Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Friday, December 21, 2012

The Real Women of Surprise! by Tracey Lyons

Today I'd like to welcome guest author Tracey Lyons to History Undressed! She's written a fascinating piece for us. Enjoy!

The Real Women of Surprise!

by Tracey Lyons

The one big question we authors always get asked is, “Where do you get your ideas for your characters?”  Most times I will say that they just sort of come to me.  And since I write historicals they usually come to me in some form of a persona from the mid-to late 1800’s.  But when I started developing the concept for my Women of Surprise series two things became apparent. The books had to be set in the real life small Catskill NY Mountain town of Surprise and the three female heroines had to be based on my sisters and myself.
Now it’s not that I’m vain, but let’s face it, every writer has a little bit of themselves in each book they write.
The short synopsis for the Women of Surprise is simple.  And here is where I took a bit of creative license.  The three female heroines are cousins who arrive in the dying town of Surprise at the behest of their Aunt Margaret, who along with her long since deceased husband, founded the town of Surprise a long time ago.  Margaret has plans to bring the town back to life and needs her nieces help in getting the job done.

A Surprise For Abigail is my book.  The main character is a feisty, young woman who isn’t afraid to go against convention. Her task is a bit unorthodox for the time; she is the town’s sheriff. And she doesn’t take trouble from anyone least of all the hero of the story who ends up locked up in one of her jail cells. I don’t know if I’d ever take on the job of sheriff anywhere, but people who know me tell me I’m not afraid to speak my mind!

Lydia’s Passion is my oldest sister, Linda’s, book.  Lydia is the school teacher for the town of Surprise. She is a lover of life and all things fun! Her students love this, but the head of school board, Alexander Judson, feels she needs to be more serious in the classroom.  This creates all sorts of problems for Lyida! My sister Linda is a social being. She knows everyone in her small town, has lived there her entire life and is happy as a clam! Though my sister has never in her life been a teacher, this character took on her lighthearted personality elements and worked them to the fullest!

Making Over Maggie is my middle sister, Patty’s book.  Maggie is sort of uptight. I’m not saying my sister, Patty is uptight, she’s not….really. She’s very routine and has a very kind heart. I took one facet of my sister’s personality and blew it out of proportion with Maggie.  This character’s task is to bring an old saloon back to life by turning it into a dance hall. She runs up against a con man who turns her small town life upside down.  I don’t know of any con men in my sister’s life, although she might tell you otherwise!

I really enjoyed writing the Women of Surprise series.  Whether or not I’ll use more family members as characters in one of my books…well we’ll just have to wait and see.

Author Bio:  I really wanted to be an actress, but stage fright kept me from continuing along that path. I started writing almost three decades ago and sold my first book on 9/9/99!  My books are now available in several languages, in digital, hardcover and paperback formats. When I’m not writing I enjoy my life in a lovely little downstate New York village with my husband, two dogs and our backyard chickens.  I invite you to stop by my website at www.traceylyons.com to learn more about the Women of Surprise series and my other writing projects.  You can find the newly released Kindle format editions of The Women of Surprise at www.amazon.com.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

'Twas the Fright Before Christmas by Kate Dolan

 Today I'd like to welcome Kate Dolan back to History Undressed! She's written a fun post today about Christmas and ghosties... Enjoy!

Twas the Fright Before Christmas

by Kate Dolan

Most people these days associate scary tales of the supernatural with Halloween, not Christmas.  Oh, there are usually a few haunted gingerbread houses at the annual  "Festival of Trees" because of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, and this year I saw a zombie-themed Christmas tree, but generally our modern interpretation of the holiday is jolly elves and smiling gingerbread men.

That was not always the case.

The church designated the celebration of the nativity to occur during the shortest, darkest coldest days of the year not because clerics thought Jesus was actually born in December but because pagans already celebrated a number of holidays around the winter solstice and overlaying the Christian holiday on top of a pagan festival made it easier to keep converts from backsliding.

The winter solstice is a time of cold deadly fear reaching back into the collective unconscious of mankind's earliest days. It taps into our deepest, darkest terrors. What if the sun doesn't come back? What if we remain in a perpetual state of chill, darkness and hunger, just a hair's breadth away from the cold finality of the grave?

A great time to celebrate, right?

I assume the celebrations started as a way to triumph humanity's power of the intellect over the power of our fears. We know that once we've reached the solstice, the worst is behind us. Each day from then on the sunlight will grow stronger and the earth will come back to life. We have faith in our future.

So we can tell ourselves things will get better and we can stage a celebration. But deep down, we are still mourning the loss of light and life.

It is a natural time for telling scary stories of spirits roaming the earth during the long dark nights. The cycle of work which demanded grueling days of hard labor during planting and harvest seasons left little to do during the winter months. People huddled inside and told stories to while away the hours. And very often they were scary stories.

These were sometimes called "winter tales," a term which eventually became synonymous with "old wives tales" of the fantastical and this is why Shakespeare named his tale of a statue coming to life A Winter's Tale. In the beginning of the play ,the character Prince Mamillius proposes to tell a story and suggests "A sad tale's best for winter:  I have one/Of sprites and goblins…"

Unfortunately, most of these tales have been lost and scholars conjecture even how the prince's tale ends. 

