Read the First Chapter!
For Love or Loyalty
Argyle, Scotland, 1760
A feeling of foreboding crawled over Malcolm MacGregor like a colony of insects picking at his skin. He gripped the reins as he inhaled the crisp March air, but it burned his lungs with the residue of tainted fire. A cloud of dark smoke hovered over the wee village of Inverawe—home. Fear coiled inside Malcolm’s gut as he urged his mount forward.
His brother kept pace beside him. At a score and four, Thomas was two years Malcolm’s junior. He favored Malcolm with the same stubborn chin and broad shoulders from hard work.
Distant moors lined the overcast sky. Morning fog hovered over the glen, blending with heavy smoke. As they drew near, their eyes stung and the burnt smell accosted them until they coughed. Keening scraped his ears like a tormented bagpipe.
They reached the stone huts, packed with dirt and straw roofs. At least the village homes weren’t on fire, as he originally feared. Piles of furniture and personal items burned in front of each hut. Sad faces and weeping echoed from every direction.
Malcolm’s throat constricted. His chest tightened in a mixture of compassion and fear for his family. He maneuvered his horse between the huts heading toward the center of the village, seeking the home where he had grown from a lad into a man. Engulfed in flames, it blazed to the sky.
“Mither an’ Carleen . . .” The words fell from Malcolm’s swollen tongue, stalling in the air as his thoughts shifted to their youngest brother, Graham. At only twenty, the lad would have done aught to protect the women in their absence.
“Malcolm, ye’re back!” Heather strode toward him, her eyes red and swollen. Words stalled upon her tongue, increasing his anxiety as he waited for her to collect her emotions and continue.
“What happened?” Malcolm asked, pulling his horse to a stop and dismounting. It was an effort to keep his voice calm, but he tried for Heather’s sake, though his insides quaked.
“‘Tis the worst.” Heather succumbed to tears, shaking with grief.
“What is it, lass?” Malcom shook her hoping to force her out of her temporary stupor.
“Where’s Mither an’ Carleen?” Thomas strode toward them, his voice betraying his fears.
Heather sobbed, falling against Malcolm’s chest. On instinct, his arms slipped around her. He looked up, his eyes questioning the rest of the villagers approaching with sorrowful expressions.
“The Campbells were here.” Roy strode forward, his red eyes weary with similar grief—his right eye swollen and his lip cut. Even in his late fifties, Roy was healthy and robust. It would have taken several men to bring him low. “They took Iona an’ Carleen.”
“Took them?” Thomas gave the elder man a look of disbelief. “Where?”
“How long ago?” Malcolm pressed Heather into the arms of her mother who came up behind her. He turned back to his horse and prepared to mount.
“Nay! There’s too many o’ them. Sixty or more.” A strong hand grabbed his shoulder. “Listen to me, lad. Ye canna help yer mither an’ sister if ye’re dead.”
“I’ve time to catch them if I leave now.” Malcolm pulled away. More hands grabbed him. He didn’t want to fight his own kinsmen, but they wouldn’t deter him from his mission. He had to act now before it was too late.
“Let me go!” Thomas yelled, fighting a similar battle.
“I’ve got ’im, Da.” Strong arms belted around Malcolm’s neck and jerked him backward, cutting off his air. Malcolm coughed. He swung his elbow into Alan’s ribs.
“Argh!” Alan¬ relaxed his hold, but didn’t let go.
“Listen to reason, lad. The rest o’ us are too auld an’ wounded to be fightin’ ye.” A fist from another angle slammed into his jaw. “But fight ye, we will, if it’s the only way to save yer life.” Roy’s voice echoed over the multiple hands and arms keeping him down.
Never had the villagers fought him like this. More dread pooled in the pit of his stomach as he realized there had to be a reason for their adamancy. What had they not yet told him? They were right. How could he and Thomas expect to best sixty or more Campbell men? This feat would require his wits, and he wasn’t thinking, only reacting.
“All right.” He clenched his teeth, willing his body to relax against their resistance. “Tell me why I shan’t go after them. It does not make sense to lose precious time.”
Following Malcolm’s example, Thomas also surrendered.
“Duncan Campbell came to collect the rents,” Roy said. “But he arrived with an army of warriors. He did not come hither on business as he claims. His purpose was to cause trouble an’ he chose yer family to be the example.”
