Taming a Highland Stallion – Alisa Adams

Pain. The horses’ pain surrounded him. So many of them. Hurt. Standing in their stalls, depending on him. His hands shook and trembled as he hurried on wobbly legs towards his room off the main stable. He tripped in the dimness of the aisleway between the stalls where only the faint light of dawn had managed to creep in. The young groom following him caught his arm. He hurried on, passing his patients. Some of them managed a weak, pain-filled nicker or a groaning neigh from their stalls. His old legs were threatening to give out. He could not take it anymore. He hurried into his room and sat down in the worn-out chair at his small desk. He scribbled off a letter to the only student he trusted. His days at The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh were now past.

He had taken on and taught many apprentices, but there was one he had in mind that was more brilliant than the others. This is the one he urgently needed. One particular student that he had taught everything he knew. One person who normally would never have been allowed to apprentice at all. But he had fought for this person and gotten them accepted. He scrubbed at his face with both hands as worry, fear, and exhaustion threatened to overtake him. He would be putting this person in danger, but he did not know what else to do. He sealed the letter and handed it to the young groom who had stood patiently beside him while he wrote. The boy left the stable at a run with the letter in his hand. He gave a great sigh and scrubbed at his face again.

He was so tired, so very tired and unsure of what to do. He could not deny his feeling that this was all his fault. And now this latest turn of events… He turned back to his desk and picked up his quill. He quickly dipped it back in the inkwell and tapped off the excess black ink. He must finish writing his observations in his book of the latest injuries inflicted on the laird’s horses. They were getting more and more horrific. He knew so much now. Too much. He needed to write it all down. He bent over his small book and began to write.

A sudden splatter of red appeared across the pages as he felt a sharp stinging to his throat. His quill fell from his hand. The world went dark as he slumped forward onto the desk. His cheek landed in the stillwet ink of his little book, smudging the words he had just written there. K 1 inloch Castle Parish of Kinlochervie Northwest Highlands Scotland 1700s “Ye are not a man!” Laird Rane MacLeod said in a deep, smoky voice as he stopped and stared in shock at the young woman. The girl was sitting atop a Clydesdale stallion outside his castle gate, staring calmly back at him. Lady Gillis Ross sighed. She stared at the intimidating man who stood there in a black kilt, black boots, and sweaty linen shirt with the sleeves mostly cut off. His arms were crossed as he stood at the entrance to the gate with a fiery, smoldering look of challenge in his eyes. As if he could single-handedly guard the entire castle by blocking the gate.

And she imagined this man probably could. Aunt Hextilda reached up from her pony’s back and tapped her niece’s boot. “Weel noo, at least the mon has eyes in his head,” she whispered up to Gillis. The tiny nose and brown eyes of Duke, the little dog she carried bundled in her shawl, peeked out curiously. Gillis quickly glanced down at her aunt with a small smile. “Wheesht, Aunt Hexy! Ye promised ye would let me handle this on my own! Keep yer wee dog in yer shawl else he starts barking or growling, please.” Aunt Hexy ignored her niece but tucked Duke back into her shawl. “He is a fine-looking mon…” she whispered up to her niece without taking her eyes off of the angry, but incredibly handsome laird glaring at her niece. “Och, here he comes, Auntie,” Gillis whispered. Gillis watched from atop her horse as the intimidating laird strode through Kinloch Castle’s gates towards her.

He was clearly furious. The men at the gates had not let her in when she had told them who she was. Instead, they had laughed at her. Then they had gone to get their laird. Laird Rane MacLeod stopped in front of her. He looked up; from her booted foot, past her long, pale blue, tartan skirts that outlined the delicate length and curves of her leg, to her tiny waist. His eyes lingered on her pert breasts and then traveled up further, to her face. Gillis bit her lip to keep herself from saying something she oughtn’t. He was trying to intimidate her, of course. She was glad that she was on one of her cousins’ Clydesdales’ offspring.

