The Laird’s Midnight Dancer – Ashe Barker

Aye, I thought as much… Euan Cameron, laird of Malaig Dun in the Scottish Highlands, reined in his horse and gazed down at the scene below. He was glad of the moonlight bathing the moors in its soft glow, and for once it was not raining. Had the weather been less clement he would have missed the spectacle unfolding, and that would have been a pity. Below him, in a circle etched by a ring of standing stones known locally as fir bhrèige, which he was given to understand translated from the ancient Gaelic as ‘false men’, nine undeniably female forms swayed and gyrated to a melody only they could hear. All were naked, silhouetted against the moonlit stones, their hair loose, their arms upraised as though reaching for some unseen deity. He recognised some, not all. There was Agnes Fairbright who when not cavorting in this manner could usually be found weaving rather fine cloth on the loom by the door to her cottage. And yes, if he was not mistaken, there was her eldest daughter, Ceit. The girl was barely seventeen summers and already, it would seem, drawn to the ancient supernatural arts. He spotted a woman from a village a few miles away on the other side of the loch, and was fairly certain the last time he had laid eyes upon her was when she accompanied her husband to pay him the tithe they owed for the patch of land they had tilled faithfully these last twenty years or so. She had nine children at home, and he could not help wondering where she found the energy for this night’s caper. The others were strangers to him, but for one. The one he sought. And yes, there she was, swirling around right at the heart of the circle. Flora Brodie, granddaughter to Auld Ailsa Brodie, who everyone agreed had been a witch.

Not a bad witch—well, he supposed mostly not bad, though there had been that time Angus MacRuairi imbibed a tad too much ale and somehow managed to trample through Ailsa’s carefully cultivated herb garden on his way home. He had barely left the privy for the better part of a week. Or the occasion when young Flora, aged no more than eight summers, was chased off the neighbouring estate where she had been foraging for fallen apples. She had wandered on to Achingall land, domain of Duncan Reid, lord of that keep, and she had sworn that she was there by accident. Euan had his doubts. Even at that tender age, Flora Brodie knew every inch of the landscape surrounding his stronghold at Malaig Dun. She was as likely to get lost in her grandmother’s back garden. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, Duncan Reid’s ghillie had set his dogs after the wee girl, and she was lucky to escape unscathed. No one was especially surprised to hear that four of the hounds had dropped dead within a week, and the ghillie himself was seized with a fever and took to his bed for the best part of a month. No one messed with Auld Ailsa, or those close to her.

Ailsa Brodie had been dead these past two years, having passed peacefully in her sleep at the ripe old age of seventy-three. Now Flora, the child she had raised from being a baby, lived alone in their isolated cottage up on the glen soaring above Euan’s keep. Flora’s mother had lost her life giving birth to the squalling baby girl, and no one had any idea who her father might be. Ailsa had taken the child on without a murmur of complaint and raised her to run wild across the glen. Flora Brodie’s solitary home was barely visible from the north tower of Malaig Dun, but Euan was known to keep an eye out for smoke spiralling up from the turfed roof, a sign that all was well. He would have much preferred Flora to come and live within the confines of the castle and had suggested as much on more occasions than he cared to remember, but she refused to consider such a thing. “What would I find tae do in yer fine castle, laird?” she had demanded. “Sweep yer floors an’ serve at yer table?” In fairness, Euan found it impossible to visualise the wild and wayward Flora Brodie performing such tasks with any degree of alacrity, but he was quite convinced a suitable role could be contrived. In fact, he had something particularly suitable in mind. She thought otherwise and stayed where she was.

His cock twitched beneath his thick plaid woven in his clan colours He should not be surprised. The sight of nine naked females dancing wildly in the moonlight would be sufficient to stir the blood of a corpse. But his arousal was not for the other eight. He was only interested in Flora, and his interest in that particular female was very keen indeed. He shivered. Despite the clear, still night, or maybe because of it, the air was bitterly cold. He wondered at the fortitude of the women who willingly set aside their clothing in the middle of a Scottish winter in order to offer up proper homage to their pagan deities on this winter solstice. He was far from convinced that anything resembling such devotion would be on display in the kirk this coming Christmas morn, though he was quite convinced that all of the women he now beheld would be on their knees offering up thanks to the dear Lord. All would be warmly dressed for the occasion, he had no doubt. The ritual appeared to be coming to an end.

