Once upon a time, I had a vivid dream and woke up embroiled in a medieval-ish time period. The scarred heroine in my dream lived on the outskirts of a kingdom and worked in a pub-type place where weary travelers could stop for a meal, spend the night, and share the gossip with the villagers.

Everyone was talking about a neighboring prince coming to their kingdom to claim a bride. But something strange was going on at the castle. Something sinister enough that the heroine was actually glad she had scars and was free to stay where she was.

Intrigued? So was I.

But as I started to dig deeper into the main character and her situation so I could write the rest of her story, I faced a dilemma.

Where in the world were there real kingdoms and princes to use in my story? If there wasn’t a real place, I’d have to invent one…and risk the whole book feeling even more like an impossible fairytale. 

(Yes, I adore fairytales but I wasn’t sure my readers would follow me that far when I decided to dip my toes in the historical genre pool.)

I let the idea simmer for awhile. 

Until I reread a favorite novel set in the Scottish Highlands.

Historically, it was a place ruled by clans, each with their own laird (lord) or chief. Neighboring clans either got along, created alliances, or caused trouble including raiding parties or even outright war to lay siege to castles.

In that moment, kingdoms became clans and princes became laird’s sons. And Stepping Into the Light came to life.

Read on to see the published version of that same scene from my dream!

Excerpt from Stepping Into the Light: Chapter Two

“Maggie, lass.” The shoemaker raised his voice to be heard above the nooning crowd at the Kilglashan Inn.

Moira glanced his direction and smoothed the skirt of the simple gown beneath her plaid. After five years, she still had trouble answering to her assumed name.

“Fetch me more ale while I wait for me pasty. I’m yet half asleep.” The shoemaker yawned so wide that she feared he’d break his jaw. “Our new bairn is yet keepin’ us up at night.”

She snatched the pitcher and hastened over to refill his tankard and those of a few other men nearby. The task would have been easier without the cloud of dark red hair hanging loose around her face, but ’twas simpler to cover her scars than open herself to even more ridicule. Or worse yet, discovery.

Situated along the seldom-used road leading to their border with the Sinclair clan, the inn was frequented by merchants from the nearby village. In fact, with the exception of the traveling friar in the corner of the room, all of these men had seen her before. But that didn’t stop them from staring.

If only she could hide out in the kitchens like she usually did. Or at least stay at the fringes of the main room rather than wade into the midst of the talkative villagers. However, with their regular serving girl on her way to the Gunn keep to be considered for the marriage alliance, Moira had been forced from her kitchen refuge into the main room where she was subject to scrutiny

She raised her eyes from the pitcher of ale and spotted Graham, the innkeeper, across the room deep in conversation with one of the local farmers who supplied their barley. He spent more time talking than serving given his role at the inn, but she could forgive him that much. He was, after all, still the hero who had looked out for her ever since she’d stumbled upon him and his cart.

After replacing the pitcher atop the oak barrel of ale, Moira slipped into the kitchen. “Ma, we’ve orders for three more pasties and a bowl of stew.”

“I just pulled another pan from the oven.” Lavena, Graham’s dear wife who had nursed Moira back to health, waved a hand at the table where a row of steaming meat pies cooled, then resumed stirring the pot of simmering barley malt. “And while the stew ye started has been a simmerin’ all morning, methinks it needs yer special Maggie touch.”

A sniff of the air had Moira reaching for her spice jars. Without even a taste, she could tell exactly what it needed to keep the customers coming back. She stirred a few pinches of seasoning into the stew, tasted the broth, and handed the ladle to Lavena, whose gnarled fingers crooked over the cutlery.

Moira bit her bottom lip, the weight of her worry settling on her chest. Her stew needed to do more than keep customers returning to the inn—it needed to keep her adoptive parents in business with a leak-free roof over their heads. With the couple aging more every year, where would she live once they were gone? What would she do then?

A smile creased Lavena’s wrinkled face. “Now ’tis perfect.”