The large, young stallion she was on was trained by her and her cousins, the four Ross sisters. At the end of his training, he had been given to a very excited Gillis. Gillis started to pull her letter out of her pocket. “M’Laird, I have a letter—” Rane MacLeod looked up at the girl sitting on the huge draft horse’s back. He frowned at her, his brows furrowed and jaw clenched tightly. “Ye are not a man,” he said again. It was an accusation. “Indeed, I am not,” Gillis said with an arched brow. “Ye dinnae look like a laird,” she stated as she studied him closely. She looked at the tall, imposing, dark-haired laird staring at her with brooding, deep brown eyes and the blackest of black eyelashes.

His skin was bronzed almost to an olive color from being out in the sun. His damp shirt clung to his wide shoulders, and she watched in fascination as his chest rippled with muscle as he tensed in anger at her response. His hips were narrow where his black kilt draped over tight, muscular buttocks. He had long, powerful-looking legs—from what she could see of them just below his black kilt. He stood with his legs braced in dusty black boots that had a scattering of sweaty horse hair stuck to them. His large, strong hands were on his hips as he looked up at her with narrowed eyes. He ran one of those hands angrily through his dark hair, pushing it off his face and back from his shoulders. Sweat glistened and ran damply through the strands of hair around his face and down into the V of his open shirt. Where his sleeves were cut off, Gillis could see big, powerful shoulders and strong, sinewy arms that glistened with sweat. It appeared she had pulled him from the practice field.

Or some other rigorous task. “Are ye daring to quarrel with me, lass?” he said quietly in his deep timbered voice. It was a warning. Gillis knew this. She did not care. This was her first position, and she would not be told to leave before she even was given a chance to prove herself. She snapped her fingers and smiled firmly at him. “I believe that it will take two arguments to make a quarrel.” He stared at her with narrowed eyes. “Nay, ye are wrong.

” “I most certainly am not,” she said stubbornly. “Ye are,” he said obstinately. She could not help herself. She was so tired. It had been a long and arduous ride here over rocky, mountainous terrain full of beautiful, craggy peaks and the bluest lochs she had ever seen. Magical hills and slim valleys covered in gorse and heather whose colors made you want to weep. But so mountainous, it had been exhausting. No wonder it is called “The Rough Quarter,” she thought. She was giddy with the need for sleep, giddy with hunger. She knew her horse needed to rest as well.

And Aunt Hextilda definitely needed to eat and rest. Exhaustion bubbled up within her. She laughed. She actually laughed. At the laird. The man she wanted to work for. His eyebrow raised slightly as he silently looked up at the young woman on the big, bright chestnut Clydesdale stallion with the flaxen mane and tail and four white, feathered socks. He was a beautiful animal and obviously well bred. The laird’s eyes strayed back to the woman who was sitting as naturally and comfortably on the huge stallion as if she was lounging in a parlor chair taking tea, laughing at some drawing-room joke. She was not a beauty, but there was something about her face.

Its features all came together in a perfect unity that made her truly lovely. Her cheekbones were high and pinkened with the sun, her eyes large and shining. They were an interesting grey color with the longest lashes he had ever seen. Her nose was perfect and straight, and her lips full and generous. Her mouth was open in laughter, showing straight, white teeth. Her hair was a plain brown but streaked with bits of pale gold here and there where the sun touched it. He found himself staring. Rane MacLeod shook himself and glared up at her. “Ye dare tae jest? What dae ye think is sae funny that ye laugh?” he asked in a low voice full of quiet warning. Gillis looked at him, her eyes crinkling at the corners as she stifled her exhausted laughter and smiled at him.

“I am not wrong, for I am indeed not a man.” He cocked his head and placed his arms across his chest, and expelled an angry breath. “The saying is ‘it takes two tae make a quarrel,’ lassy,” he said curtly. “Ye said it wrong.” She stared hard at him. Thinking. He stared right back. “He is correct, Niece,” Aunt Hexy said with amusement. Rane looked around the huge Clydesdale to see the old woman on King Bobby, her small pony. His eyebrows raised at the sight of the young girl on the huge draft horse and the grey-haired, old woman on the tiny pony standing in the shadow of the much larger horse.

“May we dismount and let our horses drink and rest?” Gillis asked. “Nay, ye may turn around and come back from wherever ye came from. We are waiting for Mr. Gillis Ross, the animal healer referred by Mr. Alexander Nisbit from the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh,” he ground out. “Not a wee lass.” She gripped her reins tightly in her hand. Her Aunt Hextilda and Aunt Agnes had warned her this would happen. Even Aunt Burnie had said so. The name Gillis could easily be taken for that of a man.