One scary legend we do know a little about comes from the Germans and it is about "der Belznickel," the Christmas demon.  He's sort of the evil twin of Santa Claus. Often said to visit on the eve of St. Nicholas Day (December 6), he comes not to reward the good but to punish the bad. He carries a switch to whip misbehaving children and chains to tie them up. In short, he is not a good role model  for positive discipline practices. Like St. Nick, he is often said to dress in clothes trimmed with fur, but they are ragged and black. He sometimes has goat horns reminiscent of the devil, and glowing red eyes.  Tales of this "Anti-Claus" inspired me to write my first ghost story, "Bride of Belznickel," which was released in anthology of Christmas paranormal tales a few years ago and has just recently come out as a standalone ebook.

Some have argued that the tradition of telling winter tales died out and was not revived until the early 19th Century.  I disagree.  I have no evidence whatsoever, but I suspect that at least in some places, the tradition continued simply because the pattern of life continued. It was not until industry drew workers to the cities and gaslight extended the working day that  people lost the long idle storytelling hours of winter.

But regardless of whether the tradition carried through or was re-started by the Victorians, there is no doubt that ghost stories, including several by Charles Dickens, made up a key component of their celebrations. "It is quite unnecessary to mention the date at all," Jerome K. Jerome explains in his introduction to Told After Supper, a collection of Christmas ghost stories published in 1891. "The experienced reader knows it was Christmas Eve, without my telling him.  It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story. Christmas Eve is the ghosts' great gala night."

Jack Skellington tried to tell us that when he urged the ghoulish characters of Halloween Town to take over Christmas.  Not everyone was ready to listen, but with sightings of zombie Christmas trees on the rise, who knows? Maybe we are ready again to wish each other a Very Scary Christmas.
Told After Supper is available free online through Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=1447582)

Kate Dolan writes historical fiction and romance under her own name and contemporary mysteries and children’s books under the name K.D. Hays. You can learn more about her misadventures with history by visiting www.katedolan.com.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Castle of the Week: Inverlochy with Terri Brisbin!

I'm excited for another castle of the week! Today's castle is Inverlochy in Scotland and is presented by historical romance author, Terri Brisbin! Enjoy :)

 Visiting Inverlochy Castle

by Terri Brisbin

During my last trip to Scotland (lamentably, 3 years ago), I went all by myself and drove all over the country, islands and highlands. When I saw a place I knew or one that looked interesting, I stopped. So, after leaving Oban, as I was driving up the west coast and had just passed through Fort William, I spied this wonderful castle by the road. On the south bank of the River Lochy, it sits at the entrance to the Great Glen.

Inverlochy Castle was built in the late 1200’s by John ‘the Black’ Comyn, Lord of Badenoch and Lochaber, though there are reports of earlier forts and settlements on the same site from even Vikings times.  After Robert the Bruce won the Scottish throne, his enemies (especially the Comyns) lost their lands and Inverlochy was vacant for some time.  In the mid-15th century, the Battle of Inverlochy saw Alexander MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, defeated by the army of King James I.  Over the next centuries, it was owned by the Gordons and used in another strategic battle when  James Graham, the Marquess of Montrose, fought against the Covenanters in 1645.

Later,  the castle was abandoned for new fortifications downstream which would become Fort William.  And the castle ruins remained pretty much as they were…..

I arrived there on a quiet day and had much of the castle to myself. Most impressive were the THICK stone walls and the corner towers. When I stood at the base of one of the towers and looked up the curving staircase, I could almost imagine those living in the castle.  Actually, standing in the middle of the stone ruins, I could imagine myself living in those earlier times! Even now, ideas for stories are floating through my mind for this castle.

If you get the chance to visit the west of Scotland, make sure to stop and explore the ruins of Inverlochy Castle – and for more info about the castle, visit http://www.inverlochycastle.co.uk/


Award-winning, ‘South Jerseyan’ Terri Brisbin, when not being a mom, a wife and a dental hygienist, has sold more than 1.7 million copies of her historical romance novels and novellas in more than 20 countries around the world. Her current and upcoming romances will be published by Harlequin Historicals and Terri is re-releasing some of her earlier works, too. Visit www.terribrisbin.com for more info about Terri, her works and upcoming events.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Scandals of the Scottish Tudor Court by Blythe Gifford

Today, I'd like to welcome back guest blogger, Blythe Gifford to History Undressed! Today she's written a fascinating piece on scandals in the Scottish Tudor court! I thoroughly enjoyed this post and hope you do to! Leave a comment WITH YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS for your chance to win! 2 winners--your choice of book one, RETURN OF THE BORDER WARRIOR or book two, CAPTIVE OF THE BORDER LORD. 

Blythe Gifford – Scandals of the Scottish Tudor Court

When I started researching the Scottish court for my Brunson Clan trilogy, I didn’t even know that Henry VIII’s sister was a Queen of Scotland, nor that Henry’s nephew became King James V.

But as I delved into history, I quickly discovered that Tudor blood ran lusty on both sides of the border.  Both Queen Margaret and her son would have been right at home on a Showtime episode.  Here are some tidbits.

Queen Margaret, Henry’s older sister, divorced before Henry.  As a 25 year old widow of the Scottish King James IV, she married, for love, a decision both she and the country came to regret.  Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, took her money, kept a mistress in one of her castles, and kidnapped her son. 

