The Betrayal - By Ruth Langan
Scottish Highlands, 1559
The clang of sword against shield rang in the Highland forest as barbarians rose up from their places of concealment to attack the horsemen in plaid who rode toward them in single file. Caught unawares, there was nowhere the Highland warriors could reassemble their forces. They had no choice but to put up a brave front, even though they were badly outnumbered.
“They knew we were coming, my lord.” Finlay, the old man who had ridden with the clan MacCallum for more than two score years, caught the young lord’s arm. “Ye must turn the men back. Else, all will be lost.”
The thought of retreat went against everything Grant MacCallum believed in. But common sense had to rule over ego. These men had wives and families depending on them. If they were to stand and fight against such overwhelming odds, most would be lost, leaving their clan with even more widows and orphans grieving their losses.
Through gritted teeth he shouted the order. “Sound the call to retreat.”
Minutes later the wail of the pipes had the horsemen turning and plunging into thickets to escape the swords of their enemy. Grant stood his ground, fighting alongside old Finlay until every last man had made good his escape. Then, watching the old man’s back until he, too, was free, Grant pulled himself onto his steed and took off with a thunder of hoofbeats.
As he made his way back to his Highland fortress, he mulled this latest in a series of chilling events. Since he’d been declared laird of the MacCallums, they had twice been met by an army of invaders at the very spot they’d hoped to mount a surprise attack. Once could have been considered an accident. The second time could no longer be considered an isolated incident. Taken together, they proved without a doubt that he was being betrayed. But since plans of this march had been known to only a handful of his most trusted Council members, he now knew that the betrayal was personal, and was coming from one of his own.
“We just heard the news.” Grant’s brother Dougal, younger by thirteen months, was breathless from racing up the stairs of the fortress to his chambers. Though he was shorter and broader, his hair and eyes a paler version of Grant’s, the two bore a striking resemblance to each other.
Behind him trailed a tall woman dressed like a cloistered nun, wearing a black gown and head cover, with a veil covering her face. She crossed the room, quiet and stiff backed, and settled herself into a chair set before the fire.
“Aunt Hazlet.” Grant turned from the balcony, where he’d been deep in thought, and crossed to the woman to press his hand to hers. It was the only sign of affection she permitted.
She folded her hands in her lap. Even her voice had the clipped, precise tone of a mother superior. “I’ve been told by the Council that you didn’t catch the invaders, nephew. You realize the people will now think you a coward for running from a fight.”
Grant turned toward the flames of the fire. “What others think of me is the least of my worries.”
“What can be worse than letting invaders go free, or having your own people brand you a coward?”
“What’s worse? I’ll tell you. Betrayal.” Grant spat the word.
“What are you saying?” Dougal crossed the room to stand beside his brother.
Grant shot a glance at old Finlay, who stood quietly across the room. “Our attackers knew we were coming. They were hiding along the bend in the trail, where fighting would be the most difficult.”
Dougal’s eyes narrowed in thought. “Perhaps they saw the glint of your shields.”
“There was no sunlight in the forest,” the old man said softly.
“The sound of men’s voices, then. Or the thundering of horses’ hooves.”
Grant shook his head. “I’d cautioned my warriors to remain silent. The horses were walking. I tell you, our enemies had been forewarned of our arrival.”
Dougal shot him a look. “Are you saying there’s a traitor in our midst?”
“Exactly.” Grant picked up a length of plaid and tossed it over his shoulder before strapping on his scabbard.
Seeing it, his brother touched a hand to his arm. “Where are you going?”
“To the Mystical Kingdom.”
That had Dougal shaking his head. “You jest.” Seeing the flare of anger in his brother’s eyes, he arched a brow. “Nay, I see that you’re serious.” He turned to their aunt to back him up. “But surely you know what they say about