“They were not supposed to come for another fortnight.” Malcolm jerked away from Alan who sported a bloody lip, already swelling, and a long sword gash upon his arm. Malcolm frowned. Only the Campbells would have been carrying broadswords. Blood soaked Alan’s sleeve, probably more so from his skirmish with Malcolm. Guilt lacerated Malcolm’s emotionally scarred heart. How long must they go on living like peasant pawns for the Campbells’ entertainment?
“They did all this over unpaid rents?” Malcolm lifted his hands in disbelief. “We took the cattle to market an’ we now have the rent. ‘Tis all for naught!” His voice cracked as he ran a hand through his hair. A deep ache twisted his gut.
“Listen to Da.” Alan wiped the back of his hand across his lip. “We need a plan. The Campbells want us to come after them in a mad rage. They have the king’s favor an’ all the wealth they need. We canna fall into their trap again.”
“We can gather more MacGregors an’ break into Kilchurn Manor.” Thomas walked over. The others stepped aside to let him through. “We’ll get Mither an’ Carleen out.” “We canna abandon them.”
“‘Tisn’t that simple. I wish it were.” Roy rubbed a wrinkled hand over his weathered face with a broken sigh. “Even if we gather more MacGregors from other parts of Argyll, we may not be strong enough to break through Duncan Campbell’s forces. He has too many allies. If we succeed an’ bring them home, how will we stop them from coming again?”
Roy and Alan stood still, watching Malcolm and Thomas as though they would tackle them again if need be. More villagers crowded around. All of them looked like a sorry lot, the men having been beaten, the women wearing expressions of grief and sorrow. Soot layered their faces, arms, and clothing.
"‘Tis possible they have taken them to a debtor’s prison,” Mary MacGregor maneuvered around her husband and son, “since yer mither did not have the rent money.”
“If that is the case,” Malcolm said. “They will have to release Mither an’ Carleen once I pay the rent.”
“Duncan raised the rents again, plus he’s charging interest,” Mary said. “He took our furniture an’ burned what he did not want.” Tears filled her eyes. “William an’ Graham are young an’ foolish to try to fight them. They killed William this day. How many more do ye think we can stand to lose?”
“An’ Graham?” Malcolm staggered at the news. He closed his eyes, rubbing his brows. William and Graham were inseparable. Had Graham suffered the same fate? Heather broke into more weeping and Malcolm’s chest tightened. The lass had been sweet on their youngest brother as soon as they could walk. Now he understood the extent of her grief. “Where is Graham? Did they take him, too?” Malcolm clenched his fists at his sides, attempting to calm the rising tide of anxiety. “Is he alive?”
“Aye, but barely,” Roy said. “I’m sorry, Malcolm. We tried to fight them, but there were too many . . .”
“Take us to ‘im,” Thomas said in a gruff voice, moving to stand beside Malcolm.
“Greg and Colin are tendin to ‘im. The Campbells beat him bad an’ hung ’im on a tree.” Roy’s voice faltered. “To make an example out o’ ‘im.”
“By the neck?” Malcolm followed Roy and Alan to their hut. Fear clawed at his heart and gripped his lungs, stealing the breath from him.
“Nay,” Alan said. “With his arms spread out. We think both shoulders are dislocated.”
They stopped before entering Roy’s hut. “They left us only one bed, so that is where we put ’im.” Roy held up a palm and shook his head. “Prepare yerself, lads.”
Malcolm bent through the threshold and blinked, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dim candlelight. Their small huts contained no windows for daylight to filter inside. He walked across the dirt floor to the tiny bed. Graham’s long legs hung over the side. His height matched Malcolm’s at six-four. Among the three brothers, Thomas was the shortest, shy of them by a couple of inches.
Colin looked up from where he hunched over stitching a wound in the lad’s side. Greg cleaned his bruised face from the other side. Neither of them spoke as they concentrated on their tasks.
Both Malcolm and Thomas dropped to their knees. Thomas groaned and gulped back a threatening cry. Malcolm searched for his voice, but it lodged in his throat as a sickening pain clutched his soul and wouldn’t let go. They stayed that way for several moments, trying to make sense of it all.
Colin cleared his throat. “The lad fought bravely, like a Highland warrior if ever I saw one.”
Graham disliked fighting. Unlike the rest of them, who thrived upon the sword, Graham had preferred his wits to outsmart the wretched Campbells. He held out in stubborn pride believing forgiveness and reason would bridge the great divide between the Campbells and MacGregors. Today, he had discovered the truth and his faith had almost cost him his life.
“Is he . . .” Still unable to say it, Malcolm laid a hand on Graham’s chest. A faint heartbeat pulsed beneath his palm. Malcolm closed his eyes in relief.