In despair, she wrote her brother that she was considering divorce.  Ironically, Henry sent her a pious and crabby note saying that marriage was “divinely ordained.”  Obviously, he was a man open minded enough to re-examine his opinions a few years later.

Without her brother’s support, Margaret succeeded in getting the Pope to release her from her marriage to Angus on the grounds that he had been pre-contracted to another woman.  It seems to have been an annulment, which is a little disingenuous since they had a daughter together, who, in an amazing sleight of hand, was legitimized by a special clause in the decree that severed her parents’ marriage.

By that time, Margaret was already living with the man who would become her third husband.  After a brief honeymoon period, Henry Stewart, Earl of Methven, proceeded to steal her money and live with a mistress and their children.  This time, her plans for divorce were squashed by her son, by now, king in his own right.

Angus, James’ stepfather and acting Regent, held the young man captive for several years and ruled in his name.  History has blamed Angus for encouraging James’ wicked ways in an attempt to prevent him from focusing on the fact that his throne was being withheld. 

It is not clear that James needed much encouragement.  He fathered at least nine children out of wedlock, three of those before he was twenty, apparently by as many mothers. 

King James had a habit of traveling incognito among the people, calling himself the "Gudeman (Goodman) of Ballengeich."  (Ballengeich, or “windy pass,” was the nickname of a road that ran by Stirling Castle.)  Though history does not report all the details of the travels he took disguised as a commoner, one wonders whether the “Gudeman” might also have fathered a child or two.

Although the identities of some of the mothers of his known bastards are lost to history, some of his mistresses were the daughters of Scottish nobles.  Their children were treated accordingly and several of them played prominent roles in Scottish history.
Five of the illegitimate sons of King James V were named “Priors” as children.  This meant they held the five richest livings in the Scottish Church—Holyrood, Kelso, Melrose, Coldingham, and St Andrews. (This did not happen, of course, without the approval of the Pope.  James apparently wrote asking his permission for three of his illegitimate sons to receive ecclesiastical positions before 1532, when the boys were still babes.  James, unlike his uncle, remained a staunch Catholic all his life.)

His first queen died soon after their marriage, but his marital record was much better than might have been expected.  Once married to his second wife, Mary of Guise, he seemed to settle down and they had three children together.

The irony of all this, is that despite fathering seven illegitimate and two legitimate sons, his only heir was a daughter:  Mary Queen of Scots. 

And so, Mary faced her father’s cousin, Queen Elizabeth of England, in a battle for the island.  After the death of both Mary and Elizabeth, Mary’s son James (the sixth of Scotland, the first of England), became king of England as well as Scotland. 

His great-grandmother on both sides(that is to say, his sole great-grandmother) was Margaret Tudor, but he kept his dynasty’s Scottish name:  the Stewarts.

CAPTIVE OF THE BORDER LORD, Book Two of The Brunson Clan, is on bookshelves today.  The e-version will be released January 1.  Here’s the description:

Bessie, the selfless sister of the powerful but stubborn Brunson clan, has sacrificed herself for her family’s honor and is at the mercy of the court of King James. Ill-suited to court life, she must confront their mortal enemy, Lord Thomas Carwell, dressed in nothing but borrowed finery and pride.
Underneath the relentless gaze of her captor, she’s enticed not only by him but also by the opulence of a world far removed from her own. When the furious king demands her brother’s head, Carwell is the only one to whom she can turn. But she must pay the ultimate price for his protection….
January 2013
Harlequin HistoricalsTM
ISBN# 978-0-373-29722-1

A lucky reader who comments on today’s blog will be randomly selected to win a signed copy of (your choice) RETURN OF THE BORDER WARRIOR (Book 1) or CAPTIVE OF THE BORDER LORD (Book 2). 

Blythe Gifford has been known for medieval romances featuring characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket. Now, she’s launched a Harlequin Historical trilogy set on the turbulent Scottish Borders of the early Tudor era:  RETURN OF THE BORDER WARRIOR, November 2012; CAPTIVE OF THE BORDER LORD, January 2013; and TAKEN BY THE BORDER REBEL , March 2013.  The Chicago Tribune has called her work "the perfect balance between history and romance."  Visit her at www.blythegifford.com, www.facebook.com/BlytheGifford, or www.twitter.com/BlytheGifford. 

Photo credits.  Cover used with permission.  Author photo by Jennifer Girard.  

Monday, December 17, 2012

Hogmanay in Scotland by Alexa Bourne

Today I'd like to welcome my good friend Alexa Bourne to History Undressed! She's written a lovely post for us on Hogmanay in Scotland. Enjoy!

Thank you to Eliza for inviting me to guest post here today! I’m very excited. I LOVE reading historical romances and I even tried writing one. Tried is the key word. I was overwhelmed with the amount of research I’d have to do, with the pressure to be completely accurate, and I ended up quitting after writing only 20 pages in 2 months. (For my contemporary stories, I can complete a novella and a short story in that same amount of time!)

So what does a contemporary romantic suspense writer have to share on an historical blog? Well, my next novella, Simple Treasures, takes place in Edinburgh, Scotland during Hogmanay and so I thought I’d share some information about the holiday.