Moira ladled stew into a wooden bowl, then gathered the other orders before returning to the main room in time to catch the tanner’s report about his trip to the Gunn keep earlier in the week. While delivering the food and taking orders from a couple of newcomers, she listened to the latest news from home and the preparation for the Midsummer’s Eve celebration.

“Strange things have been happening to the marriageable maidens…” The tanner’s eyes widened as those around him leaned forward for more of the tale. Graham elbowed between two of his friends to hear the gossip firsthand.

“Which maidens?” Beside him, the lanky cooper took a large bite of his pasty, then swiped the back of his hand over his mouth, dislodging crumbs that fell onto the wooden table.

The tanner eyed the men at his table, then lifted his gaze to the other eavesdropping villagers. “The ones Isla summoned to the castle for beauty treatments and lessons to improve their manners so they’re more likely to be chosen by the Sinclair laird.”

Laughter broke out around the room along with a few comments about the Gunn men benefitting from the leftover maidens once the merge was done.

Typical men. Moira hid her rolling eyes behind the screen of hair, though her fingers inched upward to the puckered gash splitting the right side of her face. At least she would be spared the danger of being summoned to the castle. No one would want a disfigured bride.

When the joking about pretty girls died down, the miller leaned around his neighbor to ask the question on Moira’s mind. “But despite my pleas, my Sheena insisted on going. What’s happening to the girls who go to the castle?”

Moira’s stomach soured at the thought the inn’s former serving girl might be in danger.

The tanner frowned. “Mysterious illness. Accidental cuts. Falls down the stairs. I traveled a bit with one family who was there to collect their injured daughter since she was no longer considered worthy of consideration. The girl herself refused to speak of what had happened within the castle gates.”

A hush of disquiet settled over the room and one man reached out to squeeze the miller’s shoulder. The tanner lowered his voice as he continued. “’Twas even a story of a girl pitching into the fire. She supposedly suffered burns on her face and arms, then was sent away without benefit of a healer.”

The cooper cleared his throat and glanced at the miller. “Sorry, Tristan, but I’m a thinkin’ they aren’t accidents. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn Isla is eliminating the competition so she can marry another laird herself.”

Several of the men crossed themselves even as they agreed with the horrifying possibility that their leader would deliberately hurt members of the clan for personal gain.

A chill ran up her spine. Such fears were more than a mere possibility.

Moira gathered a few empty dishes, eager to distance herself from more gossip about soldiers being sent further afield to gather more girls. As she turned away from the table, one newcomer reached out and pulled her onto his lap, his mouth descending as if to claim a kiss.

She gasped and dropped the bowls onto the dirt-packed floor in her haste to push against his shoulders. “Nay, sir. I’m not—”

Strong hands set her back on her feet, then shoved her would-be attacker off the bench to sprawl on the ground.

Her father’s friend, the blacksmith, had arrived in time to defend her.

Again. ’Twas one of several reasons she preferred the kitchens.

Beacon’s voice boomed through the now-silent room. “None touches the innkeeper’s daughter without answering to the rest o’ us.”

“Begone. Ye’re nay welcome here.” Graham stood from the table and pointed a finger at the door.

The red-faced youth scrambled to his feet as if itching for a fight and scanned his surroundings. He swallowed hard before turning his attention from his glaring audience to her.

Wide eyes and a whitening face gave hard evidence that he’d not seen her scars before his attempted kiss. He stammered a quick apology and ran toward the door.

Proof yet again that no man would ever find her truly attractive.

With heat flooding her face, she ducked behind her curtain of hair and bent to retrieve the fallen dishes.

If she could only disappear to the kitchens and stay there.

“Our apologies, Maggie lass.” The cooper cleared his throat. “We dinna ken the lad would try such a thing.” He darted a quick glance Graham’s direction.

Rising from her crouched position, she nodded at the cooper and faced Beacon. “Thank ye for yer help.”

“Nay trouble.” He cleared his throat. “Actually, I’m a hoping ye’ll take it in payment for more of yer cooling salve.”

She raised her eyebrow at the burly man. “Burn yerself again, did ye?”