“He passed out from the pain when I reset his shoulders back into the sockets,” Greg said. “As soon as Colin stitches his side, we’ll bind his ribs.”
“At least he’s alive,” Thomas said, shaking his head in disbelief. “I always teased him about being the bonny son. Now look at ’im. I fear he won’t ever be the same again.”
“Graham was never vain.” Malcolm gripped Graham’s limp hand. “I worry ’bout the lad’s spirit an’ his broken ideals. He will blame himself for not saving Mither an’ Carleen. No doubt, he will feel naïve he ever thought reconciliation with the Campbells was possible.”
“Aye, ’twill take him a while to recover,” Thomas said with a sigh. “Did Mither an’ Carleen see what happened to ’im?”
“Nay,” Colin shook his head. “The Campbells split up. Scott Campbell took them away, while his father stayed behind to cause more damage.” Colin rubbed his eyebrows and sat back. “That one has the heart of the devil, he does.”
“I shall get revenge for our family an’ the whole MacGregor Clan. The Campbells have wronged us for two centuries. They have tried to wipe out the MacGregor Clan, an’ here we survive against all odds.” Malcolm raised a fist and growled. “This time, I care not what it takes.” Malcolm turned to Roy. “We shall send a scout to Kilchurn Manor to see if Mither an’ Carleen are being held there and the nearest debtor’s prison. We will move our family to Glenstrae under the protection of the MacGregor Clan Chief.” He shoved a hand on his hip and rubbed his eyebrow, fighting the onslaught of a headache and too much regret. “Should have done it a long time ago after Da died.”
“Ye were but a wee lad.” Roy shook his head. “Do not do this to yerself. ’Tisn’t yer fault.”
“Aye, ’tis time. I’ve tarried long enough. I almost lost my family because of it.” Malcolm glanced down at Graham, fear spiking inside him. He hoped it wasn’t too late.
"Where ye going?”
Lauren Campbell jumped with a start, throwing a hand over her hammering chest. She placed a finger across her lips to shush her sister of ten and two. A quick glance around the busy kitchen assured her no one paid them any attention. Cook put away uneaten food, while the rest of the servants cleaned up where the Campbells had broken their morning fast.
“Do I have yer word to say naught?” Lauren peeked at her sister’s wide brown eyes, curious as Blair twisted her lips into a mischievous grin.
“If ye take me with ye.” Blair nodded, her sandy, brown hair slid over her face. She brushed the long strands out of her eyes with an impatient sigh.
“I canna.” Lauren shook her head, biting her lower lip as she placed biscuits in a basket. “’Tis dangerous where I’m going.”
“Where?” Blair sidled up to the counter beside Lauren, excitement building in her tone.
“I’m going to the ancient castle of Kilchurn.” Lauren’s heart swelled as her sister’s eyes widened in admiration.
“All alone? Ye know Da would not approve if he was home.” Blair lowered her voice to a whisper. “He will be angry if ye do not take cousin Keith.”
“Keith is studying to take orders next week and will give his first sermon.” Lauren whispered, touching the tip of her sister’s nose and grabbing a block of cheese. “I canna interfere with the Lord’s work. Besides, Kilchurn Castle is part of our estate. ‘Tisn’t as if I’m leaving the grounds.”
“But ye’re leaving Kilchurn Manor,” Blair said.
“’Tis only a short ride.” Lauren covered the basket with a cloth and tucked in the edges. She paused, considering her sister’s hopeful expression.
“I want to go, please.” Blair linked her fingers as if she was about to pray. She wore the Campbell plaid over a dark blue dress and frowned with a sulky pout as she crossed her thin arms. “Lauren?”
“Run along and get ready. Meet me at the stables,” Lauren said. “I shall see that your horse is saddled and ready.”
Blair disappeared. Her footsteps pattered down the hall. Lauren chuckled and shook her head, knowing the child ran in haste. She hoped Blair would not tumble into one of the servants. With her basket of goods in tow, Lauren let herself out the side door and made her way to the stables.
It was a crisp morning, bright with sunshine and promise. Lauren loved the ancient relic of Kilchurn Castle now crumbling on the far side of Loch Awe. The short journey would take them less than an hour on horseback. On the days she walked the grounds, Lauren loved imagining what it must have been like centuries ago when the castle passed from the MagGregors to the Campbells through marriage.