Hogmanay is the Scots word for the last day of the year. In Edinburgh, it has become a major event over the years and often sells out early. It includes a Ferris wheel, stalls selling knickknacks and food, a skating rink, colored lights, the Torchlight Procession, and lots of live music as people ring in the New Year. And of course, there are fireworks and the traditional singing of Auld Lang Syne while holding hands with the people close to you…or the strangers who happen to be partying right next to you.

The Torchlight Procession, which takes place on December 30th, is a version of the Up Helly Aa Fire usually associated with the Shetland. Originally, the event began in the 1880s to mark the end of the Yule season. It grew out of the older tradition of tar barreling, where young men would drag tarred barrels through the streets and raise hell. Gradually it became more civilized, with people walking through the streets with torches blazing. At the end of the walk, everyone would throw their torches into a replica of a Viking ship. For more information on the festival, visit www.uphellyaa.org.

Today, the Torchlight Procession begins on the Royal Mile where thousands of people line up behind bagpipers to carry lit torches through the streets of Edinburgh up to Calton Hill. Once at the top, people watch while a replica of a Viking ship burns in the distance, music plays and then fireworks signal the end of the procession. See? Not much has changed in the last 135 years. 

On the last day of the year, there is much music, dancing and drinking throughout the streets of Edinburgh. Surprisingly, even with an average of over a quarter million people, it never really feels crowded.

One holiday event that has always interested me is First-Footing. This event is popular in Scotland and northern England. Once the New Year has rung in, a dark haired man walks through the front door. This usually means those who live there will have good luck. The man usually brings gifts, such as coins (for financial success), bread (for food), salt (for flavor), coal (for warmth), or whisky (for good cheer). In some places, a fair-haired man or a female first through the door is considered unlucky!

Thank you to Eliza for allowing me to join you all today! I’ve had fun sharing my favorite holiday traditions with you.


Author Bio:

Alexa Bourne is a teacher by day and a romantic suspense writer by nights, weekends, and all school holidays. She also teaches online classes for writers throughout the year. She is thrilled to be writing for Decadent Publishing and to have the chance to share her love of Great Britain with readers everywhere.

When she's not concocting sinister plots and steamy love scenes or traveling and exploring new cultures, Alexa spends her time reading, watching brainless TV and thinking about exercising. She loves to interact with readers, so visit her web page, hang out at her blog, follow her on Twitter or drop her a note at Alexa@alexabourne.com!

Book Blurb:

Coming soon...

Take-charge bodyguard Colin Munro believes working for the International Protective Network will be the perfect occupation for him. Unfortunately, his trial assignment is protecting a woman who has no intention of blindly following orders. Aye, he’ll bring the bonnie lass in line because there’s no way he’ll allow her to ruin his chance of securing his dream job.

Physically and emotionally scarred during her stint as a U.S. soldier, Joanna Grainger wants nothing more than to enjoy life. New Year's Eve in Edinburgh marks the beginning of her transformation. But when she witnesses a crime no one believes occurred, her plans come to a screeching halt. To make matters worse, her sexy but headstrong bodyguard has no compassion for her or the victim.

As danger hunts them during one of the busiest time of the year, Joanna must convince Colin she's a worthy partner. But first, can she convince herself?


Joanna bolted upright. Darkness wrapped her in its hideous embrace. And silence reigned. Her heart raced. She flattened her hands on the mattress beneath her.

Mattress. Bed. Colin’s hotel room.

Rustling sounds came from the floor. The bedside lamp flickered on. Colin propped himself up, one knee bent and an arm dangling over it. He squinted against the brightness. “Are you all right?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.” She brushed her fingers under her eyes.

“Don’t be daft, lass.”

“I had a bad dream.” She smoothed her hair back off her face. Moisture beaded at her temples.

“Here we call it a nightmare.” He smiled, and at once she relaxed her shoulders.

“Americans do, too.” After another deep breath, she said, “I’ll be all right.” Once her heart rate slowed to normal. With her forearm, she wiped perspiration from her forehead.

He stood, padded into the bathroom, and ran the faucet. When he returned, he sat beside her, tucked his finger under her chin, and pressed the cloth to her cheek. The cool moisture soothed her burning skin.

She reached up and covered his hand with hers. “I can do that.”

“I know.” He brushed her fingers away. “But you’ll not.”

After a few seconds, he moved the wet towel across her forehead and to her other cheek.
When he reached her neck, she sighed and closed her eyes for a few valuable seconds.
“Thank you.”

His gentle caress reminded her how much she’d missed simple comfort…from anyone.

“You’re welcome.” The cloth soon disappeared. “Now, will you tell me what you dreamed about?”

“Mark Rawlings. I dreamed I was back in the train car and he was bleeding out on the floor. The guy with him faded into the background, but I could see the man’s hands and lips moving. I couldn’t hear anything, though. Then somebody jabbed me with something, and my blood drained out of my body, but there was nothing I could do. The guy standing stayed in front of me. There was another voice, but the words were garbled.”

“Did you see anyone else?”

“No, but at the end I wasn’t paying attention. I was losing consciousness.” She tilted her head to one side and into her palm. “Colin, what am I going to do if we don’t find the professor’s attacker soon?”

We’ll take it one day at a time.” Strong, confident, able to leap tall buildings and all…even in the middle of the night.

Read it! Amazon / Barnes and Noble

Twitter: @AlexaBourne

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Video of the Week: Danny Bhoy - Visitor's Guide to Scotland

This week's video is Danny Bhoy's Visitor's Guide to Scotland. Its a bit off the cuff... a little bit of fun!