The heathen cavorting slowed until the women all sank to the ground. They lay on their backs, each one as still as the earth beneath their heaving bodies. The show was over, and it was time to leave. Euan tugged on his horse’s reins and turned the animal’s head to the north. He dug in his heels to urge the mount into a cautious canter across the springy heather. He still had work to do this night. ***** Flora trudged the final two miles back to her cottage. The sky had clouded over, extinguishing the moonlight which had illuminated her way earlier. She was forced to pick her way with care. Despite the pitch blackness, she knew every inch of the route home, and her steps never faltered.

She crested the final hill and smiled. Astray shaft of moonlight betrayed the wisps of smoke rising from her roof. He was there, and he had lit her fire for her. She opened her door and peered into the one-room dwelling. As she expected, a fire blazed in the central hearth, and if she was not mistaken, the distinct aroma of rabbit stew filled her nostrils. She stepped inside and beheld the tall, dark-haired man who lounged in her one chair, his booted feet angled towards the dancing flames. Flora’s stomach clenched. Desire curled somewhere deep within. He was a handsome devil, this laird of hers, and an arrogant one, too. “Ye’re here,” she stated, her lips curling in the smile of welcome she could never contain around him.

“Aye. Come here,” he replied. She trotted across to where he sat and bent to lay a soft kiss on his lips. “I am glad tae see ye.” His eyes gleamed in the firelight. “You look good yourself, Flora Brodie.” He paused, then added, “I watched, earlier. Up at the stones.” “I ken that. I saw ye.

” He nodded. He had not been trying to conceal his presence there. “Are you done for tonight?” She held out her hands to the crackling blaze. “Aye, I am.” “You must be cold. I prepared a bath for you. The water is still nice and hot.” “A bath?” She swung about to face him, then spotted the tub he had set on the other side of the fireplace. “For me?” “Aye, to help warm you after…that.” Handsome, arrogant, and considerate.

It was easy to love this man. “Ye’re a good man, laird.” She started to unfasten her cloak. He just raised one eyebrow and settled back while she continued to remove the rest of her clothing. She slanted him a bright smile when, briefly, she stood naked before him, satisfied to note the way he shifted in his seat. It delighted her that she could arouse him just by the sight of her body. She stepped into the tub then sighed in contentment as she lowered herself into it, the warm water reaching almost to her breasts. Leaning back, she closed her eyes. “Ah, t’is good. Thank ye, laird.

” “Euan,” he corrected. She opened one eye and arched a delicate eyebrow. “Euan, then. Is that a drop o’ Maggie’s rabbit broth I can smell?” “Aye, it is.” Maggie MacCulloch was the cook at Malaig Dun. He had raided her domain before setting out this evening and brought a jug of her broth with him. “She sends her regards. We both thought you might welcome a wee warming bite after your outing this night.” “That was verra kind o’ Maggie. I shall drop by wi’ a basket o’ herbs for her just as soon as Christmas is over.

” He grunted and got to his feet, then dragged the chair he had just vacated closer to the tub. He set it down with the back facing Flora and settled himself astride it, his elbows resting on the back. She eyed him warily. She knew that look. “We need to talk, Flora…” Aye, that look… “…about Mistress Shaw’s pig.” Ah, that. “What did you do, Flora?” His expression had become stern, his tone chilled. Flora shrugged. “’Twas hardly my fault. Aggie Shaw is a whey-faced old trout.

Can I help it if she chooses tae send that daft lad o’ hers tae market?” He was not to be deflected. “Flora, what did you do?” “She’s a mean-spirited auld lubberwort. She should nae ha’ spoken ill o’ my grandmother.” He offered no comment, but by his irritated expression she was left in no doubt that he still expected some sort of explanation. “Ye have come all the way up here tae chastise me, then? As well as make up my fire an’ bring me broth.” She thrust out her lower lip. “What does Aggie say I did?” “She is convinced that you used your dark powers to transform that prize sow she bought from the market in Inverness into a weedy boar.” “Then she must be even more stupid than I thought. I wouldnae ha’ believed it possible.” “Maybe.

But she believes you did this thing and is rattling about telling her tale to all and sundry. There are plenty more round here who are ready to believe in sorcery and witchcraft.” “Superstitious lackbrains, the lot o’ them.” “You did not deny it, when she accused you.” “Aye, because it is too ridiculous. Dark powers, indeed. Must I fret o’er every fuddle-brained notion that enters that woman’s head? She sent her boy tae purchase the beast, an’ he couldnae tell a sow from a boar. Wee Murdo was cheated by the market trader who must ha’ realised he’s not all there. Aggie Shaw should ha’ kenned better than tae send Murdo tae Inverness on his own, or maybe she could ha’ taken a good look at the animal hersel’ afore flingin’ accusations about.” “You told her it served her right.