Lauren entered the shaded stables. “Aidan?” Lauren called to the stable lad. “Are ye there? Blair are going for a ride.” No one answered. Strange. Lauren shrugged and stepped back, trampling on a pair of booted feet. A man’s hand clamped over her mouth, shoving a piece of cloth inside to silence her scream. Another hand pulled her by the hair and jerked her back against his hard body. Her basket of goods went flew over a nearby stall. The horse inside stomped and snorted.
“I took care o’ the lad,” said a gruff voice at her ear. “Just needed to get ’im out o’ the way. ’Tis Duncan Campbell’s daughter I want.”
Lauren’s heart pounded in her ears as she kicked behind her, but he slammed a fist against her temple. Pain sliced through her head. He wrapped an arm around her neck, cutting off her air, and dragged her into a dark corner.
“Lauren?” Blair called. Her footsteps came closer. “Are ye here?”
Closing her eyes, Lauren stopped struggling, praying God would spare her sister. The man breathed heavy at her ear, his grip intense. To Lauren’s relief, he appeared to be alone, and he did not go after Blair.
“Aidan?” Her sister sighed with frustration. “Where did everyone go?” She stomped out of the stables and back toward the manor.
As soon as Blair disappeared , the man slipped a knife to Lauren’s throat. “Go.” The blade nicked her skin as he pushed her forward, leading her out of the stables on the other side. The gag tied in her mouth made her jaw ache and dried her tongue. He dragged her into the woods where a horse waited.
Lauren tripped over a fallen branch, but he caught her and shoved her against a tree. Her bruised hip stung as he pulled her arms behind her and bound her hands. The man slung her over his horse and mounted up behind her. Between a dizzy spell and a wave of nausea, she caught a glimpse of his MacGregor plaid.
They rode toward Inverawe where Lauren often visited the poor and brought them food. Iona and Carleen MacGregor always welcomed her and shared their faith. Iona’s sons were not quite as friendly, but Graham was open-minded and kind. As the youngest, Lauren supposed he wasn’t as set in his ways as the other two. He was closer to Lauren’s age at twenty.
When they arrived at the village, Lauren wasn’t prepared for the devastation she witnessed. Ashes simmered in gray piles. Grief-stricken faces glared at her with hatred. Several people spit at her and one threw a rotten onion at her. The putrid smell made her stomach roll.
They came to a pile of rubble that should have been Iona and Carleen’s hut. Hot smoke still pumped from the smoldering remains. Lauren’s stomach tightened as tears sprang to her eyes. Her father and brother were supposed to arrive here and collect the rents. Surely, they were not responsible? Her heart ached, fearing it was the truth she wanted to deny.
Her abductor stopped at one of the huts, pumping smoke through the chimney. He grabbed Lauren by the arm and yanked her down. She stumbled to her feet, finding it hard to regain her balance. He pushed her toward the door as others surrounded them.
“Why did ye bring a Campbell ’ere?” a woman asked. “Do ye not think they have caused enough trouble?”
“Aye,” a man said. “The whole lot o’ them will come looking for ’er.”
“Malcolm! Thomas!” Lauren’s captor ignored them and banged on the worn wooden door. “Open up. I have Lauren Campbell.”
The door swung open and Malcolm’s tall form ducked under the threshold. He crossed his arms with a menacing scowl. “Colin, ye were supposed to find my mither an’ sister, not bring back a hostage.”
“Iona an’ Carleen were not at Kilchurn.” Colin’s words came out in a rush, as he tightened his grip on her. “But she was.”
“What are we supposed to do with her?” Malcolm pointed at Lauren, venom coating his tone. “This was not the plan.”
“We have no plan since they were not at Kilchurn,” Thomas said, coming to stand behind Malcolm. “Mayhap, she can be the plan. Who else is goin’ to be as important to Duncan?”
“She canna stay here,” another man said. “Her father will destroy the whole village lookin’ for her.” “Aye, but she’s here now Mary MacGregor said. “The damage is done. Ye should best make the best o’ her situation. Could we exchange her for Iona or Carleen?”
Shock vibrated through Lauren. What had her father done? While the MacGregors had never been cruel to her, most were wary and reluctant to befriend her except Iona and Carleen. Now that the villagers had good reason to be seething in anger and resentment, she had no idea how far they would go in using her. She wondered if anyone at home had discovered her disappearance.
“What if he comes back an’ burns the rest o’ our homes?” a woman asked.
“Heather, he owns all these huts. If he burns them all, he canna rent them out.” Malcolm scratched his temple and glanced at Lauren. “Remove her gag. She may know something.”
“How ye plan to get ‘er to talk?” Colin asked, jerking at her bindings. The cloth fell from around her head, and Lauren spit out the other piece.