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

New Release! The Highlander's Lady by Eliza Knight (Giveaway!)

I'm thrilled to announce the release of the 3rd book my Stolen Bride series, THE HIGHLANDER'S LADY!


A Highlander tamed…

Laird Daniel Murray seeks adventure, battle and freedom for his countrymen. Putting off his duties as laird—with a promise to his clan he’ll return come spring—Daniel sets off with his men to fight alongside William Wallace and the Bruce. But soon he stumbles across an enchanting lady in need. She tantalizes him with an offer he simply can’t refuse and a desire he attempts to dismiss.

A lady’s passion ignited…

Escaping near death at the treacherous hands of a nearby clan, Lady Myra must find the Bruce and relay the news of an enemy within his own camp. Alone in a world full of danger and the future of her clan at stake, she must trust the handsome, charismatic Highland laird who promises to keep her safe on her journey—and sets her heart to pounding.

Together, Daniel and Myra will risk not only their lives, but their hearts while discovering the true meaning of hope and love in a world fraught with unrest.

EXCERPT--ALL of Chapter One!

Chapter One

Early December
Highlands, 1297

A loud crash sounded from below stairs, startling Lady Myra from her prayers. What in all of heaven was that?
She’d been sequestered in the chapel for most of the morning—penance for her latest bout of eavesdropping.
The chapel was dark, lit only by a few candles upon the altar. A fierce winter gust blew open the shudders, causing the candle flames to waver. Myra rushed to the windows, securing the shudders once more, feeling the wood rattle against her fingertips.
Her stomach muscles tightened with unease. There were not often sounds like this at Foulis. In fact, she’d never heard such before.
The very floors seemed to shake. Imagination going wild, she pictured the boards beneath her feet splintering and falling through to the great hall below.
Myra kept a keen ear, waiting for a sign that would reassure her that nothing was amiss. For once she hoped to hear her older brother, Laird Munro, railing at the clumsy servant who’d dropped something, but there was nothing save an eerie silence. The hair along her neck rose and with it, her skin prickled as an acute sense of dread enveloped her.
The castle was never this silent.
“Astrid?” she called out to her maid—but there was no reply. Not even the scurrying of her servant’s feet across the floor. Where had the maid gone? She was supposed to wait for Myra outside the chapel door. “Astrid!” she called a little louder this time, but still there was no reply.
’Twas as if she were alone, but that made no sense. Foulis Castle was always bustling with people. Unable to stand the silence, Myra scrambled to her feet. She lit a tallow candle by the hearth to light her way in the darkened corridor and slowly crept toward the door of the family chapel. Nothing but a whisper of a breeze from her gown disturbed the areas where she passed—’twas how she was able to eavesdrop so often. Locked away, supposedly for her own good, since she was a girl, she learned an important lesson. If she were to find out anything of import, she had to be secretive and slick, so she learned to creep.
She did so now with practiced ease, sidestepping boards known to creak and pausing every few moments to listen for sounds. She strained to hear a whisper, someone’s breathing, anything that would assure her that she had in fact let her imagination get the best of her. But there was nothing.
Fighting hard to keep the fear from suffocating her, she reached the door, and with tortured slowness gripped the cool iron handle. She wanted to throw it open, and ignore the dread that held her hand still. But she had to trust her instincts. Something was terribly wrong. She could feel it. Myra leaned in close, pressing her ear to the frozen wood. She remained motionless, listening. Again silence. Satisfied there was no imminent threat, she began to open the door. An earth shattering shriek and another loud crash broke the silence. Myra slammed the door. Was that…? She shook her head. It couldn’t be. Scrambling away from the door, she dropped her candle which snuffed itself out. God’s teeth! Was that a battle cry? Granted, she’d never heard one before, but ’twas not just any shout. Nay, this sound was terrifying. A cry that sent her knees to shaking and her lip to bleeding from biting it so hard.
She could barely see, the candles at the altar weren’t putting off enough light.  What in blazes was she supposed to do? How would she protect herself? Damn those guards. Why hadn’t there been any warning? Shouts of caution. Why hadn’t the gates been closed?
Was it possible that she’d just not heard the warnings? She had been deep in prayer, worrying about her sore knees, and to add insult to injury she’d needed to use the privy for hours. Had she been that preoccupied? Angered? So distracted that if someone had shouted in her ear she probably wouldn’t have heard it? She took a deep breath to figure out her next course of action.
The secret stairways!  Lucky for her, the chapel was located in a tiny corridor off the gallery above the great hall. A hidden stair, inside the chapel, led up to the master’s chamber. Embarrassed after her penances—which were often, Myra chose not to venture into the great hall, instead she preferred to use the hidden stairs. She knew them well. All of them.  When she was just a girl, her father had shown her where they were located, and when she’d once found them fun, she now found comfort in their obscurity. Now they would not only help hide her embarrassment but they might even save her life.
Myra did regret being sent to Father Holden for having listened in on a very private and political conversation. Her ears burned from hearing all the things he and his allies had said. Worry consumed her.
But this was no time to think back on that conversation. Or was it?
