Highlander’s Vixen Bride by Eloise Madigan

1

Determination burned in Liliana Clarke’s hazel eyes, illuminated by a small lamp under the cover of the cloud-ridden night sky. She huffed, teeth clamped on the handle of her lamp as she struggled to get a proper grip on the stones that formed the wall of Falkirk Castle.

Yes, she was sneaking in and no, she did not care about the consequences. She would only have to face them if she got caught.

Sweat dripped from her forehead, a drop falling on the tip of her nose before sliding down her face to settle past her lips and inside her mouth. She grimaced. Why had she thought this would be like climbing a tree? It was certainly nothing of the sort.

The stones were not exactly the best things to hold on to, her palms were starting to cramp up. She cursed under her breath at her wild red curls, which got into her face more than once from the cold night breeze, her riding habit stuck to her back with sweat and not to mention the ache in her jaw from her teeth clamping down on the handle of her lamp. She could endure it. She would endure it.

Liliana let a sigh of relief filter from her clenched teeth when she felt her hand touch the flat surface at the top of the wall. She pulled herself up, managing to sit on the wall before rummaging in the sack she brought along with her.

She pulled out a pouch of water, pouring the majority over her head after she had a few refreshing gulps. With the number of times, she had done this, one would think the wall wouldn't be that much of an obstacle to her. Pausing to catch her breath, she took in the sight before her; the Laird’s Castle.

The area itself was large, surrounded by three other walls exactly like the one she had just scaled. In the middle sat the stone castle which housed the Clan’s leader. She could see lamps lit about the many balconies and windows, guards filtering in and out, up and down the Castle grounds. She was less interested in the Castle. Her eyes darted toward the west, where the whole area had been dedicated to the Castle’s food, the freshest fruits, vegetables, and the fattest livestock. They were all for the Laird, and it made her blood boil.

How dare he indulge in the finest of everything when his people were familiar with the growling of their stomachs? Her eyes darted toward the Castle once more.

She could beat her head that the Laird was fast asleep in the most comfortable of beds, covered with the softest furs after he had sat and had probably not finished his perfectly cooked buffet of food. She had hoped several times that news of the Laird choking to death on a piece of bread would reach her village but unfortunately, he continued to live.

Bracing herself, she started to scale down the wall once more, this time much easier as she soon felt the solid earth under her feet again. This was not her first time. She knew how to make her way toward the garden. Today, Liliana only wanted food. She would sneak into his treasury another day. Blowing out the light of her lamp, she rummaged for her cloak from her sack, quickly slipping it on and tucking her mess of hair away, she moved.

Liliana made sure to face the wall, the back of her cloak would blend in quite nicely in the dark. With hands pressed against the cold stone wall, she made her way through the memorized path toward the garden. It didn’t take her long, and soon she was setting down her sack, ripping her hood off her head to allow some fresh air before she started to harvest the Laird’s crops. She only ever took what she could carry when it came to food. The Laird’s treasures, on the other hand, she was greedy with. The more she took, the more she could sell and the more food her village could buy. In her defense, her village paid tax out of the money, so the Laird was getting a share of some sort.

She slapped her hands over her mouth when a rodent rushed past her, startling her. It had caused her to let go of a vegetable and she huffed as she reached out for it again. Why did she have to be the one doing this?

Her thoughts had wrapped her in a cocoon, shielding her from the world around her until she noticed the soft golden glow of a lamp approaching her. Jerking out of her thoughts, she was met with the sight of heavily armed men rushing toward her. Guards, to be exact. The rapid thumping of her heart filled her eyes as her eyes widened in realization of what had happened.

She had been caught, and she would have to face the consequences.

* * *

She snatched her cloak, gathering the skirts of her riding habit before she bolted. She could hear the shouts of the guards behind her, more joining in the chase as she ran toward the only exit on the Castle grounds, the main gate.

Peeking behind her and causing her to stumble just a little, she could see more than just a few guards, swords drawn and chasing after her. She doubted she would be allowed to speak her part if she was caught.

Up ahead, she caught sight of the gates and perhaps it was her Ma looking down at her, or it was just her luck when she saw a cart passing through. She could make it. She would make it. She had to make it.

From behind her, a booming voice barked out its order, “Close the gates!”

Liliana scoffed. A piece of her hair, previously waving madly in the air, lodged itself between her lips. She almost tore it right off her head. The cart had just passed through, and the guards at the gate were preoccupied with their given order, so it was an easy slip for Liliana when she finally got to the gate. There was no resistance until it was too late for them as she was already running past the heavy iron gates.

Still, the chase was not over. The yells and the stomping of feet behind her did not relent, forcing her back on her feet. Her chest had started to burn, and her feet ached. Her climbing the wall had honestly taken her strength. She did not expect she would have to run from what was possibly half of the guards from the Castle.