It was how she had gotten the apprentice position through the College of Physicians. They had assumed that the person who had the highest-ever entrance exam scores was a man. No woman had ever tried to enter the apprenticeship for Animal Healing. Having letters of recommendation from three very prominent ladies such as her three aunts had helped, however. Of course, her mentor, Alexander Nisbit, had also assumed she was a man. No woman would ever be allowed to do such a thing even if it was only to treat animals. Gillis had proved herself to be his best student, and Mr. Nisbit had become a very true friend. He was why she was here. He had left to help Laird MacLeod with all his horses months ago and had recently asked for his top apprentice’s assistance.

He had also implied something was amiss here at Kinloch Castle. Evidently, Mr. Nisbit had not told Laird MacLeod she was a female. Knowing her mentor, Gillis thought that Mr. Nisbit thought it would be quite the joke to play on the laird. Gillis sighed. Mr. Nisbit should have told the laird the truth about her. Once again, she faced a man’s opinion of what he thought a woman could not or should not do. Not what they had done, or most certainly had the skills and training to do.

She thought of her aunts and their tales of when they were her age. They had experienced and overcome many obstacles. They were the most remarkable of women. Any time Gillis had faltered or struggled in her efforts to break through into this man’s profession, her aunts had given her their strength and encouragement. And her Aunt Hextilda had been determined to accompany her all this way, as a chaperone, of course. “I assure you that I am the Gillis Ross you are waiting for, M’Laird,” she said in a strong, confident voice. “Lady Gillis Ross. Animal Healer. At your service.” “Nay,” he ground out as he looked steadily at her.

“Aye,” she said emphatically. “Ye are a woman,” he snarled. “An intelligent, educated woman that can help ye with yer horses,” she insisted. “Mr. Nisbit requested my help, and ye approved it. I have his letter.” She started to retrieve the letter from her skirt pocket once again, but his stern reply stopped her. “Nay,” Rane said again in a rough voice. “I am excellent with horses, M’Laird,” Gillis stated confidently. “We also breed horses here,” he said very quietly as he watched her face.

“Breed and train. Warhorses. ’Tis no place for a woman.” “I helped the very horse I am mounted on into this world. And I trained him as well,” she said with a snap of her fingers and a lift of her chin. Rane MacLeod scoffed. “’Tis no horse ye are on, lassie,” he snarled. Gillis nodded her head once, as regally as a queen. “But of course. This horse is a stallion.

An unneutered male. Or if ye prefer, an intact male. He is also a draft stallion from the Clydesdale region. Bred by the Rosses of Fionnaghal. He is by the Clydesdale stallion Bluebell out of the Clydesdale mare Whins.” Rane started coughing. To hear a woman use such words! He could not believe his ears. Then the stallion’s name hit him. “The stallion Bluebell? Ye mean the mare was named Bluebell, of course,” he declared. “Nay.

All the Ross Clydesdales of Fionnaghal Castle are named after the flowers of Scotland,” she said in a crisp voice, daring him to make fun of her cousins’ names for their horses. “And I suppose ye will be telling me the stallion ye are on has a flower name as well?” he challenged her with one eyebrow raised. Gillis nodded. “Not a flower, not really. He is Ragwort. Or Wort, as I call him.” The laird’s eyes widened. He made a noise like a laugh; a short, single, rusty laugh that showed his thick, strong, bronzed neck. “Indeed, not really a flower, but a weed,” he said with an arched eyebrow. “Ye named yer horse after a poisonous weed.

” He shook his head in disgust. “Women should not ride stallions, ’tis dangerous.” Gillis started to rebut that with why she had chosen such a name when she realized that he said she should not be riding a stallion because they were dangerous! Imagine Wort being dangerous! she scoffed to herself. Just as she was about to say something, she heard the ringing sound of hooves on stone. One of the laird’s men suddenly came riding through the gates. His horse was throwing its head and threatening to rear up. The horse was rolling his eyes in fear and pain, with its mouth wide open and straining against the bit. The man was rapidly losing control as the horse started bucking and then rearing. “Laird! He is no better for me than he was for ye when ye rode him moments ago.” He glanced up at Gillis with a frown.