There’d been a warning. Rumors of an impending attack. But who would attack Foulis? Any why? Such an act was foolish. They had excellent fortifications. A stone gate tower was built at the front of the castle walls, with at least a half dozen guards on watch at a time. Her brother Byron made sure the gate was always closed, and most often barred. Their walls were thick and she’d thought impenetrable. If they were being attacked, there should have been fair warning. The guards could see all around the castle. No hidden spots for an enemy to hide. Her brother’s retainers kept guard upon the walls and the lands. This she knew—so how?
Then Myra remembered— from a neighboring clan, Laird Magnus Sutherland had told her brother that they suspected an attack would come from a trusted ally. There would be no warning. Anyone could be the enemy. Except Magnus had warned of one.
Upon her father’s deathbed this past spring, he’d signed a betrothal contract between Myra and Laird Ross—despite Ross being old enough to be her father. Myra and Ross’ daughter, Ina—who made Myra want to pull her own hair out—were the same age. Myra crinkled her nose. Wasn’t it wrong to be the stepmother of a woman who shared her birth year?
Myra’s reaction to the news of her betrothal had garnered her a penance too—three days in a hair shirt and her skin had been so irritated she’d not been comfortable in even the softest linen chemise Astrid could find for her for nearly a fortnight.
Could it be him? Was that how the enemy had gained entrance without warning? If ’twas Ross, the he probably tricked everyone into thinking he’d come to discuss the impending alliance between their two clans. Byron wouldn’t have suspected an attack—despite the warning—he was too trustworthy.
Myra backed toward the center of the room. Faint cries of pain floated through the floorboards. Fear snaked its way around her spine and threatened to take away her mobility. She grabbed the wooden slat leaning against the wall to bar the door. The candles flickered. Whoever was downstairs was not here for a friendly visit. Heaven help her. They would leave no room unturned. Myra prayed her brother and his wife, Rose who was heavy with child, were safe. That Astrid was hunkered down somewhere with the other servants. She covered her ears from the cries of pain and anger. There was little doubt the enemy was causing great destruction.
“Zounds!” Myra tamped the candles on the altar, putting the chapel into shadows and stalked toward the tapestry of a great wildcat on the hunt. She flipped back the covering, not even a speck of dust to make her sneeze since she used it so often. Pressing on the rock that opened the hidden door, she slipped into the black, closing the door behind her. Silent, she welcomed the comfort of nothingness as she slid her feet along the landing until she reached the first step. Finally something positive had come from her many penances, after using this particular staircase at least a thousand times, she knew the exact measurements of each step. The depth, the height. They fit her feet perfectly now.
Fingers trailing over the dusty, crumbling stone walls, she made her way carefully but briskly down the stairs until she reached the wall behind her brother’s study. She peered through the imperceptible crack in the wall where she often stood to listen—as she had just the day before. The room was lit by a few candles as though her brother had been there, but he was not now. The room was empty and undisturbed.
Where was he? And Rose?
Myra’s unease was slowly turning into an acute fear. She refused to let her nerves take over. There had to be another explanation. They couldn’t be under attack. She refused to believe it. Her mind skipped over every other possibility. Perhaps the men were involved in another round of betting. Fighting each other to see who could best who. That made sense. All the servants would be crowded in the minstrel’s gallery above to watch, and the great hall would be a raucous room full of shouting, sweating, swearing warriors.
That had to be it. A mock battle of some sort.
Yet, this felt different. Every nerve in her body strained and her teeth chattered with fear. Why was she reacting so physically when it might possibly be nothing more than a bit of rowdy warrior fun? Her overactive imagination? Probably. But, she would have to see for herself. Myra continued along her path, winding down and nearly to the great hall when she heard a distant whimpering. Nothing more than a whisper of a sound, but in the complete and silent dark, it was telling. Recalling the number of steps she’d taken, she calculated that she must be just outside Rose’s solar. She ran her hand along the wall searching for the small metal handle, then nudged the door an inch ajar. It was indeed Rose’s solar, and the whimpering was coming from inside, but she couldn’t see who it was, since the doorway was hidden behind a bureau that was pushed against it.
Myra listened for a few moments longer to discern if there was only one person in the room. It had to be Bryon’s wife. “Rose?” she whispered.
The whimpering stopped.
“Hello?” came the tentative voice of her sister-by-marriage.
She called to her softly, “Rose, ’tis Myra.”
A scuffling, like shoes scooting across the floor sounded within the room. Within moments Rose’s tear-stained face peered through the crack. Her brown eyes were red rimmed and her fiery curls jutted in frantic wisps from her head.
“Myra!” she whispered frantically. “Ye must help me. They’ve come. I think they killed Byron. Everyone.”
“Who? Wait, help me push this door open, ye must come in here.”
Rose shook her head. “They are tearing the castle apart as we speak. If I come in there, then they will too.”
Myra’s sister-by-marriage was right. It would be impossible for them to put the bureau back in place. They had to escape unnoticed. The secret passages were the only way—and they had to remain concealed. “Can ye get to Byron’s library? There’s a passage through the hearth.”
Rose looked about frantically, as if expecting the door to her solar to bang open at any moment. She nodded, fear filling her eyes.