The crescent moon was hidden away by the thick clouds that swam about in the sky. She had left her lamp behind, so she was forced to stay on the path, but unfortunately, that put her right in the view of her pursuers. Looking toward the forests, she frowned. Her worst fear was running into some sort of wild animal. Her father would be devastated if they couldn’t find her. But then again, if the guards caught her…

She made her decision, wrapping her cloak around her. She hurriedly tied the stings under her chin, messily tucking her hair away before she took one last look behind her. The last thought before she dived into the forest was that none of this would be happening if the Laird had just done his duty.

* * *

Liliana almost did not breathe. She did not quite know her way around the forest, so she stayed hidden only a few feet away from the path. As she expected, the guards went deeper into the forest in search of her. From where she sat, huddled to herself and covered by her cloak, she hoped one would take her for a large stone. She had a clear view of the path she had just abandoned.

There were still guards filing into the forest. She had to wait.

At the sound of a twig breaking in front of her, she flinched. She recognized the sound of the soft earth being stepped upon. It got closer. Closer until a pair of feet stepped into her line of vision.

The soft glow of a lamp stopped in front of her. She willed herself not to move, but still, she raised her head to see a guard. His lamp’s glow allowed her to see a set of deep-set brown eyes staring back at her. She gasped, falling over and inching away from the guard as he crouched low.

“What was that? Did ye find anything, Conner?” Someone somewhere yelled, and the guard looked behind him then back at her.

“Nay. It was just a rock!” Liliana’s shoulders sagged in relief. “What village are ye from?”

“Ayrshire Village,” she whispered in reply, and he pointed in front of him.

“’Tis that way. There is a river. Follow it in the direction which it flows. It is the river that flows into yer farms. Ye should know how to get home from there?” Liliana shakily nodded, her hands still trembling under her cloak. “Then go.”

Scrambling to her feet as quietly as she could, she ran without looking back at the face of the guard who had spared her life.

* * *

The door of her house creaked when Liliana pushed it open. Her breathing still heavy and her heartbeat thundering in her ears, she slipped off her dirty shoes to wrap up in her cloak. Her sister Alana would give her a hard time when it was time to wash it, but Liliana would worry about that when she needed to. Tucking her cloak and shoes under her arm, she gathered what she could of her skirts with one hand before silently making her way toward the bedchamber she shared with her sister.

Someone had left a window open. The moon had only managed to peek out from behind the clouds, giving her just enough light to find her way around without walking into anything.

Her feet were becoming numb from the cold and walking on her toes. As she passed her brother Oliver’s chambers, she noticed his lamp was still on, his door cracked slightly ajar. Not wanting to risk getting caught by him, Liliana let her hands touch the ground along with her knees, and she managed to get past by crawling. She kept her position until she reached her door, which she had held open with one of Alana’s shoes.

Pushing the door open, Liliana peeked in and let out a breath of relief to find her sister fast asleep. Still, she had to be careful. Alana slept like a lady, as the younger lass always said but for Liliana, it meant practically dozing with an eye open. Alana would wake up to anything as loud as a creaky door. Liliana could only hope the violent beating of her heart did not wake up her sister. Liliana left the door slightly ajar, leaving it to the wind to slam it shut. Aye, it would wake Alana up, but Liliana would have shimmied her way under her blankets by then.

It all went as she hoped, as she only got her furs over her head when the door slammed shut. Liliana stifled a giggle at the loud gasp that came from Alana on the other bed as her sister shot up from her sleep. Liliana pushed the furs a little out of her line of sight, just enough to see her sister regarding everything in the dimly lit room suspiciously before Alana’s glare went to the door and then fell on her. Wanting to get her sister back to sleep so she could get out of her riding habit, Liliana gave a soft snore which fortunately did the trick. Alana shrugged before laying back on her bed, fur dragged up to her shoulders. Alana was out like a light.

Liliana slipped out of her bed hastily, but she quietly shrugged off her riding habit, stuffing that and her cloak under her bed before slipping out her nightdress from under her covers. She was back in her bed the moment she had donned the thin material. It was only then that Liliana felt her shoulders properly sag.

She had tried her luck, and it almost ran out. If she had been caught, the guards might not even deem her worthy of pleading her case. Even if they did, they would never believe she was not a spy. Heaven knew what could have become of her if she had been a moment too slow or if that guard had exposed her. She wished she had gotten a proper look at him. At least then, she could properly thank him some other time, but it didn't matter. She did not think she would forget eyes that kind so easily.

Liliana let out a small yawn, her blood which had been rushing, was finally calm, and she felt her eyes start to droop. She was home in her bed, and she was safe. Liliana would wait a while before she went back again. Perhaps a week or two, just long enough for everything to die down.

After all, no one saw her properly other than the guard that helped her, and she had snuck back into her home unnoticed. Even Alana did not suspect a thing. There was no way anything could be traced to her.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t be more wrong.