Laughter rippled around them as she eyed the blistered skin on the forearm he thrust in front of her eyes. Black cinders speckled the surface of the wound but were hardly noticeable beside the rest of his soot-covered arm.

“Ye’ll be washing yerself thoroughly first. I won’t be a wastin’ my supplies on ye otherwise.”

“Aye, Maggie.” His grumble brought a smile to her face.

“I’ll be just a minute.” She retreated to the kitchen with the dishes and returned moments later with the ingredients for the herbal remedy to find Beacon waiting at an empty table, his clean damp arms resting atop the wooden slats.

As she examined the edges of his burn, the other guests returned to their lively, gossip-filled discussion about the tanner’s trip while Graham took over the ale and food service. Apparently, the tanner had also seen a Sutherland messenger near the Gunn keep, but the majority of the villagers were glad Isla had picked the Sinclairs for an alliance over their dishonorable neighbors to the south.

Moira ground comfrey leaves and lavender into a fine powder, then mixed them with honey to form a paste. Meanwhile, the tanner reported that the Sinclair laird and his son were coming soon to finalize the alliance and many agreed they would be glad to have the issue settled.

Although a few sitting in the room fondly recalled the days of Laird Angus before he married Isla, who’d brought her young son Roan with her from the MacDonald clan even farther to the south. Others recounted the events a few years later when Angus was bedridden with a mysterious illness and his daughter disappeared into the woods, never to be found. Her heirloom brooch on a bloodied cord was the only sign of trouble.

The lack of a thorough search, however, had made it clear that the captain of the guard—and Isla—believed her to be dead and her remains devoured by beasts.

Moira’s heart clenched at the memories. She dared not look at Graham, who ducked into the kitchens, likely to check on the progress of yesterday’s ale barrels since most of the guests sat dining on their stew and meat pies while swapping tales.

Apparently she was the only one reluctant to hear their clan legends, for even the traveling friar in the corner leaned forward to hear the chatter.

She spread the sticky salve across the blacksmith’s burn as the villagers recounted how Laird Angus died from a broken heart shortly thereafter, leaving Isla to pressure the council to acknowledge Roan as his heir and then assume leadership on behalf of her minor son. Until the fifteen-year-old boy had fallen from a horse and died three months ago, leaving the entire clan vulnerable to attack and eager to forge alliances to ensure their survival.

Ignoring the speculation behind her, Moira cleared her throat and addressed her patient. “Now remember, you need to clean the wound twice a day and apply new salve.” Instructions she’d uttered so many times before for similar burns.

Beacon merely grunted in return.

As Moira reached for a rolled strip of cloth, the cooper’s voice rose above the din. “If only Laird Angus’s daughter were still alive. She’d be eighteen by now and allowed to rule.”

Another scoffed. “As if we want another woman to lead us.”

“But anyone would be better than Isla.” A few of the men spat onto the floor in disgust.

With shaking hands Moira wrapped the bandage over the salve-coated burn and tied the ends together. Thankfully, only her foster parents knew her true identity.

Because she wasn’t a leader.

And if Isla knew she was still alive, she’d send her guards to finish the task attempted so many years before.

With a quick reminder for the blacksmith to keep the fabric as dry as possible, Moira stood and gathered her supplies intending to retreat to the kitchen. And regather her composure.

Across the room, the door burst open, letting in a burst of sunshine, fresh air…and the Matheson girls.

Cara Matheson glanced around the room, tears streaming down her face. “Isla’s soldiers are around the bend. Da is trying to stall them, but—”

“Please don’t let them take us.” Kyla clutched her sister’s arm, the stark fear on her face underscored by the grim expressions of those who had already filled the room with dire rumors.

No one had been there in the woods to protect Moira five years before, but someone must do something to keep the girls out of Isla’s jealous clutches.

And while she couldn’t defend her clan, she could help these two.

With a flash of rage stiffening her spine, Moira left her herbs on the table and headed for Cara and Kyla. “Carry on as usual, men. I’m the only girl ye’ve seen this day.”


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