“I will meet ye there. Go. Quickly.” Myra reached her fingers through the door and gripped Rose’s, hoping to give her some measure of comfort. “I will be there waiting.”
Rose nodded again, squeezing Myra’s hand with trembling fingers.
“I’m going now, Myra.”
There was silence and then a creak as Rose opened the door. For several agonizing heartbeats, Myra waited. Waited for Rose to be struck down. Waited for the sound of shouts as she made her escape. Waited for something horrifying to happen. But there was nothing.
Myra counted to thirty, slowly, with even breaths, and then she ran back up the dark winding stair until she reached Byron’s library. Peeking through the crack, she determined the room was still empty. With trembling fingers she found the hook in the wall, and slid her finger through it yanking and twisting until the lock unlatched and the wall opened behind the hearth. The library’s hidden door was heavy, but not as heavy as it could be. Made from plaster to look like stone, it was a perfect disguise within the wall. Ashes from the grate stirred and made her cough. She hid her face in her cloak to stifle the sound, and muttered a prayer of thanks for no fire being in the hearth.
Her heart felt as though it would explode, racing like sheep hunted by wolves. Myra crouched low to wait for Rose, hoping that should the enemy enter she’d have time to shut the hidden door without their notice.
Dear God, let Rose make it here safely.
Now she knew for certain, the castle was under attack. None of it seemed real. Fear prickled her skin. Why would anyone want to attack her home? And Byron couldn’t possibly be… “Nay,” Myra whispered with a shake of her head. Byron couldn’t be dead. Just couldn’t.
Her breath hitched and panic threatened to take over, but she willed herself to calm. Willed herself to stay strong for Rose and her unborn niece or nephew’s sake.
What felt like hours later, but in reality was probably only minutes, the door to the library crept open. Myra bit her lip hard, expecting to hear the scrape of booted heels on the wooden planks, but there was only a whisper of slippers. Rose.
“Myra?” her sister-by-marriage called softly.
“I’m here.” Myra scrambled out of the hidden door in the hearth, bumping her head on the oak mantel. “Come, we must hurry.”
Rose didn’t hesitate. They were through the secret door, the last inch closing when the main door to the library crashed open. Rose jumped beside her, letting out a strangled squeak. Myra reached up, finding Rose’s lips in the dark and pinched them, indicating silence.
Rose nodded, and gripped Myra’s hand with deathlike force.
Myra did not want to wait and see if those who’d entered happened to notice the wall shift when she’d closed it the remainder of the way, and so squeezing Rose’s hand, she urged her down the steps.
Where she’d been able to fly in the dark before, she now had to tread lightly. Rose was already off balance with her huge belly, and not being used to the darkened stairs was made all the more unstable.
Myra prayed constantly, a litany in her mind, for the enemy to not follow, and luck must have been on their side because they made it to the door leading into the dungeon without one of the evil villains following.
She stopped and gripped Rose’s shoulders. Although she couldn’t see her face, Myra stared in that direction.
“Listen now, sister. Ye must hide in here. They willna find ye. I promise.”
“The dungeon.”
From the shudder of Rose’s shoulders, Myra imagined her shaking her head hard.
“Ye must. If they find these tunnels, all is lost. But within the dungeon, they’d not find ye there.”
“Where are ye going?”
“I have to find Byron.”
“Nay! Ye canna! He’s dead!” Panic seized Rose’s voice, and she appeared to be on the very verge of hysterics.
“Shh… Ye dinna want them to hear us. I willna tarry long. But I must see if he lives.”
Rose sobbed quietly and pulled Myra in for a hug. They stood for as long as Myra would allow, which wasn’t nearly long enough, before she pushed the dungeon door open and guided Rose inside.
“Hurry back,” Rose said, her voice cracking.
“I will.”
Myra wasted no time rushing back up the stairs to the great hall. Peering through the hole, she saw nothing but destruction.
Bodies with blood flowing. Furniture turned and tossed. Food and wine mingled with the blood upon the floors and tables. Even a few of the dogs had been slaughtered. The dogs. Why would anyone slaughter an innocent animal? Tears pricked her eyes, but she willed them away. What did the enemy have to gain? She kept asking herself that question over and over and still didn’t have an answer.
The enemy still lurked within the room. A few warriors she didn’t recognize boasted of their heinous glory while another maniacally abused the body of a dead servant.
Bile rose, burning the back of her throat. There was no way she could get inside without being seen.
“Myra.” Someone grabbed her ankle, tugging.
A scream bubbled up her throat, threatening to wrench free, when logic filled her mind with the sound of her brother’s voice. Weak and pain-filled.
Myra crouched before she collapsed to the ground, patting the stone stairs until she felt the slightly cold flesh of her brother’s hand. She scooted close, her knees pressing against his side, feeling his shuddering breaths keenly.
“Byron, what’s happened? How did ye get in here?” she whispered.
His breathing was labored and she was surprised she hadn’t heard him before.
“Ross attacked…” He breathed deep, his lungs rattling. “Just as Sutherland said he would. I crawled into the tunnels…hoped you’d taken Rose…was trying to find…her.”
Part of the conversation she’d overheard… Myra squeezed her eyes shut, trying not to cry, wishing this nightmare away. Her brother was badly injured. Her people slaughtered. The enemy waiting with glee for her to show her face.
“Why did he attack?” she asked.
Byron squeezed her fingers, but even his grasp was feeble.
“They are not our allies. They are allies of England.”
