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by Connie Mason
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The battle-weary warrior stood on a ridge, his broadly muscled shoulders braced against the wind, his long legs firmly anchored to the gorse covered earth beneath his feet. He pushed his thick, black hair away from his strong, angular face as his silver-gray gaze made a sweeping survey of cliffs, valleys, and mountains.
After the fateful battle at Culloden, Sir Damian Stratton had served in King George's army in Scotland, quelling hotbeds of resistance in the Highlands. The rebellions had been fueled by Highlanders who had been deprived of their lands and routed from their homes with nothing but the clothing on their backs. Those defeated jacobites still held out hope of placing Bonny Prince Charlie on the English throne.
After five years Damian was thoroughly disgusted with the militant Highlanders who continued to plot and connive for a hopeless cause. Nevertheless, he'd done whatever was required of him by his country as he worked his way up to the rank of captain. He'd looted, plundered, and killed for England; he'd never forgotten that his father had been slain by Highlanders.
Over the years Damian had lost all hope of gaining land of his own, a small piece of England where he could take a wife and raise children. Despite having distinguished himself many times over in England's defense, Damian had yet to receive a reward greater than recognition as a fearless warrior and king's champion.
The Demon Knight, the name Damian had justly earned for his relentless courage in battle, mounted his faithful steed, Cosmo, and returned to his barracks at the military outpost of Inverness.
A young soldier ran up to take the reins as Damian dismounted. Damian could tell by the boy's eager expression that something important had happened in his absence.
"What's amiss, Private?
"A messenger from the king, Captain," Davey sang out excitedly "He's awaiting you in your quarters."
Deep in thought, Damian entered his cramped room, wondering where he and his men were needed next in the cursed Highlands. He was weary of his post in Scotland and wished the country would drop off the face of the earth. At seven and twenty he had naught but modest war chest, an exaggerated reputation, and a trail of women he had tumbled and forgotten.
The king's messenger jumped to his feet. "Captain Stratton?"
Damian eyed the rolled up parchment the messenger held in his hand with wary curiosity. "Aye."
"A message from London, sir. I'm to wait while you read it."
"Very well," Damian said crisply as he broke the royal seal and unrolled the parchment. Where was he to be sent now?
A puzzled expression crossed Damian's handsome features as he quickly read the message. "The king wishes me to attend him?"
"That is my understanding," the messenger said.
"Who are you, sir?"
"I am Lieutenant Ralph Thornsdale of the king's Black Watch."
"Do you have any idea what this is about, Lieutenant?"
"I do not, Captain, though I was instructed to tell you to make all possible haste to London."
"'Tis late," Damian sighed tiredly. "I'll leave at first light tomorrow."
"Nay, sir, you must leave now, within the hour. I was told that every minute counts."
"But the men under my command..."
"They will be transferred to another command."
Though Damian had little respect for the Hanover king who spoke little English, he was a staunch defender of England. When king and country called, he obeyed.
King George reposed in a chair in his Privy Chamber, watching avidly as his Prime Minister, Lord Pelham, spoke to Damian.
"'Tis the king's wish," Lord Pelham intoned dryly, "that Sir Damian Stratton be rewarded for his faithful service in England's defense."
Damian cocked a dark, sardonic brow. "Has His Majesty finally recalled the promise made to a young knight?"
"Ja, ja, we did not forget," the king said, nodding vigorously. "You have fulfilled the promise of youth and have become a man we can trust. Now we wish to reward your loyalty."
"Over the years you have proven your courage and fealty," Lord Pelham said. "England has need of a man with your experlence and strength. Intelligence has uncovered a plot to unite two Highland clans. The united clans have the potential to become a powerful force in Scotland and a threat to England."
Damian's attention sharpened. "Does His Majesty wish me to destroy the rebellious clans?"
"Nay, there is more to it than that," Pelham said, waving his hand imperiously. "We do not wish to start another war. Given the remoteness of the land in question, we paid scant heed to it in the past. But suddenly the situation has the capability of exploding. We learned that a marriage between the Gordon laird and Maiden of Misterly is to take place at Misterly fortress. It's located near the village of Torridon, on Loch Torridon.
"Until recently we've had little reason to suspect anything was amiss there. The deceased Lord of Misterly, the great Alpin Fraser, and his male heirs fell at Culloden, and since we had little use for a fortress situated on the edges of nowhere, we paid it little heed. But should the Gordons and Frasers unite, our hold in the Highlands could be threatened. All those loyal to the Frasers and Gordons will rush to join forces against England."
"Lord Pelham," Damian interrupted, "how does this involve me?"
"Tell him, tell him," the king urged gruffly.
The Prime Minister bowed graciously to the king and continued. "You have served the king and England faithfully, Captain. For your years of devoted service, His Majesty wishes to reward you with Misterly Castle and all the lands that accompany the holding, including the village of Torridon and those serfs and freemen tilling the soil."