She took that as tantamount to a confession and is demanding that you be burned as a witch.” The next scathing retort died on Flora’s lips. “She…she what? She said that?” “She did. She is accusing you of witchcraft.” He shook his head. “I have warned you about this, more times than I can recall. You play a dangerous game, Flora, when you taunt your neighbours with your supposed powers.” “But I…” “Superstitious nonsense or not, there are enough who do believe in the dark arts, and they fear that which they do not understand.” “But I have never harmed anyone. You know that.

My grandmother taught me tae help where I can, wi’ remedies an’ herbs, maybe the odd potion…” “Aye, I do know that. You have a kind heart, just as Auld Ailsa did. But you have a hot temper, too, and it will get you into dire trouble one of these days.” She started to get up out of the tub. “I shall go tae see Aggie Shaw. I will explain tae her, tell her I am sorry…” “You’ll do no such thing. At least, not tonight. Finish your bath. I have spoken with Mistress Shaw and agreed to swap her runt of a boar for a fine sow of my own, on condition that she lets the matter drop. She is satisfied with the bargain, and I hope this will be the last we hear of it.

Until you go and antagonise someone else with that sharp tongue of yours, that is.” He leaned forward. “I can only protect you for so long, Flora, and you do not make it easy for me.” “I do not ask for your protection, laird.” She tipped her chin up, her customary belligerence reasserting itself now that the threat of being burned to death was receding somewhat. “Nevertheless, I am your laird and I am responsible for you. And for the likes of Aggie Shaw as well. She is entitled to justice. At the very least, I should take you back to Malaig Dun to spend a month or two in my dungeon. That will give you ample opportunity to consider my words and might go some way towards curbing your enthusiasm for mocking the superstitions of those around you.

” “You wouldn’t.” The prospect of being incarcerated in a dark, dank dungeon for weeks on end was almost as terrifying as the threat of a witch’s pyre. He narrowed his eyes. “I will have your word, Flora, that there will be no more of this nonsense. It has to stop.” “I swear it, laird. Euan…” He regarded her for several moments, then, “Very well. But this is the last time I will warn you. If I hear more complaints, you will be punished. Oh, and you owe me a pig.

” He got to his feet. “I shall leave you to enjoy the rest of your bath, and your supper.” He reached for the plaid he had dropped onto a chest and shook it out before draping it about his broad shoulders. With one final stern glower in her direction, he strode for the door. “Wait.” She knelt up, splashing water onto the rough earthen floor. “Please, dinnae go.” He paused in the narrow doorway and turned to face her once more. “There is something more you have to say to me, Flora?” “No, but…please. I want ye tae stay.

” “You think to wheedle your way out of my displeasure by offering me your body? Not that it would be other than a fine bargain…” He lowered his gaze from her face to her dripping wet breasts. His eyes darkened as desire bloomed. “You are a beautiful woman, Flora Brodie. It would be a shame to see you come to a bad end.” “An’ ye’re a beautiful man, laird. Will ye no’ stay wi’ me tonight?” His expression softened, and he stalked back to the side of the tub, then dropped to his haunches so his eyes were at the same level as hers. “If you are lonely, Flora, you know the answer to that. Come back to Malaig Dun with me.” “As yer servant? Or yer whore?” The words lacked any hint of rancour. Euan brushed his lips across hers.

“Neither. I have said I want you as my wife. At least then I could better protect you from yourself and your gullible, fearful neighbours.” She framed his face between her wet hands, the scruff of his dark stubble scratching her palms. “Ye cannae wed me, laird. Apart from the fact that I come from peasant stock, ye’re near enough betrothed tae Lady Arabella.” “I shall wed who I like, and it will not be Lady Arabella Reid, whatever she and her father may think. No agreement has been made, no promises exchanged.” “That is no’ her story…” “I care not for that. You know full well that I mean to wed you, eventually.

I have told you so often enough. I cannot see why you do not make the matter simple for all of us and just agree now. We could be wed by Christmas.” “I cannae be yer lady, Euan. Ye must see that.” His response came in the form of a low growl. He slanted his lips across hers again.


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