Myra’s stomach turned. She swallowed hard as her worst fears came true. And she was supposed to marry the bastard. Shaking her head, she gripped Byron’s hand hard. There was no time for her to dwell on it now. She had to help him.
“Come, let me help ye. We must patch up your wounds. Where are ye hurt?”
“There’s no use for it, sister. I’m going to die…”
For what seemed like a lifetime, there was silence. Her heart felt like it’d been ripped from her chest, and the fear of her brother passing before she could say goodbye collided with her senses.
“Nay. Nay, we will bring ye down to the dungeon with Rose. She’ll help me.”
Byron chuckled softly. “Ye’re a good woman, Myra. As much as ye’re a pain in the arse. But ye must leave me here. I need ye to do something for me.”
Tears stung her eyes, and if she could see, her vision would be blurred. “What? Anything, tell me.”
“I need ye to see Rose safely to the Sutherlands. And then I need ye to deliver a message.”
The Sutherlands were their allies, and to be trusted. The chief himself had been involved with William Wallace at Stirling Bridge, a major reason for their victory. He’d been the one to warn of the Ross treachery. Rose would be safe within their walls.
“I will.”
“Ye must find Robert the Bruce. He is…” Byron’s voice trailed off again. Time was running short. She could only pray he would last long enough to give her the full message.  “He is at Eilean Donan… Not safe. He’ll never be king if… Ye must tell him about Ross. Tell him that there is an enemy within his camp…tell him Ross is in league with the English and plans to kill him.”
Myra shuddered. King Edward, better known as Longshanks by her kin, was responsible for this war. He wanted to scour the Scots from their own land, the greedy bastard. She’d lived in fear nearly her entire life. The Sassenachs were monsters that lived under her bed, crept in the shadows of her nursery as a child, and even now when she felt as though she was being watched it was by one of the demon English.
With William Wallace fighting alongside the Bruce, they’d won the Battle of Stirling Bridge—a major victory for the Scots—and it emerged that her country might indeed gain their freedom from English oppressors. But not if they were being undermined from within. Not if Ross gave away their secrets and whereabouts.
Damn him!
“Tell Rose I love…” Byron’s voice trailed off and Myra felt him shudder against her knees.
Myra shoved her anger to the back of her mind, concentrating on her brother’s last ragged breaths. A sob slipped from her throat and she collapsed onto his chest, hugging him, trying to push her warmth into him, trying to bring him back from death. All around her on the floor, his warm sticky blood flowed.
But ’twas no use. Byron was gone—and at the hands of a man she despised. An enemy of her country. An enemy of her family. A man she vowed to never marry. Not in this lifetime, nor in the next. She would see Rose to safety and then she would see to the demise of Ross—tell the Bruce of the traitor’s existence.
Myra slipped her brother’s ring from his finger, the one made of gold and onyx, a symbol of the Munro clan chief and shoved the ring into her boot. With a start she realized what Byron’s death meant.
Myra was chief.
“Dear Rose, please birth a son.”
She didn’t want to be chief. Had no idea how to run a clan.
Cradling her brother’s head, she laid him down gently, giving him one last kiss on the cheek. She swallowed her fear, clear on what had to be done. Conviction straightened her spine as she stood. As chief of Munro—for hopefully only a month or so longer—she would see this deed done.
Myra raced down the steps to the dungeon, finding Rose where she’d left her.
“We must make haste.” Her voice came out harsher than she intended, but Rose made no comment on it.
Pulling Rose back into the darkened corridor, they made their way farther down the stairs.
“We will have to crawl through here. Think ye can manage?”
“Aye,” Rose said. She didn’t ask what Myra had found and her voice too grew harder as though she knew her husband was dead.
Myra could not imagine how Rose felt. To be left so soon by her husband and a bairn on the way.
They crawled through the last tunnel, the weight of the castle above them. The stones were slick and bits of debris littering the floor jabbed into her palms.
Ye can do this. Myra repeated the words in her mind a thousand times, and with each recitation, she felt a little stronger.
When they neared the end of the tunnel, a bright light slipped through a crack of stone, beckoning them forward. A breeze whistled through the crack sending wintry chills up and down her limbs. ’Twas cold outside… Traveling would not be easy.
“We’re almost there,” she called to Rose who crawled behind her.
Rose let out a little grunt.
“Keep that bairn inside ye.” Myra had the sudden horrific thought that Rose might go into labor from all the stress of the day on her mind and body.
“He’s to stay put,” Rose panted from the exertion of crawling.
“Let us pray ’tis a boy.”
They at last reached the end where there was room to stand. Myra helped Rose up, her legs wobbly.
“When we leave this cave, we will have to keep close to the walls, and ye’ll need to stay hidden while I fetch us a horse.”
“Nay!” Rose shook her head vehemently. “The attackers are sure to be out there.”
“Aye. But what choice do we have? We canna stay here and wait for them to find us.”
In the sliver of light coming from the hidden entrance, Myra could make out Rose’s eyes shifting about in thought.
“We shall walk into the village and get a horse from there,” Rose offered.
Myra shook her head. “Most likely they’ve burned the village, or at the very least are looting it. I’ll not have us stuck there.” Myra pressed a steady hand to Rose’s belly, feeling the child kick within. A surge of protectiveness filled her. “Or be killed. We will see my brother’s heir to safety. Ye and I together.”
“I trust ye.” Rose nodded, her eyes wide. “I do.”
“All right, then, ye stay here. If I’m not back within a quarter hour, run.”

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