaming his name during a passionate encounter. He smiled. Then she could scream all she wanted. “You go and find old Meg, Annabella. You will no doubt locate her swifter than this lot,” the queen said. “Are you certain?” her young cousin asked. “Yes, I have a little time yet.” Angus let out a deep breath slowly.

This plan might just work, after all. He and Graham dragged the carriage to the side of the road, then he helped the cousin onto the uninjured horse and mounted behind her. This ride would be interesting.

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