“Speak up, lass.” Malcolm stepped toward her, his height more like a tower than a mere man. “Where did yer da take my mither an’ sister? The sooner we find out, the sooner negotiations can begin an’ ye can go home.”
“All I know is that he intended to collect the rents and go to the harbor.”
“The harbor?” Thomas joined his brother, his palm up against the side of his head, pondering the possibilities. “Why would he do that?”
“Only one explanation,” an older man said, lifting a finger. All eyes turned to him. “To sell them. What else?”
The women gasped, some wept, while the men groaned and complained in outrage. Colin jerked Lauren by the arm and shoved her to the center. “We have one of their own!” She stumbled and fell to her knees. He pulled her hair. Fire burned her scalp. She prayed her neck wouldn’t break from the pressure. Tears stung her eyes. Lord, I thank you for sparing Blair.
“What would Duncan do to save this bonny face?” An elderly woman bent to squeeze Lauren’s cheeks. The others came at her all at once with raised hands. Lauren closed her eyes, expecting a beating.
“Stop!” Malcolm’s firm voice sliced through the mob like a king. With the MacGregors scattered throughout Campbell lands that used to belong to the MacGregors, none of them had a clan chief. The exception was Glenstrae farther north in the heart of the Scottish highlands. Yet, no one laid a hand on her. They obeyed Malcolm out of respect.
“Let us think about our actions an’ how the Campbells might retaliate.” Malcolm lifted his hands and pointed in the direction of Kilchurn Manor. “As long as the lass lives an’ remains unharmed, we have something to bargain. None o’ us wanna worry ’bout being murdered in our beds at night or forced to flee to the hills again.”
Eyes widened, mouths dropped open, and heads shook back and forth in slow motion. Some of the villagers’ skin turned paler. They backed away from her.
“Duncan an’ Scott Campbell have a good head start. At this point, we would be guessing which harbor they went to an’ taking the lass at her word,” Malcolm said.
“Taynuilt Harbor is the closest,” Roy said. Lauren had heard one of the others call him by name. He was a middle-aged man who looked at her with so much malice her skin itched and burned. “’Tis on Loch Etive an’ leads out to sea.”
“Aye.” Malcolm nodded, rubbing the back of his neck. “First, I want to ensure Graham’s safety ’til he heals, as well as the villagers. I shall find her wretched father.” His boiling gaze landed on Lauren and their eyes met. If the good Lord hadn’t been holding her together, she might have crumbled in fear, but Lauren not only found the courage she needed, but managed to lift her chin and kept her peace. Later in solitude she would bear her burdensome fear to the Lord.
“Let us bring her inside while we tend to Graham an’ make our plans,” Malcolm said, turning to the others.
Colin shoved her. Lauren stumbled into Malcolm. He reached out a steady hand and gripped her arm. She assumed the action was only out of instinct, not for her welfare.
“What happened to Graham?” The words tumbled through her lips. Of all the MacGregor men, he had always been kind to her.
Malcolm paused, his lips twisting in anger. “Yer da ordered him beaten. They tied him to a tree, pulled an’ tortured him ’til his shoulders snapped out o’ the sockets. They murdered his best friend, William.”
Lauren cringed as her mouth drained dry and her stomach twirled. The temptation to deny his words frayed at the edge of her mind, as she followed him inside.
Malcolm directed her over to a large figure lying motionless on a small bed. A candle burned on a makeshift table beside him. She took small steps, her heart pounding into her throat.
“Graham?” Lauren leaned over him, taking in the sight of his bruised and disfigured face. The memory of his handsome features were like a vision. Graham didn’t respond. Deep sorrow filled her soul as she imagined what agony he must be enduring. “My . . . da . . . did this?”
“Aye,.” Malcolm’s tone dripped with bitterness. “I was not here, but they tell me he tried to protect my mither an’ sister—yer friends.” He emphasized the last words as if she had betrayed them herself.
“They are my friends,” she whispered, unable to wipe at her tears with her hands bound behind her. Bile rose to the back of Lauren’s throat, threatening to overcome her. Graham’s wounds would be branded in her brain forever. What would become of Iona and Carleen? She slid to her knees as grief wracked her body. Lauren had never been able to deny the emotional tug of compassion. While she wondered what was to become of her, Graham’s grave condition weighed upon her heart along with the spiritual state of the souls within her father and brother.
Lauren turned and tried to wipe her cheek on her shoulder. Malcolm strode toward her, his mouth set in a grim expression. She resisted the desire to cower and forced her muscles to remain still.