“Before ye were called away to the gate.” He looked back at his laird. “In fact, he is worse. I fear he will never be suitable for battle!” The man bailed off the horse’s back and held the reins as the horse quieted. Rane stared at the horse. His hands were on his hips, and his eyes were furrowed as he studied the sweating animal. He turned to Gillis. Placing his arms across his chest, he looked at her with a challenge in his eyes under an arched eyebrow. She smiled calmly back at him. “This behavior is only when mounted, I assume, since the horse immediately ceased when ye dismounted?” Gillis asked firmly.

The man scratched his head and looked at the horse with new eyes. “That is true, I suppose,” he said grudgingly. Then he looked from Gillis to his laird. “’Tis the saddle. Take it off,” Gillis ordered the man, interrupting the quizzical look he was giving his laird. The man looked back at her with a glare. “’Tis the same saddle he has always worn! Since he was a three-year-old colt!” he sneered at her. Gillis looked calmly down at the man. “Do ye wear the same shoes, the same clothing that ye did when ye were three years old?” she asked in a clipped voice. “Of course not!” the man exclaimed.

“So why would this horse, who clearly has more muscling than a young three-year-old colt, still fit in the same saddle he wore as a three-year-old?” she asked simply. “’Tis pinching his back and yer weight when on it is making it unbearable for him. Take off the saddle and look at the marks on his back. See for yerself.” The man scratched his head again and looked at his laird, who was staring silently up at Gillis. One large hand was stroking his chin slowly. Gillis looked at Rane MacLeod. “Ye didnae ask me here for help fitting saddles to yer horses’ backs. Mr. Nisbit wrote to me that ye have an immediate and urgent need for another healer tae help him with yer stallion herd.

” Gillis kept Mr. Nisbit’s warnings to herself, however, as she sat there on her horse, staring archly down at the imposing laird. She was silent, meeting his eyes confidently while she waited for his response. Finally, after many moments, he motioned to her. “Follow me,” Rane MacLeod commanded as he turned and strode back through the castle gates. Gillis patted her horse’s neck. She leaned down and whispered to him, “Here we go, Wort. We can do this.” She patted him again as she nudged him forward through the gates. “Och, wish me knowledge and sure hands that I may dae no harm, but only help and heal,” she added to herself.

Then she whispered urgently down to her aunt, “Remember, ye promised yer best behavior, Aunt Hexy, please!” Aunt Hexy either did not hear her, or perhaps she did not want to hear her. Rane MacLeod went into one of the rows of stables within the courtyard of the castle. He did not wait for Gillis, nor did anyone help her or Aunt Hexy off of their horses. Once inside the gate, Gillis glanced around the busy courtyard as she slid down from Wort’s back. The courtyard was set up entirely for the care of horses. She saw a blacksmith, a saddler, and a farrier. There were also rows upon rows of stables. Off to one side was a rectangular sand melange with a low stone wall around it for the training of horses. Gillis spotted another gate. She looked beyond it to see large paddocks and green fields full of more horses.

She looked around the courtyard and saw not one single woman amongst all the activity. Silence suddenly came as the lively courtyard ground down to a halt. Every man there in the busy courtyard stopped to stare at her. Some leered, others whispered amongst themselves. Aunt Hexy came and stood silently at Gillis’s side. “They act like they have niver seen a beautiful young lassy before,” she muttered to Gillis as Duke growled from under the protection of Hexy’s old tartan shawl. Gillis did not take her eyes off the men. “Och, Auntie, ye are kind, but we both know I am plain looking. I have a sharp mind, but not any beauty tae speak of.” Aunt Hexy frowned sadly and shook her head in disagreement.

Before Aunt Hexy could say anything to her niece, the man with the poorly fitted saddle led his horse inside the gates. He stopped when he realized it was quiet, and all the men within were just staring at the women. He clucked to his horse and began leading the horse straight through the middle of the courtyard. He called out to the men as he raised one arm towards Gillis, “Meet our new animal healer, men!”

.

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